AAA Texas 500
November 1, 2018
By Micah Roberts
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Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick evenly split up wins in the first six races on 1.5-mile tracks, which includes Busch's April 8 win at Texas Motor Speedway, the site of Sunday's AAA Texas 500. But it's been a different story in the three ensuing races on 1.5s since then with three different winners, none of which are Harvick or Busch. The early advantage is gone as plenty of other teams have caught up in the set-up and horsepower requirements needed to win on these type of tracks.
This sets up for a fantastic finish in the NASCAR Playoffs!
Joey Logano won his first career race at Martinsville last week and got the automatic berth into the Nov. 18 Championship Race at Homestead. There's Texas this week and Phoenix the following week for the seven other eligible championship contenders to try and get an auto-berth by winning. If none of those drivers get a win in the next two weeks the final three slots will be awarded by points and the current leaders are Busch (4,104 pts) and then Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. are tied with 4,083 each.
“We have faced plenty of adversity in the playoffs so far but we’re still in it,” Truex said late race bad luck in the Playoffs at Charlotte, Dover, and last week at Martinsville. “We should have been in Victory Lane at both Charlotte and Martinsville and have a secured transfer spot for the championship round at Homestead.
“Our guys at the track and at the shop are giving everything they have. They all want that championship as bad as I do. None of us are quitting because the team is shutting down at the end of the season. We all have one mission and that’s to successfully defend our championship.”
Back-to-back championships for Truex as the team is shutting down would be an incredible feat. Harvick is looking for his second Cup title as well.
“There’s a lot of respect amongst the three teams, but we all want to beat each other," Harvick said of the Big-3 leading in points vying for those final three Championship Race slots. "Ultimately, that’s why we’re here. We want to win and I feel like that same passion lives in those garage stalls next to us and they like you, but they want to beat you. And a lot of times, you do whatever you have to do for your team to go out and do that and that’s what makes it fun. But there’s also a lot of respect there. In the end, we all want to beat each other, but it has been a lot of fun racing with those guys.”
The Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook adjusted its championship odds on Monday and have Busch the 9/5 favorite followed by Logano at 11/4, Harvick at 5/2, and Truex at 9/2.
After that its Chase Elliott at 12/1, Las Vegan Kurt Busch at 25/1, Clint Bowyer at 30/1, and Aric Almirola, who is currently last in points (4.033), at 40/1 odds. Among those last four drivers, Elliott offers the best opportunity to win at Texas this week.
Elliott, who sits sixth in points (4,052), won the last race on a 1.5-mile track at Kansas two weeks ago. He finished 11th at Texas in April which was his worst finish there in five Cup starts. He's showing a lot more speed in the past two months everywhere and also happens to be the active leader at Texas with a 7.4 average finish. He also has a 2014 Xfinity Series win at Texas.
"I don't think there's one moment that I can say was the turnaround," Elliott's crew chief Alan Gustafson said of the No. 9 teams surge. "It's been coming and coming because of hard work. We've got an amazing group of people that work at Hendrick Motorsports. Certainly, great resources, a great boss. If we get an opportunity we can make some things happen. With Texas, we haven’t been good since they reconfigured it, but the result at Kansas certainly makes me feel a little better."
After no Cup wins in 2.5 seasons, Elliott now has two wins in the last 12 races, the last coming at Kansas which applies well here despite Texas being banked much steeper making it faster.
Brad Keselowski was chopped from the Playoffs in the last round, but his win at Las Vegas to kick off the postseason on Sept. 16 should serve as a major indicator that he can win this week because its banking is steeper and closer to Texas than recent races on 1.5s at Kentucky (July 14) and Kansas. He led 38 laps at Kentucky and finished third and led 26 laps at Kansas finishing sixth. Only Truex has been better in those last three races.
Truex won at Kentucky and led a race-high 174 laps and led a race-high 96 laps at Las Vegas before settling for third and then finished fifth at Kansas two weeks ago. Truex, who won the championship last season, only has three races left with the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team before they close their shop for good. It could be a huge driving force for all facets of the team -- car builder, engine department, pit crew, and driver -- to finish strong and win back-to-back titles. He's never won at Texas in 26 starts, but he did have a career-best runner-up in this race last season.
“We sure have had our opportunities to cash it in at Texas, but have not been able to close the deal there,” Truex said. “If we can stay away from mistakes, accidents and continue to have fast pit stops we should be right there battling it out as one of the contenders."
Last season Truex won seven of the 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks. This season, just one, but he's been better than Harvick or Busch in the last three on these types.
Las Vegan Kyle Busch is a three-time winner in the Cup Series at Texas and is on a run of eight top-five finishes in his last 11 starts there. He also has eight more wins in Xfinity Series and two more in the Truck Series. Yes, he loves Texas.
Harvick won his first career Cup race at Texas last fall and is tied with Busch for the series lead with seven wins but his last win came 11 races ago at New Hampshire in July. He's using a chassis this week that has led in all three of its 2018 starts finishing second at Texas, third at Chicagoland in July, and fourth at Indianapolis in September.
Jimmie Johnson is the all-time Texas leader with seven wins, 15 top-fives, 21 top-10s, and 1.041 laps led. They all came with crew chief Chad Knaus making the calls on top of the box, but this will be the last time they race at Texas together as Hendrick Motorsports is breaking the pair up at seasons end. The seven-time champ still hasn't won this season and he's never gone an entire year without winning. I'd love to see him win this week and I don't even care if they do a little creative engineering to get it done, something Knaus has done and been suspended several times for over the years. No, it's not cheating, it's just NASCAR and it's un-officially always been part of the game. Johnson has his highest odds ever posted at Texas at 60/1 to win. How is his fall so dramatic? He just won at Texas last spring.
The best longshot this week figures to be Erik Jones who finished fourth at Texas in April in his first ride there in the Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20. He's also got a 2015 Truck Series win and three Xfinity Series wins there. He likes this track a bunch and should contend for the win. His last race on a 1.5 at Kansas saw him finish fourth. The Superbook has him listed at 40/1 odds to win.
And don't forget about Logano this week, either. He's got that Team Penske momentum lately like teammates Keselowski and Ryan Blaney and he won at Texas in 2014. Logano led a race-high 100 laps and finished eighth at Kansas two weeks ago and led 46 laps in a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas. Just like Keselowski and Truex, he was a strong contender to win the last two races on 1.5s. Logano can cruise this week and go all out for the win with no fear or pressure because he's in the Championship Race already.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #9 Chase Elliott (12/1)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
3) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (5/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (7/2)
5) #22 Joey Logano (12/1)