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Weekly Preview: Dash to the Championship

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

NASCAR's Chase for the Cup is coming down the stretch, and this week the series comes to Texas Motor Speedway for a race that will be pivotal in crowning the next Sprint Cup champion. This could be great news for championship points leader Jimmie Johnson. Johnson leads Denny Hamlin by just 14 points entering this event. No doubt, Johnson will be going for the win and taking one more step towards the title since this intermediate oval is a favorite of his. However, the No. 48 team has to be a bit concerned. The biggest threat to Johnson's title hopes is Joe Gibbs Racing ace Denny Hamlin. Hamlin and Johnson finished one-two in the spring race at Texas. So if the defending champion stumbles on Sunday afternoon, he could lose a lot of ground in the standings to Hamlin. With the two prime championship contenders racing so well right now, and obviously so good at TMS, we could likely see a repeat of that performance this Sunday at Fort Worth. The last time the Sprint Cup Series raced on a high-banked oval, the duo finished 3-4 in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte in mid-October. So these two will likely be rubbing elbows again at Texas Motor Speedway.

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 11 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

Tony Stewart12.93702705273,092105.7
Matt Kenseth7.73791523482,771101.6
Jimmie Johnson10.83352331172,48899.0
Kyle Busch14.73631614412,50698.3
Carl Edwards17.54072684762,75997.8
Denny Hamlin9.64071151002,31797.2
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.54811461933,11196.4
Greg Biffle18.43762783882,32495.5
Kurt Busch14.13811571832,45794.5
Jeff Gordon14.63241954492,33393.7
Clint Bowyer15.322867401,68288.4
Mark Martin11.532289562,30588.1
Martin Truex Jr.13.929249202,03886.5
Jeff Burton12.9339109112,19686.0
Kevin Harvick12.12944021,95483.0
David Reutimann26.320893451,17282.2
Kasey Kahne23.2314153652,04181.5
Juan Pablo Montoya24.730243121,36478.3
Casey Mears16.123982381,27677.7
Jamie McMurray17.725963701,59777.7

Hamlin 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. Can he complete the "Texas Two-Step"? The No. 11 team took the lead late from Jeff Burton and led the final 12 laps, so it was not quite a dominating performance for the Joe Gibbs Racing star. A number of drivers had a good shot at victory lane at Fort Worth when we visited this intermediate oval several months ago. Jeff Gordon served notice in that early season race that he would be a championship contender in 2010, and led 124 laps of the Samsung 500 before crashing out late. Dale Earnhardt Jr. also threw his hast in the ring that day by leading 46 laps before finishing a respectable eighth. The No. 88 team could have some added value in this Sunday's AAA Texas 500 considering the NASCAR icon’s solid loop stats at this facility. When we visit the intermediate oval in Texas we also have a watchful eye for most of the Roush Fenway Racing teams. Greg Biffle was the only one to crack the Top 10 in April, but his teammates Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and even David Ragan were all strong at Charlotte a few weeks ago. We'll need to consider those Fords in our fantasy lineups as well. 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

Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin was your winner of the Samsung 500 in April of this year. It was one of seven victories for the Joe Gibbs Racing star this season for the No. 11 team. Hamlin's performance on intermediate ovals this season has been pretty steady, and he's finished as high as the Top 5 at Charlotte recently. Considering the momentum that Hamlin is riding entering this event, it would be no surprise to see him pull the season sweep at the Fort Worth oval.

Kyle Busch –
The No. 18 Toyota team's performance in the last intermediate oval race at Charlotte was nothing short of spectacular. Busch led 217 of the 334 laps run and finished second in the Bank of America 500. That was just a few short weeks ago. The Joe Gibbs Racing ace has never won at the Texas intermediate oval, but he has cracked the Top 5 there four times in 10 starts. Most recently Busch finished third in April's Samsung 500. He should be strong again this Sunday afternoon.

Jamie McMurray –
The 2010 season has been nothing short of career defining for McMurray. He came over from Roush Fenway Racing to the struggling No. 1 team of Earnhardt Ganassi Racing. Thirty-two races and three victories later McMurray has shown that he can compete with the elite drivers in the sport. McMurray has led 70 career laps at Texas Motor Speedway, and cracks the Top 10 at a near 50 percent rate so he knows how to run up front here. His win at Charlotte a couple weeks ago underscores his ability to take the checkers this weekend as well.

Jimmie Johnson –
With a record-setting fifth consecutive Sprint Cup championship well within reach, Johnson and the No. 48 team are racing with a purpose right now. This team overcame serious obstacles at Talladega last weekend and finished seventh in the AMP Energy Juice 500. Johnson has won or finished second in five of the last eight Texas races, and he most recently led 39 laps and finished second at TMS in April so you know he's going to be tough to beat this weekend.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are a near lock for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Greg Biffle –
Biffle has one career win at TMS and he has finished in the Top 10 in his last four races at Fort Worth. He has led 388 laps for his career at Texas and knows what it takes to run up front here. When the series last visited the 1.5-mile oval in Texas Biffle led 13 laps and finished 10th in the Samsung 500. If there's a week for the No. 16 team to turn in an impressive performance, it's this week at Texas Motor Speedway.

