AAA Texas 500 Preview: Homestretch to the Title

AAA Texas 500 Preview: Homestretch to the Title

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 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 Jimmie Johnson. He leads Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth by just 5 points entering this event. With a berth in the championship round already locked up, Johnson will be looking to set the tone for these final races, including the finale at Homestead. Considering that the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is a six-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.

Texas has really replaced Charlotte in recent years as Johnson's go-to intermediate oval. He's won three of the last four events there. Among the Toyota camp, Kyle Busch is always well ranked when we visit the oval at Fort Worth, as you'll see in the statistical table below. He and Kenseth 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 Johnson'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

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 Jimmie Johnson. He leads Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth by just 5 points entering this event. With a berth in the championship round already locked up, Johnson will be looking to set the tone for these final races, including the finale at Homestead. Considering that the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet is a six-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.

Texas has really replaced Charlotte in recent years as Johnson's go-to intermediate oval. He's won three of the last four events there. Among the Toyota camp, Kyle Busch is always well ranked when we visit the oval at Fort Worth, as you'll see in the statistical table below. He and Kenseth 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 Johnson'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 few seasons. The Stewart Haas Racing star won at the Kansas oval three weeks ago in an effort to avoid elimination in the Chase. Harvick will be facing that back-to-the-wall scenario again this week. 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 Racing 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 this season and Logano is still alive in the Chase, so motivation will not be a problem for the No. 22 team.

Since it's been several months since the last Sprint Cup race at the Texas oval, 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 23 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson8.38606471,0235,991107.8
Matt Kenseth8.38393907045,959104.9
Kyle Busch11.97504047395,206102.9
Carl Edwards14.28404246555,47297.6
Greg Biffle14.78204787335,00496.4
Chase Elliott5.0539127194.9
Tony Stewart14.46583647864,57794.3
Martin Truex Jr.14.37011923734,89991.7
Denny Hamlin12.18821841544,71790.5
Kevin Harvick11.78691851145,00389.1
Kurt Busch16.17662152934,67988.5
Clint Bowyer15.0671163854,00786.8
Brad Keselowski16.44192935852,73486.4
Kasey Kahne18.5832276764,87186.1
Kyle Larson18.51984901,03681.7
Joey Logano17.53871211592,55380.5
Jamie McMurray17.3640128793,33878.5
Ryan Newman17.762281202,72374.9
Paul Menard20.85854732,46570.9
A.J. Allmendinger20.92944301,16968.0

Kyle Busch 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 Joe Gibbs Racing driver took the lead from Martin Truex Jr. after the final caution period and led the final 33 laps capping an impressive performance in the Duck Commander 500. The No. 18 Toyota team has a slim shot at breaking out the brooms this weekend based on how Busch has raced of late. Despite winning four races this season, his last victory is way back in June at Indianapolis. Busch has been more of a Top-5 finisher of late and less of a threat to win.

A number of drivers had a good shot at victory lane at Fort Worth when we visited this intermediate oval several months ago. Carl Edwards and Truex Jr. led a combined 265 laps and made their presence felt after 500 miles at the Texas tri-oval. Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson also threw their hats in the ring that day despite leading no laps. Chase Elliott and Kasey Kahne hounded the leaders all day long before finally finishing a strong fifth- and eighth-place respectively and well within eye site of the eventual winner Busch. Truex's No. 78 Toyota team could have some added value in this Sunday's AAA Texas 500 considering this veteran driver's solid loop stats at this facility and intermediate oval performances of this season. The Furniture Row Racing star won at Chicago to kick off the Chase for the Cup and his best tracks this season have really been the cookie cutter ovals. Considering that Truex led 141 laps here in the spring, the FRR 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 contenders 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

Jimmie Johnson –
With Johnson's big victory last weekend at Martinsville, the No. 48 team has punched their ticket into the Championship Round of the Chase for the first time ever. The pressure is off to an extent, but the will to win is burning stronger with this veteran than for a long time in recent memory. There's good reason to expect that the rich will keep getting richer at Fort Worth this weekend. Johnson owns six-career wins at TMS, and he cracks the Top 10 at a lofty 77-percent rate. That makes Texas one of his best intermediate ovals in his racing resume. When you consider that five of Johnson's victories here have come in the last five seasons, you can easily see he's the driver to beat in the AAA Texas 500.

