This weekend the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series makes its first of two visits to Texas Motor Speedway. The race also marks the first points-counting night race of the season, as it will be run under the lights Saturday night.
Denny Hamlin comes in as the defending champion, but the way his 2011 season has started out he has to be considered far from the favorite.
Through six races, Hamlin sits just 19th in the point standings and has scored just a single top-10 finish. Those numbers are far from what was expected out of Hamlin, who is just one season removed from finishing runner-up in the points.
Most people expected last weekend in Martinsville to be the turning point for Hamlin and the No. 11 FedEx team, as he has dominated that track in recent years. He was on his way to a sure top-five finish when a round of green-flag pit stops teamed with an untimely caution flag put Hamlin out of contention.
There's no reason to think this weekend won't be a turning point for Hamlin.
In 11 career starts in Fort Worth he has scored eight top-10s, including wins in each of the last two races there. Only one time has Hamlin finished outside the top 20.
He might not necessarily wind up back in victory lane, but there should be little doubt he will be a contender.
So, if it's not Hamlin, who else could it be? Let's take a look at five more logical choices to end up in victory lane come Saturday night. And just because Kyle Busch isn't one of the five is no reason to think he can't be a serious contender.
It should be no surprise that Jimmie Johnson is a favorite. After all, isn't he one of the favorites every week? Johnson has 11 top-10 finishes in 15 career starts at the mile-and-a-half track, including a victory.
Only twice in those 15 starts has Johnson even finished outside of the top 15 and only three times in his Texas career has he failed to complete all the laps run.
Last season he finished in the top 10 both times the series stopped at Texas, and in this race a year ago he was runner-up to Hamlin. It was his fourth career second-place finish at this track.
Kevin Harvick's career at Texas Motor Speedway hasn't exactly been a raving success, but it's not all bad either. He has finished in the top 10 in half of his 16 career starts at the speedway, including four out of the last five.
He makes the list because he has made a habit the last two weeks of showing up out of nowhere at the end of the race and finding a way to get the win. While Texas is by no means his best track, he's riding a serious wave of momentum.
Sometimes, that's all you need.
Carl Edwards currently sits second in the points, but his Texas career has been feast or famine. In 12 career starts in the Lone Star state, Edwards has amassed just four top-10s but three of them were wins.
He swept both races in 2008, but since then has posted finishes of 10th, 39th, 33rd and 19th. While those numbers might not be cause for excitement, when you tell me he has won the race one out of every four times he runs there, and then look at those numbers again, it just means he's due for another trip to victory lane.
Matt Kenseth quietly sits ninth in the point standings right now, and has been very good over the course of the last few weeks.
While he doesn't get to the front and lead a lot of laps, he has still put together some strong runs lately. His last three finishes have been 4th, 4th and 6th.
This weekend he goes into Texas, which has always been a good track for him. He has 11 top-10s in 17 career starts, including seven out of the last eight. He has scored one win at Texas and only one time out of 17 was he outside the top 20.
Kenseth is riding a winless streak that now stands at 76 races, but Texas Motor Speedway may just be the track that remedies it.
The final driver to consider would be Mark Martin. It's been a fairly quiet season thus far for the 52-year-old Martin. He does sit 10th in the points heading into Texas, and is the only driver in the series that has completed every lap run this season.
If nothing else, Texas has been a track Martin has been very solid at. He has a top 10 in each of the last four races here and for his career he has 12 top-10s in 20 starts. He has recorded a victory here and in the last 17 trips to the speedway has finished in the top 20 15 times.
In a season where there appears to be so much balance all across the board, picking one odds-on favorite is becoming increasingly harder.
If you were to put me on the spot right now I would lean towards Johnson, but even that would be by the slimmest of margins.
At this point, the only thing I would feel comfortable predicting is that regardless of what has happened in the first 95 percent of the race, expect Harvick to be in the mix as the laps get closer to running out.
After all, he's made a living doing that the last two weeks.
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