Podium Preview: AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas

Without a doubt, Denny Hamlin wants an AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 win at Texas. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Without a doubt, Denny Hamlin wants an AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 win at Texas. (Photo Credit: Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

All things considered, the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas proves as wild as a Texas tussle. No, Round 34 of the NASCAR Cup Series season isn’t exactly like a Wild West showdown, but the stakes are just as important.

Furthermore, it’s the penultimate race of the Round of 8, the penultimate leg of the NASCAR Playoffs before we decide on the Championship 4 contenders for Phoenix. Certainly, this 334-lap race isn’t an easy task, but it’s one that this field is prepared for before the green flag unfurls.

Each race weekend, The Podium Finish’s panelists, consisting of columnists, photographers, and fans, preview the racing action. This weekend, Ashley HobbsCody ShoppeKobe LambethLuis TorresMatt SisolerMatteo MarcheschiMichelle RaynorStephen Conley, Terra Jones, and yours truly discuss the latest Silly Season transactions and Jimmie Johnson’s best shot at victory.

Podium Preview: AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas
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Question 1
Ladies and gentlemen, the Cable Guy is going Cup racing in 2021.

Ladies and gentlemen, the Cable Guy is going Cup racing in 2021.

Two young guns in Chase Briscoe and Erik Jones race for two renowned Cup Series rides in the No. 14 and No. 43 cars starting next year. What can we expect from both drivers in these premier NASCAR rides?

Tiongson :  If Chase Briscoe can bring the same level of confidence we’ve seen from him in the past year and a half, I’d say he could have a pretty solid rookie campaign. Yes, he’s going to take on a car that will be obsolete after the 2021 season. However, he’s a fast learner, he doesn’t mind letting his car run on the edge of control, and he’s also a very smart, patient driver. I expect at least a victory next season, perhaps at one of the road course races like COTA or Sonoma.

As for Erik Jones, some might say that it’s a downgrade from his No. 20 ride with Joe Gibbs Racing. However, he will be reunited with crew chief Jerry Baxter, a talented crew chief who’s pretty adept at working with young, aggressive drivers. I think we will see this bunch be a top-15 team and possibly contend for a Playoff spot in 2021 with a possible win at the superspeedway races.

Hobbs :  It’s always difficult to truly evaluate a rookie coming up from the other series because the world of Cup is just that different. But with Erik Jones, he’s been here for a bit and we’ve seen what he can do. Moving from a top tier Joe Gibbs Racing ride down a rung likely won’t shine through for Jones.

I’m sure Chase Briscoe will have huge expectations for himself and put on him from the fans – but that’s too much to ask for from a rookie. If Briscoe and the team can manage expectations like for any rookie, and keep his nose clean, he could have a bright future.

Torres :  Chase Briscoe should be able to adapt to the Cup Series quite well. The No. 14 team has been the weakest entry out of the whole SHR bunch, wins and consistency wise. Having a gifted racer will do that squad many wonders, which is why “Smoke” is so confident about his latest Cup signee.

As for Erik Jones, it’s not going to be all sunshine and rainbows. He may not have the greatest results due to RPM not being on par with Joe Gibbs Racing. However, this is the best opportunity for him to prove to everyone he’s one of the most underrated drivers in the sport today. I’m happy he still has a ride. While it’s a bit of a downgrade, I’m glad Richard Petty and the gang sees something in Jones like I’ve seen when he worked his way up the racing ladder.

Lambeth :  For Chase Briscoe, it would not surprise me if we saw a similar performance to Cole Custer’s rookie campaign. It may take a moment for him to get comfortable with the Cup cars. Then, you will see improvement throughout the course of the season. He will likely have some flashy runs and there should certainly be potential to steal a win on the superspeedways. 

Briscoe has developed into a solid road racer, so he could be a threat at one of the six road course races on the schedule as well. In addition, he is a winner of the Truck Series race at Eldora, so he might be a threat for the Bristol dirt race. He has some possibilities!

