Saturday, April 17, 2010

New Spoilers, New Tire Combination, and No Final Practices: Texas Should Be Interesting

by Micah Roberts
Las Vegas Review-Journal

The Final NASCAR Sprint Cup practices were rained out Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway in what was to be the final preparation for Sunday’s Samsung Mobile 500. Saturday’s sessions were deemed critical -- more so than other races -- because of this being the first week of NASCAR’s new spoiler on a fast down force track.

This will be third race with the new spoiler, but Martinsville and Phoenix are short and slow in comparison to the fast, high-banked 1.5-mile Texas facility. The expectations are that the new spoiler will create more drag and slow the cars somewhat on the straight-aways, but also create more grip when diving into each turn allowing drivers to enter faster.

Along with Friday’s practice session, which used with both qualifying and race trim set-up, other data the teams have to go on was a two day test session held last month in Charlotte, a sister track of Texas, Las Vegas, and Atlanta that all have similar features.

During the two-day Charlotte sessions, a few teams stood out beginning with Richard Childress Racing’s cars where Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, and Jeff Burton put on a show being near or atop the speed charts each day.

Other drivers who consistently performed very well during the test sessions were Juan Pablo Montoya, Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, and Ryan Newman

With Saturday’s sessions rained out, the teams this week will have to resort to using more past history set-up notes along with using the knowledge gained from the Charlotte testing. A couple of cars that have been brought out this week have a pretty rich history. When mixing in a few of the drivers natural tendencies at Texas, we can get a decent read on who should do well this week despite not having the all important reads from final practice.

At the top of the list is Matt Kenseth who has the best average finish all-time at Texas at 9.3. He’s currently on a run of finishing within the top-10 in six consecutive races, including two top-5 finishes last year. His Texas win in 2002 came from the 31st position, the furthest back any driver has won from at Texas. This week he’ll be starting from the 28th position.

As for the season, Kenseth is the only driver to have finished in the top-5 of both races held at the similar 1.5-mile tracks of Las Vegas and Atlanta. The task of getting to the winners circle this week was given to the same chassis that finished fifth in Las Vegas.

Juan Pablo Montoya didn’t do anything stellar in Friday’s practice with race trim on and managed to get the 12th fastest time when the team used qualifying trim, but all anyone needs to know is that he is bringing his absolute best car which seldom fails him. He’s using the same chassis this week that had three top-5 finishes last season, but is probably most remembered for the dominating performance at Indy last season that saw him dominate the entire race, leading 116 laps, until being penalized late reducing him to an 11th place finish. Most recently, Montoya finished third with the car in Atlanta back in March.

Whatever Montoya and his team learned at Charlotte last month with the new spoiler can’t hurt either because he was one of the three fastest cars in three of the four sessions over the two days. We say it lot, because he always looks good in practice, but he really does look to have one of his better chances to win his first oval race in the Cup series this week.

Jimmie Johnson brought a chassis with him that has ran only once all-time, but the one start was at Las Vegas and resulted in a win. If we are discussing any high-banked 1.5-mile track, Johnson always has to be one of the focal points of the discussion just because he’s been so good on all of them. But if there was one track out of the four similar facilities for Superman, Texas would be the closest thing to kryptonite. He’s had only one win over his career of 50 wins there with a couple of uncharacteristic 38th place finishes. However, he still has the third best average in track history doing so at a 10.8 finish pace in 13 starts.

Much like Johnson, Kurt Busch will be bringing a chassis with only one start to it’s credit, and it too resulted in a win. Busch won at Atlanta in early March with this weeks car, his second win in the last three Atlanta races. In the last race held at Texas last fall, Busch also captured the checkers with a late rally and a little bit of luck.

The luck that Busch received was given to him by the fuel tank of his brother, Kyle Busch, who had led 232 laps before coming three laps shy of the win. Kyle Busch looked impressive in qualifying trim Friday and will start seventh, but what’s more important is that his team looks cohesive over the last two races. Kyle has been in position to win late at both Martinsville and Phoenix, but didn’t get some of the luck needed like his brother got at Texas last year.

Jeff Burton won the first Cup race ever at Texas Motor Speedway in 1997 while driving for Jack Roush. Since driving for Richard Childress, Burton has continued his strong runs at Texas which include winning this race in 2007. Beginning with that 2007 win, Burton has finished in the top-10 in five of the last six races held there.

During the second day of Charlotte testing, Burton lit up the charts with the fastest times of the two-day sessions. This week he’ll be debuting a brand new car.

