NASCAR's Chase for the Cup is coming down the stretch, and this week the Sprint Cup Series visits Texas Motor Speedway for a race that will be a pivotal event in crowning the next champion. This is potentially great news for championship points leader Jeff Gordon. He leads Kyle Busch by just 8 points entering this event. With the cut for the championship round looming after Phoenix, Gordon will be looking to win or finish well to pad his points lead so he can compete for the crown at Homestead. Considering that the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet is a one-time winner at the Fort Worth oval, he comes to Texas at the right time and with a lot of momentum coming of his big Martinsville victory. Among the Toyota camp, Matt Kenseth is always well ranked when we visit the oval at Fort Worth, as you'll see in the statistical table below. He and Busch are our top performing Toyota drivers in the midst of many Ford and Chevrolet drivers that do exceedingly well at Texas Motor Speedway. So don't put the cup in anyone's trophy case just yet. The biggest threat to Gordon's title hopes comes from none other than rival Chevrolet driver Kevin Harvick. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet doesn't have jaw-dropping loop stats for TMS in the table below, but make no mistake about it he has been a proven performer on these intermediate ovals the last two seasons. The Stewart Haas Racing star finished runner-up at Charlotte a few weeks ago in an effort to chase down race-winner Joey Logano at the similar North Carolina oval. With the two prime championship contenders racing so well right now, and obviously so good on these style of tracks, we could likely see a head-to-head battle for the win and battle for the points lead simultaneously this Sunday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway. From Ford's standpoint, Penske stars Logano and Brad Keselowski are the best hopes of this manufacturer to visit victory lane. Both have been top performers on intermediate tracks this season and both are still alive in the Chase, so motivation will not be a problem.
Since it's been several months since the last Sprint Cup race at TMS, we need to go back and briefly visit our loop stats for this facility. While Texas has some minor differences that set it apart from tracks like Atlanta and Charlotte there are still enough similarities to draw some comparisons. Still, we need to take a quick look at the recent numbers of the tri-oval at Fort Worth and get a feel for our driver group before we make any predictions for this weekend. Here are the loop stats for the last 21 races at Texas Motor Speedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUALITY PASSES||FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||14.8||863||256||195||5,229||91.9|
|Martin Truex Jr.||15.1||637||136||231||4,248||88.5|
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Jimmie Johnson won the first time around at Texas Motor Speedway in April of this season, and has the chance at the season-sweep at this facility. The Hendrick Motorsports driver took the lead from Jamie McMurray on the final green-flag run and led the final 14 laps capping an impressive performance in the Duck Commander 500. The No. 48 Chevrolet team has a slim shot at breaking out the brooms this weekend based on how Johnson has raced of late. Despite winning three of the last four Texas races, Johnson has to be seen as an "outside contender" this week. A number of drivers had a good shot at victory lane at Fort Worth when we visited this intermediate oval several months ago. Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick all led significant laps and made their presence felt after 500 miles at the Texas tri-oval. Kurt Busch and McMurray also threw their hats in the ring that day despite leading relatively few laps. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon hounded the leaders all day long before finally finishing a strong third- and seventh-place respectively and well within eye site of the eventual winner Johnson. The No. 11 Toyota team could have some added value in this Sunday's AAA Texas 500 considering Denny Hamlin's solid loop stats at this facility and intermediate oval performances of the Chase. The Joe Gibbs Racing star won at Chicago to kick off the Chase for the Cup and he's not finished outside the Top 5 in any of the cookie cutter ovals of the Chase. Considering that Hamlin is a two-time winner at TMS, and he's been racing much better of late, the JGR star should be strong in this 500-mile event. All things considered, several scenarios are possible this weekend in the AAA Texas 500. We'll take a look at the players for the championship and the spoilers from the field that could jump up and surprise this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Joey Logano - With two victories and a series-leading six Top-5 finishes on intermediate ovals this season, the No. 22 team of Penske Racing leads the way to Texas this weekend. Logano is a one-time Texas winner, and he's won the last two intermediate oval events of the Chase. A couple weeks ago at the similar Charlotte oval, Logano led a whopping 227 laps and dominated his way to victory lane. With the championship on the line and an automatic bid to the champion's round at Homestead weighing in the balance, we believe Logano will make an all-out effort to win this event.
Kevin Harvick - The championship quest for Harvick is still alive, but somewhat in danger coming to Texas Motor Speedway. The veteran driver enters this weekend fourth in the Chase standings, and needing a win to advance to Homestead. The victory wild card can still advance him to the Championship 4, and he'll be relying heavily on that at Texas. Harvick will take things up a notch this weekend and hope for the best over the next two races going to Homestead. The SHR star is second only to Logano in laps led on cookie cutter ovals this season with 464 laps total. Harvick has been a consistent performer on these style tracks in 2015 with one win and five Top-5 finishes in the nine races.
