Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 Preview: The Championship Clock Is Ticking

Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 Preview: The Championship Clock Is Ticking

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

NASCAR's Chase for the Cup is coming down the stretch, and this week the NASCAR Cup Series visits Texas Motor Speedway for a race that will be a pivotal event in crowning the next champion.  This is potentially good news for championship contender Chase Elliott.  

Elliott is in perilous waters coming to Fort Worth, and he's looking for the win and automatic berth in the championship round of the Chase at Phoenix.  Considering that Elliott is coming off a 48 laps led and sixth-place finish at Kansas, he should have a slugger's chance of winning and capturing one of the three available spots in the championship round of the Chase at Phoenix.  After the Hollywood Casino 400 last Sunday at Kansas, he sits a scant 8 points behind the cutoff to make the championship round on points.  So he'll be swinging for the fences in this 500-mile shootout.  His strong performances earlier this season on the intermediate ovals are a good indicator that he has the potential to pull off the upset win this Sunday. 

Another driver worth keeping an eye on this Sunday is Martin Truex Jr.  He is in a desperate position in terms of the points and advancing to Phoenix.  Truex needs a big performance at Fort Worth and this is the style track that he's feasted on in recent seasons.  Truex has never won at Texas so it would seemingly be a tall order for the No. 19 Toyota team.  Perhaps the biggest threat

NASCAR's Chase for the Cup is coming down the stretch, and this week the NASCAR Cup Series visits Texas Motor Speedway for a race that will be a pivotal event in crowning the next champion.  This is potentially good news for championship contender Chase Elliott.  

Elliott is in perilous waters coming to Fort Worth, and he's looking for the win and automatic berth in the championship round of the Chase at Phoenix.  Considering that Elliott is coming off a 48 laps led and sixth-place finish at Kansas, he should have a slugger's chance of winning and capturing one of the three available spots in the championship round of the Chase at Phoenix.  After the Hollywood Casino 400 last Sunday at Kansas, he sits a scant 8 points behind the cutoff to make the championship round on points.  So he'll be swinging for the fences in this 500-mile shootout.  His strong performances earlier this season on the intermediate ovals are a good indicator that he has the potential to pull off the upset win this Sunday. 

Another driver worth keeping an eye on this Sunday is Martin Truex Jr.  He is in a desperate position in terms of the points and advancing to Phoenix.  Truex needs a big performance at Fort Worth and this is the style track that he's feasted on in recent seasons.  Truex has never won at Texas so it would seemingly be a tall order for the No. 19 Toyota team.  Perhaps the biggest threat for victory lane this Sunday afternoon comes in the form of Kevin Harvick and the No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team.  He's a three-time Texas winner, and as recently as this event one year ago.  Harvick was pretty strong at Kansas this past week and should show up with another fast car in Sunday's Auto Trader 500.  With Truex, Harvick and Elliott squarely in the spotlight this week, it looks like Sunday's contest could also be another opportunity for an outsider to upstage these three important playoff drivers.  Don't count out lesser threats like Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Alex Bowman.  Any of these guys could turn in a strong performance and upstage our top tier contenders.

Since it's been several weeks since the last NASCAR Cup race at the Texas oval, we need to go back and briefly visit our loop stats for this facility.  While Texas has some minor differences that set it apart from tracks like Atlanta and Charlotte there are still enough similarities to draw some comparisons.  Still, we need to take a quick look at the recent numbers of the tri-oval at Fort Worth and get a feel for our driver group before we make any predictions for this weekend.  Here are the loop stats for the last 31 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kyle Busch11.31,0906139597,012102.4
Matt Kenseth8.89664387336,746102.3
Jimmie Johnson11.21,1337341,1527,255101.3
Kevin Harvick9.61,2665366527,45097.8
Erik Jones9.0364671102,05794.3
Martin Truex Jr.14.01,0193436206,83293.4
Ryan Blaney18.54042373832,31691.4
Kurt Busch14.51,1843303346,82490.5
Joey Logano13.57262354654,77390.0
Chase Elliott11.139696442,22988.6
Denny Hamlin14.01,1552692886,07688.6
Tyler Reddick2.0368517688.1
Brad Keselowski17.36833546544,27985.6
Clint Bowyer15.49522141245,44284.5
William Byron17.221526241,10382.3
Daniel Suarez17.019753341,00775.3
Aric Almirola17.74021261002,12874.9
Ryan Newman17.686482213,64272.8
Austin Dillon19.642264342,19171.9
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.21.934126101,76669.1

Austin Dillon won the first time around at Texas Motor Speedway in July of this season, and has the chance for the season-sweep at this facility.  The Richard Childress Racing veteran took the lead from Tyler Reddick in the final 10 laps and survived a late restart to capture the win in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.  The No. 3 team have struggled a bit of late and would seem unlikely contenders to win again at Texas.  Dillon's recent 11th-place finish at Kansas this past Sunday is a great barometer of where this driver and team is right now on intermediate ovals.  They'll be a Top-10 threat but not likely to contend for the win. 

