Texas: Round seven preview

Texas: Round seven preview
Jun 19, 2009, 7:48 PM

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News and Notes - Texas Earnhardt Earned His 1st Victory at Texas; He Could Use Another It was the spring of 2000 and a career was blossoming. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet), a NASCAR ...

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series News and Notes - Texas

Earnhardt Earned His 1st Victory at Texas; He Could Use Another

It was the spring of 2000 and a career was blossoming. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88 Amp Energy/National Guard Chevrolet), a NASCAR Sprint Cup Series rookie fresh off winning consecutive NASCAR Nationwide Series titles, came to Texas Motor Speedway.

Making only his 12th start in NASCAR's top series, Earnhardt went to Victory Lane, where he was joined by his father, the late Dale Earnhardt Sr. for a memorable celebration. Earnhardt went on to win twice more in 2000, at the Richmond spring race and, incredibly, in the NASCAR Sprint All-Star Race -- becoming the first rookie to do so.

Of course, Earnhardt was almost immediately considered a "champion in waiting." Nine years later, the waiting continues, with Earnhardt's early-season struggles attracting increased focus on his team, in his second season with the highly successful Hendrick Motorsports organization.

Criticism has surfaced this season from both media and at least one rival in the series, Kyle Busch (No. 18 Interstate Batteries Toyota). None other than Rick Hendrick himself defended the No. 88 team vigorously last week, saying, "I am 100% behind this group. I have no intentions of making any changes. I have all intentions of making it better."

Said Earnhardt: "We're just trying to hear out everybody's opinions on some things we can try or do differently, and if it will help. We're just working hard to get better ... we don't sit on our tails hoping it'll turn around on it's own because it probably wouldn't happen that way."

Hard work paid dividends this past weekend. Earnhardt finished an encouraging eighth at Martinsville Speedway, his best finish of the season. He comes into Sunday's Samsung 500, up to 16th in the series standings. More reason for optimism: In addition to the 2000 victory at the fast, 1.5-mile Texas Motor Speedway track, Earnhardt has two Samsung 500 poles -- 2001 and last year.

"We have excellent equipment," Earnhardt said. "We just have to know what to do with it. We got to get a little bit better, as a team, to compete. The stuff is right there in front of us but man, we just gotta figure out what to do to make it work."

Edwards Attempting Texas 3-Step, After Last Season's Sweep

Call it a Texas three-step. Carl Edwards (No. 99 Aflac Ford) won both of last season's NASCAR Sprint Cup events at Texas Motor Speedway, part of his series-leading total of nine victories that fueled his runner-up finish in the series standings. Edwards also won at Texas in the 2005 fall race. His three TMS wins are a series high.

Edwards comes to Texas eighth in the series points but has nonetheless been perceived to be in an early-season slump -- much like three-time defending series champion Jimmie Johnson was prior to his win this past Sunday at Martinsville.

Edwards has yet to win this season. Compare that with 2008's late-season rush when he won three of the 10 events in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup. Maybe he is in a slump. Nonetheless, he's also solidly in Chase contention and remains a favorite to be in championship contention later on this season.

Clearly, Edwards has taken to Texas since joining the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series in 2004. He has an average TMS finish of 13.9 and a Driver Rating of 102.3 there -- third-best in the series.

Edwards has continued Roush Fenway Racing's TMS dominance that started with victories in the track's first two NASCAR Sprint Cup events in 1997 and '98. Jack Roush leads all owners in TMS wins with seven.

Top 35 Update ... Logano Hangs On -- And In; Gilliland Drops Out -- Barely

Driver Paul Menard and the No. 98 Quaker State/Menards Ford team owned by Max Jones came away from Martinsville with the 35th position in the NASCAR Sprint Cup car owner points, after a solid 25th-place run. That gives Menard the last of the guaranteed starting spots for Sunday's race at Texas Motor Speedway.

On the two sides of the top-35 "bubble" are teams accompanied by intriguing, ever-evolving storylines.

Rookie Joey Logano, in the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota owned by Joe Gibbs, continues to flirt with falling outside the top 35 -- which would force him to qualify on speed, to make a race field. The No. 20 is 34th in owner points, only 23 ahead of the No. 98.

The inspiring efforts of David Gilliland, in Kevin Buckler's No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevrolet, fell off at Martinsville, as Gilliland finished 36th -- which is now the team's standing in the owner points, albeit only three points behind the No. 98.

Nonetheless, Gilliland's standings is impressive considering the team failed to qualify for the Daytona 500.

"We will have our work cut out for us at Texas," Gilliland said. "We will get in the show and put the team back into the top 35."

A key to the 71's struggles at Martinsville, Buckler said, was that the two Saturday practice sessions were rained out.

