The preliminaries are concluded, and the stakes are sky high at Texas Motor Speedway, site of Sunday’s AAA 500 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race.
The Texas tilt, always one of the wilder battles of the year, is the second of three events in Round 3 of the Cup playoffs, during which the field will be trimmed from eight championship hopefuls to four.
So far this weekend, through three rounds of practice and Friday’s qualifying session, there haven’t been a lot of huge surprises other than Kurt Busch breaking the track record with a stunning lap of 200.915 miles per hour in the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.
Here are seven storylines to keep an eye on during Sunday’s race:
The Blue Oval Boys
Not only did Kurt Busch win the Texas pole, he was also fastest in second practice on Saturday and his SHR teammate Kevin Harvick qualified third, five positions ahead of Ryan Blaney and the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford. All three of these guys have won races already this year and could win again on Sunday.
The Usual Suspects
Five of the six top-tier Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing qualified in the top seven. The only one who didn’t was JGR’s Matt Kenseth, who was unable to make a qualifying attempt because his car never passed inspection.
Expect all six Toyotas to be fast on Sunday, with several of the drivers likely contenders for the W. Denny Hamlin qualified second in his JGR Toyota and was fastest in Saturday afternoon’s final practice.
The Front Runners
So far Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have each won three of the seven playoff races, so they go into Sunday as the favorites. Truth is, if one of them wins, it really doesn’t change the playoff picture at all. By virtue of his victory last week at Martinsville Speedway, Kyle is already locked into the championship race in two weeks at Homestead-Miami Speedway. And Truex has a 67-point lead over the cutline to advance, so he’s golden. Win, lose or draw at Texas, the younger Busch and Truex will be in the title mix.
There’s no guarantee that one of the eight playoff drivers wins on Sunday. In fact, three of the top six qualifiers — Kurt Busch (pole), Erik Jones (4th) and Daniel Suarez (6th) — aren’t in the playoffs. Kyle Larson and Matt Kenseth, two drivers already knocked out of the title hunt, have been fast, too, so don’t count the possibility of an upset victor on Sunday. And if that happens, it could really shake up the title battle.
The Final Spot
While third-place Brad Keselowski appears to relatively secure if he can put together consecutive top 10s at Texas and Phoenix, the gap between fourth-place Harvick and seventh-place Denny Hamlin is a mere 8 points. With up to 60 points available per race, there will be a huge premium put on getting stage points at Texas for Harvick, fifth-place Jimmie Johnson, sixth-place Ryan Blaney and Hamlin in seventh.
From The Back
Seven drivers never even made a qualifying attempt because respective cars never passed tech. Three of them — Chase Elliott (34th), Matt Kenseth (35th) and Joey Logano (36th) could contend for the victory. Elliott needs to win one of the next two races to advance to the championship round in Homestead, especially since he’s unlikely to get a lot of points in Stage 1 on Sunday from his starting spot.
Will Chase Elliott attempt to extract revenge on Denny Hamlin for last week’s contretemps at Martinsville Speedway? No way. Or more correctly, not yet anyway. It’s one thing to wreck someone at NASCAR’s smallest and slowest oval, like Hamlin did to Elliott last week. It’s another thing entirely to do it at a place where the qualifying speed was more than 200 mph. Now at Phoenix next week? Stay tuned, friends.