NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN)

What’s Texas’ Future?

There’s absolutely no doubt about it, this has become one of the worst tracks on the NASCAR schedule. It’s a shame because it didn’t use to be that way. But ever since this track was reconfigured and repaved, it’s ruined the racing for every series.

“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.

That track has become a disaster for both INDYCAR and NASCAR. 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?

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’ll apply the resin again but there’s no guarantee that it will work. It didn’t last year as it was basically a no go zone for the Xfinity Series race and the Cup race a day later didn’t feature much action.

The track just did one application and won’t reapply as the weekend goes on so it’s anyone’s guess how this weekend’s racing will look. Plus with the temperatures soaring into the mid to upper 90s, 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.

It may be time for do something drastically different here.

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)

What do 4 Drivers Already Eliminated From Postseason Do Now?

16 drivers entered this year’s NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, 12 continued on last Saturday night at the Bristol (Tenn) Motor Speedway. 4 of the 16 are eliminated. So how do these 4 handle the final 7 races of the season?

It’s a tricky situation. With each race being won by a non playoff driver so far, these 4 joining the club on a track that they have done well on is intriguing.

For the first time in their careers, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch were eliminated in the first round of the playoffs. The question now is, how engaged will they be moving forward?

Busch can now turn his focus on shoring up his 2023 plans for his Truck Series team and further move closer to his change to RCR. He’s finished outside the top 30 in 3 of the last 5 weeks.

“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.”

Busch I feel like felt like he’d never be put in a position to where he’d have to be searching for a new place to race in 2023. While JGR was searching for funding, he never thought the unexpected would occur.

He wasn’t driving like it at least. He had a stretch in late spring and early summer with 8 top 10 finishes in a 9 race stretch including 5 top 3’s in a span of 7 races.

In the 14 races since?

0 top 5’s. 2 top 10’s. Half of the races he finished 29th or worse.

He admitted that he felt the strain once he realized it was realistic that he’d have to move on from JGR. It caused a lot of sleepless nights in his household.

Now he has those plans solidified.

Kyle Busch’s engine blows on Lap 269 of Saturday night’s Bass Pro Shops Night Race at Bristol

After a week that saw him announced his 2023 plans, Busch was still hoping to go out his tenure with Joe Gibbs Racing a champion. 56 of his 60 NASCAR Cup Series victories came with JGR and Toyota including both of his championships (2015, 2019) as well. He gave Toyota their first win in NASCAR’s premiere series. Their first championship too.

Now, his focus will turn to Chevrolet now as you have to think he’s just going to ride out the 2022 season with his eye to the future.

For Harvick, you have to wonder about him too.

Harvick’s car caught on fire in the Southern 500 and would finish 33rd. He crashed in Kansas and was 36th. 3 of his last 4 finishes have been 20th or worse.

What’s shocking by this is the fact that the duo have combined to have taken 3 of the 8 championships during this new era (2014-present) of racing. On top of that, each are a pair of 60 race winners in the Cup Series at that.

At one point not so very long ago, Harvick, Busch and Martin Truex Jr. were shoo-ins for Championship 4’s. All 3 made the final round in 2015, 2017, 2018 and again in 2019. No one has as many Championship 4 appearances as these three with each of them having 5 a piece.

All are now eliminated by the end of the first round.

Harvick won 9 times in 2020. He went winless until this past August. Busch went winless until the 3rd to last race of the 2020 season. He won twice last year and picked up a fluke Bristol win this past April when the top 2 drivers knocked each other out in going for the win on the final lap in the final set of corners. Busch led just the straightaway all race. If that doesn’t happen, he’d not even be in the playoffs right now either.

Since this race ended in 2020, Harvick and Busch have a combined 6 wins.

Each are great at Texas but I wonder how well they truly will do on Sunday. They’ve combined to have won 5 of the last 8 points paying races at Texas.

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

What about for the RCR duo? Austin Dillon knows his future is secured and he is like Harvick and says that they’ll go out and try to win a race before the end of the year is up.

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

Throw in Dillon’s 2020 win and 6 of the last 8 Texas winners were each eliminated in the opening round.

What about for Tyler Reddick? He’s in a weird position but 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.

DARLINGTON, SOUTH CAROLINA – SEPTEMBER 04: Erik Jones, driver of the #43 FOCUSfactor Chevrolet, drives during 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)

Another Non Playoff Winner?

Kyle 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.”

With Harvick, Busch, Dillon and Reddick now added to the non playoff drivers mix, that’s 6 of the last 8 winners at Texas. With non playoff winners being 3-for-3, it’s an intriguing factor.

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 outside of Harvick, Busch and Dillon?

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.

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 Chevrolet, Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Interstate Batteries Toyota, Ryan Blaney, driver of the #12 DEX Imaging Ford, and Joey Logano, driver of the #22 AAA Insurance Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on October 17, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

Does This Race Make Or Break Toyota’s Championship Chances?

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.

Kyle Busch, who was eliminated in the first round for the first time of his career last week, was 28th, 39th, 29th, 11th and 32nd on the same road courses and 6th, 33rd, 3rd, 20th and 10th in superspeedway’s.

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

Bell and Busch have been good here. Bell 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.”

Busch has 5 straight top 10’s at Texas. 6 of his last 7 starts have seen him finish in the top 10 in the LoneStar State. While he has finished outside the top 20 in 3 of his last 4 starts on intermediate tracks, it’s not like he didn’t have speed in either. Can he get his season back on track while being eliminated from the playoffs?

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.

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – MAY 22: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet, spins after an on-track incident during the NASCAR Cup Series All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway on May 22, 2022 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Is This The Most Important Race Of The Playoffs?

The 2nd round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs may be the most difficult 3 week stretch of the season. Texas, Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL. The final 2 races are wildcards where anything can happen. Anything will too.

With the postseason going from 12 drivers to 8 in this round, one could say this is the toughest round to compete in because a lot of it is time out of your control.

However, the Round of 8 could be seen as just as difficult. While the tracks are more geared towards the drivers, the intensity level also picks up. The 8 drivers left standings are there for a reason and to beat at least 4 of them, it’s going to take an all our war.

Pressure rises. Tension mounts. It’s 3 weeks of hell to be one of the 4 lucky ones vying for a championship a week later. The final race is a short track to where you have to have your elbows out. Even if you’re not an aggressive driver, if you’re part of the Round of 8 still, you better make yourself one.

So which is tougher?

That makes Texas so important because in this round, it’s really the only place to where you can control your own destiny. The rest of the race you need some help in.

“Looking at the next seven races, I would say Texas is arguably the most important race, outside of Phoenix (the championship race),” 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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