"The two sessions we missed would've put us way ahead of where we were," Bucker said. "But every lap this team runs is another step up the ladder to our future in NASCAR."

Note: Each week in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, the top 35 teams in current car owner points are guaranteed starting spots in that week's race. Others qualify based on time trial speeds.

Edwards Aside, Loop Data Points To Johnson and Kenseth As Other Texas Favorites

Carl Edwards has won the previous two NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Texas Motor Speedway, but Loop Data -- accumulated from the last eight TMS events -- indicates he has some serious company in the "favorites" category: Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth.

Johnson and Kenseth, coming into Texas, are on completely different sides of the "momentum" spectrum. Johnson, after finishing outside the top 20 in two of the first three races, captured his first win of 2009 at Martinsville. Kenseth, after winning the first two races, has followed with finishes of 43rd, 12th, 33rd and 23rd.

Now both head to a Texas track at which they have enjoyed success.

Johnson, of course, wants the momentum to continue. It likely will. With a Texas win in 2007, Johnson has these TMS-specific numbers:

A series-high Driver Rating of 104.7;

An Average Running Position of 10.5 (fifth-best);

171 Fastest Laps Run (fourth-most);

The fastest Average Green Flag Speed of 172.797 mph;

And a Laps In The Top 15 percentage of 72% (sixth-best).

Loop Data statistics suggest Kenseth will end his current string of finishes outside the top 10 -- and enable him to stay in the Top 12 in the driver standings.

Kenseth has a second-best Driver Rating of 104.2 and a second-best Average Running Position of 9.6 at Texas since the inception of Loop Data in 2005. Kenseth has finishes in the top 10 at Texas in six of the last seven races.

In addition, regarding Kenseth at Texas;

He has 123 Fastest Laps Run (sixth-most);

An Average Green Flag Speed of 172.652 mph (third-fastest);

And a Laps In The Top 15 percentage of 78.9% (second-best).

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.

A new two-driver team considered to have a double-dose of championship potential, appears be finding its form.

That would be the Stewart-Haas Racing tandem of Tony Stewart (No. 14 Old Spice Chevrolet) and Ryan Newman (No. 39 U.S. Army Chevrolet). Stewart, strong all season, is seventh in the NASCAR Sprint Cup points while Newman, who struggled mightily, has posted consecutive top-10 finishes in the short-track tussles at Bristol and Martinsville. Newman, whose team was in peril of dropping outside the top 35 in car owner points before Bristol, has the No. 39 up to 18th in those standings.

With guaranteed starts looking secure, Newman looks to start posting consistent results.

"We're progressively getting better," Newman said.

At Martinsville, both Stewart and Newman finished in the top 10 -- third and sixth, respectively. That was a season-first for the new team.

"Hopefully that's a sign of things to come," Newman said. ...

Added Stewart: "I don't know that it's really gelling, because we've just been like this from day one. It's just kind of figuring things out. Ryan's learning a new package, I'm learning a new package, and it's learning what each of us wants."

The winless streak is now at 47 races and counting. But four-time series champion Jeff Gordon (No. 24 DuPont/National Guard GED Plus Chevrolet) is also counting points. And right now, he has enough to continue leading the series standings.

Four top-five finishes, five top 10s and no DNFs -- those are championship caliber consistency numbers. Chances are Gordon will be satisfied with more of the same for at least another week. He has never won at Texas Motor Speedway, one of only two race tracks where he has yet to win. (Homestead is the other.)

Gordon, though, says "we seem to be better" at tracks like 1.5-mile TMS than at short tracks, adding, "I'm looking forward to what we have there."

Jeff Burton (No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet) is 13th in points, one spot out of the group everyone wants to be part of -- the top 12. Texas bodes well for Burton. He has two NASCAR Sprint Cup wins there -- in the track's 1997 debut race in the series along with the 2007 Samsung 500.

That first TMS win came in a Ford for Roush Fenway Racing. The victory two years ago was in a Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet when he outdueled Matt Kenseth. In between, Burton experienced a mid-career lull which led to him exiting Jack Roush's organization. With RCR he has experienced the definitive career rebirth.

"We've had a lot of good things happen to us at Texas," Burton said. "It's also one of those places where we've run terrible. I know that when we go to Texas, it's not a given that we are going to run well. We have to go earn it."

Six races into 2009, former series champion Matt Kenseth (No. 17 DEWALT Ford) has had enough ups and downs to last an entire season.

He won the rain-shortened Daytona 500, then silenced doubters by following up with a convincing win the next week at Auto Club Speedway.

Since, the No. 17 team has faltered, finishing out of the top 10 in four consecutive events. At Martinsville, an early pit-road penalty for not controlling a tire during a stop put Kenseth a lap down. He never got back on the lead lap and finished 23rd.

