After completing the first-ever NASCAR playoff round without one of the title contenders winning a race, the Cup Series now moves on to Round 2 with a Sunday race at Texas Motor Speedway.
We have just 12 playoff contenders left after four were eliminated following last week’s exciting event at Bristol. Interestingly, two of the series’ most-experienced drivers were ousted from the playoff proceedings, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, along with Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick. In truth, Dillon is the only one of the four that wasn’t a surprise, so suffice to say, the playoffs are off to an interesting start. Of course, what’s been most intriguing is watching three non-playoff drivers win the first-round races, Erik Jones at Darlington, Bubba Wallace at Kansas, and most recently, Chris Buescher at Bristol. Keep in mind that any driver who wins a race automatically advances to the next round. Perhaps that regularity will start this week at Texas.
At Texas Motor Speedway, the name of the game is speed. You can try to say that at every track, of course, but here it really stands out. The narrow speedway is a mile-and-half long and boasts long front and back stretches, thus allowing cars to reach up near the 200-mph mark. I’ve always liked to compare it to Charlotte Motor Speedway as well as Atlanta prior to the banking change there. Prior to the 2021 season, the series used to run two events a year here each season, dating all the way back to 2004. However, with NASCAR moving the last two All-Star races to TMS, it has left room for just one points event nowadays.
With just Charlotte listed as a similar track to Texas now, and only one race run per season here, there isn’t a whole lot of pertinent data to utilize to aid in handicapping Sunday’s Auto Trader EchoPark Automotive 500. We can refer back to the All-Star race in May and find that Ryan Blaney took the checkered flag, followed by Denny Hamlin, Austin Cindric, Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez, but of course, that event runs with a format of different race stages unique to the All-Star race. That said, those five drivers, all of whom remain in the 12-driver playoff field, did show the ability to run fast at this facility four months ago.
Looking back at the Charlotte oval points race back in May, Denny Hamlin was the winner that day, leading 15 of the 413 laps. The best driver rating for the Coca-Cola 600 went to Ross Chastain, who edged Hamlin 121.3-114.9. However, Chastain had some trouble late after leading 153 laps and ended up 15th. Tyler Reddick also had a strong run, leading 19 laps and earning a driver rating of 113.6. Others who led a lot of laps were Chase Elliott (86), Kyle Larson (51), Daniel Suarez (36) and Kyle Busch (36).
If you want to take the race last fall here into consideration, although that was of course prior to the new car being introduced this season, eventual series champ Kyle Larson was absolutely dominant, winning the race while leading 256 laps and earning a perfect driver rating of 150. Others who ran well that day were William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Tyler Reddick, all earning ratings of 109.5 or higher.
From looking back at the races at Texas last year and in the 2022 All-Star event, plus the Charlotte race back in May, you can see that there is a short list of drivers who have enjoyed pretty consistent recent success at this type of track. Not surprisingly, those are the drivers being listed as the favorites for Sunday along with a few other outliers. It should be an exciting race, with most of the playoff title contenders feeling they can get that elusive win and advance to Round 3.
Auto Trader EchoPark Automotive 500 Statistical Breakdown
In terms of my “handicap” ratings, these are the my top five drivers in TRACK RATINGS heading into Sunday’s race:
Ryan Blaney – 122.3
Kyle Busch – 113.8
Kyle Larson – 111
Joey Logano – 102.6
Kevin Harvick – 99.9
Of these drivers, Busch and Harvick are no longer playoff competitors. If you read my playoff preview three weeks ago, you’ll recall that I pointed out some weak spots in the playoff schedule and how surviving Round 1 would be the most crucial point for some drivers, Harvick and Busch among them. Blaney, the All-Star winner, has run very well at Texas obviously, but will be without his crew chief for the next four races after having a wheel come off at Bristol last week.
My track DESIGNATION RATINGS are quite different, with the Top 5 looking like this:
Chase Elliott – 115.8
William Byron – 114.2
Ross Chastain - 113
Denny Hamlin – 110.2
Ryan Blaney – 109.4
As you can see, only Blaney appears on both of the Top 5 lists so far. All four other drivers are current title contenders, thus my reasoning that this should be the first of the four playoff races that we see a title contender win and get that automatic advancement.
In terms of my Recent Ratings, this is the Top 5 heading into Texas:
Chase Elliott – 109.1
Christopher Bell – 103.5
Denny Hamlin – 99.2
Kyle Larson – 97.2
Joey Logano – 93.8
All five of these drivers are in the hunt for the championship still, and while he remains the favorite for the series title, Hamlin was the opening favorite for this race at + 550. Larson is next in line at + 600, Bell is + 700 and Elliott + 800. Goes to show that oddsmakers are leaning heavily on how a driver is running recently as opposed to the at-track data.
Final Simulation Results/My Predictions
My initial simulation run on Tuesday prior to practice and qualifying on Saturday showed Ryan Blaney as the predicted winner for Texas, followed by Hamlin, Elliott, Kyle Busch and William Byron.
Saturday’s practice session was won by Austin Dillon, who is one of the four drivers that was eliminated from the playoffs last weekend. Historically, like last week, practice speed has been the most important factor for handicapping race success at Texas. Although the track is tight, it is pure speed that gets it done, more so than handling and/or strategy. Tyler Reddick, Alex Bowman and Joey Logano also had strong practice sessions, with Logano pacing the 10-lap averages. A little later on Saturday, non-playoff contender Brad Keselowski put up the best speed in qualifying, followed by Joey Logano, William Byron and Reddick. Unfortunately for Reddick, he was eliminated from title contention last week after his struggles at Bristol. Keep in mind that his two series victories this season came at road courses, not ovals. This is much of the reason I won’t be backing him on Sunday despite his strong start to the weekend.
After updating the initial simulation with Saturday’s practice and qualifying results, my final simulation showed this Top 5:
Tyler Reddick (+ 1000)
William Byron (+ 650)
Joey Logano (+ 1000)
Chase Elliott (+ 800)
Ryan Blaney (+ 1000)
We have seen over the course of the first three races of the playoffs that all three drivers that won races so far have been big movers up the simulation board after the qualifying and practice sessions. With that in mind, these were the biggest movers from the initial simulation for Texas:
Brad Keselowski + 12 spots
Tyler Reddick + 11 spots
Bubba Wallace + 9 spots
Austin Dillon + 8 spots
Kevin Harvick -12 spots
Aric Almirola -11 spots
Kyle Busch -7 spots
Martin Truex -6 spots
Drivers projected higher on simulation than usual: Reddick (1), Logano (3), Bowman (8), Keselowski (9)
Drivers projected lower on simulation than usual: Bell (14), Cindric (19), Harvick (20)
My final Texas predictions:
1. Logano 2. Bowman 3. Byron 4. Blaney 5. Reddick
Longshot driver(s): Chastain
Driver(s) to fade: Busch
Texas receives a Handicap-Ability Grade of C + on my scale. As I’ve expressed several times now, it’s all about speed here. However, often speed and tight conditions lead to calamity on the track, usually behind the frontrunners. In fact, if you go back through the last 14 TMS races, only two have had fewer than eight cautions. Wrecks can and will happen and drivers involved in them will be eliminated from contention at these crazy speeds. It will be a great race to watch, and hopefully wager on as well, as we should see some more normalized results at the top of the field this week.