*Closest Three-Way Chase In History *Crew Chiefs Back In Business At Texas Motor Speedway *Country Music Icon Willie Nelson Headlines Pre-Race Show Closest Three-Way Chase In History It doesn't get much closer than this. Just 38 points span...
*Closest Three-Way Chase In History
*Crew Chiefs Back In Business At Texas Motor Speedway
*Country Music Icon Willie Nelson Headlines Pre-Race Show
Closest Three-Way Chase In History
It doesn't get much closer than this.
Just 38 points span the top three contenders as the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup moves to Texas Motor Speedway for Sunday's AAA Texas 500.
The previous closest top three after seven of 10 Chase races was 65 points in 2006. Many expected last weekend's Talladega Superspeedway "wild card" race to work for or against Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Lowe's Chevrolet), Denny Hamlin (No. 11 FedEx Office Toyota) and Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Shell/Pennzoil Chevrolet).
Instead, all three enjoyed solid days. Harvick finished second to teammate Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet) to nearly halve a 61-point, pre-race deficit. Hamlin remains 14 points behind Johnson as the pair finished seventh and ninth, respectively.
How close is close?
Hamlin, by winning in Texas and leading the most laps, could take the top spot -- even if Johnson finishes second. Harvick could do the same with a victory and his rivals finish toward the rear of the top 10.
"It's what I asked for," said Hamlin. "Let us settle it on the race track where our cars and our teams can make a difference and our drivers can make a difference. We've got a tight one and I'm looking forward to the last three races."
In Harvick's view, this year's champion will have to stay at the highest possible level. Consistency is good but isn't likely to get the job done.
"I really think it's one of the three guys that is going to finish in the top five overall over the last three races. If you're not able to do that and be in contention to lead laps, you're probably not going to win the championship," said Harvick, after missing a Talladega Superspeedway season sweep by inches when the caution flag ended his duel with Bowyer prematurely on the final lap of the AMP Energy Juice 500.
"You can't be conservative. You can't go hoping for a top 10 because, as you've seen over the past few years, top fives, leading the laps is what it's going to take over the next three weeks. I just believe it's one of three cars that is going to do that and hopefully we can keep pace."
Johnson, who entered the past two seasons' final three races with leads of 183 and 184, respectively, agrees.
"It's really the same mentality. We need maximum points," he said. "Of course, it's a little bit more forgiving or easy on your team and yourself with a big points lead. But we don't have that this year. We're going to have to race, and we're ready for it."
Take Your Pick In The Lone Star State
Each of the three championship contenders has solid records at Texas Motor Speedway.
The odds might favor Jimmie Johnson and Denny Hamlin, each of whom has won at the 1.5-mile Fort Worth track.
Kevin Harvick, however, has proven over the first seven races in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup that he can step it up -- even on tracks where he hasn't performed the best.
Hamlin won April's Samsung Mobile 500 but Johnson was just 0.152 seconds behind in the runnerup spot. Hamlin finished second to Kurt Busch in last year's AAA Texas 500 and counts seven top-10 finishes in his 10 Texas Motor Speedway appearances. He has an average finish fractionally better than Johnson (9.6 to 10.1).
Johnson won when it counted -- in 2007 when he led Jeff Gordon by only nine points with three races remaining. Johnson also has five second-place finishes and 10 top 10s in his 14 Texas starts. He'd just as soon forget last year's race in which he qualified poorly and was the victim of a backstretch accident that erased a significant part of his 184-point, pre-race lead over Mark Martin (No. 5 Carquest/GoDaddy.com Chevrolet). Johnson's third-best Texas Driver Rating (99.0) is just ahead of Hamlin (sixth, 97.2).
Harvick, 10th in April, finished fifth a year ago. The third-place Chase driver's weak link, however, are bonus points. Harvick has led only three of 15 starts and none since the spring of 2007. He also has the worst average finish of the trio (12.9) and 15th best Texas Driver Rating (83.0).
