It took four days to get it in, but after the second-longest rain delay in the Modern Era of NASCAR, fans witnessed a truly amazing race.
Before the Texas green flag, we noted that the past 32 playoff races had been won by playoff drivers. Kyle Busch was winless in 2021 in the first 34 races, with his most recent victory giving him his second championship.
Busch’s 2020 season has been so bad that he fell from being one of the top three or four ranked drivers nearly every week on sportsbooks to becoming a perennial underdog. In last week’s Best Bets column we said this +1500 (15/1) underdog would win. If response from social media was an indication, it was a careless prediction. But danged if the 2019 champion didn’t find Victory Lane with a combination of speed and fuel mileage.
The playoffs have shown a lot of diversity with seven different winners in eight races. Kurt Busch was the biggest dark horse in this period with a +4000 victory at Las Vegas. Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin won the Federated Auto Parts 400 and YellaWood 500 respectively with +900 odds.
Now it’s time to see who has been the strongest in the past 45 days from Richmond through Texas so bettors can struggle with the decision of whether to back a favorite or a long shot next week on the bullring of Martinsville.
1. Chase Elliott (last week: 1)
Weeks in the top 10: 31
Weeks as #1: 8
Power Average: 6.11
Elliott needed three things to happen to improve his odds of advancing into the playoffs. Kevin Harvick and Hamlin needed to run poorly, a non-playoff winner would open two spots on points, and Elliott needed to outrun Keselowski. What he did not need was a corded tire that forced him to make two pit stops before the end of Stage 2. The remainder of the race went caution free and he remained stranded a lap off the pace. With one race remaining in the Round of 8, Elliott is practically in a must-win situation on a track where he has only three top-10s in 10 starts.
2. Joey Logano (last week: 3) +1
Weeks in the top 10: 31
Power Average: 8.46
Logano lost his momentum toward the end of the regular season. From New Hampshire (where he finished fourth) through Dover 2 (sixth), he had six consecutive top-10s. He has been unable to string three such finishes together since then. Until this week, that is. Logano’s 10th at Texas was not overly exciting, but since he won last week at Kansas, it was enough to give him additional momentum as the series gears up for the last two races of the season.
3. Ryan Blaney (last week: 10) +7
Weeks in the top 10: 21
Weeks as #1: 2
Power Average: 8.75
Because of his strong run this summer at Texas and after he pressured his championship-contending teammates so hard at Kansas, we predicted Blaney would run well in the Autotrader 500. He didn’t get a lot of air time because the cameras were pointed at the playoff contenders and Busch’s quest to end his winless streak, but when the checkers waved he had his third consecutive top-10 and fourth such result in the last five races. Unfortunately he was denied a top-three by rookie Christopher Bell, who finished nearly five seconds ahead of him on the track.
4. Alex Bowman (last week: 4)
Weeks in the top 10: 17
Weeks as #1: 1
Power Average: 9.11
Think of how frustrated Bowman must be this week. He finished third in the Hollywood Casino 400 and fifth in the Autotrader 500, yet he still enters Martinsville in a virtual must-win situation. In the past 45 days he has not finished worse than 16th and has five top-10s in seven starts. He has been one of the most consistently strong drivers in recent weeks and could be next week’s surprising dark horse.
5. Kevin Harvick (last week: 2) -3
Weeks in the top 10: 30
Weeks as #1: 14
Power Average: 9.32
Several years ago Harvick referenced a golden horseshoe that he believed was lodged in the nether regions of seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson. We now know where it has transferred. Harvick could have seen his championship hopes seriously diminished when he pounded the wall under wet conditions on Sunday. A three-day red flag allowed the team to formulate a plan they were able to immediately implement and a fortunate caution put them back on the lead lap. That salvaged a ton of points and kept the No. 4 on the same lap as the leaders until the closing circuits of the Texas race.
6. Brad Keselowski (last week: 8) +2
Weeks in the top 10: 30
Power Average: 10.29
In terms of career average finishes, Texas is not one of Keselowski’s better tracks. In fact, it is his third worst with an average of 16.9 in 25 starts before this week. His odds of finishing ahead of Elliott were not good, and pre-race it appeared that would be the battle for the final transfer spot on points. Great drivers rise to challenges, however, and Kez took full advantage of the No. 9’s problems with a sixth-place finish on the heels of a fourth at Kansas. So far in 2020, he’s been one of the top performers on short, flat tracks and should maintain his advantage on the Martinsville paperclip.
7. Martin Truex Jr. (last week: 5) -2
Weeks in the top 10: 27
Weeks as #1: 3
Power Average: 11.00
For the second straight week, Truex was sent to the back of the pack when the team was discovered to be coloring outside the lines. With an interim chief on the box, the No. 19 had a great mix of strategy and speed to get them to the front. In the closing laps, Truex had an opportunity to catch Busch and grab an automatic playoff berth if he could have pressured his teammate just a little harder and made the No. 18 run out of gas.
8. Kyle Busch (last week: 6) -2
Weeks in the top 10: 22
Power Average: 11.00
The wait is over. With three races remaining in the 2020 season, Busch joins Richard Petty, David Pearson, Rusty Wallace, and Ricky Rudd as drivers with 16-year winning streaks. Equally important: his 57th career win puts him back in contention with Harvick (58 wins) to have the most victories among active drivers as soon as Johnson retires at the end of the 2020 season.
9. Erik Jones (last week: 9)
Weeks in the top 10: 7
Power Average: 12.59
We expected a lot more from Jones during the past two weeks. He has great records at both Kansas and Texas, but as a lame duck with Joe Gibbs Racing he has not been able to pull the trigger on a solid finish. He slapped the wall last week and finished 20th. At Texas, he was one position worse and finished 21st, narrowly avoiding the distinction of being two laps off the pace when the checkers waved.
10. Kurt Busch (last week: 10)
Weeks in the top 10: 20
Power Average: 13.07
Busch had an evil-handling car at Texas for much of the race, but in the end he finished seventh. That is precisely where we handicapped his finish. It didn’t take a lot of augury to make that prediction because he’s landed between seventh and 10th for the past eight consecutive Texas races now.
Big Movers outside the Top 10
14. Matt DiBenedetto (last week: 17) +3
Weeks in the top 10: 4
Power Average: 14.93
Last week’s big movers outside the top 10 were DiBenedetto and Almirola. The driver of the No. 21 fell two spots to 17th while the No. 10 advanced to 15th. This week the roles were reversed and DiBenedetto bounded back ahead of his rival. The pilot of this Penske-affiliated car has been able to race with Logano, Keselowski, and Blaney in recent weeks and should challenge for a top-10 in the final two races.
19. Aric Almirola (last week: 15) -4
Weeks in the top 10: 10
Power Average: 17.96
One of two things happen when a driver gets knocked out of the playoffs. He either gets his back up and runs much better – as has been the case with Blaney – or, with the wind out of his sails, he slips back through the pack. Almirola has not scored a top-10 finish since he was fifth at Bristol at the end of Round 1 and his disappointing races in Round 2 have continued for the past two weeks.
Winners, Last 45 Days (Outright Odds to win)
Autotrader 500, Texas: Kyle Busch (+1500)
Hollywood Casino 400, Kansas: Joey Logano (+1400)
Roval 400k, Charlotte Roval: Chase Elliott (+290)
YellaWood 500, Talladega: Denny Hamlin (+900)
South Point 400, Las Vegas: Kurt Busch (+4000)
Night Race at Bristol: Kevin Harvick (+625)
Federated Auto Parts 400, Richmond: Brad Keselowski (+900)
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Power Average, Last 45 Days