AAA Texas 500 Preview: Round of 8 Continues at Texas

AAA Texas 500 Preview: Round of 8 Continues at Texas

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

NASCAR's Chase for the Cup is coming down the stretch, and this week the Monster Energy 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 contender Martin Truex Jr. He is thick in the middle of the Chase battle coming to Fort Worth, and he's looking for the win and automatic berth in the championship round of the Chase at Homestead. Considering that Truex has carved up these intermediate ovals in 2017, he should be in the driver's seat (no pun intended) for one of the remaining championship playoff berths.

When we note that six of his seven victories this season have come on the intermediate oval circuit, the No. 78 Toyota team has to be the top choice of all fantasy racing gamers this week. Truex has yet to win at this oval, but he's been incredibly close on multiple occasions the last couple years. Another driver in the Toyota camp worth keeping an eye on this Sunday is Kyle Busch. He is always well ranked when we visit the oval at Fort Worth, as you'll see in the statistical table below. He and Matt Kenseth are the other two 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 Truex's race and title hopes

NASCAR's Chase for the Cup is coming down the stretch, and this week the Monster Energy 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 contender Martin Truex Jr. He is thick in the middle of the Chase battle coming to Fort Worth, and he's looking for the win and automatic berth in the championship round of the Chase at Homestead. Considering that Truex has carved up these intermediate ovals in 2017, he should be in the driver's seat (no pun intended) for one of the remaining championship playoff berths.

When we note that six of his seven victories this season have come on the intermediate oval circuit, the No. 78 Toyota team has to be the top choice of all fantasy racing gamers this week. Truex has yet to win at this oval, but he's been incredibly close on multiple occasions the last couple years. Another driver in the Toyota camp worth keeping an eye on this Sunday is Kyle Busch. He is always well ranked when we visit the oval at Fort Worth, as you'll see in the statistical table below. He and Matt Kenseth are the other two 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 Truex's race and title hopes comes from none other than Jimmie Johnson and his No. 48 Chevrolet team. For some unexplainable reason, he really turns in magical performances when we visit Texas. Johnson is a seven-time Texas winner, and he took the victory here in April's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. From Ford's standpoint, Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski will represent the biggest threat from this manufacturer's camp. Both finished inside the Top 6 here in April, but neither have broken through yet for their first Texas Motor Speedway win. Add to their names Ryan Blaney. He's still alive in the Chase, and had the speed to lead 148 laps at the Texas oval in the spring. Blaney is a longer shot at the win, but never underestimate the power of championship motivation.

Since it's been several months since the last Monster Energy 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 25 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson8.29436971,0416,513107.3
Matt Kenseth8.68893977046,332103.6
Kyle Busch11.78244207415,631101.5
Chase Elliott6.013835482298.3
Martin Truex Jr.13.67752444885,51594.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.51,0183281956,07593.6
Kevin Harvick11.29242181915,63091.4
Denny Hamlin12.69241881554,97888.8
Brad Keselowski15.74813135893,33788.1
Kurt Busch16.08282242935,02187.8
Kyle Larson16.03038501,61386.8
Clint Bowyer15.3706164854,34085.6
Joey Logano15.84221883753,14185.3
Kasey Kahne18.8872279765,21685.2
Jamie McMurray17.0715138793,79479.1
Erik Jones17.0471032975.4
Ryan Newman17.765781202,83674.1
Ryan Blaney27.6927414862370.8
Paul Menard21.85905632,49569.2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.20.811920074968.7

