One down, two to go in the final Chase round before the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Last week in Martinsville, a non-title contender, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., upset the apple cart by stealing a win from the remaining contenders, thus putting even more pressure on the Chasers to grab a win at Texas Motor Speedway. Truthfully speaking, all eight of the remaining contenders still have a shot at grabbing a berth in the season finale; it’s wide open at this point. Who will step up and grab that all important berth in the final four? That will be by far the biggest story of the day at the Great American Speedway.
1. Will a Chaser punch his ticket today?
The eight remaining drivers in the championship fight have only two more races to punch their ticket to Homestead, and as it stands, none of them look safe. Each and every Chaser knows that if they can just grab a win, that would give them a massive advantage towards the title. Not having to worry about advancing in Phoenix allows a team to focus on ways it can improve ahead of Homestead, where the big ticket trophy awaits.
Of the remaining Chasers, Joey Logano is the one who appears to be best positioned to win his way into Homestead. Logano has been a stalwart at Texas in recent races, with finishes of first, third and fifth in the past three races in the Lonestar State. He starts eighth this weekend and has shown flashes of the speed that netted him such positive results here at Texas recently.
All told, if Chasers are in contention late in the going, it will undoubtedly be a key item to watch, as a shot at the title will quite literally be on the line.
2. Will the tires wreak havoc with the field a la Kansas?
Tires have been an underrated story in 2014. Many races this season have been turned on their head courtesy of tire problems, with both Auto Club and the fall Kansas race standing out as two especially notable races where tires wrought havoc on the field. With this weekend’s race in Texas anticipated to see record-high speeds, tires unfortunately could be an issue again.
Just how high are the speeds? Tony Stewart set a lap of 200.111 mph in qualifying during the second knockout session, a lap that currently stands as the fastest lap ever recorded by a stock car on a 1.5-mile track. Those kinds of speeds put a huge load on Goodyear’s proven-to-be-fragile tires, and with Chase teams looking to get all they can get in Texas’ playoff scenario, it’s not hard to envision some team pushing the tires to the point of failure.
As we saw in Kansas, one bad tire can ruin a championship run (see Earnhardt, Dale Jr.), so if a Chaser (or anyone for that matter) has big time tire problems, expect that to become a priority-level story for the rest of the day.
3. Can a winless Chaser finally cash in when it counts the most?
Consistency will always be a key to success in the world of NASCAR. No matter how many times NASCAR fiddles with its championship format, there is simply no formula for success that is more effective than simply grinding out good finishes each and every week. Just ask Matt Kenseth and Ryan Newman. Somehow, despite the extreme bias toward winning in the new title format, both Kenseth and Newman have been able to make a deep run in this year’s Chase simply by being blindingly consistent.
In fact, one could argue that each driver’s peak of consistency has been during the Chase, when consistency matters most. But with two races left in the Eliminator Round, Kenseth and Newman are now faced with the task of out-points-racing teams that have been both consistent and fast enough to win all season long. From my vantage point, that means that if each driver wants to win this championship, they’ll have to win a race at some point between now and Homestead to pull it off.
Could Sunday be the day? Well, it sure looks like a darn good opportunity. Kenseth is starting on pole and has been incredibly fast all weekend long, while Newman starts seventh and has shown ample speed as well.
The stars seem to be aligning, and the reward is tantalizing. If Matt Kenseth or Ryan Newman are to win a race this season, Sunday looks to be the day it will happen.
4. Can Brad Keselowski rebound against all odds?
Brad Keselowski has always had a flair for the dramatic, but that flair has grown into something else entirely in 2014. Keselowski has been a slave to the limelight in 2014; when he is not racking up headlines for putting together a dominating win, he’s racking them up because of a feud or some other form of adversity in which he finds himself embroiled.
That theme of adversity has carried its way into Keselowski’s weekend at Texas, as he was head-scratchingly slow in qualifying. As such, the No. 2 car will start a distant 26th at a track that is not exactly easy to pass on. Of course, let’s also not forget that Keselowski is in a points hole due to a wreck he was involved in last week in Martinsville.
Keselowski has shown that he can perform in the face of heavy adversity and long odds. Talladega proved that. But can he pull it off again? It seems like a longshot, but with Keselowski, that’s the reason why we watch.
Matt Stallknecht’s Pre-Race Predictions for the 2014 AAA Texas 500:
- 22-Joey Logano
- 24-Jeff Gordon
- 2-Brad Keselowski
- 20-Matt Kenseth
- 88-Dale Earnhardt Jr.
- 31-Ryan Newman
- 4-Kevin Harvick
- 48-Jimmie Johnson
- 11-Denny Hamlin
- 18-Kyle Busch
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