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Texas 500 Preview: Homestretch to the Title

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 Jimmie Johnson. He leads Brad Keselowski by just two points entering this event. Without a doubt, Johnson will be going for the win and taking one more step closer to his sixth Sprint Cup Series championship. Among the Chevrolet camps, Johnson's No. 48 team is always well ranked when we visit the oval at Fort Worth, as you'll see in the statistical table below. He and Tony Stewart are our top performing Chevy drivers in the midst of many Ford at Toyota drivers that do exceedingly well at Texas Motor Speedway.

But don't put the cup in Johnson's trophy case just yet. The Hendrick Motorsports star has to be just a bit concerned. The biggest threat to Johnson's title hopes is from none other than rival Dodge camp Penske Racing and driver Keselowski. The driver of the blue deuce doesn't appear in the loop stats for TMS in the table below, but make no mistake about it he has been one of the series hottest drivers on intermediate ovals this season. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge led 139 laps at Charlotte a few weeks ago, and he won to start the Chase for the Cup at the 1.5-mile oval in Chicago. With the two prime championship contenders racing so well right now, and obviously so good on these style of tracks, we could likely see a battle for the win and a battle for the points lead simultaneously this Sunday afternoon at the Fort Worth oval. The last time the Sprint Cup Series raced on an intermediate oval, the duo finished eighth and ninth respectively in the Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas in mid-October. It goes without saying that these two will likely be rubbing fenders again at Texas Motor Speedway with everything on the line.

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 15 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

Matt Kenseth6.55912996213,988107.2
Greg Biffle14.56044477323,648103.3
Tony Stewart12.75573397123,910102.5
Jimmie Johnson10.15852962753,662100.6
Carl Edwards15.06053404933,87599.2
Kyle Busch15.85222094413,19796.8
Denny Hamlin10.35941651313,08594.6
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.76501721953,93092.8
Jeff Gordon15.45242514523,08991.3
Clint Bowyer13.341998842,56290.9
Mark Martin12.5463129922,99989.0
Kurt Busch15.54891822333,01389.0
Martin Truex Jr.16.140876892,62785.0
Kevin Harvick12.15315932,89584.8
Marcos Ambrose17.93547421,67484.3
Kasey Kahne19.9485200702,75982.8
Jeff Burton16.3455115352,59681.8
David Reutimann25.0295116451,51376.9
Jamie McMurray18.939294702,16476.4
David Ragan21.038227131,60975.7

Greg Biffle 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. The Roush Fenway Racing veteran took the lead late from Jimmie Johnson and led the final 31 laps capping an impressive performance in the Samsung Mobile 500. The No. 16 Ford team has a very good shot at breaking out the brooms this weekend based on how Biffle has raced these ovals in 2012. A number of drivers had a good shot at victory lane at Fort Worth when we visited this intermediate oval several months ago. Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth and Johnson all led significant laps and made their presence felt after 500 miles at the Texas tri-oval. Mark Martin also threw his hat in the ring that day despite not leading any laps. The Michael Waltrip Racing legend hounded the leaders all day long before finally finishing a brilliant third and well within eye site of the eventual winner Biffle. The No. 55 Toyota team could have some added value in this Sunday's AAA Texas 500 considering Martin's solid loop stats at this facility. When we visit the intermediate oval in Texas we also have a watchful eye for the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch both have excellent loop stats at Texas Motor Speedway and both have been very competitive on these high-banked intermediate ovals this season. Considering that Hamlin is a two-time winner at TMS, he may still yet have life in the championship chase. 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

Jimmie Johnson -
With a remarkable sixth Sprint Cup Series championship just three races away, Johnson and the No. 48 team is working overtime in both the shop and at the track each weekend. At two points up on Brad Keselowski entering the weekend, the title hopes are in great shape but in real danger coming to Texas. Johnson boasts the career numbers at this oval to warrant serious fantasy racing consideration this weekend. In 18 career starts at this facility our former champion boasts one victory and five runner-up finishes. In April's Samsung Mobile 500, Johnson led a career-best 156 circuits at this oval.

Brad Keselowski -
It all comes down to this for the Penske Racing star. We have a virtual tie in the Chase standings and a high-banked intermediate oval in the offing. Keselowski has been lights out on these tracks in 2012. He has two victories and four Top-5 finishes on the intermediate oval portion of the schedule this season. Texas has yet to offer up good results for Keselowski to this point in his career, but we're convinced that will change on Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 2 Dodge stepped up his level of performance at Charlotte just a few weeks ago and had a real chance to win that night at the North Carolina track. With the championship on the line, don't be surprised to see Keselowski challenge for the win in the AAA Texas 500.