If Richard Petty Motorsports can secure sponsorship, the team can continue its progress up the grid with Erik Jones behind the wheel. This will be a new adventure for Jones, driving a car that is not as competitive as his current ride at Joe Gibbs Racing. I think this is a great opportunity for him to maximize his equipment.

If he has the 25th fastest car and finishes 18th with it, then it will further emphasize how talented he is. It will be interesting to see how RPM and Jones perform together. He could outperform his equipment and put himself in a place for a better ride, or he could stick with the team, attempting to bring the Petty name back to its glory days.

Conley :  I think we’re going to see a push on both of these drivers. Jones is a proven Cup Series winner but going to a developing yet underfunded team in RPM. He will have chances, just as Bubba did. But, I don’t see a big year in 2021.

As for Briscoe, he’s a future star in the Cup series. But I think we need to give him room to breathe and allow the expectations to be lower. Then, let’s allow him to blow them out of the water if he can. He will be a regular frontrunner but don’t forget he’s learning the Cup car for one year before we get the Next Gen. Then everyone is on the same playing field. 

Jones :   It’ll be a different year for both drivers. While Jones hasn’t had a star-studded year, I think he will be able to bring some veteran information to the RPM camp. He’s a talented driver and he will make some noise one way or another! 

As far as Briscoe, coming off a 9 (or more?!) win season, I don’t think he’s expecting anything like that from his rookie year in Cup. He is a smart driver and it’s not his first rodeo. I have no doubt he will take the opportunity to learn and take advantage of situations when able. I think he will contend for a few wins, but not sure if he will visit victory lane in 2021.  

Question 2
Can Jimmie Johnson return to Victory Lane today? (Photo Credit: Landen Ciardullo/TPF)

Can Jimmie Johnson return to Victory Lane today? (Photo Credit: Landen Ciardullo/TPF)

With three races left in Jimmie Johnson’s full-time NASCAR Cup Series career, which race does the seven-time champion have his best shot to win a race?

Marcheschi :  I’d have to say this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson has a whopping seven wins at the track, five of which have come in the Gen 6 era (since 2013). This recent success certainly favors Texas, but overall numbers favor Martinsville, where Johnson has nine victories.

However, only two have come in the Gen 6 era. His most recent win at Texas was the 2015 fall race. Phoenix looks like the least likely of the bunch. Johnson only has four victories, and none in the Gen 6 era. His last victory at Phoenix came back in the fall of 2009.

Shoppe :  Back in his heyday, Jimmie Johnson was a threat to win at these three tracks each time he went there! Unfortunately, we are a couple years past these days. I am one of many, if not everyone here, that wants to see Johnson win one more time! It would be such a great moment and such a popular win but I don’t see it happening.

If there’s a chance, it could be at Martinsville. Much like his former teammate Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson could get his final win at the paper clip! With all the potential carnage at the short track, seven-time could sneak his way through to get that big win! 

Sisoler :  By luck of the schedule, Jimmie Johnson has been given a few chances to go out with a win before switching from a No. 48 Hendrick Camaro to a No. 48 CGR IndyCar. Texas and Martinsville are two of his strongest tracks. My money goes towards Texas. He’s been very strong there even in the current cars.

Raynor :  Jimmie Johnson has the best shot to win a race at Martinsville. He’s done well at this track and this would be the track he could possibly go out and win for the 10th time. 

Without a doubt, that’s two solid laps around Texas Motor Speedway! Before we return to the Lone Star State, let’s review our Kansas race and points reports from last Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400!
Indeed, our freaking machine keeps doing machine things.

Indeed, our freaking machine keeps doing machine things.

Not surprisingly, it's leading the way.

Not surprisingly, it’s leading the way.

Next, Ashley Hobbs trades her surfboard for a calculator as she’s Crunching Numbers for Sunday’s AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas!
First, here's how your favorite team fares in the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas.

