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NRA 500 Preview: Lone Star Battle at Night

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.

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 NRA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway is on tap. This event marks the end of the spring short-track part of the schedule, and the beginning of a stretch of intermediate ovals and super speedways. The teams that performed well in the close confines of Bristol and Martinsville can now focus on the business of racing at high speeds and with a return to the emphasis of handling sensitivity and aero-push. For the drivers that finished well at the bull rings, 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 "cookie cutter" ovals and looking for a boost in the standings, it's time to strike the iron while it's 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 schedule. We can look back at the results from Las Vegas Motor Speedway several weekends ago and get a good indication of who will perform well at TMS on Saturday night, but the truth is that we haven't raced enough on this style of oval this season to have a real appreciation of who's on top of their game right now. When we take the new Gen-6 car into consideration, the picture is muddied even further. Surprisingly, the Roush Fenway Racing Fords 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 two of the three teams of Joe Gibbs Racing cracked the Top 5, with Matt Kenseth winning, 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 with some confidence this weekend. But that is really just one event in the big scheme of things. What will likely better serve us is to examine the most recent data from the oval in Fort Worth. The electronic loop statistics at Texas Motor Speedway will be our most important tool 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 in the new Gen-6 car, both should provide us with valuable information for this Saturday night's race. The loop stats in the table below cover the last eight years or 16 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

Matt Kenseth6.36343016224,174106.6
Jimmie Johnson9.66083704433,997103.5
Greg Biffle14.26554557323,976103.4
Tony Stewart12.25903447123,990101.4
Kyle Busch14.95572425213,52998.7
Carl Edwards15.16523424934,04398.3
Denny Hamlin10.96441661313,30593.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.36771721954,10692.7
Clint Bowyer12.8460118842,88992.5
Jeff Gordon15.35852734523,36291.9
Kurt Busch15.05461822333,20689.0
Mark Martin13.5521133923,25388.6
Martin Truex Jr.15.944581892,95686.1
Kevin Harvick11.95716033,07284.7
Kasey Kahne20.3544202703,06883.2
Marcos Ambrose19.43857621,86082.7
Jeff Burton16.5464116352,60680.9
David Reutimann25.0295116451,51376.9
Jamie McMurray18.841194702,17475.8
Juan Pablo Montoya23.538374121,62773.3

In this event one year ago, Greg Biffle captured his second career win at Texas Motor Speedway. That victory handed owner Jack Roush his second Texas victory in the last four races at the oval. When the series returned in the fall, it wasn't Biffle turning heads it was Jimmie Johnson. He led 168 laps in an epic battle with Brad Keselowski and took the checkers in last November's AAA Texas 500. So at least for the moment, Chevrolet has wrestled control of this high-speed tri-oval from Ford. When we take a look at Toyota, we see that it has been since the 2010 season when Denny Hamlin swept both Texas events that this manufacturer last visited victory lane in Fort Worth. With the Matt Kenseth victory at Las Vegas recently, we have to give some heavy consideration in the direction of Toyota this weekend. Throw in streaking Gibbs driver Kyle Busch with his excellent Texas loops stats and his recent victory at Auto Club Speedway 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 NRA 500.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

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 11 years. Still, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has reeled off 12 career Top 5s and led close to 800 laps at the intermediate oval in 21 starts. Kenseth rides a five-race Texas Top-5 streak into this Saturday's NRA 500. With the No. 20 Toyota team performing well right now and having won a few weeks ago at the intermediate oval in Las Vegas, Kenseth has a good shot at adding a third career Texas victory to his resume on Saturday night.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is a two-time winner at Fort Worth, and he won from the pole the last time the Sprint Cup Series visited here last November. Johnson gets the contender label this week based on both his past history at this oval and his most recent outings at TMS. He led well over 300 laps at this intermediate oval in last season's two events at Texas Motor Speedway. We could see a repeat of that scenario at Texas. The Hendrick Motorsports star has won or finished runner-up in seven of his last 13 starts at this 1.5-mile tri-oval. The No. 48 Chevrolet team isn't throwing darts just yet this season, but that could all change after the NRA 500.

