The Sprint Cup Series is down to its final three races of the season. The first of those takes place this Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.
The points standings took a surprising turn this past weekend in Martinsville. At a track dominated by Jimmie Johnson in recent years, it was his teammate, Jeff Gordon, who scored the win. It was Gordon's eighth career win on the half-mile track, and it moved him up to third place in the standings, still in contention for the title.
Even more surprising than Johnson not ending up in Victory Lane was the great finish that Matt Kenseth posted. Statistically, Martinsville had been Kenseth's worst track entering Sunday. After leading the race with 25 laps to go, he got passed by Gordon for the win but still held on for second place.
Thanks to Kenseth's runner-up finish, the top of the championship standings features a tie between him and Johnson.
The series returns to Texas this weekend, where Kyle Busch scored the win earlier in the year.
Neither of the top two championship contenders were significant factors in the first race in the Lone Star State. Can either of them score the win, and which driver will take over sole possession of the top spot in the title hunt?
Join us as we get you set for the eighth race of the Chase by telling you which drivers to keep the closest eye on and what the biggest stories are as the series makes its final stop of the year at Texas Motor Speedway.
The eighth race of the Chase takes place at Texas Motor Speedway. Here are all of the details for this weekend's event.
Race: AAA Texas 500
Track: Texas Motor Speedway
Distance: 334 laps to make up 501 miles
Green Flag: Sunday, Nov. 3, 3:00 p.m. ET
Defending Race Winner: Jimmie Johnson
First Race: April 6, 1997 (won by Jeff Burton)
Texas Motor Speedway is a mile-and-a-half quad oval. It is one of five tracks of similar size in the Chase. The facility has been on the Sprint Cup Series schedule since 1997.
In its early days, Texas held just one race per year. But since the 2005 season, the track has hosted two events, with the second of those occurring in the Chase.
Carl Edwards is the track's all-time wins leader with three. Five drivers have each won twice at the venue. The last six races have been won by six different drivers.
Starting the race near the front of the field is critical to in-race success. Only six times in 25 races held at Texas Motor Speedway has the eventual winner started the race outside the top 10. Sixteen times, the winner started fifth or better, including each of the last five races held there.
Texas Motor Speedway is one of the fastest tracks on the circuit. Earlier this year, Kyle Busch set a new track record with a qualifying lap of 196.299 mph.
Jeff Gordon Scores First Win of the Year
After coming painstakingly close a handful of times earlier in the year, Jeff Gordon finally scored his first win of the season at Martinsville. It was his eighth career win on the half-mile oval and his first there since 2005.
More importantly, the win moved Gordon from fifth to third in the championship standings, and he enters this weekend's race just 27 points behind the top two drivers.
Gordon is a former winner at Texas Motor Speedway, having done so in the spring of 2009. He was also in contention for most of the race at the track earlier in the year. He stayed inside the top 10 for the entire event and even led a few laps before suspension issues sent him to the garage 28 laps from the finish.
Kenseth and Johnson Tied Atop the Standings
One week after losing the points lead to Johnson, Matt Kenseth got back to the top of the standings with a second-place finish at Martinsville. His finish, coupled with him leading the most laps and Johnson's fifth-place finish, put the two in a tie with 2,294 points.
Thanks to having two more wins than Johnson, Kenseth technically enters this weekend's event as the points leader. Both drivers have won twice at the mile-and-a-half Texas track, with Johnson entering this race as the defending winner.
Kenseth and Johnson cannot remained focused solely on racing each other for the championship, though. Gordon and Kevin Harvick enter the event just 27 and 28 points away from the top spot, respectively.
Following an uncharacteristically strong finish in Martinsville, Matt Kenseth is once again back atop the point standings via a tiebreaker. Here is a detailed look at the top five drivers in the Chase for the Championship.
1. Matt Kenseth: Kenseth enters Texas Motor Speedway in a tie at the top of the standings with Jimmie Johnson. But his seven wins give him the tiebreaker. TMS has been a great track for Kenseth in his career. In 22 starts, he is a two-time winner and has posted 15 finishes inside the top 10. He finished 12th the first time the series stopped here earlier in the year.
