DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — The NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contenders show up at Texas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on the USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) so competitively balanced that even they can’t predict an odds-on favorite as they start the Playoffs’ three-race Round of 12.
Toyota drivers Tyler Reddick (Kansas) and Denny Hamlin (Bristol, Tenn.) and Chevrolet’s Kyle Larson (Darlington, S.C.) won races in the opening three-race Playoff round to pad their place in the overall standings, but it’s Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. who hold just the slightest edge atop the championship order as the series starts this elimination round.
Byron, a series-best five-race winner in the No. 24 Chevrolet, and Truex, the Regular Season Champion and three-race winner in the No. 19 Toyota arrive in Fort Worth tied for the Playoff lead — a slim four-point edge on JGR’s Hamlin and a 13-point advantage on 2021 series champion, Hendrick’s Kyle Larson.
23XI Racing’s Reddick, the defending Texas winner, holds the eighth place — and final transfer position for this round — only 22 points behind Byron and Truex. Yet Reddick also holds only a tenuous advantage on the four drivers now needing to race their way into the eight-driver field that will advance to the next Playoff round.
Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain and RFK Racing’s driver/owner Brad Keselowski are a slight three points behind Reddick. Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney is six points back and Bubba Wallace — Reddick’s 23XI Racing teammate who is making his NASCAR Cup Series Playoff debut — is only 14 points below the cutoff line heading to the Lone Star state.
Statistically speaking, it’s been a fine Playoff start after a fine regular-season run, in particular for the Hendrick Motorsports drivers Larson and Byron.
Larson’s 2.33 average finish in the opening three Playoff races is second all-time to Greg Biffle (1.67 in 2008) in a three-race Playoff span. He last won at Texas in 2021 leading a dominating 256 of the 334 laps — eclipsing Jimmie Johnson’s 255 laps led in a 2013 victory — and setting the stage for what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series championship. Larson’s 13 top-five finishes are most in the series this season and he and Byron are tied for most top-five finishes (three) at 1.5-mile tracks.
Byron, who is turning in a career year of his own, boasts the most laps led (877) overall and has the best average finish (5.25) and most laps led (277) specifically on 1.5-mile tracks this season.
“I’m looking forward to Texas,” said Byron, 25. “It will be hot there and slick, which will lead to guys making mistakes. We just need to not be one of them and stay head of all that. We need to try to win it or at least maximize our points day.
“You have to take advantage of every opportunity you get if you want to run for a championship. There are only 12 cars left. You need to execute. This is the time to really show what you have.”
Byron and Larson can count on last week’s race winner Denny Hamlin having a say in all that. The three-time Daytona 500 winning veteran is still competing for his first series title in a sure-bet Hall of Fame career. He is one of only four current Playoff drivers (also including Larson, Reddick and Kyle Busch) to win a Playoff race at Texas. And his three Texas trophies are second only to the four-time winner Busch among active drivers. Kevin Harvick, who has been eliminated from Playoff contention, also has three wins on the Fort Worth high banks.
Hamlin, driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota, has scored top-10 finishes in the last three Texas races and brings a lot of momentum into the race weekend with his victory last week. Like others in the field, he’s intent on a good weekend at Texas because the next two races in this Playoff round — at the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and Charlotte ROVAL — are typically a lot less predictable competitively.
“Our mindset is that we want to get the work done early in this round and not be sweating points going into the ROVAL,” Hamlin said.
Of note, Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney will make his 300th career NASCAR Cup Series start this weekend — marking the 100th driver to do so in the sport’s history.
Practice and Busch Light Pole Qualifying start at 12:30 p.m. ET on Saturday to set the starting field.
Allgaier leads the Xfinity Series to Texas
Veteran Justin Allgaier claimed the first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory of the 2023 Playoffs last week — his third trophy of the year — and the driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet heads into Saturday’s Andy’s Frozen Custard 300 (3:30 p.m. ET on the USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) absolutely expecting another week of high-stakes action on the 1.5-mile Fort Worth high banks.
There are only two championship contenders with past wins at Texas — Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer (2018) and Joe Gibbs Racing’s John Hunter Nemechek (2021). Yet overall, this Playoff field boasts plenty of stellar work at the track with only two races remaining to decide which eight drivers advance to the next Playoff round.
Custer, who is ranked third in the championship has an impressive four top-five finishes and six top-10 finishes in six previous Texas starts. Similarly, Nemechek, who is ranked second to Allgaier in the Playoff standings — but leads in points — has three top-five and four top-10 efforts in five starts.
It will be an important weekend for Richard Childress Racing driver Austin Hill, who won the Regular Season Championship but sits fourth in the Playoff standings heading to the Lone Star State. The driver of the No. 21 RCR Chevrolet has a pair of top-five finishes in four series starts at the track and was runner-up to Noah Gragson in last year’s race.
The 2021 series champion Daniel Hemric, Jeb Burton and Josh Berry are among those with at least three starts at Texas with Hemric’s three top-fives — including a runner-up showing to Tyler Reddick in 2021 — tops statistically among this group.
Two Playoff contenders, JGR’s Sammy Smith and Kaulig Racing’s Chandler Smith will be making their Texas Motor Speedway series debut. They are currently ranked fifth and seventh, respectively, in the Playoff standings.
It’s been a full decade since Playoff driver Parker Kligerman last competed at Texas in the series. His last two starts in 2013 resulted in 12th and 13th place finishes.
Allgaier, with his Bristol, Tenn. win, along with Nemechek, Custer, Hill, Chandler Smith, Hemric, Sammy Smith and Sheldon Creed go into the race weekend above the Playoff cut-off line. Burton is in ninth place, only four points off Creed for that final spot to advance to the Round of 8. Mayer (-12), Kligerman (-22) and Berry (-24) round out the Playoff field for the Texas race.
Not only is the Playoff situation a compelling storyline, but this week’s starting lineup will include a pair of high-profile debuts. NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series regular Daniel Dye, 19, will make his Xfinity Series debut driving the No. 44 Alpha Prime Racing Chevrolet — the first of three events he’ll run in 2023 (also Las Vegas and Phoenix).
And Layne Riggs, 21, son of former NASCAR Cup Series veteran Scott Riggs, will make his first series start in the No. 11 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet.
Practice for the race is set for 10:35 a.m. ET on Saturday, followed immediately by qualifying (both sessions on the NBC Sports App) and then the 3:30 p.m. ET green flag.