Saturday, November 6, 2010

Chase Coverage: Texas Preview

The green flag waves over the spring race at Texas Motor Speedway in April. (Chris Graythen/Getty Images)
Texas Motor Speedway is the setting for race No. 8 of the Chase. A track known for its high speeds, Texas certainly has the potential to inject high drama into the Chase.

Not only will the winner of Sunday's AAA Texas 500 get a pair of pistols and a cowboy hat, but if it's one of the top 3 in the standings, a victory is a sure way to gain an advantage in the championship hunt and send a message to your rivals. 

The 1.5-mile oval is known for producing few repeat winners (the only two are Chasers Carl Edwards and Jeff Burton). This could work in Kevin Harvick's favor, who has never won here. But spring winner Denny Hamlin will most certainly try to sweep, and Jimmie Johnson will try to outdo his runner-up finish from that race with a win this weekend. Add in the remaining Chasers or a spoiler from outside the top 12, and we can look forward to an exciting race on Sunday.

Twelve of our contributors look at the Chase drivers' chances this weekend at Texas. Come back Tuesday for a recap of how they fared in the AAA Texas 500.

1. Jimmie Johnson – Starting: 17th - Rebecca Kivak
Jimmie Johnson has one win under his belt at Texas Motor Speedway, and in the heat of a three-man battle for the championship, there’s no doubt the points leader would like to add another. With Talladega behind them, Johnson and the No. 48 Lowes team are ready to go all out for the last three Chase races and bring home a fifth title.

Texas has been a good track for Johnson. In 14 starts at the 1.5-mile oval, the four-time Sprint Cup champion has led 117 laps and racked up seven top 5s and 10 top 10s. Only twice has he finished outside the top 15. His sole win here came in this event three years ago. His average finish of 10.1 and his driver rating of 99.0 are third-best among his Chase competitors.

In the spring race, Johnson made a late charge and finished second to Denny Hamlin. With Hamlin 14 points back and Kevin Harvick not far behind in the standings, Johnson knows the competition will be stiff in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 – and that means no holding back. “We need to be as competitive and as fast as we can possibly be at this point. We're going to three tracks that are good for all three competitors. As Kevin (Harvick) was saying earlier, you're going to have to run in the top 5 to stay in the game. Then obviously take advantage of things and win if you can. Ten extra points from first to second are going to be important. Leading laps, leading the most laps, you're going to have to be on your A game from here on out.”

It’s “game on” for the 48 team at Texas.

2. Denny Hamlin – Starting: 30th - Holly Machuga
After a solid ninth-place finish at Talladega and only 14 points behind the leader Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin continues in his 2010 season. The last three tracks are his strongest in the 10 Chase tracks and this gives the No. 11 team hope for their championship chances.

At Texas, Hamlin has 10 starts with seven top-10s, four top-5s, and one win. His average start is a 14.9 and his average finish is an impressive 9.6. Clearly, Denny Hamlin could bring the FedEx team into victory lane for a possible eighth time this season. You can see already that Denny will most likely bring home a top-10 at least.

This team has not slowed down this season. Their strategy of getting top-10s for the first half of the Chase and pushing for wins for the second half has proven to be effective. At Martinsville two weeks ago, Hamlin brought the team to victory lane and decreased the points cushion that Jimmie Johnson had over him. Keep watching for that 11 team. They are coming on strong.

3. Kevin Harvick – Starting: 26th - Amber Arnold
As the Chase rolls into Fort Worth, Texas, time is slowly starting to fade for those seeking to hoist the championship trophy at Homestead in two weeks. There are three drivers still in this and that is where Kevin Harvick finds himself. The regular season points leader is sitting third and just a stone’s throw away from second, which is just a blink away from first as it sits right now.

While it would take some pretty big screw-ups by the first- and second-place teams to vault Harvick to the top spot, we learned last week the Chasers are not immune to on track issues and pit road miscues. Harvick, in 15 races on the 1.5-mile track, has no poles or wins, three top 5s, seven top 10s, and no DNFs. His average finish is 12.9 and he has a driver rating of 83.0. While a top 10 at Texas is a very reasonable expectation from the 29 team, it’s going to take more than that to get them ahead of two drivers standing between them and their first NASCAR Sprint Cup championship.  

