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AAA 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 Matt Kenseth. He leads Jimmie Johnson by virtue of tiebreak entering this event. The duo is tied atop the standings with 2,294 points each. By virtue of his seven victories, Kenseth holds the advantage coming to Fort Worth. Without a doubt, the Joe Gibbs Racing star will be going for the win and taking one more step closer to his second Sprint Cup Series championship. Among the Toyota camps, Kenseth is always well ranked when we visit the oval at Fort Worth, as you'll see in the statistical table below. He and Kyle Busch are our top performing Toyota drivers in the midst of many Ford at Chevrolet drivers that do exceedingly well at Texas Motor Speedway. But don't put the cup in Kenseth's trophy case just yet. The biggest threat to Johnson's title hopes comes from none other than rival Chevrolet driver Johnson. The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet doesn't have jaw-dropping loop stats for TMS in the table below, but make no mistake about it he has been a proven performer at this oval over the years. The Hendrick Motorsports star led 130 laps at Charlotte a few weeks ago, and he finished an impressive fourth that evening at the similar North Carolina oval. 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 head-to-head battle for the win and battle for the points lead simultaneously this Sunday afternoon at Texas Motor Speedway. The last time the Sprint Cup Series raced on an intermediate oval, the duo finished third and fourth respectively in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte three weeks ago. It goes without saying that these two will likely be rubbing fenders again at Fort Worth 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 17 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

Matt Kenseth6.66693126224,497106.5
Jimmie Johnson9.46603894434,329103.8
Greg Biffle13.67004587324,186102.7
Kyle Busch14.15683086923,863101.5
Tony Stewart12.75963447124,02399.1
Carl Edwards14.46793464934,24398.1
Denny Hamlin10.96441661313,30593.3
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.17072041954,29092.6
Jeff Gordon16.66153014673,66692.3
Clint Bowyer12.9507121843,16492.0
Martin Truex Jr.15.14741262313,28889.0
Kurt Busch16.35721902333,38289.0
Mark Martin13.5536133923,36387.8
Kevin Harvick11.96306233,35384.7
Kasey Kahne19.7608207703,36783.8
Marcos Ambrose19.44168022,08982.8
Jeff Burton16.9479116352,70280.0
Jamie McMurray18.642996702,30176.6
David Reutimann24.9295119451,51375.1
Juan Pablo Montoya23.240474121,71873.1

Kyle Busch 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 Joe Gibbs Racing veteran took the lead late from Martin Truex Jr. and led the final 20 laps capping an impressive performance in the NRA 500. The No. 18 Toyota team has a very good shot at breaking out the brooms this weekend based on how Busch has raced these ovals in 2013. A number of drivers had a good shot at victory lane at Fort Worth when we visited this intermediate oval several months ago. Truex Jr. and Jeff Gordon both led significant laps and made their presence felt after 500 miles at the Texas tri-oval. Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle also threw their hats in the ring that day despite not leading any laps. The Roush Fenway Racing duo hounded the leaders all day long before finally finishing a brilliant third and fourth and well within eye site of the eventual winner Busch. The No. 11 Toyota team could have some added value in this Sunday's AAA Texas 500 considering Denny Hamlin's solid loop stats at this facility. When we visit the intermediate oval in Texas we have a watchful eye for the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas. Considering that Hamlin is a two-time winner at TMS, and he's been racing much better of late, the JGR star should be strong in this 500-mile event. 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 Joe Gibbs Racing veteran has been given his best opportunity in years to win the Sprint Cup Series championship. This weekend he is three races away from realizing that dream. The driver of the No. 20 Toyota 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 12 career Top 5s at this facility. This team has been a top performer this season on the intermediate ovals. Four of Kenseth's seven victories have come on this size and configuration of oval. With his eyes on the prize, Kenseth and team should be razor sharp in this one.

