Tuesday, November 5, 2013

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

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Six shooters and cowboy hats all around for Team 48 as they not only won Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, but took over the points lead from Matt Kenseth. There are only two races left in the 2013 season and it’s down to Johnson and Kenseth. But before we head West to Phoenix and South to Miami, let’s look at how the top 10 (before the race) drivers fared in the Lone Star State.

1. Jimmie Johnson
by: Lacy Keyser

When it’s all said and done there are two things you can count on: death and taxes. But you can also count on the No.48 of Jimmie Johnson being a cup contender.

Like the saying "everything is always bigger in Texas," Johnson displayed a dominating performance on Sunday. Leading 225 laps, Johnson was either at the point or not far from it. At times it looked like the 2007 Texas race when Matt Kenseth was chasing Johnson down for the lead. Kenseth would never catch Johnson, and would finish fourth while the No.48 drove to his sixth victory of the season.

No one was a match for Johnson during Sunday’s race. During pit stops Edwards sometimes beat Johnson off pit road, but he couldn't hold onto that lead.

It was a Hendrick 1, 2 finish as the No.88 of Dale Earnhardt Jr. crossed the line second. One thing is for certain: the No.48 and the No.20 battle are in a championship battle until the very end.

“That was a great, great race car,“ Johnson said on his day. “We’re really buttoned up, which is the cool thing. We came here and tested. After two days we really honed in on the balance of the car and comfort of the car. We felt really strong about things, but at the same time we're here testing, as are all of our competitors were as well. So it was tough to leave here overly excited because your competition is here getting better and getting data and all of that as well.”

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2. Matt Kenseth (-7)
by: Katy Lindamood

A tie leading into Texas turned into to a seven-point deficit after 500 miles on the intermediate track.  Matt Kenseth started Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 from the sixth position with the hopes of coming out ahead of Jimmie Johnson. The leaders were as evenly matched as two drivers could be, yet Johnson had the advantage, going on to win the race and take over the top spot.

Kenseth’s car was strong, able to maintain position inside the top ten, but a costly error on pit road put the No. 20 deep in the field and in a position to lose a lap to the leader. On Lap 173 Kenseth was clocked above the pit road speed limit and was called to pit road for a pass-through penalty.

Despite the adversity, the team was able to rebound and earn a fourth place finish, under the leadership of crew chief Jason Ratcliff.

“We were just being too aggressive. Honestly, the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) had us from the time they unloaded until the time they put it back on the truck,” said Kenseth regarding the speeding penalty.

“They were just dominant all weekend. Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) and this whole Home Depot crew did a great job today of making adjustments trying to get it better. That speeding penalty got us behind — we definitely didn’t need that, but really I don’t know at the end of the day if that really affected our finish much. We just didn’t have what we needed to get any further forward.”

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3. Kevin Harvick (-40)
by: Stacey Owens

With only two races remaining this season, Kevin Harvick is looking to hold onto the third position in the championship points. He is almost an entire race behind the two atop the leaderboard heading to Phoenix International Raceway, so unless Johnson and Kenseth have significant issues next weekend, Harvick will be racing Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr. to hold his position.

From his 19th starting position, Harvick made inroads throughout the race, eventually finishing in the eighth position.

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4. Kyle Busch (-52)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Kyle Busch made a remarkable rally after hitting the wall early at Texas, but driver error may have cost him his first Sprint Cup title. In the waning laps of Sunday’s AAA 500, Busch was caught speeding on pit road, relegating him to a 13th-place finish.

Busch, who won the spring Sprint Cup race at Texas, started fifth on Sunday. After pulling double duty in the Camping World Truck Series and Nationwide Series, Busch was looking for his first win of the weekend at the Fort Worth track.

But Busch’s first obstacle struck early. The driver of the No. 18 Snickers Toyota was running fourth when a flat tire sent him into the wall in Turn 3, bringing out the day’s second caution. Busch’s racecar suffered right-side damage, but his fast-working pit crew got him back out on the lead lap in 29th.

From there, Busch embarked on an impressive charge through the field. He re-entered the top 10 on Lap 140 and was up to second by Lap 194.

On Lap 299, Busch was running second when he made his last pit stop, where he was penalized for speeding on pit road. Busch’s error sent him all the way back to 15th. With just 30 laps to go, Busch didn’t have enough time to make up ground and finished a disappointing 13th.

Though he moved up one spot in the standings, Busch gave up 16 points to new points leader Jimmie Johnson. Busch’s title chances are in jeopardy after his late-race mistake.

“Kyle feels terrible today because he sped on pit road late in the race, but this is a team and we’ve got his back,” No. 18 crew chief Dave Rogers said at Texas.

