The short tracks are behind us and the boys hit the high banks of a 1.5-mile track again this weekend.
Texas Motor Speedway has been a personal play ground for the Roush Fenway Fords in recent years, with Carl Edwards and the No. 99 team sweeping both races last year.
But Edwards has yet to be a real contender this season.
Here are a few things to watch for in the Samsung 500 this weekend.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. returns to track where he got first career victory
It's no surprise that Earnhardt, Jr. needs a win. He needs a win to quiet the media, the fans, and those who doubt him as a race car driver.
Texas could be the place.
Back in 2000, Earnhardt Jr. was a rookie in the Sprint Cup Series, and had just won back-to-back Nationwide Series titles.
He was making just his 12th start in NASCAR's top series that day. Earnhardt Jr. went on to win the race that day and was joined by his father, the late Dale Earnhardt Sr., for a memorable celebration.
Earnhardt, Jr. won two more races that year, the Richmond spring race and the Sprint All-Star Race—becoming the first rookie to do so.
The early success—along with the last name Earnhardt—put the immediate pressure on Earnhardt, Jr. that he was a "champion in waiting."
To this day, that wait continues and Earnhardt, Jr. and the No. 88 team have had early-season struggles this year.
While fans and media have done nothing but criticize Earnhardt's driving ability and demanded that Crew Chief Tony Eury, Jr. be replaced, team owner Rick Hendrick has defended the team.
"I am 100 percent behind this group. I have no intentions of making any changes," Hendrick said. "I have all intentions of making it better."
Earnhardt, Jr. said, "We're just trying to hear out everybody's opinions on some things we can try or do differently, and if it will help. We're just working hard to get better...we don't sit on our tails hoping it'll turn around on it's own, because it probably wouldn't happen that way."
The No. 88 team worked hard in Martinsville last weekend, bringing home an eighth place showing—his best finish of the season.
Earnhardt, Jr. enters this weekend 16th in the series standings, and has optimism heading into a track he has not only won at before, but also won two Samsung 500 poles (2001 and 2008).
"We have excellent equipment," Earnhardt said. "We just have to know what to do with it. We got to get a little bit better, as a team, to compete. The stuff is right there in front of us, but man, we just gotta figure out what to do to make it work."
Forget the Texas two-step, Edwards wants to Texas three-step
Edwards and the No. 99 team won both races at the 1.5-mile track known as TMS last year. This year, he looks to add a third in a row to complete the Texas three-step.
Along with both races last year, Edwards also won the 2005 fall race at the track, and currently leads all other drivers with three TMS wins.
After being the preseason favorite to bring home the championship, Edwards enters Texas eighth in the series points, and appears to be in an early-season slump—much like three-time and defending Sprint Cup Champion Jimmie Johnson was prior to his win at the paper clip in Southwest Virginia this past weekend.
Edwards has not won yet in 2009, but instead has seen teammate Matt Kenseth and the No. 17 team take home the checkered flags in the first two races.
Edwards knows how to rally late in the season, however. In the final 10 races of the 2008 season, Edwards won three.
It could be a slump, but as long as Edwards makes the Chase—which he is currently solidly in Chase contention—he remains a favorite to hoist the trophy in Homestead later this year.
Even when Edwards isn't winning at the 1.5-mile oval, he has fared well. His average finish at TMS is 13.9 and he has a Driver Rating of 102.3 (third-best in the series).
Roush Fenway won the first two Sprint Cup events at TMS in 1997 and 1998, and owner Jack Roush leads all other teams with seven wins at the track.
One in, another out—barely
Perhaps one of the more exciting races to watch this season will be the weekly battle on who is in the top 35 and who is out.
This past weekend, Paul Menard and the No. 98 team had what some would declare a "solid" run (25th place) to move himself back into the top 35, and have a guaranteed starting spot at Texas this weekend.
The move into the points knocked out the story of the year—David Gilliland.
Gilliland had driven Kevin Buckler's No. 71 TRG Motorsports Chevy into the top 35. He did so for a team that wasn't even formed until late January.
Now that the March Madness "Bubble Watch" is over, it's time to focus on the "Bubble Teams" of NASCAR.
One of those teams "flirting" with the top 35 is 18-year-old rookie Joey Logano, driver of the No. 20 Home Depot Toyota owned by Joe Gibbs.
