And then, there were eight. The Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway kicks off the semifinal round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. If a title contender wins on Sunday, they’re guaranteed a spot in the Championship 4 at Phoenix Raceway in early November.
Who are we left with? Heavyweights from the three teams that have dominated the sport this year. Let’s break them down by team.
Hendrick Motorsports (2): Kyle Larson enters this round a heavy favorite, even more so than Kevin Harvick last season. A whopping 65 bonus points give Larson an unprecedented 42-point lead on the cutline and a 35-point advantage over second place. It’s a cushion leaving him the only person protected if a potential DNF pops up anytime during the next three weeks.
For reigning champ Chase Elliott, it’s more complicated. He starts two points outside the cutline, sitting sixth, and has yet to win this season on an oval track. An ongoing feud with Kevin Harvick has turned into an outside distraction, leading to just three laps led during the Round of 12.
Will Elliott straighten things out? All eyes are pointed at Martinsville, the short track at the end of this round where the No. 9 team won in 2020, catapulting their title bid the following week at Phoenix. He may need that victory once again in order to advance.
Joe Gibbs Racing (3): Denny Hamlin has arguably been the best driver during these NASCAR playoffs, taking the first race of each round after going winless during the regular season. In particular, 137 laps led during the last 550-horsepower race (Las Vegas) puts him in a solid position at Texas, a track where he’s won three times. If anyone’s going to stop Larson on his mountain climb to the title, it’s the No. 11 team.
Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch are the wild cards of this round, for different reasons. Truex has simply been inconsistent, snakebit by silly mistakes like speeding on pit road during Darlington’s Southern 500 in early September (he wound up fourth).
But Truex, third entering this round, is an important rival for the others to keep outside the Championship 4. He’s the defending winner at both Martinsville and Phoenix earlier this spring and has arguably shown the most speed on those track types.
Busch, meanwhile, started the playoffs by crashing out at Darlington. He’s been invisible compared to his JGR teammates, winless since June, but has quietly put together two top-5 finishes in the last three races. It’s hard to discount a two-time Cup champion from advancing; consider Busch won at Texas last fall and is the defending winner of the Kansas spring race.
Team Penske (3): After fighting punch-for-punch with Hendrick and JGR earlier this season, this three-car team has fallen a step behind. Ryan Blaney is the only driver who starts inside the cutline, holding a one-point edge on his rivals, and has the best shot to advance after back-to-back wins catapulted his playoff bid at the end of the regular season.
Both Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, despite being former champions, have a grand total of 40 laps led between them during the playoffs. They advanced more through sound strategy and consistency rather than raw speed.
But that’s where the playoffs get fun. Both men have a habit of making the most of their opportunities; just take Logano at Martinsville three years ago. A last-lap bump of Truex got him the win and a trip to the Championship 4 he wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. Weeks later, it was Logano, not the other three dominant drivers from that season, holding up the trophy as the 2018 Cup champion.
Who will break through in a year defined by parity at the top of the grid? I’ll go with Larson, Hamlin, Truex and Kyle Busch. Honestly, though? None of these names would surprise me in the Championship 4, and you can make an argument for any of them, a rarity during the years of this format.
The fans understand it; NASCAR has enjoyed viewership increases in five of six playoff races. So, strap in and enjoy. The next three weeks are bound to be wild.
Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500
Date: Sunday, Oct. 17
Time: 2 p.m. ET
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth, Texas)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Larson
Larson entered this year with zero career Cup victories on a road course. He’s leaving it with three, a NASCAR record, after capturing the Charlotte ROVAL. His season-best seventh win of the year overall came after overcoming electrical issues, taking the lead for the first time with just eight laps remaining.
Has Larson now surpassed even the great Chase Elliott on this track type? He won three races to Elliott’s two, earning top-three finishes in five of seven road course events.
Who’s at the Back: Kevin Harvick
Harvick treated Charlotte as a revenge race against Chase Elliott. But when Harvick slammed the No. 9 into the wall, he didn’t finish the job, allowing Elliott to creep back up into 12th and advance into the Round of 8.
