If the results of the first round are anything to go by, the 2022 Cup Series playoffs have been indicative of a changing NASCAR landscape. Four drivers who are in the Round of 12 have never raced for a Cup championship before, while the four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 included two future Hall of Famers with three championships between them. And for the first time in NASCAR's playoff era, not a single playoff driver won a race in the Round of 16, as the rest of the field has brought their best just as the drivers in contention for the championship have.
The relative lack of championship pedigrees in the playoff field and the goose egg in the win column for playoff drivers means that the Round of 12 marks a major opportunity for someone to strike first and establish themselves as perhaps the favorite for the Cup Series championship. That process begins this week at Texas Motor Speedway, where the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 will open the Round of 12.
How to watch the NASCAR playoffs at Texas
- Date: Sunday, Sept. 25
- Location: Texas Motor Speedway -- Fort Worth, Texas
- Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
- TV: USA Network
- Stream: fuboTV (try for free)
What to watch
A sticky situation
A little over a quarter century ago, Texas Motor Speedway served as the physical embodiment of NASCAR's late-1990s expansion, as it represented a period of opulence and prosperity in racetrack building. But in recent years, the track has severely lost its luster -- in part because it's become a cautionary tale of what can happen if you try and artificially treat a racing surface.
After Texas was repaved and reconfigured in 2017, the track began to liberally apply PJ1 traction compound in its corners as a means of creating more grip in the high groove and more usable racing lanes on a new surface. But as the track's asphalt has now aged, the application of PJ1 has done more harm than good.
The darker surface where PJ1 has been applied reacts differently to heat, and it can easily turn into a slick no-go zone if it does not pick up rubber. And the PJ1 has been applied so thickly in the past that it has managed to stain the asphalt in a way where it cannot truly all be scrubbed away. The end result has been processional, single-file races that have been panned by fans and media, including a mess of an All-Star Race this past May.
In an effort to try and make more of the track usable, NASCAR Senior Vice President of competition Scott Miller told SiriusXM earlier this week that Texas would be treated with resin and a tire dragon ahead of this weekend, and that track prep efforts would go up a lane higher in Turns 3 and 4.
"It may not turn into racing room, but if they do slip out of the groove, at least there will be something there to grab a hold of," Miller said.
This weekend marks a proud homecoming for Prosper, Texas native Chris Buescher. Last week at Bristol, Buescher became the 19th different driver to win a Cup race this season, tying the all-time record for most different winners in a single season that was previously set in 2001.
What's been remarkable about the 2022 season, especially as it's unfolded over the past month, has been the sheer rate at which different drivers have gone to Victory Lane. In 2001, there had been 15 different winners through the first 29 races, and it took until Robby Gordon won the season finale at New Hampshire for the mark of 19 winners to be set. Now, there are still seven races left for there to be 20 different winners or potentially even more.
If the record is set to fall this weekend, the natural candidate to become the 20th different winner this season is Ryan Blaney, who won the All-Star Race at Texas back in May and remains the only playoff driver to have not won a race. But if Blaney is to do so, he'll have to manage with the Sword of Damocles hanging over his team's head: After a disaster of a race in Bristol, crew chief Jonathan Hassler and two members of Blaney's pit crew were suspended for the next four races after an improperly-installed wheel fell off Blaney's car and rolled down pit road., which will defer the suspensions until after the appeal is heard and allow Blaney to have his usual crew this weekend.
Beyond Blaney, the chances of a new winner at Texas will be greatly aided by the premium that Texas puts on track position, and whether or not a still-winless driver can use the right strategy to get to the front. That was the case in August of 2020, when Austin Dillon took just two tires on his final pit stop to take the lead late in the race and stay there.
Everything's longer in Texas
While it doesn't have the history or prestige of races like the Southern 500 or the Coca-Cola 600, it should be noted that this weekend marks the last 500-mile race of the season on a non-superspeedway. That makes Texas one of the longest races remaining this season at a track where the Next Gen car hasn't quite been put to the test over the long haul. With the All-Star Race in May using a special format, the current generation of Cup car has only experienced Texas in short bursts up to this point.
After a spate of mechanical failures during the Round of 16 and a high rate of tire failures last week during the first race on Bristol's concrete configuration, keep an eye on how the Next Gen car and its parts -- not exactly in the good graces of Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. -- withstand the test of 500 miles at Texas.
Pick to win
(Odds via Caesars Sportsbook)
Christopher Bell (+800): Since passing at this racetrack is so difficult, whoever wins on Sunday is likely going to be the driver who can find a way to get out in front late in the race. But if we're picking someone based on raw speed, I really like Christopher Bell's chances. Not only was he very fast in the All-Star Race before a mid-race spin, but he was outstanding in the Round of 16 and seems to be peaking at just the right time in the season. Bell also has a great history at Texas, with two third-place finishes in his last two starts at this track.
Over the opening three races of the playoffs, Bell scored finishes of fifth, third, and fourth while also leading 149 laps. That makes me feel secure in suggesting he could secure a spot in the Round of 8 this week at what amounts to the Norman, Okla. native's home track.