They say everything's bigger in Texas. But as the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads into the Lone Star State for Sunday's 2019 AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, the number of viable championship contenders has shrunk considerably.
We know one driver, Martin Truex Jr., has already clinched a spot in the Championship 4 no matter what happens. The other seven title contenders are vying for three remaining spots in the season finale in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway. But how many of those wheelmen are really still in the mix?
Chase Elliott, sitting dead last after a Martinsville mechanical failure, is 44 points behind the cutline heading into Texas. That's an almost impossible deficit to make up over the next two races, meaning it's likely win-or-bust for the reigning NASCAR Most Popular Driver. Problem is, Elliott's never won at this track or the next one on the schedule (ISM Raceway). It makes climbing into this year's Championship 4 somewhere between a tall task and a virtual impossibility.
The same goes for Kyle Larson, winless at both of these racetracks throughout a six-year Cup career. Larson crashed out of the Texas race this spring which doesn't bode well for his chances this time around; a 24-point deficit to the cutline and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano makes him a longshot for the title at best.
That leaves five drivers fighting over three spots. Denny Hamlin, the Texas winner this spring, appears to be in the best shape of them all despite a shoulder injury that's going to require offseason surgery. He sits 24 points ahead of fifth-place Kevin Harvick and is riding a streak of four straight top-5 finishes.
Hamlin's Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the regular-season points champion, won at Phoenix back in the spring and sits 17 points ahead of Harvick. A shaky, winless postseason has made him vulnerable but that cushion, paired with past history, should still give him an edge.
Assuming those two make it through, the fourth and final spot will come down to the trio of Logano, Kevin Harvick, and Ryan Blaney. Logano, as the reigning champ, will get the benefit of the doubt all the way through Phoenix. But Harvick has won two straight Texas fall races; another victory is all he needs to clinch a spot. Logano also has a feud with Hamlin to contend with (more on that in a bit) and hasn't won a race of his own since Michigan in June.
Blaney, not expected to make this round, has become a total wild card. He's never won at either of these two tracks but is expected to play it loose and aggressive on strategy. Can Team Penske's newest young talent somehow find a way forward? He's only 15 points behind Logano, not an insurmountable deficit.
Weirdly enough, all these drivers might want to avoid victory lane. In the five years of NASCAR's 16-driver playoff not a single winner of this race has gone on to take the championship down at Homestead-Miami. In fact, two of those five Texas races have been won by a driver no longer in title contention. Based on Friday practice speeds, where Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola led the way, could Texas provide another late-season upset?
AAA Texas 500
Time: Sunday, Nov. 3 at 3 p.m. ET
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth, Texas)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Martin Truex Jr.
Truex, finishing up his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, hasn't skipped a beat in his first year behind the wheel of the No. 19 Toyota. He earned the win at Martinsville Speedway Sunday with a record-setting performance, leading 464 of 500 laps in a race where he was never seriously challenged.
That gives Truex three short track victories on the year; he entered the 2019 season with zero. His seven wins overall this season lead the Cup circuit; 1,268 laps led ranks second to Kyle Busch. Not bad for a guy picked up off the waiver wire when his former team, Furniture Row Racing, closed down at the end of 2018.
Who's at the Back: Alex Bowman
Arguably Chevrolet's top driver throughout May and June, Bowman's successful spring has fizzled out in what's become a disappointing playoff performance. He's led just seven laps the entire postseason, at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago, and has two finishes of 30th or worse in the last three races. More was expected from a No. 88 team that's also still on the search for more sponsorship after Nationwide Insurance revealed they'll end their partnership with this team in 2020.
Martinsville ended with a shove pushed into the national news cycle from Joey Logano. His gentle hands-on gesture with Denny Hamlin after the two were having a post-race discussion turned into a fracas where crew members intervened between the two. One of them, Dave Nichols Jr., was suspended after pulling on Hamlin's firesuit and taking him down.
Matt Tifft will miss the remainder of the 2019 Cup season after suffering a seizure last Friday at Martinsville Speedway. John Hunter Nemechek will sub for the rookie at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend while Tifft's team, Front Row Motorsports, reviews its options for 2020. They're already losing a retiring David Ragan and there are concerns Tifft could be out until at least mid-April. The 23-year-old has already fought back from a low-grade brain tumor that was removed successfully in 2016.
Chevrolet is bringing a new Camaro model to Cup Series competition in 2020. The Camaro ZL1 1LE model will replace the current Camaro ZL1 that’s been racing at NASCAR's highest level the last two seasons. During that time, Chevrolet teams have struggled; just two drivers made this year's Round of 8 and none made the Championship 4 in 2018. Camaros have earned just seven victories in 33 Cup races this year despite having more cars in the field each week than any other manufacturer.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Total lead changes at Martinsville in the two races held there this year. The three lead changes apiece were the fewest for any Cup race since a Richard Petty win way back in 1967.
Finishing position for David Ragan at Martinsville, his best result of the year. Ragan is retiring from full-time driving at the conclusion of the 2019 season.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's hard to bet against the Joe Gibbs Racing trifecta of Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch as we enter the stretch run of the NASCAR playoffs. Hamlin and Kyle Busch have both won a race at Texas since the start of the 2018 season; Busch, in particular, has led 182 laps here the last three races. They'll be tough to beat.
As for Truex, he hasn't won at Texas but boasts seven top-10 finishes in the last nine races held here. The No. 19 team will be going for broke, their position at Homestead-Miami Speedway assured and will be more of a boom-or-bust option on your roster.
Of course, you also can't go wrong with Kevin Harvick. But winning three straight Texas fall races seems incredibly difficult; past history will also leave Harvick overpriced in daily fantasy.
Did you know Jimmie Johnson has scored the most points of any non-playoff driver since the start of this 10-race postseason? The seven-time champ is making the most of his opportunity to build for 2020 with new crew chief Cliff Daniels. Johnson once won four Texas races in five starts during a two-year span and posted a strong fifth-place finish here this spring after winning the pole. I expect the No. 48 team to put their best foot forward again and register a strong performance.
Aric Almirola has had a forgettable second half of the season, knocked out of the playoffs early. But he's got back-to-back finishes at Texas for the first time in his Cup career (eighth, then seventh this spring) and was mighty fast in Friday's practice sessions. Don’t take the No. 10 team off your roster.
Texas usually doesn't lend itself to the underdogs. But Michael McDowell has two top-15 finishes in the last three Texas races since joining the No. 34 team at Front Row Motorsports. He's a great value play if you want to stash a few extra playoff contenders on the roster.
Ty Dillon has never been spectacular at Texas. But each one of his six Cup starts has landed somewhere between 13th and 24th. It’s that type of back-end consistency on your roster that wins you a week over competitors with flashier names.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. sit at 5/1 odds. Next up, there's a bevy of drivers at 7/1 with a list that includes all other championship contenders except Ryan Blaney.
Want a reasonable longshot? Jimmie Johnson is sitting at 40/1.
What I Think
Denny Hamlin puts his ailing shoulder aside and sails to victory here for a Texas sweep. That leaves just two spots available for the Championship 4 with ISM Raceway the only race left before the season finale.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)