AAA Texas 500 Preview: Homestretch to the Championship

AAA Texas 500 Preview: Homestretch to the Championship

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

NASCAR's Chase for the Cup is coming down the stretch, and this week the Sprint Cup Series comes to 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 Ryan Newman by just 3 points entering this event. With the cut for the championship round looming after Phoenix, Gordon will be looking to win or pad his points lead to ensure a berth in the final four drivers to compete for the crown. By virtue of his one-career victory at TMS, Gordon holds the edge and the Hendrick Motorsports star will be going for the win and taking one more step closer to his fifth Sprint Cup Series championship. Among the Toyota camps, 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 Kyle 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 this season. The Stewart Haas Racing star led 162 laps at Charlotte a few weeks ago and held off Gordon to win 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 Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are the best hopes of this manufacturer to visit victory lane. Both have been top performers on intermediate tracks and both are still alive in the championship 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 19 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Matt Kenseth6.57423536255,045106.1
Jimmie Johnson9.76815226984,666103.6
Greg Biffle13.17844737334,797102.2
Kyle Busch13.46413537044,448102.2
Tony Stewart12.66243627864,36399.2
Carl Edwards15.57163615314,57396.9
Denny Hamlin10.87421791513,93193.8
Clint Bowyer12.5615144853,76392.7
Jeff Gordon17.06643235074,06792.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.97362161954,62490.4
Martin Truex Jr.15.25341332313,61488.2
Kurt Busch17.55901932333,44786.5
Kasey Kahne18.5688223703,95785.4
Kevin Harvick13.36857043,70683.3
Kyle Larson14.05520032481.6
Marcos Ambrose19.64488422,26381.2
Jeff Burton17.3479118352,70279.0
Brad Keselowski19.52981642241,71978.8
Joey Logano18.4279771401,55477.1
Jamie McMurray19.2483123702,51176.6

Joey Logano 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 Penske Racing driver took the lead from Jeff Gordon on the green-white-checkered restart and led the final lap capping an impressive performance in the Duck Commander 500. The No. 22 Ford team has a very good shot at breaking out the brooms this weekend based on how Logano has raced these ovals in 2014. 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 and Tony Stewart both led significant laps and made their presence felt after 500 miles at the Texas tri-oval. Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson also threw their hats in the ring that day despite leading relatively few laps. The "Kyle" duo hounded the leaders all day long before finally finishing a brilliant third and fifth and well within eye site of the eventual winner Logano. 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. When we visit the intermediate oval in Texas we have a watchful eye for the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. 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 was the winner of this season's first race at the Fort Worth oval and leading candidate to sweep the Texas oval this Sunday afternoon. A couple weeks ago at the similar Charlotte oval, Logano was a Top-5 fixture for the second-half of that race and eventual Top-5 finisher. 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.

Jeff Gordon -
Coming off the big Martinsville performance and runner-up finish, Gordon should be really looking forward to an outing at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has been on fire on the intermediate ovals this season. He has one victory and three runner-up finishes 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 12 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.

Kevin Harvick -
The championship quest for Harvick is still alive, but hanging by a thread coming to Texas Motor Speedway. The veteran driver enters this weekend eighth in the overall standings, but not dead yet. The victory wild card can still advance him to the champions round, 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 won the last intermediate oval event at Charlotte Motor Speedway, so the team is dialed-in right now. Harvick has been a consistent performer on these style ovals in 2014 with one win and five Top-10 finishes in the nine races on 1.5-mile tracks.

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 has three victories on these intermediate ovals in 2014, and that leads the series. With only three Top 10s in 12 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 at Talladega a couple weeks ago, this driver and team pulled out the win. Can he do it again? 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 four Top-5 and six Top-10 finishes in the nine intermediate oval races to-date. During the Chase for the Cup he's been just as hot. He has two pole positions and three Top 10s in the three intermediate oval events of the playoffs. The Joe Gibbs Racing ace finished a brilliant third at the Texas intermediate oval this spring, and it was an impressive performance. While the No. 18 Toyota team is now outside looking in on the championship picture, Busch should still make a strong start this Sunday at TMS.

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has been given his best opportunity in years to win the Sprint Cup Series championship. This weekend he is three races away from realizing that dream. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota has been a top performer at Texas Motor Speedway over the years. Kenseth is a two-time winner at the Fort Worth oval, and he leads all active drivers with 13 career Top 5s at this facility. This team has been a top performer this season on the intermediate ovals. Seven of Kenseth's 20 Top-10 finishes have come on this size and configuration of oval. With his eyes on the prize, Kenseth and team should be razor sharp in this one.

