NASCAR writers Lee Spencer, Jim Utter, News Manager Nick DeGroot along with NASCAR PR Manager Tim Southers will tackle questions each week leading into the final three races of the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season and the Chase for the Cup.
1. Jimmie Johnson won at Martinsville to secure a berth in the final four at Homestead-Miami Speedway. He's also won four of the last six NSCS race held at Texas including four straight fall races there at the track. Can he make it five in a row this weekend?
Jim: Even with he and crew chief Chad Knaus fully focused on winning a seventh Cup series championship at Homestead, Fla., I have no doubt Johnson will once again be a contender for the win on Sunday. There are still incentives to winning - the biggest being the ability to lock any other Chase driver out of Victory Lane and reduced the number who can advance to Homestead based on winning. Of the tracks remaining on the schedule, Homestead is probably the weakest for Johnson (if that's even possible), so I suspect they will do whatever they can to limit their competition for the championship.
Lee: Absolutely. Johnson leads all current drivers at the track with six wins, 14 top fives, 20 top 10s and 1,023 laps led. This season Johnson has six top-five finishes in nine intermediate track starts this season including a win at Charlotte in the Round of 12. Coming off the win at Martinsville, the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team brings plenty of momentum into the Lone Star State. Johnson went back-to-back Martinsville/Texas in 2012.
Nick: Absolutely. Texas is one of his best tracks and he's riding a massive wave momentum at the moment. Overall, the entire Hendrick organization appears to be running the best they have all season right now. The timing is perfect for him to return to TMS and score his 80th career victory.
Tim: Jimmie Johnson has turned Texas Motor Speedway’s fall race into the Jimmie Johnson Invitational over the past few years. With his and his team’s confidence at a season high after the win at Martinsville, there’s no reason to think it will slow down Sunday. Read more about his shot at history here
2. Joey Logano is the final Ford driver alive in the Chase. Can he break his string of events that has kept him out of the final four this year?
Jim: Logano is already far ahead of last season's pace, when he was wrecked while leading at Martinsville by Matt Kenseth. His performance on 1.5-mile tracks this seasons has been hit-or-miss - he finished as high as second (Las Vegas) and as low as 39th (Kentucky). One thing Logano is known for, however, is being consistent and taking advantage when an opportunity presents itself. He may not win at Texas or Phoenix, but after a ninth-place finish at Martinsville, I think he could easily "point" his way into the Championship 4.
Lee: As long as Matt Kenseth stays off his bumper.
Nick: I expect Joey to squeeze his way into the final four and part of my reasoning has to do with Texas. He's proven he can get the job done there in the past and although I don't think he'll get a victory, he should come out of it with a solid finish.
Tim: It seems every year there is one race that costs him a shot at the title, but if there’s one track he’s proven he can rebound on its TMS. He recovered from a spin in 2014 in the fall race and he should have another solid finish Sunday.
3. Carl Edwards was the lowest finisher among Chase competitors at Martinsville and besides him, which Chase driver you feel has the most pressure on him this weekend in Texas?
Jim: I think as a group, the Joe Gibbs Racing drivers, will be feeling the pressure. Thus far, they have pretty much played a team strategy to perfection, but now with a Johnson win on Sunday at Martinsville, it's not possible all four can advance to the championship race. As each race goes by - especially one without a JGR winner - the battle among the teammates for the championship slots will only get tougher. Some cracks in the team chemistry became apparent after last Sunday's race, particularly in regards to Kyle Busch's comments about racing his teammates. It's only going to get more difficult for the group ahead, especially if all four technically remain in contention.
Lee: Kurt Busch. While his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick is considered a favorite at Phoenix, Busch doesn’t have that luxury at the next two tracks.
Nick: Without a doubt Carl. He is 32 pts. out and unless the drivers above him encounters some unforeseen issues, he's going to have to win one of the next two races. The good news is that he was sensational at both Texas and Phoenix earlier this year, earning pole position and leading over a third of the race in the spring Texas race.
Tim: Although Edwards is quoted earlier this week in Jim Utter’s story after Martinsville that ‘I have a feeling we’ll be alright’ the Chase contender has his work cut out for him at TMS to get back in to contention. Read more on it here
4. After receiving positive reviews over the past two weekends working on television and radio broadcasts, does Dale Jr. have a career in broadcasting if he chooses?
Jim: Having done several one-on-one interviews with Dale Jr. in my career, I know how engaging he can be, and that has certainly shown in his recent stints in the TV broadcast booth (dating back to his Xfinity race work). I have been an advocate for having talent in the booth with recent relevant racing experience, particularly with the vast changes in the sport and its championship format over the last decade. Earnhardt's appreciation of the sport's history in addition to his on-track experience would make him in invaluable addition to any NASCAR broadcast production.
Lee: Absolutely. Earnhardt earned rave reviews for his spot-on analysis and didn’t candy-coat his reactions or responses. Fans find his honesty refreshing.
Nick: Although I don't see him choosing that path, he seemed quite a natural in the TV booth. If he wanted to go that route, he'd fit right in.
Tim: Dale Earnhardt Jr. could talk through a megaphone in the track parking lot and he would still draw a crowd, but he’s seemed to be genuinely enjoying participating in television and radio broadcasts. Although he plans on returning to drive in 2017 definitely has a future in broadcasting if he wants to do it full-time. Read more about it here
5. With Jimmie Johnson locked in the Championship 4 at Homestead, who are your picks to fill the final three spots?
Jim: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano.Of my picks, I see Logano as the most consistent and Harvick and Busch as having the best chances of winning before the Chase gets to its Homestead finale. If another JGR driver advances, it would probably be to the expense of Logano.
Lee: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth. Matt Kenseth has the patience to points race his way into the final four. While I believe the same is true for Joey Logano, it would not surprise me to see the Toyotas gang up on the lone Ford. Four of Logano's six top fives at Texas came in the spring race -- including his only win (2014). Toyota hasn't won a Chase race since Dover, but Kenseth or Kyle Busch, who each have two wins at Texas, have the best opportunity to do so on the 1.5-mile track. Busch joins Kenseth in the Champion's Round. Kevin Harvick's path to Homestead should be secured in Phoenix where he has eight wins -- including six of the last eight.
Nick: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano. I know it's hard to fathom a final four with just one Toyota after the season they've had, but I think that's what's going to happen. Harvick is in a bit of a hole after Martinsville, but he has a very good chance of winning yet again at Phoenix. As for Logano, he's right on the cut line and if he can stay out of trouble, I believe he'll point his way into it.
Tim: I think it will be Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Kevin Harvick. Kenseth will finally get there along with Logano who is carrying chances for Ford. Harvick is a lock to make his third straight final four if anything because Phoenix International Raceway is on the schedule.