Weekly MENCS Playoffs Spotlight – Stage Is Set For High Drama At TMS

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs have finally arrived in the Lone Star State. And after a highly controversial finish at Martinsville Speedway last weekend, Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, the second of three races in the Round of 8, is shaping up to be one of the most anticipated races in the history of Texas Motor Speedway.

Joey Logano has secured a spot in the Championship 4 thanks to his bump-and-run win over Martin Truex Jr. last weekend. That leaves three more spots to fill, with the “Big 3” of Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Truex Jr. occupying the top-three transfer spots based on points heading into the AAA Texas 500 (2 p.m. CT, TV: NBC Sports Network, Radio: PRN, SiriusXM, 95.9 FM The Ranch locally).

Of course, a lot can change once that checkered flag flies on Sunday, something all three drivers know all too well.

“I’ve been so close, so many times throughout the years. Old track, new track, it don’t matter,” Truex Jr. said. “We’ve been right there a lot and have led a lot of laps. Feel like we’ve just been kind of snakebit there. It feels like every time we’re in the right position, something doesn’t go our way, so hopefully this time around it’s our turn.”

Truex Jr., the defending Cup Series champion, has led more laps than any other driver over the last five races at Texas Motor Speedway. His 363 laps led during that period are more than Kevin Harvick (203) and Kyle Busch (159) during that same span. Harvick is the defending AAA Texas 500 race winner while Busch has won two of the last five, including April’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.

“Our chances to win are good. (Texas) has been a really good race track for us,” said Harvick, whose win last November locked him into the Championship 4. “On the old style (we were good) and since the repave we have been good as well. Our goal is to win. It’s been a great track for us and that’s the expectation when we come back.”

“I think it would be awesome … to sweep the year (at Texas) in the Cup Series. I haven’t been able to do that yet,” said Busch, who has two Cup-Xfinity weekend sweeps at Texas. “To be able to achieve that, especially with everything that’s on the line, would be great.”

Only three drivers have achieved the single-season sweep: Carl Edwards (2008), Denny Hamlin (2010) and Jimmie Johnson (2015). If Busch becomes the fourth on Sunday, he’ll also earn an automatic berth into the Championship 4.

Of course, there’s another Busch that might have something to say about that. Kyle’s older brother, Kurt Busch, will try to become the first driver in Texas Motor Speedway history to win three consecutive poles. Kurt set a new qualifying record last November and started from the pole again in April’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.

“Having that confidence going into Texas Motor Speedway, one of our bread and butter type tracks, that’s one you depend on,” said Kurt, the November 2009 TMS race winner who currently sits 25 points behind the cut line in fifth place. “When you go to a track knowing you can get a top 10, you depend on that because it’s part of the strategy.”

One would think that Chase Elliott might have that same mentality. The 22-year-old has five career Cup starts at Texas Motor Speedway, with his worst finish coming this past April when he finished 11th. But Elliott is typically his worst critic and that’s certainly the case when it comes to TMS.

“Ever since they repaved that place I’ve run real bad there, so I need to get it going at that track – it’s an important one,” said Elliott, the only playoff driver with two wins in this year’s postseason. “It’s a place we visit twice a year, so I need to get that one turned around.”

Elliott is currently 31 points under the cutline. That likely means that he, along with Clint Bowyer (-42) and Aric Almirola (-50), will need a win in one of the final two Round of 8 races to advance to the finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 18.

“Tires don’t wear out much (at Texas) anymore with the repave, so fuel mileage come into play a lot,” said Logano. “Restarts can by hairy because the track hasn’t widened out yet, so there’s just a lot of things that can happen there, but getting that track position and getting toward the front is very important.”