Denny Hamlin -
The No. 11 JGR Toyota team is hoping to rebound from a big setback at Martinsville this past weekend. Hamlin had an almost sure win slip through his fingers but he hopes to turn the tables this Sunday afternoon at Fort Worth. He's a two-time winner at TMS, and boasts a respectable 57 percent Top-10 rate at this intermediate oval. Hamlin's performance on intermediate ovals this season has been pretty impressive so far. He's posted victories at Kansas and Atlanta and runner-up finishes in both Charlotte races earlier this season. This makes Hamlin a top contender for Sunday's very important race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Greg Biffle -
Biffle is a two-time winner at TMS and he has finished in the Top 5 in the last four races at the Fort Worth oval. He has led 732 laps for his career at Texas and knows what it takes to run up front here. In this event one year ago, Biffle won the pole position, led 23 laps and finished fifth in the AAA Texas 500. The strong car that the Roush Fenway Racing team put under him here in April for the Samsung Mobile 500 is a good indicator of what to expect to come off the hauler this weekend at Texas. The No. 16 Ford team dominated the April event at Texas by leading 90 laps and beating Jimmie Johnson into victory lane.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
After the let down at Martinsville last weekend, it's time for Earnhardt to put the No. 88 Chevrolet in high gear. The NASCAR icon finished a respectable 10th at Texas Motor Speedway in April of this year, and that capped a string of three straight Top 10s at this intermediate oval. Earnhardt has raced well at this facility over the years and the 1.5-mile ovals in general in 2012. The Hendrick Motorsports star is seven-for-seven in Top-10 finishes in intermediate oval starts this season. When we combine the recent level of performance with Earnhardt's love of Texas Motor Speedway, we get a sense that he'll be solidly fixed in the Top 10 this Sunday afternoon.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports star is looking to continue his solid performance on 1.5-mile ovals this weekend at Texas. Kahne has been on fire during the Chase and has actually moved into a position to be an outside challenger for the championship. He has third-, eighth- and fourth-place finishes on these style ovals during the Chase. Kahne has never been a world-beater at Texas, but he does have one career win and a pair of Top 10s in his last two starts. Considering the No. 5 team has put themselves in position to challenge for the Cup, we have high expectations for this driver and team in the AAA Texas 500.

Matt Kenseth -
The Roush Fenway Racing veteran has been effectively eliminated from championship contention, but that hasn't stopped Kenseth from finishing his career at Roush with his very best. The No. 17 Ford team has been a top performer at Texas Motor Speedway over the years. Kenseth is a two-time winner at the Fort Worth oval, and he leads all active drivers with 11 career Top 5s at this facility. TMS is a Roush track and we expect this camp's most veteran driver to put his best foot forward on Sunday afternoon.

Clint Bowyer -
Bowyer and the No. 15 Toyota team have shown resilience and excellence this season so we have to take a long look at them at Texas this week. The Michael Waltrip Racing driver pulled a surprising victory at Charlotte recently and he has been a Top-10 finisher in all the intermediate ovals of the Chase for the Cup. Texas Motor Speedway has yielded some solid results for Bowyer in the last three seasons. Three of his last four trips to Fort Worth have yielded Top-10 finishes, including a runner-up finish in the spring of 2011. We have high expectations for Bowyer in this crucial 500-mile race.

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

Martin Truex Jr. -
The championship quest for Truex and the No. 56 team is over, but it shouldn't have an impact on his performance this weekend. The veteran driver enters this weekend seventh in the overall standings at 63 points behind leader Jimmie Johnson. Truex will take things up a notch this weekend and hope for the best over the next two races going to Homestead. The MWR star has Top 10s in his last two trips to Fort Worth, so that's a reassuring statistic. Truex's pole position, 69 laps led and sixth-place finish in the spring at Texas Motor Speedway is yet another confidence booster heading to this 1.5-mile tri-oval this weekend.

Kyle Busch -
The No. 18 Toyota team's performances on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season have been pretty solid. Busch has six Top-10 finishes in the nine intermediate oval races to-date. During the Chase for the Cup he's been just as hot. He has two Top-5 finishes in the three intermediate oval events of the playoffs. The Joe Gibbs Racing ace has never won at the Texas intermediate oval, but he has led well over 400 laps at this facility. While the No. 18 Toyota team is outside looking in on the championship picture, Busch should still make a challenge on the Top 5 this Sunday at TMS.