Entering TMS this weekend, the No. 20 sits 34th in owner's points, only 23 ahead of the No. 98.
On the other side of the "bubble," the No. 98 is only three points ahead of the No. 71.
For those who forgot, Mike Wallace and the No. 71 team failed to qualify for the season opening Daytona 500, so for Gilliland to even be in contention is pretty remarkable.
"We will have our work cut out for us at Texas," Gilliland said. "We will get in the show and put the team back into the top 35."
One of the reasons the No. 71 struggled so much at Martinsville, according to Buckler, was because both Saturday practices were rained out.
"The two sessions we missed would've put us way ahead of where we were," he said. "But every lap this team runs is another step up the ladder to our future in NASCAR."
Forget Edwards, Loop Data points to Johnson and Kenseth as Texas favorites
Edwards may have won the last two races at TMS, but Loop Data—accumulated from the last eight TMS events—indicates he has some serious company in the "favorites" category: Johnson and Kenseth.
Johnson enters TMS with all the momentum, having come from finishing outside of the top 20 in two of the first three races, to winning his first race in 2009 at Martinsville this past Sunday.
Kenseth—who won the first two races—has followed with poor finishes of 43rd, 12th, 33rd, and 23rd.
Both, however, have had success at the 1.5-mile oval in Texas.
Johnson won at the track in 2007, and leads all drivers with a Driver Rating of 104.8. Other Loop Data for Johnson include: an Average Running Position of 10.5 (fifth-best), 171 Fastest Laps Run (fourth-most), the fastest Average Green Flag Speed of 172.797 MPH, and a Laps In The Top 15 percentage of 72 (sixth-best).
If Kenseth follows along with his previous results, a top 10 finish is not out of the question this Sunday.
Kenseth's Driver Rating of 104.2 is second-best in the series, as is his Average Running Position of 9.6 since the inception of Loop Data in 2005.
Kenseth has finished in the top 10 in six of the last seven races at TMS.
Other Loop Data for Kenseth includes: 123 Fastest Laps Run (sixth-most), an Average Green Flag Speed of 172.652 MPH (third-fastest), and a Laps In The Top 15 percentage of 78.9 (second-best).
The Race: Samsung 500
The Date: Sunday, April 5
The Track: Texas Motor Speedway (1.5-mile oval)
The Time: 2 PM/ET
The Distance: 501 miles/334 laps
TV: FOX , 1:30 PM/ET
Radio: PRN and Sirius Satellite
2008 Polesitter: Dale Earnhardt Jr.
2008 Winner: Carl Edwards
Schedule: Friday—Practice, 12-1:30 PM; Qualifying, 3:40 PM; Saturday—11-11:45 AM and 12:20-1:20 PM (all times CT/local)
2009 Top 12
1 Jeff Gordon 959
2 Clint Bowyer 870
3 Kurt Busch 827
4 Jimmie Johnson 817
5 Denny Hamlin 811
6 Kyle Busch 800
7 Tony Stewart 798
8 Carl Edwards 750
9 Kasey Kahne 745
10 Kevin Harvick 714
11 David Reutimann 710
12 Matt Kenseth 704
Up Next: Phoenix International Raceway
After next week’s break for the Easter holiday, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads back out West to one of the “raciest” tracks in the country, the one-mile oval at Phoenix International Raceway, for the Subway Fresh Fit 500 on Apr. 18.
The Saturday night event will be televised by FOX (8 PM/ET).
A couple of notes of interest regarding Hendrick Motorsports drivers, coming into the event. Jimmie Johnson will try for a fourth consecutive PIR victory; Jeff Gordon—trying to end a winless streak of 47 races this week—will return to the scene of one of his most memorable victories.
In the 2007 Phoenix spring race, Gordon got his 76th career NASCAR Sprint Cup victory, which at the time tied him with Dale Earnhardt for sixth on the all-time list. (Gordon now is fifth all-time with 81 wins.)
Some fast Phoenix facts:
- The late Alan Kulwicki won the very first NASCAR Sprint Cup race at PIR, in 1988.
- An incredible statistic: 13 of the 25 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Phoenix have been won by drivers who were either future or former NASCAR Sprint Cup champions, a run starting with Kulwicki, who won the championship in 1992.
- Rick Hendrick has the most car owner wins at PIR (six).
- Ryan Newman has the most PIR poles (four).
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