After seeing major names such as Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. exit the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in the last round, drivers have two races left to avoid suffering the same fate.
The next step in the process comes Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, with Jimmie Johnson and the rest of those alive leading the way into the AAA Texas 500.
Johnson won the most recent race, the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, putting the other seven drivers left standing at a disadvantage before the Chase field gets halved.
Here’s a look at everything to know about the event.
Where: Texas Motor Speedway, Fort Worth
When: Sunday, 2 p.m. ET
Sprint Cup Standings
RK DRIVER POINTS WINS 1 Jimmie Johnson 4044 4 2 Denny Hamlin 4039 3 3 Matt Kenseth 4039 2 4 Kyle Busch 4037 4 5 Joey Logano 4033 2 6 Kevin Harvick 4021 4 7 Kurt Busch 4019 1 8 Carl Edwards 4005 2 9 Martin Truex Jr. 2226 4 10 Brad Keselowski 2207 4 11 Austin Dillon 2187 0 12 Chase Elliott 2185 0 13 Kyle Larson 2183 1 14 Tony Stewart 2156 1 15 Jamie McMurray 2143 0 16 Chris Buescher 2123 1
NASCAR at Texas Lineup
Position Driver 1 Austin Dillon 2 Joey Logano 3 Kevin Harvick 4 Brad Keselowski 5 Kyle Larson 6 Paul Menard 7 Matt Kenseth 8 Ryan Blaney 9 Carl Edwards 10 Kurt Busch 11 Chase Elliott 12 Martin Truex Jr. 13 Casey Mears 14 A.J. Allmendinger 15 Jamie McMurray 16 Alex Bowman 17 Denny Hamlin 18 Ryan Newman 19 Jimmie Johnson 20 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 21 Aric Almirola 22 Danica Patrick 23 Tony Stewart 24 Kyle Busch 25 Greg Biffle 26 Trevor Bayne 27 Clint Bowyer 28 Michael McDowell 29 Brian Scott 30 Chris Buescher 31 Kasey Kahne 32 Regan Smith 33 Matt DiBenedetto 34 Landon Cassill 35 Ryan Ellis 36 David Ragan 37 Michael Annett 38 Reed Sorensen 39 Joey Gase 40 Josh Wise
Drivers to Watch
Fourth in the standings, Kyle Busch needs a strong finish Sunday to keep ahead of the hungry drivers behind him.
Busch has been relatively quiet as of late. He finished fifth at the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 but hasn’t hoisted a checkered flag since mid-June, and since then he has finished as the runner-up just once.
Still, the quiet factor around Busch isn’t all negative—he’s in contention to repeat as champion. In fact, Busch told USA Today’s Jeff Gluck his team continues to meet expectations better than a year ago:
We set out last year what the game plan needed to be—what we thought it should be to go to the championship and contend all the way to the end—and it worked. There were times during that where we didn’t quite meet expectations, but we made it through. This time around, we’ve done a better job of meeting those expectations.
It’s an interesting perspective. Feel free to add in the fact Busch won in Texas earlier this year, and one can start to see why he’s one of the top drivers to watch.
What better way for Busch to send a message to the rest of the contenders than to go ahead and secure an automatic bid and step into the spotlight than with another win at Texas?
Kevin Harvick will need to pull some unexpected magic to win at Texas.
Is Kevin Harvick the next four-win driver to wave goodbye to the Chase?
After one race in the Round of 8, it sure looks like it. Harvick sits sixth in the standings and wasn’t encouraging at all last time out, finishing 20th.
The win in Kansas three races ago seems like forever ago, especially considering he has now finished 20th or worse in three of his last five outings.
It gets worse: Harvick has never won at Texas.
He hasn’t been shy about his recent troubles, according to ESPN.com’s Bob Pockrass.
"We’ve been fortunate to win a couple of races, but it seems like every other week we’ve had to navigate something or work through something to get the best finish we can," Harvick said. "Hopefully, we can clean all those things up and do a little better over the final couple weeks."
Harvick is one of the best drivers in the sport. He’s great at Phoenix International Raceway, site of this round’s final race before the cutdown. But he knows better than to lean on that to make the final round, so expect him to come out gunning for a checkered flag Sunday.
This is almost silly.
As mentioned, Johnson won at Martinsville after leading 92 laps. But that’s not all—he won this exact event last year. Few NASCAR drivers touch Johnson’s dominance at Texas, as he owns six wins and 14 top-five finishes in 26 appearances.
Johnson’s reaction to winning and punching an automatic bid was about as business as usual as it gets, as Team Lowe’s Racing captured:
"To punch our ticket and know our chance at se7en is alive, is pretty awesome." @JimmieJohnson
— Team Lowe’s Racing (@LowesRacing) October 30, 2016
There is no reason for Johnson to pull back. The man assured a spot at a title and can play spoiler and perhaps manipulate how his chances stack up in the final round via his performances over the next two races.
Given his history at Texas, it is almost as if Johnson would have to try to post a bad finish to do so.
While there rests all of zero pressure on Johnson’s shoulders Sunday, he knows better than most how to win at Texas and what he risks if he lets momentum slip through his fingers at this stage of the season.
Stats and info courtesy of ESPN.com unless otherwise specified.
Follow Chris Roling (@Chris_Roling) on Twitter.