Kyle Busch -
The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has started the season with a bang, which is unusual for this usually slow-starting driver. Busch sits a lofty fourth in the series standings and with four straight Top-5 finishes entering this weekend. The Joe Gibbs Racing star's record at Texas Motor Speedway is not the greatest with a less-than-impressive 40 percent Top 10 rate at the oval. However, recent performances indicate a potential first-time win at the track may be within reach. Busch led 80 laps and finished third here last November in his best-ever performance at the Texas speedway. That brings his career laps led at this facility to well over 500 circuits. It's just a matter of time before Busch wins at this oval, and the puzzle pieces could all fall into place this weekend.

Brad Keselowski -
This is the daring pick of the contenders list this week. Keselowski has only really one impressive performance in his nine-start Texas resume. In our last trip to Fort Worth, the Penske Racing star led 75 laps and dueled all day long with Jimmie Johnson to finish runner-up in the AAA Texas 500. That was the career-defining race for Keselowski to that point in his career and a springboard to winning the 2012 Sprint Cup Series championship. Surely the No. 2 Ford team hasn't forgotten that trip to the Texas tri-oval and Keselowski will be hungry to collect that trophy he narrowly missed just five months ago.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
We can't 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 57 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 a 1.5-mile oval, he raced with the leaders at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and finished a respectable seventh in the Kobalt Tools 400. Earnhardt rides a four-race Texas Top 10 streak into Saturday night's NRA 500, and that bodes very well for the No. 88 Chevrolet team.

Tony Stewart -
The last time we saw Smoke in action on an intermediate oval, he was totally contending for the win at Las Vegas but a blocking incident with Joey Logano sent him to a poor finish. With this week's Texas race being the second 1.5-mile oval event of 2012, it's hard not to like Stewart's chances this weekend. The owner/driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is a two-time winner at the Fort Worth oval with 12 Top-10 finishes to his credit. The electronic loop stats for the former series champion are nearly flawless at this facility. Stewart ranks among the Top 5 in laps led, fastest laps and laps in the Top 15 at this Texas oval. If there's a place in the schedule for Stewart to rebound, this is it.

Greg Biffle -
The Roush Fenway Racing driver is staring to pick up the pace after a Martinsville Top 10 and coming to one of his favorite tracks this week at Fort Worth. The 1.5-mile Texas oval has held a host of good performances for the Roush Fenway Racing stable, and Biffle is no exception. He has two career wins and 11 Top-10 finishes in 18 career starts at TMS. Biffle rides a staggering nine-race Top 10 streak at this facility entering this weekend, and that includes a win in this race one year ago. The last time we saw Biffle in action at Texas Motor Speedway he qualified second and finished 10th in last November's AAA Texas 500.

Clint Bowyer -
After his third Top-10 finish of the season at Martinsville Speedway, it appears that Bowyer has his Michael Waltrip Racing team off and rolling towards another Chase berth in 2013. He sits a impressive ninth in the championship standings entering this weekend, and looking for more at the Texas oval. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota sports a respectable 57 percent Top 10 rate at TMS and Bowyer has four Top-10 finishes in his last five races at the intermediate oval. Given the momentum of this driver and team, Bowyer has to be smiling big coming to Fort Worth for the NRA 500.

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

Carl Edwards -
Six races into the season and Edwards finds himself a respectable seventh in the driver standings entering this event. He's fresh off an uneventful Top 15 at Martinsville and hoping to gather some momentum at Texas Motor Speedway. The Roush Fenway Racing star is coming to one of his favorite tracks this weekend in Fort Worth, so there's good reason to forecast a boost for the No. 99 Ford team this week. Edwards is a three-time winner at this oval, and swept both races here in 2008. His eighth-place finish in this event one year ago is the low side of what to expect this Saturday night.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports driver is off to a great start in 2013. While we wouldn't normally give him the fantasy racing nod of approval for a Texas race weekend because of his lowly 29 percent career Top 10 rate at this oval, we have to think twice this time around. Kahne's last trip to a 1.5-mile track saw him challenge for the win and finish runner-up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That performance is demonstrative of what he and crew chief Kenny Francis can do on these intermediate ovals. Kahne is a one-time Texas winner (2006) and there's a good chance we could see some old history renew itself for the driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet at Texas.

