Will Roush rule again in Texas?
With nine Cup victories at Texas — more than double the next best team — Roush Fenway Racing has been the dominant force on the 1.5-mile oval ever since the speedway first opened its doors in 1997. That was certainly the case a year ago, when Greg Biffle rolled to Victory Lane by a hefty 3.2-second margin, and the year before that, when Matt Kenseth cruised to the win.
But something is amiss with the Roush bunch this weekend, which makes the chances for a third consecutive win in the Texas spring race appear doubtful. All three cars struggled in practice to find speed on long runs. In a race that typically features lengthy periods of green flag racing, that doesn't bode well for the team's chances tonight.
Adding to the team's troubles is Biffle, who showed some flashes of speed in practice, but clocked in with just the 35th-fastest time in qualifying due to a tight condition. While it's not impossible for a driver to overcome a poor starting position — Kenseth once won at Texas in a Roush car after starting 31st — there is a reason only six of 24 races here have been won by a driver starting outside the top 10.
Earnhardt Jr. determined to rebound from Martinsville
Martinsville represented a misstep for Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team, as human error led to a parts failure. As a result, the team finished outside the top 10 for the first time this season. It was such a frustrating result that Earnhardt says it took until he landed in Texas for him to get over the 24th-place finish.
If there is a track for him to rebound, however, Texas would be as good as any. In his last four starts, Earnhardt has finished 10th or better. It was also the site of his first career win in both the Nationwide (1998) and Cup (2000). And last year, intermediate tracks were an area of strength for the 88 team, as they scored top 10s in every race but one on ovals 1.5 to 2 miles in length.
Green flag pit stops will be critical
The likely winner on Saturday night will not be just the driver with the fastest car, but the driver whose team keeps him on pit road for the shortest amount of time.
- Dale Earnhardt isn't the only driver in Saturday's field to have their first Cup victory occur in the Lone Star State. In the 1997 event, Jeff Burton not only won his first Cup race but the first Cup race ever held on the Texas oval.
- Burton, along with Mark Martin, Bobby Labonte and Jeff Gordon, are the only drivers to start all 24 Cup races at Texas. Of the three, all but Labonte have been victorious here.
- A prerace engine change will force Kevin Harvick to start at the rear of the field. The Richard Childress Racing driver had qualified 29th.
1. Kyle Busch
Not only did Busch eclipse the previous track record in qualifying to win the pole, but he rolls into Texas having finished in the top five the previous four weeks. That speed, combined with the momentum he has coming in, makes him the clear favorite tonight.
2. Matt Kenseth
No driver has led more laps at Texas than Kenseth. He also owns two victories on the 1.5-mile track and has finished near the top in his last five Texas starts.
3. Jimmie Johnson
Last week's winner at Martinsville also won here in November and finished second in this race last spring. In the final practice, Johnson posted the second-fastest average speed over 10 consecutive laps, which comes into play if as expected there are few cautions.
Since Todd Parrott took over as crew chief for Aric Almirola, the No. 43 team has been at its best on intermediate tracks. This was evident in practice this weekend, as Almirola was consistently among the fastest drivers on the track and narrowly missed winning the pole.
If he can keep his car underneath him for 500 miles, Almirola should be able to score his first top-10 finish of the year.