Jimmie Johnson won the first time around at Texas Motor Speedway in April of this season, and has the chance for the season-sweep at this facility. The Hendrick Motorsports star took the lead from Joey Logano after the final caution period and led the final 17 laps capping a surprising performance in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. The No. 48 Chevrolet team would seem to have a slim shot at breaking out the brooms this weekend based on how Johnson has raced of late. Despite remaining alive in the Chase for the Cup field, he's not been in race-winning form since June of this year (Dover). Johnson has been more of a Top-15 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. Ryan Blaney led 148 laps and nearly stole the show before finally finishing 12th at the Texas tri-oval. It was one of the most impressive performances of the young driver's career, but came up short of the win. Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick also threw their hats in the ring that day but would finished third- and fourth-place respectively. Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott hounded the leaders all day long before finally finishing a strong second- and ninth-place respectively and well within eye site of the eventual winner Johnson. All eyes will be fixed on Truex's No. 78 Toyota team 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 he won at the similar ovals of Charlotte and Kansas during the Chase. Considering that Truex led 49 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

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing team and Truex have been the team to beat on intermediate ovals this season. The veteran driver has racked up six of his seven victories on these style 1.5-mile ovals. That string of wins includes three during the Chase alone (Chicago, Charlotte and Kansas). At this point, picking against Truex winning on one of these style tracks is the equivalent of picking against the Patriots and Tom Brady in the Super Bowl. It's just not where the smart money goes in this case. The only variable this week is that Truex has never won at Texas Motor Speedway, although he's come very close the last couple seasons. He rides a five-race Texas Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, and has led a whopping 250+ laps at Fort Worth in just his last three starts alone.

Chase Elliott -
Although he was the victim of a "dump and run" while leading at Martinsville last weekend, and he's behind the eight-ball coming to Texas, you have to really like Elliott's chances to finally win this week. The No. 24 Chevrolet team has been one of the strongest performing teams during the Chase for the Cup. Elliott has also been one of the better performing team's this season on the cookie cutter ovals with six Top-5 and seven Top-10 finishes in the nine events to-date. That includes a strong pair of runner-up finishes at Chicago and Charlotte during the Chase. The Hendrick Motorsports driver also likes the similar Texas oval. He's scored Top-10 finishes in all three of his career-starts at Fort Worth. The pressure of staying alive in the Chase will be a powerful motivator for this team and driver.

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 or at the very least a strong performance to keep him high in the points. The victory wild card can still advance him into 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 has been super consistent on intermediate ovals this season, scoring Top-10 finishes in eight of the nine events. Harvick's last start at Texas Motor Speedway in April yielded a pole position, 77 laps led and a fourth-place finish. He should swing for the fences in Sunday's AAA Texas 500.

Jimmie Johnson -
With Johnson's 12th-place finish at Martinsville this past week, he comes to Texas riding the bubble in terms of continuing in the Chase. The wild card win and ticket to the Round of 4 looms large for this driver and team. Fortunately, they could not be visiting a better oval this week for the Hendrick Motorsports star. Johnson owns seven-career wins at TMS, and that includes four of the last six events at the Fort Worth oval. When the Monster Energy Cup Series visited here in April, the driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet pulled an improbable and surprising victory in that event. That makes Texas one of the best intermediate ovals in Johnson's racing resume. He may not be one of the top contenders to win this weekend, but you can never rule out Johnson any time NASCAR visits Texas Motor Speedway.

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 strong but somewhat inconsistent. Busch has three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in the nine intermediate oval races of this year. During the Chase for the Cup he's struggled on these style tracks. Finishes of 15th-, 29th- and 10th-place have been his body of work. However, it is noteworthy that the best of those came in our last event at Kansas Speedway. Busch led 112 laps before finishing 10th in that event, so there is some light at the end of the tunnel. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota is a two-time Texas winner, and he cracks the Top 10 here at a decent 52-percent rate, that includes five of his last six efforts at Fort Worth. Busch should soldier to another Top-10 finish as he tunes up for the season finale at Homestead.

Brad Keselowski -
Despite seeing a possible victory evaporate late at Martinsville last week, the No. 2 Ford team will regroup and shoot for the best possible finish at Texas this week. Keselowski has one victory and five Top-10 finishes on intermediate ovals this season, with just over 130 laps led. That shows that this driver and team are one of the best in the Monster Energy Cup Series at these style tracks. With only seven Top 10s in 18 starts at this oval, Texas has not been the best track over his career, but recent performances have been outstanding. Four of Keselowski's last six visits to Fort Worth have netted Top-10 finishes. With the pressure to advance in the Chase in full effect we expect this Penske Racing star to race among the leaders at TMS this Sunday afternoon.

