Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 preview

12 drivers remain in the hunt to win this year’s NASCAR Cup Series championship. That doesn’t seem to matter though in terms of chasing victories. None of the 16 original playoff drivers won a race during the opening round. Now that we get to the Round of 12 and 4 more drivers added to the non playoff driver mix, I don’t necessarily think that the 12 eligible to win this year’s title have all that much of an advantage over those that don’t.

19 of the 32 full-time drivers have won a points paying race. If you factor in the Duels and the All-Star race, you get 21 of the 32 drivers reaching victory lane at that.

That’s why even though not a single playoff drivers has won a playoff race yet, we also shouldn’t be surprised either.

“These things are equal, and if you hit it right, you’re fast,” Ross Chastain said last week. “We saw both RFK cars (were) just better than everybody tonight. Either one of them could have won. I don’t think they do that last year.”

Kyle Larson agreed. The defending NASCAR Cup Series champion said this is all a byproduct of everyone having the same parts on their cars. There’s no innovation anymore.

Another factor is that in the past, the teams that had already won a race would save their best equipment for the end to when it mattered the most. Why waste it on regular season races that don’t matter as much to them.

“When we used to build our own cars and design our own cars, we would just save the best stuff for the end of the season,” Denny Hamlin said. “Everyone would front-load a lot of their best people, best parts, best bodies, best cars for the playoffs. There’s no secret the ones who kept advancing, the cars just got faster. They started pushing tech a little bit more. It wasn’t a coincidence the final four is always 1-2-3-4 (in the race).”

That’s partially why when we got to the playoffs, the playoff cars looked like they resided in a different zip code. Plus in past seasons, the playoff drivers were in the playoffs for a reason. This year, there’s not much difference between the playoff drivers and the non playoff drivers. The gap was dwindled.

Chase Elliott had 1 top 10 finish in the 3 opening round races and by virtue of him getting his playoff points again for the 2nd round, he’s the points leader once again. That doesn’t make him sleep any better at night though.

“I don’t think anybody is safe,” Elliott said. “Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to have the points and I’m glad that we had a good regular season to be able to make that happen, but nobody is safe in these rounds.”

For as unpredictable as this year’s playoffs have been, I have a feeling we haven’t seen anything yet. Texas, a track that’s not known to produce the best of racing kicks this Round of 12 off on Sunday. Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL are looming.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – SEPTEMBER 17: Austin Dillon, driver of the #3 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Off Road Chevrolet, reacts after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol Motor Speedway on September 17, 2022 in Bristol, Tennessee. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Between Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Austin Dillon, they’ve won 6 of the last 8 trips to the LoneStar State. All 3 were bounced in the first round of the playoffs.

Busch has 5 straight top 10’s at Texas. 6 of his last 7 starts in fact have seen him finish in the top 10 there. Harvick has 13 top 10 finishes in his last 14 starts in Texas. Among those are four top two finishes in his last eight starts there. In the Fall race, he’s won three of the last five years. He was 5th a year ago.

Dillon won here just 2 seasons ago himself.

However, how do each feel now that they’ve been bounced?

“We wouldn’t do anything different. We do that every week,” Harvick said.

Dillon agreed.

“We’ll just try to win a race before the year’s over,” he says.

Busch has a different approach. While he wants to win, he’s also not going to be a part of this team past this season. He’s moving over to the 8 car as Dillon’s teammate in 2023. How much does he and Toyota/JGR truly care about the final 7 races?

“This goes with our year,” a dejected Busch said. “I don’t even know what to say. I’m flabbergasted. I feel so bad for my guys. They don’t deserve to be in this spot. 2 engine failures in 3 weeks will do it to you.

“This is not our normal.”

The guy he’s replacing was also eliminated in Round 1 but Reddick is taking this uncertainty with class and professionalism.

He’s in a weird position. He knows he’s back with RCR for next year, or is he?

“He said he’s got a plan, and he’s got details for me, so we’ll just see what they are when it’s time to talk,” Reddick said about his conversation with Richard Childress last week. 

Childress wasn’t fond of how Reddick handled his departure with the team. He felt like he was owed more than an hour’s notice. So that’s what Childress did to Reddick in return when he gave him an hours notice that Busch will be taking over the 8 car next year and Reddick will move to a 3rd team.

“It wasn’t tense,” Reddick said of that conversation. “He was just filling me in on what was going on. I understand because I am moving on. All good.

“I looked at it from the business point of view, and I feel like how they’re approaching it with Kyle coming in and being with the 8 team. They’re looking ahead to the future and what’s going to be best for them in the long term.

“I’m sure how people could think it’s personal, but I’m not looking at it that way.”

It could be a distraction, but Reddick is handling it all with ease. The question mounts is if 23XI Racing will just work out a deal with RCR to get him early.

“One thing we’ve seen over the last couple of months is Tyler Reddick has continued to be a professional,” Denny Hamlin said. “He’s given his team 110 percent. No matter what the circumstances getting thrown at him, I’m very certain that he’s going to maintain that level of professionalism and take it in stride.”

Hamlin isn’t going to rush Kurt Busch’s decision along because if Busch doesn’t decide to come back, then a seat in theory would be open in 2023.