4. Jeff Gordon – Starting: 15th - Genevieve Cadorette
Jeff Gordon will be racing on a special day this Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway - it’s his four-year anniversary with wife Ingrid. It’s his first time racing on his anniversary and his sights are set for a good race.

In the last 19 starts at Texas, Gordon has won one race, three poles, has finished in the top 5 seven times and has nine top-10 finishes. Texas has been wrought with challenges for the 24 car. "It's a tough 1.5-mile racetrack because the transitions from straightaways to the corners and corners to straightaways are very challenging and abrupt, so it's hard to get the car comfortable in those sections,” Gordon said. "And if you get comfortable in those sections in and off the corner, how do you get the car to turn in the middle? You're doing all those things at 170 or 180 miles per hour, so it's a very challenging racetrack. It's been one of the most challenging for me and my race team over the years for that reason."

Gordon has had four DNFs at Texas due to crashes. There’ve been many interesting and exciting events that have unfolded for this four-time Cup champion, who now sits 4th in points for the 2010 Chase for the Sprint Cup. The DuPont team had such a great car in April, leading a total of 124 laps during the race, that it will be hard for them to start off their weekend any different this November.

5. Kyle Busch - Starting: 29th - Lindi Bess
It's a full NASCAR schedule this weekend with all three series converging on Texas Motor Speedway. All three competitions will include Sprint Cup Chase contender Kyle Busch behind the wheel of the #18 Toyota.

Kyle has won the past five NNS races at the Fort Worth Track, and with a win this Saturday he’ll be the first NNS driver to win six races consecutively at the same track. Legendary drivers Dale Earnhardt and Jack Ingram both won five in a row. Earnhardt’s wins came at Daytona from 1990-1994 and Ingram’s spanned from 1985-1986 at a track in South Boston.

On the Sprint Cup side, this weekend marks the one-year anniversary for crew chief Dave Rodgers and the driver for the No. #18 Camry. In the JGR M&M’s Toyota Camry, Busch will compete, but no longer for the Sprint Cup championship. At last weekend’s race at Talladega, Kyle’s chances died in less than 15 laps from the finish.

Historically, Kyle Busch does well at this track. Looking just at his last five starts at the Texas track in JGR’s #18 Toyota Camry, he has an average starting position of 10.4 and an average finish of 8.2. That along with two top 5s, three top 10s and total of 286 laps led, he is definitely in the position to bring home another triple for his 2010 season.

Kyle already started off the weekend right with a win in the Camping World Truck Series. When asked earlier this week what he thought his chances were to sweep Texas, Kyle responded:

“I would like to try and win all three again, for sure, starting with the Truck race on Friday night. I set out to do that every weekend, but that’s not an easy thing to accomplish. The Nationwide race, going for six in a row, it’s going to be awfully exciting. I can’t think of a better place than Texas, with Eddie Gossage (president, Texas Motor Speedway) and all those guys out there who do such a great job with that facility. To get six (Nationwide Series wins) in a row at the place would be cool. Of course, maybe we can get to where we should have been last year in the fall race there and win the triple again. I felt like we had a really good car in the Cup race, too. So we had a shot there and we’re definitely closing in on our first Cup win there this weekend since we’ve been really competitive the last couple of Cup races there.”

6. Carl Edwards - Starting: 3rd - Amanda Ebersole
Howdy ya’ll … it's time for Texas! I love the races at Texas (some day I hope to go there) and when the driver gets to Victory Lane it is always cool to see him in a cowboy hat and firing guns. Texas Motor Speedway is a 1.5-mile track that has shown some great moments in the Chase to the Sprint Cup championship.

I am excited to tell you about Carl Edwards and his finishes at Texas. Carl has three wins, three top fives and four top 10s. In his 11 races at Texas, Carl has led 476 laps, ranking second among all drivers. He has also run 268 of the fastest laps at the track, which is third best among all drivers. Carl has a 97.8 driver rating, which is fifth among all active drivers.

