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Texas 500 Preview: Homestretch 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 Sprint Cup Series comes to Texas Motor Speedway for a race that will be pivotal in crowning the next champion. This is potentially great news for championship points leader Carl Edwards. He leads Tony Stewart by just eight points entering this event. No doubt, Edwards will be going for the win and taking one more step towards his first championship since this intermediate oval is a favorite of his. Roush Fenway Racing is always well represented when we visit the oval at Fort Worth, as you'll see in the statistical table below. But don't put the cup in Edwards' trophy case just yet. The No. 99 team has to be just a bit concerned. The biggest threat to Edwards' title hopes is from none other than his own Roush teammate Matt Kenseth. Kenseth and Edwards finished one-three in the spring race at Texas Motor Speedway. So if the standings leader stumbles on Sunday afternoon, he could lose a lot of ground in the points to Kenseth. The driver of the No. 17 Ford led 169 laps of the Samsung Mobile 500 in April and dominated his way to victory lane. 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 1-3 in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte in mid-October. It goes without saying that these two will likely be rubbing fenders 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 13 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

Matt Kenseth6.85252505193,326105.2
Tony Stewart12.74882875393,561102.9
Greg Biffle16.25083846192,986100.3
Jimmie Johnson10.54952421183,05298.8
Carl Edwards16.55122884793,36298.3
Denny Hamlin9.34991571312,71597.8
Kyle Busch16.24802034412,95197.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.75621621953,39293.1
Clint Bowyer13.432694842,26992.4
Kurt Busch14.54421742332,80192.0
Jeff Gordon17.04071994502,50989.2
Mark Martin12.7383100922,64288.6
Jeff Burton14.5421113112,50584.1
Kevin Harvick12.23754432,24083.2
Martin Truex Jr.17.732252202,07982.2
David Reutimann25.3283111451,49081.7
Kasey Kahne22.2367157652,14479.3
Marcos Ambrose18.72515611,04679.2
Jamie McMurray17.934184701,86477.4
Juan Pablo Montoya23.836467121,56676.6

Kenseth 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. 17 team took the lead late from Kurt Busch and led the final 14 laps capping a dominant performance in the Samsung Mobile 500. A number of drivers had a good shot at victory lane at Fort Worth when we visited this intermediate oval several months ago. Clint Bowyer and Busch both led significant laps and made their presence felt after 500 miles at the Texas tri-oval. Tony Stewart also threw his hast in the ring that day by leading 12 laps before finishing a respectable 12th. The No. 14 team could have some added value in this Sunday's AAA Texas 500 considering the NASCAR star'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 and David Ragan both joined Edwards and Kenseth in finishing inside the Top 10 in April. Considering that all four members of the Roush stable cracked the Top 15 at Charlotte Motor Speedway a couple 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

Matt Kenseth -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran had a good shot at the championship until this past week's debacle at Martinsville. Things had been going pretty good for Kenseth until that late race crash. Still, we have to be optimistic for the No. 17 team considering Kenseth's record at these last three ovals. His best tracks down the stretch have yielded great runs over the years. Kenseth is a two-time winner at the Fort Worth oval, and he leads all active drivers with nine career Top 5's at TMS.

Tony Stewart -
At eight points back of Carl Edwards, Stewart comes to Fort Worth this weekend alive and well in the championship chase. The owner/driver enters the AAA Texas 500 with a lot of momentum after his third victory of the Chase this past weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Stewart is a one-time winner at Texas Motor Speedway, and while that victory came way back in 2006, he still maintains very impressive loop stats at this intermediate oval. Only Greg Biffle has led more laps in the last six years at this facility, and no one has run as many laps in the Top 15 at Stewart with well over 3,500. We like the record and the timing for the No. 14 Chevrolet team this weekend.

