Friday, November 4, 2016

Five Questions for Texas Motor Speedway

The skies were gray Friday morning, Nov. 4, 2016, but cars were still on the track.
Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs
by Lisa Janine Cloud

Since I’m privileged to be representing Skirts and Scuffs at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend, Kristen Schneider graciously agreed to allow me to write the Five Questions column this week.

No Limits, Texas. Established 1997.

Texas Motor Speedway feeds the mythos that everything’s bigger in Texas. From world record BIG HOSS TVSM to the larger-than-life pre-race festivities, the Great American Speedway represents the state of Texas well. Track president Eddie Gossage Jr. may hail from Tennessee, but he’s spent years cultivating the image of the speedway as being the epitome of all things Texan.

The AAA Texas 500 race weekend experience stands out, but not just because of the guns, the hats and the potential for brawls, but because of the track itself. The worn-out surface eats tires. The tunnels create bumps that cause cars to buck like broncs if not approached in just the right way. Darlington may be the “Track Too Tough to Tame,” but Texas is the Wild, Wild West.

For the first time ever, all three series hold Chase races at the same track. The Camping World Truck Series Striping Technology 350, the Xfinity Series O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge and the Sprint Cup Series AAA Texas 500 share the speedway, which seems spacious until the haulers and cars for three national touring series jam cheek-by-jowl into the parking lots and garages. By the time those haulers have all rolled out of No Limits, Texas, each series will have but one more race until a season’s worth of effort culminates in the Championship race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

To say the pressure is on would be an understatement  which brings us to the eponymous five questions for Texas Motor Speedway.
The hardware for the weekend's races.
Credit: Lisa Janine Cloud/Skirts and Scuffs

Will rookie phenomenon William Byron get his mojo back in time for a sweep? Without team owner Kyle Busch in the field, it’s possible, despite the fact that he’s had only two top fives in the last six races. Texas seems to suit his driving style quite well, and he was fifth in practice. He’ll have to look out for Matt Crafton, who has two wins at the mile-and-a-half speedway, as well as for Johnny Sauter, who swept the 2012 season.

Will one of the Cup interlopers be wearing the Charlie 1 Horse in Victory Lane? Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick and Matt DiBenedetto will run both the Xfinity and Cup races. Austin Dillon’s in both, plus the Truck race. Of the five, Harvick and Keselowski are previous winners. Either could take the checkered flag again, but Dillon wants to win at Texas so badly he can taste it, so keep an eye on the No. 2 Rheem/Emerson car.

Which Xfinity driver has the best chance of taking the checkered flag? Elliott Sadler, who’s looking to advance to the Championship 4, won at TMS back in 2004, but that was in Cup. He’s not had a top-five finish in the Xfinity Series at the Great American Speedway since 2011. Brendan Gaughan loves the track, but his four wins were back in 2002-2003 in the Truck Series. Will it be Daniel Suarez, who considers Texas his home track? I don’t see a clear-cut favorite, so you’ll just have to stay tuned.

Can a JGR driver win and get locked into the Championship 4? When four Joe Gibbs Racing drivers made the Round of 8, that organization’s goal was to have an all-JGR final four. Jimmie Johnson blocked that move with his win at Martinsville, leaving only two wins available for the Coach’s crew. All four JGR teammates have wins at TMS; Carl Edwards has three, the others have two each. However, Kenseth’s consistency  13 top fives over 27 races  may give him the edge.

Will Jimmie Johnson tie Richard Petty’s record? No, not the seven championships. He’s got to get through Texas and Phoenix first. I’m talking about the second-best string of consecutive wins of the same race. From 1970-1974, Petty won the Capitol City 500 at Richmond International Raceway. (The King also holds the record for most consecutive wins in the same race with his 1970-1975 streak in the Gwyn Staley 400 at North Wilkesboro.) Considering that I’ve seen Johnson showered with Texas-shaped confetti in five of the 10 Cup races I’ve attended at the Great American Speedway, including the last four AAA Texas 500s, I’d say Six-Time’s chances of winning are better than 50-50, even though he’s already earned his place in the Championship 4. He doesn’t have to win the AAA Texas 500, but he and his team want to win it.

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