Is Martin Truex Jr. on his way to his second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship? If his performance last Sunday is any indication, the rest of the field might as well stay home. Truex has always professed to be bad at the short tracks, but he absolutely dominated at the .526-mile Martinsville “paperclip.” He led 464 of the 500 laps, won both stages, and scored the maximum number of points, 60. But most importantly, he punched his ticket to the season finale at Homestead on Nov. 17. Other contenders did not fare as well. Chase Elliott broke an axle on his Hendrick Racing Camaro early in the race and finished 36th, collecting only four points. He is now 44 points below the cut line and in a “must win” situation to advance to the title round. Kyle Larson’s ninth-place finish netted him 37 points, but he’s still 24 below the line with a mathematical chance to advance on points. Ford drivers Kevin Harvick and Ryan Blaney are in better shape, 14 and 55 points respectively below the line, but will need good finishes at Texas and Phoenix if they are to be around for the final.
What does Sunday’s race at Texas look like? It doesn’t do much good to look at history beyond 2017, when the track was reconfigured. It is a completely different track than the “old” Texas Motor Speedway. Among the title contenders, three have won at the “new” Texas. Harvick has been to victory circle twice, with Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch each winning once. Jimmie Johnson won the first race on the new configuration. But as the stockbrokers will tell you, “past performance is not indicative of future results.” It could very well be a non-playoff driver winning, which would make points even more critical. So, the playoff contenders, particularly those below the cutoff line, will be aiming to collect as many stage points as possible while still looking for that golden victory that will ensure a shot at the title. Joe Gibbs Racing gets the nod from the oddsmakers, with opening odds of 5-1 on Truex and Busch, and 7-1 on Hamlin. Also at 7-1 are Harvick, Elliott, Larson, and Joey Logano. Blaney and Brad Keselowski are at 12-1, and the odds drop off rapidly after that. The desperation level is ramping up, and that should make for a very interesting race tomorrow. Coverage on the NBC Sports Network starts at noon Pacific Standard time (don’t forget to set your clocks back).
Lewis Hamilton failed to clinch his sixth world driving championship in Mexico last weekend, but he is almost certain to do so Sunday at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. Hamilton’s Mexico victory put him at 363 points, 74 ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas. If Bottas manages to win and score fastest lap at the remaining three races, Hamilton will only need four more points to clinch. If he finishes eighth or better tomorrow, the title is his. Since Mercedes clinched the constructors’ title a few races ago, the final two races, Brazil and Abu Dhabi, are a bit anticlimactic. The biggest drama will be in finding out which of the Ferrari drivers will finish third in the standings. Charles Leclerc currently has 236 points to the 230 of teammate Sebastian Vettel. But Red Bull’s Max Verstappen could conceivably surpass both from his current position just 10 points behind Vettel. I enjoy watching just for the engine noise, the breathtaking agility of the cars, and the superhuman abilities of the drivers.