After one of the best races of the season last week in Martinsville, the Sprint Cup Series heads west to the uber-fast Texas Motor Speedway for Round 8 of the Chase for the Championship. This race will almost certainly not live up to the ludicrous level of hype that race promoter Eddie Gossage insists on building every year for it, but it should be a decent race nonetheless. Jimmie Johnson has a slim 2 point advantage in the Series standings over Brad Keselowski, and the spotlight will be shining bright on these two drivers this weekend as both have impressively managed to distance themselves from the rest of the Chase. Can one of the two championship contenders steal a win in The Lonestar State? That’s just one of many things to watch for in this week’s AAA Texas 500.
*1. Can Brad Keselowski get back on track in Texas?*
The media made a big deal last week about how Brad Keselowski’s sixth place finish in Martinsville was the “equivalent of a win.” Well, I hate to be “that guy,” but history tells us that things don’t quite work out that way, especially when going toe to toe with the No. 48 team. This late into the season, every single point counts (see: 2011 Chase), and even though the No. 2 team only lost nine points to the No. 48 (at Keselowski’s worst track, no less), that points swing is significantly larger than the stats sheet indicates. And with how close the title contenders run late in the season, it becomes very difficult to make up lost ground when the rival team is running top 5 every week. With all of this in mind, Keselowski’s “sixth place win” looks less like a victory and more like a major loss.
Now, sitting two points out of the lead, Keselowski will be playing the role of pursuer instead of protector for the first time since the Chase started. The manner by which he and his team handles this role will go a long way in determining whether or not the No. 2 will be any kind of threat to Johnson’s run for a sixth title. This week, Keselowski has to come out of the box strong and attack all week long, with the obvious goal being to beat the No. 48. If the No. 2 team can accomplish that in Texas, it will be game on for the title.
*2. How will Junior fare in his first post-concussion speedway race?*
I know that this point has been beaten to death over the past few years, but the fact remains that Texas Motor Speedway is one of the fastest, if not the fastest, tracks on the Sprint Cup circuit. Given how fast Texas is, one simply can not help but wonder what must going through Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s mind this week leading up to the race. Let us not forget that Junior incurred his now-infamous concussion on the similarly fast Kansas Speedway, and when you consider the fact that Texas is even faster than Kansas, there is definitely reason for Junior Nation to be a bit leery about this weekend’s race.
Junior is a driver who is especially prone to lapses in confidence, and he has not rebounded well from injuries in the past either. Concussions are also the type of injury which are progressively easier to get after you have endured the injury multiple times. Will all of this wear on Junior in his return to high-speed racing? There’s really no one who can know that for sure outside of Junior himself, but this week’s race at Texas will be a telling indication of where he stands as far as his health and confidence are concerned. If Junior performs at a level similar to that of earlier this season, then we can reliably assume that Junior is over his concussion woes. But if Junior is off this week in any capacity, you can be sure that every fan in the free world will be doubting his fitness to drive, whether such doubts are warranted or not.
*3. Will long green flag runs be the order of the day?*
The Texas Motor Speedway is a track that usually provides for good racing due to the steep 24 degrees of banking and wide corner entry/exit sections that are characteristic of the track. Recently, however, long green flag runs with few cautions in between have been standard fare for the Fort Worth circuit, and it is likely that Sunday’s race will feature more of the same. Whether or not long green flag runs constitute good racing is a matter of opinion, but those who enjoy them will be in for a treat this Sunday.
As a point of reference, one has to look no further than this year’s spring race at Texas to get a glimpse at the kind of racing we will see this week. That race had a whopping 234 lap green flag run to the finish, and the race featured a grand total of three cautions, two of which were for mystery debris. Anything can happen, obviously, but there really is no reason to believe Sunday’s race won’t be more of the same.
But what does this mean for our championship contenders? It means that qualifying will be absolutely paramount, as the likely dearth of cautions will heighten the importance of track position. Getting to the front and staying there will be the biggest keys to success on Sunday, so look for the No. 48 and the No. 2 to put a lot of effort into garnering and maintaining track position in the race.
*4. Are Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne out of the championship hunt yet?*
Sitting 26 and 29 points back respectively, Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne are still technically in the hunt for the Chase title. Realistically, neither driver really has a shot at this thing, given how difficult it is to make up large points deficits under the current points system. The only way either driver can get back into serious contention is if both the No. 2 and the No. 48 have major issues similar to the woes that faced Denny Hamlin back in Martinsville.
Having said that, if both Johnson and Keselowski were to each have issues on Sunday, Bowyer and Kahne will both have to capitalize. With only three races left in the season, Texas is absolutely the last chance for both drivers to gain any meaningful ground on the two leaders. At this point, both drivers must run top 5 and hope the two leaders have DNFs, and they would still need some help after that in Phoenix.
Bowyer and Kahne are not quite eliminated from title contention just yet, but if they are still as far back in points after Texas as they are now, you can safely cross their names off the list of title contenders for good.
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