Earlier this week, it would have been easy to keep Bubba Wallace out of your fantasy lineup for Sunday’s Round of 12 opener at Texas Motor Speedway. His recent Texas numbers are filled with mediocrity, seeing six finishes south of 20th in the last seven races. Wallace is trying to flip that trend this weekend, however, and he will have the best view at the start of the Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 after winning just his second career pole award on Saturday.
Dustin Albino’s race-day lineup:
Starter 1: Kyle Larson
Starter 2: Bubba Wallace
Starter 3: Chris Buescher
Starter 4: Brad Keselowski
Starter 5: Kyle Busch
Garage pick: Ross Chastain
NEXT IN LINE: Denny Hamlin, Christopher Bell, Erik Jones, William Byron
RISING: We should probably expand on Wallace’s day a bit more here. The No. 23 team won its first pole in over a year on Saturday (Michigan 2022). The real work will come on Sunday when Wallace must put a full race together, something that’s admittedly been a real struggle this season with only four top-five finishes. If Wallace is to make the Round of 8, he needs to maximize his performance these next two weekends, knowing he usually struggles on road courses. You can’t start off the weekend any better than he did on Saturday.
When thinking of AJ Allmendinger, Texas doesn’t typically come to mind – unless it’s the 20-turn famed road course, Circuit of The Americas, roughly three hours south from the Fort Worth-based racetrack. The No. 16 Chevrolet has picked up the pace on ovals of late, though, showing more raw speed. Allmendinger will start sixth, his best effort on a 1.5-mile track since the fall race at Charlotte in 2016. He also ranked fourth on 10-lap averages.
FALLING: With a fourth-place finish in this race last year and winning the All-Star Race last May, it was plausible to think Blaney would buck the trend of poor performances since winning at Charlotte nearly four months ago. However, it doesn’t look like Team Penske found the speed it needs at Texas, with Blaney being the worst-qualifying playoff driver in 23rd. He’s dropped from my lineup entirely but will be a must for Talladega.
No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott struggled on Saturday and will take the green flag from the 29th position. The team will likely need to flip the strategy at some point in the race to gain track position. The good news for Elliott fans is he has top 10s in 50% of his starts at Texas. The bad news – five of the last six races have resulted in finishes of 12th or worse.
William Byron vs. Martin Truex Jr.
It’s a bit of a surprise that neither driver made the final round of qualifying on Saturday. On the speed chart, they were near even, though Byron never made a 10-lap run. That’s probably by design, believing in its long-run speed. Truex got the nod in qualifying and will start 16th, but I’m sticking with Byron this weekend.
Chris Buescher vs. Kyle Busch
As you saw, both Buescher and Busch are in my lineup for Sunday. Up until Wallace put down a blistering pace as the last timed lap, it looked like Buescher was going to score the pole at his home race track. It wasn’t meant to be this year, but he did outpace Busch’s seventh-place qualifying effort. Busch ranked better than Buescher on all metrics in practice, and this has been one of his best tracks in recent years. The No. 8 team won last year, so there’s no change in my mindset for the race.
Ryan Blaney vs. Tyler Reddick
These two seemed to struggle more than most other playoff teams on Saturday. Reddick was the only Toyota driver to miss the final round of qualifying and was 13th out of 17 cars that made a 10-lap run. The only Fords to crack the top 16 in qualifying were from RFK, which has primarily been the case all summer. Joey Logano was the best Team Penske driver in practice and qualifying. The No. 45 car has more potential and can lean on its Toyota brethren to pick up the pace, whereas Blaney could be in for another long day.
Denny Hamlin vs. Kyle Larson
The best two drivers in the Round of 16 kickstarted the Round of 12 with the same speed. Both drivers continued jumping up the leaderboard the deeper the session got. Larson narrowly missed the final round of qualifying and will start 11th, while Hamlin aborted his chance for the pole after getting out of the groove in Turn 1. These two teams can’t get away from each other in the playoffs, and it wouldn’t surprise anyone if they finished first and second again. Having used both drivers twice already in the playoffs, I can only get myself to use one driver for my lineup. Larson it is.