Drivers on Round of 12 opener in Texas: ‘Biggest race … maybe of the playoffs’

FORT WORTH, Texas — There’s an obscure, hardly referenced saying about the size of things in Texas, you know — but it most certainly applies to the stakes for this weekend’s NASCAR Playoffs Round of 12 opener at Texas Motor Speedway.

“It’s a big one,” No. 22 Team Penske driver Joey Logano said Saturday at the 1.5-mile track. “This is the biggest race, I think, of this round. And maybe of the playoffs, depending on how your situation turns out. I think this is a week where guys got to look at the max amount of points you can possibly get, right? And to me, I think if you can walk out of here with a 40-point day minimum, you set yourself up for a better spot when you get to Talladega (Superspeedway) and how you race that race, and then obviously the (Charlotte Motor Speedway) Roval from there. So, it becomes very important. You have a bad race here, then you got to maybe be more aggressive at Talladega, which ups your chances of wrecking and it just kind of gets to be a tricky spot. So, Talladega is the one that I think has got everyone spun out a little bit on how to handle that. And this race becomes important because that race is in this round.”

After Sunday’s AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 (3:30 p.m. ET, USA Network, NBC Sports App, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio), the remaining two races to set the Round of 8 — and separate the contenders from the pretenders — are at two tracks that could not be on further ends of the spectrum from each other in terms of layout, but both push the boundaries in terms of volatility and unpredictability.

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“This is a very important race at Texas because, in my opinion, it’s the only race that you have control of your own destiny,” said No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing driver Christopher Bell, the first driver who locked himself into this Round of 12. “So we need to get out of here in a good points position. But you know, all 11 other competitors are saying the same thing. So I’m a little bit apprehensive about the Round of 12 because the races following this one are extremely, I don’t want to say luck-driven, but definitely Talladega, you can get caught up in wrecks and you know, you’re done. So Texas, it would be really nice to win. And whoever wins this race is gonna be feeling really good.”

That was the case for defending champion Kyle Larson last year, with a Texas victory to open the Round of 8 propelling him to a spot in the Championship 4 weeks before the title race. Larson was dominant nearly the entire season last year, but one could argue that two extra races of knowing you’re locked into the next round — one of which he won — was a tremendous boon for the No. 5 team in their hunt for a championship.

And that was with two tame tracks by comparison (Kansas and Martinsville) comprising the rest of that round. With ‘Dega and the Roval looming, drivers know the time is now.

“Yeah, I think we probably all look at Texas as a good opportunity to hopefully get a win and get locked in and not have to worry about the next few races,” said Larson.

Of course, given what we saw in the Round of 16, it’s no guarantee that any playoff driver lands in Victory Lane on Sunday to claim the auto-berth into the next round. Not only did non-playoff drivers win the first three playoff races, but before Larson’s win here last fall, drivers eliminated in this year’s Round of 16 won the last three Texas races and seven of the last 10.

In other words, drivers who were competitive enough to make the playoffs — two of whom are past champions in Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick — have dominated the Fort Worth track in the last half-decade. Needless to say, those might be the two least likely drivers to let things play out among playoff contenders and not battle for the win if able.

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“We definitely have to perform this weekend to get at least some sort of point cushion to the (elimination) line because you just, you never know over the last two, certainly Talladega, you don’t know,” said No. 11 driver Denny Hamlin, who entered the weekend as the race favorite. “And then I think we, you kind of have an indication of how we’ll be at the Roval but you just never know, so much attrition and stuff happens at that race track that this is the only one that I feel like we truly can, you know, if we’re good, we’re gonna go out there and compete and get some points this week.”

All that said, while Texas is arguably the biggest race of the year thus far, the fact remains that of these 12 drivers, at least five of them — and probably more — will advance to the Round of 8 on points.

So is it really a “must-win-at-all-costs” situation on Sunday?

“I don’t think so,” said No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports driver Alex Bowman. “I mean, I think plenty of people are going to point their way in, right? But it is an uncomfortable round just with Talladega being such an unknown and kind of a wildcard. A lot of things can happen on the Roval and I mean, this place a lot can happen, too, so definitely a tough grouping of race tracks as far as being able to control your own destiny or work on your race car even after you unload. I kind of feel like you have what you have here. So it’s going to be interesting to see how it plays out. But I think we’re in a really good place as race team and can have a good round here.”

The message to drivers, then, might be this — get comfortable being uncomfortable. Buckle up. Grab your points now and hope for a win, because it’s going to be a bumpy thrill ride to the Round of 8 opener at Las Vegas.