Joey Logano –
The 2016 season hasn't held the victories for Logano that the past couple seasons have in the win column. That doesn't diminish the No. 22 team's value for this very important race. Logano has a pair of runner-up finishes and four Top-3 finishes on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season. That shows that he's been right on the heels of the victors on these intermediate ovals. Logano is a one-time Texas winner (2014) and he finished third-place here in April of this year. With the reward of an automatic pass into the Championship Round of the Chase in the offing, we expect the Penske Racing No. 22 team to be all business this Sunday afternoon.

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 sixth 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 our last intermediate oval winner with his big victory at Kansas a few weeks ago. Harvick has a knack for winning these races that would otherwise eliminate him from the Chase, so it's hard to bet against his style of clutch, late-season victories.

Kyle Busch –
The No. 18 Toyota team's performances on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season have been pretty spotless. Busch has two victories, five Top-5 and seven Top-10 finishes in the nine intermediate oval races of this year. During the Chase for the Cup he's been a consistent Top-10 performer, but not really a race winning contender. He qualified on the outside pole and finished fifth at Kansas recently, and that's his best cookie cutter oval performance of the second half of the season. Busch won his second-career Texas victory here in the spring, so the notes from that outing will come in handy. 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.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Brad Keselowski –
Despite being eliminated from the Chase at Talladega, Keselowski bounced back well with a runner-up finish at Martinsville last weekend. The No. 2 team is still digging hard for the best standings finish possible in 2016. He has two victories and seven Top-10 finishes on intermediate ovals this season, with just over 100 laps led. That shows that the No. 2 team is one of the best in the Sprint Cup Series at these style tracks. With only six Top 10's in 16 starts at this oval, Texas has not been the best track over his career, but recent performances have been outstanding. Six of Keselowski's last eight visits to Fort Worth have netted Top-10 finishes.

Matt Kenseth –
One of the top performers at Texas Motor Speedway in all of NASCAR drives the No. 20 Toyota. Kenseth will make a very important start at one of his favorite ovals this Sunday afternoon. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has the second-highest driver rating (104.9) of all active drivers. Kenseth also boasts two-career victories and 17 Top-10 finishes at the Texas oval. That's a lofty 63-percent Top-10 rate, and ranks among the very best in the Sprint Cup Series. Kenseth rides a six-race Top-10 streak on intermediate ovals into this weekend's AAA Texas 500. That string includes his strong pole position and 116 laps led at Kansas Speedway a few weeks ago. The JGR No. 20 team will be racing with the leaders in this 500-mile battle.

Denny Hamlin –
The No. 11 JGR Toyota team has been pretty fast since the Chase began at Chicago. Hamlin has claimed four Top-10 finishes in the seven Chase races to-date, and that includes a pair of impressive third-place finishes in the last two events at Talladega and Martinsville. He's a two-time winner at TMS, and boasts a steady 48-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. Hamlin's performance on cookie cutter ovals this season has been inconsistent at best. However, with the closing stages of the Chase upon us it's clear that Hamlin and the No. 11 team are in top form. We expect to see a Top-10 qualifying effort, some laps led and a Top-10 finish in the AAA Texas 500.

Martin Truex Jr. –
The Furniture Row Racing team and Truex have been top performers on the intermediate oval circuit the last two seasons. The veteran driver has two victories and five Top-10 finishes in the nine intermediate oval races of this 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 50-percent Top-10 rate at Texas Motor Speedway. When Truex last visited TMS in April, he led a whopping 141 laps and finished a strong sixth-place in the Duck Commander 500. The championship may not be on the line for Truex, but he certainly won't race like it at Texas Motor Speedway.

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

Chase Elliott –
The recent tough times have really burdened Elliott. However, there has been some light at the end of the tunnel. A pair of 12th-place finishes the last two weeks signal that the No. 24 team is going to round of 2016 in strong fashion. Intermediate ovals have been by far his best tracks in this rookie season. Elliott has five Top-10 finishes in the nine races to-date. That includes his very impressive fifth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway this past April. Elliott has led over 180 laps in his last three cookie cutter oval starts, so the speed has been there, just not the proper finishes. We're willing to bet the Hendrick Motorsports rookie will embrace his second start of the season at the Fort Worth oval.

