Last week’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Bristol did not disappoint. The new tire combination actually led to better racing overall. We saw tire degradation. It was easier to pass. And perhaps most surprising, there were only six cautions across the entire race. Obviously, that led to more cars losing the lead lap. Only TEN drivers finished on the lead lap last week. Half the field finished multiple laps down. That’s Bristol, baby! But this week the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series playoffs roll into… Texas. Ask any NASCAR fan and they’ll tell you that Texas Motor Speedway is like a wet blanket on the NASCAR schedule. It had two races each year for the longest time. That number has decreased to just one, fortunately. Let’s take a look at the drivers and strategies as part of this week’s Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 preview.
Texas Motor Speedway is one of those “cookie cutter” 1.5-mile intermediate tri-ovals. It’s similar to what we saw in Kansas a couple of weeks ago. However, where they differ is that Kansas has multiple grooves and the passing has been easier. Kansas has responded very well to the NextGen car. I don’t really want to say the same about Texas. When they tore this track down and rebuilt it, it essentially became a one-groove track. The racing has been brutal to watch at times. So while I love some NASCAR action, I can’t say I’m particularly excited for Sunday’s race. Alas, you did come here to read up on some drivers. So let’s see who we like as of Wednesday morning.
Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 Preview: The Top Picks
Denny Hamlin (#11 Toyota)
It may not be so bold to go with Hamlin especially after he won Bristol last week. And even then, we have only seen two drivers go back-to-back with wins this year. So it doesn’t happen often, but it can. Hamlin has been great on the 1.5-mile track this year. He finished 11th at Vegas but was running third before the late caution. He won the first Kansas race and could’ve won the second Kansas race if not for a late caution. Ultimately, he finished second. And at Charlotte, he was running top-10 before Chase Elliott intentionally wrecked him (and got suspended for it). But he’s had plenty of speed at these tracks. Last year in this race he was running second before being spun by William Byron late in the race. Ultimately, he finished tenth. I’ll put my faith in Hamlin’s car being fast once against this weekend.
Kyle Larson (#5 Chevrolet)
It isn’t fun constantly writing up Larson every week. However, that’s just how good he is. On the high-speed intermediates this year he’s been fantastic. Sure, he wrecked at Charlotte. Yet if you look at his performances at Vegas and the two Kansas races, they’ll tell a completely different story. He was second at Vegas with 63 laps led. Then at Kansas-1 he finished second with 85 laps led. Then two weeks ago for Kansas-2, he finished fourth with 99 laps led. He flat-out dominated this race two years ago in his championship season. Overall, he’s been one of the fastest cars on this track type this season.
Tyler Reddick (#45 Toyota)
Reddick won this race a year ago. While he is with a new team in 2023, he just won at Kansas two weeks ago. He’s also the only driver to take Big Machine Racing to victory lane in the Xfinity Series and that came last Spring at Texas. In this race two years ago, Reddick only finished ninth but late in the race he was battling William Byron for second and had some contact and slowly bled position points to barely finish top ten. We can safely expect the Toyotas to once again be fast this week and Reddick has won and finished second in the last two intermediate tracks.
Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 Preview: Wouldn’t Bet Against Them
Ryan Blaney (#12 Ford)
I haven’t written up Blaney too much this year. And truthfully, even this race gives me some pause. This has historically been a favorable track for Blaney. Last year he started P14, led 29 laps, and ultimately finished fourth. In the All-Star race last Spring, he led 84 laps and won the event. He has plenty of other strong finishes here including some dominating performances. Blaney needs a good showing this weekend. He’s currently on the outside of the frame to get into the round of eight. We just haven’t seen him do too much since his win at Charlotte, followed by the solid run he had at Gateway. Those two races were over three months ago. But the track history is on his side for this event.
Kyle Busch (#8 Chevrolet)
This is more of a gut call, so I just want to disclose that. Busch hasn’t had a top-five since the end of June at Richmond, and he only has two top-10s since then. However, this team has done well matching the setups they had a year ago with Tyler Reddick. Tyler Reddick won this race last year for Richard Childress Racing. Remember the 2020 season when Kyle Busch was winless and everyone thought it might finally be the year he wouldn’t win a single race? Well when the Cup Series showed up in Texas he led 90 laps and won. Clearly, there is risk. He isn’t coming in with great form. But he’s won here four times in his career. It’s the kind of track he could turn things around and propel himself to the round of eight.
Brad Keselowski (#6 Ford)
Sick of me writing about Brad Keselowski yet? One of the days, he’ll win! In last year’s race, the first in the NextGen car at Texas, he started on the pole and finished eighth with 31 laps led. Just two weeks ago he led 23 laps at Kansas with a top ten and he has plenty of momentum and good finishes coming into this race. He’s never won at Texas, but he’s led double-digit laps nine times. But do remember, there was a big re-configuration back in 2017. But I still think there’s win equity here. At the very least he’s an intriguing option that’s good for a top ten.
Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 Preview: The Sleepers
Bubba Wallace (#23 Toyota)
It seems a bit odd to include Bubba in ‘The Sleepers’ section, but he could’ve gone here or in the section above over Brad Keselowski. Bubba doesn’t have a win this season, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t been competitive. He won the second Kansas race last Fall. Heck, he was even fast enough to win the first Kansas race in 2022. But this year at the high-speed 1.5-mile tracks he’s done very well. He finished fourth at Vegas, Kansas-1, and Charlotte. He was running second at Kansas-2 when he had a mechanical issue. I expect him to have a solid day on Sunday.
Erik Jones (#43 Chevrolet)
Jones was a bit of a dud last week at Bristol. But he’s been far better on the high-speed intermediates. He was third at Kansas two weeks ago and grabbed a top-t10 at Darlington prior to that. He even grabbed a top-10 at Michigan toward the end of the regular season. In this race last year, he started P27 and finished sixth. The year before he started P21 and finished 12th. He always ran well at this track dating back to his time with Joe Gibbs Racing. I expect a bounce-back performance on Sunday. We shouldn’t rule out another top-10 for Jones.
Alex Bowman (#48 Chevrolet)
He’s a driver that intrigues me and this is a unique track for him. He was running top ten here a year ago before he put his car in the wall and got a concussion. He’s wrecked in three of his last five races at Texas. However, Bowman has a pair of top fives in those other two races in this sample size. He’s coming in with decent form as well. He was 13th at Bristol last week and tenth at Kansas the week before. He finished third earlier in the year at Vegas and was 12th after starting P31 at Charlotte. There are reasons for optimism so keep an eye on him during practice and qualifying on Saturday.