Up to Speed – O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 at Texas Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

After a trip to the smallest track on the circuit for some great racing at Martinsville last weekend, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series heads to the Lone Star State and Texas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s running of the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500.

First joining the circuit in 1997, the 1.5 mile Texas track has provided some great racing over the years as the surface wore down as each season passed. However, this go around, the track will be a completely different animal as the track was repaved and reconfigured in the off-season to fix drainage issues that had plagued the track in recent years.

The reconfiguration will affect Turns 1 and 2, dropping the banking in that section of the track from 24 degrees to 20 degrees, as well as widening the racing surface from 60 feet to 80 feet. Meanwhile, Turns 3 and 4 will remain banked at 24 degrees and 60 feet wide, giving the track two distinct corners that the drivers will have to navigate.

“For years, I’ve heard the absurd comments about 1.5-mile tracks being tagged as ‘cookie-cutter’ tracks,” track president Eddie Gossage said. “While nothing could be further from the truth – all 1.5-mile tracks are different – this assures once and for all that Texas Motor Speedway is unique, unlike any other track in the sport. That’s the way we like it here in No Limits, Texas.”

By the Numbers:

Opened: 1997

Track Size: 1.5-mile quad oval

Race Length: 334 laps, 501 miles

Stage Lengths:  Stage 1 and 2: 85 laps; Final Stage: 164 laps

Pit Road Speed: 45mph

Pace Car Speed: 55mph

April 2016 Race Winner: Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota (Started 15th, 34 laps led)

November 2016 Race Winner: Carl Edwards – No. 19 Toyota (Started ninth, 36 laps led)

Track Qualifying Record: Tony Stewart – No. 14 Chevrolet (200.111 mph, 26.985 seconds – 10/31/2014)

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Texas:

  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 107.1
  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 104.7
  • Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 102.4
  • Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 100.8
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 93.2
  • Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 78 Toyota – 93.0
  • Erik Jones – No. 77 Toyota – 92.4
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 90.4
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 90.0
  • Kurt Busch – No. 41 Ford – 87.8

From the Driver’s Seat

“I haven’t seen the track yet, but the repaves are a bit of a challenge for everyone because there’s obviously not a preferred groove,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. “I know they worked hard to try to speed up the aging process to give us the ability to widen the groove.”

“As a driver, you’re always excited by what might be better, so I’m anticipating getting on the track and getting some laps.”

“This place definitely has always been one of my preferred stops because of the success we had in the XFINITY Series and Cup Series – you never forget where you won your first race, and neither do your fans. So I always look forward to coming here. This is a track that really puts on a good show and before the repave it was a very wide race track and you could use a lot of different lines and it was so much fun. I think the track will still be that way. This place is going to maintain its character and personality. The asphalt is new but it’ll age with the weather out here and the environment, it’ll speed up that process.”

Last Year’s Results

Kyle Busch continued his hot streak in last year’s Duck Commander 500, sweeping the weekend and scoring his fourth straight NASCAR national series race in a span of eight days.

Though Martin Truex, Jr, was the dominant car of the night, leading 141 laps, a late caution brought pit strategy into the mix and ultimately determined how the remainder of the race would play out.

Busch elected to pit for fresh tires, while Truex stayed out on track and once the race went back green with 32 laps to go, the Furniture Row Racing driver was a sitting duck. Busch blew past Truex on the restart and set sail, with the remainder of the field powerless to stop him.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished second, with Joey Logano in third and Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott rounding out the top-five. Truex would finish the race in sixth place.

“This Interstate Batteries Camry was fast,” said Busch. “It had really good speed in entry and the center of the corner, but we really had to work on the exit of the corner. The guys did a great job. Adam (Stevens, crew chief) made some great adjustments all night long. I think the race track kept coming to us as the night progressed, too. I can’t say enough about Norm Miller, Scott Miller and the whole Interstate Batteries – they’re great partners with us. What better way than to celebrate 25 years of a partnership than right here in victory lane with them in their hometown here in Texas. That’s pretty special. Can’t forget M&M’s of course, NOS Energy Drink and Sprint. The Fans of course and Toyota – this TRD (Toyota Racing Development) engine was strong all night long. It was really fast and these guys just continue to impress me.”

“We just ran out of tires, you know,” said Truex. “Made it through (turns) one and two side-by-side, got to three and just didn’t have the grip. Then we fell back because we were sliding around. Everybody had new tires, we ran under caution for a long time, they keep building air pressure and losing grip. Pretty big disadvantage, but can’t say enough about the guys for the race car they brought here and the weekend we had. It hurts. It’s happened a few times to me here. Hurts a little bit, but we’ll get over it and we’ll move on and we’ll take the positives out of it tonight.”

Who to Watch

  • Chase Elliott – Though Elliott has made just two Cup Series starts at Texas, he was rock solid in his first season behind the wheel in the Lone Star State. With a fifth place finish last spring and a fourth place run last fall, Elliott knows how to get around the 1.5 mile track. Though he is still seeking his first career Cup Series win, it may very well come at the track where he won his first NASCAR Xfinity Series race back in 2014.
  • Jimmie Johnson – To say that seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson has been a monster at Texas, especially in the fall race, would be an understatement. With six Texas wins (2007, 2012, 2013, 2014, and a 2015 sweep) to his name, his early season slump may just get busted this weekend. In addition to the six wins, Johnson has 14 top-five finishes, 20 top-10 finishes, one pole, 1023 laps led, and an average finish of 8.4 in 27 starts.
  • Matt Kenseth – Much like Johnson, Kenseth will be looking to break out of his slump to start the 2017 season this weekend by adding another set of six-shooters to his trophy case. In 28 starts, Kenseth has two wins (2002 and 2011), 13 top-five finishes, 18 top-10 finishes, one pole, 854 laps led, and an average finish of 9.4.
  • Kyle Busch – Busch won the spring edition of the Texas race last year and has his sights set on making it two in a row for his first win of the season. Busch has two wins at the track (2013 and 2016), 11 top-five finishes, 12 top-10 finishes, one pole, 741 laps led, and an average finish of 11.6 in 22 starts.
  • Kevin Harvick – With crew chief Rodney Childers back on board this weekend, Harvick will be looking for his first Texas win. Though he has yet to win here, he has flirted with the win in recent years, scoring top-10 finishes in five of the last six races at the track, including three top-three finishes. Overall, Harvick has six top-five finishes, 16 top-10 finishes, 116 laps led, and an average finish of 12.0 in 28 starts.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, April 7

  • MENCS Practice (Noon to 2:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Qualifying (6:15 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Saturday, April 8

  • MENCS Practice (9:30 am to 10:25 am – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Final Practice (Noon to 12:50 pm – FOX Sports 2)

Sunday, April 9

  • MENCS O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (1:30 pm – 334 laps, 501 miles – FOX)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.