The top five Chase drivers in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series this week—Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Gordon and Kyle Busch—talk about the 1.5-mile quad-oval with 24-degree banking at Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas.
Seven of the 10 Chase races are done, and now only 913 laps remain. The AAA Texas 500 with 334 laps is next.
NASCAR's Chase for the Sprint Cup is a 10-race playoff system that was devised to create an exciting finish. A 10-race playoff for 12 finalists who are closely matched in points creates an elimination scheme that sorts out potential winners quickly.
This year, the list of potential winners close in points midway through the Chase was more numerous than in the past, and that has made for entertaining competition.
Now, with three races left in NASCAR’s Chase, it's really down to a three-man race. Jimmie Johnson holds a slim 14-point lead over second-place Denny Hamlin. Kevin Harvick is an obvious threat in third place with a scant 38 points in his way.
Jeff Gordon is back 207 points in fourth place, while Kyle Busch is in fifth place with a 230-point deficit. For Gordon or Busch to win the championship, the leader or leaders would almost have to DNQ or crash out early in any of the three remaining races.
It's unlikely that any of the top three are going to finish mid-pack or back for three consecutive races. That could ruin their run for the crown. One may slip out of the top three with a substantial crash in any of the three races, but it's unlikely that all three would have the same fate.
Luck could play a huge role still, but the big question mark—Talladega crashing—is over. The "Big One" there is notorious for spoiling point advantages.
So, what do the top contenders have to say about going into Texas? Are they apprehensive, excited, ready, calculating or whatever?
Here are their words. It’s your take.
Jimmie Johnson (No. 48 Chevrolet)
“We need maximum points,” Johnson said. “Of course, it's a little bit more forgiving or easy on your team and yourself with a big points lead. But we don't have that this year. We're going to have to race, and we're ready for it.
“We're going to three tracks that are good for all three competitors. As Kevin (Harvick) was saying earlier, you're going to have to run in the top five to stay in the game. Then, obviously, take advantage of things and win if you can. Ten extra points from first to second are going to be important. Leading laps, leading the most laps, you're going to have to be on your A game from here on out."
Denny Hamlin (No. 11 Toyota)
“I’ve really felt like over the last couple years I’ve had potential to run with the 48 (Jimmie Johnson) and whoever might be the championship contender,” Hamlin said. “I feel like we’ve had these opportunities, it’s just this has been the first year that we’ve put it all together.
“We’ve put the expectations out and then been able to succeed in achieving them. We’ve done that this year better than any other year—we’ve closed at the end of races better than we ever have.”
Kevin Harvick (No. 29 Chevrolet)
“It's not just put it into cruise-control and just get decent finishes and finish up front, you have to finish in the top five,” Harvick said. “It's just the way that this Chase has shaken out. If we don't, one of those two guys are going to and I think it's probably a good possibility that somebody will finish in the top five every week. So, if you're not that guy, you're probably going to lose ground.
"We are getting closer. That is all that matters."
Jeff Gordon (No. 24 Chevrolet)
"It's a tough 1.5-mile race track because the transitions from straightaways to the corners and corners to straightaways are very challenging and abrupt," Gordon said. “If you get comfortable in those sections in and off the corner, how do you get the car to turn in the middle? You're doing all those things at 170 or 180 miles per hour, so it's a very challenging race track. It's been one of the most challenging for me and my race team over the years for that reason.
"You never know what it's going to take to pull off a win, but a fast race car certainly helps. We had that in the spring and we hope to have another fast car this weekend. I expect us to be really strong."
Kyle Busch (No. 18 Toyota)
“I’m used to doing all three, so it isn’t that big of a deal jumping from different cars,” Busch said. “The momentum of winning a Truck or Nationwide race certainly doesn’t hurt when it comes to the Cup race. But also, even bigger, is I feel like I learn so much from those races that I can apply to Sunday. If I’m running all three, by the time Sunday rolls around, I’ve already been on pit road almost a dozen times, and I also have learned what lines are working and how the track reacts to changes and we can apply it to the Cup car.
“I feel like it makes me a better driver, but also it helps my team with the information I can gather from the two races I’ve already run.”
Tony Stewart is in seventh-place, 317 points back, and would need a lot to happen to advance his fate, but he explains each track in great detail every week.
Tony Stewart (No. 14 Chevrolet)
“I’ve always liked Texas,” Stewart said. “It’s a fast track. That makes it one on the schedule that you look forward to because you know you’re going to get to let your legs stretch out, so to speak, and run some quick lap times.
“The entry and exit of these corners, they’re very abrupt as far as the banking. When you turn in the corner, it’s very abrupt getting in, and falls off very quickly. The reason for that, when they built Texas Motor Speedway, they intended to have the Indy cars race on the apron. That’s why the apron is so wide at Texas.
"The Indy cars were not originally meant to run on the banking. That’s why the banking on the entry of the corner and exit falls off so fast, so the cars could come from the straightaway from the apron and back up with a smooth transition from the bottom.
“It makes it a different challenge than what we have at Charlotte or Atlanta because of that. It does make it a lot more challenging to get your car set up for it. You can’t relax on the entry and you can’t relax on the exit of the corner. A lot of times it’s hard to get your car secure on the entry because you don’t have that banking to hold it. Once you get in the corner, it seems like it’s all right. Same thing happens on the exit.
"Turn two is the tighter of the two exits of the racetrack. You’re still trying to finish the corner there and you have to keep tugging on the steering wheel and at the same time, make sure you don’t lose the back (of the car) at the same time. It definitely falls out from under you. When it does, you have to make sure your car is tight enough to make it through that transition.
“With a stock car, you’re not off the gas very long, but you do have to lift. With the track being so line-sensitive, it’s really important that you’re doing the same thing every lap, and making sure you’re very consistent in how you’re driving the car.”