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What to Watch: Full guide for Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas

Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway
(⏰ 2 p.m. ET | 📺 NBC, TSN | 📻 PRN, SiriusXM)

Everything you need to know for Sunday’s Round of 8 opening race and 33rd points-paying NASCAR Cup Series event of the 2021 season.

Where: Fort Worth, Texas
Green flag: 2:08 p.m. ET
Grand Marshal: Tim Brown and Tony Dorsett, NFL Hall of Famers
Honorary Starter: Steve Rowley, president of COX Automotive
TV/Radio: NBC/NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Forecast: Mostly sunny, with a high near 72 degrees and calm wind becoming southeast around 5 mph in the afternoon, according to NOAA.gov
Race Distance: 334 laps, 501 miles
Stages: 105 | 210 | 334
Pit-road speed: 45 mph
Caution car speed: 55 mph
Texas 101: Get the full lowdown
Starting lineup: See the full lineup
Pit-stall assignments: See who is pitting where | Expert breaks down pit selections

FORT WORTH, TEXAS - JUNE 13: Matt DiBenedetto, driver of the #21 Quick Lane Tire & Auto Center Ford, gives a thumbs up on stage during driver intros prior to the NASCAR All-Star Race at Texas Motor Speedway on June 13, 2021 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images) | Getty Images
Chris Graythen | Getty Images

Five to watch

Here are five big story lines we’ll be following at Texas Motor Speedway.

1. This is it. The opening Round of 8 race sets the tone. A win could automatically lock a driver into the Championship 4 finale at Phoenix Raceway. It also guarantees a less stressful day at Martinsville Speedway and Kansas Speedway in the coming weeks. On the flip side, a disastrous day could put any driver in a must-win situation with just two Round of 8 races remaining. Cup Series playoff drivers enter Texas with a mix of experience and inexperience, historic success and struggle-filled performances. Which drivers will rise to the occasion?  Don’t forget, a non-playoff driver could very well steal the much-needed win away from a championship hopeful. See the current playoff picture.

2. If you’re still thinking Kyle Busch is an underdog, the two-time Cup Series champion might have you right where he wants you. Busch enters Sunday’s showdown at Texas just one point under the elimination line and is poised to make a push. The Round of 8 tracks are historically favorable for the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing wheelman, and he has been the best on average at 1.5-milers heading into this weekend. Busch boasts a 3.86 average finish at 1.5-mile ovals, and the next closest is teammate Denny Hamlin at 7.43. Busch’s impressive show of consistency leaves him in the company of all-time greats, currently running the sixth-best average in Cup Series history. Though the wins haven’t been too frequent for Busch this season, his consistency should carry him to a solid performance Sunday. Another Texas win for KFB shouldn’t come as a surprise.

3. Kyle Larson avoided an elimination scare at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval last weekend. Now, he’s back atop the playoff standings with a decent cushion of 35 points over second place. The No. 5 wheelman won at Texas earlier this season in the All-Star Race but has three finishes outside of the top 35 in the last five points-paying race here. He has been more dominant than ever at Hendrick Motorsports this season, and the expectations of championship favorite hang over the No. 5 pit box. Larson has seven wins this season with the most crucial races still ahead of him. We almost expect him to win every time out this season. How will he handle the pressure as he enters the final stretch of his best-ever championship run?

4. Winless in the regular season, on fire in the postseason. Denny Hamlin has saved his best for last, so far. And he’s entering the Round of 8 with 11 career wins on this slate of tracks. But there’s a catch. Hamlin has finished 20th or worse in four of the last six races at Texas and has had penalties in five of the last six. Will he keep the playoff momentum or come to a screeching halt? Hamlin has wins in the opening race in the Round of 16 and the Round of 12 this season, allowing the comfort of less pressure in the next races. If he wins again at Texas, he surpasses seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson and teammate Martin Truex Jr. for most consecutive wins in round-opening races. He’s also the only driver to finish in the top six in each playoff race this season. Texas has almost been a tale of two stories for Hamlin. The question is, which one will we see Sunday?