Carl Edwards -
The 2014 season has been pretty rewarding for Edwards. He hasn't factored in the championship picture but he's pegged for a Top-8 finish in the final standings. The driver of the No. 99 Ford is prepping for a championship run in 2015 with a new team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Edwards is looking to cap a successful career at Roush Fenway Racing. He is tied with Jimmie Johnson with three career victories at the Fort Worth oval, so that's got to be a huge confidence booster coming into the AAA Texas 500. In four of his last seven visits to Texas Motor Speedway the veteran driver boasts Top-10 finishes. Edwards has four 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 second in the Chase standings as we enter the final three events of the 2014 season. Never has Newman been closer to the championship than now. With the consistency he's displayed throughout this season's Chase (five 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-10 finishes in two of his last three starts here. Given his seventh-place finish at Charlotte recently, there is a good chance for consistency to reign again this Sunday at TMS.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Texas who can provide a solid finish

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
After the rough start to the Chase and early-round exit, the Hendrick Motorsports star earned redemption with the big win at Martinsville Speedway last week. That should provide him with the morale boost to carry over to this Sunday. Earnhardt has raced well at this facility over the years and the 1.5-mile ovals in general in 2014. The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has one win and 13 Top-10 finishes at the Fort Worth oval in 24 starts. When we combine the recent level of performance with Earnhardt's love of Texas Motor Speedway, we get a sense that he'll be solidly fixed in the Top 10 this Sunday afternoon.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is looking to continue his solid performance on 1.5-mile ovals this weekend at Texas. Kahne has been strong at these style ovals this season with one win and five Top-10 finishes in nine starts. He's fresh off a respectable 10th-place finish at Charlotte a few weeks ago, so the team is giving him the good stuff. Kahne has never been a world-beater at Texas, but he does have one career win here. His last three starts at Fort Worth show a pair of 11th-place and one fifth-place finish. Considering the No. 5 team has put themselves out of Chase contention, we think Kahne will be eager to make amends on a good oval for the team this weekend.

Denny Hamlin -
The No. 11 JGR Toyota team has been getting it together the last few weeks. Hamlin has a pair of Top 10s in the last three races and he looks like his old self after a solid performance at Martinsville this past weekend. He's a two-time winner at TMS, and boasts a strong 53-percent Top-10 rate at this intermediate oval. Hamlin's performance on intermediate ovals this season has turned from poor to good over the stretch run of the season. He rides a four-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 very important race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Kyle Larson -
The intermediate ovals have been venues of success for this impressive rookie. Larson has racked up three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in the nine events on these style tracks. He rides a four-race Top-10 streak on intermediate ovals into this weekend. In addition, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver grabbed an impressive Top-5 finish in his last start at Texas Motor Speedway in April of this year. After a couple of rough outings at Talladega and Martinsville, the young driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet will surely be happy to see the friendly confines of the Fort Worth oval this Sunday afternoon.

Jamie McMurray -
Fresh off the pole position and 84 laps led at Martinsville Speedway, McMurray rides to Texas feeling pretty strong. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has been pretty steady on the intermediate ovals in 2014, with three Top 10s and a respectable 18.0 average finish in the nine events on 1.5-mile tracks this season. McMurray owns six career Top-10 finishes at Texas Motor Speedway, so he's no stranger to performing well here. Four of his last five visits to the Fort Worth oval have netted Top-20 finishes. Given the hot hand of this driver and team, we expect much more for Sunday's AAA Texas 500.

Austin Dillon -
The Richard Childress Racing driver is putting the finishing touches on his rookie season in the Sprint Cup Series. While there have been ups-and-downs, it has largely been a successful first season. Dillon has come on strong during the Chase on these intermediate ovals. With finishes of 16th-, eighth- and 13th-place at Chicago, Kansas and Charlotte, the No. 3 team is building momentum for next season. Dillon has three career starts at this Texas oval, so he has more experience here than almost anywhere else in a Cup car. The results haven't come to this point at Fort Worth, but we believe they will this weekend.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson -
With a remarkable thud, many Sprint Cup stars were eliminated from the Chase after 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 32nd-place finish at Martinsville. His worst finish at that facility since his rookie season of 2002. There's not much hope for a reversal this weekend. Johnson's recent intermediate oval efforts have been truly forgettable, with 12th-, 40th- and 17th-place finishes during the Chase. Johnson has some great career numbers at Texas, but his current level of performance trumps all that history.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer and the No. 15 Toyota team have shown resilience and a fighting attitude 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 only one Top 10 in the nine events to-date, and an average finish of 25.8 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 59-percent Top-10 rate at the track. However, this season's No. 15 Toyota team simply isn't up to the task this time around.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Despite being one of the top performers on the 1.5-mile tracks the last few seasons, we have to give Truex and the No. 78 team the downgrade this weekend. The Furniture Row Racing driver has only one Top 10 in the nine intermediate oval races of 2014. That certainly bucks his historical trends and his respectable 44-percent Top-10 rate at Texas Motor Speedway. When Truex last visited TMS he posted a subpar 18th-place finish in April's Duck Commander 500. With the struggles this team and driver have faced this season, it's best to stay clear for the AAA Texas 500.

David Ragan -
The intermediate ovals have been tough venues for the No. 34 team in 2014. That's unusual considering Ragan's career record at these style tracks. He has only two Top-30 finishes in the nine races to-date. With only two Top-10 finishes in 15 career starts at Texas Motor Speedway, one has to admit Ragan has better ovals on the Sprint Cup Series circuit. The veteran driver finished a disappointing 35th at Fort Worth this past April, and that likely is a sign of things to come for this Front Row Motorsports team.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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