NASCAR at Texas 2014: Complete Preview and Prediction for the AAA 500

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIOctober 30, 2014

NASCAR at Texas 2014: Complete Preview and Prediction for the AAA 500

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    Sprint Cup action at Texas Motor Speedway
    Sprint Cup action at Texas Motor SpeedwayJeff Gross/Getty Images

    NASCAR heads deep into the heart of Texas for round No. 7 of the 2014 Chase—the AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.

    Jeff Gordon sits at the head of the eight-place big kid’s table, but by the slimmest of margins—seven points—over a driver who has yet to win a race. 

    Ryan Newman has been masterfully maneuvering his way through the Chase without the benefit of a win, leaving the specter of a winless champion looming large.

    Unfortunately for the doomsayers, that’s not likely to happen. Newman is one of only two winless drivers in the Chase; the other is Matt Kenseth. Newman (2003) and Kenseth (2002, 2011) have three wins combined at Texas Motor Speedway.

    Joey Logano is the most recent winner, Jimmie Johnson won last fall and Kyle Busch won in the spring of 2013. Denny Hamlin swept both races in 2011.

    Get the picture?

    Newman and Kenseth stay winless, while the race is won by one of the other six drivers still in the Chase. Why will that happen? Because a win here is a guaranteed ticket into the final round.

Qualifying Report

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    When it came to the final round of knockout qualifying for Sunday’s AAA 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, Matt Kenseth wasted no time setting the fastest speed of the round.

    His was the first car to hit the track for the final five-minute session and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver immediately set the mark with a lap of 199.299 mph, 27.095 seconds. Eleven other drivers tried but failed to unseat the 42-year-old veteran from the prized starting spot.

    "We've been getting a hard time for not winning anything this year -- so small victories I guess," Kenneth told a live television audience after winning the pole. "It's pole night and that's the best driving car I've had at an intermediate (track) all year by far, hands down."

    Starting alongside Kenseth is Jeff Gordon with a lap just one-thousandth of a second slower at 27.096 seconds, 199.291 mph. Jimmie Johnson starts third, Kurt Busch fourth and Kevin Harvick, who will need a near perfect race (including a win) to dig himself out of a deep Chase hole, starts fifth.

    Kyle Larson is the highest starting rookie (17th). The track gained a tremendous amount of grip as the sun set, with speeds during qualifying eclipsing those of practice earlier in the day by more than one mile per hour. 

    During the second round of qualifying, Tony Stewart set an all-time quickest NASCAR qualifying speed on a 1.5-mile track at 200.111 mph, an astonishing feat for a 3,400 pound race car. He shattered the previous record (198.282) set in April 2014 by Kevin Harvick. (Kenseth and Gordon also posted speeds that would have surpassed Harvick).

    When asked by a television reporter on live television how it felt to be going so fast, Stewart (who has driven faster at TMS in an Indy Car) replied, “Yeah, definitely not in a 3,400 pound stock car for sure. It is always cool to be the first guy to be able to do anything. To be the first to run 200 mph average on a 1.5-mile is pretty cool.

    Notable starts: Ryan Newman (7th), Carl Edwards (11th), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12th), Denny Hamlin (20th) and Brad Keselowski (26th).

    The green flag falls on the AAA 500 Sunday at approx. 3:18 p.m. (ET).

    *Qualifying statistics courtesy of NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications.

By the Numbers: Texas Motor Speedway and the AAA 500

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    An Earnhardt fan at Texas Motor Speedway
    An Earnhardt fan at Texas Motor SpeedwaySarah Glenn/Getty Images

    Texas Motor Speedway owner Bruton Smith angered more than a few old-time NASCAR fans when he bought North Wilkesboro Speedway in 1996 and then closed it to move that track’s Sprint Cup date to his new track in Texas.

    The first couple of years were rough ones for TMS, as traffic and infrastructure issues plagued the facility—too many people and not enough of everything needed to stage a successful NASCAR weekend, including roads.

    That’s since changed.

    While similar in shape to other 1.5-mile cookie-cutter tracks, TMS has its own unique personality. Its D-shaped frontstretch was designed to be like the frontstretch at Charlotte Motor Speedway; however, when it first opened, the transition coming off of Turn 4 was so abrupt, it caused many drivers to spin out. It was corrected two years after the opening, and now, it offers a very fast exit off of Turn 4, sending cars down the flat frontstretch faster than at Charlotte.

    TMS also has its bumps between Turns 1 and 2. This was caused when the track settled over the entrance tunnel underneath the track. The bumps unsettle the car and make it difficult for a crew chief to set a car up properly for a driver to be comfortable hitting a bump at nearly 200 mph.

    Some two decades later, Texas Motor Speedway’s two races are like two shining jewels in NASCAR’s Sprint Cup schedule. Maybe the racing isn’t like it was on the short track at North Wilkesboro, but TMS never fails to produce an entertaining race with a close finish.

    AAA Texas 500

    Where: Texas Motor Speedway

    When: Sunday, Nov. 2

    Time: Green flag approximately 3:18 p.m. (ET)

    TV: ESPN Countdown begins at 2 p.m. (ET)

    Radio: Performance Racing Network (PRN), Sirius XM Ch. 90

    Distance: 500 miles (334 laps)

Key Storylines

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    Ryan Newman (left) and Matt Kenseth
    Ryan Newman (left) and Matt KensethEd Zurga/Associated Press

    All About the Champion Going Winless this Season

    It might be keeping some of the lights burning late at night in the NASCAR offices, but the chance of the 2014 champion winning the title without winning a race is a real threat. However, it’s just not going to happen.

