Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Texas

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoff list is much lighter entering Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway.

The playoffs’ first round eliminated Tyler Reddick, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon.

Entering the Round of 12 Sunday are six Chevrolet drivers, four Ford drivers and two Toyota drivers — a group that includes three former champions (Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kyle Larson) and one rookie (Austin Cindric).

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

It’s quite a mix, as is the round itself. After Texas, the playoffs move on to Talladega Superspeedway and then to the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval for the next cutoff race.

Sunday’s 500-mile race (3:30 p.m., ET) will be televised by the USA Network.

A look at drivers to watch at TMS:

FRONTRUNNERS

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 1st
  • Last three races: 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas, 36th at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: Best career finish is 4th

Elliott is back at the top of the points after a second-place run Saturday at Bristol. Texas isn’t one of his better tracks, but he finished seventh in this race a year ago despite starting in the rear because of multiple inspection failures.

Joey Logano

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: 27th at Bristol, 17th at Kansas, 4th at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: Won in April 2014, three top 10s in past four races

MORE: NASCAR executive fires back at Kevin Harvick’s comment

Logano will be a favorite to reach the Round of 8, but he hasn’t won a race since early June. At Texas, he has nine top 10s in the past 11 races.

Ross Chastain

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 6th at Bristol, 7th at Kansas, 20th at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: Best career finish in five career starts is 18th

Chastain sits third in the playoff standings but faces a tall task at Texas, a track where he has never led a lap. He finished 28th at TMS a year ago after being involved in a crash on Lap 31.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 12th
  • Last three races: 20th at Bristol, 12th at Kansas, 16th at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: First Cup race at TMS. Had one win and six tops fives in eighth Xfinity starts.

The playoffs’ lone rookie hasn’t won since visiting victory lane in the season-opening Daytona 500. He squeezed into the Round of 12 in the final position and is seven points below the cutline.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 30th at Bristol, 9th at Kansas, 13th at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: Best career finish for a points race at Texas is 2nd in 2018. He won the All-Star Race there in May

Can Blaney continue the magic act that involves not winning races but staying in the championship hunt? He’s never won a points Cup race at Texas but has seven finishes of eighth or better in the past eight races.

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas, 2nd at Darlington
  • Past at Texas: 3 wins

Top 10s in all three races in the first round of the playoffs keep Hamlin in contention for another shot at what would be his first Cup championship. He has a good record at TMS.

 

 

Toyota executive: ‘We cost Kyle Busch a shot at his third championship’

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The president of Toyota Racing Development calls Kyle Busch’s playoff elimination due to an engine failure at Bristol, “the worst nightmare imaginable for me personally and for our team.

“We cost Kyle Busch a shot at his third championship,” David Wilson told NBC Sports on Tuesday.

Busch was eliminated in the opening round after suffering engine failures at Darlington and Bristol. It marks the first time in his career that Busch has failed to advance beyond the first round. 

Wilson said changes have been made to all Toyota engines ahead of Sunday’s playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). The engine changes will be implemented for the rest of the playoffs.

“We’re not giving up our performance potential,” Wilson told NBC Sports. “We feel like it’s conservative enough to get us kind of out of this danger zone.”

Busch’s elimination leaves Denny Hamlin and Christopher Bell as Toyota’s only competitors racing for the drivers championship. 

“Whether we’re so fortunate enough to possibly win a championship with either Christopher or Denny later this year, I’m still going to be haunted by what happened, not just in Bristol, but Darlington as well,” Wilson said. “Two engine failures across three weeks is unheard of. It’s unacceptable.”

The engine woes come after Toyota did not have a single engine failure in Cup last season. 

Wilson said that Toyota has found the issue with its engines. 

“We have some sort of an instability in our valve train and it seems to be triggered by us running into NASCAR’s mandated rev limiter, interestingly enough,” Wilson said.

