Photo: Stephen A. Arce/ASP, Inc.

Young Guns Leave Texas in Must-Win Position to Advance in Playoffs

By David Morgan, Associate Editor

FORT WORTH, Texas – The three youngest drivers in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs – Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, and Kyle Larson – have all won races during the postseason, but for any of them to be able to take the next step and be real threats for the championship, they will have to win next weekend at Phoenix.

Entering Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, all three would have liked to of taken a step forward, but for all three, it was more or less a step back.

Elliott, who kicked off the Round of 8 with a double whammy of a blown engine in practice and a broken axle in the race at Martinsville, came into Texas already in the hole points-wise and things didn’t get any better once the green flag flew in the Lone Star State.

Just 10 laps into the race, Elliott’s No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet broke loose rounding Turn 2, with Elliott slamming the outside wall and ending any hope for a decent finish. Though he was able to limp around and make laps the remainder of the night, Elliott would only manage a 32nd place finish, 22 laps down.

The finish dropped Elliott 78 markers behind the fourth and final transfer spot heading to the Arizona desert mile.

“I made a mistake, got loose and crashed,” Elliott said. “I really hate that happened. Obviously, it’s not good and not what you’re looking for. It’s just my mistake and there’s really no excuse for it. It’s just all eyes on Phoenix.

“Obviously, today was very self-inflicted. I made a mistake that there’s really no excuse for and that’s what you get. You make mistakes, you put yourself in a bad position and that was all on me today.

“Can’t do anything about it now. Onward.”

Larson, who now sits seventh in the standings, 23 points back, looked to be in a position to capitalize Sunday, finishing the first two stages in third and fourth, respectively, but things seemed to fall apart for the No. 42 team in the final stage.

While handling issues starting creeping in, Larson noted the real kicker was the lap 243 spin by Bubba Wallace that brought out the caution. Larson eventually crossed the line in 12th place.

“I’m not really sure yet,” Larson said of the handling issues. “But it was just vibrating really bad and it lost a lot of speed. So, something happened. But what really killed our race was the No. 43 (Bubba Wallace) spinning on purpose. They put us a lap down. I think we were up to fourth at that point. It really killed us and a few others. You hate to see that and be affected by it, but it is what it is. There’s nothing you can do about it now.

We’ll try and go to Phoenix and get a win. I don’t really know who is in front of us. I feel like we had a good shot to win up until the No. 43 spun in front of us.”

Though Larson has never won at Phoenix, he stated that he is confident his team can be successful next weekend, especially with the track applying the same PJ1 traction compound that was used at Texas.

“I felt like once the traction compound came in today, I was really fast; probably the best on top, for sure,” Larson said. “Next week they’re going to be doing it at Phoenix as well. I hope that opens up some lanes for me. I feel like there’s nobody better at finding different lanes and things like that to find speed. So, hopefully it lends to benefit us because we need to get a win. We can do it. I’ve been close to winning there before. So, we’ve just got to work hard.”

Last, but not least, was Blaney, who leaves Texas tied with Larson in points and brought home the best finish of the three young guns with an eighth-place run. Despite their own struggles, Blaney was able to hold his own down the stretch to keep things somewhat manageable heading to Phoenix.

“It was a long night,” Blaney said. “We struggled really bad all night with track position and then I felt like even when we got a little bit of it we still weren’t very good. We tried a lot of things tonight and they didn’t really work. Unfortunately, we didn’t really get many stage points and the 4 winning didn’t help our cause but we have to run better than that anyway.”

As far as his game plan for Phoenix, Blaney kept the outlook for next weekend simple.

“Gotta win,” he said. “Hopefully we go do that.”

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.