Denny Hamlin - The No. 11 JGR Toyota team has been pretty fast since the Chase began at Chicago. Hamlin won that event and he has fourth- and second-place finishes at the intermediate ovals of Charlotte and Kansas since. He's a two-time winner at TMS, and boasts a strong 53-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. Hamlin's performance cookie cutter ovals this season has turned from poor to good over the stretch run of the season. He rides a five-race Top-10 streak on the 1.5-mile tracks into this weekend's race. This makes Hamlin a good bet to crack the Top 10 for Sunday's event at Texas Motor Speedway, and a relatively decent shot at winning the AAA Texas 500.
Brad Keselowski - Despite the big setback at Martinsville Speedway, the Penske Racing star still has life in the championship chase. Like Harvick, Keselowski can also transfer to the final round with a big win at Texas Motor Speedway. He doesn't have any wins on intermediate ovals in 2015, but he's a perfect nine-for-nine in Top 10s and sports close to 200 laps led. That shows that the No. 2 team is just a tick off from winning at these style tracks. With only five Top 10s in 14 starts at this oval, Texas has not been the best track over his career, but recent performances have been outstanding. With his back to the wall Keselowski is capable of doing some big things. If there's a sleeper among the contenders, Keselowski is it.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning
Kyle Busch - The No. 18 Toyota team's performances on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season have been pretty solid. Busch has one victory, two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in the five intermediate oval races he's started. During the Chase for the Cup he's been just as hot. He has led 125 laps and has one Top-5 and two Top-10 finishes in the three intermediate oval events of the playoffs. The Joe Gibbs Racing ace qualified third and finished fifth at Kansas Speedway recently, and that was the last time we saw this driver and team in action on a 1.5-mile track. The No. 18 Toyota team is alive and well in the championship picture, so Busch should make a very strong start this Sunday at TMS.
Jeff Gordon - Coming off the big Martinsville performance and victory, Gordon should be really looking forward to an outing at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has been solid on the intermediate ovals this season. He has five Top 10s in nine starts on these style ovals coming into this Sunday's AAA Texas 500. Gordon's Texas stats are nearly as strong with one-career win and 13 Top-10 finishes. The veteran driver is in the best position ever to win his fifth championship, so you can bet he'll race with that urgency this weekend. The No. 24 team looks like they're on a mission right now, and Gordon should race like it this Sunday afternoon at the Fort Worth oval.
Martin Truex Jr. - The Furniture Row Racing team and Truex have been top performers on the intermediate oval circuit in 2015. The veteran driver has six Top-10 finishes in the nine intermediate oval races of the season. That puts Truex in some exclusive company atop the stat charts on cookie cutter ovals. That bodes well coming to one of his better intermediate ovals and his respectable 45-percent Top-10 rate at Texas Motor Speedway. When Truex last visited TMS he posted a respectable ninth-place finish in April's Duck Commander 500. With the championship on the line and Truex in the middle of that fight, we expect an even better performance in Sunday's AAA Texas 500.
Kurt Busch - The intermediate ovals have been venues of success for the Stewart Haas Racing star. Busch has one pole position and six Top 10s in seven starts on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season. Those numbers include his third-, fifth- and sixth-place finishes during the Chase for the Cup at Chicago, Charlotte and Kansas. We see no reason for this streak to come to an end at Fort Worth. Bush has plenty of success over his career at this facility. In 25-career starts at Texas Motor Speedway, he has one victory, 295 laps led, and 13 Top-10 finishes. That works out to a respectable 52-percent Top-10 rate for the driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Texas who can provide a solid finish
Jimmie Johnson - With a remarkable thud, many Sprint Cup stars were eliminated from the Chase after Dover and Talladega, but none more shocking than six-time champion Johnson. Things just haven't gone well this season for the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet, and he's fresh off an uncharacteristic 12th-place finish at Martinsville. A short track where he finishes inside the Top 10 79-percent of the time. There's some hope for a reversal this weekend at Fort Worth. Johnson owns five-career wins at TMS, and he cracks the Top 10 at a lofty 75-percent rate. That makes Texas one of his best intermediate ovals in his racing resume. Johnson won the spring race here, but that's not likely this Sunday. He should still solidly place in the Top 10.
Carl Edwards - The 2015 season has been pretty rewarding for Edwards. He started the season slow with his new Joe Gibbs Racing team, but caught fire in the late summer. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota is still alive in the Chase for the Cup, and that's the best news of all with just three races remaining. Edwards is looking to advance into the Championship 4 and race for the Sprint Cup at Homestead. With three-career wins at Texas Motor Speedway, he trails only Jimmie Johnson in that category at the Fort Worth oval. That's got to be a huge confidence booster coming into the AAA Texas 500. In three of his last five visits to Texas Motor Speedway the veteran driver boasts Top-10 finishes. Edwards has three Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes on 1.5-mile ovals this season, so he's a sharp bet at this facility.
