FORT WORTH, Texas – Martin Truex Jr. remembers the hours of boredom last October watching television and the rain in Texas, then coming so close to another championship chance when that playoff race last fall finally ended three days after it began.
The forecast is much better this time, both weather-wise and for Truex's playoff push, though things are tight and there are some changes in Texas.
Instead of its traditional slot as the middle race in the round of eight, Texas on Sunday kicks off the round with Kansas and Martinsville to follow. The field will be cut from eight to finally four in the championship race at Phoenix next month.
“The round of eight is really as tough as it gets,” said Truex, the 2017 Cup champ who finished second in both 2018 and 2019. “All three races are equally as important. So it really doesn’t matter, you know, where they lie. Obviously the ultimate way to go about this is just go win the first one. But there’s a lot of guys with that in mind as well.”
Kyle Larson, who won the NASCAR All-Star race at Texas four months ago, is the points leader and the Hendrick Motorsports driver has a significant edge over Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Denny Hamlin and Truex. But only eight points separate second-place Hamlin and defending champion Chase Elliott in sixth place.
Ryan Blaney and Kyle Busch round out the top five. Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, 16 points below the cutline, are the other drivers still in the playoffs.
Truex desperately needed a win last fall at Texas, where he was seventh in the standings and then forced to start at the back of the field because of an illegal spoiler. He led 53 laps before a runner-up finish, but failed to improve on seventh in the standings and was eliminated from title contention the next week.
“The race went really well. We were really strong and, you know, we were really one lap away from I think the 18 (Busch) running out of gas and us closing in for the win,” Truex said. “So it was definitely close. ... Second is pretty good, but it’s not what we’re after. So try to win it this year, hopefully.”
Busch is one point out of fourth place going to Texas, where his only win all last season came in that Wednesday finish after he had already been eliminated from possibly defending his 2019 Cup title.
While Busch felt bad about denying his teammate a spot in the championship finale, the win extended Busch's streak to at least one victory in 16 consecutive seasons. He's won twice already this season to extend a streak that now stretches one year shy of Richard Petty's record 18 consecutive seasons with a win set from 1960 through 1977.
A four-time winner at Texas, Busch will be without crew chief Ben Beshore following Beshore's suspension for loose lug nuts on the No. 18 Toyota after last week’s road-course race in Charlotte. Busch has two wins each at Kansas, including in May, and at Martinsville.
“This round lays out very well for us. We have three tracks where we have had a lot of success at over the years," Busch said. “We won at both Texas and Kansas within the last year, so I feel like that’s a good omen for us.”
NASCAR held a conference call this week to squash a raging feud between Elliott and Kevin Harvick. Both teams were warned of severe consequences if the drivers continue their fight.
Harvick was eliminated from championship contention last week when he wrecked himself as Elliott closed in on his rear bumper. Harvick had wrecked Elliott earlier in the race at Charlotte as payback for Elliott costing him a win three weeks earlier at Bristol. After the crash at Charlotte, which briefly put Elliott in danger of playoff elimination, Elliott's crew told him to wreck Harvick if given the chance.
DIFFERENT TIME AND TEMP
Until now, the high-banked, 1 1/2-mile Texas track had hosted the eighth of the final 10 races every year since first getting a fall race in 2005. That made it the middle race of the final elimination round since the introduction of the format in 2014.
Last October, only 52 of the scheduled 334 laps were completed after the race started on a Sunday. After no laps over two days with misty and cool conditions, the race finally resumed on a Wednesday, nearly 72 1/2 hours after it had stopped — with temperatures still in the mid-40s.
The forecast this weekend calls for partly cloudy skies with temperatures in the low 70s.
ODDS AND ENDS
Larson is the 18/5 favorite, according to FanDuel. ... Truex is 0 for 31 at Texas. Truex and Busch both have 17 top-10 finishes, the most among the eight playoff drivers, with Busch's 11.0 the best average finish. ... Blaney has six top-eight finishes in his last seven starts at Texas. “It's just been a place that kind of works for what we do,” he said. ... The 41st Cup race at Texas will be the first without Eddie Gossage. He worked 32 years for Speedway Motorsports and oversaw the Texas track from its first race in 1997 until the All-Star race in June. New general manager Rob Ramage had been the track's general counsel since 2013.
More AP auto racing: https://apnews.com/hub/auto-racing and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports