This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes a return to the intermediate ovals for the first race of the season in Fort Worth. The Samsung Mobile 500 at Texas Motor Speedway is on tap. This event marks the end of the spring short track part of the schedule, and the beginning of a stretch of intermediate ovals and super speedways. The teams that performed well in the beating and banging of Bristol and Martinsville can now focus on the business of racing at high speeds and with a return to the emphasis of handling sensitivity. For the drivers that finished well at the bull rings, they have a leg up in the championship standings as we enter the heart of the NASCAR schedule.
Texas Motor Speedway possesses the trademark features of the "D-shaped" ovals on the circuit. It has 24-degree banking in the turns and very high speeds similar to Atlanta. This race will give us a good indication of the drivers that will be dominant for the remainder of the season, since this style of track makes up a bulk of the Sprint Cup schedule. We can look back at the results from Las Vegas Motor Speedway several weekends ago and get a good indication of who will perform well at TMS on Sunday, but the truth is that we haven't raced enough on this style of ovals this season to have a real appreciation of who's on top of their game right now. In large part, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas struggled quite a bit at Las Vegas, so it will be interesting to see if the teams from that stable learned anything from their issues or if they will continue to have problems on intermediate ovals. While the two teams of Stewart-Haas Racing both cracked the Top 5 in Sin City, so expectations are high for that duo heading to Texas Motor Speedway.
Since we are returning to a 1.5-mile oval this week, we can look back on the data from Las Vegas with some confidence this weekend. But that is really just one event in the big scheme of things. What will likely better serve us is to examine the most recent data from the oval in Fort Worth. The electronic loop statistics at Texas Motor Speedway will be our most important tool for selecting drivers for this weekend's race. Theses numbers will help us to spot trends, and when combined with how the teams performed at Las Vegas, both should provide us with valuable information for this Sunday's race. The loop stats in the table below cover the last six years or 12 races at Texas Motor Speedway.
|DRIVER||AVG FINISH||QUAL. PASSES||# of FASTEST LAPS||LAPS LED||LAPS IN TOP 15||DRIVER RATING|
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||16.3||481||148||193||3,111||93.0|
|Martin Truex Jr.||16.1||301||52||20||2,069||83.8|
|Juan Pablo Montoya||25.1||314||64||12||1,393||76.2|
In this event one year ago, Denny Hamlin captured his first career win at Texas Motor Speedway. That victory ended up being the first part of a season-sweep at the Texas oval for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. When the series returned in the fall, Hamlin took the lead from Mark Martin after a caution flag and led the last 31 laps en route to the win. This Toyota team effectively ended Chevrolet and Ford's short run of dominance at Texas Motor Speedway. Roush Fenway Fords and Stewart-Haas Chevrolets should factor in the outcome this weekend at TMS, and threaten Hamlin's short reign at the Intermediate oval. Carl Edwards also swept at this facility in 2008 and his teammates Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth are well-established performers at TMS. Throw in owner/driver Tony Stewart into the mix with his excellent Texas loops stats and we have what is shaping up to be a multi-team, multi-manufacturer brawl this weekend. We'll take a look at recent intermediate oval stats and historical trends at Fort Worth in order to give you the drivers to win in your fantasy leagues in the Samsung Mobile 500.
The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win
Carl Edwards With the No. 99 team a scant five points out of the championship standings lead coming to Texas, there's no doubt that Edwards is on fire coming to Fort Worth this weekend. The Roush Fenway Racing star is coming to one of his favorite tracks this weekend in Fort Worth. He is a three-time winner at this oval, and swept both races here in 2008. While his last four outings at this intermediate oval have been forgettable, you can rest assured you will see the Edwards of old this weekend.
Kyle Busch The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has started the season on fire. Busch leads the championship standings entering the Samsung Mobile 500, and he's been in the running for the win in every race this season with the exception of one (Las Vegas). The Joe Gibbs Racing star's record at Texas Motor Speedway is not the greatest, but we have to shrug that off to an extent this week. Busch led 23 laps and finished runner-up at the 1.5-mile oval in Las Vegas a few weeks ago, and that's a great barometer for this driver entering Sunday's 500-mile event.
Kevin Harvick After two straight victories, Harvick is well positioned in the championship standings. The No. 29 team comes to Texas Motor Speedway looking to extend their current win streak to three races. Harvick has never been a big-time performer at the intermediate oval, but he's been a solid finisher at the track with his 12.4 career average finish. Four of his last five starts at TMS have culminated in Top-10 finishes. The way this Richard Childress Racing veteran is performing right now, we expect another run for the checkered flag on Sunday afternoon.
Kurt Busch We haven't forgotten how strong the Penske Racing veteran has been on the cookie cutter ovals the last few seasons. Busch comes to Texas this week with excellent statistics on these ovals. He won the fall race at Fort Worth in 2009 and Busch has finished in the Top 10 in 63 percent of his Texas starts. The No. 22 Dodge team has started the season well, so he's a no-brainer pick for the Samsung Mobile 500.
Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning
Jimmie Johnson The defending Sprint Cup champion is a one-time winner at Fort Worth, but he's not started the 2011 season in race winning form just yet. Johnson gets the solid play ranking this week based on both his past history at this oval and his current performance level. The Hendrick Motorsports star has won or finished runner-up in four of the last seven races at TMS. The No. 48 team isn't throwing darts just yet, but they're good enough to grind out a Top-10 finish in this one.
Mark Martin Despite being winless thus far this season, it wouldn't take much of a nudge to get the No. 5 team back into winning form in 2011. Martin owns one career victory and a 35 percent Top 5 rate at Texas Motor Speedway. He finished sixth and third in his two starts at this oval last season, so Martin and crew chief Lance McGrew shouldn't have any trouble making their Chevrolet fast in practice and qualifying this weekend.
Matt Kenseth Kenseth's success at Fort Worth has been remarkable, and it's mind-boggling that he's only captured one win at the track in the last 11 years. Still, the Roush Fenway Racing veteran has reeled off eight career Top 5's and 500 laps led at the intermediate oval in 17 starts. Those numbers include 2 laps led and a brilliant runner-up finish here last fall. With the No. 17 team surging right now (9th in the standings), Kenseth has an outside shot at adding a second career Texas victory to his resume on Sunday.
Denny Hamlin After the sub-par performance at Martinsville Speedway last weekend, the Joe Gibbs Racing star is looking to continue digging out of the hole this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. We thought Martinsville would cure what's ailing the No. 11 team, but not quite yet. Hamlin swept this facility in dominant style last season, so if any place is going to get him back on track it's going to be Texas Motor Speedway. He certainly isn't in position to challenge for victories just yet, but we can easily see a hard fought Top-10 finish in this one.
Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Texas who can provide a solid finish
Clint Bowyer After his second straight Top-10 finish this past weekend at Martinsville Speedway, it appears that Bowyer has thrown the monkey off his back that plagued him through the first four races of the season. The No. 33 Chevrolet team sports a respectable 50 percent Top 10 rate at TMS and Bowyer has collected a pair of seventh-place finishes in his last three starts at the intermediate Texas oval. We expect more of the same in this latest installment at Fort Worth.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. The NASCAR icon's good start to the season and near-miss victory at Martinsville last week has the No. 88 team on everyone's radar screen heading to Texas this week. We can't forget that Earnhardt racked up his first career Sprint Cup Series win at this oval in 2000, and he's been a consistent performer here over the years. Earnhardt owns a near 50 percent Top 10 rate at Texas Motor Speedway, and he led 46 laps in this event one year ago en route to an eighth-place finish.
Kasey Kahne The new Red Bull Racing driver is enjoying his new gig at this Toyota camp. Kahne has shown his appreciation to the new team with three Top 10's thus far this season and a respectable 15th-place ranking in the overall standings heading into this weekend. The driver of the No. 4 Toyota is an intermediate oval expert and one-time Texas winner. Kahne started fifth and finished fifth in this event one year ago for his former boss Richard Petty.
Marcos Ambrose Ambrose sports Top-20 finishes in his last three trips to Texas Motor Speedway. This weekend he will be racing in what is unquestionably his best ride that he's ever had on this intermediate oval. This No. 9 Ford is the same car that Kasey Kahne used to finish fifth at this facility one year ago. Ambrose will use his respectable driving talent and the experience of this team to extend his Top 20 streak at Fort Worth this Sunday afternoon.
Paul Menard The Richard Childress Racing No. 27 team got a wake up call at Martinsville Speedway last weekend. Menard had a rough-handling race car and he battled to a poor finish in the Goody's Fast Pain Relief 500. He will look to rebound this week at Texas. Menard finished a career-best 10th at this facility last fall and he will look to build on that resume of success in Sunday's Samsung Mobile 500. The last time we saw Menard in action on a 1.5-mile oval he was finishing a respectable 12th at Las Vegas.
Trevor Bayne We've been waiting to get Bayne back in our sleepers list, and this week's race at Fort Worth is the perfect opportunity to roll out the No. 21 Ford. The young Daytona 500 winner has been in a deep slump since his historic win to start the season. Not much has gone right for the No. 21 team and Bayne. However, we believe we can wipe the slate clean this weekend. Bayne's Sprint Cup debut came last season at this facility with an impressive 17th-place finish. That experience alone will be all the confidence young Bayne needs to shake off his recent slump.
Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs
Jeff Gordon The No. 24 team have been a bit inconsistent this season. Gordon has one win already but he also has one DNF and two finishes outside the Top 20 in the first six races. Gordon's recent performances at Texas Motor Speedway have been quite forgettable. He's failed to crack the Top 10 in his last three visits to Fort Worth and that includes last season's pair of DNF's at this oval. We have a hard time shaking the thoughts of his DNF and 36th-place finish at Las Vegas a few weeks ago.
Regan Smith The malaise of 2011 for the No. 78 team has come as a complete surprise. Entering this race Smith is ranked 30th in the driver standings and looking to change his fortunes at TMS. Texas Motor Speedway has been a tough nut to crack for this young Furniture Row Racing driver. Smith has six career starts at the intermediate oval and only a 29.2 average finish to his credit at the facility. Too many questions stand around this driver and team this weekend.
Joey Logano While we continue to wait for Logano to catch fire this season, we have to dial down our expectations for the No. 20 team again this week. Joe Gibbs Racing teams have struggled mightily to start the year on intermediate tracks. Logano led 30 laps and finished fourth at this track last fall. While that's a great sign, the Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy has yet to reach that lofty height thus far this season.
Brad Keselowski Keselowski is a front-runner for the NASCAR Mr. Irrelevant award to this point in the season. After six races he's ranked a lowly 24th in the driver standings and has yet to even approach anything that resembled a Top-10 finish. Keselowski has five career starts at Texas Motor Speedway with an unimpressive average finish of 24.8 to his credit. When we look back on the No. 2 team at Las Vegas a few weeks ago, we see a 26th-place finish that foreshadows what to expect on Sunday afternoon at Fort Worth.