NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Texas NASCAR Playoff Race

What happened in the 2021 Texas NASCAR Playoff Race?

Kyle Larson won the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas NASCAR playoff race on Sunday (Oct. 17) after leading the final 218 laps to clinch a spot in the Championship 4. 

William Byron, Christopher Bell, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Larson pulled ahead to start the race, and ran out front through the competition caution just after lap 25. There were some mixed strategies on the pit stops, with some getting fuel only, others getting two tires and others taking four. Byron took the lead on pit road after taking two tires.

On the first lap after the restart, the biggest wreck in Texas Motor Speedway history occurred on the backstretch. Bubba Wallace lost control of his car exiting turn 2 and he collected pretty much everyone behind him. Sixteen cars were involved, including Alex Bowman, Ryan Newman and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., among others.

Some cars topped off on fuel during this caution while most of the leaders stayed out. Byron maintained control on the restart while Larson worked his way back to the front after taking four tires at the competition caution. Larson eventually caught his teammate, taking the lead with 22 to go in the first stage.

Green flag stops began with 11 to go for the cars that didn’t top off on the prior caution. Kyle Busch, who fixed minor damage from the huge crash, saved enough fuel to win the first stage. Larson worked his way back up to third as all the drivers who stayed out were essentially running on fumes.

Busch kept the lead on the stage two restart, but he didn’t hold it for long. Larson passed him at lap 117, and he never gave it back for the rest of the race.

There was a caution for debris at lap 166, which trapped Chase Elliott and Joey Logano a lap down after they made green flag pit stops. Both drivers took the wave around to make it 16 cars on the lead lap before the next restart.

Larson cruised from there, winning the second stage despite Byron staying close the entire way.

The final stage stayed green for 59 laps to begin the run before Chase Briscoe cut a tire and got into the wall. Contact with Denny Hamlin caused the incident.

On the restart with 54 to go, Larson had no trouble holding off Byron. The race stayed green for 19 laps until Logano’s engine expired, forcing him to the garage.

Under this yellow, some cars outside the top-five positions pitted for fresh tires, which ultimately didn’t matter due to the low tire falloff. With 30 to go, the race restarted and didn’t even stay green for half a lap. Kyle Busch got into Chris Buescher, who made an incredible save but forced everyone in the back to check up. As a result, Anthony Alfredo had a fiery accident.

The race was red-flagged for just over 11 minutes. The next restart with 25 to go gave up a few more laps of green flag racing until Hamlin spun due to a tire rub. The damage developed after contact with Ryan Blaney.

Two laps after the next restart, Martin Truex Jr. went for a spin thanks to contact with Daniel Suarez. Truex plowed into the outside wall, ending his day and subjecting him to a 25th-place finish.

Once again, there were two laps of green flag racing before another crash. This time it involved Briscoe, Buescher and Hamlin, three drivers who already caused cautions in the stage.

That brought us to a two lap dash to the finish, which went similarly to the six prior restarts in the final stage. Larson got a push from Keselowski on the inside and cruised to victory.

The win was Larson’s eighth of the year, 14th of his career, first at Texas and third of the playoffs.

Who stood out?

This is Larson’s world, and we’re just living in it. In a season full of incredible performances, Texas was perhaps his best yet. Larson led 256 of 334 laps, fending off competitors on seven restarts from the lead in the final stage. He had plenty of chances to slip up, and he just never did. There’s simply no one better in the sport right now. Even though the title race is on a 750-horsepower track rather than a 550-horsepower one, it’s hard to bet against this team.

Keselowski found speed seemingly out of nowhere and proved he won’t leave Team Penske quietly. I wrote the No. 2 team off entering the playoffs. Keselowski is leaving at the end of the year, and the summer was uncharacteristically ugly for the team. Now, it hasn’t always been pretty throughout the playoffs, but Keselowski and Co. are proving that experience matters. They haven’t beaten themselves, with a worst finish of 20th and six top 15s in seven races.

Despite the consistency, Keselowski is still lacking race-winning speed. Outside of finishing second at the rain-shortened Talladega Superspeedway race, Texas marked Keselowski’s first top-five result since New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July. With limited playoff points, it’ll be an uphill battle to get into the Championship 4. He’ll either need a win or more consistent finishes combined with accidents involving drivers ahead of him.

