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Duck Commander 500 Preview: Fast 'n Furious in Fort Worth

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 Duck Commander 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 down force. 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 while the opportunity is there. 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 Sunday afternoon, 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 into account the various changes to the handling of the new generation stock car, the picture is muddied even further. Surprisingly, the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas 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 both of the teams of Penske Racing cracked the Top 5, with Brad Keselowski 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, both should provide us with valuable information for this Sunday afternoon's race. The loop stats in the table below cover the last nine years or 18 races at Texas Motor Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson8.96814886984,660106.4
Greg Biffle13.57424657334,457101.8
Kyle Busch14.05973316944,158101.6
Tony Stewart12.75963447124,02399.1
Carl Edwards15.67033585314,42597.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.47362161954,62493.8
Denny Hamlin10.76961671313,59693.3
Clint Bowyer12.8562128843,47792.3
Jeff Gordon17.86293074673,72790.6
Martin Truex Jr.15.05281322313,60589.1
Kurt Busch16.35781912333,38988.0
Kevin Harvick11.76816833,67985.5
Kasey Kahne18.9642214703,69585.0
Marcos Ambrose19.54288122,13481.7
Jeff Burton17.3479118352,70279.0
Jamie McMurray19.3432107702,30775.6
Brad Keselowski19.92711371391,38674.8
David Reutimann25.2298119451,51772.7
Ryan Newman18.047640201,91472.4

In this event one year ago, Kyle Busch captured his first career win at Texas Motor Speedway. That victory handed team owner Joe Gibbs his third Texas victory in the last eight races at the oval. When the series returned in the fall, it wasn't Busch turning heads it was Jimmie Johnson. He led 255 laps and out-battled Brad Keselowski to take 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 Toyota. When we take a look at Ford, we see that it has been since the 2012 season when Greg Biffle beat out Johnson that this manufacturer last visited victory lane in Fort Worth. With the Keselowski victory at Las Vegas recently, we have to give some heavy consideration in the direction of Ford this weekend. Throw in streaking Gibbs driver Matt Kenseth with his excellent Texas loops stats and his recent Top 10 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 Duck Commander 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 12 years. Still, the Joe Gibbs Racing star has reeled off 13 career Top 5s and led close to 800 laps at the intermediate oval in 23 starts. Kenseth has six Top-5 finishes in his last seven starts at the Texas oval entering this weekend's Duck Commander 500. With the No. 20 Toyota team performing well right now but still looking for their first victory of the season, Kenseth has a good shot at adding a third career Texas victory to his resume on Sunday afternoon.

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson is a three-time winner at Fort Worth, and he won in his most dominant performance yet 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 won two of the last three races at the 1.5-mile track and he's led 579 laps at this intermediate oval in the last four events. We could see a repeat of that scenario at Texas. The Hendrick Motorsports star has won or finished runner-up in three of his last four starts at this facility. The No. 48 Chevrolet team isn't throwing darts just yet this season, but that could all change after the Duck Commander 500.

Brad Keselowski -
This is the daring pick of the contenders list this week. Keselowski has really only two impressive performances in his 11-start Texas resume. In our last trip to Fort Worth, the Penske Racing star led 30 laps and dueled all day long with Jimmie Johnson to finish sixth in the AAA Texas 500. Prior to that, Keselowski led 75 laps and finished runner-up in the 2012 installment of the AAA Texas 500. So two of the last three trips to Fort Worth have been close brushes with victory lane for the No. 2 Ford team. Keselowski won earlier this season at the Las Vegas intermediate oval and he's been one of the top performers on these style tracks dating back to last fall.

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 sixth in the series standings and with a victory and pole position in the last two races. The Joe Gibbs Racing star's record at Texas Motor Speedway is not the greatest with a less-than-impressive 41 percent Top 10 rate at the oval. However, recent performances have turned very positive. Busch led 171 laps and won from the pole in this event one year ago. That brings his career laps led at this facility to close to 700 circuits. Busch has Texas Motor Speedway dialed-in now and the competition should be concerned.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Joey Logano -
Logano is another driver who has used recent Texas outings to reverse historical trends at the oval. The driver of the No. 22 Ford had a pair of Top-5 finishes at the facility, only the second and third of his career, after his move to Penske Racing for the 2013 season. Logano had only visited the Top 5 once in his nine prior starts at the track. He's off to a good start this season and has been a top performer on the intermediate ovals dating back to last season. Logano won the pole position and finished fourth at the similar oval in Las Vegas earlier this season, so he should be poised for a big performance in the Duck Commander 500.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
We can't easily 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 led 51 laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and finished an impressive second in the Kobalt 400. Earnhardt has five Top-10 finishes in his last six Texas races entering this Sunday afternoon's Duck Commander 500, and that bodes very well for the No. 88 Chevrolet team.

Kevin Harvick -
Despite never having won at this oval, Harvick has been a consistent finisher at Texas Motor Speedway over the years. With 11 Top-10 finishes in 22 starts he checks in at a respectable 50-percent rate. Three of Harvick's last four trips to Fort Worth have netted Top-10 finishes. Strong and steady are two words that describe the Stewart Haas Racing veteran's ability at this 1.5-mile track. The No. 4 Chevrolet was strong at Las Vegas as few weeks ago when Harvick led 23 laps before running into trouble and finishing 41st.