Crew chief Bob Osborne is taking the same car that was just previously raced at Dover (was a new car than) and the car had a strong run there, starting 10th and finishing fifth. Bob’s thoughts on heading to Texas this weekend: “Texas is a great track for Carl, and it really seems to suit his driving style. His record there is very impressive and I’m hoping we can add to those stats this weekend. It would be great to get a win before the season ends, and I think Texas is one of our best chances.”

Carl shares Bob’s excitement for Texas by saying, “We’ve had great success at Texas and I love racing there. Everything is bigger in Texas – they have a huge crowd and a huge purse. If you win you get a cowboy hat and two pistols so it doesn’t get much better than that. It’s a great place to race and a great place to win. At this point in the season we’ve got three races left to finish strong and Texas is one we feel like we have an opportunity to go get a win so this race couldn’t come at a better time."

7. Tony Stewart – Starting: 11th - Unique Hiram
Texas Motor Speedway has been a successful track for Sprint Cup Chase driver Tony Stewart. He has been able to capture one win, four top 5s, 10 top 10s and one pole. Stewart's average finish is 13.4 in 17 races and he holds a series-best average running position of 8.3. After last week's disappointing finish at Talladega, this driver and his race team will be looking to rebound with either a win or the best finish that they can get at this 1.5-mile track.

Since Stewart is the most recent winner at Atlanta Motor Speedway, there is anticipation that he will have a great chance to be this week's winner in Texas. Here are his thoughts on that statement: “Well, you never know. The hard part is, even if you were the guy that won the Texas race in the spring, it’s such a long gap between the spring race and the fall race that you’ve got to keep in mind our sport is a technology-driven sport. Guys make their programs better. Shock programs change. Setups change. The conditions that you have temperature-wise can be different. Just because you were good there before, or just because you were good in Atlanta, doesn’t guarantee you’ll be good at Texas the second time around. But, I guess it’s a lot better scenario of going into Texas knowing that we ran well there in the spring and that we did run well at Atlanta. That does give you a little bit of comfort knowing that you were good there in the previous times. It’s still no guarantee we’re going to be successful this time, but we at least have the comfort of knowing the last time we were there we were pretty decent – until we crashed.”

Tony Stewart and the #14 Office Depot/Old Spice race team will definitely look to make a huge statement that even though they may be out of contention for the Cup title, they still have a fighting spirit and are very much competitive.

8. Matt Kenseth - Starting: 19th - Whitney Richards
Matt Kenseth’s first trip to Texas Motor Speedway this season left him with a 20th-place finish after a flat-tire derailed his chances for a good finish. This weekend, Kenseth and the Crown Royal Black crew come to Texas Motor Speedway looking to improve on that finish and hopefully gain some more ground in the points standings.

Kenseth has 16 starts at Texas, and has won there once (April 2002). He has an average starting position of 18.4 and an average finish of 9.9. In his 16 starts, he has accumulated seven top-5s and 10 top-10’s, completed 5,302 of 5,354 laps, and has led for a total of 497 laps.

For this weekend’s race, Kenseth will be running chassis RK-707, which was last run at Fontana. He comes to Texas 8th in the standings, 324 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson.

Side note: Last weekend at Talladega , the No. 17 pit crew won their 4th Tissot Pit Road Award. They are currently tied for first in the pit crew competition.

9. Kurt Busch - Starting: 6th - Katy Lindamood
Who's gonna take home the guns this weekend? Perhaps it will be Kurt Busch. In the 2009 Chase race at Texas Motor Speedway, Busch surprised fans and the competition when he led 89 laps and took home the checkered flag. Could a repeat be in his cards? We will have to tune in Sunday to find out.

In 15 starts at Texas, Busch has one win, three top-five finishes, and 10 top-10s. His average starting position is 16.8 with an average finish of 13.1. Busch's only DNF occurred in 2008's Chase race when an engine failure ended his run. In his most recent visit to the track, Busch finished forth. On Sunday, Busch will start sixth.

Busch will be taking a winning car to the track. The car known as Vortex, after sponsor Miller Lite's Vortex bottles, won in Charlotte earlier this season. This week Busch said, "Regardless of how you pull it off, a Texas win is about as huge as it gets. They really know how to make you feel that it's a major accomplishment to win a Texas race. The cowboy hats, getting to fire the six-shooters, the whole big western theme; that's a great trademark that Eddie (Gossage, Speedway president) and the Texas track have going for them."

