O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 Preview: Return to the Fast Tracks

O'Reilly Auto Parts 500 Preview: Return to the Fast Tracks

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

We make a 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 O'Reilly Auto Parts 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 lack of 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

We make a 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 O'Reilly Auto Parts 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 lack of 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 Sunday afternoon. 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 Stewart Haas Racing Fords struggled a bit at Las Vegas and Atlanta, 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 teams of Penske Racing, Chip Ganassi Racing and Furniture Row Racing have flourished in the two intermediate oval events of the young season, we'll see if their hot streaks continue in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.

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 Sunday afternoon's race. The loop stats in the table below cover the last 12 years or 24 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson8.59016501,0236,247107.1
Matt Kenseth8.38713957046,246104.7
Kyle Busch11.67924147415,391102.4
Chase Elliott4.593174563100.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.99793071955,78493.2
Martin Truex Jr.13.87352164395,18893.0
Erik Jones12.0401031292.4
Denny Hamlin12.09181881554,96390.4
Kevin Harvick11.59001961145,29690.0
Kurt Busch16.37852152934,75787.8
Brad Keselowski16.24432955853,00786.7
Kasey Kahne18.0862276765,09686.0
Clint Bowyer15.5671163854,00785.0
Joey Logano16.63991753372,84684.1
Kyle Larson18.02475901,32383.7
Jamie McMurray17.4671130793,51178.3
Ryan Newman17.364481202,79375.1
Austin Dillon23.013248689170.9
Paul Menard21.15895532,49570.5
A.J. Allmendinger20.62994301,18068.1

In this event one year ago, Kyle Busch outsmarted the field and captured his second-career win at Texas Motor Speedway. It was the second of a four-win campaign that saw the No. 18 Toyota team challenge for the championship in 2016. When the series returned in the fall, it was the "Carl Edwards Show" as he upstaged Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. to the victory. He led just 36 laps but outfoxed more dominant cars to take the checkers in last November's AAA Texas 500. With Edwards no longer in the picture it will be up to another driver to start a possible Texas streak. With Keselowski's strong victory at Atlanta and Top-5 finish 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 Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Martin Truex Jr. and Keselowski since they've been the strongest and most impressive drivers on intermediate ovals to-date this season and have the hot hands entering the weekend. When we take a look at Toyota, we see that in addition to Truex, Kyle Busch will be the duo of drivers to watch closely this Sunday afternoon. Busch is heating up and showing signs of nearing his first victory of the season. Throw in his Gibbs teammate, 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 O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Brad Keselowski –
This is the safe pick of the contenders list this week. Coming off the Martinsville win, this team is really rolling coming into Fort Worth. Keselowski has really upped his performance at the Texas speedway over the last five seasons, and he's racing up front here each time the series visits. In the last five races at the Fort Worth oval Keselowski has one pole position and three Top-5 finishes. He's been inching closer and closer to his first Texas win with each visit. The Penske Racing star has a win and pair of Top 5s in his first two intermediate oval events of the season, and the timing may finally be right for Keselowski to cash in for that first Texas win.

Kyle Larson –
Six races into the season and Larson has one victory and four Top-5 finishes and sits squarely atop the driver standings coming to Texas. Things have gotten off to a great start this season in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing team. There is good reason to believe the hot streak will keep rolling this weekend at the Fort Worth oval. The CGR star is coming to yet another intermediate oval this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway, so there's ample evidence to forecast a great performance for the No. 42 Chevrolet team this week. Larson doesn't have an impressive resume at TMS, but his body of work on similar ovals the last three events can't be denied. Three consecutive runner-up finishes dating back to last November's Homestead race speak volumes of the potential here.

Chase Elliott –
Elliott had a great outing at Martinsville last week. He would battle hard to get an impressive third-place finish in the STP 500. He'll be just as 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 driver won his first-career Xfinity Series victory at the oval in Fort Worth in 2014, so he knows how to lead laps and get around this 1.5-mile oval. Elliott's fifth- and third-place finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas in the last few weeks show that the No. 24 team should show up with a strong car. It's just a matter of time before this young driver scratches the win column for the first time in NASCAR's top division, and it could happen this Sunday afternoon.