Carl Edwards –
With this driver and team comes some risk. That's why we've moved Edwards to the sleepers list rather than the solid plays. Edwards is looking to advance into the Championship 4 and race for the Sprint Cup at Homestead, however, recent struggles have put the team behind the eight ball this weekend. We have to give this Joe Gibbs Racing star some due credit though for the potential he presents at Texas. 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. The veteran driver rides a four-race Texas Top-10 streak into Sunday's action. Edwards has a pair of runner-up and four Top-15 finishes in his last four 1.5-mile oval races.

Kurt Busch –
The intermediate ovals have been venues of success for the Stewart Haas Racing star. Busch has two pole positions and seven Top 10's in nine starts on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season. Those numbers include his eighth-place finish during the Chase for the Cup at the similar oval in Charlotte. 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 27-career starts at Texas Motor Speedway, he has one victory, 295 laps led, and 15 Top-10 finishes. That works out to a strong 56-percent Top-10 rate for the driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet.

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 tough season, but has come on strong since just before the Chase began several weeks ago. Kahne has Top 10's in six of the last nine events, 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 three 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 2017, we think Kahne will be eager to turn in a strong performance on a good oval for the team this weekend.

Alex Bowman –
The relief driver of the No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet has shown some real improvement and some impressive performance the last few weeks. Bowman didn't race at Martinsville last weekend, but he's been very impressive in recent 1.5-mile oval outings. The young driver has a pair of Top-10 finishes in the last three intermediate oval starts he's made in the late season. That includes a 10th-place finish at Chicago to kick off the Chase, and more recently a seventh-place finish at Kansas. Bowman has four-career starts at Texas Motor Speedway, so he's not unfamiliar with this oval. Those efforts have been forgettable. However, driving the No. 88 Chevrolet this weekend means Bowman is poised for the best-career Texas finish in his five starts.

Ryan Blaney –
The talented Wood Brothers Racing driver will make another steady start this Sunday in the AAA Texas 500. With three Top-5 and eight Top-10 finishes to this point, the season has held quite a bit of success for this single-car race team. One of Blaney's most impressive performances this season has been in just the last few weeks. A brilliant fourth-place finish at Chicago to kick off the Chase caught everyone's eye. It marked what has been a good level of performance on these style ovals in 2016. Blaney has two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes on the cookie cutter ovals this season. Blaney has three-career starts at Texas Motor Speedway, and we believe that experience will begin to show this Sunday afternoon.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kyle Larson –
After the Chase elimination at Dover, Larson could have packed it in, but he didn't. However, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver has been performing inconsistently at best throughout the Chase. Some weeks are great runs, others not-so-much. He'll attempt to hit the reset button here at Texas this weekend. However, his intermediate oval stats this season indicate a possible down week for the No. 42 team. In nine starts this season Larson has cracked the Top 10 only once on these cookie cutter ovals. His average finish across those nine starts is a subpar 21.6. Texas has held only two Top 10's in six-career starts and an average finish of 18.5. Signs point to a down week for Larson at the Fort Worth oval.

Clint Bowyer –
Bowyer and the No. 15 Chevrolet team have shown resilience and a fighting spirit this season, but it's still been a down campaign by any measure. The HScott Motorsports 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 25.0 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 48-percent Top-10 rate at the track, but falling off over the last couple seasons. The veteran driver has failed to crack the Top 10 in the last four events at Texas Motor Speedway.

Paul Menard –
The long 2016 season is drawing to a close for the struggling No. 27 team of Richard Childress Racing. Not much has gone right for Menard this season and he's on pace for his worst season since 2009. Menard's intermediate oval performances of this season have been a complete disaster. No Top-10 finishes to his credit, and four finishes outside the Top 20 in the nine events to-date. That averages out to a lowly 23.2 average finish across the span. Menard's Texas record is questionable at best. In 20-careeer starts he has only three Top 10's and an average finish of 20.8. The prospects of a good performance are pretty slim fort the No. 27 team.

Greg Biffle –
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran is finishing off his worst season as a Sprint Cup Series driver. Biffle has only three Top 10's for the season and he comes to Texas 24th overall in the driver standings. The intermediate ovals have been just as difficult for the driver of the No. 16 Ford. Biffle has only one Top-10 finish on the cookie cutter ovals this season and an average finish of 22.4 for those nine events. Despite Texas Motor Speedway having been a venue of past success for Biffle (two wins and 13 Top-10 finishes), he hasn't done much of note there of late. He's failed to crack the Top 10 at Texas in his last four visits, and his last start was a crash and DNF in April.

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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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