Each week, the Daytona 500 is getting harder to see in the rearview mirror. Kenseth comes to Texas 12th in points.

But, as past results and Loop Data indicate, it might be time for another upswing.

Stay tuned.

Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 KOBALT Tools Chevrolet) has become known for two trademarks -- starting a season slowly and finishing a season strongly.

And typically, it doesn't take long for him to bounce back for some disappointing early-season finishes. That's what happened this past Sunday at Martinsville, with Johnson getting his first victory of the season -- his first victory since last November in Phoenix, when he was on one of his late-season rolls.

So, here we are six weeks into the season and Johnson -- fourth in the series points -- is again solidly in contention to qualify for NASCAR's "playoffs," the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup, consisting of the last 10 races of the season. The doom and gloom after his 31st-place finish in the Daytona 500 has faded.

A look back: After six races last season, Johnson was 10th in points. At the same juncture in 2007 he was third and in 2006 he was the points leader.

Looks familiar, doesn't it?

"I'm pretty confident in our mile and half program," Johnson said regarding Texas, where he has the series' best Driver Rating (see Page 2).

"We had some good speed in our cars at California and Las Vegas earlier this year. I know our finishes (ninth and 24th at those two West Coast events) don't really show it but I'm looking forward to getting back to an intermediate track to see if we can't put it all together."

Labonte, Smith To Be Inducted In Texas Motorsports Hall OF Fame; Hendrick, Edwards Also Being Honored

Bobby Labonte (No. 96 Ask.com Ford), a Corpus Christi, Tex. native and the 2000 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion, will be inducted into the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame on Wednesday night, in the Speedway Club's Grand Ballroom at Texas Motor Speedway. He joins his brother Terry, the two-time (1984 and '86) NASCAR Sprint Cup champion who was inducted in 2003.

Speedway Motorsports Incorporated Chairman Bruton Smith will also be inducted.

Both inductees will be available to the media from 6-7 p.m. with the induction program starting at 7:30.

In addition, Texas Motor Speedway and Happy Hill Farm Academy will present awards to championship car owner Rick Hendrick, defending Samsung 500 and Dickies 500 winner Carl Edwards and reigning IndyCar Series champion Scott Dixon.

Labonte and Smith become the 10th and 11th members of the Texas Motorsports Hall of Fame. The duo joins previous inductees A.J. Foyt (2003), Johnny Rutherford (2003), Terry Labonte (2003), Lee Shepherd (2004), Kenny Bernstein (2005), Jim Hall (2005), Eddie Hill (2006), Mark Martin (2007) and Jim McElreath (2007).

The other special awards rundown:

Hendrick, owner of Hendrick Motorsports, will be recognized as this year's Bruton Smith Legends Award winner. The honor is a lifetime achievement award given to a legendary figure in motorsports.

Edwards, who became the first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series driver to sweep both races at Texas Motor Speedway last year (Samsung 500 and Dickies 500), has been named the Texas Motor Speedway Racer of the Year.

Dixon, will receive the Texas Motor Speedway Sportsmanship Award.

Up Next: Phoenix International Raceway

After next week's break for the Easter holiday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads back out West to one of the "raciest" tracks in the country, the one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway, for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on April 18.

The Saturday night event will be televised by FOX (8 p.m. ET).

A couple of notes of interest regarding Hendrick Motorsports drivers, coming into the event. Jimmie Johnson will try for a fourth consecutive PIR victory; Jeff Gordon -- trying to end a winless streak of 47 races this week -- will return to the scene of one of his most memorable victories.

In the 2007 Phoenix spring race, Gordon got his 76th career NASCAR Sprint Cup victory, which at the time tied him with Dale Earnhardt for sixth on the all-time list. (Gordon now is fifth all-time with 81 wins.)

Some fast Phoenix facts:

The late Alan Kulwicki won the very first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at PIR, in 1988.

An incredible statistic: 13 of the 25 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Phoenix have been won by drivers who were either future or former NASCAR Sprint Cup champions, a run starting with Kulwicki, who won the championship in 1992. Rick Hendrick has the most car owner wins at PIR (6).

Ryan Newman has the most PIR poles (4).

Fast Facts

The Race: Samsung 500
The Date: Sunday, April 5

The Track: Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile oval)
The Time: 2 p.m. ET

The Distance: 501 miles/334 laps

TV: FOX , 1:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN and Sirius Satellite

2008 Polesitter: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2008 Winner: Carl Edwards

Friday -- Practice, 12-1:30 p.m. Qualifying, 3:40 p.m.
Saturday -- 11-11:45 a.m. and 12:20-1:20 p.m. (all times CT/local)

-credit: nascar

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