Martin Truex Jr. –
The Furniture Row Racing driver is glad to get Martinsville behind him, after peddling hard to a 16th-place finish. The cookie cutter ovals suit Truex much better and it shows in the results. The eighth-place finish at Atlanta and dominant victory at Las Vegas are more than ample 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 Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. Truex rides a four-race Texas Top-10 streak into this weekend, and he's led a combined 200+ laps there in just his last two starts alone. He should be up to the task of cracking the Top 10 and potentially challenging for the win in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.

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

Kyle Busch –
An impressive second-place finish at Martinsville this past week helps to erase some of the pains that the No. 18 team have experienced thus far this season. Busch struggled on the big tracks earlier in the season, but he's turned it around and rides a three-race Top-10 streak into Fort Worth. This particular oval has suited Busch well in the recent past. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has pair of victories and seven Top-5 finishes in his last eight Texas starts. That should help break his intermediate oval slump this young season. Busch has stood tall the last three weeks, and he represents the best shot of upsetting the prime contenders this week. That puts him solidly atop our solid plays list this week.

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 three years ago in a dominant performance. He led 108 laps and set the pace most of the day in the O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. It was Logano's first-career win at the Texas track, but almost certainly not his last. He grabbed second- and third-place finishes at Texas Motor Speedway last season, and his last outing there saw Logano lead a whopping 178 laps before finishing runner-up last November. The notes from that race will certainly come in handy for this 500-mile battle.

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 15 years. Still, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has reeled off 13 career Top 5s and led over 850 laps at the intermediate oval in 28 starts. Kenseth has three Top-10 finishes in his last six starts at the Texas oval entering this weekend's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. His last start at the 1.5-mile track yielded a steady seventh-place finish last November. With the driver of the No. 20 Toyota riding a four-race Top-10 streak on the intermediate tracks entering Sunday, we have to give a strong nod to Kenseth and his Joe Gibbs Racing team for this clash in Texas.

Jamie McMurray –
McMurray is a less apparent name in the solid plays list this week. However, with Chip Ganassi Racing rolling strong out of the gates this year, particularly on the larger tracks, we cannot overlook the No. 1 team at Texas. McMurray has a three-race Top-10 streak on these style tracks entering Sunday, and his Texas stats aren't shabby at all. The veteran driver boasts nine-career Top 10s at TMS, and three in just his last five starts there. McMurray grabbed 10th- and eighth-place finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas just a few weeks ago, so he should slot somewhere around there at Texas Motor Speedway as well. Some fantasy racing players may lay off McMurray after his poor Martinsville performance this past Sunday, so take full advantage of that fact in weekly lineup leagues as his start percentage this weekend should be low.

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

Kevin Harvick –
The No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team is off to a rough start in 2017. Thus we have dropped him to the sleepers list this week due to his current struggles, but offset with top potential at Texas. Despite never having won at this oval, Harvick has been a consistent finisher at Texas Motor Speedway over the years. With 16 Top-10 finishes in 28 starts he checks in at a respectable 57-percent rate. Harvick rides a five-race Texas Top-10 streak into the weekend, so rebound potential here is very likely. We can't look past this veteran driver's strong performance on the similar oval in Atlanta a few weeks ago. Harvick led 292 laps and nearly won before pit road setbacks led to a ninth-place finish. We're calling for the Harvick rebound this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson is a six-time winner at Fort Worth, and he boasts three wins and four Top-5 finishes in the last five Texas races entering this week. He has struggled out of the gates similarly to Harvick this season, but if there's a track to get the No. 48 team turned around it's Texas Motor Speedway. Johnson scuffled to an 11th-place finish in our last intermediate oval race at Las Vegas, and we'll likely see the veteran driver scuffle a bit again in Sunday's 500-mile event. However, we expect the results to be much better at Fort Worth. Johnson brings a bit of risk to the table, but the seven-time champion can't stay down for long.

Denny Hamlin –
The driver of the No. 11 Toyota has started the season with a lot of inconsistency. Two Top 10s has been offset by a pair of finishes outside the Top 30, including a poor finish this past week at Martinsville Speedway. Hamlin comes to Texas looking to rebound from his Martinsville disappointment. Texas Motor Speedway has been a good oval over the years for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. He has two wins and 11 Top-10 finishes (50-percent) for his career at this 1.5-mile oval. Hamlin's last start on a cookie cutter oval led to a strong sixth-place finish at Las Vegas a few weeks ago. All things being equal, it would be hard to imagine Hamlin falling flat at Texas. There's a much better chance of a Top-10 finish this Sunday afternoon.