2. Jimmie Johnson: Johnson finished fifth at Martinsville. He entered the race with a four-point lead in the standings but now sits tied with Kenseth for the top spot. He has also had plenty of success at Texas. He is a two-time winner at the speedway and has posted 15 top-10 finishes in 20 career starts. Johnson is the defending winner of this event.
3. Jeff Gordon: Gordon scored his first win of the season this past weekend at Martinsville. The victory moved him from fifth to third in the standings, and he is just 27 points out of the lead. While Gordon is a former winner at Texas, overall ,this track has not been one of his best. He is one of four drivers who have competed in all 25 races at this facility, but he has only managed to score 11 top-10 finishes in his career.
4. Kevin Harvick: Harvick had a relatively quiet sixth-place finish at Martinsville. He slipped a spot in the standings because of Gordon's win, but at just 28 points out of the lead, he is still very much in contention. Harvick is the only driver in the top five in the standings without a win at Texas. In 21 starts at the mile-and-a-half speedway, he has posted just 10 top-10 finishes.
5. Kyle Busch: Busch lost the handling on his car late in the race at Martinsville. It saw him drop to 15th in the running order, and it cost him the points standings. Busch dropped from third to fifth and enters this weekend 36 points out of the lead. He scored his first Texas win when the series made its first trip to the speedway earlier in the year.
Kenseth is a two-time winner at Texas Motor Speedway. Both of his victories have come during the spring races. In 22 starts at the facility, Kenseth has posted 15 top-10 finishes, with 12 of those ending inside the top five.
Mile-and-a-half tracks have been key to Kenseth's 2013 success. Four of his seven victories this year have come on tracks of that size.
Following a disappointing fifth-place finish at Martinsville that saw him fall into a tie for the championship lead, Johnson heads to another track where he has had plenty of success. He is a two-time winner in the Lone Star State and has 15 top-10s in 20 career starts. His 8.8 average start is the best all time, and his 9.1 average finish is second only to his primary championship rival.
Greg Biffle's championship hopes are all but finished this season, but a win in Texas is not out of the question. He has won there twice in his career, most recently in the spring of 2012. He's also posted 12 top-10 finishes in 19 career starts at the lightning-fast track.
After finishing 20th or worse in seven of his first nine trips to this track, Biffle has drastically turned things around. He's finished inside the top 10 in 10 straight visits to this speedway.
Texas Motor Speedway was the site of Dale Earnhardt Jr's first career win. In total, he has finished 10th or better 12 times in 22 starts at this track. Prior to a 29th-place finish here earlier this year, Earnhardt had posted a top-10 in four straight Texas starts.
Kyle Busch is the most recent winner at Texas Motor Speedway in Sprint Cup competition. His win this past April was his first victory at this speedway in 16 career starts. Six of Busch's seven career top-10s at Texas have resulted in finishes inside the top five. He has led at least 50 laps in a race at Texas five different times.
The last two Sprint Cup Series races have been a lot of fun. Talladega gave us 52 lead changes and a surprise winner in Jamie McMurray. Martinsville, meanwhile, showed what NASCAR is all about: beating and banging on a short track for 500 white-knuckle laps.
It is hard to envision a scenario where Texas can provide the same amount of excitement as either of the last two tracks, but this race will still provide plenty of drama.
The championship standings feature a tie at the top between Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson, and Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick are both still alive, as each is within 28 points.
Statistically speaking, the two drivers at the top of the standings are the two best drivers at this track. Combined, they have four victories and 30 top-10 finishes in 42 total starts.
If one were to base his or her picks for this race off of what happened here in April, then Kenseth and Johnson are clearly not the picks. They finished sixth and 12th, respectively, and neither driver led a lap. It was one of only four races all season, and one of only two oval-track races, in which neither driver was out front for at least one lap.
While Kyle Busch seems like a safe choice based on his earlier win in Texas and Jeff Gordon makes sense because of the momentum he carries into this race, conventional wisdom says this event has to come down to Kenseth and Johnson.
In a couple of weeks, the series goes to Phoenix, a track where Johnson has outperformed Kenseth. Knowing what is on the horizon, it seems likely that Kenseth will be all the more determined to finish ahead of Johnson and ultimately finish in Victory Lane at Texas.
If that is not reason enough to make him the favorite, his four wins already this year on mile-and-a-half tracks should push it over the top.
Texas Winner: Matt Kenseth