Update: 5 things I’m watching for Sunday’s AutoTrader EchoPark 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, USA, PRN) at Texas


Toyota had a big problem on their hands in their mechanical woes so far this postseason. 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 mentioned that they had to dial their power back a bit and on Saturday, you can notice in terms of qualifying. Denny Hamlin was the only one to qualify in the top 14 as he’ll start 8th.

The 23XI duo to Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace start 16th and 19th respectively. Truex Jr. starts 14th. Busch will roll off 18th. Their worst is Bell in 22nd.

That’s not good.

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 normally a strong track for Bell who was the only one with a top 5 finish in all three playoff races and 6 in the last 10 weeks at that. Texas is supposed to 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

All 3 playoff races so far were won by a non-championship eligible driver. Now we head to the Round of 12 opener at Texas. 6 of the last 8 races here were won by either Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick or Austin Dillon. Each were bounced in the opening round of the playoffs and no long championship eligible themselves.

On top of all of that, 4 times has this race been won by a non-playoff driver too.

In qualifying on Saturday, 4 of the top 7 starters aren’t in the postseason including the pole winner in Brad Keselowski.

Does that spell another wild race?

“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)

Keselowski was 4th last year and coming off of a week to where he led 109 laps and saw his teammate win. Both RCR cars led the way in both groups of practice, and each will come from the top 7. This is another strong opportunity for the non playoff drivers to shine.

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)

Hendrick Motorsports

18 of the last 20 and 20 of the last 23 Texas races were won from a top 10 starter. Hendrick Motorsports has 3 of their 4 drivers starting in the top 10 on Sunday. With only 5 total playoff drivers rolling off inside the top 10 and them having 3 of them, this could prove to be a great opportunity for HMS on Sunday afternoon.

William Byron has a top 10 finish in all 3 playoff races and was 2nd here last year after leading 55 laps. He starts 3rd. Kyle Larson is the defending race winner and starts 9th. Even Chase Elliott who’s not had a top 5 here since 2016 starts 6th and looks capable…

FORT WORTH, TEXAS – MAY 22: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Crunchy Cookie Toyota, and Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Worldwide Express Chevrolet, race 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)

Does Qualifying Matter?

Several notable drivers with tons of success here aren’t starting up front. Christopher Bell has 2 straight 3rd place finishes here and a top 5 in all 3 playoff races so far. He qualified 22nd.

Kyle 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. He’ll roll off 18th.

Kevin 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. He’ll come from 23rd on Sunday.

Erik Jones is a sleeper. He won the Southern 500 and 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. Jones qualified 27th.

Alex Bowman has a pair of fifth place finishes in 2 of the last 3 Fall Texas races and 4 top 10 finishes in his last 6 intermediate track starts this season. He was only 17th on Saturday.

Aric Almirola has four top 10 finishes in six tries. He was only 25th.

For a track that has 18 of the last 20 and 20 of the last 23 won from a top 10 starter, it has to have these drivers on edge going into Sunday…

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