Tyler Reddick this time made it into the round of 12 that starts in Texas, where last year he won a tumultuous and tiring race right after just missing the cut in NASCAR's playoffs.
With a win at Kansas after opening these Cup Series playoffs with a runner-up finish at Darlington, Reddick advanced and already is thinking about what he needs to do to make it past this three-race round in his first season with 23XI Racing.
"It's about having smooth days and somewhat consistent finishes," said Reddick, who finished 15th at Bristol last weekend. "I think if we can stay in the top 15 each of these races in this next round, when even regardless of a win, I think we'll be in good shape to make it through the round of eight. And then obviously it's a little trickier."
Of course, another win at Texas today would give Reddick an automatic pass into the round of eight -- same as a win would do for any of the other 11 remaining playoff contenders.
That group includes Kyle Busch, now driving the No. 8 Chevrolet for Richard Childress Racing that Reddick took to victory lane in Texas, a race scheduled for 100 fewer miles this year.
Reddick now sits eighth in the standings, only three points ahead of the cutoff to advance. Bubba Wallace, his 23XI Racing teammate, is 12th but still alive in the playoffs, with Texas, Talladega and the Roval in Charlotte to go before the elimination of four more drivers.
So is Denny Hamlin, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver still looking for his first Cup title and a partner in the Michael Jordan-owned 23XI team. Hamlin is third after winning at Bristol and is considered one of the favorites at the Texas track where he has won three times.
"Certainly based off of speed that we show week in and week out, absolutely I believe that we're one of the best four teams out there that should compete for a championship in Phoenix," Hamlin said Saturday. "Sometimes things are out of your control, but if they stay within our control, I do believe that this year that we will be tough to beat."
The second-round opener at Texas was highlighted last year by multiple tire issues leading to crashes -- Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all blew tires when leading. There were a track-record 16 cautions, a record 36 lead changes and a 56-minute red flag for rain and lightning in the area.
"It was a little bit of an oddity," Reddick said. "I think it'll be a less crazy race (this year) ... more straightforward."
While many of those tire issues a year ago were the result of teams pushing the limits, Goodyear brought new right-side tires for this race at the 1 1/2-mile oval that has different banking at both ends of the track.
Reddick led 53 of the final 54 laps last year, when he lost a lap early when the team thought it had a loose wheel, lost track position again after contact with another driver going into Turn 1 and later almost crashed when some safety foam inside the cockpit came loose and got stuck on the steering wheel.
"I don't know where to even start. Probably the most disastrous race I've had in my Cup career, this race one year ago," Reddick said. "We just got fortunate and had tires at the right time."
He finished 1.19 seconds ahead of Joey Logano, who went on to win the season title last year.
But Logano already is out of contention to become NASCAR's first repeat Cup champion since Jimmie Johnson won five in a row from 2006-10. Logano was among the first four playoff drivers eliminated this year, when he was 13th in the standings after Bristol.
TOP OF THE STANDINGS
William Byron goes into Texas with a series-high five wins and leading the standings.
"I definitely think it's my best chance at it so far. You know, I look at being 25 years old and I feel like I have a lot of opportunities at this," Byron said. "So this is a learning experience to see what the pressure is like getting to Phoenix. ... Feel like each year has been a steady progression on that steady learning curve. So I just want to keep that going and try to make that next step."
Byron has two more wins than Truex, who has the same number of points.
MINUS 100 MILES
For the first time since Texas opened in 1997, the Cup race isn't scheduled for 501 miles. It is set for 400.5 miles over 267 laps, 67 fewer than in the past.
The shortest Texas race has been 440 miles, when weather shortened a round of eight race in 2016 to 293 laps. The longest was 2014, when green-white-checkered finishes stretched to 512 miles over 341 laps.