Greg Biffle -
The Roush Fenway Racing driver is still trying to find his groove this week coming to Fort Worth. Struggles have been the story of Biffle's season to this point. 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 12 Top-10 finishes in 20 career starts at TMS. Biffle has a staggering 10 Top 10s in the last 11 races at this facility entering this weekend, and that includes a fourth-place finish in this event one year ago. Texas Motor Speedway ranks as one of his Top 3 tracks in laps led and Top-10 finishes, so good things happen each time Biffle visits here.

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

Carl Edwards -
Six races into the season and Edwards finds himself an impressive third 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 third-place finish in this event one year ago is the high side of what to expect this Sunday afternoon.

Clint Bowyer -
After his first Top-10 finish of the season at Martinsville Speedway, it appears that Bowyer has his Michael Waltrip Racing team finally heading in the right direction after a slow start to the season. He sits a disappointing 17th in the championship standings entering this weekend, and looking to continue the turnaround at the Texas oval. The driver of the No. 15 Toyota sports a impressive 56 percent Top-10 rate at TMS and Bowyer has three Top-10 finishes in his last five races at the intermediate oval. Given the new-found momentum of this driver and team, Bowyer has to be smiling big coming to Fort Worth for the Duck Commander 500.

Kasey Kahne -
The Hendrick Motorsports driver is off to a shaky start in 2014. While we wouldn't normally give him the fantasy racing nod of approval for a Texas race weekend because of his lowly 26-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 collect a steady eighth-place finish 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 he's cracked the Top 10 in three of his last five trips to the Fort Worth oval.

Kurt Busch -
Last week's surprise Martinsville winner go the much needed boost that his new Stewart Haas Racing team needed. If the veteran driver can build on that success a real streak could be in the making. Busch has one career win at Texas Motor Speedway and 12 Top-10 finishes in 22 starts (55-percent). After third- and first-place finishes the last two weeks, it's clear that the No. 41 Chevrolet team is finally coming together. It's just a matter of Busch finding his old groove at this very familiar race track. He should challenge the Top 10 in Sunday's 500-mile race.

Brian Vickers -
After a very steady 16th-place performance at Martinsville Speedway last weekend, the Michael Waltrip Racing veteran is looking to get back into Top 10 form this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway. He will step into the strong No. 55 Toyota this Sunday afternoon and try to recapture some of the magic of his last start at TMS in this weekend's 500-mile race. In last November's AAA Texas 500, Vickers qualified 15th and finished a Texas career-best eighth. The MWR driver finished 13th earlier this season at the intermediate oval in Las Vegas. We're willing to bet he'll be much better at the Fort Worth oval.

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 eighth career Texas Motor Speedway start in this weekend's Duck Commander 500. Bayne cracked the Top 20 in his last start at the intermediate oval in Las Vegas. He started 34th and finished a respectable 20th. He has Top 20 efforts in four of his prior seven Texas starts. You could do far worse than Bayne at the end of you fantasy racing lineup.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Marcos Ambrose -
Despite logging Top-5 finishes in the two recent short track races, we have to give Ambrose and the No. 9 team the downgrade this weekend. The Richard Petty Motorsports driver has struggled historically at this oval and on the larger speedways of 2014. Ambrose registered 24th- and 30th-place finishes at Las Vegas and Fontana recently, so things have not been going well for the Australian on the larger ovals. With only one career Top 10 in 11 starts at Texas Motor Speedway, and a lowly 19.5 average finish at the oval, there is better fantasy racing options than Ambrose this week.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
The driver of the No. 17 Ford had some tough luck at Martinsville Speedway last weekend and finished 40th. Stenhouse is hopeful to shake that misfortune and get going back in the right direction at Texas Motor Speedway, but he faces an uphill battle. The young driver has two career starts at the 1.5-mile oval with finishes of 40th- and 16th-place to his credit. Intermediate ovals have been tricky for the young Roush Fenway Racing driver and Texas has been among the most puzzling. Stenhouse finished an uninspiring 27th at the similar oval in Las Vegas earlier this season. That gives us pause about starting him in this Sunday's Duck Commander 500.

Jeff Gordon -
The streaking Hendrick Motorsports star ran into a bit of trouble at Martinsville last week and finished an uncharacteristic 12th at one of his favorite short tracks. It may be hard to shake that hiccup as we come to what has been a problematic oval for Gordon over his entire career. Sure he has one victory at Fort Worth, but his 11 Top 10s only check in at a 42-percent rate. To make matters worse he has six career DNF's at the 1.5-mile oval and a lowly two Top 10s there in the last nine events. The forecast shows that Gordon could have some additional struggles this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The subpar 21st-place finish at Martinsville this past week has been the story of Truex's season. He's started the new season with no Top-10 finishes in the first six races. That puts him all the way back in 28th-place in the championship standings coming to Texas. Normally intermediate ovals are good tracks for the driver of the No. 78 Chevrolet but his slow start to this season has to be concerning going into this Sunday's Duck Commander 500. Truex's last visit to Texas Motor Speedway yielded a less-than-impressive 14th-place finish in last October's AAA Texas 500. We don't believe he'll even reach that mark this Sunday afternoon.