The temperatures are dropping, but the drama is hot as NASCAR heads to Texas Motor Speedway for the second race in the final qualifying round for the 2018 championship.
Last week there was a major “dust-up” in the final laps between eventual winner Joey Logano and defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. Logano got the win, but Truex promised that he will not let Joey Logano win the title. However, with the win at Martinsville, Logano has qualified to win the championship at Homestead in two weeks. Based on the resources and extra time to prepare, Logano has to be considered a leg up on the rest of the drivers who also do qualify.
This weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, the stakes are high as the drivers below the cut line are partially in “must win” situations. It is possible that a lot could change if one of the big 3 drivers stumbled, but that would help each of the drivers below the cut line. A singular win is the prime objective more than ever for any of the playoff drivers below the cut. With this being the only real escape path to Homestead, there is a chance we will see different strategies as teams make desperate attempts to qualify the final race. The desperation factor plays a role in our handicapping due to the added unpredictability that is brought into the race. It is important to examine each of the drivers and gauge their particular situation to figure out how they may approach the race.
Entering Sunday, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick appear to have the two best cars. They have been outstanding, especially over sustained long runs during happy hour. Although they look strong, clean air is going to be a huge factor in determining how the cars handle. There is a strong possibility that neither car will be able to operate in a manner where they can separate themselves while trying to work through traffic. Restarts with clean air and the preferred groove will play a major role in deciding the winner.
Kevin Harvick (plus 200): Starting in the 3rd position is Harvick, who is in a great spot to move on to Homestead. He needs to run well and hope that a driver below the cut line does not win. Harvick has finished first or second in five of the last six stages at Texas.
Kyle Busch (4-1): Rounding out the starting top 10 is Busch, who won at Texas Motor Speedway in the spring. He has the best matchup record of any driver on 1.5-mile tracks to go along with three wins, and eight top-5 finishes in the last 11 races at Texas. Kyle Busch is about the only driver in the field that can afford to rest on a solid finish. As mentioned, he has a top-2 car going into the race based on practice and his placement in the measured metrics.
Martin Truex Jr. (6-1): In the 13th position will be Truex, who has yet to win a race at Texas Motor Speedway. He has lead 363 laps in the last 5 races at Texas which is the best of any driver during that span. Early in the Spring race at Texas, Martin Truex Jr. was running in 5th place, then he became one of many victims due to a blown tire. Truex will need to run well in order to hold the point lead that he currently has. There is no doubt he will work toward getting the win, but top 5 finish with stage points might yield a strong day for his team. The current odds, Truex should be shopped as he is just off value based on what we have learned this weekend.
Brad Keselowski (7-1): Starting in the 5th spot is Keselowski, who was involved in day-ending wreck with several other top drivers in the spring race at Texas. Prior to that disappointing run, Keselowski had two top-10 finishes in the previous pair of races at Texas. He was on the edge of the top 10 at the end of happy hour, and looks to be racing freely now that Logano is in the title race. While he is expected to contend for the win, these odds are too low when considering how strong several other cars appear to be in comparison to Keselowski.
Kyle Larson (7-1): Another of the drivers who is on a “free roll” this weekend is Larson, who will start in the 22nd position. In the spring race at Texas, Larson started in the back and quickly worked his way to 5th place before blowing a tire, ending his day. Larson made big gains during happy hour, but will need to be on the mark again to have a chance to contend for the win late in the race.
Ryan Blaney (9-1): Starting from the pole is Blaney, who is coming off two consecutive top 10 finishes at Texas. His car went sour in the second practice session, but the team was able to make significant strides in happy hour. Having the prime pit stall and clean air should help Blaney’s chance to be in the conversation of possible winners.
Kurt Busch (10-1): Lined up in the 7th position will be Busch. At 25 points behind the cut line, Busch is not necessarily in a “win or nothing” scenario, but there is no doubt he needs an excellent performance. Entering the race, his car might be the weakest link of the Stewart-Haas entries, but as we have seen that is still a formidable top 10 entry. Current odds appear to be short of value based on what he has shown this weekend.
Clint Bowyer (15-1): Lined up on the outside pole is Bowyer, who appears to have a slightly stronger car than teammate Kurt Busch. At 42 points behind the cut line, they really must win to advance. Bowyer has not been great at Texas with an adjusted average finish of 16th in the last five races in the Lone Star State.
Chase Elliott (15-1): After a less than optimum qualifying effort, Elliott will start from the 16th position. Having a 31-point deficit to make up, Elliott will need a dramatic change of fortune in the race to make up significant ground. All of the Hendrick cars have been on the mid-to-lower tier of performance progression this weekend, and there is a genuine concern that he may just not be a main contender on Sunday. We all know that dirty air or a poor pit stop can change things rapidly for his competitors and make Elliott a factor.
Joey Logano (15-1): Last week’s winner will start from the 8th position at Texas. The goal for him is to run well and offer as much usable feedback to his team in preparation for the final championship race in two weeks. His car has been in the top 10 during the practice sessions, and the odds are closely aligned with his genuine chance to win. Additionally, Logano has the best average finish (4.2) of any driver in the last five races at Texas.
Aric Almirola (20-1): Starting in the 4th position is Almirola, who is 50 points below the cut line, and must get a win in the next two weeks to advance to Homestead. Almirola has shown to have a top-5 car entering the race. While Almirola has not had strong finishes at Texas, we are still gauging his accent now that he is outfitted with top resources. There is significant value at current odds, and if making a wager to win the race, Almirola would be a strong selection at current value.
Erik Jones (30-1): Here is another strong play at current odds. As I mentioned Friday morning on “A Numbers Game” with Gill Alexander, there was excellent value on Jones at 40-1. Based on what we have seen this weekend, there is still good value on Jones, listed at 30-1 currently. Both Jones and Almirola should be shopped extensively for the best price. Jones had what appears to be a top-5 car when happy hour came to a close. He and Almirola are undervalued at current prices.
Last week in driver matchups we had our worst performance of the year with an 0-3 record. This brings our record to 57-36 for the season. Last week, I did not think the Logano would be as strong as he was based on what we knew entering the race. Truly another lesson learned is to put even less emphasis on times and speeds at Martinsville. Seeing the rotation, along with the lift and collapse of the car can be a strong indicator of performance level at Martinsville. Going forward, we will continue to grow, and win.
Aric Almirola (plus 110): over Clint Bowyer (-130):
The pick is Almirola, and at plus money there is even more value on this selection. Almirola has been stronger over the course of the weekend, and he has an average finish of eighth place in the last 3 races on 1.5-mile tracks. This is in comparison with Bowyer, who over the same span has an average finish of 16th. Additionally Bowyer has only one top 10 finish in the last five races at Texas. Both drivers are equally desperate to win at likely being their only means to the title race.