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AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 (Texas) NASCAR Preview and Fantasy Predictions

Texas Motor Speedway is suffering through its share of criticism heading into a crucial Round of 12 NASCAR Cup Series playoff race.

The 2022 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs roll on to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend for the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500. It’s a race name as hard to say as this track has been for teams to figure out.

TMS has been an enigma, indeed, since its first race on the Cup calendar in 1997. That weekend, qualifying had to be postponed because of water seeping through the racetrack. Thirteen cars crashed on the first turn of the very first lap, immediately putting a damper on the event.

At the time, Rusty Wallace said, the track needed “a total reconstruction to get it right.”

Fast-forward 25 years to Kyle Larson’s interview in the TMS media center. What’s the best way he thinks they could make racing better here?

“I would like them to demolish this place first,” Larson said, “And then start over from scratch.”

There you have it, not exactly a ringing endorsement to start off the Round of 12 for a place that certainly maintains its share of critics. While the NASCAR Next Gen chassis is known for its success on intermediate tracks, Texas proved a notable exception during the All-Star Race back in May. Ryan Blaney won a race defined by track position, where clean air and aerodynamics largely decided the winner.

With passing so difficult, drivers wind up focusing on restarts here. Wild action often occurs as drivers go three, sometimes four-wide to gain spots before the field spreads out and aerodynamics limit their options. That can lead to spectacular wrecks like this one from Saturday's NASCAR Xfinity Series race.

Two such incidents left just 21 cars running at the finish out of 38 total entries. It’s raised concerns about attrition in the Cup race, a running theme throughout the playoffs already with an average of seven DNFs in the three postseason events.

For its part, Texas hopes some treatment applied to the track surface this week results in better Sunday competition. The goal of the PJ1 compound and tire dragon solution was to create more than one lane for the cars to race in.

“It really limits our options on how we race other cars throughout the day,” explains Tyler Reddick, “If we’re only able to go through the bottom of [turns] 3 and 4 and not in the second and third lanes.”

Another storyline to watch at Texas is how cars hold up over 500 miles of competition. Engine failures have come into play the last few weeks, in particular with Kyle Busch, who saw his championship hopes wiped out with two mechanical failures in three weeks.

A closer look at the 12 remaining title contenders shows the cream has risen to the top: despite a year of parity, nine teams and eight drivers remain the same, including all four entries from Hendrick Motorsports and another three from Team Penske. That includes three former champions (Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano) along with three-time Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin.

It means the four newcomers behind the wheel (Austin Cindric, Ross Chastain, Daniel Suarez and Chase Briscoe) will have their work cut out for them. They certainly can’t lose any ground here with the ultimate wild card race – Talladega Superspeedway – looming ahead of them next weekend.

Can a potential champion unlock the key to victory lane in the Lone Star State? Or will we another non-playoff driver pull off the upset as we have during the last three weeks? A 20th different winner this season would break a record since the modern era schedule was reconfigured in 1972.

AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500

Date: Sunday, Sept. 24
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth, Texas)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Starting Lineup

Who's at the Front: RFK Racing

Chris Buescher came out of nowhere at Bristol Saturday night, taking advantage of a survivor-style race where several frontrunners fell off the pace with flat tires. He wound up leading 169 laps, nearly as many (181) as he’d led in 249 previous Cup starts.

His victory was the first for RFK Racing, whose new co-owner, Brad Keselowski, came over from Team Penske at the end of last season. Keselowski was in contention for the victory himself, leading 109 laps, before winning the pole this weekend at Texas as the team continues its sudden turnaround.

“It’s painful,” Keselowski said of a year where he missed the playoffs and incurred a 100-point penalty from NASCAR. “But anything in life worth doing is painful.”

Looks like the suffering is over.

Who's at the Back: Kyle Busch/Richard Childress Racing

The fall from grace in Busch’s final year with Joe Gibbs Racing has been stunning. A Pocono disqualification, wiping out a second-place finish in July, was the first of four DNFs on his record over the past nine races.

