With the season nearing completion, Sunday's NASCAR race at Texas Motor Speedway looms large as Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are in a dead heat for the championship. Here's a look the key storylines and drivers to watch for during the Texas AAA 500.
All eyes on Kenseth and Johnson
Throughout the 2013 Chase for the Sprint Cup, Kenseth and Johnson have been nearly inseparable and enter this weekend tied for the championship lead.
This theme continued in time trials where Johnson posted the third-fastest time, whereas Kenseth qualified sixth. And the evidence suggests both will be players Sunday. Johnson won this race a year ago and has an average finish of 9.1, while Kenseth owns a pair of Texas victories and is consistently among the frontrunners anytime the circuit visits the 1.5-mile speedway.
Although the championship combatants are nearly equal, if one would hold a slight edge it would appear to be Kenseth.
His Joe Gibbs Racing team has been dominant this season on similar sized tracks having won six of nine races on mile-and-a-half ovals. Kenseth holds wins at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kansas Speedway, Kentucky Speedway and Chicagoland Speedway, with teammate Kyle Busch victorious at Texas and Atlanta Motor Speedway.
Conversely, neither Johnson nor Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jeff Gordon, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Kasey Kahne have yet to win this season on tracks 1.5-mile in length. And in a points battle that is tied with just three events remaining, this may be enough to tip the scales in Kenseth's favor.
"I think the championship battle brings the very best out of people, and he and his people are bringing their best each and every weekend," Johnson said. "I feel in order to win the championship you have to be up front racing for the win. I expect to see the No. 20 there each and every week."
Can Gordon, Harvick or Busch make a late push?
As Kenseth and Johnson have taken center stage and turned the Chase into a mano a mano duel, three challengers lurk on the fringe of contention.
Last week's Martinsville Speedway winner Jeff Gordon is ranked third, 27 points behind the co-leaders. In positions four and five are Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch, 28 and 36 points out, respectively.
Although Gordon, Harvick and Busch are mathematically alive, their title hopes are fading. They would not only have to be flawless in the remaining three races, but need misfortune to besiege both Kenseth and Johnson. However, no matter how remote their championship chances may be, if the push is to occur it needs to start Sunday. This requires leading the most laps, winning and securing max points. And even then, that still might not be enough.
"... Obviously we're going to have to have some luck on our side and the other guys aren't going to be able to have luck on their side," Busch said. "If you have bad luck with the front two then that's going to bring five guys back into it I feel like. It's going to be an even tighter race. That's what the fans want to see, probably the media wants to see and what I want to see, but I bet you the front two don't."
Of the Gordon, Harvick, Busch trio, the latter would appear to have the best chance of making a last-ditch championship charge. He led the most laps in the April Texas race en route to his first victory of the year, and has been stout on intermediate tracks.
"We've got to be on top of our game," Busch said, "and come out here and the best we can do is lead all the laps and win all the races in these final three and see where the points stack up."
Edwards looking for redemption
Having accumulated the most points during the regular season Carl Edwards entered the Chase as one of the favorites to win the championship.
However, the consistency which became his trademark vanished, and instead the lead driver for Roush Fenway Racing has become a forgotten man. Through seven races Edwards has posted just a lone top finish inside the top-five, and is buried 10th overall in the standings.
"When the Chase started, truly we sat and thought with the two wins and leading the points that we could go out and lead these last 10 races and win this thing," Edwards said Friday after winning the pole. "It has not happened that way, obviously. Some guys have really stepped it up. For Jimmie and Matt and those guys and the 29 (Harvick) bunch with Kevin and now Jeff Gordon is back in the mix. As a company, everyone has recognized that at Roush Fenway Racing.
"We recognize this Chase hasn't gone well and it spurned a lot of hard work."
If he is looking to salvage what has been a disappointing Chase, there is no better track for Edwards to do so at than Texas. His three victories on the 1.5-mile oval is tops among all drivers, and no car owner has made more trips to Victory Lane than Jack Roush, whose nine wins are more than double any other organization.
"I love racing here and we run really well at Phoenix and Homestead (the last two races of the season) -- for some reason it perfectly suits me and the way our cars work and the engine," Edwards said. "We should be really good. At the very least we will have a good time and have some fun which is something that is easy to forget. That is a big part of it."
1. Matt Kenseth
The track record of Kenseth and JGR this year on mile-and-a-halfs is too much to ignore, as is the fact the No. 20 car was fast over the course of both short and long runs in final practice.
2. Jimmie Johnson
In the midst of a tight points fight, this is a familiar position for the five-time Cup champion, who a year ago used a win in this race to jump to the top of the standings. Johnson had some minor issues during final practice, but still showed enough to think he will play a prominent role in the outcome Sunday.
3. Brad Keselowski
The defending series champion didn't qualify for this year's Chase, but he has enjoyed playing the role of spoiler. He won at Charlotte -- a track with similar characteristics to Texas -- three weeks ago, and has been quick here all weekend.