Column: Previewing NASCAR’s Weekend In The Lone Star State At Texas Motor Speedway

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – FORT WORTH, TX – The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff races at Texas Motor Speedway have unfailingly impacted the postseason outlook for drivers – race winning title contenders have secured their position in the coveted Championship 4 the last four years consecutively.

Martin Truex Jr.’s win at Martinsville Speedway last week was his ticket into the Championship 4 Round at Homestead-Miami Speedway and this weekend, odds are another of the eight eligible title contenders will celebrate a title opportunity in Texas’s Victory Lane following Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Chief among those good-bets is Kevin Harvick, who sits fifth in the Playoff standings only 14 points behind reigning series champion Joey Logano in that all-important fourth place position. Harvick shows up in Fort Worth as the two-time defending champion of this Playoff race. In all, he has 21 top-10 finishes in 33 races on the 1.5-mile high banks. A three-time winner in 2019, he has six top-10 finishes through the opening seven Playoff races this season. His 7.0 average finish in the Playoffs is second only to Truex (6.2).

And Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, hasn’t finished worse than sixth in the last five Playoff races at Texas, including the two wins and a runner-up finish to Jimmie Johnson in 2014 – when Harvick went on to win the title.

He won this race in 2017 by 1.506 seconds over Truex, who had led a race best 107 laps. Last year Harvick led 177 laps and won by a slim .447-seconds over Ryan Blaney in overtime. He was sixth in the 2016 Playoff race, third in 2015 and runner-up in 2014.

“Clutch moments, there’s nothing like them,” Harvick said of the different styles of winning. “It’s one thing to dominate a race all day and win – that’s great. But, making a last lap pass, an end-of-the-race pass or winning on a day when you’re not supposed to, there is just no better feeling than getting out of the car and looking at those guys. Having the rest of the field ask, ‘how was he able to win today?’

“Those are the types of moments that I love to be a part of. We’ve been fortunate to experience a lot of those.”

This week in particular, the four drivers below the fourth place cutoff line in the Playoff standings – Harvick, sixth place Blaney, seventh place Kyle Larson and eighth place Chase Elliott – must feel optimistic about their chances. They have all had success at the track.

Blaney, the driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, may have been disappointed with the outcome of last year’s Texas Playoff race, losing out to Harvick in an overtime thriller. But he certainly brings a level of high confidence and is only a single point behind Harvick; 15 points behind his Penske teammate Joey Logano in the standings.

He and fellow championship contenders Larson and Elliott are all former Xfinity Series race winners at the track. Blaney won the Texas race in 2018, Larson in 2016 and Elliott scored his career first Xfinity Series win in 2014.

Larson, who is 24 points behind Logano in the standings and Elliott, who is 44 points back have also finished in the top-10 in the last two Playoff races at Texas. Elliott has earned the third most points among the eight Playoff drivers at 1.5-mile tracks this season and his Hendrick Motorsports team is tied with Roush-Fenway Racing for most team wins (nine) at Texas.

All four of these drivers currently below the cutoff, have good reason to believe this weekend could make a big difference in their championship chances.

“This weekend, we’ll feel a lot more confident heading to a track where we’ve had fast Camaros and some good finishes,” said Larson, who drives the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.

“We’ve had tire issues at three of the last four Texas race, but have been in contention each time and ran well here last Fall. Texas, especially Turn 1, can be a tricky place, but I think we’ll be competitive again this time as we go for the win and spot in the next round.”

XFINITY PLAYOFFS RESUME AT TEXAS

A heated discussion on the Kansas pit road following the last NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff race between championship contenders Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer illustrated the high intensity level among competitors with only two races left to decide which four drivers will advance to the Championship 4 and compete for the season trophy.

Custer returns to Texas Motor Speedway as defending winner of Saturday night’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 (8:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – ironically beating Reddick to the checkered flag by a mere .162-seconds. It was the third closest finish in the race’s history on the 1.5-mile Texas high banks and there’s plenty of reason to expect that kind of close racing and high emotion again this weekend.

Seven-time winner Christopher Bell leads the championship standings by 11 points over fellow seven-race winner Cole Custer. The defending series champion Tyler Reddick is 12 points behind Bell – the group of super talented youngsters continuing to live up to the “Big 3” designation they earned early in the season.

These three drivers have combined to win 19 of the 30 races to date. Bell has led nearly double the laps (1,775) of anyone else in the field. Custer is next with 903 laps out front. And Reddick leads all drivers in top-five (22) and top-10 (25) finishes.

Custer is the only former Texas winner among the Xfinity championship field this week and prior to his trophy performance last November, Erik Jones 2015 win marked the last time a fulltime Xfinity driver scored the victory at Texas.

While there remains pride and competitive messaging to compete for among the Big 3, the points standings are plenty close for that fourth transfer position into the Championship 4 Round. Veteran Justin Allgaier currently sits fourth, but with only a two-point edge on fifth place Chase Briscoe, a 10-point advantage on sixth place Michael Annett and a 17-point edge on rookie Noah Gragson.

Austin Cindric, who was involved in an accident at the Kansas race that opened this three-race round, sits 30 points behind Allgaier in that fourth place transfer position. But Cindric finished third – just behind Custer and Reddick – in this race last year and brings plenty of confidence that he can either win the race or make significant ground on Allgaier.

In fact, the last two races at Texas have featured many of these Playoff drivers. Reddick was runner-up to Cup regular Kyle Busch in March. Bell and Briscoe finished third and fourth place. Annett was sixth.

In this race last November, Custer and Reddick finished 1-2, Cindric was third and Allgaier was fifth.

“We did our job at Kansas with a fourth-place finish,” said Annett, driver of the No. 1 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. “We’ve been great on 1.5-mile tracks this year and Texas is the last one we’ll see before Homestead. We have to be in contention again late in the race, score as many stage points as we can to have a chance at running for a championship. That’s what we’re going to do this weekend at Texas.”

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