Busch flopped right out of the first round of the playoffs along with his future team, Richard Childress Racing, who went 0-for-2 with drivers Austin Dillon and Tyler Reddick. (Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing was the fourth driver who failed to advance).

News Briefs

Team Penske is appealing a four-race suspension to Ryan Blaney's pit crew. A loose wheel incurred at Bristol had caused NASCAR to issue the penalty to crew chief Jonathan Hassler, rear tire changer Zachary Price and jackman Graham Stoddard. Due to the appeal, though all will remain on pit road and eligible to work on Blaney’s car throughout the weekend.

Denny Hamlin will have a new pit crew this weekend at Texas. With Kyle Busch out of the playoffs, Joe Gibbs Racing decided to swap his over-the-wall crew at the No. 18 with Hamlin’s No. 11, a group that’s been faster most of the year. Crew chief Chris Gabehart will still lead Hamlin’s new crew atop the pit box.

Could Kyle Busch run the Indy 500 next year? IndyCar’s McLaren Racing is openly considering Busch for a fourth entry in the open-wheel race next May. Busch and new car owner Richard Childress confirmed the driver would be allowed to moonlight in an event previously blocked by current employer JGR.

NASCAR by the Numbers

Drivers who have led more than 500 laps this season through 29 races: Chase Elliott, William Byron, Kyle Busch, Ross Chastain, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano. By comparison, only four drivers led 500 laps or more during a full season in 2021.

Races in between NASCAR wins for Chris Buescher. He last won at Pocono Raceway as a rookie, succeeding in just his 27th career Cup start back in 2016.

Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)

Top Tier

It’s hard to bet against last year’s winner Kyle Larson down in Texas. The 2021 All-Star Race winner followed up with a victory last fall in which he led 256 laps from the pole. Starting ninth, the reigning NASCAR champion should be close enough to the front in this track position race to put himself in position to capitalize down the stretch.

Simply surviving into the next round might be enough to jump-start a still-winless Ryan Blaney this season. May’s All-Star Race exhibition winner here has seven top-10 finishes during his last eight Texas starts along with 255 laps led. A 14th-place starting spot puts position differential points in play during a race they might be hard to come by.

Related: Best Texas Motor Speedway Drivers for DraftKings

Middle Tier

Richard Childress Racing has had its share of recent success down in Texas, utilizing pit strategy to put together a 1-2 finish back in 2020. Both Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon qualified in the top 7 this time around and will be eager to bounce back after their disappointing playoff elimination at Bristol. The last time a RCR car finished outside the top 15 here? Then-rookie Daniel Hemric was driving in the spring of 2019.

Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski is expensive; he also has nowhere to go but down during the race. However, starting first may lead to a plethora of early laps-led bonuses, potentially even a stage win, before the No. 6 Ford slides back.

Lower Tier

Michael McDowell qualified fifth, his best performance on an oval track this season. The Front Row Motorsports driver is in the midst of a career year, averaging an 11th-place finish during the playoffs and is well positioned for his first career top 10 at this track in his 24th career start here.

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. has crashed in three out of his last four Texas races, making him a risky play. But the one time he was able to finish? He ran 12th in the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Racing Chevrolet. Don’t count him out from a 21st-place starting spot in a year he’s pulled a few surprises on intermediates.

What Vegas Thinks

The odds for Texas have Kyle Larson leading the way at +550, followed by Denny Hamlin at +600 and Christopher Bell at +700. Chase Elliott (+800) and Kyle Busch (+900) round out the five best odds among drivers.

Texas isn’t the best track for a long shot. That said, playoff driver Chase Briscoe (starting 30th) is sitting at +10000 if you think the weirdness that is this 2022 racing season is primed to continue.

What I Think

I’m going to say Kyle Larson pulls a repeat, becoming the first playoff driver to win a race and restoring normalcy to what’s been a chaotic start to the postseason.

— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site He can be reached at or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.