Three races left as the number three takes center stage in NASCAR
Three races remain in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season as the sport heads to Texas Motor Speedway for the running of the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500. Indeed, the number three looms large over the sport itself heading to this 1.5-mile oval.
Just three bids remain for the Championship 4 finale at Phoenix Raceway. Seven drivers will jockey for them after Joey Logano clinched his spot with a win at Kansas Speedway last weekend. It's win-or-bust for Kurt Busch after a blown engine in that event but the other title contenders could still make it in on points. Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman and Martin Truex Jr. are the other half-dozen eligible.
Speaking of Harvick, he's got three straight fall wins at Texas Motor Speedway. One more matches the streak Jimmie Johnson put up from 2012-15. He's the heavy favorite entering this event after leading 85 laps at Kansas Speedway this weekend; indeed, Harvick has been one of the best with the low-horsepower, high-downforce package this year. Three of his nine wins (five if you count Darlington) have come on the intermediate tracks that dominate the NASCAR circuit.
But the No. 3 reminds us how Texas can still spur an upset. Austin Dillon clinched a playoff position here back in July by utilizing pit strategy and track position. Keeping old tires to get out front, he took advantage of a package that favors clean air and leads to limited passing on the newer TMS asphalt. If you don't pick off your prey within a few laps after a restart... you're likely running behind them for the rest of that green-flag run. Just ask Harvick about that after Kansas.
In news further back in the pack, three high-profile drivers are likely making their final Texas starts before heading off into retirement: Clint Bowyer, Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. None of the trio have come close to winning in recent weeks but are desperate for one last hurrah.
And three single-car teams are now officially cutting back or selling off their inventory altogether for 2021. What will the disappearance of Go FAS Racing, Germain Racing and Leavine Family Racing mean for the lower-tier, independent owner trying to make it in the age of COVID-19?
Their short-term futures will continue to shake out over what's likely to be three aggressive stages Sunday. Texas tends to swing back and forth from a track with long green-flag stints to a caution-filled, slugfest-type affair. I'd expect the latter on Sunday after 10 cautions ruffled up the field, and some fenders, back in July.
We'll see who comes through to start this three-race sprint. So much remains on the line as the NASCAR Cup Series season heads toward its dramatic conclusion.
AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500
Date: Sunday, Oct. 25
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Texas Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Team Penske
All three Penske cars finished in the top seven during the Cup race: winner Logano, fourth-place Brad Keselowski and seventh-place Ryan Blaney. Overall, the team itself is battling with Joe Gibbs Racing for best in class within a multi-car organization.
Consider JGR had only three of its four teams make the playoffs: Penske went three-for-three. If the season ended today, they would have two cars in the championship, the most of any organization (JGR and Stewart-Haas would have one). Plus, their satellite team at the Wood Brothers, driven by Matt DiBenedetto, was runner-up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last month before coming one yellow-line blunder plus inches away from winning Talladega Superspeedway.
Who's at the Back: Kurt Busch
It was a rough way to start the Round of 8 for Busch to suffer his first blown engine with Chip Ganassi Racing. Unfortunately, while new for Busch at CGR it's a pattern the organization knows all too well. Back in 2017, Kyle Larson blew an engine at Kansas to throw a potential Championship 4 appearance in the toilet (it sparked four straight DNFs). In 2018 and 2019, it happened at least once in the playoffs once again although both times, the No. 42 team had already been eliminated from title contention.
CGR gets their engines, of course, from Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that has two other drivers battling against them for the 2020 championship. It creates a bit of an awkward look for a partnership where HMS always has a leg up.
NASCAR Xfinity Series title contender Chase Briscoe will be promoted to the Cup Series next year with Stewart-Haas Racing. Briscoe will take over the No. 14 Ford vacated by Clint Bowyer as he moves over to the FOX booth beginning in 2021. Briscoe has won nine times in NXS thus far, exceeding a goal of eight wins he said back in February was needed to keep Cup owners paying attention to him. Looks like the hard work paid off.
Erik Jones has also found himself a home for 2021, replacing Bubba Wallace at the No. 43 of Richard Petty Motorsports. Jones will look to earn that single-car effort its first playoff appearance since 2014 after a three-year stint driving Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. Jones failed to make the postseason this year but is ending his tenure with the No. 20 on a high note. He’s earned four top-four finishes in seven playoff races to date.
Not surprisingly, Michael Jordan's new team will run the No. 23 made famous by its namesake in 2021. Root Insurance also announced a partnership with driver Bubba Wallace as the team, named 23XI Racing, gears up its financial support for the coming season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Lead-lap finishes in 33 races for Kevin Harvick. He’s failed to complete just two laps all season (an astounding 8,766 of 8,768).
Finishes of dead last for Matt Kenseth this season, including Kansas Speedway after a crash. That equals the number of top-10 performances he’s earned during a disastrous season as an interim driver for Chip Ganassi Racing.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
It's hard not to start Kevin Harvick on any roster considering his Texas track record. Three straight wins in the fall race, dominance on cookie-cutter ovals, starts on the pole Sunday... you could go on and on.
But let's say you need room to build a roster without him at the top. Joey Logano has eight top-seven finishes in the last nine races at TMS and has nothing to lose: it's win-or-bust as an automatic Championship 4 participant. Denny Hamlin will also be a bit cheaper than usual, too, as a Texas win in the spring of 2019 is the only top-20 finish at this track in his last five starts. That combo might work as, no matter what, you need a top-tier driver here that will get out front early and lead plenty of laps.
Once upon a time, Jimmie Johnson won those four straight fall races at Texas. He's had just one top-five finish in his last six starts at this facility but that track record is somewhat deceiving when you consider he's led 111 laps. The seven-time champion has to have one last hurrah to go out on some sort of high note... right?
Matt DiBenedetto will be a relatively inexpensive option after no top-10 finishes at TMS in 10 career starts. But the driver of the No. 21 Ford, who signed a one-year extension with the team, enters this race with momentum after a runner-up finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He's a cheap dark horse pick.
Rookies, rookies, rookies. Christopher Bell (21st in July) is running the final Texas race for Lone Star State owner Bob Leavine, who's selling off his No. 95 team after the season. You'd think they would pull out all the stops for this one and, after all, Bell was 10th at Kansas last Sunday.
Then there's second-place July finisher Tyler Reddick, in position to succeed again with Richard Childress Racing. I would even take a flyer on Cole Custer, July's Kentucky winner, who is driving a No. 41 car that ran top 5 in both Texas races last year.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick leads the way here, as you might expect, with 5/2 odds according to vegasinsider.com. Denny Hamlin is next at 5/1 followed by Joey Logano at 15/2.
Think Jimmie Johnson could pull a rabbit out of his hat? He’s sitting at 40/1 longshot odds.
What I Think
You’ve got to go with Kevin Harvick here until he loses. But don’t be surprised if Denny Hamlin breaks through, sealing his spot in the Championship 4 instead after a wobbly race at Kansas.
(Top graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)