Duck Commander 500 Preview: Johnson's Streak at Stake

Duck Commander 500 Preview: Johnson's Streak at Stake

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We return to the intermediate ovals for the first race of the season in Fort Worth this weekend. Following the beating and banging short-track action of Martinsville Speedway, the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway is up next. This event marks a temporary break in the spring, short track part of the schedule, and gives us just one more look at the teams on a cookie cutter oval. The teams that performed well in the close confines of Martinsville can now focus on the business of racing at high speeds and with a return to the emphasis of handling sensitivity and down force. For the drivers that finished well at the Virginia bull ring, they have a leg up in the championship standings as we enter the heart of the NASCAR schedule. For those drivers who do well on the intermediate ovals and looking for a boost in the standings, it's time to strike while the iron is hot. Texas Motor Speedway possesses the trademark characteristics of the "D-shaped" tri-ovals on the circuit. This facility has 24 degree banking in the turns and very high speeds similar to that of the oval in 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 the bulk of the Sprint Cup Series schedule. We can look back at the results from Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway a few weekends
We return to the intermediate ovals for the first race of the season in Fort Worth this weekend. Following the beating and banging short-track action of Martinsville Speedway, the Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway is up next. This event marks a temporary break in the spring, short track part of the schedule, and gives us just one more look at the teams on a cookie cutter oval. The teams that performed well in the close confines of Martinsville can now focus on the business of racing at high speeds and with a return to the emphasis of handling sensitivity and down force. For the drivers that finished well at the Virginia bull ring, they have a leg up in the championship standings as we enter the heart of the NASCAR schedule. For those drivers who do well on the intermediate ovals and looking for a boost in the standings, it's time to strike while the iron is hot. Texas Motor Speedway possesses the trademark characteristics of the "D-shaped" tri-ovals on the circuit. This facility has 24 degree banking in the turns and very high speeds similar to that of the oval in 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 the bulk of the Sprint Cup Series schedule. We can look back at the results from Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Atlanta Motor Speedway a few weekends ago and get a good indication of who will perform well at TMS on Saturday evening. We've raced just enough on this style of track to have a good feel for who is on top of their game right now. Surprisingly, the Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolets struggled 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 both of the teams of Penske Racing finished one-two, with Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano combining to lead 99 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, so expectations are high for that camp heading into the Texas race weekend.

Since we are returning to a 1.5-mile oval this week, we can look back on the data from Las Vegas and Atlanta with some confidence this weekend. But that is really just two events in the big scheme of things. An invaluable aid will be to examine the most recent data from the oval in Fort Worth. The electronic loop statistics at Texas Motor Speedway will be one of our most important tools 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 and Atlanta, both should provide us with valuable information for this Saturday evening's race. The loop stats in the table below cover the last 11 years or 22 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson8.58036371,0235,660108.0
Matt Kenseth8.28083666845,629104.7
Kyle Busch12.57123647054,873101.9
Greg Biffle13.58194757334,99298.1
Carl Edwards14.58183755315,20396.4
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.49222841955,45892.2
Denny Hamlin12.28371821544,38390.6
Martin Truex Jr.14.76791472324,56589.7
Clint Bowyer13.9671163854,00789.1
Kevin Harvick11.88251761134,68688.8
Kurt Busch16.57322142934,37988.7
Brad Keselowski16.34082905852,61286.9
Kasey Kahne19.0802271764,72486.2
Kyle Larson19.419549096883.7
Brian Scott14.0250022283.0
Joey Logano18.53551191592,21978.9
Jamie McMurray17.5600128793,05578.3
Ryan Newman17.761578202,71675.3
Paul Menard20.55844032,46371.8
A.J. Allmendinger20.82944301,16868.6

In this event one year ago, Jimmie Johnson captured his fifth-career win at Texas Motor Speedway. It was the second of a five-win campaign that saw the No. 48 Chevrolet team challenge for the championship in 2015. When the series returned in the fall, it was the "Jimmie Johnson Show" once again. He led just 6 laps but outfoxed a more dominant Brad Keselowski to take the checkers in last November's AAA Texas 500. That not only completed the season-sweep for Johnson of the Fort Worth oval, but built on a string of three-straight victories at Texas for the Hendrick Motorsports star. With Keselowski's strong victory at Las Vegas recently, we have to give some heavy consideration in the direction of Ford this weekend. It's shaping up to be a battle primarily between Johnson and Keselowski since they've won the two intermediate ovals to-date this season and have the hot Texas hand entering the weekend. When we take a look at Toyota, we see that it has been since the 2013 season when Kyle Busch beat out Martin Truex Jr. that this manufacturer last visited victory lane in Fort Worth. Busch's win at Martinsville last weekend snapped a major drought for Toyota at that facility, so it could be time for a driver from this camp to win at Texas. Throw in streaking Gibbs driver Matt Kenseth with his excellent Texas loops stats and we have what is shaping up to be a multi-team, multi-manufacturer brawl this weekend in Texas. 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 Duck Commander 500.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is a six-time winner at Fort Worth, and he rides a string of three straight victories at the track into this installment of the Duck Commander 500. He gets the top contender label this week based on both his past history at this oval and his most recent outings at TMS. Five of his six victories at the track have come in the last four years, so it's been a top facility for Johnson of late. With over 1,000 laps led for his career at Texas Motor Speedway it's clear that this is one of his favorite places to race. Johnson has already won this season on the similar oval in Atlanta, so the team's intermediate oval program is running at full throttle.