Clint Bowyer –
The driver of the No. 14 Ford continues to lead the Stewart Haas Racing stable this young season in terms of performance. Bowyer's three Top 10s in the first six events have him positioned eighth overall in the driver standings entering Texas weekend. The veteran driver has steady stats at this oval with 10-career Top-10 finishes which checks in at a decent 46-percent rate. Bowyer nabbed 11th- and 10th-place finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas recently, so the level of performance right now checks out. We only see this driver and team getting better as the season rolls on, so Bowyer should outperform some bigger names in Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500.

Kasey Kahne –
Kahne has borrowed a phrase this season from Cubs' manager Joe Maddon "Try not to suck." That would seem to be the case, and it's working. He's not going to win the championship like the Cubs, but he's proving to be a good fantasy racing commodity in the early season. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran has a pair of Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes to start the season and comes to Texas a respectable 12th in the driver standings. Texas Motor Speedway presents an opportunity to keep on "not sucking" as the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet boasts good career numbers here. Kahne has one victory and nine Top 10s at this oval, including three Top-10 finishes in his last four visits to Fort Worth.

Ryan Blaney –
The Wood Brothers Racing driver will be visiting an oval he knows all too well this Sunday night. Blaney has made four Monster Energy Cup Series starts at this track, with his last effort netting a steady 12th-place finish last November. The young driver has impressed this season with three Top 10s in the first six races and a lofty seventh-place slot in the driver standings coming to Texas. Blaney's last start on a cookie cutter oval netted an impressive seventh-place finish at Las Vegas. The No. 21 Ford team brings a lot of potential to the table this week at Texas Motor Speedway. Don't overlook him in weekly lineup fantasy leagues.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kurt Busch –
The Stewart Haas Racing star roared out of the gates this season with the Daytona 500 win, but it's been all downhill ever since. Busch's last four starts have been complete disasters with four consecutive finishes outside the Top 20. Make no mistake the No. 41 Ford team limps into Texas weekend. The veteran driver sports a steady 54-percent Top-10 rate at Texas Motor Speedway, but we believe you have to look past that this Sunday afternoon. Busch has been wildly inconsistent in his last three intermediate oval starts, and that's a bad barometer for Sunday's O'Reilly Auto Parts 500. It's best to keep Busch on the bench until he can work his way out of this slump.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Another driver struggling mightily this early season is Earnhardt. The Hendrick Motorsports star is returning from last season's injury, and the rust is proving difficult to shake off. Earnhardt has no Top 10s and only one Top 15 in the first six events of this season. That culminated in his crash and DNF at Martinsville Speedway this past week. Texas does present an opportunity for the No. 88 team to rebound, but before we call the rebound potential, we need to look back at his recent Atlanta and Las Vegas efforts. Finishes of 30th and 16th at those two ovals do not bode well for Texas. Things are not going well for this driver and team at the moment, so it's best to pass on Earnhardt at the Texas oval.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. –
All would seem to be well with this driver and team after Stenhouse's 10th-place finish at Martinsville this past week. However, racing on ovals like Texas is an entirely different animal than the historic Virginia short track. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has eight-career starts at TMS and no Top 10s in that resume. It all adds up to an average finish of 21.6 at this facility. The cookie cutter ovals have been a puzzle this season for the No. 17 team. Stenhouse has managed a wildly inconsistent 13th- and 33rd-place finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas. If he doesn't qualify well this week, he'll be racing back in the pack again at Texas. As it has shown this season, that's not a good scenario for Stenhouse.

Ryan Newman –
The No. 31 team has been hard to gage this early season. There was the surprising Phoenix victory that came largely on pit strategy alone. In contrast Newman has struggled on the larger tracks this season, while prospering on the smaller ones. Texas Motor Speedway hasn't held a lot of success for this veteran driver of the years. In his lengthy 27-start history at TMS, Newman has only managed six Top-10 finishes (22-percent). Only one of his last six starts at the Fort Worth speedway have netted a Top 10. After subpar finishes at both Atlanta and Las Vegas it's difficult to consider Newman anything resembling a steady fantasy play this week. It's best to stay clear of him this week, and give him much more scrutiny at the Bristol short track in two weeks.

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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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