NASCAR Playoffs Speed Into Texas

The 2022 version of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs are proving to be as competitive as any in recent memory, and now the Round of 12 begins this Sunday afternoon with the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The 12 championship eligible drivers are separated by only a slight 34 points from top to bottom – from points leader Chase Elliott to series rookie Austin Cindric in 12th place. Only 21 points separate Elliott from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate in fourth place, Kyle Larson. The two drivers, the most recent NASCAR Cup Series champions – Elliott in 2020 and Larson the reigning title holder.

While non-Playoff drivers swept the Round of 16 Playoff races, Texas has a winning history with those currently still vying for the big trophy. Larson’s No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led a dominating 256 of the 334 laps from pole position to earn his Playoff win on the Texas high banks last year. It was one of three consecutive Playoff victories – and five total – that propelled the 30-year-old Californian to his first series championship.

Larson would love to reclaim that Texas giddy-up going forward. After a 10-win career-best year in 2021, he’s had only two victories this year – the last coming on the Watkins Glen, N.Y. road course five races ago.

Only one other current Playoff driver has won a Playoff race at Texas: Denny Hamlin, who took the trophy in 2010. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, who is ranked sixth in the Round of 12 Playoff reseeding, has three wins total at the track.

Hamlin would concede he had an up-and-down regular season, but the perennial championship contender has certainly been on his game in the Playoffs, with two runner-up finishes (at Darlington, S.C. and Kansas) and a ninth-place showing at Bristol, Tenn. last week. With Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch’s elimination from title contention, the JGR team opted to swap pit crews so now Hamlin will have Busch’s group going forward, and vice versa.

“This is going to be a very important race,” Hamlin said. “With the unknowns of [upcoming Playoff races] Talladega (Ala.) and the Charlotte ROVAL, we’re looking at Texas as a place we can go run up front, try to maximize our points and be in contention for the win.”

The only other Playoff driver with a Texas trophy is Team Penske’s Joey Logano, who is second to Elliott in the standings by 15 points. He won in the Spring at Texas in 2014.

Busch is the winningest active driver at Texas with four victories – including the 2020 Playoff race, but he was eliminated from championship contention last week. Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Dillon – also eliminated from the Playoffs after Round 1 – is also on that short list of Texas winners, earning his trophy in the 2020 Spring 500-miler.

Kevin Harvick is the winningest active Playoff race winner at Texas, but he was eliminated from the Playoffs last week. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford leads all active drivers with three Playoff wins at the 1.5-miler – the last Fall victory coming in 2019.

The track boasts a certain unpredictability now that seven-time race winner Jimmie Johnson has retired from fulltime competition. There have been five different winners in the last five Texas Motor Speedway races – Hamlin, Harvick, Dillon, Busch and Larson.

Playoff driver Ryan Blaney, who is still racing for his first points-paying trophy of the season, won the All-Star race there in May and goes into this weekend ranked eighth – in the final transfer position to the Round of 8 on points – hoping to match his Spring effort.

Interestingly, four of the five first-time Playoff contenders have advanced to this second round. Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain, a two-race winner in 2022, is third in points. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe is ninth in the standings. Trackhouse Racing’s Daniel Suarez is 11th and Team Penske’s Cindric – who won the Daytona 500 – is ranked 12th.

“Be clean and let the other teams make the mistakes,” Larson said of the tact used by his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team. “Honestly, if you can just finish you don’t have to do anything crazy in the first couple rounds. Don’t take yourself out of stage points or a good finish and you can advance.”

A victory automatically advances a Playoff driver to the Round of 8.

Practice for the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 is Saturday at 12:35 p.m. ET followed by qualifying at 1:20 p.m. ET – both will be carried on the USA Network and NBC Sports App.


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