Burton’s teammate Clint Bowyer wasn’t as fast at Charlotte, but was still consistently near the top-10 for both days. During Friday’s practice, Bowyer looked like one of the faster cars on the track with race trim on and was just as competitive with qualifying trim. Over his career at Texas, Bowyer has an average finish of 12.8 with a best of fourth-place coming in the fall of 2008.

Mark Martin didn’t look good at Charlotte, didn’t look good in Friday’s practice, and hasn’t run well of late, but he is bringing last years winning chassis from Chicagoland. Martin won the second Texas race ever while driving for Jack Roush and finished fourth and sixth respectively last season.

Even though Martin knows Kasey Kahne is taking over the No. 5 car eventually, Martin has no animosity whatsoever and is genuinely happy for both Kahne and Rick Hendrick. From all aspects of the owner, crew, and driver, this is not the typical lame-duck driver situation where sometimes we see a driver getting bargain priced parts for their final runs with the team.

Kahne probably wishes he could run with Hendrick right now, or at least run exclusively on 1.5-mile tracks if he has to finish the season driving a Richard Petty car. Kahne has had a crummy year mired No. 26 in points, but his car comes alive at tracks like Las Vegas, Atlanta, Charlotte, and hopefully Atlanta this week.

The lone positives for Kahne in 2010 have been a ninth and Vegas and fourth in Atlanta, along with good testing at Charlotte. Look for it to continue this week despite being a lame duck driver, because Kahne is the best chance Petty has to show they can run fast in big races which will help sell sponsorship for next year whoever the driver may be, if any at all.

In 2006 Kahne became the only driver to win at Texas race from the pole. It remains his one and only Texas win and it also is the last time he has finished within the top-10 at Texas. He’s a good long shot to look at this week in the 20 to 1 range.

Tony Stewart’s week started with a bang just as it ended last week. His teammate, Ryan Newman, won at Phoenix for their first win in the No. 39 car and on Friday, Stewart won a pole for the first time in 155 races. Things definitely look up at at Texas, things have been good for Stewart. He has one career win on the track and finished fourth and sixth last season.

Greg Biffle had the most dominant car in this spring race last season, but settled for third giving the race to Jeff Gordon. Biffle practiced well on Friday in qualifying trim and does have a 2005 Texas win to his credit and he‘ll be using a new chassis to get the job done this week.

Jeff Gordon had gone the entire season 2008 season with getting a win before finally breaking through in this race last season. Gordon has now gone 36 races without a win since then, but it’s not that he hasn’t had the chances. In fact, he should have won the last two races at Martinsville and Phoenix, but operator error kept him from getting at least one.

Gordon has gotten wiser and smarter with his age and grown as a person with the addition of his family, but it has definitely taken it’s toll on the track. Gordon still has competitive cars every week and contends for points weekly, but that hunger and desire from the old Gordon to win everything in sight is gone. Getting taken at Phoenix on the restart last week in the final laps was the perfect example. The 1998 version of Jeff Gordon wins that race in his sleep.

Gordon’s win total has suffered through a series of changes with his team over the years since Ray Evernham left and it doesn’t help that he gave away 50 possible wins by setting Jimmie Johnson up in the luxurious life, but the next time he steps up to a green-white-checker restart and he’s near the front, I’d like to see the old-younger Jeff Gordon temperament make an appearance.

The most interesting driver from a betting standpoint this week is Paul Menard who is listed at 500 to 1 at the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book. Menard has the tools and basis to be a quality top-10 contender this week based on his great fifth-place finish in Atlanta and equally good test session at Charlotte. The possibility of poor weather and rain playing into the mix makes Menard even more interesting. Last year we had two first time winners get the checkers thanks to mother nature. In both instances the cars may not have been the best, but were in the right place at the right time. It’s worth at least a $10 investment.

Driver Quotes
Kyle Busch’s thoughts on the difference between the wing and the spoiler from the Charlotte test as it pertains to the first 1.5-mile oval race this weekend in Texas?
“Not a whole lot of difference, but definitely some change. Whether it’s change for the good or the bad yet, we won’t know until we get into a pack at a race. My initial thoughts after the Charlotte test would be that it adds a lot of grip to the car, makes the cars comfortable to drive but, to me, it might make it harder in traffic. I’m very curious to see how it changes the handling during a race, since this weekend will really be the first big test for the spoiler on an aero track.”

Read More Here....Top 10 Driver Ratings For Texas

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