Carl Edwards -
The 2012 season has been pretty disappointing for Edwards. He missed the Chase and has no victories for the season. The driver of the No. 99 Ford is putting this season behind him with good performances down the stretch. 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 three visits to Texas Motor Speedway the veteran driver boasts finishes of third-, second- and eighth-place. The Fort Worth oval certainly feels like home to Edwards each time he visits.

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 13 career Top 10s 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 qualified fourth and finished third in the Samsung Mobile 500. Martin's finishes of 10th- and sixth-place at Atlanta and Charlotte recently are indicative of what to expect this Sunday afternoon at the Fort Worth intermediate oval.

Sam Hornish Jr. -
Fresh off a solid 13th-place showing in the melee that is Martinsville Speedway, Hornish will be happy to see the much calmer oval of Texas Motor Speedway this Sunday afternoon. Despite having no Top 10s in six career visits to the Texas oval, the Penske Racing veteran has been pretty steady at this facility of late. Hornish has finishes of 19th- and 18th-place in his last two trips to the mid-Texas speedway. We fully expect the driver that recently raced in the Top 10 and finished 15th at Charlotte Motor Speedway to show up for this event.

Kurt Busch -
The former champion has been devoid of fantasy racing worth all season long, but signs are that this is finally changing. The move a few weeks ago to the No. 78 team of Furniture Row Racing is starting to show some signs of fruit for Busch. He has finishes of 21st- and 25th-place during the Chase at intermediate ovals for this team. Busch loves competing at Texas Motor Speedway. He has one victory and 11 career Top 10s at this 1.5-mile tri-oval. Busch even finished a surprising 13th here in the spring with his former No. 51 Phoenix Racing team.

Paul Menard -
The last couple seasons have really been rewarding for Menard at Texas Motor Speedway. The driver of the No. 27 Chevrolet has only two Top 10s in 12 career visits to the Fort Worth oval, but they've come in the last two seasons. Menard finished 15th in this event one year ago, and he finished a career-best fifth at TMS in the spring of last year. Considering that the RCR driver has Top-15 finishes in two of the three 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

Tony Stewart -
At 71 points back of Jimmie Johnson, Stewart comes to Fort Worth this weekend 10th in the championship chase and looking forward to next season. The owner/driver enters the AAA Texas 500 with puzzling finishes all throughout the Chase, including an uncharacteristic 27th-place finish at Martinsville this past weekend. Stewart is a two-time winner at Texas Motor Speedway with 11 career Top 10s to his credit. While this has been a good oval for him over the years, the driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet's intermediate oval performance this season has been very inconsistent. The higher banked ovals of Charlotte, Atlanta and Texas have been particularly difficult for this driver and team.

Jeff Gordon -
Despite the Top 10 effort this past weekend at Martinsville, Gordon has been virtually eliminated from championship contention at 54 points arrears teammate Jimmie Johnson. Gordon's performance on intermediate ovals in the Chase has been helter skelter. The Hendrick Motorsports star has finishes of 35th-, 18th- and 10th-place on the intermediate ovals of the Chase to this point. Despite Gordon's 11career Top 10s at Texas Motor Speedway, we have to recommend passing up the No. 24 Chevrolet team this weekend.

Ryan Newman -
The intermediate ovals have been tough venues for the Stewart Haas Racing driver this season. Newman has really struggled on these 1.5-mile Speedways in 2012. His earlier trip to TMS yielded an unimpressive 21st-place finish in the Samsung Mobile 500 in April. Newman's 35th- and 20th-place finishes at Atlanta and Charlotte during the Chase for the Cup are good indicators of what to expect for the No. 39 Chevrolet team at Fort Worth on Sunday afternoon. It's better to err to the side of caution with this driver and team in the AAA Texas 500.

Danica Patrick -
This season can't possibly end soon enough for Patrick and the No. 10 Chevrolet team. Despite all her improvement in the Nationwide Series the last couple seasons, that same learning curve hasn't taken hold yet at the Sprint Cup level. In Patrick's eight starts this season, she's averaged a starting position of 36.5 and a finishing position of 30.2 with no Top-20 finishes for the campaign. Her most recent intermediate oval outing resulted in a crash and DNF at Kansas Speedway a couple weeks ago. It's best to stay away from Patrick until she figures out these tricky Sprint Cup Series cars.