5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s AutoTrader EcoPark Automotive 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN)

Toyota’s Problems Resolved?

Toyota has a big problem on their hands now. Their mechanical woes haven’t yet been resolved as Kyle Busch had 2 engine failures in 3 races. Denny Hamlin battled some power steering issues in Bristol while Martin Truex Jr. was eliminated from Darlington while leading due to a mechanical failure and knocked out of Bristol for a power steering issue too. So were both 23XI Racing cars last Saturday night as well.

Did Toyota get these problems fixed or are they doomed this round?

They have just 2 drivers left fighting for this year’s championship and can’t afford any more self inflicted wounds. With Talladega and the ROVAL this round, if they have any mishaps on Sunday in Texas, they could have no cars left in the Round of 8…

This is a strong track for Christopher Bell who is the only one with a top 5 finish in all three playoff races and 6 in the last 10 weeks at that. Texas may be his best shot to stamp his name into the Round of 8 though too as he’s 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. Superspeedway’s and road courses are his weaknesses.

Bell was 3rd, 27th, 18th, 12th and 8th on road courses and 34th, 23rd, 22nd, 19th and 36th on superspeedways. However, he was the first driver to ink his name into the 2nd round and is hoping to be the first to join the 3rd round on Sunday.

Hamlin has 3 top 10’s in the playoffs, 2 of which in the top 5. However, 5 of his last 9 finishes at Texas were 21st or worse. He’s always a threat on superspeedway’s but his finishes on them this year are 37th, 29th, 18th, 25th and 25th and on road courses, he was only 18th, 31st, 17th, 14th and 20th. Could be a tough round.

BRISTOL, TENNESSEE – SEPTEMBER 17: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Toyota, exits the track to his hauler after an engine failure 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)

Playoff Mistakes

Whomever goes through a race without mistake, takes the top 5. Oddly enough, it’s the playoff drivers who have been prone to mistakes so far.

It was a very messy first round for the 16 playoff drivers. Each week we saw multiple drivers suffer some unexpected issues. Bristol last Saturday night didn’t spare them.

Austin Cindric and Ryan Blaney had tire problems in Stage 1 with Cindric losing 4 laps and Blaney having to go behind the wall and falling over 100 laps down. Joey Logano had a slower first stop because they struggled with the left rear tire. 

In Stage 2, it was Denny Hamlin’s turn on Lap 233 for a tire problem as he restarted in 24th on the tail end of the lead lap. 

In the final stage, Kyle Busch blew an engine on Lap 269 and ended his night and playoff chances too. A few laps later, Daniel Suarez spun exiting Turn 2 and collected Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick and Cindric. Then you had Logano having a right front tire go down, Kevin Harvick having a left front tire not tightened on the final stop and Denny Hamlin a left rear, Kyle Larson skirting against the wall and Ross Chastain missing his pit stall early and that’s 13 of the 16 playoff drivers with problems on Saturday night.

This is after 2 weeks of problems plaguing other drivers too. 

For Darlington, Chase Elliott and Chase Briscoe crashed, Kevin Harvick’s car went up in flames, Busch’s car went up in smoke, Daniel Suarez’ car had an inspection process penalty, Kyle Larson thought he had an engine going down and just 6 of the 16 playoff drivers left the South Carolina race track with a top 10.

At Kansas Harvick and Tyler Reddick each had tire troubles. Briscoe was speeding on pit lane, Hamlin, Busch, Suarez and Austin Dillon each had equipment interference penalties. Busch later spun on Lap 138, while Ryan Blaney had to pit for a 2nd time for a potential loose wheel.

This week at Texas has the potential for more problems. Last year saw 5 of the 8 playoff drivers in this race (it was in the Round of 8 last year) have an issue.

All three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers had problems. So did Chase Elliott. So did Joey Logano.

Elliott battled tire problems in the second stage and only was 15th (last car on the lead lap) scoring no stage points for that segment. He was only eighth in Stage 1 meaning he had three stage points all day. Elliott, finished seventh.

Logano blew an engine on Lap 298 and finished 30th. He had no stage points on the day and went from -11 to -43 with two races remaining last year.

Truex Jr. also had no stage points last year and was collected in a crash with Daniel Suarez with 15 to go. He finished 25th and falls to -22. He lost 28 points on the day as a result.

Hamlin crashed twice in the end but did rebound to finish 11th. He also had eight stage points too which is why he gained two points on the field.

Kyle Busch had an interesting day. He was speeding on pit road during the competition caution. He narrowly escaped the big melee on the restart but due to some slight left side damage, he pit for quick repairs during that second yellow of the day. Before we went back green, he was one of seven drivers to top off on Lap 37. That allowed him to stretch his fuel until the end to get a stage win. Good thing he did. That’s because while running in the top three near the midway mark of the second stage, his car went away from him. How much of that was a factor that his crew chief, Ben Beshore, was suspended for two missing lugnuts on the ROVAL. Did that cost them adjustments?