It doesn’t make much sense for RCR to build a 3rd team from scratch because it will cost likely over $20-million in terms of acquiring a charter, hiring personnel and doing it right. Why pay that much money plus pay Busch to come over for a 2nd car? Do they truly want to grow back to a 3 car team again?

It may be cheaper to buy him out.

23XI Racing does however eventually want to strive to be a 3 car team and said that if Busch is back for not only 2023 but for 2024 too, then they’d get a 3rd charter for Reddick. It’s late in game now so in their sense, if Busch doesn’t return next year and RCR doesn’t buyout Reddick, then John Hunter Nemechek could drive the 45 and the team has a year before Reddick joins.

So what does Reddick do?

That’s why his final 7 races could have a distraction surrounding him. For Busch, he has 2 engine problems in 3 weeks and leaving Toyota at the end of the season. How much support does he truly receive?

Harvick and Busch aren’t used to be in this position while Dillon just wants to win.

You also have Erik Jones who has six top 10’s in his last seven tries at Texas including three fourth place runs in his last six overall. Also, in five Xfinity Series tries on the 1.5 mile track, he’s finished in the top four in all including two wins. He just won on an intermediate track in the last round at Darlington.

Brad Keselowski has 3 straight top 10 finishes including improvement in each. He was ninth, then sixth, then fourth…then first? He finished in the top 10 at Darlington a few races ago and led 109 laps last Saturday night in Bristol.

Oh, this is the playoffs right? I haven’t mentioned many of their names yet…

Texas is almost a must-win for the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers that are left in the playoffs. See, with Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL in this round, JGR already knows that they will struggle to land in the top 10 on the road course next month. Talladega is a wildcard that you don’t want to bank on a good finish there either.

So Texas is it and it’s down to Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell for them.

On road courses this season, Hamlin has finished 18th, 31st, 17th, 14th and 20th respectively. On superspeedway’s, he’s finished 37th, 29th, 18th, 25th and 25th respectively.

Bell was 3rd, 27th, 18th, 12th and 8th on road courses and 34th, 23rd, 22nd, 19th and 36th on superspeedways.

See why they need Texas to get as many points as they can get?

Bell has been good here. He finished 3rd in this very race for two straight years now to go along with 5 top 8 finishes in his last 7 tries on intermediate tracks this season. While he was frustrated, he couldn’t win last week in Bristol, he still has 3 straight top 5 finishes on the season.

“It’s terribly disappointing. That’s two weeks in a row we have had speed, and the car underneath me to win the race, and haven’t done it,” Bell said. “Extremely proud of this No. 20 group. They keep bringing Camrys that are incredible to the race track.

“It makes me really excited about where we are going, especially Texas – which is one of my best race tracks. I proud of everyone on this group. Hopefully, we can carry this momentum.”

Hamlin though is a little bit of a puzzle. This surprisingly isn’t one of his strongest tracks either. Yes, he won the spring race in 2019 and was runner-up this past year in the All-Star race, however, those are his only top 5’s in his last 9 Texas tries. 5 of his last 9 finishes have been 21st or worse at that. He has just two total top fives on this track since 2011.

Maybe it sets up Hendrick Motorsports. They’ve been quiet this postseason in comparison to last, but Kyle Larson won this race last year has 4 top 4 finishes on intermediate tracks this season too and 4 top 8 finishes in his last 7 starts on the season. William Byron has 3 top 10 finishes this postseason and was runner-up here last year. Alex Bowman has been 5th in 2 of his last 3 Texas tries and has had a pair of top 10’s in 3 playoff races too.

Elliott may have to fall back on those playoff points though. He’s not had a top five in any of his last nine Texas starts including being 12th and 20th in 2020 and 13th and 32nd a year prior. He was 7th last year. 3 of his last 6 intermediate track finishes have seen him finish 29th or worse.

Does this open it up to Team Penske?

Ryan Blaney has a top 12 finish in all but one Texas start. In fact, he has 6 top eights in his last 8 tries and the only ones that he doesn’t, he led 145 laps in spring race in 2019 before an engine problem and leading 150 laps and sweeping both stages in July 2020 before a late race fluke caution. He won the All-Star race this past spring. Larson did so last year and turned that into a Fall race win too. His teammate Joey Logano has had nine top 10 finishes in his last 11 Texas starts. On intermediate tracks, Logano has finished 4th in each of his last 2 tries including having 4 top 5’s on them this season. Austin Cindric is a rookie but may have the best yet to come for him this round.

Chase Briscoe is the lone SHR representative, but he’s not had a top 10 finish since May 29.

Oh yeah, there’s Trackhouse. Maybe this is all set up for them. Ross Chastain led the most laps in the Coca-Cola 600 and is finding his groove again with 2 straight top 10 finishes. Daniel Suarez has 6 finishes of 18th or worse in his last 8 starts but maybe he can turn it around still.

This race has the makings to be won again by a non-playoff driver but if someone scores their first postseason win among playoff drivers, you have to think Chastain, Blaney, Logano or Larson top that list.

They Said It

“Looking at the next seven races, I would say Texas is arguably the most important race, outside of Phoenix (the championship race),” Christopher Bell said. “Talladega, we all know how that is – there is going to be some lucky guys, and some unlucky guys.“Texas is kind of the one place where you can control your destiny into the next round and the winner is going to feel really good if it is a playoff car.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s