This Week's Spoiler Could Be An Insider
Kevin Harvick could be even closer to Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup leader Jimmie Johnson had teammate Clint Bowyer not taken 15 points from Harvick by virtue of his victory at Talladega Superspeedway.
Bowyer is a Chase qualifier but a distant 12th in the overall standings despite his two victories.
The 15 points might ultimately be the difference between Harvick and the 2010 championship. Yet, they're pretty much worthless to Bowyer, whose title hopes virtually ended with a 150-point, post-race penalty in New Hampshire.
He's racing for pride, as are eight other Chase drivers who trail Johnson by more than 200 points, which makes each a potential spoiler as this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup winds down.
Chief among them are the two Busch brothers, each appearing the winner of last year's AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Kurt Busch (No. 2 Operation Home Front/Miller Lite Dodge) won the race by nearly a lap after many of his rivals ran short of fuel in the waning laps.
Younger sibling Kyle Busch (No. 18 M&Ms Toyota) was the most disappointed of the empty tank victims. He led 232 of the race's 334 laps but unhappily settled for an 11th-place finish.
Eight of this year's Chase qualifiers have Texas Motor Speedway victories led by Carl Edwards (No. 99 AFLAC Ford) with three including a season sweep in 2008. Edwards hasn't won in nearly two years -- 69 races -- and trails Johnson by 247 points.
Jeff Gordon's (No. 24 DuPont Chevrolet) last of 82 NASCAR Sprint Cup victories was recorded at TMS in April 2009. Gordon, 207 points back in fourth place, is unlikely to win a fifth championship but breaking a 62-race winless streak would go a long way toward salvaging the 2010 season.
Kasey Kahne (No. 83 Red Bull Toyota) is the most recent Texas winner among this year's Chase non-qualifiers. Kahne won from the Coors Light Pole in the spring of 2006. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 National Guard/AMP Energy Chevrolet) is the only Chase non-qualifier with a Driver Rating among the top 10 (seventh, 96.4) at Texas Motor Speedway.
Crew Chiefs Back In Business At Texas Motor Speedway
Crew chiefs effectively got a weekend off last Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. Restrictor plate racing and the draft trumped pit road strategy and chassis adjustments.
This week, however, it's back to normal and then some.
Texas Motor Speedway can be a handful for the men atop the pit boxes. Last year's AAA Texas 500 was no exception as Kurt Busch managed to feather-foot his way to victory while his rivals either made an extra pit stop or ran out of fuel.
Thus, it's a thinking man's race, both in the cockpit and on pit road.
Qualifying, not an issue at Talladega is acutely important at Texas where 14 of 19 winners have started no worse than eighth.
Crew chiefs effectively tore up their notebooks with introduction of the "new car" in 2008. The only season sweep, by Carl Edwards, occurred that year.
Significant changes occurred in April when the car's rear wing was replaced with a more traditional spoiler. The move was deemed successful: The Samsung Mobile 500 featured 29 lead changes matching the TMS record set in April 2000.
Texas races traditionally are fraught with surprises and can be the difference between winning and losing a championship.
Jimmie Johnson was fortunate to have a 184-point lead a year ago to cushion the early-race accident that cost him 111 points. A similar incident could be a title buster for any of the top three this time around.
In 2005, Greg Biffle (No. 16 Red Cross Ford) had a car strong enough to win. Unfortunately, wheel and tire issues dropped him to 20th giving Tony Stewart (No. 14 Office Depot Chevrolet) a net 47 points gain. Stewart wound up winning the title by 35 points with Biffle second.
Carl Edwards swept both Texas races in 2008 -- and failed to rattle Johnson. He cut Johnson's point lead to 106 points but it was too little, too late.
There also have been barn-burners. The 2007 AAA Texas 500 stands out as Johnson and Matt Kenseth (No. 17 Crown Royal Black Ford) went door to door in the waning laps. Johnson made the winning pass with three laps remaining.
In The Loop: Carl Edwards Excels At Texas Motor Speedway
It took a full decade for someone to pick up a second win at the competitively balanced Texas Motor Speedway.