Busch, went backwards and never made that track position back up. He finished eighth.

With Talladega this round, whomever minimizes their mistakes in Texas and the ROVAL will advance on.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 04: Erik Jones, driver of the #43 FOCUSfactor Chevrolet, celebrates in Victory ane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Cook Out Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway on September 04, 2022 in Darlington, South Carolina. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Non Playoff Drivers

Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch join the list of non playoff drivers now. Coming off of a round to where all 3 races were won by non playoff drivers and entering one to where Talladega and the ROVAL are in it, this round could be just as wild, it not more wild, than the last.

Busch scored his 1st win of the season in this race back in 2020. Erik Jones scored his 3rd career NASCAR Cup Series victory in the Southern 500 earlier this month. That was a highly unpredictable moment in a sense that it was a Petty GMS Racing car going to victory lane in the opening playoff race of the season. Never in the history of the playoffs has a non playoff car won the postseason opener. But never in the history of this sport have we seen a season as unpredictable as this one.

A week later, Bubba Wallace drove to victory lane for the 2nd time of his NASCAR Cup Series career at the Kansas Speedway. It was 23XI Racing’s 3rd win of their young career in the sport too.

6 days after that, it as RFK Racing and Chris Buescher’s turn. It was Buescher’s first win in 222 races and RFK’s 1st in the last 191 starts. That’s 19 race winners in 29 races run this season. Factor in the Duels and the All-Star race to which Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney won 2 of those 3 and you get 32 total races run with 21 winners.

That’s 21 of 32 (66%) drivers to have raced in the series in every race this season reaching victory lane. 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.

“I don’t think anybody is safe,” Chase 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.”

Just look at those recent winners in the playoffs even. 7 career wins among them. Meanwhile, a pair of 60 race winners who were in the playoffs were bumped out by a driver with 1 career win. In total, 2 rookies were ahead of 2 future Hall of Famers who have combined to have won 3 of the 8 championships in this playoff format era.

If you go back to the regular season finale at Daytona to where Austin Dillon scored his 4th career win and you get the number of race wins from the last 4 races:

4 (Dillon)

3 (Jones)

2 (Wallace)

2 (Buescher)

It was as unpredictable opening round as we’ve ever seen and now we’re going to a round with Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL in it.

So who leads the non playoff drivers group this weekend?

I’d start off with Jones in fact.

Jones 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 won on an intermediate track last round at Darlington.

What about Aric Almirola who has 4 top 10 finishes in 6 starts at Texas for Stewart-Haas Racing. I even have my eye on Brad Keselowski who has 3 straight top 10 finishes including improvement in each time here. He was ninth, then sixth, then fourth…then first? He finished in the top 10 at Darlington a few races ago.

You can’t count out those 4 not in the playoffs anymore either. In fact, between Harvick, Busch and Dillon, they’ve combined to have won 6 of the last 8 at Texas too.

4 times has a non playoff driver won this race too – Tony Stewart (2006), Jimmie Johnson (2014, 2015) and Busch (2020).

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – OCTOBER 17: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet, and William Byron, driver of the #24 Axalta Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on October 17, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

How The Race Looks

The opening race of the Round of 12 is upon us. Sunday’s AutoTrader EchoPark 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN) at the Texas Motor Speedway will be one of the more highly scrutinized races of the entire season. It’s no secret, the 1.5-mile track has worn out its welcome on most schedules.

INDYCAR fans have about had enough with it. That’s because when the track applied the PJ1 traction compound for the 2019 NASCAR race weekend, it greatly affected the way that the open wheel cars stuck to the surface.

Instead of high speed, wheel-to-wheel action like Texas annually produced, Texas became a one-lane parade. While Texas officials claim that they didn’t add any traction compound between the Nov. 2019 NASCAR weekend and the June 2020 INDYCAR one, it didn’t matter to an INDYCAR. The dark spots that they applied it became a stain and one that caused significantly less grip and if you dared decided to test it out, you were likely going to be just a passenger on a high speed ride at that point forward.

“I don’t think you can go off of Texas because the PJ1 stuff completely ruined that place,” Colton Herta said last month at the World Wide Technology Raceway.

INDYCAR and Firestone saw the 2020 debacle and tried to fix it for 2021. It didn’t really work. This past March, they added a 2nd practice session to just work in the 2nd lane. That seemed to improve the show a bit.

Will NASCAR have an improved show this weekend? This fan base is also irate at how Texas has looked in recent years.

In 2021, NASCAR used resin instead of PJ1 in the 2nd lane. It didn’t work at all. They’ll try it again this week with an application already put down.

