Bristol was all about Chase Elliott. The NASCAR Cup driver ran away with Wednesday night's All-Star Race and the million dollar jackpot. Now, something less exciting but equally important is on the line for teams returning to the track for Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway: points.
The 3 p.m. event puts the series closer to the 2020 playoffs. Texas is a tricky track, one former Cup driver and NBC Sports NASCAR analyst Jeff Burton called "one of the most difficult."
"Turn 1 is so flat," Burton, a two-time Texas Cup Series race winner, told The Charlotte Observer. "It's just one of the weirdest, strangest corners on a racetrack on the circuit, so it's a challenging weekend in my opinion."
Burton also mentioned how the traction compound will impact the racing, which is something drivers expressed frustration with earlier this week. More PJ1 traction compound was laid at Kentucky Speedway between races last week despite being worn down to a level drivers preferred on Sunday.
"Luckily, we had a four-wide to the finish," Denny Hamlin said. "That saved the day as far as, 'Did we have a great race or not?' Man, I really wish (Speedway Motorsports, Inc.) in particular would just listen to the guidance in which the drivers and NASCAR give them when it comes to spraying these race tracks."
Burton commended teams for adapting to the unpredictability of the compound and the circumstances this season. There will again be no practice or qualifying laps before the 334-lap event, in line with NASCAR's continued coronavirus operations, but like Wednesday's race at Bristol, there will be fans.
Texas Motor Speedway is opening the race up to spectators, making it the first major sporting event in the state with fans in attendance since COVID-19 shut down sports in March. The state is allowing 50% capacity at the venue, meaning 67,500 fans are able to attend. Texas Motor Speedway president Eddie Gossage told The Oklahoman he doesn't expect to see quite that number on Sunday.
"We didn't expect to set any records for attendance," Gossage said. "We just wanted to make it available and give fans an option."
Earlier this week, the All-Star Race at Bristol became the first major sporting event in the U.S. with the most fans in attendance in the COVID-19 era. Bristol Motor Speedway estimated 25,000 to 30,000 fans attended, but some media outlets have projected the number to be closer to 20,000.
Regardless, NASCAR will again have a louder Victory Lane celebration this week as fans return. Burton said it could be one of three drivers celebrating.
_ Likely winners: No. 4 Kevin Harvick and No. 11 Denny Hamlin
Beyond their domination of the tracks this season, Harvick has had three wins in 34 Cup starts (22 top-10s), while Hamlin has had three in 28 starts (13 top-10s). They are currently ranked first and second, in that order, in playoff points.
"When I think about Texas, (Harvick) is so good and Hamlin is so good at rhythm tracks," Burton said. "Rhythm tracks meaning that you have to be so precise at the speed that you carry to the corner, the angle that you're approaching the corner, where your left side tires? That's their strength."
"They get into a rhythm and they can do it lap after lap after lap. They don't make mistakes, so Turn 1 at Texas? That has Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin written all over it," Burton said.
– Wild-card bet: No. 48 Jimmie Johnson
The Hendrick Chevrolet driver Johnson is still seeking a win this season, but Texas could bring that. He's won more times at the 1.44-mile track than Hamlin and Harvick combined, with seven Cup race wins and 22 top-10s in 33 starts.
"If you look at what (Johnson's) been doing and you throw the finishes out – I know you can't throw the finishes out – but if you did that, you see potential there," Burton said. "They have an opportunity to surprise people."
– Weather forecast for Fort Worth
Rain has held off for NASCAR's past two races, and it's expected to stay that way this weekend. The next element drivers will be battling, though? The heat. The National Weather Service is projecting sun with a high near 97 degrees Sunday afternoon in Fort Worth, Texas.