The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to the Lone Star state this weekend for a Texas-style showdown. At the end of the race Sunday, one driver will be hoisting the six-shooters at Texas Motor Speedway (TMS).
One year ago, the championship battle came down to Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth. Johnson put on a clinic by dominating the race at TMS and propelling the No. 48 team to a sixth Cup championship. Kenseth finished fourth at 1.5 mile track and fell short at the end of the season to Johnson.
The roles have reversed in 2014, as Johnson is out of the championship talk and Kenseth, still in the championship talk, has yet to win this season. The new Chase format has differed from years past, as drivers are eliminated in three of the first four rounds. Big names like Johnson, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kyle Busch racing for pride in the final three events.
Last week at Martinsville, a non-Chaser finally cracked victory lane. 10 years to the weekend of the Hendrick plane crash, one of the team’s driver was back in winner’s circle. Earnhardt made the pass on Tony Stewart with five laps to go to claim his first grandfather clock at the Virginia track. Jeff Gordon led the most laps on the day, but a speeding penalty set the No. 24 team to the rear and rebounded to finish runner-up and take over the points lead.
Going into Texas, the Penske and Hendrick cars have been the ones to beat on any type of track recently. Both teams have combined for six of the seven Chase wins, with the exception of Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick winning at Charlotte three weeks ago. His teammate and owner, Tony Stewart, tied his best finish of the year with a fourth at Martinsville. Harvick is the only SHR driver left in championship contention.
The California driver’s looks to rebound after being caught up in an accident with Matt Kenseth and relegating the No. 4 team to a 33rd place finish. Another Chaser had trouble at the Paper Clip as well. Brad Keselowski’s transmission went on the No. 2 car a few laps after a restart mid-way and was tagged from behind by Casey Mears and resulted in a smash-up of Kasey Kahne’s car. Texas, and next week at Phoenix, will be must-wins for the No. 2 and 4 teams, as the two drivers can likely score a win in either week.
The odds are good for Keselowski, since his Penske Racing teammate Joey Logano won at Texas in the spring. Logano escaped Martinsville with a top-five finish and sits third in the standings. Only two drivers have swept at Texas: Carl Edwards in 2008 and Denny Hamlin in 2010.
Hamlin was a bright spot last week at Martinsville leading laps late, but getting shuffled back to finish ninth. Matt Kenseth is the leading Joe Gibbs Racing driver in fourth in the points standings. After getting into Harvick at Martinsville, Kenseth apologized for the contact. Kyle Busch is racing out the next three weeks to look for his second win of 2014.
A non-Chaser could play the spoiler role again this week. Rookie Kyle Larson has been close on several occasions to winning in 2014, including runner-up finishes at Auto Club and Loudon in September. Larson led the late stages at Chicagoland before finishing third. Jimmie Johnson is the two-time defending winner of the Texas fall race and could make it three-in-a-row in his red Lowe’s car, representing all the company's employees all across America.
The green flag for the AAA Texas 500 drops at 3 p.m. ET and will be shown live on ESPN.