Brad Keselowski -
This is the safe pick of the contenders list this week. Keselowski has really upped his performance at the Texas speedway over the last four seasons, and he's racing up front here each time the series visits. In our last trip to Fort Worth, the Penske Racing star won the pole, led 312 laps and dueled all day long with Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick to finish runner-up in the AAA Texas 500. Prior to that, Keselowski led 27 laps and finished an impressive fifth in last April's Duck Commander 500. The Penske Racing star has been flirting with victory lane at this oval in recent starts, and the timing may finally be right for Keselowski to cash in for that first Texas win.

Kevin Harvick -
Despite never having won at this oval, Harvick has been a consistent finisher at Texas Motor Speedway over the years. With 14 Top-10 finishes in 26 starts he checks in at a respectable 54-percent rate. Four of Harvick's last five trips to Fort Worth have netted Top-10 finishes, including a pair of runner-up and third-place finishes in the last three-straight. Strong and steady are two words that describe the Stewart Haas Racing veteran's ability at this 1.5-mile track. The No. 4 Chevrolet led 96 laps in this event one year ago, so it's just a matter of time before Harvick wins at Texas Motor Speedway.

Joey Logano -
Logano is another driver who has used recent Texas outings to reverse historical trends at the oval. The driver of the No. 22 Ford won this event two years ago in a dominant performance. He led 108 laps and set the pace most of the day in the Duck Commander 500. It was Logano's first-career win at the Texas track, but almost certainly not his last. With Top-5 finishes in four of his last six visits to Fort Worth, it's clear that the Penske Racing star and this team has this oval pretty well dialed-in. If Logano's performances on cookie cutter ovals recently are any indication, he'll be a top contender in the Duck Commander 500.

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

Kurt Busch -
The Stewart Haas Racing star roared out of the gates this season on the cookie cutter ovals. Busch won the poles at both Atlanta and Las Vegas, led a combined 93 laps between those two events and collected a pair of Top-10 finishes. That's just a preview of what's to come this season on the 1.5-mile ovals for the No. 41 Chevrolet team. Busch has one-career win at Texas Motor Speedway and 14 Top-10 finishes in 26 starts (54-percent). In our last trip to Fort Worth he qualified and finished seventh in last November's AAA Texas 500. He should crack the Top 10 in Saturday night's 500-mile race.

Matt Kenseth -
Kenseth's success at Fort Worth has been nothing short of amazing, and it's almost mind-boggling that he's only captured two wins at the track in the last 14 years. Still, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has reeled off 13 career Top 5's and led close to 850 laps at the intermediate oval in 26 starts. Kenseth has seven Top-10 finishes in his last 10 starts at the Texas oval entering this weekend's Duck Commander 500. With the No. 20 Toyota team performing well right now but still looking for their first victory of the season, Kenseth has a good shot at adding a third career Texas victory to his resume on Saturday evening.

Carl Edwards -
Six races into the season and Edwards finds himself a lofty fourth in the driver standings entering this event. Things have gotten off to a great start this season in the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing team. There is good reason to believe the hot streak will keep rolling this weekend at the Fort Worth oval. The JGR star is coming to one of his favorite tracks this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, so there's ample evidence to forecast a good performance for the No. 19 Toyota team this week. Edwards is a three-time winner at this oval, and swept both races here in 2008. His fifth-place finish here last November could be the baseline of what to expect Saturday night.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
We can't easily 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 strong 59-percent Top-10 rate at Texas Motor Speedway, which speaks volumes of his consistency at this intermediate oval. The last time we saw Junior in action on 1.5-mile ovals, he finished runner-up at Atlanta earlier this season and collected a solid eighth-place at Las Vegas a few weeks ago. Earnhardt has five Top-10 finishes in his last seven Texas races entering this Saturday evening's Duck Commander 500, and that bodes very well for the No. 88 Chevrolet team.

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

Brian Vickers -
The veteran driver's future is uncertain, and he's certainly racing with that urgency. Vickers is coming fresh off an impressive Top-10 finish in relief of Tony Stewart at Martinsville. That's a short track where he's not had much success over the years, so it underscores his motivation right now. Vickers will make another start in the No. 14 Chevrolet this weekend at Texas. This is a better oval in his Sprint Cup Series resume. Vickers has one career pole position at Fort Worth and two of his last three starts there have netted Top-10 finishes. The momentum of Martinsville should roll into Texas Motor Speedway for this driver looking to secure a ride.