At Darlington, Busch missed an upshift from fourth to fifth gear, contributing to the engine failure. “He buzzed the rev limiter hard,” Wilson said, “and a lap-and-a-half later, his engine let go. Now, just to be clear, our stuff should be durable enough. It should be tough enough to handle that.

“At Bristol, NASCAR miscalculated the gear ratio. It was too short. When Kyle, particularly when he was running that upper groove in fifth gear, he was hitting the rev limiter, almost every lap. The fact is that right now we just don’t have enough durability margin in our valve train. That’s on us.”

Wilson also noted there have been engine failures with each of the other manufacturers this season. 

“It’s not the car per se, but it’s some of the components,” Wilson said. “It’s running a five-speed gearbox with closer gear ratios that require drivers to shift. Shifting puts more of a load across our engines. On top of that, NASCAR has lowered their mandated rev limiter from 9700, down to 9200 RPMs. We’re operating in a power band (where) the target is really to run about 8500 rpm. 

“But because of the gear ratios, because of the five speed, we’re getting to the rev limiter much more often this year than we ever did in the past.”

“Arguably, I would venture to say, were we running the same package as last season, we would see none of this. We’ve just not experienced this. We’ve uncovered a weakness in our valve train.”

Wilson denied that Busch received weaker engines in the playoffs because Busch will leave Joe Gibbs Racing after this season for Richard Childress Racing and Chevrolet. 

“I’ll say that it is offensive as a professional and somebody who takes their responsibility as greatly as I do,” Wilson said of such conjecture about Busch’s engines. “And I’ll say for those fans who are actually ignorant enough to suggest that this is some sort of a mastermind conspiracy to rid ourselves of Kyle Busch early, I would simply say go back to trying to find the edge of the flat earth. It’s absurd.”

Wilson said he and Busch talked after Busch decided to sign with Richard Childress Racing and focused on the rest of this season.  

“We both underscored our intent to have a mic drop moment in Phoenix, in he’s going to win his third championship and he’s going to take that championship with him,” Wilson said. “Obviously, for Toyota, losing Kyle in a run through a championship is a massive setback. Kyle Busch is money in the playoffs. … By losing him, we take a big hit. There’s zero upside. There’s zero upside. It’s just a crushing blow to our organization

“There’s nothing I can do. I’ve apologized to Kyle. I’ve apologized to (Joe) Gibbs. This is on us and hated that we let them down.”

As for the power steering issues at Bristol that a number of teams had, including Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing, Wilson said:

“This new car and all of the new systems that we’re dealing with, have relatively very few reps on them. This is the first time we’ve raced at Bristol, a very tight half-mile on concrete. In a relative sense, I’m assuming we’ve put more load into that steering rack, in that power steering system, than at any other place. It was just too much. We were all freaking out as this was happening, because I think the (power steering issues for Ty Gibbs, Martin Truex Jr. and Bubba Wallace) all happened within 20 laps of each other. That’s just incredible.

“I know, at least two or three of those cars literally blew out the seals in the (steering) rack, which happened from too much pressure. So I don’t know what remediation opportunity there is from a team perspective.

“Even when it hasn’t resulted in a terminal issue, I know, almost every week, the drivers, to varying degrees and varying race tracks, have been unhappy with their steering.

“There’s no question that NASCAR and the teams are looking at (it). … We need to fix this moving forward.”

After facing the various challenges in the first round of the playoffs, Wilson said he concluded a team meeting Tuesday by telling the TRD employees that “the measure of this team isn’t defined by moments of comfort and success, it’s defined and how we respond in moments of stress and failure.”

Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch will swap pit crews beginning at Texas

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Joe Gibbs Racing confirmed Monday that the pit crews for Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch will swap teams beginning this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

The change comes with Busch eliminated from the playoffs last weekend at Bristol, while Hamlin advanced to the second round.