Jimmie Johnson -
With a remarkable sixth Sprint Cup Series championship just three races away, Johnson and the No. 48 team is working overtime right now in both the shop and at the track each weekend. In a virtual tie with Kenseth entering the weekend, the title hopes are in great shape but in some danger coming to Texas. Johnson boasts the career numbers at this oval to warrant serious fantasy racing consideration this weekend. In 20 career starts at this facility our former champion boasts two victories and five runner-up finishes. In April's NRA 500, Johnson raced with the leaders all day long and finished sixth after 500 miles. The Hendrick Motorsports star will contend for the win in the AAA Texas 500.

Brad Keselowski -
Despite missing the Chase and the opportunity to defend his championship, the Penske Racing star has been making amends in the last month. Keselowski has a victory and two Top-5 finishes the last three races. The No. 2 Ford team has finally come to life. His last visit to an intermediate oval yielded a win at Charlotte Motor Speedway just a few weeks ago. Texas has not been the best track over his career, but recent performances have been outstanding. In this event one year ago, Keselowski led 75 laps and finished second. With the current momentum of this driver and team, don't be surprised to see Keselowski challenge for the win in the AAA Texas 500.

Kyle Busch -
The No. 18 Toyota team's performances on the 1.5-mile oval circuit this season have been pretty solid. Busch has two wins and six Top-5 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 won his first career victory at the Texas intermediate oval this spring, and it was a dominating win from the pole. While the No. 18 Toyota team is now outside looking in on the championship picture, Busch should still make a challenge for the win this Sunday at TMS.

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

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
After the rough start to the Chase at Chicago, Earnhardt has been in high gear ever since. The NASCAR icon has a pair of runner-up finishes and five Top 10s in the six races since the Chicago debacle. Earnhardt has raced well at this facility over the years and the 1.5-mile ovals in general in 2013. The Hendrick Motorsports star has two Top-10 finishes in his last four intermediate oval starts. 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 at these style ovals this season with four runner-up finishes in nine starts. He's fresh off 138 laps led and a second-place finish at Charlotte a few weeks ago, so the team is giving him the good stuff. 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 four starts. Considering the No. 5 team has put themselves out of Chase contention, we think Kahne will be eager to make amends on a good oval for the team this weekend.

Denny Hamlin -
The No. 11 JGR Toyota team has been getting it together the last few weeks. Hamlin has a pair of Top 10s in the last three races and he looks like his old self after a solid performance at Martinsville this past weekend. He's a two-time winner at TMS, and boasts a respectable 53 percent Top-10 rate at this intermediate oval. Hamlin's performance on intermediate ovals this season has been forgettable due to his early season back injury. However, his Charlotte Motor Speedway Top-10 performance a few weeks ago shows the team is on the upswing. This makes Hamlin a good bet to crack the Top 10 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 five of the last six 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 finished a steady 10th in the AAA Texas 500. The strong car that the Roush Fenway Racing team put under him here in April for the NRA 500 is a good indicator of what to expect to come off the hauler this weekend at Texas. The No. 16 Ford team was strong in the April event at Texas by racing with the leaders and finishing an impressive fourth that day.

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

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 has always had strong performances at the Fort Worth oval. Texas Motor Speedway has yielded some solid results for Bowyer in the last three seasons. Four of his last six trips to this facility have yielded Top-10 finishes, including a strong sixth-place finish in this event one year ago. We have high expectations for Bowyer in this crucial 500-mile race.

Kevin Harvick -
The championship quest for Harvick is still alive, but hanging by a thread coming to Texas Motor Speedway. The veteran driver enters this weekend fourth in the overall standings at 28 points behind co-leaders Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson. Harvick will take things up a notch this weekend and hope for the best over the next two races going to Homestead. The RCR star has Top 10s in two of his last three trips to Fort Worth, so that's a reassuring statistic. Harvick has been a consistent performer on these style ovals in 2013 with one win and seven Top-10 finishes in the nine races on 1.5-mile tracks.

