There are just three races left in the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series season and heading into Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, none of the sport’s Big Three is guaranteed a shot at the championship. It was Joey Logano, not Martin Truex Jr., in Victory Lane at Martinsville last weekend after a last-lap bump-and-run secured him a spot.
But don’t fret about the fortunes of Truex, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. All three drivers remain at least 25 points ahead of their competition with two races left until the Championship 4 at Homestead-Miami Speedway. While Logano has earned one of those spots, this trio should easily fill out the field unless all hell breaks loose in the next two races.
Consider the four drivers in position to catch them. Clint Bowyer, despite starting second tomorrow, has led a grand total of two laps during the NASCAR Playoffs. He finished 21st at Martinsville after a late-race spin and hasn’t posted a top-10 finish on a 1.5-mile oval since Chicagoland in July. Forty-two points behind Harvick and Truex, Bowyer will almost certainly need a win and the automatic bid that comes with it.
Could you honestly see him doing that? Or Aric Almirola, a wonderful Cinderella story admittedly playing with house money but who has a grand total of three top-five finishes all year? It will take a minor miracle for this duo to leapfrog the competition and somehow fight their way to Victory Lane.
Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott, the other two drivers left in title contention, have a slightly better chance. But Busch, who led 40 laps at Texas back in the spring, hasn’t run higher than fifth in any playoff race. That won’t cut it considering the competition. Busch also is leaving his Stewart-Haas Racing ride in 2019, a reality that sets in as the series gets ever closer to Homestead.
Elliott is the only Chevrolet driver left in the field, winning twice during the playoffs to take another step toward a likely future as NASCAR superstar. But he’s not there yet, driving a Camaro that’s been a step behind on speed with 1.5-mile ovals. Qualifying outside the top 10 for tomorrow’s race, a fourth win on the year may be too much to ask for a Hendrick Motorsports organization retooling itself.
Elliott did come close to winning Phoenix last year, placing second to Matt Kenseth. But Harvick returned to his dominant ways at that track in the spring, emerging victorious and should be exceptionally hard to beat.
Now, don’t get me wrong; there’s still plenty of storylines to watch the next two weeks. Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin are trying desperately to extend personal streaks of winning at least one race every season of their NASCAR careers. Young Ryan Blaney won the pole at Texas and has been knocking on the door of more victories as the season comes to a close. Jamie McMurray, Kenseth, Elliott Sadler and AJ Allmendinger are just some of the drivers potentially on the verge of wrapping up their NASCAR careers.
But as far as Homestead goes, don’t hold your breath. There was one open spot, it felt like heading into NASCAR’s Round of 8 and Logano cashed that check in right away. The Big Three have appeared destined all season to clean out those other three spots.
I hope I’m wrong. It would be good for the sport for another upset to squeeze its way in. But on paper, it looks like an impossible task.
AAA Texas 500
Time: 3:00 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Joey Logano
Logano smacked the rear bumper of Martin Truex Jr. and slid in front of the No. 78 Toyota on the final lap to win Martinsville and effectively splinter NASCAR’s fan base in two. Truex, in response to the contact claimed, “He won the battle but he won’t win the damn war.” More boos than cheers rained down on Logano as he earned the coveted grandfather clock the track gives its race winners.
But for those critical of Logano’s place in the Championship 4, there’s a strong argument to be made he would have gotten there anyway. His 24 top 10s rank third in Cup; that total is five ahead of Truex. His 800 laps led rank fourth and his 28 lead-lap finishes are tied for the series lead.
In fact, take the playoffs out of it and this driver’s overall body of work would leave him third in points, three ahead of Truex and only behind the duo of Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch. So disagree with the way Logano earned his place at Homestead all you want. But, based on the system NASCAR has, he’d have likely gotten a shot at this title either way.
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Now, let’s get ready for some tire-smoking, pulse-pounding action!
Who’s at the Back: Timmy Hill
It’s been tough for Hill and his car owner, Carl Long, this weekend at Texas. They’ve already suffered through four straight DNFs, the last of which came when their car caught fire on Martinsville pit road. Hill has yet to earn a top-25 finish in the car all season.