Kyle Busch -
The No. 18 Toyota team's performance in the last intermediate oval race at Charlotte was nothing short of spectacular. Busch led 111 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 13 starts. While the No. 18 Toyota team is likely outside looking in on the championship picture now, Busch should still make a run for winner's circle this weekend.

Carl Edwards -
The 2011 season has been nothing short of career defining for Edwards. He doesn't have the victories this season that he has posted in past campaigns, but the Roush Fenway Racing star is on track to tie career bests in Top 5's and Top 10's. Edwards leads all active drivers with three career victories at the Fort Worth oval, so that's got to be a huge confidence booster coming into the AAA Texas 500. In his last visit to Texas Motor Speedway the veteran driver qualified on the outside of row 1 and posted a brilliant runner-up finish in the Samsung Mobile 500.

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

Denny Hamlin -
The No. 11 JGR Toyota team is in the middle of a comeback. Hamlin has turned things his way the last couple weeks, and will look to keep the momentum going this Sunday afternoon. He's a two-time winner at TMS, and boasts a respectable 67 percent Top-10 rate at this intermediate oval. Hamlin's performance on intermediate ovals this season has been pretty steady despite this team's struggles. He's posted eighth- and ninth-place finishes at Atlanta and Charlotte in recent weeks, and that's probably a good indicator of what to expect this Sunday afternoon.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle has one career win at TMS and he has finished in the Top 10 in his last six races at Fort Worth. He has led 619 laps for his career at Texas and knows what it takes to run up front here. In this event one year ago, Biffle led 224 laps and finished fifth in the AAA Texas 500. The strong car that the Roush Fenway Racing team put under him just three short weeks ago at Charlotte is a good indicator of what to expect to come off the hauler this weekend at Texas. If there's a week in the schedule for the No. 16 Ford team to turn in an impressive performance, it's this week at Texas Motor Speedway.

Kasey Kahne -
The Red Bull Racing star is looking to make up for his subpar 25th-place showing at Martinsville this past weekend. Kahne had been on fire until that finish with four straight Top 10's. He should bounce back to form this Sunday on a much friendlier intermediate oval. Kahne has never been a world-beater at Texas, but he does have one career win and three Top-10 finishes. Considering the No. 4 Toyota team's pole win at Atlanta and fourth-place finish at Charlotte a few weeks ago, we have high expectations for this driver and team in the AAA Texas 500.

Kevin Harvick -
The championship quest for Harvick and the No. 29 team isn't over, but it certainly is clinging by a thread. The veteran driver enters this weekend third in the overall standings at 21 points behind leader Edwards. Harvick will have to take things up a notch this weekend and hope for some back luck for Edwards if he hopes to be in the running at Homestead in two weeks. The RCR star has three Top 10's in his last four trips to Fort Worth, so that's a reassuring statistic. Harvick's seventh- and sixth-place finishes at the similar ovals in Atlanta and Charlotte recently are yet another confidence booster heading to this 1.5-mile tri-oval.

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

Jimmie Johnson -
With a record-setting sixth consecutive Sprint Cup championship slipping through his fingers, Johnson and the No. 48 team are racing for pride now. At 43 points back of leader Edwards, the title hopes are dimming fast. Johnson still boasts the career numbers to warrant serious fantasy racing consideration this weekend. 12 career Top-10 finishes at Texas Motor Speedway make the Hendrick Motorsports star a 75 percent finisher inside the Top 10 at this facility. It may not be winner's circle, but the No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet will be racing up front on Sunday afternoon.

Marcos Ambrose -
The intermediate ovals have been great venues for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver this season. Ambrose has been a real performer on these 1.5-mile Speedways. His earlier trip to TMS yielded a career-best sixth-place finish in the Samsung Mobile 500 in April. Ambrose's ninth- and fifth-place finishes at Kansas and Charlotte during the Chase for the Cup are good indicators of what to expect for the No. 9 Ford team at Fort Worth.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Fresh off a solid 11th-place showing in the melee that is Martinsville Speedway, Almendinger will be happy to see the much calmer oval of Texas Motor Speedway this Sunday afternoon. Despite only having one career Top 10 in seven visits to the Texas oval, the RPM veteran has been pretty steady at this facility. Allmendinger has finishes of 10th-, 13th-, 14th- and 19th-place in his last four trips to the mid-Texas speedway. We fully expect the driver that recently raced with the leaders all night long and finished seventh at Charlotte Motor Speedway to show up for this event.