“We’re going to do kind of the same thing that has been the mile-and-a-half procedure for the mile-and-a-half’s that we treat,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR’s senior vice president of competition, on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week. “It’ll be resin and some tire dragon at the beginning of the weekend, and we’ll leave it.

“We’re also going to probably go a lane or so higher in [Turns] 3 and 4 just to try to give a little bit more racing room over there. It may not turn into racing room, but if they do slip out of the groove, at least there will be something there to grab a hold of.”

Will it work? That remains to be seen which is why fans are cautiously optimistic about the track situation.

Plus, with the temperatures soaring into the mid to upper 90s on both days of action, it almost makes you wonder how that will have an effect on the drivers, the teams, the cars and the fans sweltering in the stands too.

The attendance last year was a lot to be desired. Now with lackluster racing and temperatures nearing the century mark, I cringe at what the grandstands will look like for Sunday’s race.

Another wrinkle to this potential problem is the tire situation as well. Goodyear has had a fair share problems this season including during the All-Star Race at this very track this past May. While Goodyear has updated the tire for this weekend, it’s the same tire they just used at Kansas however and both of those races features plenty of tire problems too. So did Bristol last Saturday night.

“It has been widely documented that the balance of the Next Gen car has shifted towards the rear,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “On a weekly basis, optimizing tire performance is a key element in having a successful weekend. Air pressure, suspension geometry and shock settings work in unison to get the most out of the tire package. Being aggressive in any one of those areas is certainly a recipe for short-term speed, but the risk vs. reward of those choices can often come back and bite you.

“We work very closely with teams throughout the week and at the track, providing as much data as we can to help them make the right tire choices. We understand that teams are in a constant search for speed, but finding the edge of that envelope is key to finishing races.”

Much of the dilemmas have stemmed from an increased load on the rear of the Next Gen vehicle while Goodyear and teams continue to learn how the tire deflects with a thinner sidewall than in years past.

This is all why the magnifying glass is on Texas this weekend. That track has become a disaster ever since that repave/reconfiguration. There’s talks now of a complete do over.

“I think they should just put it back to the way it was from my standpoint,” Jimmie Johnson lobbied. “In all my years in Cup, it was the best mile-and-a-half, especially once it aged, from my perspective.

“Based on my previous experience in NASCAR, I think just put it back.”

But will they? Atlanta got a revamp and it’s 2 races were a slam dunk. Does Texas go in the direction that Atlanta did or does it go in a different route?

It’s hard to just resurface the turns because that costs money and you’re basically doing what you’re already done without any capital coming back in. While you absolutely can’t put any traction compounds back on those areas, is the configuration really going to be that much better?

That’s part of the issue to why traction compound even had to be put down to begin with. So then you open the door to repaving the entire track and reconfiguring again. While you’re at it, why not do something to stand out because if you haven’t noticed, 1.5-mile tracks are a dying form.

No matter what they do, they have to do something because they’ve already lost 1 points paying race for the All-Star race and that event flopped so badly there, it got taken away after just 2 years.

They’re in jeopardy of becoming the next Chicagoland and Kentucky…

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – MAY 22: Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 Menards/Wrangler Ford, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway on May 22, 2022 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney

Kyle Larson won not only the All-Star race in 2021 but he also won the fall playoff race as well. Now, can Ryan Blaney do the same one year later?

Blaney took home the $1-million All-Star race prize back in May. A win on Sunday would be his 1st of the 2022 season in terms of point paying and also guarantee him a placement into the Round of 8 as well.

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. 

The thing is, he’s had to sweat out the last 2 cut races. Daytona and Bristol saw early race issues for him that saw the Penske driver narrowly inking his name on. A win on Sunday means a less stressful Round of 12. The team was expecting to be without crew chief Jonathan Hassler, and pit-crew members Zachary Price (rear-tire changer) and Graham Stoddard (jack) for their role in Blaney’s tire falling off during a pit stop in Bristol. While those suspensions were set to start this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway and end after the Oct. 16 event at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the organization elected to appeal the penalty which will give Blaney a full crew this weekend. It’s a risk in the fact that in the event that the lose their appeal, the 4 races will still have to be served which means you would lose them from Talladega through Homestead.

Talladega isn’t much of a loss since pit calls/strategy won’t dictate Blaney’s fate there, but it could creep into as much as 2 races or even the whole round in the Round of 8 depending on when the appeal is heard and how long it takes for a decision.

Top Stat

Chris Buescher’s Bristol victory marked a record 19 different winners through 29 races this year, tying 1956, 1958, 1961 and 2001 for the most winners in a single season. 8 of the last 14 races in 2022 at that were won by drivers getting their first win of the season, including each of the last four.

Top Quote

“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.”

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