A number of drivers had a good shot at victory lane at Fort Worth when we visited this intermediate oval several weeks ago.  Ryan Blaney led a dominating 150 laps but faded in stage 3 to finish a respectable seventh-place at the Texas tri-oval.  It was a strong performance for the No. 12 team but an all too familiar outcome.  Blaney has raced well on intermediate tracks and should once again be a Top-10 finisher this weekend.  Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola also threw their hats in the ring that day but would finish fifth- and 10th-place respectively.  Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski hounded the leaders all day long before finally falling out of contention and well within eye site of the eventual winner Dillon.  A lot of eyes will be fixed on Denny Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota team in this Sunday's Auto Trader 500 considering this playoff driver's recent struggles.  He's ran into trouble the last two races and comes to Fort Worth needing a win or at least a Top 5 very badly.  The bad news for the Joe Gibbs Racing star is that Texas Motor Speedway isn't exactly his best intermediate oval.  Despite being a three-time winner at Texas, Hamlin has struggled to 28th- and 20th-place finishes his last two starts at the facility.  All things considered, several scenarios are possible this weekend in the Auto Trader 500.  We'll take a look at the contenders for the championship and the spoilers from the field that could jump up and surprise this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick – The championship quest for Harvick is alive and well coming to Texas Motor Speedway.  The veteran driver enters this weekend second in the Chase standings, and in good shape on points.  The victory wild card can punch his ticket into the Championship 4 round, and he'll be focused on that at Texas.  Harvick will take things up a notch this weekend and hope for the best over the next two races going to Phoenix.  The SHR star has been super consistent on intermediate ovals this season, scoring four Top-5 finishes in his last five events on these size tracks.  Harvick is coming off a brilliant runner-up finish at Kansas and he's won three of the last six Texas events.  This event is his rallying race it seems every playoff season.      

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing team and Truex have been strong, but winless on these intermediate ovals the second half of the season.  The veteran driver has racked up three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in the last five cookie cutter oval events.  He would have likely finished better than ninth-place this past week at Kansas, were it not for inspection failures and falling to the rear of the field prior to the green flag.  Truex will have to shake that off and get to work this Sunday at Fort Worth.  The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has never won this facility, but Truex cracks the Top 10 here at a decent 53-percent and he has led over 600-career laps at TMS.  In terms of the championship chase, Truex is in need of a playoff-advancing win and that may just be all the motivation he needs. 

Chase Elliott – Although he slipped back to finish sixth at Kansas this past Sunday, you have to really like Elliott's chances to possibly win this week.  The No. 9 Chevrolet team led 48 laps this past week and mixed it up at the front all afternoon long in the Hollywood Casino 400.  It was this driver and team's best intermediate oval performance of the second half of the season, and worth noting coming to Texas.  The Hendrick Motorsports driver also likes the Texas oval.  He's scored Top-10 finishes in five of his nine career-starts at Fort Worth.  Elliott still has some magic and tricks left up his sleeve for this playoff season.  The pressure of staying alive in the Chase will be a powerful motivator for this team and driver.  At this point a win is a golden ticket for Elliott to the championship round at Phoenix. 

Joey Logano – The Penske Racing star is locked into Phoenix and the Championship 4 thanks to his big win at Kansas this past Sunday.  The pressure is off as we visit Texas Motor Speedway this week, but he'll look to continue sharpening his sword as we approach the finale.  Intermediate ovals have yielded some good numbers to the No. 22 Ford team this late-season.  Logano has picked up one win and two Top-5 finishes as well as leading 97 laps in his last four intermediate oval starts.  He has been a bit inconsistent, but hit pay dirt this past weekend at Kansas Speedway.  Logano is a one-time Texas winner (2014) and he cracks the Top-5 at this facility at a strong 46-percent rate.  His last two Texas starts have been impressive fourth- and third-place performances.      

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Brad Keselowski – Despite some recent Texas struggles, Keselowski showed up here in July and nabbed a respectable ninth-place finish in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.  That effort snapped a four-race Top-10 drought at the Fort Worth oval for the No. 2 Ford team.  Keselowski has been pretty sharp in these cookie cutter oval outings this summer.  Coming off a strong fourth-place finish this past week at Kansas Speedway, he's a good momentum play for Sunday's Auto Trader 500.  That Kansas finish is one of four Top 10's in Keselowski's last five 1.5-mile oval starts.  That 80-percent clip is well better than his career average at TMS, but indicative of how well Keselowski has raced in the second half of the season.  With a spot in the championship round at stake, we expect this Penske Racing star to be sharp.      