Texas was a huge ‘what if’ for Byron. The No. 24 was clearly the second-fastest car on Sunday, running just behind his teammate all afternoon. If Byron had won at the ROVAL last week — as it looked like he might for most of the race — he would’ve been right in the playoff hunt to get to Phoenix. His strength this season has been 1.5-mile, 550-HP races, which includes Texas and Kansas Speedway next week. Getting to this round would’ve changed the course of Byron’s season and it was a huge missed opportunity after bad results in the Round of 12.

Who fell flat?

Hamlin is still above the cutoff, but he’s vulnerable after a disappointing run at Texas. Even before the accidents, Hamlin didn’t have the same speed he did in his victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last month. He was running in the back half of the top 10 most of the day, slipping back as the day went on.

For a guy I coined as the championship co-favorite with Larson, Texas was a big disappointment. Hamlin somehow worked up to finish 11th with a torn-up car, a comeback that kept him above the cutline. Those final extra restarts benefited him, and he capitalized on the misfortunes of others. But this No. 11 team needs a quicker car at Kansas if Hamlin hopes to build a cushion for Martinsville.

Similar to his teammate, Truex never had top-end speed at Texas and his season might come down to Martinsville. It’s been this way all season for Truex. He hasn’t been as good at 550-HP tracks as Hamlin and Kyle Busch. The plan was that he could run solid enough, then either win or collect a ton of points at Martinsville to earn a title berth. He was doing that at Texas before late contact with Suarez sent him into the wall and below the cutoff.

If Truex has similar speed at Kansas, it’ll come down to winning Martinsville to save the season. There’s no reason to count him out, as he’s won three of the last four at the paperclip. Doing it in an absolute must-win situation is a different type of pressure, though, so it’s critical to run well at Kansas.

Logano’s quietly solid playoffs were derailed on Sunday. He hadn’t finished worse than 11th in six playoff races before coming home 30th at Texas. Now, he’s 43 points below the cutoff and facing a must-win scenario. Kansas and Martinsville Speedway are two of Logano’s better tracks, so it’s not panic time yet for the No. 22. He was sixth at Martinsville this year and won Kansas last fall.

What did this race prove?

Even after NASCAR tried to simmer down the Elliott-Harvick battle, we aren’t done with playoff feuds. On Sunday, a disagreement between Hamlin and Logano went under the radar. It wasn’t really talked about on the broadcast, but Logano was upset after contact with Hamlin just before his motor blew.

These two have argued in the past, most notably at Martinsville in 2019. Based on Logano’s comments above, we could see a similar story in two weeks. That’s part of what makes Martinsville the perfect penultimate race in this playoff format.

I’ll continue to fight the fight until the battle is won: Races at Texas should never be 500 miles. One might argue the exciting restarts at the end of the race wouldn’t have happened if it was 300 or 400 miles. I’d argue the intensity ratcheted up because it was near the end of the race, and that would’ve happened regardless of the race length. The first two stages on Sunday were completely forgettable.

Now, Texas hasn’t been an exciting track for years, and that doesn’t change with a shorter race. The resin application didn’t work as well as it did at Nashville Superspeedway and Michigan International Speedway, so we’re still left searching for answers. I certainly don’t have any. All I can say is: Thank goodness we lost a points-paying Texas race this year when it was moved to the All-Star event. Plus, the lone points-paying Texas race next year was moved up to the Round of 12, so it’ll have slightly less significance.

Paint scheme of the race

Columbia has been on a hood for four races this year: three with Bubba Wallace and one with Erik Jones. None of those four races have been run with the same paint scheme. Texas was no different, as Wallace sported a new black and gold Columbia design. This was personally my favorite from the sponsor this year.

Better than last time?

Last year, the race was delayed all the way to Wednesday due to rain after running 52 laps on Sunday. Once the cars actually got on track, it turned into your typical Texas race. Clint Bowyer and Kyle Busch won the two stages. There was only one non-stage break caution in the final 252 laps. Busch ultimately prevailed for his first win of the season over Truex in what turned into a fuel-mileage finish.

