Friday, November 1, 2013

Chasing the Championship: Previewing the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway

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It's fitting that, with a tie at the top of the standings, the Sprint Cup Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway. Home of the "Wild Asphalt Circus," TMS boast a history of drama and controversy along with one of the biggest pre-race experiences in all of racing.  It's a place where the titans of 2013 can battle it out for 500 miles in an attempt to gain ground on the competition.

Keep an eye out for our Lisa Janine Cloud and Debbie Ross as they will be reporting live from the track. They will be posting to the site and our social media channels throughout the weekend, so make sure you follow on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

Here’s how the top 10 Chasers stack up at Texas.

1. Matt Kenseth
by: Katy Lindamood

It’s hard to imagine a better location for Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson to duke it out for the top spot in the standings. Statistically speaking, the two are more evenly matched at Texas Motor Speedway than anywhere else on the circuit.

In 22 races at Texas, Kenseth has visited victory lane twice - so has Johnson, but in two less starts. Kenseth has earned 15 top-10 finishes - so has Johnson. Although Johnson’s average start is seven places higher than Kenseth’s, the driver of the No. 20 has a higher average finish (8.5) than than the driver of the No. 48 (9.1).

Kenseth is the clear-cut winner in terms of laps led, having led 772 to Johnson’s 443, but
we can’t forget Johnson is the defending champion of the fall race at TMS and that he finished higher than Kenseth in April.

Chances are this battle will come down to the final laps of the final race, but Texas has been known to trip drivers up. Tensions from Talladega and Martinsville might bubble over and catch either driver by surprise. Don’t blink! You might miss the excitement.

2. Jimmie Johnson
by: Lacy Keyser

After finishing fourth last week, Jimmie Johnson became tied with Matt Kenseth for the top spot in the standings. But since Kenseth has more wins, Johnson loses the tie and ranks second.

Coming into Texas, Johnson has two wins here, nine top fives, 15 top 10s and he also has one pole. Johnson has five wins all together in 2013, while Kenseth has seven wins. Johnson needs to win if he wants to beat this tie.

Back in 2007, Johnson had a hard battle for the win here in Texas with none other than Kenseth. One has to wonder: will that battle last us the rest of the season? Will it be the Johnson/Kenseth battle? Maybe we’ll see both drivers race hard again for that win just like they did in 2007.

Did I forget to mention that Johnson won in 2007? Who knows what will happen, but I have my money on a great show starring the No. 48.

3. Jeff Gordon (-27)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Following his Martinsville win, Jeff Gordon comes to Texas Motor Speedway with momentum on his side. After being added as an unprecedented 13th driver in the Chase, the four-time Sprint Cup champion is serving notice he’s ready to fight for his fifth title.

The driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet has a mixed history at the 1.5-mile Fort Worth track. Gordon claimed his sole win here in spring 2007 and has collected eight top fives, 11 top 10s and an average finish of 17 in 25 starts. Two years ago, an angry Gordon wrecked Clint Bowyer, taking out both cars and instigating a melee between both teams in the garage. More recently, Gordon finished 14th here last fall and 38th in the spring after a suspension failure cut short his day.

Gordon is optimistic about Texas after testing here last week. It’s an advantage he will try to build on as he looks to make up ground on Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, tied at the top of the standings, in the championship battle.

“We're all alive, but right now there's two that are in it,” Gordon said after his Martinsville win. “Our job is to go to Texas and make it three. Realistically, legitimately, we've got to put pressure on those guys."

4. Kevin Harvick (-28)
by: Stacey Owens

In 21 Sprint Cup starts at Texas Motor Speedway, “The Closer” has failed to shut out his competitors. Kevin Harvick and the No. 29 Budweiser team have finished in the top 10 in two of the previous three races on the 1.5-mile track.

Though successful five times in his Nationwide car as well as notching a win in his Camping World Truck Series ride, Harvick is still seeking a win at the top level. To his credit, he’s led a few laps and knows what it takes to get to the front and stay there.

“Qualifying is definitely very important on the 1.5-mile tracks," Harvick said. "Texas is one of those places where the tires wear out, but track position is so important to keep the handling on your car. We tested there last week and hope that the information we gathered will allow us to go back to the track with a good balance on our car. We tried some different things, and I’m hoping we learned enough to not only make me comfortable in the race car, but be able to put ourselves in a position to run in the top five and possibly even win the race.”

He’ll have his work cut out for him at the AAA Texas 500. Harvick’s average finish at TMS is 12.5. His resume in Texas includes three top fives and 10 top 10s. To wear the hat and shoot the pistols in Victory Lane will require “The Closer” to be better than those two drivers currently saddled in a tie. Kenseth and Johnson each have two wins deep in the heart of Texas.

5. Kyle Busch (-36)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Kyle Busch is looking to pull off the sweep at Texas. After winning both the Nationwide and Sprint Cup races here in the spring, he’ll try to repeat the feat this weekend – plus one. Busch will be doing triple duty this weekend, as he’s also running in the Camping World Truck Series.

The Fort Worth track has been good to the driver of the No. 18 Snickers Toyota. In April, Busch claimed his first Sprint Cup win here from the pole and led a race-high 171 laps. He boasts six top fives, seven top 10s and an average finish of 14.1 in 16 Sprint Cup starts at the 1.5-mile speedway. In last fall’s race, Busch finished third after leading 80 laps. He has finished no worse than 16th in the last four events here.

