NASCAR gallops back into Texas Motor Speedway for the 334-lap AAA Texas 500, the second event in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup ‘Round of Eight’.
With currently 40 drivers on the entry list, no eliminations will need to be made during this afternoon’s qualifying session. The grid will be set utilizing the group-qualifying format. All 40 cars will start round one. The field will then be narrowed down to 24 cars for round two and 12 for round three.
This is the second time this season that the Cup series will set wheel on Texas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval-sized track located in Denton County, Texas with a Fort Worth address. The facility is located parallel to Interstate 35W and has been around since 1996. The track is owned and operated by Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and features a 24-degree banking in the four turns.
The defending race winner is none other than Jimmie Johnson. By the time the driver of the No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet arrived in the Lone Star State a year ago, he had already been eliminated from the ‘Round of 12’ and championship contention. That didn’t stop him from leading six laps to win his sixth race of the 2015 season.
Things are a little different this year. After last week’s victory in Martinsville, Johnson has locked himself into the ‘Championship Four’ and has a shot at his seventh Sprint Cup championship. His record at TMS is definitely no slouch as he’s won five out of the last eight races.
“Obviously we want to win more races,” Johnson said in a Hendrick Motorsports media advance. “If we can have success at Texas, that will only put us in Miami with more confidence and more speed in our car. The work is far from over. There’s one race at the end and it's winner-take-all. There are no layups.”
Johnson currently leads the Chase standings with 4,044 points. Along with four wins, he has also earned 10 top-five and 15 top-10 finishes.
Looking for the Texas sweep is defending Cup champion Kyle Busch, who sits fourth in the Chase standings with 4,037 points. Back in April of this season, the driver of the No. 18 M&M’s Toyota won the Duck Commander 500, leading 34 laps. Busch’s current season record includes four wins, 15 top five’s and 22 top 10’s.
With the NASCAR tour coming to an end in three weeks, Busch is keeping his mind even. “Don’t get too excited, don’t get too down,” he said in a Toyota Racing advance. “Anything can happen so we just have to make sure we can take what’s given to us like we did last year. This year, we will try to get the finish we do want and make our way through the round if possible and get to the end. Certainly, you’re on the highest of highs at the checkered flag at Homestead last year, but it just continues to diminish all through this year because you try to repeat and, if you can repeat, you’ll be at the highest of highs again. But eventually, in about three more weeks, your reign is over, so you try to repeat if you can.”
Kevin Harvick is sitting in the bottom four of the Chase standings, just 16 points below the cutoff line in the sixth-place position. The driver of the No. 4 Busch Beer Chevrolet has never won a Cup race in Texas but in his last four races, he has finished in the top three, earning two seconds and one third.
Although he is on the chopping block, Harvick has not focused on the statistics.
“I don’t really get into drama and excitement,” he said in a Stewart-Haas Racing advance. “For me, it’s really about being intense in our own little bubble. I know, for us, it seems like there is more to navigate than there was last year just for the fact that we’ve had so many things go wrong up to this point. We’ve been fortunate to win a couple of races, but it seems like every other week we’ve had to navigate something or work through something to get the best finish we can. Hopefully, we can clean all those things up and do a little better over the final couple weeks.”
He may no longer be in the playoffs after he was eliminated at Talladega after an engine issue but don’t count out Martin Truex Jr. The driver of the No. 78 Bass Pro Shops/TRACKER Toyota has been a strong contender at mile-and-a-half speedways. The last time he was on the Texas asphalt back in April, Truex Jr. sat on the pole and led 141 laps, the most of the Duck Commander 500. Unfortunately, a late-race pit road strategy didn’t work in his favor and he finished sixth.
“We let a couple of races get away from us at Texas but feel that we can once again contend for the win,” Truex Jr. said in a Furniture Row Racing advance. “We need to close the deal there. I love Texas Motor Speedway. The speed, the bumps, the slickness of the track and cars sliding all around. It reminds me of Atlanta, which is also one of my favorite tracks.”
Despite no longer being in the championship hunt, Truex Jr. is still after race wins and top finishes. “Coming back like we did after what happened in Talladega the week before shows the true character of this team,” he said. “You can’t turn back time and you can’t change the past. I felt all year like this was a championship caliber team and we should be there (Chase). Winning is important, we won two races in the Chase, but we’re not in it anymore and we have to face that reality. The rules are the rules and that’s the way it was set up when it started. All we can do now is do the best we can.”
Qualifying for the AAA Texas 500 begins later today at 5:45 PM CT (track time). The NBC Sports App, nbcsports.com, PRN and SiriusXM Channel 90 will carry the session. The race rolls off Sunday afternoon at 1:00 PM CT on both radio outlets as well as your local NBC affiliate.