Getty Images

Of the three rounds of the NASCAR playoffs leading into the Championship 4, none holds the potential to destroy an entire season's worth of work quite like the Round of 12. A trip to Talladega Superspeedway is enough to keep the 12 remaining playoff drivers up at night, and the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval does nothing for their nerves either. But in anxiously anticipating what could come at Talladega and at the Roval, there's a real danger in looking past the Texas Motor Speedway.

Through various configurations throughout its lifetime, Texas has proven to be a perilous place where a driver's race can change suddenly and abruptly. That was very much the case for multiple playoff drivers last year, which creates a great deal of intrigue for what kind of impact this year's Autotrader EchoPark Automotive 400 will have as the opening race of the Round of 12.

How to Watch the NASCAR playoffs at Texas

Date: Sunday, Sept. 24
Location: Texas Motor Speedway -- Fort Worth, Texas
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: USA Network
Stream: fubo (try for free)

What to Watch

There's already something quite different about this year's trip to Texas, as Sunday's race has been shortened from what was often a slog of a 500-miler without the prestige of one of NASCAR's traditional 500-mile races down to a more suitable 400 miles. Beyond that, exactly what version of Texas that's going to be seen this weekend is anyone's guess.

The current asymmetrical Texas configuration has become much maligned since its introduction in 2017, particularly when it comes to the speedway's overuse of traction compound to the point that it actually stained the asphalt and has made any area of the track beyond the bottom groove virtually unusuable due to an extreme dropoff in grip.

That's made racing at Texas almost wholly reliant on track position due to the sheer amount of difficult involved in setting up and making a pass as well as sustained high speeds. Much of the drama in last year's race came not from battles for position, but from a series of eight different tire failures -- several of which took out playoff contenders.

In an effort to prevent further tire issues, Goodyear has introduced new right side tires for this weekend after conducting a tire test back in July. But tires nonwithstanding, Texas is now over six years removed from its reconfiguration and repave, and there's some anecdotal evidence to suggest the track's characteristics could be changing enough to lend itself to a better show.

This spring's IndyCar race at Texas was very well-received, with 26 lead changes and constant passes for position throughout the field. While comparisons between stock cars and open-wheel cars are not necessarily fair given the radical weight, power and aerodynamic differences between the two, the improved racing in IndyCar offers some hope that Texas has aged enough and the PJ1 traction compound has faded enough that this weekend's Cup race can play to the strengths of the Next Gen car on mile-and-a-half tracks.

If that doesn't end up being the case, expect a lot of discussion about what Texas' future looks like -- particularly given that another potential resurfacing and reconfiguration has already been discussed by track officials.

News of the Week

  • This week, many in the NASCAR industry have mourned the loss of Sherry Pollex, the longtime girlfriend of Martin Truex Jr. and the daughter of former NASCAR Xfinity Series champion car owner Greg Pollex. Pollex, who became greatly admired and beloved thanks to her courage in a nine-year battle with ovarian cancer and advocacy for those suffering from both ovarian and pediatric cancers, died last Sunday at the age of 44.
  • Langley Speedway driver Connor Hall has been named the 2023 NASCAR Advance Auto Parts Weekly Series champion for the first time in his career. The 26-year-old from Hampton, Virginia earned the title by virtue of 18 total wins in 26 Weekly Series races between Langley, Hickory Motor Speedway and Southern National Motorsports Park. Hall has also earned the 2023 title in the Southeast Region of NASCAR's local levels.

Driver to Watch

The most stunning development of last weekend at Bristol was the elimination of defending Cup champion Joey Logano from the playoffs following a mid-race accident, which has put a period on what's been a down year for Team Penske as a whole. Now, there's only one Penske driver -- Ryan Blaney -- who can keep that period from becoming an exclamation point.

Blaney enters the Round of 12 ranked 11th in the standings, six points below the cut line, and his quiet opening to the playoffs has mirrored the lack of noise he has made since winning the Coca-Cola 600 back in May. Blaney has had only four top-10 finishes and not a single result better than ninth since Sonoma in June, which has him on pace for career-low statistics -- his four top-five finishes in 2023 are his fewest since 2017, and his 13 top-10 finishes would be his lowest since joining Team Penske's Cup program in 2018.

Blaney is one of three Ford drivers who remain in the playoffs, but he's become overshadowed by the resurgence of RFK Racing as Brad Keselowski and Chris Buescher have come to be much more viable as deep playoff contenders. But this weekend offers Blaney a decent chance to change the narrative -- he had a strong car at Texas last year, leading 29 laps on his way to a fourth-place finish.

Pick to Win

William Byron (+800): Historically, William Byron has never won a race this late in the season in his Cup career, and his statistics during the playoffs and fall months haven't been the greatest either. But Byron has taken a step forward in 2023 and showed little signs of turning into a pumpkin during the Round of 16. Now back at the top of the playoff standings at the points reset, Byron is a bona fide championship contender and can prove this weekend that he has the right stuff to make it all the way to the Championship 4.

Over the past two years at Texas, Byron has a second-place finish with 55 laps led in 2021 and a fourth-place finish with 42 laps led in 2022. If the leap forwards he's taken as a whole carries over into his Texas performance, I think Byron will be tough to beat on Sunday.