    It’s hard to imagine that Logano, Gordon or even Kevin Harvick, who is winless at Texas Motor Speedway, won't be running up front all afternoon. But according to NASCAR statistics, Kenseth has the most top-five and top-10 finishes, along with two wins at TMS. Kenseth will be in the thick of things at a track where he's had so much success.

    Still, there’s probably someone from the NASCAR Integrated Marketing Communications department who has already drafted a spin document explaining how it really doesn’t matter if the newly crowned champion has gone winless; it was how he handled himself during the 10-race Chase that determined his championship.

    Yeah, maybe.

    So, is There Some Kind of Harvick and Kenseth Feud Going On?

    We all know by now that Kenseth inadvertently sent Harvick into the outside wall at Martinsville last Sunday. And that Harvick, in his best UFC-like manner, made some veiled threats. 

    "Yeah, he won't win this championship," Harvick said in a post-race interview. "If we don't, he won't." 

    Neither driver can afford any kind of retaliatory action at this stage of the Chase, especially not at TMS, where the speeds are ultra-fast (over 200 mph) and even the smallest bump will send you into the wall and end your day.

    No, worries, my friends. You can expect this to all blow over. Harvick will have a great weekend, and Kenseth, well, he’ll continue to work the system and go winless once again. 

    Relying on the Math to Win the Championship

    All but one of the eight teams remaining in the Eliminator Round of the Chase have spent the last two days testing at Homestead-Miami Speedway, the site of the season finale.

    Richard Childress Racing driver Ryan Newman was the only driver who stayed home this week, for unspecified reasons. Maybe his team is relying upon the math to win the title and not performance.

    "The math is officially there now,” Newman said in his team’s pre-race media release. “With Dale Jr. winning at Martinsville, there are at least two people making it to the ‘Championship 4 Round’ that will not have a win in this latest bracket. Technically you can finish 39th at Homestead and still win a championship. The math is going in that direction more than ever. In saying that, this team still wants to win.”

    It sounds to me like this team is definitely relying on the math.

    Danica Patrick and Kurt Busch Swap Crew Chiefs

    Neither driver figures into the Chase, but it will be interesting to see if there is an immediate payoff to having these two Stewart-Haas Racing drivers swap crew chiefs, effective this weekend.

    After two years with crew chief Tony Gibson, Danica Patrick will get Daniel Knost as the head of the No. 10 GoDaddy Chevy. Knost will act as the interim crew chief. He brings along his road crew from the No. 41 of Busch. Meanwhile, Gibson and his road crew move to work with Busch and the Haas Automation team. The race day pit crews remain the same.

    Gibson is a longtime veteran of the sport, while Knost worked with Patrick as an engineer for eight races at SHR in 2012 under Greg Zipadelli.

Top Contenders

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    Jeff Gordon
    Jeff GordonUSA TODAY Sports

    Jeff Gordon

    Despite having only one Texas win on his resume (2009), Gordon’s desire to win his fifth title may be what puts this veteran driver into the catbird’s seat with a win Sunday.

    Joey Logano

    The spring race winner will bring his A-game Sunday, and he’ll be extremely tough to beat. Crew chief Todd Gordon is one of the best at setting up a car for a long run. It could pay off with a win for Logano.

    Kyle Busch

    He's not a Chase driver, but Busch is always a threat to win on 1.5-mile tracks. Although he’s got only one Cup win at Texas, he has six Nationwide victories there.

    Brad Keselowski

    He finished 15th in the spring race when the handling on his Ford Fusion went south in the later stages of the race. Keselowski is always a threat to win on a 1.5-mile track, where three of his wins have occurred this season (Las Vegas, Kentucky and Chicagoland).

    Tony Stewart 

    Smoke has always been tough to beat at Texas, where he has two wins and six top-five finishes. Last week’s fourth-place finish put Stewart back in the spotlight. He looks good to stay there again this week.

Potential Chase Spoiler: Kyle Larson

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Spoiler alert!

    This Chip Ganassi Racing driver has been lurking in the shadows for the entire season, ready to jump up on the winner’s stage at nearly every race this season. He and teammate Jamie McMurray have become tough runners in the second half of the season.

    Larson is good on 1.5-mile tracks. He started 14th and finished fifth in the spring race. Five of his top-five finishes have come on 1.5-mile tracks, where he also has nine top-10s.

    There are only so many times you can say that Larson is a win waiting to happen. But we’ll say it again this week. 

And the Winner Is: Joey Logano

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    Rainier Ehrhardt/Associated Press

    With Harvick now having to fight from the rear of the Chase field, it looks like the championship battle will come down to the kid and the veteran—Logano and Gordon.

    These two have had some entertaining on-track battles this season, including in the spring race at Texas (that Logano won), and it will be fun to watch them race against each other all the way to Homestead. Just for the record, these two also battled against each other at Phoenix in the spring—Logano finished fifth, while Gordon finished sixth.

    This weekend’s round, however, goes to Logano, whose Team Penske Ford has been very tough to beat on the 1.5-mile tracks and whose crew chief, Todd Gordon, has become somewhat of an expert on setting up a car to be fast on long runs.

    All quotes are taken from official NASCAR, team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated. 

    Bob Margolis is a member of the National Motorsports Press Association and has covered NASCAR, IndyCar, the NHRA and Sports Cars for more than two decades as a writer, television producer and on-air talent. 

    On Twitter: @BobMargolis

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