Harvick, Hamlin still predictable Cup favorites at hot Texas

Sports

FILE – In this Nov. 3, 2019, file photo, Kevin Harvick (4) and Aric Almirola (10) battle for position during a NASCAR Cup Series auto race at Texas Motor Speedway, in Fort Worth, Texas. The massive grandstands at Texas Motor Speedway stretch about 2/3 of a mile long, and were empty for the last race there. There could still be some feeling of emptiness Sunday, preferable for social distancing, even when the NASCAR Cup Series race becomes the first major sporting event in Texas in more than four months to allow spectators. It will be one of the largest gatherings of any kind in the state since the start of the coronavirus pandemic. (AP Photo/Larry Papke, File)

FORT WORTH, Texas (AP) — Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin can easily be considered favorites for the first summertime race at Texas, even in this unpredictable and unprecedented NASCAR Cup season.

While there have been no practice sessions or qualifying laps since racing resumed two months ago, Harvick and Hamlin are both three-time winners at Texas, and combined to win four of the last five races there. They are tied with a Cup-best four wins apiece this season, and all but one of those have come since mid-May.

The 1 1/2-mile track could get slick on a scorching Sunday afternoon, with temperatures forecast in the upper 90s and the heat index into the 100s. It will be about 30 degrees warmer than on March 29, the day the race was originally scheduled before the coronavirus pandemic.

“You’d be hard to bet against those two. This track, with one and two being so flat and having so little grip, that’s right up Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick’s alley,” NBC Sports analyst Jeff Burton said. “That’s right what they’re so good at, so I expect they’ll both run very well.”

Burton, who won the inaugural Texas race in 1997 and became the first two-time winner at the track in 2007, said the fascinating part about this season is the unpredictability of what’s going to happen without practice and the application of traction compound on tracks.

There are no rules changes from last year for the aerodynamic or engine packages used at Texas, where Hamlin won in the spring before Harvick won his third consecutive fall race there.

“We’re going to use some notes from the previous races there last year. … We will take into account weather and all that stuff to figure out what kind of car we need to take to that race track to be successful,” said Hamlin, who won both Texas races in 2010. “Hopefully, we guess right.”

As for the traction compound, applied in corners to create more passing opportunities, Hamlin described a “50-50 crapshoot” whether it’s “going to be the same and in the same line.”

Hamlin and points leader Harvick both expressed concerns about how the compound was reapplied last week at Kentucky, which like Texas is a 1 1/2-mile track owned by Speedway Motorsports.

“I think you have to be concerned with it going to Texas because it hasn’t been the same as what it was last year,” said Harvick, who has 11 consecutive top-10 finishes in Texas.

TMS president Eddie Gossage said he has long wanted a NASCAR race in the real Texas heat. The track’s usual schedule is an early spring race and then a fall race in late October or early November.

“Drivers always talk about how they like a hot, greasy, slick track. Well, they’re going to get it Sunday. It’s going to be plenty hot,” Gossage said. “It’s surely going to have an impact on the race. They say they can race more, race harder, race better.”

The steamy weather and concerns about the coronavirus will keep the crowd much smaller than the allowed 50% capacity at the track, which has about 135,000 seats. It will be the first major sporting event in Texas in more than four months to allow spectators, and likely will have a crowd similar to the 20,000 or so fans at Bristol on Wednesday for NASCAR’s All-Star race.

Harvick, who has an 88-point lead over Brad Keselowski this season, paced a 1-2-3 finish for Stewart-Haas Racing at Texas last November. The team had all four its cars in the top eight in March 2019.

When Harvick takes the green flag Sunday, he will become the 18th driver to make his 700th career Cup Series start. The active leader for completed laps is 222 short of 200,000.

Aric Almirola, the teammate who was the runner-up to Harvick last fall, will start on the pole at Texas by the random draw, alongside Ryan Blaney on the first row. The Busch brothers, Kurt and Kyle, start together on the second row, ahead of Harvick and Keselowski. Hamlin starts seventh, on the same row with Chase Elliott, who is coming off a $1 million win in the All-Star race.

Stewart-Haas driver Cole Custer won last week at Kentucky, becoming the first rookie winner in the Cup Series in nearly four years, and the first since 2009 to win a race not shortened by weather. The 22-year-old Californian makes his 21st career start Sunday.

“Now I have a lot of confidence going into these next races,” Custer said. “When you’re a rookie trying to learn a bunch of different things, and figure things out as fast as you can, you can start to second-guess yourself and not know if you’re doing things right. Now, we know the right steps and I’m not second-guessing myself.”

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