Austin Dillon -
The surprise driver of this early season is easily Dillon and the No. 3 Chevrolet team. The young driver and crew chief Slugger Labbe have finally hit on the right combination and chemistry and its yielding results. Through six races Dillon has four Top 10's and sits a lofty eighth in the driver point standings. He has six-career starts at Texas Motor Speedway, but with very mixed results. The good news is that his last start here last November yielded a career-best 11th-place finish. The better news is that starts earlier this season at Atlanta and Las Vegas yielded 11th- and fifth-place finishes. Dillon should stay hot going into the Duck Commander 500.

Chase Elliott -
Elliott had a tough outing at Martinsville last week. He would battle hard to get the subpar 20th-place finish in the STP 500. He'll be more than happy to see an intermediate oval this week. Elliott and the No. 24 team brought two very fast cars to both Atlanta and Las Vegas, so replicating that at Texas Motor Speedway shouldn't be too difficult. The Hendrick Motorsports rookie won his first-career Xfinity Series victory at the oval in Fort Worth in 2014. All four of his starts in that division of NASCAR at TMS have yielded Top-10 finishes. Elliott should rebound well this Saturday night in the 500-mile marathon at Texas.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Another driver that's surging coming to Fort Worth this week is Allmendinger and his JTG Daugherty Racing team. The veteran driver is coming off consecutive Top-10 finishes at Fontana and Martinsville, and the effort at Martinsville yielded an impressive runner-up finish. The oval in Texas has been a mixed bag for the driver of the No. 47 Chevrolet. With just two Top-10 finishes in 14 starts, he carries a 20.8 average finish into Saturday night's race. Allmendinger's Top-15 finish at Las Vegas was our most recent intermediate oval event. He shouldn't have any trouble duplicating that finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The transition from Chevrolet to Toyota this season hasn't been a completely seamless deal for the No. 78 team. However, Truex has managed to keep a good level of performance on the cookie cutter ovals. His seventh- and 11th-place finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas are evidence of this fact. Intermediate ovals are good tracks for the driver of the No. 78 Toyota and that should be encouraging going into this Saturday's Duck Commander 500. Truex picked up a pair of Top-10 finishes at this oval last season, and that brought his career Top-10 percentage at Fort Worth to 48-percent. He should be up to the task of challenging the Top 10 in the Duck Commander 500.

Ryan Blaney -
The Wood Brothers Racing rookie will be visiting an oval he knows all too well this Saturday night. Blaney has made two Sprint Cup starts at TMS last season during the team's part-time racing era. He also has three Xfinity and six truck series starts at this intermediate oval. Seven of those nine combines starts netted Top-10 finishes for the young driver. So once again, Blaney will possess more experience at this weekend's oval than his more publicized rookie rival, Chase Elliott. The No. 21 Ford team grabbed an impressive sixth-place finish in our last 1.5-mile oval event at Las Vegas. Blaney may not be up to that level this weekend, but he will be strong.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Trevor Bayne -
There's a lot of pressure on Bayne and the No. 6 Ford team as the Sprint Cup Series pulls into Fort Worth this weekend. The Roush Fenway Racing driver has not started the 2016 campaign very well and limps into Texas a distant 23rd in the driver standings. The 27th-place finish at Martinsville was a setback, but now he'll try to focus on intermediate oval racing. Bayne has 11-career starts at Texas, but the results have been mixed at best. Six Top-20 finishes in those starts have averaged out to a 23.9-career average finish at the facility. Based on his Atlanta and Las Vegas outings earlier in the year, he could do somewhat worse in the Duck Commander 500.

Clint Bowyer -
The driver of the No. 15 Chevrolet continues to search for answers as the series pulls into Texas Motor Speedway this weekend. With only one Top-20 finish for the season, Bowyer comes into the Duck Commander 500 a lowly 32nd in the driver standings. TMS has been a good oval for the veteran driver over his career. The 10 Top-10 finishes in 20 starts check in at a respectable 50-percent rate. However, his two starts with his new team on cookie cutter ovals this season have been forgettable at best. Bowyer's 35th- and 22nd-place finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas throw up all kinds of red flags for the No. 15 team this weekend.

Denny Hamlin -
The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has started the season with a lot of inconsistency. Three Top 5's have been offset by three finishes outside the Top 15, including a shocking crash and DNF this past week at Martinsville Speedway. Hamlin comes to Texas ninth in the driver standings and looking to rebound from his Martinsville disappointment. Texas Motor Speedway was a good oval for the Joe Gibbs Racing star earlier in his career, but recent visits have been inconsistent at best. Hamlin's last visit last November yielded a 38th-place finish. His two starts at Atlanta and Las Vegas this season were finishes outside the Top 15. That's not the level of performance we expect for the No. 11 Toyota team.

Kyle Larson -
An impressive third-place finish at Martinsville this past week helps to erase some of the pains that the No. 42 team have experienced thus far this season. Larson has struggled mightily up until that Top 5 this past week. We have to temper our expectations going forward. Texas Motor Speedway is in no way similar to the Martinsville short track. Larson had finishes of 25th- and 37th-place here last season, so the struggles are apparent. His 26th- and 34th-place finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas earlier this season point to difficulties this weekend. The No. 42 CGR team doesn't have a good handle on these cookie cutter ovals.

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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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