Three laps to go in ’19

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The NASCAR Cup Series returns to Texas Motor Speedway for the second time this season, but Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 will be much more intense than the March 31 race won by Denny Hamlin.

It’s the deep stages of the playoffs and tensions are high after just one race in the Round of 8 with two more to go until the Championship 4 will settle it all at Homestead-Miami Speedway Nov. 17.

Martin Truex Jr. already claimed one of the spots with his dominant win last week at Martinsville Speedway, his series-leading seventh win of the season. For the next two weeks, seven drivers will by vying for one of the three remaining berths and they’ll all have different agendas.

For those sitting at the bottom in points like Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, and Kevin Harvick, they’ll be looking to win at all costs. Those sitting at the top like Hamlin, Kyle Busch, and Joey Logano, they’ll be looking to stay out of trouble, run a smart race and point their way to the Championship 4.

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With so much at stake and pressure mounting, tempers flare quickly and there was no better example than last week at Martinsville when Joey Logano and Denny Hamlin and their crews got into it after the race. Logano’s beef with Hamlin started when they were fighting for fifth place with 40 laps to go. They were racing hard side-by-side when Hamlin ran Logano into the wall and then pinned him there for a few yards. It was like a scene from the movie “Days of Thunder” when the characters of Russ Wheelen and Cole Trickle repeatedly say to their crew chiefs “I’m putting him in the wall” which is so Hollywood. Except Sunday’s pin job by Hamlin was real and it was spectacular television.

Logano and Hamlin don’t have much love for each other and it goes back a long way. Hamlin still owes him a few paybacks for past problems caused by Logano such as when Logano intentionally spun him at Fontana going 200 mph in 2013. Hamlin hit the wall hard, broke his back, and missed two races.

But what’s going to happen now is Logano probably thinks he owes Hamlin some payback despite Logano still finishing eighth at Martinsville and payback at this stage could end championship hopes in the greatest season of Hamlin’s career.

Logano knows first hand how bad paybacks can turn out in the playoffs. In 2015, he punted Matt Kenseth at Kansas and essentially ended his chance to advance to the Round of 8. So when they got to Martinsville, Logano was dominating in the lead and Kenseth did a straight nose-dive kamikaze into Logano. Kenseth didn’t even try to disguise as an accident or just one of those short track racing things.

He got suspended but got his revenge and ensured Logano wouldn’t advance for a chance to win the Cup title. Logano learned a valuable lesson that day and then won his first title last season. Let’s see if he’ll play it smart here this week.

Getting rid of Hamlin in a spiteful way is probably the only way Logano can beat him. Logano hasn’t won a race since June 10 at Michigan, his second win of 2019, while Hamlin has five wins and a series-leading and career-high 18 top-five finishes and also a career-best 9.2 average finish. In the 16 races using this week’s race package with the cars having aero ducts and engines producing 550 horsepower, no driver has more than Hamlin’s three wins using it, which includes the March Texas race and the last race on a 1.5-mile track at Kansas two weeks ago.

Kevin Harvick has been the master of getting the big win during the playoffs to win. It seems like he does it every season when on the brink of being eliminated. He’s got two of his better tracks the next two weeks — Texas this week and Phoenix next week where he owns almost every track record. He’s a pressure driver, maybe the best in the series right now. And he could use a win now sitting in the fifth position in points, or outside looking in.

Harvick has only two wins at Texas between his 33 Cup starts, but they both have come in his last four starts there, including this race last season when he won each of the first two stages and led 177 laps. He also won this race in 2017. He’s finished in the top-10 in his last 10 Texas starts, which also includes three runner-ups.

What I also like about Harvick this week is that his team has gotten better with this week’s race package as the season has gone on. He’s won two of the last five races using it (Michigan, Indianapolis) while also finishing fourth at Darlington and runner-up at Las Vegas.

Other drivers doing well with this race package lately are Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Busch. Elliott’s eighth-place average finish at Texas is tops among active drivers. Kyle Busch is tied with Hamlin with three Texas wins, second-most among active drivers behind Jimmie Johnson’s track record seven wins. 

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