Texas storylines: The candy man can?

·7 min read

Kyle Busch is still standing.

The two-time Cup Series champion has made the Round of 8 despite facing various dramas.

In the Round of 16, he wrecked at Darlington and was fined $50,000 for his actions after the incident. Two weeks later at Bristol, a late-race flat tire nearly ended his postseason early before he recovered to finish 21st and advance.

In the Round of 12 at Talladega, he was one of nine drivers involved in the day’s biggest wreck and finished 27th. That put him on the cutline for last week’s elimination race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, but a fourth-place finish saw him advance.

These ups and downs have been typical for Busch since July. Over the past 11 races, he’s posted five top-10 finishes and six finishes of 20th or worse, including three DNFs.

But he’s now just one win away from making the championship race. At the Round of 8 tracks – Texas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Martinsville Speedway – he has eight career Cup wins.

Four of them have come at Texas, which hosts the round’s opening race Sunday (2 p.m. ET, NBC). The most recent of those Texas triumphs came last fall.

With that win, he extended his streak of consecutive seasons with at least one victory to 16. He’s since extended that streak to 17 seasons with wins this year at Kansas and Pocono.

But last fall at Texas, keeping that streak alive was all Busch could race for. He had been eliminated from the playoffs in the Round of 12.

Sunday in Fort Worth and over the next three weeks, he’ll be racing for bigger stakes.

Right from the start

Denny Hamlin has advanced to the Round of 8 by winning the opening races in the first two rounds.

Hamlin claimed his first win of the season in the Round of 16 opener at Darlington Raceway. That moved him to the Round of 12, which he began by taking another win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He’s the third driver to earn two consecutive wins in playoff round opening races.

In 2016, Jimmie Johnson won the Round of 12 opener on the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval and the Round of 8 opener at Martinsville Speedway. In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. won the Round of 16 opener at Chicagoland Speedway, then won the Round of 12 opener at the Charlotte oval.

Both Johnson and Truex went on to win the championship in those years.

Will Hamlin be the third? So far, he’s been the most consistent in the playoffs. He’s the only playoff driver to earn top-10 finishes in all six races.

The only driver with a longer top-10 streak to open the playoffs? Johnson rattled off seven straight top-10s to start the 2008 and 2009 playoffs. He won the title in both years.

But Hamlin is not entirely in an ideal situation to start the Round of 8. He only has an initial seven-point cushion above the cutline.

While Hamlin is a three-time winner at Texas, he hasn’t been solid there in recent years. In his last nine Texas races, Hamlin has earned four top-10 finishes (including a win in March 2019) but also five finishes of 20th or worse. He’s also only scored points in two of the last 10 stages at Texas.

Perhaps most important to keep in mind? Per Racing Insights, he’s suffered penalties in five of his last six Texas races.

Down to two

There will be no Hendrick Motorsports lockout of the Championship 4 in Phoenix. The eliminations of William Byron and Alex Bowman saw to that.

But if you’re Rick Hendrick, you’re still feeling good about the two drivers you have left in contention.

In his impressive first season with HMS, Larson has been dominant on 1.5-mile tracks like Texas. On that track type, he’s won twice, posted an average finish of 7.9, and led a series-best 931 laps. And he won this year’s All-Star Race at – you guessed it – Texas.

With a 42-point cushion above the cutline, Larson is in the catbird’s seat to reach his first Championship 4.

As for Chase Elliott, things seem more iffy on the surface. Elliott starts the Round of 8 at a two-point deficit below the cutline. Only eight points separate him from second-place Hamlin.

Like Larson, Texas hasn’t been a solid track for Elliott. He hasn’t had a top-five finish there since 2016 and has averaged a 19th-place finish in his last four races there.

But the reigning Cup champion should still enter with confidence after coming out on top of a revived feud with Kevin Harvick, who was also eliminated from the playoffs last week.

It’s the second time that’s happened for Elliott in the playoffs.

During the 2017 playoffs, Elliott was spun out of a potential victory and a spot in the title race by Denny Hamlin at Martinsville. Two weeks later at Phoenix, Elliott made contact with Hamlin that ultimately led to Hamlin losing a tire and hitting the wall, ruining his own shot at making the title race.

Elliott may not strike you as having a particularly intimidating presence. But the events of last week and four years ago should all add up to a warning for everyone left in the playoffs: Cross him at your own risk.

YRB FTW?

After closing the regular season with back-to-back wins at Michigan and Daytona, Ryan Blaney was one of many playoff contenders waylaid by misfortune in the opener at Darlington. A pit road penalty and a spin later in the race relegated him to a 22nd-place finish.

Since then, Blaney has reclaimed consistency with four top-10 finishes in the last five races.

He could be on for another good showing this week. While Blaney is winless at Texas, he’s recorded six finishes of eighth or better in his last seven starts there. Also, his 403 laps led there are second-most for him only to the 484 laps he’s led at Bristol.

It’s also important to remember that two of his three wins this year (Atlanta, Michigan) have come with the 550-horsepower package, which at times has been an area of weakness for Team Penske and Ford this season.

This week’s race at Texas and next week’s race at Kansas Speedway are both 550 horsepower races.

Cindric’s time?

As the Round of 8 begins Saturday in the Xfinity Series playoffs (3 p.m. ET, NBC), one wonders if it’s time for Austin Cindric to make a statement.

The opening round of the playoffs was solid for Cindric, the reigning series champion. He finished fourth at Las Vegas, eighth at Talladega, and second at the Charlotte Roval to advance easily.

But Cindric has not won since mid-August. In the ensuing span, Kaulig Racing and JR Motorsports have combined to win seven of eight races. Kaulig’s AJ Allmendinger – Cindric’s biggest title rival – has won three of those eight, including last week at the Roval.

Texas seems as good a place as any for Cindric to return to Victory Lane.

Of the eight remaining playoff drivers, he’s the only one with an average finish inside the top five at Texas (4.9 through seven starts). He’s also one of two playoff drivers with previous wins there (Harrison Burton is the other). And as noted in Tuesday’s Round of 8 outlook, Cindric also has the best average finish among full-time drivers on 1.5-mile tracks this season.

He finished third in June at Texas behind winner Kyle Busch and Justin Allgaier.

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Texas storylines: The candy man can? originally appeared on NBCSports.com

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