Going into the Bristol race, Busch’s pit crew ranked second in the series based on average four-tire stop times, according to Racing Insights. The average time for Busch’s pit crew was 11.7 seconds. That was three-tenths of a second faster than Hamlin’s pit crew, which ranked seventh, according to Racing Insights.

Pit crew changes between a team not in the playoffs and one in the playoffs within the same organization is not uncommon in the series.

Changing pit crew members also not new this season for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell and Bubba Wallace switched some pit crew members in early July before the Atlanta race. Joe Gibbs Racing provides pit crews also for 23XI Racing. The change was made to strengthen both teams. Bell had an average finish of 4.0 in the first round of the playoffs. Wallace won the Kansas playoff race.

Points reset jumbles Cup playoff grid after Bristol

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Four drivers are gone in the Cup playoffs, including former champions Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick, as the Round of 12 begins Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network).

While Christopher Bell finished the first round as the points leader, the points are reset and Bell, due to lack of playoff points earned throughout the year, finds himself tied for the final transfer spot with Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney. Chase Elliott, who finished the opening round in fourth, is back atop the standings after the reset because of his 40 playoff points.

This round has the potential for even more tumult for playoff drivers. The round has races at Texas, Talladega and the cutoff event at the Charlotte Roval. Anything can happen at Talladega. The Roval can present its own challenges as the final road course on the schedule (racing in rain?).

XFINITY SERIES

The Xfinity playoff field was set at Bristol. Ryan Sieg earned the final spot. Now, the field prepares for the start of the playoffs Saturday at Texas (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network).

Noah Gragson, who won six races in the regular season, leads the field with 2,051 points. Ty Gibbs, who won five races in the regular season, is next at 2,038 points. The opening round features races at Texas, Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Ty Majeski’s win last week at Bristol earned him a spot in the Nov. 4 championship race at Phoenix. Two races remain in this round: Oct. 1 at Talladega and Oct. 22 at Homestead.

Bristol winners and losers

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A look at the winners and losers from Saturday night at Bristol Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Non-playoff drivers — Chris Buescher made it a clean sweep of drivers not in the playoffs winning each of the three first-round races. Erik Jones won at Darlington, Bubba Wallace won at Kansas, and Buescher won at Bristol. It is Buescher’s second career Cup victory. He led a race-high 169 of 500 laps.

RFK Racing — Chris Buescher and Brad Keselowski combined to lead 278 laps. Keselowski, who won a stage, finished 13th after a tire went down while leading. Buescher gave the team its first points win since Keselowski became a part owner at the start of the season. 

Christopher BellFinished fourth and won a stage to collect a playoff point for the second round. Had an average finish of 4.0 in the first round. 

William ByronAfter scoring one top-10 finish in the last 18 races of the regular season, Byron scored top 10s in each of the three races in the first round. He was eighth at Darlington, sixth at Kansas and third at Bristol. 

Austin CindricWas four laps down less than 100 laps into the race but kept going. He was helped by trouble to others to secure the final transfer spot to the second round despite finishing 20th, seven laps behind the leaders. 

LOSERS

Next Gen car on a short track — Some durability issues created issues for teams, and drivers said the cars are going too fast to race well at Bristol. Work remains on this car. 

Kevin HarvickA fire ended his race at Darlington. A crash, when two cars in front took the air off his note, ended his race at Kansas. In position to challenge for the lead late at Bristol, his left front wheel came off and forced him to back into his pits to have it put back on. That cost him a chance at a win and ended his title hopes. Fire, crash and wheel coming off — that aptly describes some of the major issues this year with the new car.

Richard Childress Racing — All four playoff drivers with connections to this team, whether past, present or future, all failed to advance. RCR drivers Tyler Reddick and Austin Dillon failed to advance, as did Kevin Harvick, who raced for RCR in Cup from 2001-13, and Kyle Busch, who will join the team in 2023. 

Kyle Busch — Two engine failures in the first round ended his last chance to win a third Cup championship with Joe Gibbs Racing.