Kyle Busch – The No. 18 Toyota team is not racing to defend their 2019 championship this weekend, however, Busch is tuning up for another title run in 2021.  He's been on a good streak on these intermediate ovals during the Chase with a sixth-place finish at Las Vegas and a fifth-place finish at Kansas this past week.  Busch will visit one of his more consistent ovals Sunday at Fort Worth.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star has grabbed 13 Top-5 and 16 Top-10 finishes at this oval during his career for a very impressive 45- and 55-percent respectively.  Busch rides a three-race Texas Top-10 streak into Sunday afternoon's action and looking to extend that number to four.  He led 11 laps and was a strong fourth-place finisher at TMS in July, and could very well post a similar performance in the Auto Trader 500.

Denny Hamlin – With a couple mishaps and pair of 15th-place finishes the last two weeks, Hamlin comes to Texas in a bit of jeopardy.  It would seem to be the perfect time to visit an oval where he's a three-time winner.  Hamlin has two Top-3 finishes in his last three intermediate oval starts, so good potential and a high ceiling exist.  However, we've slid the driver of the No. 11 Toyota into the solid plays list this week just based on his current struggles and his last two subpar efforts at Texas Motor Speedway.  Still, Hamlin is a 45-percent Top-10 finisher at this oval and he's led close to 300 laps for his career at this facility.  There are greater risks with Hamlin than the drivers in the contenders list this week, but he still brings race-winning potential to the table in this 500-mile Texas battle.

Ryan Blaney – The talented Penske Racing youngster just misses making the contenders list this week, so he easily makes the solid plays category at Texas.  The driver of the No. 12 Ford was strong in his outing here in July, by leading a dominant 150 laps and racing among the Top 5 most of the day.  However, he didn't get the victory and would wind up a respectable seventh-place in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.  He now has five Top-10 finishes in his last six Texas starts, and an impressive 383 total laps led at this Fort Worth oval.  Blaney has been eliminated from the playoffs, so those stakes are not in play.  However, he is one of a handful of spoiler drivers this weekend that could make big waves.  A Top-10 finish seems very likely with the high ceiling of a potential Top 5. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Texas & solid upside

Alex Bowman – Unlike last season, Bowman is still alive in the Chase at this point, but hanging perilously close to elimination coming to Texas Motor Speedway.  After a gutsy third-place Kansas performance, he has reason to be hopeful coming into the Auto Trader 500.  On the bright side, the 1.5-mile ovals have yielded a lot of recent success to the No. 88 Chevrolet team after a slow start on these style tracks this season.  Bowman has grabbed three-straight Top 10's at Kansas, Las Vegas and Kansas.  The veteran driver doesn't have the greatest career stats at Texas Motor Speedway, but he did record a strong fifth-place finish in this event one year ago.  The Hendrick Motorsports driver has the momentum and determination to overcome a lot of obstacles right now as he showed at Kansas this past week. 

Kurt Busch – One of the most consistent Texas Motor Speedway performers throughout the years has been veteran driver Busch.  With a whopping 35-career starts at this facility, there are few active drivers running with this much experience at the Fort Worth oval.  The driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet is on life support in terms of the playoff picture this weekend, but that shouldn't hamper his performance.  Busch had an unfortunate engine failure this past week at Kansas, and it's put him in some playoff jeopardy coming to Texas.  His 22-career Top 10's at TMS work out to a strong 63-percent Top-10 rate.  Busch rides a seven-race Texas Top-10 streak into Sunday's action.  This Chip Ganassi Racing veteran sports an 80-percent Top-10 rate on these intermediate ovals during his last five starts.  That ranks him among the elite performers in the series.        

Aric Almirola – The Stewart Haas Racing veteran was razor sharp in July when the Cup Series last visited Texas Motor Speedway.  Almirola started from the pole and led 35 laps before finishing the day 10th-place. He's now led 100 combined laps in his last three Texas starts, so we're used to seeing the No. 10 Ford run up front here.  Almirola extended his current Texas Top-10 streak to four races with that July effort.  TMS is not the only intermediate oval that Almirola has enjoyed this summer.  He's grabbed three Top 10's and four Top 15's in his last five starts on these size ovals for a strong 10.8 average finish.  Almirola is not a big upset candidate, but he should be a reliable performer in this 500-mile Texas battle.  