“We’re going to give the next two races 100 percent and if them guys (Johnson and Matt Kenseth) stumble a little bit, then hopefully we’re there to capitalize.”

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5. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (-62)
by: Beth Reinke


You’ve probably heard the saying, “always a bridesmaid, never a bride.” Dale Earnhardt Jr. can empathize with the bridesmaids, after his fifth runner-up finish of the season, with three of them occurring in the Chase. But he’s not complaining.

“ ... we're not running second by making mistakes,” Earnhardt said. “We're not giving away wins. So I feel like we're just really getting close to cracking through and just trying to maintain the momentum with two races to go is going to be tough. But that's what we're focusing on.”

Earnhardt lined up seventh in the No. 88 AMP Energy Gold/7-Eleven Chevy, moved into the top five quickly and stayed up front for the entire event. The crew stuck with a four-tire strategy and made numerous adjustments on pit stops to fight loose conditions, getting the car dialed in as the evening progressed and temperatures fell.

The humble Earnhardt was quick to give credit to crew chief Steve Letarte and praise his No. 88 team, saying they’ve been getting better every season.

“When the race started, we had a top-10 car, and I think Steve improved it quite a bit. The track was kind of coming to us as well,” he said. “The track conditions that we tested in were similar to how the race ended, so I think that was in our favor inadvertently. But just real pleased with being able to run well.”

With his second-place finish, Earnhardt climbed two spots in the standings to fifth, 62 points behind new leader Jimmie Johnson.

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6. Jeff Gordon (-69)
by: Rebecca Kivak

Martinsville winner Jeff Gordon entered Texas third in the point standings, hoping to be the spoiler to the Jimmie Johnson-Matt Kenseth championship battle. Instead, the four-time Sprint Cup champion’s title hopes ended Sunday after a blown tire. It was a devastating blow to Gordon’s attempt at a fifth championship.

The driver of the No. 24 Drive to End Hunger Chevrolet had a promising start in Sunday’s AAA 500, rolling off the grid eighth. Gordon spent the first 100 miles of the race driving in around the top 10.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver was running 12th when disaster struck on Lap 75. Gordon’s left front tire went down, and he smacked the wall hard in Turn 1. The No. 24 crew spent the next two hours repairing Gordon’s crumbled racecar. Gordon went back out on the track on Lap 260, but the damage was done to his title chances.

Gordon’s 38th place finish – his second consecutive such finish at Texas – sunk him three spots to sixth in the point standings, 69 markers behind new points leader and teammate Jimmie Johnson. Gordon lost 42 points in this race alone, through no fault of his own.

“This is going to hurt,” Gordon acknowledged in an ESPN interview while his car was in the garage. “We’ll just get what we can out of this day and go on to Phoenix.”

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7. Clint Bowyer (-69)
by: Stacey Owens

Though Clint Bowyer pulled his Extra Strength Sour Apple 5-hour ENERGY Toyota to a 10th place finish after starting mid-pack in 26th, he lost a spot in the championship standings.

Bowyer had high hopes for a win at the AAA Texas 500. He even bought a new pair of boots at the local stockyard on Saturday. However, thanks to a dominating win by Jimmie Johnson, Bowyer would not get to pair those boots with a cowboy hat in Victory Lane.

He’s all but eliminated from championship contention as he heads to Phoenix with a 69-point deficit.

8. Greg Biffle (-73)
by: Katy Lindamood

“It was a tough day,” said Greg Biffle when discussing his 12th place finish at Texas Motor Speedway. In his 400th start, Biffle salvaged a decent finish, but it wasn’t enough to gain ground in the standings. Biffle’s chances for adding a third NASCAR title to his resume will have to wait until next season.

9. Joey Logano  (-91)

Joey Logano moved up into the top ten in the standings following Sunday’s race at Texas Motor Speedway. Logano sits in ninth position, 91 points out of the lead.

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10. Kurt Busch (-96)
by: Katy Lindamood

After a disappointing qualifying run that put Kurt Busch in the 31st position at the start of the AAA Texas 500, the No. 78 finished in the 17th position, falling one place in the standings

“It wasn’t a good day, or for that matter, a good weekend. We were off since we unloaded on Friday and never found the right balance for this track. We gave it everything we had, but yet it was disappointing because these mile-and-a-half tracks should be good for us,” said Busch on his run.

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11. Carl Edwards (-116)
by: Stacey Owens

The AAA Texas 500 pole sitter led 37 laps and looked like he might be able to contend for a win at the “Great American Race Track,” but a broken valve spring sent him to the garage at Lap 190.

Edwards, every corporate sponsor’s dream spokesman, said in the garage, “Aflac has a policy for everything, but I don’t think for sick engines.”

He finished in the 37th position and is looking forward to getting through the two remaining races and re-grouping for the 2014 season.

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