Photo: Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Up to Speed: Previewing the AAA Texas 500

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

After a trip to the smallest track on the circuit for some great racing at Martinsville last weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the Lone Star State and Texas Motor Speedway to continue with the Round of 8 in the Chase with Sunday’s running of the AAA Texas 500.

First joining the circuit in 1997, the 1.5 mile Texas track has provided some great racing over the years, especially as the track surface has worn out over time. With the new low downforce package that has reinvigorated the Cup Series this season, the package should play well on the high banks of Texas, with the multiple grooves that the drivers can choose from and tire falloff being the big keys to the race.

As the midway point in the Round of 8, Texas will go a long way in determining which four drivers will be racing for the championship at Homestead, especially after the issues that befell some of the Chase contenders at Martinsville. If those same drivers cannot rebound at Texas, they will be forced into a win or go home situation in the elimination race next week at Phoenix.

By the Numbers:

Track Size: 1.5-mile quad oval (Turns: 24 degrees – Straightaways/dogleg: Banking: 5 degrees)

Race Length: 334 laps, 501 miles

Pit Road Speed: 45 mph

Pace Car Speed: 55 mph

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

November 2015 Race Winner: Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet (Started eighth, six laps led)

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

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Texas:

  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 107.8
  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 104.9
  • Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 102.9
  • Carl Edwards – No. 19 Toyota – 97.6
  • Greg Biffle – No. 16 Ford – 96.4
  • Chase Elliott – No. 24 Chevrolet – 94.9
  • Tony Stewart – No. 14 Chevrolet – 94.3
  • Martin Truex Jr. – No. 78 Toyota – 91.7
  • Denny Hamlin – No. 11 Toyota – 90.5
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Chevrolet – 89.1

Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Standings:

  1. Jimmie Johnson (Martinsville winner)
  2. Denny Hamlin (+6 over Chase cut-off)
  3. Matt Kenseth (+6)
  4. Kyle Busch (+4)
  5. Joey Logano (-4)
  6. Kevin Harvick (-16)
  7. Kurt Busch (-18)
  8. Carl Edwards (-32)

From the Driver’s Seat

“The track is a great track. Eddie is smart enough to know that repaving this track is the worst thing he could do to it right now. This track has enough age on it that, when it is hot and slick, everybody is racing all over the track and that makes good racing. They treat everybody well here. I think this is the second- or third-biggest purse of the year for us and the crowd here is awesome. It’s a great, great market for our sport,” said Tony Stewart.

“Anytime you put more seasons on a racetrack, the better it gets because it seems like the pavement wears out on the bottom and it makes it to where you can run the top and be fast, and you can run the bottom and be fast. It makes the whole racetrack, speed-wise, about the same, versus when they pave a racetrack and the only groove is right on the bottom. The fastest way is the shortest way because it all has the same amount of grip, so the shorter distance is faster. Every year we come here, I think the racing just gets better and better, as far as being able to move around on the racetrack and guys not having to just follow each other and get stuck behind each other. You can actually pass. You can race. You can get away from guys if your car’s fast.”

Last Year’s Results

After starting on pole and looking to be invincible for much of the 334 lap race, Brad Keselowski, who led 312 of those laps, had the rug pulled out from him in the closing laps after a late-race restart.

Keselowski held a two second lead over Martin Truex, Jr. when the caution flew for debris with just 24 laps remaining.

When the race went back to green with 17 laps to go, Jimmie Johnson made his move to second and stalked Keselowski for the race lead, eventually getting by him with three laps to go. From that point on, it was all Johnson as he streaked to his third straight win at Texas and sixth overall win at the track.

“I just kept pressure on him.  I could see that he was really tight and that was the first I had seen him that vulnerable all day.  I just kept the pressure on him, kept searching for line.  He saw me coming on the top and protected it.  I just kept trying to put pressure on him hoping for a mistake.  He got real loose off of Turn 2 and I had a big run down the backstretch and drove it in really far into Turn 3 hoping to hear clear.  Once I did I knew I was home free,” said Johnson.

“The 48 car had mega turn that last run and I couldn’t keep the turn and it kept pushing real bad. I did everything I could to hold him off but he was way faster that last run. Their team did a hell of a job and found speed and my team did a hell of a job too. We led 300-some laps and these debris yellows always favor someone and it wasn’t our day for them to favor us. I am still very proud of our effort today. We will have a great shot at winning next week. We really needed to win this one and I know I gave it my all,” said Keselowski.

Who to Watch

  • Chase Elliott – Though Elliott has made just one Cup Series start at Texas, he was rock solid in that first start after qualifying fourth and finishing fifth, leading one lap. Add in the fact that Elliott scored his first Xfinity Series win at Texas in 2014 and the fact that Hendrick Motorsports is on an upswing; we could see the rookie play spoiler on the way to his first Cup Series win this weekend.
  • Jimmie Johnson – To say that six-time champion Jimmie Johnson has been a monster at Texas, especially in the fall race, would be an understatement. Five of Johnson’s six Texas wins (2007, 2012, 2013, 2014, and a 2015 sweep) have come in the fall race and after winning at Martinsville last weekend, the momentum could carry Johnson to yet another pair of six shooters to take home. 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 8.3 in 26 starts.
  • Matt Kenseth – After missing this race last season as a result of being suspended after his Martinsville run-in with Joey Logano, Kenseth will look to lock himself into the Championship 4 with another Texas win. In 27 starts, Kenseth has two wins (2002 and 2011), 13 top-five finishes, 17 top-10 finishes, one pole, 854 laps led, and an average finish of 9.5. The only thing that could hold Kenseth back is the fact that he has not finished inside the top-10 at Texas since the spring of 2014.
  • Kyle Busch – Busch won the spring edition of the Texas race this year and has his sights set on the season sweep to move onto the season finale at Homestead with his championship hopes still intact. Busch has two wins at the track (2013 and 2016), 10 top-five finishes, 11 top-10 finishes, one pole, 739 laps led, and an average finish of 11.9 in 21 starts.
  • Denny Hamlin –Hamlin has run well at Texas in the past, but since scoring his last win at the track with a sweep of the 2010 races, he has only finished inside the top-10 on two occasions in the 11 races since. Career-wise, Hamlin has the two wins, five top-five finishes, 10 top-10 finishes, 154 laps led, and an average finish of 12.1 in 21 starts. In order to keep his six point margin over the Chase cut-off intact, he will need to pick up his performance in the Lone Star State.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, November 4

  • NSCS Practice (12:30 pm to 1:55 pm – NBC Sports Network)
  • NSCS Qualifying (6:45 pm – NBC Sports app – Will air tape delayed at 10:30 p.m. on NBC Sports Network)

Saturday, November 5

  • NSCS Practice (10:30 am to 11:25 am – CNBC)
  • NSCS Final Practice (1:30 pm to 2:20 pm – NBC Sports Network)

Sunday, November 6

  • NSCS AAA Texas 500 (2:00 pm – 334 laps, 501 miles – NBC)

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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.

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