Jimmie Johnson served notice that he was serious about getting his sixth NASCAR Sprint Cup (NSC) Championship this year, as he made a classic “Team 48” victory last week at the Martinsville Speedway, winning from the Pole. Kyle Busch posted a very good run finishing second, with Kasey Kahne, Aric Almirola, and Clint Bowyer completing the top five. Brad Keselowski relinquished the NSC points lead with his sixth-place finish, that also saw Jeff Gordon, Brian Vickers, Bobby Labonte, and Greg Biffle rounding out the top ten. This now puts Johnson in the lead (+1 position/leader), Keselowski (-1/-2 pts behind), Bowyer third (+1/-26pts), and Kasey Kahne (+1/-29pts) as the only four drivers with a legitimate shot at the Cup Championship. All other Chase drivers have to do now (for all intents and purposes) is to race for wins and prepare for 2013. And now Johnson will try to buttress his lead as he leads the field Sunday with his second Coors Light Pole Award in a row in the AAA Texas 500.
The Texas Motor Speedway (TMS) is prepped and ready for this weeks events, as track owners and operators are playing up this weekend as the “Wild Asphalt Circus,” to include even a carnival midway with rides and other circus-related attractions. There is not only the chance for some phenomenal racing by NSC drivers in their quest for the 2012 NSC Championship, there is also a chance for some who are not in the Chase to take crazy, if not dangerous risks, in an effort to get to Victory Lane again, or for the first time this season with only three races remaining. That said, the circus may be INSIDE the track itself, rather than outside.
The AAA Texas 500 will be 334 laps for a total of 501 miles on the 1.5-mile quad-oval. Pit road speed is 45mph, with the Green Flag waved by Anita Perry (wife of Texas governor Rick Perry) at approximately 3:16pm EST (yes, remember to switch your clocks BACK one hour this weekend, as Daylight Savings Time ends and we revert back to Standard time). Television coverage begins at noon EST on SPEED with NASCAR Raceday, followed by NASCAR Countdown on ESPN at 2pm EST, with the race broadcast at 3pm EST on ESPN. While TMS is being rather quiet about who will perform the National Anthem and the pre-race flyover, don’t be surprised (at least based on historical expectations) that we could see a flyover of the Ft Worth-based F-16s from the Texas Air National Guard, or perhaps a B-52 from Barksdale AFB, LA.
In the 23 Sprint Cup races that held at TMS, as a point of reference and possible prediction, Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) teams have won nine times, Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) with three victories, with Hendrick Motorsports (HMS) teams scoring three as well. In addition, seventeen of the twenty-three races have been won by someone starting in the top ten, with Kasey Kahne the only driver to win from the pole. Currently, no drivers will have to start from the rear of the field.
Best Bets: The “Roushketeers” typically dominate the 1.5-mile tracks; this week may be an exception.
Jimmie Johnson (#48 Lowe’s Chevy)- All I can say, is that this is one horse you want to keep in your stables. Johnson’s win after scoring the Pole last week at Martinsville, then backing that up with another Pole this week at Texas, tells me the there is no stopping Five Time in his quest to become “Six Time”. Johnson is the only active driver to start in the top ten in every one of his races run here, and he’s only one of two drivers (Kenseth being the other) who have averaged finishes within the top ten (9.7 in 18 races). Jimmie has finished no worse than fourteenth in the last four runs at TMS, but three of those were in the top-nine. A single win, eight top-five, and thirteen top-tens is what he can call his record here, and he’s fourth overall in points earned in the last four races at TMS, with sitting second in points earned over the last four Cup races. He’ll lead the field to Green Sunday, and was a blistering fourth-fastest in final practice.
Matt Kenseth (#17 Ford EcoBoost Ford)- Matt has been slow but somewhat steady throughout the Chase. He’s falter a bit, considering he’s truly out of the running for the 2012 NSC Championship, but he has a lot of the stats on his side for races at TMS. Kenseth boasts the highest points earned of Cup drivers over the last four races at TMS, scoring finishes no worse than fifth with one win. He’s first in points earned over the last four Cup races, and has two wins, eleven top-five, and fourteen top-tens at this track. Matt is also the driver who won from the furthest back in the pack, winning back in 2002 after starting 31st. He’s averaged an 8.6th-place over twenty races at Texas. If anyone is going to unseat Johnson, or at least give him a run for his money, it’s Kenseth. Hell start back in tenth, but was third-fastest in final practice.
Probables: The two drivers nipping at Johnson’s heels are my Probables this week.
Brad Keselowski (#2 Miller Lite Dodge)- Keselowski had to give up the NSC points lead last week to Johnson, who dominated the run at Martinsville. But he’s far from giving in for the title. Only two points back, he’s got more than enough momentum to get back atop the scoring tower. Keso hasn’t historically done well at Texas, with only an average finish of 25.8 over 8 races, and his best finish over the last four races was a twenty-fourth place run. But here’s the thing: Brad currently is first in points earned over the last four 1.5-mile track races (finishing no worse than eleventh), scoring an eighth-place at Kansas and winning at Chicagoland; he’s fourth overall in the last four races’ Cup points. He may not have a great record at TMS, but I’ll guarantee that as Brad’s opportunities to put points between him and Johnson fade, his determination and drive will only get stronger. He’ll start eighth, but won final practice. Brad’s going to be the man on a mission this week.
