The Round of 12 in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs starts at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend for the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400. Defending champion Joey Logano joined Kevin Harvick, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael McDowell in the group of four drivers to miss the cut last weekend while Bubba Wallace made it in as the last driver.
Denny Hamlin enters this week’s race as the favorite ahead of Kyle Larson. Those two, along with Martin Truex Jr. and William Byron, are the top four in the odds to win the Cup Series Championship.
Our experts, Jeff Gluck and Jordan Bianchi, discussed what the rest of the season looks like for Logano, what to expect in Texas and is Christopher Bell is a viable championship darkhorse after taking pole position in all three playoff races so far.
We’re on to the next round of the playoffs, with a Logano-less field. But not really because he’ll still be racing. What’s his mindset going into this race? Try to win? Just have some fun? It’s such an odd quirk in sports to get bounced from the playoffs and then have to keep racing.
Jeff: After Logano’s early playoff elimination – in which he became the first defending Cup champion to be bounced in the first round – the focus should be firmly on next year. Sure, they can try to win a race and feel good about themselves. But the team may be best served by experimenting with setups and trying some wild stuff to see if they can hit on something for next season. Yes, Ford will have a new car in 2024 – but clearly Team Penske is far enough behind right now that it can’t hurt to float some new concepts for their setups.
Jordan: The next seven weeks is all about finding the missing oomph that the No. 22 team has lacked this season. And with three races on traditional intermediate tracks plus two short ovals, there is ample opportunity to find a solution to what has slowed the defending champ and caused his title reign to end quicker than anyone expected.
Just a quick foray into the Truck Series — what’s going on with Zane Smith (outside of his addition to the Cup Series in 2024)? He was a heavy favorite to win the whole thing and he’s now up to +450 odds (third favorite) and finished 24th at Bristol.
Jeff: This is Smith’s fourth full season in the Truck Series, which is way longer than most prospects spend in NASCAR’s Double-A circuit, and there’s nothing else for him to accomplish. He’s won a championship, finished second in points two other times and is headed to the NASCAR Cup Series next season. That said, it doesn’t seem like Smith has the same speed as in previous seasons. He hasn’t won since late March and has since been surpassed by other favorites like Corey Heim (who looks like he’ll be tough to beat) and the increasingly competitive Carson Hocevar. He’ll probably make the final four, but there are no guarantees at this point.
Jordan: Smith started the season hot but then faded a bit during the summer – though this can also be attributed to poor luck, to some degree. As for what happened at Bristol, he was in contention to win the race before a late penalty dropped him in the back and he never recovered. But did finish fifth and second in the first two stages to pick up 15 additional points, which looks like he may need if he’s to advance to the championship final.
Christopher Bell has won three poles in a row and has two Top 10 finishes in a row. Is any of this significant in him possibly bubbling beneath the surface as a darkhorse?
Jeff: Bell has speed, and his three straight poles made him the first driver to accomplish that feat since 2017 when Kyle Busch did it (per Stephen Stumpf of Frontstretch.com). He could certainly be viewed as a darkhorse, especially if one of the current top four slip up and open another spot in the championship race. But Bell’s problem is his lack of playoff points. For example, he starts Round 2 with just a three-point buffer to the cutoff line. He made last year’s final four by winning the last two elimination races. Can he do it again?
Jordan: There is definitely darkhorse potential here. After all, this is the same driver and team that a year ago won two playoff races and made the championship round. Bell repeating his 2022 deep playoff in 2023 is going to come down to whether he and the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing team can avoid mistakes and execute in races, not just qualifying. And this has been an area of weakness all year, preventing Bell from having more wins and better results during the regular season. It could lead to a Round 2 elimination in the playoffs.
This is the first time we’ve seen Texas this year. Who do you like to win?
Jeff: You hate to go with the favorite, but there’s a reason Denny Hamlin is only +450. Not only could he have swept the entire first round had things gone differently, but here’s a key thing to consider: Hamlin, Daniel Suarez and Logano got to do a tire test in July. While that’s not necessarily indicative of how they’ll run on Sunday, it did provide the drivers and their teams some extra laps on a track that has been reduced to one visit per season (Texas used to have two 500-mile races per year). So when looking at your picks, it might not hurt to bump up those three drivers a bit – and Hamlin was already going to be near the top.
Jordan: The Toyotas are so fast right now, particularly on intermediate tracks, it’s hard to envision anyone outside their camp winning without something fluky occurring. And with how well Hamlin is performing – he could’ve won every race in Round 1 – he’s the logical choice to labeled the favorite to win on Sunday.
What happened to Ross Chastain causing chaos? It seems like when Justin Marks had “some difficult conversations” with him and decided to be more active in his life back in May, Chastain became a different driver with different results. And the playoffs didn’t provide any spark for a return to his somewhat reckless but winning ways. Do you feel like this is it? The new Chastain? Top-20 finishes with no pizazz?
Jeff: Chastain hasn’t really had the speed most of the summer to mix it up at the front how he was before. Since the Darlington incident in May, Chastain has just two top-five finishes in 17 races and has led more than one lap in just three events. You’d probably see his aggression more often if his cars were capable of winning. In the meantime, Chastain seems to be doing a better job of taking what the cars are giving him; it worked in the first round, with finishes of fifth, 13th and 23rd allowing him to advance.
Jordan: The Trackhouse cars aren’t as fast on track as they were during the opening stretch of the season, so it’s hard to know definitively whether Chastain is any less aggressive now. But even then, it’s hard not to think he has dialed it back to some degree as he hasn’t found himself mired in any controversial moments since May when Justin Marks effectively called him out. Let’s see what happens, though, when Chastain finds himself battling for a win late in a race. The hunch is that he’ll go aggressively after the W.
Very noob question: Can Chastain be courted by another team? If they’re really cramping his style can Michael Jordan just offer him more money to break his contract and move? Can owners make trades in NASCAR?
Jeff: Chastain is at Trackhouse for years to come. The team just signed Busch beer away from Stewart-Haas Racing (where it was Kevin Harvick’s longtime sponsor) and they’re going to build around Chastain as their cornerstone. I certainly don’t think he’s unhappy there at all. But in this hypothetical scenario, could a driver force their way out of a team? I suppose it’s possible. The closest thing we saw to this recently was Tyler Reddick signing with 23XI Racing an entire year early, and then Richard Childress Racing just cut bait and worked out a deal to let him go early instead of trying to have everyone suffer through a lame duck season (plus, they got Kyle Busch to replace him).
Jordan: Anything is possible as we’ve seen drivers (and teams) find ways to maneuver out of contracts that were previously considered “ironclad.” But Chastain likes it at Trackhouse and the team likes him. He’s not going anywhere in the near future.
Autotrader Echopark Automotive 400 odds
Odds to win the Cup Series
(Photo of Denny Hamlin: Jeff Robinson / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)