After completing the first-ever NASCAR playoff without a title contender winning a race, the Cup series now moves to round two with Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.
We only have 12 contenders left in the play-off with four of them eliminated following last week’s thrilling event in Bristol. Interestingly, two of the series’ most experienced drivers, Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, have been sent off, along with Austin Dillon and Tyler Riddick. In fact, Dillon is the only one of the four that comes as no surprise, so suffice it to say that qualifying got off to an interesting start. Of course, what’s more interesting is watching three non-racing drivers win first-round races, Eric Jones in Darlington, Bubba Wallace in Kansas, and most recently Chris Bucher in Bristol. Keep in mind that any driver who wins the race automatically advances to the next round. Perhaps that regularity will start this week in Texas.
In Texas Motor Speedway, the name of the game is speed. You can try to say that on every track, of course, but here it really stands out. The narrow highway is a mile and a half long and features long stretches in the front and back, allowing cars to reach nearly 200 mph. I always loved being compared to Charlotte Motor Speedway as well as Atlanta before the banking change there. Prior to the 2021 season, the series used to run two events annually here each season, dating back to 2004. However, with NASCAR moving the last two races from All-Star to TMS, it has left room for only one point event nowadays.
With Charlotte only listed as a Texan-like track now, and only one race per season here, there isn’t a whole lot of relevant data to use to help handicap the Auto Trader EchoPark Automotive 500 on Sunday. We could go back to the All-Star Race in May and find out that Ryan Blaney took the checkered flag, followed by Denny Hamlin, Austin Cindric, Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez, but of course, this event is run with a format of different race stages unique to the All-Star Race. However, these five drivers, who all remained on the 12-driver qualifying court, had already demonstrated the ability to run fast at this facility four months ago.
Looking back at the points oval race in Charlotte in May, Denny Hamlin was the winner that day, leading 15 of 413 laps. Ross Chastain was named Driver of the Year for the Coca-Cola 600, which beat Hamlin 121.3-114.9. However, Chastain ran into some problems late on after going 153 laps and ending up 15th. Tyler Reddick also put in a solid performance, driving 19 laps and having a driver rating of 113.6. Others who have led the most laps include Chase Elliott (86), Kyle Larson (51), Daniel Suarez (36) and Kyle Busch (36).
If you want to take last fall’s race into account here, although of course that was before the new car was introduced this season, series finale champion Kyle Larson was absolutely dominant, winning the race while driving 256 laps and getting a perfect driver rating from 150. William Byron, Ryan Blaney and Tyler Riddick all ran well that day, and they all scored 109.5 or higher.
By looking at the races in Texas last year and at the 2022 All-Star event, as well as Charlotte back in May, you can see that there is a short list of drivers who have enjoyed consistent success recently on this type of circuit. Not surprisingly, these drivers are listed as Sunday favorites with a few other outliers. It should be an exciting race, as most of the playoff title contenders feel they can take that elusive win and advance to round three.
Auto Trader EchoPark Automotive 500 Statistical Breakdown
In terms of my “disability” ratings, these are my top five drivers in the track ratings before entering Sunday’s race:
Ryan Blaney – 122.3
Kyle Busch – 113.8 Kyle Larson – 111 Joey Lugano – 102.6 Kevin Harvick – 99.9
Among these drivers, Busch and Harvick are no longer contenders in the playoff. If you read the qualifying preview three weeks ago, you’ll remember that I pointed out some of the weak points in the fixtures and how surviving the first round would be the most important point for some drivers, Harvick and Busch among them. All-Star winner Blaney has clearly done well in Texas, but he will be without his crew chief for the next four races after a wheel went off in Bristol last week.
My track rating ratings are completely different, with my top 5 tracks 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 in each of the Top 5 lists so far. All the other four drivers are current title contenders, so my thinking is that this should be the first of four playoff races where we see the title contender win and have that automatic progression.
In terms of my recent reviews, this is the top five address in Texas:
Chase Elliott – 109.1
Christopher Bell – 103.5 Denny Hamlin – 99.2 Kyle Larson – 97.2 Joey Lugano – 93.8
All five of these drivers are still looking for the championship, 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 +700 and Elliott +800. He goes on to show that Odds makers lean heavily on how recently the driver has run rather than on track data.
Final simulation results/my predictions
My preliminary simulations on Tuesday before practice and qualifying on Saturday showed Ryan Blaney as the expected winner for Texas, followed by Hamlin, Elliott, Kyle Bush and William Byron.
Austin Dillon won Saturday’s practice session, one of the four drivers eliminated from qualifying last weekend. Historically, like last week, training speed has been the single most important factor hindering race success in Texas. Although the path is narrow, it’s pure speed that gets it done, more than handling and/or strategy. Tyler Riddick, Alex Bowman and Joey Logano also had vigorous practice sessions, with Lugano averaging 10 laps. A little later on Saturday, out-of-the-ball contender Brad Keselowski delivered the best speed in qualifying, followed by Joey Logano, William Byron and Redick. Unfortunately for Riddick, he was eliminated from the title race last week after struggling in Bristol. Keep in mind that his wins in his two series this season have come in laps on the road, not ovals. That’s why I won’t support him on Sunday despite his strong start to the weekend.
After updating the initial simulation with Saturday practice and qualifying results, I’ll do it Final simulation Show this top 5:
Tyler Riddick (+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 qualifying that all three drivers who have won races so far have been a big mover on the simulator board after the qualifying and training sessions. With that in mind, these were the biggest drivers from the initial Texas simulation:
Brad Keselowski + 12 points
Tyler Reddick + 11 Bubba Wallace spots + 9 Austin Dillon points + 8 points
Kevin Harvick -12 spots
Eric Almerola – 11 spots, Kyle Busch – 7 points, Martin Truex – 6 points
Drivers in the simulation expected higher than usual: Reddick (1), Logano (3), Bowman (8), Keselowski (9)
Drivers expected in the simulation are lower than usual: Bell (14), Cendric (19), Harvick (20)
My final predictions in Texas:
1. Lugano 2. Bowman 3. Byron 4. Blaney 5. Driver(s) Reddick Longshot: Chastain’s driver(s) who vanishes: Busch
Texas has a C+ score on the Disability Ability Scale. As I’ve crossed several times now, it’s all about speed here. However, speed and tight conditions often lead to disaster on the track, and they are usually behind the top candidates. In fact, if you go back through the last 14 TMS races, only two have received fewer than eight warnings. Wrecks can and will happen and the drivers involved in them will be eliminated from the row at these crazy speeds. It’s going to be a great race to watch and hopefully we’ll bet on as well, as we’ll see more natural results at the top of the field this week.