That driver was Jeff Burton, who won the inaugural race in 1997, then won again 10 years later in the spring of 2007.
But just a season later, in 2008, Carl Edwards put a stranglehold on the 1.5-mile track. Where Burton needed 10 years, Edwards took only one.
Edwards swept at Texas in 2008, nabbing two of his series-high nine victories that season.
Incredibly, that season was the last in which Edwards won a race. He is now in the midst of a 69-race winless drought, dating back to the 2008 season-finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Any time the series heads to an intermediate track, though, Edwards leaps into the discussion of "favorites." After all, 11 of his 16 career victories have come on tracks measuring 1.5 or 2 miles in length.
Edwards especially excels at Texas, where he has three victories overall (his first came in 2005). At Texas, Edwards has a Driver Rating of 97.8 (fifth-best), an Average Running Position of 12.6 (sixth), 268 Fastest Laps Run (third) and a Laps in the Top 15 percentage of 74.9% (fourth).
His last two Texas races, though, have been rocky. In finishes of 39th and 33rd, Edwards has scored Driver Ratings of 75.3 and 79.2, respectively.
There have been times this season where Edwards looked close to ending the head-scratching slump. From the second Daytona race in early July until the second Michigan event in mid-August, Edwards tallied six consecutive top-10 finishes (four of which were top fives, including a runner-up finish at Chicagoland). During that span, Edwards had a Driver Rating of 103.1 and an Average Running Position of 9.7.
During the Race to the Chase -- the 10 races preceding the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup -- Edwards scored more points than any other driver.
Since then, Edwards has been solid -- though not running near the front as often. Over the last 10 events, Edwards has an average finish of 11.7, a Driver Rating of 95.0 and an Average Running Position of 12.2.
On The Line: Clint Bowyer Clint Bowyer (No. 33 Cheerios/Hamburger Helper Chevrolet) was this week's guest on the NASCAR Video Teleconference on Tuesday. His Talladega victory was the second of this year's Chase. Following are some excerpts from the teleconference.
Q. What did you salvage, other than winning some more races? Can you get out of 12th and get to 5th or 6th?
CLINT BOWYER: Well, I mean, the goals from here, obviously getting my crew chief back this weekend, Shane Wilson, and getting things headed in the right direction for next year is huge. I think we can win another race by the end of the year, I really do. We're running good.
I think, you know, being able to walk across the stage and thank your sponsors at the banquet is very important. There's 12 Chase drivers in the Chase, but only 10 of them get recognized and get on stage at the championship banquet. To get on there, thank your sponsors, all your team members that have gotten you that far in the season is very important to me. I got to get within the top 10 to do that. That's goal number one right now.
Q. Passing your teammate on the last lap to win. Obviously nobody told you not to. How do you decide when to go and when not to go?
CLINT BOWYER: Well, I mean, you certainly owe it to each other and everybody involved at RCR to work together all day long and try to keep each other up front. Kevin, even Jeff and I, did a good job of that until he was out. Kevin and I at the end of the race, I felt like we did what we needed to do to give RCR the best opportunity at a win. Racing sidebyside there, drag race at the end, was a pretty prime example of making sure both cars were up front. I think we did as good as we could.
Q. How about having Shane Wilson back? Got to knock any rust off of him or have the weekends off been good for him?
CLINT BOWYER: Truth be told, I think it's been good for all of us. It's opened our eyes to a couple things that we've been missing, you know. Communication side of it on race day is one I think. Scott Miller did a great job. Things are intense. When they get heated up, things can get out of control, spiral downhill pretty quick. Scott did a great job of managing that situation, keeping things pointed in the right direction.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc. ...
This week's milestones: Joe Nemechek (No. 87 NEMCO Motorsports Toyota) hopes to make his 550th NASCAR Sprint Cup start; Kasey Kahne his 250th. Jeff Gordon can post his 275th top-five finish; Bobby Labonte his 200th top 10. Mark Martin continues to pursue his 50th Coors Light Pole.
