Matt Stallknecht · Friday November 1, 2013
Eddie Gossage’s Texas Motor Speedway is the site of the 8th Round of the 2013 NASCAR Chase for the Cup, and with only 3 more races left to decide a champion, the battle for the title is getting white-hot as we head into the Lonestar State. Last week, the Sprint Cup boys put on a barnburner of a race, and wily old Jeff Gordon found himself at the top of the pylon when the dust finally cleared on Lap 500. Fast forward to Texas this week, and Gordon finds himself locked in what is effectively a four-man title race with fellow combatants Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth, and Kevin Harvick. Can Gordon carry his momentum into Texas? Can Johnson and Kenseth increase their point’s lead? These are just a few of the questions that folks around NASCAR Nation are asking as we gear up for this weekend’s AAA Texas 500.
1. Could Jeff Gordon spoil the show?
Ever so quietly, Jeff Gordon has put up one of his finest playoff performances since the inception of the Chase back in 2004. Had it not been for an untimely penalty in the New Hampshire race, Gordon would perhaps be even closer to the points lead than he already is now (Gordon is 27 points back entering this weekend).
It’s obvious at this point that Gordon and his No. 24 team have found something. He’s 5 for 7 in terms of Top 10s so far in this Chase, and hasn’t finished any lower than 15th. Those types of results won’t necessarily win you a championship, but they will at the very least keep you in the running until you develop some momentum. Luckily for the No. 24 team, that momentum was discovered in the final 50 laps of last Sunday’s race.
While Gordon certainly is still a longshot for the championship at this point, his raw experience, hunger, and momentum make him a very credible threat to topple the other 3 contenders for the title. Watch for him this Sunday in Texas, because if he rattles off another win or Top 3 finish, the possibilities would open up for a Tony Stewart 2011-esque run to the championship. That’s not something his competitors want to deal with.
2. Who is the better pick at Texas? Johnson or Kenseth?
The Matt Kenseth/Jimmie Johnson fight for the points lead has been a treat to watch thus far in the Chase, and that battle will likely rage on this weekend in Texas. Seemingly every weekend, the two are near each other on the track, sometimes even fighting for the lead. Plate tracks, short tracks, intermediates…these two drivers excel everywhere, thus making it difficult to ascertain who among the two of them figures to outdo the other heading into Sunday.
In fact, of all of the Chase races thus far, Texas is seemingly the most difficult call to make in this regard. Kenseth has scored the most points at Texas in the past 6 events at the facility, and has the highest average finish at the track among active drivers. The trouble of course, is that Johnson ranks second in average finish at the track, and has scored more wins than Kenseth at the track as well. In other words, it’s a toss up.
Assuming that both drivers are in the hunt throughout the whole race (and believe me, they both will be), expect this one to come down to a duel between the two of them in the closing laps. Whomever can save their tires (more on that in a second) and out-desire the other driver will likely be the one who comes out on top. Should be fun to watch.
3. How will tires affect the racing?
Great news for fans of tire falloff: Texas Motor Speedway’s surface is aging at a somewhat rapid pace. This was made readily apparent during a mass test at the track two weeks ago, in which drivers reported that the track was “noticeably faster” than it was in the Spring, resulting in much more tire wear than was previously anticipated.
Championship leader Matt Kenseth got a taste of this firsthand when he had a tire failure at the test that sent him careening into the wall at full speed, destroying the car his team brought to the test. Teams reported that tires will be worn out after about 30 laps, which is shorter than a full fuel run. This is far more wear than was seen in the Spring, which should ultimately result in a much better race.
The key thing to watch is whether or not this fast wearing tire will cause any problems in terms of failures and blowouts. If a championship contender blows a right front tire like Kenseth did in the test, it could drastically alter the championship.
4. Can Roush-Fenway Racing make anything happen in Texas?
Roush Fenway Racing is not in good shape right now. Their two Chase drivers have grossly underperformed the entire season, and continued that lackluster performance into the playoffs. Their rookie driver, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., has largely disappointed in his first season in the Cup ranks. Carl Edwards has managed to get two wins via strategy, and Biffle had a fluke win over the summer in Michigan, but other than that, it’s been a tough year for Ford’s flagship team.
Looking towards next season, the prospects for the team don’t seem to be looking much better in 2014 either. Biffle is aging and has reached his peak. Edwards seems to be too streaky to predict what he’ll ever actually do. Stenhouse is inexperienced and has sponsorship concerns. Needless to say, all is not rosy for Jack Roush’s team right now.
Normally, in tough years for RFR, a trip to Texas would remedy such concerns. RFR has collected more wins in the Lonestar State than any other team and would normally be salivating at the thought of a Texas visit. It remains to be seen whether or not they can replicate that success this weekend, but one has to figure that if any of the RFR drivers are going to nab a win before the 2013 season concludes, it’s going to be at Texas.
If Roush Fenway Racing can’t make something, anything happen on Sunday at their best track this far into the season, it will be emblematic of deeper problems in the organization. Stay tuned…
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2013 AAA Texas 500:
Kenseth and Johnson are stalwarts at Texas, and they have lots of momentum. Look for the two of them to duel once again in the Lonestar State.
1. 20-Matt Kenseth
2. 48-Jimmie Johnson
3. 99-Carl Edwards
4. 22-Joey Logano
5. 2-Brad Keselowski
6. 24-Jeff Gordon
7. 18-Kyle Busch
8. 16-Greg Biffle
9. 56-Martin Truex Jr.
10. 29-Kevin Harvick
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