This year, the race mirrored a usual Texas race for the first two stages. There was limited passing in front, with Larson in control, and it was difficult to complete passes. Things got out of hand in the final stage with all those cautions for wrecks. Even though Larson was never really challenged for the lead, the exciting restarts at the end made this race better than last year.

Playoff picture

Larson is the first driver to lock up his spot in the Championship 4. He was already secure on points, but as we saw last year with Harvick, nobody is safe until they get a win.

Beyond Larson, none of the remaining seven drivers are safe. Ryan Blaney (+17), Hamlin (+9) and Busch (+8) hold the final three spots after Texas. Elliott (-8), Keselowski (-15), Truex (-22) and Logano (-43) are outside the cutoff, though they still have plenty of time to recover with two races left. Logano is the only one nearing a must-win situation, and that could change if drivers above him struggle next week.

Here’s the playoff standings and the full standings entering Kansas.

 

What’s next?

The Round of 8 continues next weekend at Kansas Speedway, the second of three races that will decide the Championship 4. It will be the second visit to Kansas in 2021 for the Cup Series after Kyle Busch won the race there in May. The Hollywood Casino 400 will go green on Sunday (Oct. 24) at 3 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.

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16 Comments
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Tom B

NBC refuses to show the winner shooting the Pistols in Victory Circle. Political Correctness wins again.

janice

nbc went right to local news here in Atlanta after the race. i didn’t turn to nbcsn to see post race coverage.

Tom B

NBCsn Post Race coverage didn’t show it either.

Jake

Tyler Reddick and his quasi Dale Earnhardt throwback scheme was awesome.

Carl D.

Especially running up near the front.

Bill B

I hate to say it, but thanks to all the cautions this race was more entertaining than an average 1.5 mile race. That first big wreck cleared out a lot of the back marker drivers which made me think that the race would turn into a parade. However, the playoff guys still found ways to jeopardize their good finishes. If there is one thing that makes me happy, it’s that the guy who won the most races (Larson) will be in the final championship race because he deserves it (based on his performance during the entire season). As much as I hate Harvick, it irked me last year when he wrecked at this race and missed the championship race because he deserved to be there. It also brings me joy if those in the “cancel culture” are upset that Larson is still out there and is the odds on favorite to be champion.

Why does Earnhardt always have to be yelling. It really gets on my nerves after an hour. It’s OK when something spectacular is happening but very annoying when he yells the entire time. Is it the track noise that makes him feel he has to yell? If so, please put them in a soundproof booth so they don’t feel the need to yell the entire time. Not every sentence should have an exclamation point after it!
Example (Earnhardt is the second announcer): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qjp1Zrvn8VQ

Who will be the next contender to take themselves out?

Last edited 1 month ago by Bill B
Kevin in SoCal

Yep, Dale Jr is terrible in the booth. He’s only there for the fan service.

RCFX1

My big complaint is Jeff Burton’s voice. He needs to get a neti-pot for those sinuses!

DoninAjax

Maybe they need to give them underwear that fits.

Bill B

Good one!

John Hoosier

Bubba Wallace is the worst driver in Nascar& has been. NBC having Nascar is bad for Nascar. Except for Burton, the commentators stuck. Talk about slowly killing a great sport.

Capt Spaulding

I think the tense is Killed, not killing…….it started with FOX and the Waltrips and has since progressed.

DoninAjax

The hole NA$CAR is in started with “Digger”.

Jeremy

Thanks. I had forgotten about that stupid little part of FOX/NASCAR past.

Kevin in SoCal

I will totally disagree on the length of the races. 500 miles is a better test of driver, machine, and team than 400 miles is. We had a lot more excitement over the last 100 miles of this race than the first 400 miles. I even think Bristol and Martinsville should be increased to 600 laps, and the road course races should be increased, too.

Bill B

Agree with you except for increasing the lengths of B&M. It wouldn’t bother me, but I can understand why that wouldn’t appeal to the networks. I like long races. The longer the better. If you don’t have the attention span to watch a long race, then don’t watch.

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