As the Chase winds down, the circus pulls into the last true cookie-cutter track on the schedule. Texas Motor Speedway is putting in a strong bid to be recognized as NASCAR’s fastest track; and recent history shows us it’s true. Dale Earnhardt Jr. sat on the pole in the spring with a lap that was five miles an hour faster than Charlotte or Atlanta’s spring races. Gamers can expect to see an all-out, pedal to the metal run from everyone. With the championship all but decided, there’s nothing left to lose for almost everyone in the field. Fantasy players also have to keep an eye on the fact that there are lame duck drivers who, try as they might, can’t help but be a little distracted by looking forward to next season.
Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards are, for all intents and purposes, the last two standing in the fight for the title this year, and again, it really isn’t much of a fight at this point. Aside from the two of them, everyone else is racing just for pride and money, and that could lead to some additional risk taking this coming weekend. Don’t underestimate the lesser known teams who have run well on 1.5-milers this weekend. There has not been a non-Chase winner this year yet and there has been one every year since the Chase was put into place.
Read this week’s Picks ‘N’ Pans to see which drivers will most likely be wearing the goofy hat at the end of the weekend.
Bryan’s Race Rewind
One year ago, Johnson took the Chase lead for good after scoring the win at TMS. Johnson, who nearly lost his car in turn 2 while running down leader Matt Kenseth, made the winning pass with less than three laps to go in scoring his ninth victory of the season. Johnson’s victory capped a stellar day for Hendrick Motorsports, who placed three cars in the top 10 (Johnson, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon) while combining to lead 182 of the 334 laps run. Meanwhile, fellow super-team Roush Racing had a more disappointing performance, with only Kenseth and Jamie McMurray finishing in the top 10. Jeff Burton, who won the spring race at TMS in 2007, finished sixth. Penske Racing placed both of its Dodges in the top 10 while Dave Blaney was the best-finishing Toyota in 21st.
Mike’s Keys to the Race
Texas and Atlanta are very similar racetracks, which is why the last three drivers to win at Atlanta in the fall have gone on to win the Texas race the next week. While the track has not aged quite as much as Atlanta, it still has plenty of degradation in the pavement which has opened up multiple grooves of racing. Assuming Goodyear will bring a similar tire to what they used at Atlanta last weekend, the racing and the strategy will once again be hot and heavy. Now that the Chase is all but settled, drivers will have nothing to hold back for – so expect to see everyone this side of Edwards and Johnson to let it all hang out. One good thing is that with the drivers in multiple lines all over the track, there’s not much opportunity for drivers to get caught up in someone else’s mess. The only other cause for trepidation this week for gamers is that teams are experimenting for next year, and failures could be slightly higher than normal.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Edwards won last weekend’s race at Atlanta. In the past three years, since Texas hosted a second race in the fall, the winner of the Atlanta race has gone on to win the next week in Texas. There’s no reason to think that history will not continue to repeat itself this weekend. Edwards has been dominant on intermediate tracks this year and he should continue that this week.
Denny Hamlin was a poor restart away from winning in Atlanta last weekend. If he had not spun the tires he very well could have held off Edwards for the win. In six races at Texas, Hamlin has scored five top-10 finishes. Hamlin’s season has been a rollercoaster to say the least but he has scored two top fives in a row and the Joe Gibbs teams are quite strong on the intermediates this year. Hamlin’s team is focused on getting invited to New York, and another strong run this weekend will go a long way to securing that.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Kasey Kahne has won at Texas and ran second there in his first ever race in 2004. Other than those two finishes he has never finished higher than 18th in Fort Worth. His average finish is 22nd and his team is struggling of late other than their good run at Charlotte. With the unrest taking place at Gillett Evernham Motorsports these days, it is a good idea to leave Kahne on the bench until next season to see if they can get their act back together.
David Reutimann has had some strong runs that have ended with some bad luck over the last few races. He ran well from California through Kansas, but things have gone dramatically downhill since then. Adding to that sour note is the fact that he’s run at Texas twice and his finishes have been 43rd and 41st. Michael Waltrip Racing has come a long way this year, but they still have a long way to go before they are a solid bet for fantasy players. Keep Reutimann on the sidelines this week.
Roll the Dice:
Mark Martin can still wheel it, and intermediate tracks are still a strong suit for him. Aside from Atlanta and one of the races at Michigan, his finishes this year during his reduced schedule have been quite reliable on the 1.5-mile tracks. Even though DEI has been far from a leading organization this year, Martin has been able to get the most out of his cars and the No. 8 has the highest standing in the owner points of any team out of their stable. In what very well could be his last ride in DEI equipment, expect to see Martin put up one more strong finish.
Crank ‘Em Up:
Johnson took the Chase lead for good by winning this race last year. Look for history to repeat itself this weekend.