Ryan Newman - The Richard Childress Racing veteran finds himself outside of the championship picture as we come to Fort Worth. While that's the bad news, the good news is that he's raced well enough to still be alive in the Chase short of some bad luck between Dover and Talladega. With the consistency he's displayed throughout this season's Chase (three Top 10s in the seven races) we expect the No. 31 Chevrolet team to keep on rolling at Fort Worth. Newman is a one-time winner at this oval and he has Top-15 finishes in five of his last six starts here. Given his fourth-, 11th- and 15th-place intermediate oval finishes during the Chase, there is a good chance for consistency to reign again this Sunday at TMS.
Kasey Kahne - The Hendrick Motorsports star is looking to continue his solid uptick in performance of the past few weeks this weekend at Texas. He's had a miserable season, but has come on strong since the Chase began a few weeks ago. Kahne has Top 10s in four of the seven races of the Chase for the Cup, so the team is giving him the good stuff. The veteran driver has never been a world-beater at Texas, but he does have one-career win here. His last four starts at Fort Worth show a pair of Top-10 finishes, including an eighth-place finish here in the spring. Considering the No. 5 team is looking to build momentum for 2016, we think Kahne will be eager to turn in a strong performance on a good oval for the team this weekend.
Aric Almirola - While the Richard Petty Motorsports driver missed the cut for the Chase after Richmond, that bad news hasn't deterred the No. 43 team. Almirola has raced better during the Chase than he has all season in the first 26 events. Those efforts include a pair of Top 10s on the three 1.5-mile ovals of the Chase. Almirola has cooled a bit in the last race or two, but the speed this team is showing warrants a deep lineup start in weekly lineup and salary cap leagues. He finished 19th at Texas Motor Speedway in April's Duck Commander 500. We're willing to bet he does much better than that this time around.
Ryan Blaney - The talented Wood Brothers Racing driver will make another start spot this Sunday in the AAA Texas 500. This will be Blaney's 15th start of the season in the No. 21 Ford. With one Top-5, two Top-10 and five Top-20 finishes to this point, the season has held some success for this part-time driver. Two of Blaney's most impressive performances this season have been in just the last few weeks. A 14th-place finish at Charlotte and a brilliant seventh-place finish at Kansas have propelled this young driver in to fantasy worthy status this weekend. Blaney has one-career start at Texas, but the lack of experience should be overshadowed by this team's momentum this week.
Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week
Dale Earnhardt Jr. - After the Chase elimination at Talladega, Earnhardt could have packed it in. However, he didn't. The No. 88 team showed up at Martinsville this past week and forged an impressive Top-5 finish at one of his favorite short tracks. The outlook this week could be somewhat different though. Even though Earnhardt won his first-career victory at Texas Motor Speedway, it's really been an oval of struggles over the years for the NASCAR icon. Two of his last five starts there have resulted in finishes outside the Top-25. Earnhardt's cookie cutter oval performances have been lacking too. Three of his last four intermediate oval starts have been finishes outside the Top 20.
Clint Bowyer - Bowyer and the No. 15 Toyota team have shown resilience and a fighting spirit this season, but it's still been a down campaign by any measure. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver has struggled tremendously on intermediate ovals this season. Bowyer has no Top-10 finishes in the nine events to-date, and an average finish of 21.9 over that span. That's very uncharacteristic for this veteran driver. Bowyer's success at Texas Motor Speedway has been pretty well documented with a career 53-percent Top-10 rate at the track, but falling off over the last couple seasons. However, this season's No. 15 Toyota team simply isn't up to the task this time around.
Matt Kenseth - With NASCAR handing down a two-race suspension on Tuesday for Kenseth's actions at Martinsville, the driver of the No. 20 Toyota will be on the sidelines for the next two races. It's probably a good thing too, as this veteran driver's head is just not in the game at this point. His vendetta crash of Joey Logano last weekend at the Virginia short track, capped a series of disappointments that has plagued this driver and team all through the Chase and kept him from racing for the championship after the Talladega elimination. It's safe to bench Kenseth for the next two, and possibly the season finale at Homestead.
Tony Stewart - The long 2015 season is drawing to a close for the struggling No. 14 team of Stewart Haas Racing. Not much has gone right for the owner/driver this season and it even prompted Smoke to announce his retirement after 2016 a few weeks ago. Stewart's intermediate oval performances of this season have been a complete disaster. No Top-10 finishes to his credit, and five finishes outside the Top 30 in the nine events to-date. That averages out to a lowly 29.6 average finish across the span. Despite Stewart's two-career Texas wins and 13 Top 10s, he's a driver to avoid this Sunday afternoon.
Taylor is a three-time FSWA Racing Writer of the Year.
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