NASCAR heads to the Lone Star State for the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500

Everything is bigger in Texas. Photo via: Wiki Commons.

The NASCAR Cup Series heads for the Lone Star State this weekend for the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500. This is the second race of the Round of 8 as the remaining members of the playoffs look to lock up their spot in the championship race in Phoenix in two weeks. This track has undergone many changes over the last few years as it was repaved back in 2017. The first two corners are much wider than corners three and four thus giving the drivers more places to go to make a pass. We will also see a lot of strategy come into play here as well. The last time they were here, Austin Dillon was able to use a two tire pit strategy to pull off the upset victory. It will be interesting to see if a driver who is further down in the standings like Kurt Busch or Alex Bowman will try to use this strategy to sneak their way into the championship race.

Joey Logano punched his ticket last week at Kansas as he was able to fend off Kevin Harvick for the win. This will be the fourth time Logano has made it to the championship round ever since they began this format back in 2014. In the closing laps, both Joey and Kevin Harvick had an intense battle for the win as Harvick would close in, but he just didn't seem to have enough clean air to get around the 2018 champion. Many fans were pleased with the finish but took issue with how difficult it was to pass. It seemed like when the leader was in clean air he could drive away from second place. Most of this is due in part to how big the spoilers are on the back of the cars. Lucky for a lot of fans, next season the spoilers will be much smaller and hopefully this will fix a lot of those issues with passing.

The Silly Season is winding down as most drivers are now finalizing their plans for next season, nonetheless there were plenty of big announcements this week as drivers revealed where they will be running next year. To start off the week, it was announced that former Joe Gibbs driver Erik Jones is signing a multi-year deal to drive the #43 Camaro for Richard Petty Motorsports. This comes as a bit of a surprise seeing how Jones is going to a team that has struggled over the past few years, but he will be coming into a situation where their cars are a bit more competitive especially after this year with Bubba Wallace. The other big headline this week was the promotion of Chase Briscoe from Xfinity Series to the cup as he will take the #14 Ford Mustang replacing the retiring Clint Bowyer. This wasn't really a surprise as it seemed the writing had been on the wall for quite a while. I think Briscoe will be a star for this team as he has really gone on a tear in the Xfinity Series. Look for Briscoe to be the rookie of the year in 2021.

The newest Michael Jordan/Denny Hamlin team now has a new name and logo. It was announced on Friday that the team will be called 23XI or Twenty-Three-Eleven Motorsports. As we all know this is both the numbers of Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin. I look forward to seeing what Denny and the team comes up with in the future and how the car will look as well. One thing that will be interesting to see is how this team will fare considering their technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing. Regardless, this is a winning combination for both NASCAR and Michael Jordan.

The driver I have winning this weekend is Kevin Harvick. As most fans know this season has been his most successful yet, he has won nine races, has twenty top five finishes and has led over 1,000 laps. Many would say he is having a much better statistical season than he was when he won the title back in 2014. This will continue on this weekend as he goes to a track where he has a 3.50 average finish, the highest of any driver. Not to mention he has won here twice since 2017. I look for him to get his tenth victory of the season this week and clinch his spot at Phoenix.

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Keep an eye on Alex Bowman this weekend. Image via: Wiki Commons.

For the first time since July 1984, NASCAR returns to one of its most popular cities in Nashville, Tennessee for the inaugural Ally 400 at Nashville Super Speedway. This track is a 1 1/3rd mile concrete oval that was dormant for nearly ten years and was only used as a testing facility. So it came as a bit of a surprise last season when it was announced that this track would be getting a date. For a lot of drivers, this will be a brand new racetrack, but we will see practice and qualifying, so that will be a huge help for the newcomers that haven't raced here before. Back when the Xfinity and Trucks ran here, this track featured a lot of first time winners. Back in 2008, future NASCAR champion Brad Keselowski shocked the world by jumping in Dale Jr's car and capturing his first win here. There will be a lot of veterans like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick who have plenty of experience at this track, but it will be tough to compare. It should be fun with everyone coming into this race with minimal knowledge.

Last week, Kyle Larson continued his hot streak by winning the All-Star Race. Overall, while Larson and his Hendrick teammates probably enjoyed the race, the feedback from crews and fans was less than positive. As I was walking through the garage area and talking to a few crew members, a lot of them were very critical of the 450 horsepower motor and the tall spoiler to try and keep the cars bunched up. When I asked one of the crew-members what he thought about the package he told me, "Oh it's awful. The track is terrible, the package makes it impossible to pass and it's super hot out here." On green flag runs, it was the same as it ever was as the lead car would pretty much take off and the only time there was really any "pack racing" it came after there were restarts. The whole race was well-intentioned and the fans showed up as it was nearly a capacity crowd, but the whole thing just didn't make any sense. From the start time being in the nearly 100 degree heat to the wacky full-field invert at the end of each stage. Let's hope that next season's All-Star Race is a lot more concise.

In Silly Season news this week, Truck Series regulars GMS racing announced that they would be fielding a full-time cup series team. The team is currently owned by Allegiant Airlines CEO Maurice Gallagher and his son, Spencer, who used to drive for them in the Xfinity Series. This move seemed to come from out of nowhere as there was never any indication that this was a move they were exploring anytime soon after they turned down the opportunity to purchase Furniture Row Racing in 2019. This is certainly a great sight for the sport as there will be more new teams on the track and with their close relationship with Chevy, it wouldn't be a surprise if they step in and help this team become competitive. The favorite to drive their car has to be 2020 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series champion Sheldon Creed. He has easily been their best driver in trucks, and it would make the most sense for him to get the promotion.

This week at Nashville, the driver that I have winning is Alex Bowman. Now while this is a brand new racetrack and he has a grand total of zero starts here, this track suits his driving style perfectly. With the inclusion of this track, there are now four tracks with a concrete surface. Nashville, Bristol, Dover and Martinsville. At the three of the tracks they have run at, he has shown a lot of speed, including a victory at Dover this season and a top ten finish at Bristol. This is also a track where crew-chief Greg Ives said Bowman has gravitated towards during testing. In an interview with Sirius XM Ives was quoted as saying "we used to have a lot of fun testing there," so this is clearly a track that they both enjoy going to. Another big factor going into Sunday will be just how fast these Hendrick Motorsports cars are, they have finished 1-2 over the last four points races. He has watched his teammates Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott have immense success, and now this week I think he is due for a third win of the season. Look for the bright purple #48 Chevy to go to victory lane this week at Nashville.

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