Kenseth may be in the shadows of Johnson and Edwards this weekend, but he may have the strongest record of any Cup driver at TMS. Though Kenseth hasn’t won at the track since 2002, his stats have nonetheless been impressive. He’s led laps in seven consecutive Texas races. He’s the only Cup driver to finish on the lead lap in the last seven Texas races. And his average finish of 5.4 at the track since 2006 is for lack of a better word intimidating. Kenseth is Mr. Consistent in the lone star state, and last year’s runner-up finish was no fluke. He’s one of only a handful of drivers out there that have a shot of disrupting the Johnson/Edwards parade.
Sit ‘Em Down:
Alright, I know that Elliott Sadler is a past winner on the 1.5-mile Texas oval. But that success has been fleeting for Sadler at this track. Since that win, Sadler has cracked the top 10 in Fort Worth only once, and that was not behind the wheel of a GEM Dodge. The No. 19 car finished a distant 26th, three laps down in the spring race here, and their 22.5 average finish in the last two intermediate races leave little cause for optimism in their camp this weekend. Want more reason to look elsewhere for your fantasy roster? GEM’s best finisher the last two weeks has been a part-time driver in the team’s third-tier car. Keep Sadler on the bench Sunday.
Brian Vickers and team were contending for wins consistently on the intermediate circuits earlier this season, but that momentum has chilled in the season’s latter half. Since a seventh-place run at Michigan in August, the team has not cracked the top 10 anywhere. And while they scored top 15s at Fontana and Kansas, the last two intermediate races have been admittedly disappointing. The team was expected to contend for the win at Charlotte, but finished a lap down in 18th. Last week, they finished again a lap down in 21st. Their performance last weekend seemed to suggest that the team is still distracted by their Martinsville penalty and the resulting fallout. Don’t look for that cloud to lift this weekend.
Roll the Dice:
Martin Truex Jr. has been remarkably consistent throughout his career at TMS despite driving for an up and down team. In six starts, he has three top 10s to his credit here, with only one finish outside the top 15 (due to engine failure). Take away his 36th-place run thanks to a blown motor in the spring, Truex has a sparkly average finish of 9.4 at the track. Truex scored an unexpected pole in this race last year and backed it up with a top-five run. And after DEI’s solid performance at Charlotte, TMS’ sister track a few weeks back, it’s not hard to see Truex sneaking up on the field again.
Bryan: Well Mike, after Martinsville I could have sworn that Johnson, not Edwards, was the horse to bet on. But, even if by only one spot, you beat me last week. Congrats on your latest victory.
Mike: Thanks brother. I had a feeling Edwards would avenge his blown engine from the spring race, although your boy Johnson sure put on a run at the end. If there’d been one more caution I think Johnson would have been the one taking the checkered flag first. I was glad to see that Goodyear came with a tire that put a little bit of strategy back into the hands of the crews, though. They’ve got a long way to go… but it was a good start.
Bryan: I agree with you, but I’m not going to compliment Goodyear for kinda turning the corner on the job they’re supposed to be doing. Now then, to Texas. You’re banking on the No. 99 again this weekend, and I’ve got to question that move. Everyone knows RFR has stout intermediate packages, but Edwards has been outside the top 10 five of the last seven races there. Hello, inconsistency.
Mike: Since the fall Atlanta winner has gone on to win Texas every year since they’ve been running the second race at Texas, I’ll take my chances. At least I went out on a limb and changed up one of my crank drivers for this week. I understand your affinity for jumping on the front runners, but one of these weeks its really going to bite you.
Bryan: Says the man who’s starting Edwards. What’s really going to bite this weekend is benching Reutimann. The similarities between TMS and Charlotte are obvious, and Reutimann’s No. 44 was stout all night there, eventually taking the race lead before succumbing to brake problems. That No. 44 is going to make some fantasy owners happy this weekend.
Mike: I’m willing to put a six-pack on Vickers making fantasy owners more money this weekend than Reutimann. The Red Bull boys have been strong on intermediates this year, even though they’ve had some bad luck. You very well may be sitting the winner this weekend. Not to mention, Vickers has finished higher than 41st at Texas.
Bryan: We’ll have to agree to disagree there. At least we both seem to agree on DEI, but after how lost the No. 8 team was this past weekend it’s hard for me to see Martin carrying the team banner come Sunday.
Mike: Lost at Atlanta was a common theme for the DEI folks, and Truex has been pretty darn lost since Watkins Glen with the exception of Loudon. I have a hard time imagining the No. 1 team doing any better than the No. 8 bunch. I’m wondering who we missed this week that Kurt Busch or McMurray this weekend? I’m betting Casey Mears may jump up and surprise all of us.
Bryan: If Mears is going to jump up and surprise he better hurry up… his time in that No. 5 car is all the more fleeting. We’ll just have to see how it pans out.
The following are the guidelines that Bryan and Mike follow in making their picks each week: Crank ‘Em Up drivers can be in any position in the driver standings, Sit ‘Em Down drivers must be in the current top 25 of the driver standings and Roll the Dice drivers can not be in the top 12 of the current week’s driver standings.
Crank – 13.4
Sit – 20.7
Roll – 21.7
Crank – 10.7
Sit – 21.5
Roll – 17.9