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, Del. 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.
Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series’ My Bariatric Solutions 300 (2 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) may well feature a first-time fulltime series victory. That is if the field can beat the race’s all-time winningest driver Kyle Busch, who has a record nine wins in this race – including five consecutively between 2008-2010.
Busch is the only previous winner of the last five Xfinity Series races at the track entered this weekend which opens the door to Victory Lane for any of a dozen of the series championship contenders in what has been an especially competitive season.
Although starting positions are picked based on draw in these unusual 2020 racing circumstances, it is worth noting that only one time in the past 23 races has a winner started worse than sixth on the grid. And that was still a reasonable 10th-place start, when Trevor Bayne won in Fall, 2011.
Last year’s Texas races featured two very different circumstantial outcomes with Busch beating eventual season champion Tyler Reddick in the first race by a mere .861-seconds. Christopher Bell won the second race of 2019 driving away from the field with a 5.561-second advantage over runner-up Ross Chastain.
Statistically speaking, championship leader Chase Briscoe – who has already surpassed his career best single season total with five victories through the opening 15 races – has a best showing at Texas of fourth place in the 2019 Spring race. He was 22nd in the Fall. His current season effort, however, would indicate reason for optimism.
The driver of the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford has top-10 finishes in nine of the last 10 races which includes three wins and a runner-up finish. He has been especially good on the 1.5-mile tracks like Texas, earning half (six) of his top-10 finishes on those tracks and winning at Las Vegas and Homestead, Fla.
With the wins, Briscoe is assured a place in the Xfinity Series Playoffs and that will mean a return to Texas during the Playoff run in the Fall. With a position already guaranteed in the championship mix, Briscoe says this week’s Texas stop will include a little homework for the title chase later in the year.
“Obviously this week is still very important," Briscoe said. “We always want to do well when we show up to the track. We’ve been in position to win every week, so there’s no reason to back off of that. But, big picture, the Playoff races are important so we will try a mix of what we know works at Texas as well as trying stuff for the future."
Briscoe’s primary championship threats right now are Noah Gragson and Austin Cindric – the series only other multiple race winners - both with two trophies. Gragson trails Briscoe by 19 points in the championship standings and like Briscoe, the No. 9 JR Motorsports driver has experienced vastly different outcomes in his Texas starts – 13th in Texas-1 last Spring and then 30th after crashing out in the fall return.
Gragson, who celebrated his 22nd birthday on Thursday, has 11 top-10 finishes in 15 races this season and his 468 laps led is most in the series. He’s had only one top-five finish (third at Indianapolis) in the last five races. However, that’s certainly not to a lack of effort. Gragson has been a big-time contender in deciding the last two races - leading a combined 124 laps in last week’s Kentucky Speedway doubleheader, even though he didn’t celebrate in Victory Lane.
Austin Cindric, who is third in the championship standings – 33 points behind Briscoe – has a solid Texas resume. He’s finished 11th or better in all four starts including a best of third-place twice – in the Fall, 2018 and Fall, 2019 races. His 441 laps out front this season is second only to Gragson and he is coming off a huge confidence boost sweeping both Kentucky races last weekend, the road course ace’s first series wins on an oval. Cindric (38 laps) and veteran Justin Allgaier (37 laps) lead the current Xfinity Series championship contenders in career laps led at Texas.
Allgaier, driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, has nine top-10 finishes at Texas, most among the fulltime Xfinity Series drivers. His best showing is fifth in 2018 and two of his 11 series wins have come on 1.5-milers like Texas. He has four top-10 and two top-five finishes in the seven 1.5-mile races in 2020.
All four of the JR Motorsports drivers entered this week – Gragson, Allgaier, Michael Annett and Jeb Burton have had success at Texas. Annett, driver of the No. 1 JRM Chevrolet is coming off his career best showing at Texas – sixth last summer and he’s completed 99 percent of the laps in his 15 career starts there. He has one top-five and five top-10 finishes in 2020 on 1.5-mile tracks and is averaging an 8.9 finish. Burton, who will steer the No. 8 JRM Chevrolet this week has two top-10 finishes in four Texas starts including a career-best of fifth place in Fort Worth last season.
“Coming off a great weekend in Kentucky, I’m looking forward to keeping the momentum rolling this week at Texas," Annett said. “We had fast Chevrolets at Kentucky and had a chance to double up on top-fives and that just shows the strength of this No. 1 team. Over the our last four races, we have an average finish of 6.8 and we’re looking to keep that going this weekend at Texas."
GANDER RV & OUTDOORS TRUCK SERIES
If ever there was a venue where some of the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series veterans feel prepared to make a run up the championship standings, Texas Motor Speedway is likely the place.
Former series champion Johnny Sauter boasts the most wins (five) among active drivers at Texas. Twice he’s won back-to-back – sweeping the 2012 season and winning three out of four races between 2016-18.
Sauter's ThorSport Racing teammate and reigning series champion Matt Crafton has a pair of victories (2014 and 2015) and is currently riding an unequaled streak of 17 consecutive top-10 finishes, including four runner-up finishes in addition to the pair of wins.
Last season's winner Kyle Busch is entered this weekend and will look to defend his win in Saturday’s Vankor 350 (8 p.m. ET, FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Busch has made nine starts at Texas in the Gander Truck posting four wins, nine top fives and average finish of 10.2.
Series standings leader Austin Hill takes a strong 46-point advantage over last week’s Kentucky race winner Sheldon Creed into the Texas race. Hill has held the top spot in the series driver standings – leading the points for the last six weeks – but the driver of the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota is still looking for his first victory of the year. He’s finished runner-up twice (at Atlanta and Pocono) and was fifth in last week’s rain-shortened Kentucky race. He has a pair of top-10s in seven Texas starts with a best ever showing of fifth-place in 2018.
“We’ve been right there every week and have put ourselves in a good position in the point standings," Hill said. “Everybody on our United Rentals team has put a ton of effort into our trucks. The guys put together a brand-new piece for this week, so I can’t wait to get in and see what we have.
"I feel like we should have won the summer race at Texas last year and we were really fast in the spring race but had an overheating issue, so I’m looking forward to going back this weekend. It’s definitely a place that we’ve had good speed and the mile-and-a-halfs have been one of our strong suits this year."
Ben Rhodes, who is third in the Gander Trucks driver standings, 57 points behind Hill, is also looking for his first 2020 victory. The 23-year old has five top-10 finishes in the seven races. His best finish at Texas is runner-up in 2018, but he has only three top-10 showings in the last eight starts there.
The 19-year old Californian Tyler Ankrum, who is ranked 10th in the championship, is a perfect 2-for-2 when it comes to top-10 finishes at Texas. And another 2019 Championship Four driver, Stewart Friesen, would love to see Texas revitalize his season. He has two past runner-up finishes in Fort Worth (2018 and 2019) and currently is ranked 14th in the championship. His best 2020 finish is eighth place at Pocono, Pa. two races ago.