Jeff Burton -
It could be that the veteran driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet is finally turning the corner this season. After a second-place finish at Talladega and a sixth-place finish this past weekend at Martinsville, Burton has picked up two of his three season Top 10's in just the last two races. He heads to a Texas Motor Speedway that has held a lot of success over the years for him. Burton is a two-time winner at TMS, and he has nine career Top-10 finishes at this intermediate oval. His last appearance in Fort Worth led to a steady 11th-place effort. Buy low on the No. 31 team this weekend.

David Ragan -
Ragan and the No. 6 team have shown resilience and excellence this season so we have to take a long look at them at Texas this week. The Roush Fenway driver finished a respectable 11th at Charlotte recently and he has been a Top-20 finisher in all the intermediate ovals of the Chase for the Cup. Texas Motor Speedway has yielded some nice results for Ragan in the last two seasons. He qualified fifth and finished eighth in this event one year ago, and he won the pole and finished seventh in April of this year. Yes, we have high expectations for Ragan in the AAA Texas 500.

Paul Menard -
Much like Ragan, the last couple years have really seemed to pop for Menard at Texas Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet has only two Top 10's in 10 career visits to the Fort Worth oval, but they've come in the last two trips. Menard finished 10th in this event one year ago, and he finished a career-best fifth at TMS in the spring of this year. Considering that the RCR driver has Top-20 finishes in all the Chase intermediate oval events, you can see the logic for including him in your lineups this Sunday afternoon.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Jeff Gordon -
Despite the Top 5 effort this past weekend at Martinsville, Gordon has been virtually eliminated from championship contention at 76 points arrears Carl Edwards. Gordon's performance on intermediate ovals in the Chase has been helter skelter. The Hendrick Motorsports star has finishes of 24th-, 34th- and 21st-place on the intermediate ovals of the Chase to this point. Despite Gordon's nine career Top 10's at Texas Motor Speedway, we have to recommend passing up the No. 24 Chevrolet team this weekend.

Mark Martin -
Martin is a one-time winner at Texas, but that's practically ancient history as that victory came way back in 1998. The veteran driver also checks in with a respectable 12 career Top 10's at TMS. Still, we have to use the recent performance barometer to evaluate Martin's true worth this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. In his last trip to Fort Worth he crashed and finished 36th in the Samsung Mobile 500. Martin's finishes of 17th and 37th at Atlanta and Charlotte recently are less than inspiring.

David Reutimann -
This season can't possibly end soon enough for Reutimann and the No. 00 Toyota team. Despite his past success on intermediate ovals, we have to give this veteran driver the no-go indicator for Sunday at Texas. Reutimann has never really been a top performer at Texas Motor Speedway anyway. His three career Top 15's are a modest contrast to his three career DNF's at this oval. That works out to a career average finish of 25.2 at TMS for the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran. Recent performances on intermediate ovals don't bode well either for this Sunday's 500-mile event at Texas.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
After the solid Top 5 at Martinsville Speedway, it's reality check time for Earnhardt and the No. 88 team. The NASCAR icon finished a respectable ninth at Texas Motor Speedway in April of this year, but we believe things will be different this time around. Earnhardt raced well at the beginning of this season but he has been much more inconsistent in the last few months. With only two Top 10's in the seven Chase races to this point, we have to be reserved about his chances this weekend. Recent intermediate oval finishes point towards a 20th-place finish at Texas for Earnhardt this weekend, and that's not good enough to warrant serious fantasy racing consideration.
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