But this weekend was rock bottom for the program. Due to a misunderstanding over NASCAR’s sealed engine rules, the No. 66 was forced to withdraw as they didn’t have a legal motor to attempt the race. Long’s team, according to its owner, will now take the rest of 2018 off in Cup while preparing to come back strong at Daytona in 2019.
Cole Whitt is weighing NASCAR retirement. The part-time driver for TriStar Motorsports in the Cup Series said in a Frontstretch interview this week family is weighing heavily on his decision to quit.
“It would be different if my family lived in North Carolina and I was able to see them throughout the week and spend time with them,” he said. “I’m watching my niece grow up through a computer screen. It’s pretty hard to see them do their life without me.”
Whitt, 27, has never earned a top-10 finish in the Cup Series in 160 career starts. He has six career top-five results in XFINITY and Camping World Trucks.
Tyler Reddick will be running for a different team next season. This year’s NASCAR XFINITY Series winner at Daytona in February is leaving JR Motorsports for Richard Childress Racing in 2019. He replaces Daniel Hemric, who’s been promoted to the Cup Series to drive RCR’s No. 31.
Fanatics is ending its trackside merchandise arrangement with NASCAR. The deal was supposed to run through 2024 but the company pulled out completely when an attempt to renegotiate the terms of the deal went sideways. NASCAR President Steve Phelps acknowledged Fanatics' departure and claimed a 2019 policy and partnership regarding NASCAR trackside souvenirs will be announced in the offseason. Sagging revenue and at-track attendance were cited by sources as the reason for the deal getting cut.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finishes for Trevor Bayne this season in 20 Cup Series starts. Bayne will run his last race for Roush Fenway Racing this weekend at Texas; his 2019 plans remain uncertain.
Laps completed by Bayne’s teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. this season, a total that leads the Cup Series. Unfortunately, that consistency wasn’t enough to earn him a playoff spot in a down year for RFR.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
The sport’s Big Threeshould come up big at Texas in a big way. Kevin Harvick is the defending winner of the Texas fall race and has led 202 laps in his last three TMS starts. Kyle Busch won in April, leading 116 laps of his own. And Martin Truex Jr. had the fastest car here most of last fall before Harvick chased him down in the closing laps. They’ll be tough to beat.
Looking outside the box? Chase Elliott is likely the best of the rest in terms of NASCAR title contenders. His career average finish of 7.4 at Texas comes with no finish worse than 11th in five starts.
Denny Hamlin has a love/hate relationship with Texas and hasn’t won here since 2010. He crashed in the spring, his first career DNF at the track. But he ran third last fall, leading 65 laps, and is coming off an oh-so-close second after Truex and Joey Logano made contact at Martinsville. Don’t count out the No. 11 as Hamlin looks to extend that once-a-season win streak.
Jamie McMurray is likely winding down his career in Chip Ganassi’s No. 1 Chevrolet after a miserable 2018 season. But Texas in the spring was one of the bright spots; he brought home a third-place finish after running solid all day long. McMurray has a streak of nine straight top 20s here and should be a safe bet to keep that streak intact Sunday.
A pair of drivers you might not think of are worth fliers here. Ty Dillon has had a terrible sophomore campaign with Germain Racing, virtually invisible most races this season. But he quietly ran a competitive race at Martinsville, placing 15th and now heads to a track he was 13th at in the spring. Dillon’s career average finish at Texas of 18.5 is far better than he’s performed at other tracks.
I’d also take a flier on Trevor Bayne. In his last race behind the wheel of the No. 6 RFR Ford, he has three top-15 finishes in his last five Texas starts. A 12th at Texas in April was one of his best all-around performances of the year. Auditioning for 2019, you can rest assured Bayne will put his best foot forward.
What Vegas Thinks*
Kevin Harvick: 11/4
Kyle Busch: 7/2
Brad Keselowski: 13/2
Kyle Larson: 13/2
LONGSHOT PICK: Jamie McMurray 125/1
*Odds courtesy of oddschecker.com
What I Think
Martin Truex Jr. may be shaken but that only motivates NASCAR’s reigning champ. I think he finds a way to beat the Fords, edges Kevin Harvick and earns the Championship 4 spot he so desperately wanted at Martinsville.
— 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.