Denny Hamlin -
The No. 11 JGR Toyota team has been pretty fast since the Chase began at Chicago. Hamlin has claimed five Top-10 finishes in the seven Chase races to-date, and that includes a pair of impressive Top-5 finishes in the last two intermediate oval events at Charlotte and Kansas. He's a two-time winner at Texas Motor Speedway, and boasts a steady 48-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. Hamlin's performance on cookie cutter ovals this season has been pretty exceptional, especially of late. 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.

Ryan Blaney -
The talented Wood Brothers Racing driver will make another steady start this Sunday in the AAA Texas 500. With one win, four Top-5 and 13 Top-10 finishes to this point, the season has held quite a bit of success for this single-car race team. Much of those good statistics has come on the intermediate oval circuit. They have been by far his best ovals in the Monster Energy Cup Series in 2017. Blaney has two Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes on the cookie cutter ovals this season, including recent eighth- and third-place finishes at Charlotte and Kansas. His last Texas start in April yielded a whopping 148 laps led, but 12th-place finish. Blaney will be eager to make up for that finish. With his Chase hopes still alive, this young driver has a lot at stake at Texas Motor Speedway.

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

Kyle Larson -
After the Chase elimination at Kansas, 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. On the bright side, the 1.5-mile ovals have yielded a lot of success to the No. 42 Chevrolet team this season. Larson has rung up seven Top-10 finishes in those nine events to-date. He scored fifth- and 10th-place finishes at Chicago and Charlotte to start the Chase. Larson's start at Texas Motor Speedway in April yielded a brilliant runner-up finish in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. If there's a rebound in the offing this will be the place for Larson and the team to have it.

Matt Kenseth -
One of the top performers at Texas Motor Speedway in all of NASCAR drives the No. 20 Toyota. Kenseth will make a timely start at one of his favorite ovals this Sunday afternoon. After all, he's looking for a new ride next season, and this race will be a great audition for any suitors. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has the second-highest active driver rating (103.6) at Texas Motor Speedway. Kenseth also boasts two-career victories and 18 Top-10 finishes at the Texas oval. That's a lofty 62-percent Top-10 rate, and ranks among the very best in the Monster Energy Cup Series. Kenseth has a ninth- and 11th-place finish during the Chase on similar ovals (Chicago and Charlotte). While he's not been razor sharp of late, he has labored to some good finishes, especially on these style ovals.

Jamie McMurray -
The Chip Ganassi Racing veteran was dealt a tough blow when he didn't advance in the Chase, but McMurray has kept his head up. He's suffered a rash of bad luck the last three races, and he comes to Fort Worth looking to hit the reset button. The good news is that intermediate ovals have been this driver and team's best tracks in 2017. McMurray has racked up seven Top-10 finishes on the cookie cutter tracks, and that includes both Chicago and Charlotte to start the Chase. Texas Motor Speedway has yielded 10-career Top-10 finishes to this veteran driver over the years, including a strong seventh-place finish here in April of this year. McMurray is poised to get back into his Top 10 ways in Sunday's AAA Texas 500.

Kasey Kahne -
The intermediate ovals of the Chase have provided a boost to the slumping Kahne and No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports team. The veteran driver had struggled most of the season on these style tracks until just recently. However, ninth- and 15th-place finishes at Charlotte and Kansas are reason for optimism and some fantasy racing returns at Texas this weekend. Texas Motor Speedway has yielded one win and nine Top-10 finishes to Kahne over the years. In fact, three of his last five visits to Fort Worth have netted Top-10 finishes. That includes his pair of eighth-place finishes at Texas last year. Some fantasy racing players will avoid Kahne this weekend, but we believe he'll be an outperform driver especially in weekly lineup leagues this week.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
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 Dover just a few weeks ago. Earnhardt has three Top 10 and five Top-15 finishes in his last five events entering this weekend. So there's ample reason for optimism for the No. 88 Chevrolet team. Earnhardt's most recent outing on a 1.5-mile track yielded a strong seventh-place finish at Kansas a couple weeks ago. The NASCAR icon loves racing at Texas Motor Speedway. He collected his first-career win at this oval way back in the 2000 season, and he's riding a five-race Texas Top-10 streak into Sunday's AAA Texas 500. We believe the good vibes will keep on rolling for this driver and team this Sunday afternoon.