First, here’s how your favorite team fares in the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas.

Are you looking Ford to today's race?

Are you looking Ford to today’s race?

Since 2005, the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 winner has an average starting spot of 8.7, leads an average of 124.3 laps, starts within top-five 53.33 percent of the time, and starts within the top-10 80 percent of the time.

Since 2005, the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 winner has an average starting spot of 8.7, leads an average of 124.3 laps, starts within top-five 53.33 percent of the time, and starts within the top-10 80 percent of the time.

Race winner, MTJ?

Race winner, MTJ?

Next, here's your trends in the past 10 editions of the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500.

Next, here’s your trends in the past 10 editions of the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500.

Now, look at the trends in the past five runnings of the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 races.

Now, look at the trends in the past five runnings of the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 races.

Legit, are you surprised?

Legit, are you surprised?

Last but not least, here’s our picks for Sunday’s AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas!
Everything's bigger in Texas, even with our race picks.

Everything’s bigger in Texas, even with our race picks.

Torres :  Denny Hamlin is looking to punch his ticket into the Championship 4. After a rough day at Kansas, now more than ever, he must deliver to assure he is a legit title threat. He’s been vocal about results being deceiving because there have been times he hasn’t had the best car. Both senses of urgency should translate to another Lone Star State victory.

Sisoler :  Denny Hamlin is due for a big race and as they say, “Everything is bigger in Texas!” Expect the new team owner to win for his current team on Sunday!

TPF Stats :  He won in 2017… 2018… is the defending race winner… how can you not take Kevin Harvick to make it four in a row and further solidify himself as the top driver this season?

Jones :  With victory just out of reach last week, this seems like a good time to play the Kevin Harvick card.

Shoppe :  With his record at Texas in the playoffs and his record this year in general, I have to take the low hanging fruit and pick Kevin Harvick to win Sunday!

Hobbs :  While he may not have a victory at Texas Motor Speedway in the fall, he always runs well. On top of that, Martin Truex, Jr. also has the fourth-best average finish on intermediate tracks this year. Currently being below the cutoff for contending for the championship, this is his time to shine.

Conley :  While Alex Bowman had a third-place finish and one of the best cars and still lost points because of Joey Logano’s win at Kansas, this will be his best shot to move on. And he’s had success with his back to the wall.

Tiongson :  Beyond the fact that Jimmie Johnson is driving a really awesome looking No. 48 Ally Chevy Camaro, I suspect this former Texas race winner returning to Victory Lane at last.

Marcheschi :  While Kyle Busch has had…well, 2020, he will shock everyone with a victory at Texas. Busch has three wins in the Lone Star State, including most recently in 2018. He has 13 top-five finishes there in 29 races, including a fourth-place finish this summer. Despite being eliminated from the playoffs, Busch has put together a decent postseason, with five top-10 finishes in seven races. Kyle Busch won’t go winless in 2020, much to everyone’s surprise.

Raynor :  Brad Keselowski is good at this track. 

Lambeth :  Team Penske will score back-to-back Cup victories, but Ryan Blaney will be the one in victory lane at Texas! As a non-playoff driver, it will not help him advance to the Championship 4. However, this would be a great way to close the season on a positive note for a driver, who many believed would contend for the title.

Race fans, thanks for joining us for our preview of the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

We’re ready for some racing. How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into this today’s race? Who are your favorites to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team for their amazing efforts this week!  Let’s stay connected as we focus on getting back together on the track soon!  Please stay safe, wear a mask, and wash your hands often.

The opinions and thoughts expressed in Podium Preview are solely of the authors. They do not reflect any organizations affiliated with the participants and author outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes. Ultimately, they are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. A Boston native turned Austinite, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it's about anything with an engine and four wheels, it'll be here on TPF, by me or by one of my talented columnists who absolutely have a passion for racing.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication. Proud to be from Massachusetts, just as happy to be a Texan.

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