The 2022 version of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are proving to be as competitive as any in recent memory.
Now the Round of 12 begins this Sunday afternoon with the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The12 championship eligible drivers are separated by only a slight 34 points from top to bottom -- from points leader Chase Elliott to series rookie Austin Cindric in 12th place.
Only 21 points separate Elliott from his Hendrick Motorsports teammate in fourth place, Kyle Larson. The two drivers are the most recent NASCAR Cup Series champions - Elliott in 2020 and Larson the reigning title holder.
While non-playoff drivers swept the Round of 16 races, Texas has a winning history with those currently still vying for the big trophy.
Larson's No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet led a dominating 256 of 334 laps from pole position to earn his playoff win on the Texas high banks last year. It was one of three consecutive playoff victories - and five total - that propelled the 30-year-old Californian to his first series championship.
Larson would love to reclaim that Texas giddy-up going forward. After a 10-win career-best year in 2021, he's had only two victories this year - the last coming on the Watkins Glen, N.Y., road course five races ago.
Only one other current playoff driver has won a playoff race at Texas: Denny Hamlin, who took the trophy in 2010. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, who is ranked sixth in the Round of 12 reseeding, has three wins total at the track.
Hamlin would concede he had an up-and-down regular season. But the perennial championship contender has certainly been on his game in the playoffs, with two runner-up finishes (at Darlington and Kansas) and a ninth-place showing at Bristol, Tenn., last week.
With Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch's elimination from title contention, the JGR team opted to swap pit crews so now Hamlin will have Busch's group going forward, and vice versa.
"This is going to be a very important race," Hamlin said. "With the unknowns of (upcoming playoff races) Talladega (Ala.) and the Charlotte ROVAL, we're looking at Texas as a place we can go run up front, try to maximize our points and be in contention for the win."
The only other playoff driver with a Texas trophy is Team Penske's Joey Logano, who is second to Elliott in the standings by 15 points. He won in the spring at Texas in 2014.
Busch is the winningest active driver at Texas with four victories - including the 2020 playoff race, but he was eliminated from championship contention last week. Richard Childress Racing's Austin Dillon - also eliminated from the playoffs after Round 1 - is also on that short list of Texas winners, earning his trophy in the 2020 spring 500-miler.
Kevin Harvick is the winningest active playoff race winner at Texas, but he was eliminated from the playoffs last week. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford leads all active drivers with three playoff wins at the 1.5-miler - the last Fall victory coming in 2019.
The track boasts a certain unpredictability now that seven-time race winner Jimmie Johnson has retired from full-time competition. There have been five different winners in the last five Texas Motor Speedway races - Hamlin, Harvick, Dillon, Busch and Larson.
Playoff driver Ryan Blaney, who is still racing for his first points-paying trophy of the season, won the All-Star race there in May and goes into this weekend ranked eighth - in the final transfer position to the Round of 8 on points - hoping to match his spring effort.
Interestingly, four of the five first-time playoff contenders have advanced to this second round. Trackhouse Racing's Ross Chastain, a two-race winner in 2022, is third in points. Stewart-Haas Racing's Chase Briscoe is ninth in the standings. Trackhouse Racing's Daniel Suarez is 11th and Team Penske's Cindric - who won the Daytona 500 - is ranked 12th.
"Be clean and let the other teams make the mistakes," Larson said of the tact used by his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team. "Honestly, if you can just finish you don't have to do anything crazy in the first couple rounds. Don't take yourself out of stage points or a good finish and you can advance."
A victory automatically advances a playoff driver to the Round of 8.
Practice for the AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500 is Saturday at 12:35 p.m. ET followed by qualifying at 1:20 p.m. ET - both will be carried on the USA Network and NBC Sports App.