With the No. 9 rapidly closing back in on him, Harvick made a mental error and missed a turn, locking the brakes and destroying his No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. It was the fifth finish outside the top 10 in seven road course races, a type of track the 2014 Cup champion needs to improve on if he’s going to get back into title contention in 2022.
Don’t expect any Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick contact to happen this weekend at Texas. NASCAR had a private conversation with both teams this week after the Charlotte ROVAL crash in which they made clear the feud between the two has to stop.
William Byron’s primary sponsor is set to back the young driver for years to come. Liberty University signed a contract extension this week that will leave them connected to Byron’s No. 24 team through 2026. Byron currently isn’t signed for that long, but the move is a strong indicator he’ll be with HMS for years to come.
John Hunter Nemechek won’t be moving back into the NASCAR Cup or Xfinity Series in 2022. Instead, he’s chosen to stay with Kyle Busch Motorsports in the Camping World Truck Series for 2022. Nemechek, a former Cup full-timer, has rebuilt his career with the No. 4 team, taking them to the precipice of the Championship 4 after five wins in 20 races.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Current position in the Cup Series standings for Kevin Harvick. If that holds, it would be his worst points result since back in 2009 driving for Richard Childress Racing.
Finishing position for Michael McDowell at the Charlotte ROVAL, his best of the playoffs. The Daytona 500 winner remains the only playoff driver (among the 16 who initially qualified) without a top-15 finish during the postseason.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Larson had never won at Texas before his victory in the sport’s All-Star Race earlier this year. Will that short-term speed carry over? I think so, considering he’s been dominant in the 550-horsepower package throughout most of the season. Consider that 10th at Las Vegas an exception rather than the rule; in crunch time, you’d expect the No. 5 team to put their best foot forward at this track type.
Kyle Busch is the defending Texas winner and has a history of solid performances at this track. Four straight top-10 finishes come packaged with 185 laps led during that stretch and a healthy position differential of plus-13. A third-place starting spot limits how far he can move up on Sunday but I expect Busch to be a contender for the win, earning stage point bonuses.
Tyler Reddick was second at Texas in the summer of 2020 and enters this weekend coming off a runner-up finish at the Charlotte ROVAL. The No. 8 Richard Childress Racing team is focused on stealing a win before the season is out and the next two tracks on the schedule (here and Kansas) offer them a prime opportunity. My only caveat is the ninth-place starting spot limits position differential points, meaning you’ll need to gamble with someone else further down your roster.
Kevin Harvick (when’s the last time you saw him in this tier?) will be a popular pick this week because of position differential. Starting 24th, the three-time Texas fall winner was 16th last October and has struggled at 550-horsepower tracks this year. But a ninth at Las Vegas was promising for this team, another organization focused on getting their first win after Harvick had a career-best nine back in 2020.
Matt DiBenedetto remains without a ride for 2022 as time runs short on NASCAR Silly Season. A sixth at the ROVAL was his best run since Michigan in August; can that translate into the 1.5-miler at Texas? He’s got just one career top-10 finish there in 11 starts but that did come in October of last year, an eighth-place result.
Could Daniel Suarez pull a last-minute surprise? He was 13th at the Charlotte ROVAL and 15th at Las Vegas, signs this No. 99 Trackhouse Racing Team is getting their act back together after losing momentum during the summer. Suarez has two career top-5 finishes at Texas from when he drove the No. 41 for Stewart-Haas Racing.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson has +340 odds to win at Texas according to the latest numbers posted on vegasinsider.com. That makes him the favorite over Denny Hamlin (+600), Kyle Busch (+700) and Chase Elliott (+750).
Seeking a longshot? Summer 2020 winner Austin Dillon sits at +2800.
What I Think
I’m going to go outside the box a bit and say Kyle Busch surprises everyone with his second straight win in the fall race. It’s an event that’s tended to have repeat winners (see: Harvick, Jimmie Johnson) and we always see a quirky twist when it comes to who makes the Championship 4.
— 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.