Texas Motor Speedway has proven must-see TV for race fans, the 1.5-mile high banks just hosted a pair of dramatic races in 2020 and now is poised to kick off its 2021 slate this weekend with Saturday afternoon’s Alsco Uniforms 250 Powered by Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen (4 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
There have been seven different winners in the last seven races of the season and Texas is a venue many teams have had circled on their list of potential winning venues.
During last year’s Playoff race at Texas, a pair of 20-year-olds turned in one of the most exciting finishes of the season with Harrison Burton passing Noah Gragson in the final corner of the final lap to take the victory.
The first race at Texas had drama of its own with race winner Kyle Busch disqualified and eventual series champion Austin Cindric awarded the victory. Busch’s car failed post-race inspection – not meeting the height requirements.
Cindric, driver of the No. 22 Team Penske Ford, returns to town this weekend looking for a series-best fourth win in 2021 but coming off his worst finish of the year, 14th-place at Mid-Ohio – even though he led 30 laps. He’s had a tip-of-the-hat relationship with the Fort Worth high banks – scoring five top-10 finishes in six career starts there. His worst result is 11th (2019).
He currently holds a commanding 96-point advantage over veteran A.J. Allmendinger in his quest for a second consecutive regular season championship. Allmendinger scored his second trophy of the season last week at Mid-Ohio and has eight top-five finishes in the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet. Interestingly, this will be the 39-year-old Allmendinger’s first career Xfinity Series start at Texas. The former Cup regular had two top-10 finishes in 20 NASCAR Cup Series races there.
Burton, 20, is certainly hopeful that he can reclaim some of that Texas magic from last year. The popular driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has yet to win this season despite a strong statistical output buoyed by nine top-10 finishes. His best work of 2021 has been third place – three times (Daytona, Atlanta and Charlotte).
He’s finished top-10 in all three of the season’s races on 1.5-mile tracks such as Texas. In fact he carried a seven-race streak of top-10 results before a DNF at Mid-Ohio last week. He’s finished seventh or better in all three of his career starts at Texas. In fact, he and Cindric are the only fulltime drivers with previous victories at the track.
Easily the most motivated driver in the series this week has to be Burton’s runner-up last year, Noah Gragson. The 22-year-old, Las Vegas native has had a frustrating year by anyone’s standards – with a series high six DNFs. Last weekend, he didn’t even complete a single lap in the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, retiring with body damage after an opening lap miscue at Mid-Ohio.
Currently ranked a career low, 11th in the championship standings – only 15 points ahead of 13th place Brandon Brown in the quest to make the 12-driver Playoff field.
His best finishes of the season, however, have been on 1.5-mile tracks. Two of his top five efforts came at Las Vegas (fifth) and Atlanta (fourth). He had a string of four top-five runs between Atlanta and Talladega this Spring, but has suffered DNFs in the last three races.
The Texas track may be just the panacea, however. Gragson has been especially adept at this brand of 1.5-mile competition. In his young three-year Xfinity Series career, he has earned top-five finishes in 39 percent of the races he’s run and scored top-10 finishes in 67 percent of his races. Last season, he led 622 total laps or more than 12 percent of all laps run. And he was ranked first or second in the championship for 11 of season’s 33 weeks finishing a career-best fifth in the 2020 championship.
“Last time we were at Texas we almost put our Bass Pro Shops-True Timber-Black Riffle Coffee Camaro in Victory lane, so I know [crew chief] Dave Elenz and this entire No. 9 team will unload a fast Chevrolet,” Gragson promised. “We will hopefully be one spot better than the last time here and have our entire team celebrating in Victory Lane.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!