Jeff Gordon –
Gordon has been virtually eliminated from championship contention after his poor finish at Martinsville, but he's still a very steady fantasy racing start each week. Gordon's performance on intermediate ovals this season has been pretty steady, and he's been a consistent performer at Texas over the years. The Hendrick Motorsports star has led close to 600 laps at the intermediate oval so it will be no surprise to see him crack the Top 10 in the AAA Texas 500.

Mark Martin –
The No. 5 team has been heating up for the last several races. Martin has cracked the Top 10 in two of the last four races entering this weekend. We expect the veteran driver to turn in more solid performances in the last three races of 2010. Martin owns 11 career Top 10's in 19 starts at TMS, and that's tops for all active drivers. He's riding a three-race Top 10 streak at Fort Worth into this weekend, and we expect him to extend that streak after 500 miles of racing this Sunday afternoon.

Matt Kenseth –
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has turned in some good efforts in the closing stages of this season. Nothing has gone right for Kenseth throughout much of this year, but his best tracks down the stretch have yielded great runs. Kenseth carries a 63 percent Top 10 rate at Forth Worth into this weekend. That ties him with Jimmie Johnson for tops in the Sprint Cup Series at TMS.

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

David Reutimann –
Reutimann has had another good season for Michael Waltrip Racing. Although recent weeks have seen the No. 00 team looks fairly ordinary. However, you cannot deny the quality of the intermediate oval cars that MWR has unloaded from the hauler this season. Reutimann won at Chicago this summer and he has a pair of Top 10's at Charlotte this season. Three of his last four trips to Fort Worth have yielded Top-15 finishes, so you know Reutimann will be a steady performer this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Earnhardt's solid runs at Talladega and Martinsville the last two weeks has been one of the few bright spots this season for the No. 88 team. With the Sprint Cup Series coming to Texas, the momentum should continue for the Hendrick Motorsports star. With Forth Worth being one of Earnhardt's favorite tracks, the intermediate oval should yield yet another good finish this Sunday afternoon.

Kasey Kahne –
The No. 9 team said goodbye to Kahne a couple weeks ago and he made his way over to Red Bull Racing. Still, Kahne has proven to hold a lot of fantasy racing value as his Top 15 at Martinsville a couple weeks ago showed. Intermediate ovals have been very good for the No. 83 team in their brief history and Kahne has been a solid performer on these tracks as well. Kahne won the pole and led 27 laps at Kansas recently. He should be a very safe play for the AAA Texas 500.

Joey Logano –
Logano is starting to show the signs of the stardom that is down the road in his NASCAR career. We knew it would take some time for the Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy to adjust to these Sprint Cup cars and that transformation appears to be taking shape. Logano has Top 10's in his last three races and he has no finish worse than 17th in his last six events. His seventh-place finish at Charlotte Motor Speedway a few weeks ago could be a precursor of what to expect this Sunday.

David Ragan –
Ragan and the No. 6 team have shown some signs of life lately and we have to take a long look at them at Texas this week. The Roush Fenway driver posted just his second Top-10 finish of the season at Charlotte recently and he has been a Top-20 finisher in three of his last five races. Texas Motor Speedway has yielded four Top 20's in his last five starts at the facility, with a top finish of 11th in this event in 2008. The AAA Texas 500 should present another opportunity for success for this young driver.

Regan Smith –
The deep sleeper in this week's field is Smith. He will take the No. 78 Chevrolet to Fort Worth this weekend and attempt to raise the bar higher for this small race team. Smith posted respectable 17th- and 13th-place finishes at both Atlanta and Charlotte recently, so the intermediate ovals have been very productive tracks for the Furniture Row Racing team. Smith posted a career-best Texas effort this spring with a 21st-place finish, but we're betting he'll be even better this time around.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Tony Stewart –
At 317 points behind Johnson, Smoke is definitely out of the Chase for the Cup with only three races remaining. The owner/driver entered this post-season with a lot of momentum but has fallen apart in the last several races. Stewart's last visit to Fort Worth saw him win the pole and lead 74 laps, but he failed to finish after a late-race crash. This falls into a current theme for him at this facility. Only three of Stewart's last seven trips to this intermediate oval have yielded Top-10 finishes.

Juan Pablo Montoya –
Montoya has been up-and-down this season, and this weekend the scale should pitch to the low side. In seven career starts at TMS he has only a pair of Top-10 finishes and those came much earlier in his career. Four of those starts have resulted in finishes outside the Top 25. With the current luck of the No. 42 team, we don't expect a reversal of these trends in the AAA Texas 500.

Sam Hornish Jr. –
The Penske Racing No. 77 team have had a long, tough season. Hornish expected to build on the success he had in 2009, but it just hasn't materialized. His brief history at Texas Motor Speedway hasn't been the greatest, with only two Top 20's in five career starts. Considering his recent intermediate oval finishes of 36th and 40th at Kansas and Charlotte, we can't put much faith or confidence in Hornish this weekend.

Kurt Busch –
The No. 2 Penske Racing team has been very consistent on intermediate ovals in recent seasons, but the recent downtrend with this team has us pessimistic about his chances on Sunday. Things have gotten so bad for Busch that his recent return to Charlotte where he was expected to contend for the win saw him lead no laps and finish a terrible 30th. Despite being a one-time winner and 10-time Top-10 finisher at TMS, we have to avoid Busch in the AAA Texas 500.