10. Jeff Burton - Starting: 16th - Genna Short
Coming into Texas, Jeff Burton hasn’t had the best of luck in the Chase. Undoubtedly though, this has to be a place close to his heart. He had his very first Cup win here in 1997. One of his last was also here in 2007, which was the only race he won that year.

While Burton’s season-to-date stats don’t tell much, only six top fives and 15 top 10s in 33 races, they give little credit to how well he has actually run. He has led a total of 538 laps this season. Only five seasons in his career has he led more laps in a season than he has already led to date in 2010. With three races left in this season, he may easily surpass that.

At Texas, he doesn’t seem to receive enough credit for what he’s been able to accomplish. He has a series-high of 278 fastest laps run here and has had three top-five and six top-10 finishes.

Burton feels that in spite of a less than spectacular finish in the spring, where he landed in 12th, he is confident and excited to go back to this track.

“We’re sitting there leading with 20 to go, well 15 to go. We got a red flag, the car sat there and sat there and sat there and the air pressure just went nuts. We didn't finish as well as we ran. I thought we were going to win the race. I can say the same for a lot of races in this stretch so I really feel like I'm excited to go back there. I feel like we can go and compete at a high level.”

11. Greg Biffle – Starting: 2nd - Stacie Ball
After a confusing ending to the race last weekend at Talladega, in which Biffle finished 19th when the final results came out, I am just about ready for any surprises which come my way these last three races of the Chase. From Alabama to Texas we can expect almost anything, such as hopefully the third win for the season for the No. 16 Roush Fenway Ford.

“We are taking the car that we won with at Pocono to Texas this weekend. We generally run well in Texas and I believe this weekend will be no exception. The track suits Greg’s driving style and that always helps. Texas allows for fast and exciting racing so it should be a good show for the fans down there. Greg led 13 laps there during the spring race and we had a tire go down late in the race. He was able to drive back for a top-10 finish though. If we can avoid any little problems like that, I don’t see why we can’t get this Red Cross Ford into victory lane,” said Greg Erwin, the crew chief of the No. 16 Red Cross Ford about the car in which Biffle will be racing this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

The team's track record of one win, three top fives and six top 10s at Texas, with an average finish of 20.1 in 13 races, should bode much better for the No. 16 than the luck they had at the two previous tracks. A one and a half mile tri-oval with 24 degrees banking in the turns along with five degree on the straightaway - what could be more challenging for the team this weekend?

Biffle on the race this weekend: “We qualified third for the spring race in Texas and had a decent car for the race. I missed a wreck but then we had a tire go down close to the end of the race. I’d say we had a top-five car but we just had a little bad luck that day. I really enjoy racing at Texas and I know we’re taking the car that we won with at Pocono so maybe that will bring us some luck this weekend. We’ve been able to finish in the top-10 at Texas the last four times we’ve been there so I have high expectations for this weekend.”

This race will be one of many games, one of them is Texas Hold ‘Em: may the best driver in the in the Chase make it into Victory Lane. Being only 131 points out of fifth may have him definitely out for the count, yet not out of the top 10, especially only being nine points behind 10th in the 11th position!

12. Clint Bowyer - Starting: 7th - Amy McHargue
After last week's win, Richard Childress driver Clint Bowyer is coming to Texas looking for another big week ... after all, isn't everything bigger in Texas? Another win for Bowyer would certainly be a big deal. Just six points out of 11th place and 17 points away from the ninth spot in the Chase to the Sprint Cup Championship, Clint could easily move up in the standings with a strong performance this weekend. Feasibly, the #33 driver could move up as many as four spots after this weekend; seventh place is just 50 points away.

Bowyer has not won in a Cup Series race at Texas, but posts four top-10 finishes in his nine Cup starts at this track. Earlier this season at Texas Motor Speedway, Clint finished his day in 36th position after involvement in an accident that left him 18 laps behind the leaders at the end of the race. Forty-two percent of Bowyer's starts on intermediate tracks have earned him top-10 finishes. With just a bit better than an average day, Clint Bowyer could come out of Texas the big mover of the week.

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