After finishing 15th at Martinsville, Busch sits fifth in the championship standings. Still in the title hunt, he sees Texas as an important stepping stone to making up ground in the standings.

“Last weekend was obviously really frustrating, but we have three really good tracks coming up to finish the season, so we’re going to fight hard to finish the season and get the best points finish that we can,” Busch said.

6. Clint Bowyer (-55)
by: Stacey Owens

Clint Bowyer looks to sour the chances of top Chasers at Texas Motor Speedway. Right down to his Extra Strength Sour Apple 5-hour ENERGY camouflage paint scheme, Bowyer and his No. 15 are in it to win it or at least spoil things for those who’ve been at the top of the leaderboard for the last several weeks.

TMS has been a good track for Bowyer. In 15 starts there, his average finish is 12.9. He carries three top fives and eight top 10s as well as a driver rating of 92.0.

When asked about heading to the AAA Texas 500, Bowyer said, “We tested at Texas last week and had a good test. I always look forward to getting back down to Texas, but obviously it’s a little bit different when you do get down there to race. There is a little more rubber on the track with more cars and trucks on the track. Overall, I think we had good speed and stacked up well against the competition, and the car felt good. I’m looking forward to getting down there and another solid run. We need a win … bad! Texas is one of the coolest places to win. I hope we can do that this weekend.”

7. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-56)
by: Beth Reinke

If a driver has fond memories of his first win, then Texas Motor Speedway is doubly special for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Why? Because he got his first wins in both the Nationwide (1998) and Cup series (2000) at the Fort Worth track.

With a driver rating of 92.6, Earnhardt Jr. ranks eighth best at TMS and ran in the top 15 for three-quarters of his laps. He finished more than half of his career Cup starts in the top 10, 12 times in 22 races. In addition to his win in 2000, Earnhardt’s stats include three top-five finishes and two poles.
Earnhardt likes racing at the 1.5-mile track because it has some oddities that make it different and more fun than some of the other cookie cutters.

“I really enjoy racing at Texas, but it can be a challenge. It has got a pretty big bump in the middle of (Turns) 1 and 2 and 3 and 4, where the tunnels are. We had a good test there last week, and we are looking forward to having a good weekend, hopefully getting a win.”

Although he’s a long shot to take the championship this year, a win at Texas in the AMP Energy Gold/7 Eleven Chevy would be a welcome boost for Earnhardt Jr. and the No. 88 team.

8. Greg Biffle (-58)
by: Katy Lindamood

It’s been a year of milestones for several NASCAR Sprint Cup Series drivers. Both Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth celebrated their 500th series starts earlier this season. This weekend, eighth-place driver Greg Biffle celebrates his own milestone, his 400th start in the series.

Biffle will pilot the 3M Hire our Heroes Ford Fusion this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, at a track where’s he’s seen success in the past. He’ll be behind the wheel of chassis RK-817, which last ran and won at Michigan.

In 19 starts at TMS, Biffle has been to victory lane twice, most recently in April 2012. The driver of the No. 16 also has 12 top 10s with eight of those being inside the top five. On the negative side, Biffle has failed to finish four of the races he’s participated in, but those came early in his career.

“I'm really excited about Texas. And the 400th start, it seems like a lot. I remember them talking about Ricky Rudd's 700th start. A little over halfway. I think they've dubbed him the Ironman,” said Biffle. “Looking forward to Texas. That's a great racetrack. Glad that we're going there this week.”

9. Kurt Busch (-75)
by: Katy Lindamood

Kurt Busch’s time at Furniture Row Racing is drawing to a close, and with only three races left in the season it’s now or never if Busch wants to earn the team their second career victory in the Sprint Cup Series.

Texas has been hit or miss for the elder Busch brother. In 21 starts, the driver of the No. 78 has an average finish of 15.2. His one victory came in the fall of 2009 while driving for Penske racing. Since then he’s recorded three top-10 finishes and three finishes of 24th or worst. In April, Busch finished in the 37th position, completing 316 of 334 laps.

10. Carl Edwards (-76)
by: Stacey Owens

Who’s donned the black hat at Texas Motor Speedway more times than any other Chase driver? Carl Edwards leads a series-high three wins at the 1.5-mile track, including a sweep of both 2008 races. Edwards and the No. 99 Aflac team also boast six top-fives and eight top-10s at TMS.

With no wins yet during this Chase, Edwards is practically itching to flip his way into Victory Lane. The Roush-Fenway team tested at Texas last week in preparation for the AAA Texas 500 this Sunday. “The race track has aged quite a bit and the tires seem to work really well there,” said Edwards.

Edwards has consistently run well at the Texas oval. He’s finished in the top three in three of the last five Cup races at the track. His average finish in his 17 starts is 14.4, and he holds a fifth-best average running position of 11.9.

Mathematically, Edwards won’t finish this season any higher than sixth place, and he’ll only place that high if the drivers ahead of him have significant trouble over the next couple of weeks. Edwards and his Roush-Fenway teammate, Greg Biffle, are going for broke as the season winds down. They’re after wins since a championship is simply out of reach.

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