Brian Vickers -
After a very steady 11th-place performance at Martinsville Speedway in the last race, the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran is looking to continue building momentum this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. He will step into the strong No. 11 Toyota of Joe Gibbs Racing this Saturday night in relief of injured driver Denny Hamlin. This will be a big upgrade for Vickers considering he doesn't have the best career stats at this oval. Vickers has been a Top 10 machine on the short tracks the last two seasons for Michael Waltrip Racing, but he'll get the chance to show what he can do with a strong car on a 1.5-mile oval this weekend.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The crash and DNF at Martinsville this past week will soon be forgotten by Truex at Texas. Before the No. 56 Toyota team even unloads the car this week at the Fort Worth oval, Truex should be smiling broadly with thoughts of his recent trips to this intermediate oval. He won the pole in this event one year ago, led 69 laps and finished a brilliant sixth. That is one of two Top 10s Truex has delivered in his last three trips to the central Texas track. This driver and team are in dire need of a good finish this week, and Truex should come through with a Top 10 in the NRA 500.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing No. 27 team got a wake up call at Martinsville Speedway last weekend. Menard had a mediocre race car and he battled to a 19th-place finish in the STP Gas Booster 500. He will look to rebound this week at Texas. Menard waited until his ninth career start at TMS to pick up his first Top 10 at this facility. Since then, he's claimed three Top-15 finishes in his last five starts at the Texas oval. The last time we saw Menard in action on a 1.5-mile oval he was finishing an impressive 10th in the new Gen-6 car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March's Kobalt Tools 400.

Trevor Bayne -
We've been waiting to get Bayne back into our sleepers list, and this week's race at Fort Worth is the perfect opportunity to roll out the No. 21 Ford. The young Wood Brothers Racing driver will be making his sixth career Texas Motor Speedway start in this weekend's NRA 500. Bayne cracked the Top 25 in his last start at the intermediate oval in Las Vegas. He started 36th and finished a respectable 23rd. He has Top 20 efforts in three of his prior five Texas starts. You could do far worse than Bayne in your Yahoo! Fantasy Racing "C" group this week.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Ryan Newman -
Rocket Man hopes to recover from the disappointment of his Martinsville poor finish this week at Texas Motor Speedway. The intermediate oval has held a lot of success recently for Stewart Haas Racing, but not so much for the driver of the No. 39 Chevrolet. Newman has two pole positions and one victory at this track, but this success came much earlier in his NASCAR career. His last six trips to Fort Worth have yielded no Top-10 finishes. Given how bad the luck has been for the veteran driver to start this season, we have to lower our expectations for the No. 39 Stewart Haas Racing team this weekend.

Jeff Gordon -
The No. 24 Chevrolet team have been plagued with bad luck most of this season. However, he shook it off for a Top-10 performance at Martinsville this past weekend. Gordon's recent performances at Texas Motor Speedway have been a bit of a mixed bag. He has two Top 10s in his last seven trips to TMS. However, his last trip to the Fort Worth oval yielded a lackluster 14th-place finish. In the season's first intermediate oval race at Las Vegas, the Hendrick Motorsports star finished a shocking 25th in the Kobalt Tools 400. That's hardly a ringing endorsement for a start at Texas.

Jeff Burton -
Despite being a two-time Texas winner, we have to give the downgrade to RCR driver Burton this weekend. A lot of that success for the No. 31 team came at this oval more than five years ago. The more recent resume for Burton shows a string of less-than-impressive finishes at Texas Motor Speedway. Burton's last three trips are a good example. Finishes of 27th-, 29th- and 19th-place have been the norm for the Richard Childress Racing veteran at TMS. Burton hasn't cracked the Top 10 at this oval since 2009, and we don't expect that to change in the NRA 500.

Joey Logano -
To say that we're a little down on Logano would be an understatement. Since his dust-up with Denny Hamlin at Bristol, the Penske Racing driver has 17th-, third- and 23rd-place finishes in those last three races. The controversy and spot light of negative attention may just be getting to the young driver. Logano comes to one of his worst tracks this weekend at Fort Worth. The timing couldn't be worse for the No. 22 Ford team. Logano's lone Top-10 finish in nine starts at TMS and lowly 23.6 average finish at the intermediate oval loom large with all things considered.