The Heat Is On At Texas

Kevin Harvick

Certainly, based on recent history, Sunday’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) looks to feature the best of the 2020 top NASCAR Cup Series championship contenders.

Series standings leader Kevin Harvick won the Fall Playoff race at Texas last season and has three wins in the last five races on the 1.5-mile track. Denny Hamlin, one of Harvick’s chief 2020 rivals is the defending winner of this weekend’s race and also has three career victories at Texas – including a 2010 season sweep.

Five drivers entered this weekend have multiple Texas wins, including the track’s best, Jimmie Johnson who has seven wins – more than double that of any other active driver – and who last won there in Spring of 2017. Kyle Busch, another three-race Texas winner, last won in Spring of 2018 and shows up in Fort Worth after an impressive runner-up finish in Wednesday night’s All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Statistically speaking, Matt Kenseth (who won at Texas in 2002 and 2011) boasts the best driver rating (103.8). Johnson (102.6), Busch (102.1) and Harvick (97.2) are right behind.

While certainly the Texas weekend could fall in line with the opening 17 races and be a tight battle with Harvick, the other four-race winner Hamlin and Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney, there is reason to believe a first-time season winner is also a reasonable expectation.

Kenseth, who came out of retirement following the COVID-19 break to steer the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet, earned his best finish of the year – runner-up – at Indianapolis two weeks ago. The seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion Johnson, who is retiring from fulltime competition at the end of the season, hasn’t won a series race since June, 2017 at Dover, DE. But both are perennial favorites at Texas where they lead many statistical categories.

Busch, the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion, is similarly looking to snap a winless streak. His last victory came in the November season finale at Homestead, Fla. earning him the 2019 title. He’s rallied from a slow start this season to 11th in the driver standings now with nine top-10 finishes in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota; including three runner-up finishes (at California, Darlington and Atlanta). And his record nine wins at Texas in the Xfinity Series surely provide a healthy dose of optimism this weekend.

“Unfortunately, I don’t have a win yet [in the NASCAR Cup Series],” Busch said following his second-place finish in Wednesday’s All-Star race.

“We’ve been close a couple times,” he added. “We got to fight harder, do better. That’s all there is to it.”

Johnson, driver of the famed No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet is ranked 15th in the championship standings with six top-10 finishes this season. His last top-10, however was at Martinsville in June – the last of a three-race string of top-10s. His last victory at Texas came in 2017 and he has only one top-10 finish in the five races since, a fifth place in this race last year.

Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney are certainly keeping Harvick honest this season, but neither has a NASCAR Cup Series win at Texas. Teammate Joey Logano, who won two races before the break this year, won at the Texas track in 2014. And all three Penske drivers are ranked among the Top-12 in driver ratings at Texas.

Keselowski tops his teammates in laps led at the track (639), but the driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford is 0-for-23 with only a pair of top-10 finishes in the last eight races. His best work was runner-up in 2012 and 2015. He does have a pair of Xfinity Series wins, the most recent in 2015.

In addition to Logano’s 2014 win, he finished second or third in three straight races in the 2016-17 seasons. He’s earned top-10 finishes in eight of the last 10 races at Texas.

The 26-year old Blaney has led 233 laps in 10 Texas starts with a best single race showing in the 2018 Playoff race when he won the pole position and finished runner-up. He led a race best 148 laps and finished 12th in 2017. He’s also a past Xfinity Series winner (2018) at the track.

Hamlin certainly is eager to famously don that winner’s cowboy hat in Victory Lane again. He dominated the field in his Texas win last Fall, leading 119 of 335 laps. But he’s had only two finishes of 20th or better in the last six races – his win last year and a third place in the 2017 Playoff race. He had a string of four top-five finishes (including a pair of wins) snapped at Indianapolis two weeks ago. He led 19 laps and crashed while leading only seven laps from the scheduled finish. He was 12th at Kentucky last week.

TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!

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