With the first round of the 2023 NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs complete, the series begins the next round of three races Sunday afternoon with the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400 at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) — a venue with an impactful history and a track always expected and primed to play a major role in the championship run.
The high-banked 1.5-miler outside Fort Worth has held various significant places on the NASCAR calendar in its 42-race history, and this weekend gives the official green flag to the Playoff’s Round of 12. 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick is the defending Texas winner, earning the trophy last year when driving for Richard Childress Racing.
In fact, the last three Texas race winners — Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Reddick — are still among the playoff hopefuls. Denny Hamlin, who won last weekend at Bristol, Tenn., is the only other playoff competitor with a NASCAR Cup Series victory at the track. Busch’s four wins are most in the field. Hamlin and Kevin Harvick, who has been eliminated from playoff contention, are second among active drivers with three Texas trophies. Harvick scored his wins in three consecutive Playoff races (2017-19).
Richard Childress Racing’s Busch won at Talladega this spring. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell is the defending ROVAL race winner, and adding Reddick’s win in the 2022 Texas Playoff race, means all three of this upcoming round’s most recent races have been won by current playoff drivers.
The Texas track opened in 1997 but did not gain a second date until 2005 when the NASCAR Cup Series raced there in both the spring and then the fall playoff run. Since 2021, the NASCAR Cup Series presence in the Lone Star state again has featured a single race annually — the green flag coming during this crucial Playoff portion of the schedule.
Hamlin’s victory in the famed Bristol (Tenn.) Motor Speedway “Night Race” on Saturday certainly places him in prime competitive form for this next Playoff round, which includes races at diverse venues including Texas, the 2.6-mile Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and the Charlotte ROVAL road course.
Hamlin’s swept the 2010 races at Texas and added a spring win in 2019. He has a pair of Talladega victories, too.
With the win at Bristol and the championship standings reset for the new round, Hamlin is ranked third — a slight four points behind Hendrick Motorsports William Byron and Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, the regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr., who are tied for the lead coming into Texas.
Hamlin already had a slight head start for the weekend’s race, joining drivers Joey Logano and Daniel Suarez for a Goodyear tire test at Texas Motor Speedway earlier in the season.
“I feel pretty good about it,” Hamlin allowed. “I feel like that tire is very, very different. I think it probably could catch a few teams off guard and not be what they expected, ‘cause it is very different.
“We at least, kind of have a baseline of what that is and we’re going to start to work on it to try to put a fast car on the track next week too. I feel like we’re in as good a spot as anyone going into next week.”
The Hendrick Motorsports’ driver Larson shows up in Dallas/Fort Worth ranked fourth in the championship, only 13 points off the lead, followed by RFK Racing driver Chris Buescher, RCR’s Busch, JGR’s Bell and 23XI Racing’s Reddick.
The four drivers needing to improve their position in this Playoff round to advance are Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain, RFK’s Brad Keselowski, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney and 23XI Racing’s Bubba Wallace, who is only 14 points behind Reddick at the cutoff line. The top eight Playoff drivers following the Oct. 8 Charlotte ROVAL race will advance to the penultimate round and then ultimately decide the four-driver Championship field.
When it comes to Texas, it’s hard not to consider Busch a favorite. Not only does he boast three NASCAR Cup Series wins, but the two-time series champion also has a track record 10 NASCAR Xfinity Series wins at Texas and five NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series trophies as well.
Reddick, Bell, Blaney, Keselowski and Larson all have won NASCAR Xfinity Series races at Texas. Byron and Bell have also won NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series events there.
Of note, Sunday afternoon’s race marks the first scheduled 400-mile NASCAR Cup Series race in Texas Motor Speedway’s history.
“I think the biggest thing is it helps the transition from day into evening a little bit,” the defending race winner Reddick said of the change in miles.
“We won’t run as long, but I don’t think on paper it changes anything. If it’s a wild chaotic race like we saw on occasion last year on a lot of mile-and-a-halves, depending on who has an issue or makes a mistake, the control of the race shifts. I don’t think it’s gonna go that way.”
Qualifying will be two rounds of single-lap speed and take place Saturday at 1:20 p.m. ET.
–By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media