Clint Bowyer (#15 5-Hour Energy Toyota)- Bowyer, along with Keselowski and Kasey Kahne, are really the only three drivers who have a legitimate shot of taking the Cup away from Jimmie Johnson. Although Clint is winless here, he’s managed three top-five and seven top-ten finishes, averaging a 13.3 over 13 races. He’s also fifth in points earned over the last four races at TMS, fourth in points over the last four Cup races, and sixth in points in the last four 1.5-mile tracks. Bowyer’s fifth-place finish last week moved him up one spot in the NSC points battle to third, just 26 points behind Johnson. We’ll see if he’s got anything of that 5-Hour Energy left Sunday to challenge, as he’ll start fourth; he was second-fastest in Happy Hour final practice. I can see a storm brewing here up front.
Dark Horses: Two Chase contenders just going after wins here this week.
Denny Hamlin (#11 FedEx Office Toyota)- Hamlin had a phenomenal run at Martinsville last week, bouncing back from two different pit road speeding penalties and leading two different time for twelve laps. However, Denny’s chances of a Cup Championship this year faded when a master switch failed last week, forcing him into a dismal thirty-third place finish. Hamlin’s resolve won’t wane, to be sure, as he’s got two wins here when he swept the 2010 TMS schedule, with additionally posting five top-five and eight top-tens. And that includes only fourteen races he’s run here, with an average finish of 10.3. Since that 2010 sweep he’s had less success, only scoring finishes between twelfth and twentieth. He is, however, third in points earned for both the last four TMS races, as well as the last four 1.5-mile track races. Hamlin starts twelfth and was sixth-fastest in final practice; he may not be able to win a Cup, but he could add another 2012 win to the five he already has in his extremely successful 2012 season.
Kasey Kahne (#5 HendrickCars.com/Great Clips Chevy)- It was difficult to pick Kasey this week as my second DH, considering the field I’m mentioning below for my “other drivers on the radar”, but I think he’s the one driver who truly is the biggest DH with a serious shot. Kasey sits fourth in Cup points, and has a slim chance at best of unseating Jimmie Johnson from the top spot, but he has some stats that help him out here. While he’s only finished an average of 18.6 over the course of sixteen races at TMS, he does have a win, four top-five, and five top-ten finishes. Kahne’s managed two wins, eleven top-fives, and eighteen top-tens in 2012. And Kasey has finished no worse than eighth in three of the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks. But he’s fifth in points earned on those 1.5-mile tracks, and third overall in points earned over the last four Cup races. Pile on his thirteenth-place starting position and fourteenth-fastest Happy Hour time, and you have an upset in the making.
The other drivers “on the radar” this week may surprise some, but not others. Keep your eyes open for Carl Edwards, RFR teammate Greg Biffle, and Kyle Busch. As I noted at the beginning of the article, RFR has 9 wins here, with Edwards, Biffle, and Kenseth earning seven of them. Edwards was fifth-fastest in Happy Hour starting ninth. Biffle starts on the outside of the front row, was only eleventh-fastest in Happy Hour, but is second overall in points over the last four TMS events. Kyle Busch is the “feast or famine” pick, after scoring the runner-up position last week, but not placing in the top 25 in the last two fall outings on this 1.5-mile oval. We’ll just have to wait and see.
Rumor Mill: Some good things in NASCAR this week, amid the shadow of Hurricane Sandy’s devastation.
Johnson wins, hurricane victims win– Jimmie Johnson’s primary sponsor, Lowe’s Home Improvement, has offered to make a $250,000 donation to the American Red Cross disaster relief fund to help those affected by the devastation wrought by Hurricane Sandy this past week. Lowe’s further expanded the offer, to add that if Jimmie Johnson wins the AAA Texas 500 Sunday, they would match Johnson’s race earnings and increase their donation. Lowe’s has made a pledge to help increase awareness of hurricane relief, and with their initial $250K, Team 48’s $48,000 donation, and Johnson’s expected purse should he win (which is between $450-500,000), the total donation could nearly reach $1 million. “You couldn’t help but be affected just looking at the pictures of the devastation,” Johnson said. “As always, Lowe’s does just an incredible job helping communities when they are in need. I’m proud we are able to add to that effort.” As always, you can donate to help this effort at Lowe’s American Red Cross Online Donation Site, by texting REDCROSS to 90999, or simply calling 1-800-RED-CROSS (1-800-733-2767). (Texas Motor Speedway)
Final Thoughts: There is a 20-30% chance of rain this weekend at TMS, so there may be a need for the six jet dryers to do more than just clear debris from the racing surface. If the track is “lost”, expect about two hours to dry once the jet dryers fire up. This will be a good weekend, with all kinds of circus references in the Wild Asphalt Circus, so be careful when the clowns show up, whether on or off the track. And lastly, let’s not forget the victims of Hurricane Sandy this weekend as we enjoy the racing action at TMS. Tune in to the race broadcast from ESPN, your local Performance Racing Network affiliate, or on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Ch 90). And for race updates, analysis, and an occasional rant, follow me on Twitter (@speedglutton).
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