The Round of 8 continued on Sunday with the AAA Texas 500 from Texas Motor Speedway. With Kyle Busch having punched his ticket to the Championship Round, this left seven drivers eager to do the same. Despite a dominating late run by Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick made a move on the dominant #78 to win the race and move on to Homestead.
During qualifying, Kurt Busch shattered the track record with a speed of 200.915 miles per hour to win his first pole since Las Vegas in 2016. Starting alongside him was Denny Hamlin, who was greeted by boos following his incident with Chase Elliott in the previous week’s race at Martinsville. Elliott, Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano, Trevor Bayne, Reed Sorenson, Corey LaJoie, and Gray Gaulding were unable to set times as they were stuck in technical inspection, relegating them to the rear. Paul Menard joined them at the back after missing qualifying for paternity leave; Richard Childress Racing’s Xfinity Series driver Daniel Hemric qualified the #27 in 21st.
Hamlin cleared Busch as they entered turn two to lead the first lap. During the early scramble, Kyle Busch and Brad Keselowski made contact, cutting the latter’s right rear tire and forcing him to pit. Ku. Busch fell to 3rd when Erik Jones passed him to make it a Joe Gibbs Racing 1–2. By lap 30, Kenseth, Elliott, and Logano had entered the top 20 from their starting positions of 35th, 34th, and 36th, respectively.
Kyle Larson took the lead from Hamlin on lap 47, with Harvick passing Hamlin for 2nd shortly after. Green flag stops began on lap 54, during which Hamlin collided with Ku. Busch as he attempted to exit his pit box. Austin Dillon, Elliott, and McDowell each shared the lead as the leaders pitted, with McDowell leading his first laps since the Dover race in June. McDowell pitted on lap 61, which allowed Ryan Newman to become the leader until he also pitted. Upon completion of the pit cycle, Larson was back in 1st until Harvick passed him on lap 70. During stops, Jimmie Johnson reported signs of a vibration and pitted.
Harvick went on to win Stage #1, followed by Truex, Hamlin, Larson, Ku. Busch, Jones, Kenseth, Blaney, A. Dillon, and Suárez. During stops between stages, Hamlin won the race off pit road to become the new leader for the start of Stage #2 on lap 91. On the first lap of the new stage, Hamlin exited the groove and nearly hit the outside wall in turns three and four, but managed to recover. His teammate Suárez, on the other hand, was not as lucky as he made contact with Kasey Kahne in turn one, spinning the two. Ky. Busch suffered damage to his right front after the green flag, forcing him to pit for repairs.
The restart took place on lap 99 with Harvick and Larson comprising the front row. Starting on the outside, Larson cleared Harvick in turn three to lead. By lap 129, the margin had grown to over two seconds. Two laps later, Larson lapped a struggling Johnson, putting the seven-time champion three laps down; after his vibration, Johnson was plagued by further problems for much of the day and was running 30th at the time of falling down by three laps. By lap 138, Larson’s lead had expanded to 3.996 seconds over Harvick before pitting five laps later. This allowed Kenseth to lead until he also pitted, with Dale Earnhardt Jr. inheriting the lead. After two laps, Earnhardt pitted and Kahne took the lead; after Kahne pitted with nine to go in the stage, Larson was cycled back into 1st. Johnson’s poor day continued when he pitted three laps later for fuel. Larson went on to win his fifth stage, followed by Harvick, Blaney, Truex, Elliott, Hamlin, Ku. Busch, Kenseth, Jones, and A. Dillon.
Kenseth stayed out, while Truex led the pitting cars to join the #20 on the front row for the start of Stage #3 on lap 178. Two laps later, Landon Cassill was hit in the rear by Clint Bowyer as they entered turn one, spinning the #34 up the track. Another restart took place on lap 186 with the same front row as Truex pulled away on the outside line. Green flag stops commenced on lap 226; eight laps later, McDowell spun in turn two to bring out the caution. Truex led the field to the green on lap 239, though Kenseth had the run off turn four to edge him out for the lap led. On lap 242, Ray Black Jr. spun off turn two and hit the inside wall. Another Jr. in Earnhardt Jr. had problems of his own when he reported problems with his left front hub, forcing him to go to the garage for repairs.
Truex was once again the leader as the field came to the green on lap 246. 23 laps later, Black and Jeffrey Earnhardt spun in turn one. During pit stops, Hamlin, Logano, and Kahne took two tires to become the top three for the restart, with Kahne gaining 13 positions on his stop. Earnhardt Jr. returned to the race for the green flag on lap 274, but was 30 laps down. Hamlin led Truex as Ky. Busch pitted for a flat left rear.
On lap 283, Larson brushed the turn four wall but kept the #42 going as he drove into turn two, during which it hit the wall again. This time, he was unable to save the car as it burst into flames, bringing out the caution and continuing a rough stretch of races for the Californian with his third consecutive DNF. The red flag was brought out for track cleanup and was lifted after 10 minutes and 29 seconds.
The restart took place on lap 288 as Truex led. Although Truex’s lead grew momentarily, Harvick began to close in on the #78, keen on ending Truex’s dominance at the 1.5-mile tracks. With lapped cars in the way, Harvick saw the gap to the leader diminish. With ten laps to go, Truex’s progress was hindered by Bayne and allowed Harvick to make the pass on the backstretch. Truex could not regain his momentum as Harvick drove off to win his 37th career Cup race (and the first at Texas) and lock himself into the final round. Truex settled for 2nd as his points success enabled him to also advance to Homestead. Behind the two were Hamlin, Keselowski, Blaney, Logano, Elliott, Ku. Busch, and Jones. Ky. Busch (19th) and Johnson (27th) were the lone playoff drivers to finish outside the top ten.
“I’m happy to finally get to Victory Lane here,” Harvick stated. “It’s been a long time coming. […] I knew I had a really good car and I knew I had to do something different, and I started driving it into turn one a whole lot deeper. I saw the #42 doing that early in the race. I was just worried I didn’t have the brakes to continue to do that all day, so I waited until the end and was able to get on the outside of Martin. I got him loose as I brushed across the back of him and was able to get on the outside, and my car was pretty good on the outside down there.”
Next week, eight playoff drivers will become four as the Cup Series travels to Phoenix Raceway for the Can-Am 500. Logano is the defending race winner.
Featured image from @NASCAR