5. A lot of commotion has been surrounding the Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick incidents throughout the Round of 12. That was two drivers from two different teams vying for a bid into the Round of 8. Moving forward, could we see more teammate competition as the season winds down? It’s almost a guarantee. Joe Gibbs Racing (Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch) and Team Penske (Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski) each have three drivers remaining, and Hendrick Motorsports (Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott) has two. They’re all fighting for four spots. Expect the playoff pressure to be higher than ever.

Race-day staples

Our biggest pieces of the week — get covered for race day from all angles.Hero Texas 2021 Copy

• Power Rankings: Ryan Blaney poised to punch Championship 4 ticket? | Latest rankings
• Paint Scheme Preview:
High voltage schemes | See them here
• Playoff Pulse: Round of 8 set after Charlotte Roval | Full breakdown
• Debate:
How hard should non-playoff drivers race playoff drivers? | Backseat Drivers
• Bubble Watch:
Joey Logano on the outside looking in — for now | See the bubble breakdown
• Fantasy Fastlane:
Texas two-step with Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin | Top plays, sleepers
• Busch Pole Award:
Kyle Larson leads the way at Texas | Read more

Get in on the action

Think you know NASCAR? Put your mettle to the test with gaming, fantasy.Ads Fantasyfastlane Hero

• What are the odds?: BetMGM betting odds for Texas | See them here
• NASCAR betting:
Tempting Kyle Larson odds, value on Kyle Busch | Read more
• Back to the future:
How are your futures bets looking for the Round of 8? | Updated analysis
• The Action Network:
Best way to bet on Texas | Larson vs. Hamlin | Elliott vs. Harvick
• Talking playoffs: How Fantasy Live game works for the postseason | Read more
• No risk, big reward: Take a shot at winning cash prizes with the free-to-play Jackpot Races app | Hit the jackpot

Memories from Texas

Before the Cup Series races at Texas for the first points-paying time this season, take a look back at some important track history.

• Top 10: Lap leaders at Texas | See the list
• Lone Star victors: All-time wins at Texas | Who has the most?
• We remember: Most memorable moments at Texas | Relive them
• 2020 recap: Kyle Busch ends drought at Texas | Full story

Five fast facts

Hard-hitting, race-relevant statistics, brought to you by the experts at Racing Insights.

• Denny Hamlin has six top-10 finishes to start the 2021 playoffs, tied for most since Jimmie Johnson in 2009 (seven).
• Hendrick Motorsports has led 1,153 laps at 1.5-mile tracks so far this season. Joe Gibbs Racing is second with 384.
• Three organizations remain in the Cup Series title hunt: Joe Gibbs Racing (three cars), Team Penske (three) and Hendrick Motorsports (two).
• Martin Truex Jr.‘s 673 laps led without a Texas win is most all time.
• Kyle Larson has earned 36% of all playoff points on 1.5-mile tracks this season. 

Catch the pack

Read up on all the headlines from the week leading up to the race.

2021 Byron Liberty
Jared C. Tilton | Getty Images

• New numbers: Updated Cup Series championship odds | See them here
• Playoff pressure:
Denny Hamlin focused heading into Texas | Read more
• Round of 8 breakdown:
Track-by-track analysis | Read more
• Capable and ready:
Martin Truex Jr. locked in for playoff push | Read more
• Back for more:
Liberty University extends sponsorship deal with Hendrick Motorsports | Full details
NASCAR Edition debuts on YouTube | Watch Episode 1
• Ring, ring:
NASCAR calls Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick teams after on-track tension | See what happened
• Final four:
Finalists for the Betty Jane France Humanitarian Award announced | Learn more
• Recharged:
Interstate Batteries renews partnership  with Joe Gibbs Racing | Read more
• Timely response:
NASCAR, GMR extend partnership of emergency response system |  More details
Next Gen news: Updates after Charlotte Roval test | Track timesRecapScenes from testing
• Champion crowned:
Keegan Leahy wins 2021 eNASCAR Coca-Cola iRacing title | Read more
• Design the future:
NASCAR invited Boys & Girls Clubs kids to design a race track | Learn more