Carl Edwards -
The 2013 season has been pretty rewarding for Edwards. He didn't factor in the championship but he's pegged for a Top-10 finish in the final standings. The driver of the No. 99 Ford is prepping for a championship run in 2014 with a strong finish to the Chase this season. 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 four of his last five visits to Texas Motor Speedway the veteran driver boasts Top-10 finishes. The spring race at TMS yielded a strong third-place finish for the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team.

Jeff Gordon -
Coming off the big Martinsville win, Gordon should be looking forward to an outing at Texas Motor Speedway this weekend. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has been on fire on the intermediate ovals of late. He rides a five-race Top 10 streak on the 1.5-mile ovals into this Sunday's AAA Texas 500. Gordon's Texas stats are nearly as strong with one career win and 11 Top-10 finishes. The No. 24 team looks like they're on a mission right now, and Gordon should race like it this Sunday afternoon at the Fort Worth oval.

Jamie McMurray -
Fresh off the Talladega win and Martinsville Top 10, McMurray rides to Texas feeling like a world beater. The Earnhardt Ganassi Racing driver has been pretty steady on the intermediate ovals in 2013, with two Top 10s and a respectable 13.6 average finish in the nine events on 1.5-mile tracks this season. McMurray owns six career Top-10 finishes at Texas Motor Speedway, so he's no stranger to performing well here. His last three visits to the Fort Worth oval have netted Top-20 finishes. Given the hot hand of this driver and team, we expect much more for Sunday's AAA Texas 500.

Aric Almirola -
The Richard Petty Motorsports driver is putting the cap on a fairly successful season for the No. 43 Ford team. Almirola is poised to finish around 17th in the championship standings and he's looking to add to his career-best season totals in this weekend's 500-mile race at Texas. The young driver has only five career starts at the 1.5-mile tri-oval, but his last two trips have netted 15th- and seventh-place finishes. Not bad for a driver who has struggled to keep a foothold in the Sprint Cup Series. Almirola has three Top 10s in the nine intermediate oval events to-date, so they've been his best tracks this season by far.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

David Ragan -
The Front Row Motorsports driver has fallen into a hole in recent weeks. Intermediate ovals have been particularly troubling. Ragan has no finish better than 30th in the three 1.5-mile ovals of the Chase. When we compare that to his recent record at Texas Motor Speedway, we see the true lack of performance to expect this Sunday. Ragan's last three trips to TMS have netted 35th-, 28th- and 26th-place finishes. The No. 34 Ford team is a no-go for this weekend's AAA Texas 500.

Martin Truex Jr. -
Despite being one of the top performers on the 1.5-mile tracks this season, we have to downgrade the MWR No. 56 team this weekend for Texas. Truex had stellar stats on these ovals until the Richmond controversy happened back in September. Since then, the numbers show a distracted driver with an uncertain future behind the wheel. After cracking the Top 10 in the first six intermediate oval races of 2013, his last three races have yielded 18th-, 19th- and 22nd-place finishes at Chicago, Kansas and Charlotte. It's best to avoid Truex as the series visits Fort Worth.

Paul Menard -
The intermediate ovals have been tough venues for the No. 27 team during the Chase. Menard has finishes of 22nd-, seventh- and 24th-place at Chicago, Kansas and Charlotte. While the seventh is encouraging, the inconsistency isn't. The RCR driver has only cracked the Top 20 once in the last five intermediate oval starts, so confidence is not very high entering the weekend. Menard has a lowly two Top 10s in 14 career starts at the Texas oval, and that works out to a subpar 21.0 average finish at the facility.

Danica Patrick -
This season can't possibly end soon enough for Patrick and the No. 10 Chevrolet team. Despite all her ups and downs, the season has still been a tough one for the Stewart Haas Racing driver. In Patrick's nine intermediate oval starts this season, she's averaged a starting position of 29.4 and a finishing position of 26.9 with only two Top-20 finishes for the campaign. Her two career Texas starts have netted 24th- and 28th-place finishes. It's best to stay away from Patrick this Sunday at Fort Worth.