Daniel Suarez -
The rookie driver has been fairly consistent on these intermediate ovals in 2017. Suarez has just two Top-10 finishes in these nine events, but he has a host of Top-15 and Top-20 finishes. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota was poised to crack the Top 10 in our last intermediate oval race at Kansa a couple weeks ago, but he was caught up in the 14-car pileup on lap 197 of that race. This weekend will be Suarez's second-career start at Texas Motor Speedway, and he finished 19th in his debut at this oval. We're certain he'll be much improved this time around, and could crack the Top 10 in Sunday's 500-mile race at Fort Worth.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Joey Logano -
The 2017 season has been largely disappointing for the Penske Racing star. Logano did win the one race at Richmond in the spring, but it was a penalized and encumbered victory, which caused the Penske Racing star to miss the Chase. Inconsistency has marked his campaign, and recently the intermediate ovals have been a part of that problem. Logano has finishes of 26th (Charlotte) and 21st (Kansas) during the Chase. This is uncharacteristically poor for this driver and team's reputation. Despite some recent Texas success, this hasn't been his best intermediate oval on the circuit by any stretch. Logano's eight Top 10s at Fort Worth check in at a subpar 44-percent rate. This driver and team are simply too risky to deploy in this very important race.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer and the No. 14 team are already looking forward to 2018. This season is practically in the books, and while he and his new team made progress, there's much more to look forward to down the road. Bowyer's intermediate oval performance this year was one of the low points. With only two Top-10 finishes in the nine events, this is a deficiency that prevented Bowyer from making the Chase this season. It hasn't improved during the Chase either. Finishes of 13th-, 27th- and 19th-place have been his Chicago, Charlotte and Kansas report card. This veteran driver enjoyed a lot of success at Texas Motor Speedway earlier in his career. However, it's been uphill plowing of late. Bowyer has only cracked the Top 15 twice in his last six visits to the Texas oval. Those are not the best of stats to depend on in Sunday's AAA Texas 500.

Danica Patrick -
The long 2017 season is drawing to a close for the struggling No. 10 team of Stewart Haas Racing. Patrick and SHR will part ways at the conclusion of the season after Homestead, and who knows what the future will hold for this driver. Patrick has experienced some highs as well as lows in 2017, but one thing is unmistakably poor and that's her cookie cutter oval performance. The driver of the No. 10 Ford has only one Top-15 finish in her nine events to-date vs. four DNF's. That's led to a bloated 27.4 average finish on these style tracks this season. Her last two starts at Charlotte and Kansas led to DNF's so there's nothing optimistic to point to this weekend. Patrick has never cracked the Top 10 in 10-career Texas starts, and her 24.1 average finish at this facility is only modestly better than her current level of performance.

Erik Jones -
The wildly talented Furniture Row Racing rookie is still mired in a slump after Martinsville this past week. Jones labored to an unimpressive 26th-place finish at the Virginia short track, and saw his Top-10 drought grow to five races. The intermediate ovals have presented a real challenge to the No. 77 team this season, and especially of late. Jones has just two Top 10s in nine starts on the 1.5-mile ovals in 2017. His woes during the Chase have been the most puzzling with 33rd-, 17th- and 35th-place finishes at Chicago, Charlotte and Kansas. This will be the young driver's third-career Texas start, and that's one positive to point to this Sunday. However, Jones' start here in April only netted a 22nd-place finish in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.

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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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