--Xfinity Series playoffs get underway in the Lone Star State
After a dramatic regular season finale to set the 12-driver NASCAR Xfinity Series playoff field last week, the seven-race playoff portion of the schedule starts with Saturday afternoon's Andy's Frozen Custard 300 at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Veteran A.J. Allmendinger became the first driver to win back-to-back regular season championships. But Noah Gragson takes the No. 1 seed and "favorite" tag into Saturday's playoff-opening race. The 24-year-old Las Vegas native has won the last three races coming to Texas and boasts a six-win tally on the year - already doubling his previous season high mark for victories with seven races to go.
A fourth straight win this week at Texas Motor Speedway - a venue he has never won at before - would tie a 40-year-old series record. Sam Ard (1983) is the only driver in series history to win four consecutive races.
Gragson has earned a series best 15 top fives in the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet and a series-high 13 stage wins. In just the last eight races, Gragson has four wins, six top-five and seven top-10 finishes. And he carries a 13-point edge over Joe Gibbs Racing's Ty Gibbs as the first three-race elimination round of the championship begins.
"It's been a wild month for this No. 9 Bass Pro Shops team, winning the last three races," Gragson said. "(Crew chief) Luke (Lambert) and our team are really hitting a stride and there's no better time to do that than in the Playoffs. We've got a big head of steam and we're going to keep that hot streak going this weekend at Texas.
"Can't wait to get the playoffs started on the right foot this weekend."
Gragson's closest competitor all season, Gibbs, the driver of the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, has five wins.
But after winning three times in a five-race stretch in the opening months of the season, he has only a single win since July 2 - at Michigan, six races ago. Gibbs has 10 top-fives and 16 top-10 finishes but has a pair of finishes 27th or worse in the five races since Michigan - including the worst finish of his young career (36th place) last week at Bristol, Tenn.
A couple veterans are poised to keep the young Gragson and Gibbs honest in the playoffs. JR Motorsports' Justin Allgaier, 36, is ranked third, only 18 points behind his teammate Gragson. And the driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet has led a series-best 726 laps this year. His 12 top-five finishes are second only to Gragson. His best finish at Texas is runner-up in spring, 2021.
Kaulig Racing's Allmendinger, 40, has three victories and a series-best 23 top-10 finishes in the No. 16 Chevrolet. That means he's finished outside the top-10 in only three races this entire season and he trails Gragson by only 19 points.
The remainder of the playoff grid is composed of Josh Berry, Austin Hill, Brandon Jones, Jeremy Clements, Sam Mayer, defending series champion Daniel Hemric, Riley Herbst and Ryan Sieg.
Berry and Mayer are teammates with Gragson and Allgaier marking the first time in JR Motorsports team history that it has four playoff cars qualify for the playoffs.
No current fulltime Xfinity Series driver has won a Xfinity race at on the 1.5-mile Texas high banks.
NASCAR Cup Series driver Tyler Reddick won the Xfinity Series race at Texas this Spring by a full 1.8-seconds over fellow Cup Series driver William Byron. Current Playoff drivers Mayer, Allgaier and Hill rounded out the top five. Gibbs finished 12th. Gragson won Stage 1 but was involved in a six-car crash on Lap 89.
John Hunter Nemechek is the defending winner of this playoff race, leading a race best 71 laps and taking the victory in 2021 by 1.316-seconds over eventual series champ Hemric. Gragson, Allgaier and Austin Cindric rounded out the top five. Nemechek will be competing this weekend driving the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
Of note, Richard Childress Racing's Sheldon Creed won the 2020 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race at the track. And Jeb Burton also has a Truck Series win (2013) at Texas as well.
Practice for the race is slated for 10:35 a.m. ET on Saturday followed by qualifying at 11:05 a.m. - both on USA Network and streamed on the NBC Sports App.
NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: AutoTrader EchoPark Automotive 500
The Place: Texas Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, September 25
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,455,617
TV: USA, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 501 miles (334 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 105),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 210), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 334)
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Andy's Frozen Custard 300
The Place: Texas Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, September 24
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,434,537
TV: USA, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR (Channel 90)
Distance: 300 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)
--Field Level Media