Terry Labonte, the only Texas-born driver to win a NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway (in 1999), is co-owner with Bill Stavola of the No. 10 Gander Mountain Outdoors Chevrolet to be driven this week by younger brother Bobby Labonte. Labonte drove the car to a 22nd-place finish in last month's Bank of America 500 in Charlotte. The Labonte brothers have combined for 43 NASCAR Sprint Cup wins. Four other Texas winners, led by A.J. Foyt, count 13 total victories.
Texan Robert Richardson has entered Josh Wise in his R3 Motorsports Toyota. Richardson's son, Robert Jr., competes in the NASCAR Nationwide Series as well as making occasional NASCAR Sprint cup appearances.
Last year's AAA Texas 500, won by Kurt Busch, featured the largest margin of victory (25.686 seconds) since electronic timing and scoring was introduced to the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 1993.
NASCAR Nationwide Series star Trevor Bayne hopes to make his first NASCAR Sprint Cup start this week behind the wheel of the Wood Brothers' No. 21 Motorcraft/Quick Lane Ford.
Interim crew chief Scott Miller visited Victory Lane in his final race with Clint Bowyer. Miller previously won with Richard Childress Racing's Jeff Burton (No. 33 Caterpillar Chevrolet). Bowyer's regular crew chief Shane Wilson returns this week after serving a four-race suspension imposed for the team's New Hampshire infraction. The victory was the 11th for RCR at Talladega breaking a tie for the top spot with Hendrick Motorsports.
Brad Keselowski (No. 12 No. 12 Penske Dodge) went 0-for-31 in top-10 finishes to start the 2010 season before finishing 10th at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 24. Keselowski made it two straight with a 10th-place effort at Talladega Superspeedway.
Talladega Superspeedway wasn't kind to the Front Row Motorsports No. 38, which has been neck and neck with TRG Motorsports' No. 71 for 35th in owner points. The No. 38 entered the weekend in 36th and facing a 47-point deficit, which became a 116-point advantage for TRG when Travis Kvapil failed to qualify for the race. The top 35 teams in 2010 owner championship points are guaranteed a starting spot in the first five races of 2011 including the Daytona 500.
Pre-Race Show: Willie Nelson
Country music icon Willie Nelson will serve as the headliner for the American Red Cross "Salute Our Troops" Pre-Race Show prior to the AAA Texas 500. Nelson will perform a 45-minute concert featuring his legendary songs on the frontstretch stage beginning at 12:30 p.m. CT. Nelson's performance will be the feature act of the 2 ½-hour pre-race show leading up to the green flag of the AAA Texas 500.
Up Next: Phoenix
The Nov. 14 Kobalt Tools 500 at Phoenix International Raceway is the next-to-final stop in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. The leader following the season's 35th race has won the title all six years under the Chase format.
Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson has won the most races in the Valley of the Sun -- four -- including the past two fall events. He has four victories in his past six starts including a sweep of both Phoenix events in 2008. Johnson finished third behind Ryan Newman (No. 39 Tornados Chevrolet) and Jeff Gordon in this season's spring race leading a race-high 113 laps.
Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup contender Kevin Harvick has won twice in Phoenix sweeping spring and fall races in 2006. He is among five multiple winners expected to compete in the Kobalt Tools 500. Denny Hamlin has finished third on four occasions most recently in 2009's fall race. Harvick finished 13th in this year's spring race; Hamlin was 30th.
The Race: AAA Texas 500
The Place: Texas Motor Speedway; Fort Worth, TX (1.5-mile oval)
The Date: Sunday, Nov. 7
The Time: 3 p.m. ET
Race Distance: 501 miles / 334 laps
TV: ESPN, 2 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN/Sirius NASCAR Radio, Channel 128.
2009 Polesitter: Jeff Gordon
2009 Winner: Kurt Busch
Schedule Prior To Race Day: (Times local/CT)
Friday--Practice, 12-1:30 p.m.; Qualifying, 3:40 p.m.;
Saturday--Practice, Practice, 8:45-9:30 a.m. and 10-11 a.m.