Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton – Getty Images
NASCAR – Texas Motor Speedway
Sunday, October 17th – 2:00 p.m. EDT – NBC
It is championship time in the NASCAR Cup Series. The modern playoff format is not particularly good or bad at determining a deserving champion, but the rhythm of it does at least make some sense: The Round of 16, on a wide variety of interesting but relatively fair tracks, generally eliminates the pretenders, teams who made the playoff off just one win or consistently average finishes. The Round of 12, on some of NASCAR's wildest and most difficult tracks, eliminates one or two great cars as it pares the field down to just those with a real shot at a championship. This leads us here, to the Round of 8, where drivers who came into the season expecting a shot at a title reckon with the reality that only four will still have that shot when the series heads to Phoenix in three weeks.
Unlike the two prior rounds, the Round of 8 schedule is significantly less interesting. Two of the three races, tomorrow's event at Texas and next Sunday's race at Kansas, are 550 horsepower 1.5-milers, the much-derided events that NASCAR has been trying to spice up with regulation changes for the past decade. While they may not be exciting races, they are an excellent representation of the actual schedule and they race more predictably than anywhere else the series visits. Generally, that proves to be a significant advantage for the best drivers and teams in the field, some of which will already have massive Playoff Point advantages accrued over the regular season anyway.
Barring crashes in two of the next three races, that is the situation that should get Kyle Larson through. With his playoff points, he should lock into the field before Martinsville. The same generally goes for a winner in at least one of the next two races, if not both. That sort of luxury, to go to what has often eclipsed the season finale as the most intense race of the season with no worries at all, is the sort of thing that wins seasons. It makes these next two races worth watching whether or not they are particularly exciting on track, starting at a Texas Motor Speedway that ceded one of its regular season dates to the Circuit of the Americas in return for the All-Star Race after a half-decade of aggressively hunting for on-track excitement of its own.