Texas storylines: The candy man can?

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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.

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.