As you watch today's NASCAR race from Texas Motor Speedway, here are some storylines, notes and drivers to keep an eye on:
Johnson and Keselowski going toe-to-toe
Jimmie Johnson says he doesn't like to talk smack and would much rather let his performance on the track speak for itself. In that case, Johnson has sent plenty of loud and reverberating messages in the last two weeks. And it all started with a pole-winning run at Martinsville, followed by him leading the most laps, winning his second Chase race and grabbing the points lead from Brad Keselowski.
But whatever statement Johnson has been trying to send, it hasn't necessarily been received by the man chasing him. At Martinsville - a track where everyone expected him to crumble - Keselowski overcame the odds and left with a sixth-place finish, which put him just two points out of first. And this week, despite Johnson's setting quick time in qualifying, Keselowski responded by topping Johnson in Saturday's second practice session.
With Johnson and Keselowski seemingly entwined in a game of "Can you top this?", it has all the makings of an exciting afternoon.
A Texas-sized challenge
When the NASCAR circuit traveled to Texas in April, the race was anything but eventful. There was limited passing, long stretches of green-flag racing thanks to only two cautions and in the end, Greg Biffle cruised to his first win of the year.
Was that spring race an aberration due to the usually high winds that swept across the track that night? Or will we see more of what we saw at Kansas - the last time the Cup Series took to a 1.5-mile track and where there was a rash of blown right-front tires and crumpled fenders?
Jimmie Johnson is one such driver that thinks today's race will play out more closely to what we saw in April. If his prognostication proves correct, that means today's race will likely be decided on pit road where crews will have an increased burden to be mistake-free due to the frequency of green-flag pit stops. Also, with this race starting in the daylight and ending under the lights, teams will be tasked with trying to keep up with track conditions which will change drastically from start to finish.
Don't overlook Clint Bowyer
As Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski take center stage, don't lose sight that there is a third contender lurking just behind the championship contenders, 29 points in arrears.
That driver is Clint Bowyer, and in a race where speed and fuel-mileage are paramount to success, his team excels in both areas. Case in point: The No. 15 Toyota was quick throughout practice, and in all three wins Bowyer has scored this year, he has done so by playing the fuel-mileage perfectly - so much so he ran out of gas each time doing a burnout.
Unfortunately, Bowyer doesn't control his championship destiny and is going to need some help if he is to catch and pass the two drivers in front of him. However, a strong finish today - accompanied with some misfortune for Johnson and Keselowski - makes Bowyer an even bigger factor the next two weeks.
- Since 1997, Texas Motor Speedway has hosted the Sprint Cup Series 23 times, but just once has a driver won from the pole (Kasey Kahne, 2006).
- Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch, David Ragan, Trevor Bayne, Regan Smith and Paul Menard all won Cup races a year ago, but all are still winless in 2012.
- In 18 starts at Texas, Jimmie Johnson has one win, eight top fives, 13 top 10s and an average finish of 9.7. Whereas his counterpart, Brad Keselowski, has yet to finish in the top 10 in eight Texas starts.
- A win today by Chevrolet would mark the 700th time the manufacturer has been victorious in a race at NASCAR's highest level.
1. Jimmie Johnson
One of the few things Jimmie Johnson has yet to do in his career is win from the pole in consecutive weeks. But with a consistently fast Chevrolet underneath him, and having led the most laps here in the spring, today seems like a perfect opportunity to cross another thing off of his bucket list.
2. Greg Biffle
While Johnson may have led the most laps in the spring race, it was Greg Biffle who ended the night in Victory Lane. And starting second today and driving the same car he won with here in April, completing the Texas sweep is a very real possibility for Biffle.
3. Brad Keselowski
In the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks, Brad Keselowski has two wins, a third and an 11th-place finish. And with the No. 2 Dodge no worse than third in all three rounds of practice, the Penske Racing driver appears in line for his sixth victory of 2012.