William Byron – The playoffs are over for this young driver and team, but Byron isn't racing like it.  He's been one of the hottest drivers of the past few weeks.  Byron rides a three-race Top-10 streak into Fort Worth and is coming off a steady eighth-place finish at Kansas Speedway this past Sunday.  Now the No. 24 team will look to keep the ball rolling at Texas Motor Speedway.  Byron has turned up his performance on these style tracks over the summer with three Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes in his last six starts.  The 46 laps led he's collected during that span show that he's been racing among the leaders at times.  The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has just a 40-percent career Top-10 rate at Texas Motor Speedway, but we believe he's a safe fantasy racing play this Sunday.  His current momentum and success on these style tracks is impossible to ignore.          

Austin Dillon – The Richard Childress Racing driver is our defending Texas champion.  Dillon pulled a mild, but impressive upset here in July of this year when he took his No. 3 Chevrolet to victory lane at Texas Motor Speedway.  His chances for pulling the season sweep of this oval would seem slim, but he should still be a dependable performer at one of his favorite intermediate ovals.  The driver of the No. 3 Chevy has two Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes in his last for starts at TMS for a tight average finish of 9.5 across the span.  That coincides nicely with his recent intermediate oval performance.  Dillon has grabbed three Top 15's in his last five cookie cutter oval starts.  His 11th-place finish at Kansas this past week is likely a good preview of what to expect Sunday afternoon in the Auto Trader 500.

Matt DiBenedetto – The Wood Brothers Racing team is looking to finish out 2020 strong.  DiBenedetto has picked up the pace of late with a runner-up finish and 12th-place finish in his last two intermediate oval starts.  The driver of the No. 21 Ford has had some struggles on the road courses and larger ovals of late, so a visit to Texas is welcome news.  DiBenedetto's recent Texas experience has netted 14th- and 17th-place finishes in his two most recent starts.  Considering that he is coming off a steady 12th-place finish at Kansas this past Sunday, he carries some momentum into Fort Worth this Sunday afternoon.  DiBenedetto is a good bet to crack the Top 15 in the Auto Trader 500, with the high end potential of pushing inside the Top 10. 

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson – Johnson has a boat load of career stats at Texas Motor Speedway with seven-career wins and 22 Top-10 finishes.  It's one of his top intermediate ovals on the circuit.  The seven-time champion has fallen on hard times of late at this facility.  Johnson has just one Top 10 in his last six Texas starts.  His performance here in July yielded a disappointing 26th-place finish, and his start in this event one year ago was a forgettable 34th-place finish.  The intermediate ovals have been a real stumbling block for the No. 48 team this summer.  Johnson has failed to crack the Top 10 in his last five 1.5-mile oval starts and checks in at a 23.6 average finish across that span.  He's a risky fantasy racing play for Sunday's Auto Trader 500.

Matt Kenseth – The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran is another driver with stellar career Texas numbers, but likely another driver to avoid this weekend.  Kenseth's two wins and 19 Top-10 finishes rank him among the elite in the series at this facility.  Recent performance shows a lot of warts for the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet.  Kenseth has failed to crack the Top 15 in his last five intermediate oval starts, and his average finish is an inflated 23.6 across that span.  His Texas outing in July was a lackluster 18th-place finish which is well above his career average of 9.7 at this oval.  It's best to dismiss any ideas of deploying Kenseth this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Ryan Preece – The intermediate ovals have been tough tracks for Preece and his No. 37 Chevrolet team this summer.  The young driver has only collected three DNF's vs. two finishes outside the Top 15 in his recent five-race swing.  His 29th-place finish this past Sunday at Kansas Speedway is just the latest in a line of disappointments for this driver and team.  Preece has four-career starts at Texas Motor Speedway, and no Top-20 finishes to his credit.  The average finish checks in at a lowly 30.2.  That was underscored in July when Preece crashed and finished 40th-place in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.  The trends and track history are equally disappointing, so it's clear that Preece is a driver to avoid this weekend. 

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Texas Motor Speedway has been nothing less than a house of horrors for Stenhouse over the years.  The JTG Daugherty Racing veteran has never visited the Top 10 in 15-career starts at the Fort Worth oval, and his most recent outings are quite forgettable.  Stenhouse has labored to crashes and DNF's in his last two Texas starts.  Those performances have pushed his career average finish at TMS up to 21.9.  He hasn't cracked the Top 15 at this track since the 2018 season.  Stenhouse has labored mightily this summer on the 1.5-mile ovals.  He has no Top-15 finishes and an average finish of 29.2 in his last five intermediate oval starts.  The veteran driver's last start at Texas was a 38th-place finish in July.  It's best to bench the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet for the Auto Trader 500.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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