NASCAR Preview: Texas may be Alex Bowman’s last stand

Joey Logano, driver of Shell Pennzoil Ford, celebrates after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Hollywood Casino 400 October 2020

After Joey Logano’s display of defense in Kansas reinforced the importance of positioning on 1.5-mile tracks, it’s clear this Sunday’s race in Texas could be a contest of strategy and peripheral skill. Alex Bowman, for one, may prove a beneficiary.

Recap: Joey Logano’s defense made a statement in Kansas

oey Logano secured one of four championship-eligible spots for next month’s title-deciding race in Phoenix thanks to a 42-lap run to end last Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

The winning move may have been the final pit stop, on which Logano’s crew changed four tires without error, three one-tenths of a second ahead of the crew of then-leader Kevin Harvick. The ensuing green-flag run that concluded the race saw Logano use clean air and a high-downforce rules package stymying passes to his advantage, positioning his car to prevent Harvick from teeing up an attempt at a textbook pass.

The concept of blocking in auto racing leads to polarizing discussion, but following the race, Harvick was less gruff than anticipated, paying compliment to Logano’s impenetrable defense – Harvick’s car ranked as the fastest in the race and in the fourth quarter, specifically – that stood pat for 63 miles of white-knuckle driving.

“Joey did a good job of putting his car right in front of ours,” said Harvick. “With this package, every time you put your car in front of the car behind you, it takes the nose (of the car) away. We just had a little bit of trouble trying to get the nose to turn when he would take our lane.”

Kurt Busch won in similar fashion four weeks ago on an identically sized track in Las Vegas, thwarting the likes of Denny Hamlin, Alex Bowman and Matt DiBenedetto utilizing variations of his preferred line around the 1.5-mile circuit.

The NASCAR Cup Series turns to another 1.5-mile track this weekend, where the importance of speed – the fastest car has won just once in 10 races this season on tracks fitting this description – shouldn’t be prioritized over a singular focus on track position.

New tire means this Texas race won’t look like the last one

Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon, and Tyler Reddick, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Bank of America ROVAL 400 October 2020

Tire wear, or a lack thereof, was the storyline following this summer’s race in Texas when Austin Dillon, in the 15th-fastest car, opted to forgo fresh tires on his final pit stop and held both Tyler Reddick and Logano at bay across three restarts before scoring the surprise win.

Such a strategy might not be completely off the table this weekend – passing in clean air should still prove difficult – but the right-side tires used at Texas this summer have been swapped out for the Goodyear tire compound used recently in Las Vegas and Kansas. 

Brad Keselowski, who finished ninth in Texas earlier this season but 33rd or worse in three of the four Texas races before that, noted that the switch will change how drivers attack the track.

“Tires make a big difference. They dramatically change the way cars drive,” said Keselowski. “The tire we ran last year seemed like it was more about how you get through traffic. The tire we ran this year seems more about how the car handles and getting that balance right. Now, we’re going back to pretty much the same tire we had last year.”

If passing in dirty air – the term for driving in close proximity to other cars – is more on the table than it previously was, drivers like Dillon, who relied on a balanced car will be forced to lean more heavily on their own abilities. 

This could prove beneficial to a certain championship underdog.

Texas may represent Alex Bowman’s last stand

On the whole, Alex Bowman is a minus passer, but across the last two seasons he proved a more efficient passer on 1.5-mile tracks when the tire compound he was on skewed toward driver skill, not balance. He ranked 18th in surplus passing value on tracks like Texas last year; he ranked 31st this year, prior to Kansas, a mark that should rise based on the change to a tire that better suits him.

Additionally, he’s carrying a lot of speed on the 1.5-mile facilities, having ranked as the third-fastest car four weeks ago in Las Vegas and fifth last weekend in Kansas, where he finished third. He remains playoff eligible, though is considered a long shot to clinch a spot in the final round; a win at Texas suffices as his most likely path toward advancing.

The win, though, likely goes through Harvick, whose 3.14-place average finish across the last seven races in Texas is NASCAR’s best by three whole positions. He’s a heavy NASCAR betting favorite this Sunday for good reason; dating back to 2017, he’s led nearly 23 percent of all laps at this racetrack. Smooth road profiles suit Harvick well, and Texas’ track was repaved prior to the ’17 season.

Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex, winless on 1.5-mile tracks this season, rank first and second in Central Speed on this track type as measured by Motorsports Analytics. Blaney never led a lap or finished better than 12th prior to the repave; since then, he’s at least 40 laps in four different races and has scored finishes of eighth place or better in five of his last six attempts. Truex, in 30 career starts at Texas, has never won. Both drivers are plus passers on 1.5-mile tracks, ranked 11th and 12th in surplus passing value, respectively.

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David Smith is a writer and analyst for MotorsportsAnalytics.com and the co-host of Positive Regression: A Motorsports Analytics Podcast. Prior to BetMGM, he was a contributor for The Washington Post, NASCAR.com and The Athletic. He previously served 13 years as a NASCAR driver talent scout on behalf of sports agencies MMI, Spire and RSMG.

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