The Sprint Cup Series will run its first nighttime (points-paying) race of the season this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. NASCAR's new race car, the Gen-6, will also return to intermediate track competition.
After winning last Sunday's race at Martinsville, Jimmie Johnson reclaimed the points lead, as he holds a six-point advantage over defending series champion Brad Keselowski. Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 12 points behind Johnson, his Hendrick Motorsports teammate.
Johnson became the first repeat winner of the season. He won the Feb. 24 Daytona 500. Johnson also took the checkered flag for the most recent Sprint Cup race at Texas five months ago. Can the five-time series champion pick up another victory there on Saturday night?
"I feel good about it," Johnson said. "We ran really well at Vegas, and California didn't go as well as we wanted, but it's a much different racetrack than what we have at Texas. I would say that Texas and Vegas are closer together than Texas and California. We'll go there and see. We're still learning this car on the big tracks. At Fontana, we were certainly trying some things, and are smarter leaving there, and I know that these guys (No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team) will work hard and give me a great car this coming race."
Texas is the second 1.5-mile track on the schedule this year, following Las Vegas (March 10). The series will run at another mile and a half, Kansas, on April 21.
With the Gen-6, Texas will likely feature this season's fastest non- restrictor-plate lap times. The track qualifying record here is 196.235 mph, set by Brian Vickers in November 2006. Sprint Cup teams tested at Texas on Thursday to get more familiar with the new car here.
"The surface (at Texas) is a little bit older than places like Charlotte, Michigan and Kansas," Johnson noted. "I think you will see a lot of four-tire calls and that could make a difference in the race. It's a fast track, and it's going to be challenging to keep the car underneath you and not get yourself in trouble. I really like the track. I think it's really going to be another great race."
Greg Biffle won last year's spring race at Texas, adding to Roush Fenway Racing's dominance here. Jack Roush has the most car owner victories at this track with nine, compared to four wins for Rick Hendrick and three for Joe Gibbs.
Carl Edwards, who drives the No. 99 Ford for Roush, leads all drivers with three Sprint Cup victories at Texas. He won both races here during the 2008 season. Last month, Edwards snapped a two-year, 70-race winless streak in the series at Phoenix.
"I love racing at Texas, because everything about the race track is fun," Edwards said. "We're hoping for our second win of the season and fourth at Texas. It's going to be a tough one on the crew chiefs and engineers to get these cars perfect in the nighttime conditions, because we don't get to practice like that. It's going to be a tough race from start to finish."
Five different Roush Fenway drivers have won at Texas: Biffle, Edwards, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin. Biffle, Burton and Kenseth have two victories each here.
"I attribute it to good teams, good drivers and communication with equipment," Biffle said. "Teams will get on to setups. Maybe their race cars cater to this type of racetrack a little bit better. I've had a lot of success here. We are sharing that information, so Carl (Edwards) has that setup. Carl has won here, so we copied his setup. We learn together as a group, and I think it helps us as an organization to be strong at particular race tracks."
Brian Vickers will drive the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota in relief of the injured Denny Hamlin. Vickers, a Nationwide Series regular this season, is also scheduled to be in the car at Kansas and Richmond (April 27). Mark Martin drove the No. 11 to a 10th-place finish at Martinsville. Hamlin continues to recover from a compression fracture in his lower back due to an accident on the final lap in the March 24 race in Fontana, Calif.
Forty-five teams are on the preliminary entry list for the NRA 500.
Series: NASCAR Sprint Cup. Date: Saturday, April 13. Race: NRA 500. Site: Texas Motor Speedway. Track: 1.5-mile oval. Start time: 7:30 p.m. ET. Laps: 334. Miles: 501. 2012 Winner: Greg Biffle. Television: FOX. Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN)/SIRIUS NASCAR Radio.