Saturday, November 6, 2010

Busch Brothers To Roll at Texas While Hamlin and Johnson Drive Cautious

By Micah Roberts

Everything is big in Texas except Jimmie Johnson’s point lead coming into this week's eighth race of NASCAR’s 10 race Chase for the Championship. It’s come down to three drivers with three races to go in what could be the most thrilling close to a season in recent NASCAR history. Jimmie Johnson has a slim 14-point lead over Denny Hamlin, with Kevin Harvick lurking a mere 38 points behind.
This week Johnson will be hoping to avoid a replay of last year's results while Hamlin is looking for the same results from the final three races of last season. If Hamlin gets his wish, he could be leading following the race and on his way to snapping Johnson’s four-year reign as Sprint Cup Champion.

With three races to go last season at Texas, Johnson got involved in a wreck only three laps into the race and finished 38th. Johnson had a large enough lead to still maintain the points lead despite gaining only 49 points for the poor finish. Meanwhile, Hamlin finished second and gained 175 points, but was way back — 11th in points — coming into the race. The runner-up finish catapulted Hamlin to great finishes for the ensuing races, finishing third at Phoenix and then winning the finale at Homestead-Miami.

Should Hamlin’s ideal scenario from last year be recreated again, he would have enough points to oust Johnson from the throne. Last season's final point tally from the final three races was Hamlin 435 and Johnson 404. Harvick didn’t make the Chase last season, but he totaled a respectable 416 points in the same races.

Johnson has finished 31st or worse on six occasions this season, giving reason to believe it could happen again, but none of those have come during the seven races of the Chase. There’s a reason why he’s the four-time champ and it goes far beyond just having a great team, car and parts. He doesn’t let anyone see him sweat and he’s as cool and calm as any of the great dominating champions — from any sport — have been in crunch time.

Johnson didn’t do anything spectacular during his practices, averaging 10th-fastest in the three sessions, but he’s bringing his third-place chassis from Texas’ sister track of Charlotte. He has one win at Texas with an average finish of 10.1 in 14 starts, good enough for third-best in track history. In 2006 and 2007, Johnson came into Texas second in points and left with the lead en route to his first two titles. The last two seasons, Johnson came in and left with the lead.

Hamlin won the April race at Texas this year and has the track record for the best average finish of 9.6 in 10 starts. He’s using a new car built specifically for this track rather than taking the winning car from April. He didn’t have a great individual lap time in any practice session this weekend, but was second-fastest in average lap speeds during the final practice, which is a great indicator that he’ll be very strong on long green flag runs Sunday.

Harvick is going to have to run the race of his life this week to have a chance at the championship. He started the season out strong on the 1.5-mile high-banked tracks, finishing within the top 11 at Las Vegas, Atlanta, Texas and Charlotte, but tailed off from those performances in his next run at Atlanta before finishing eighth at Charlotte last month. His practices didn’t indicate that he can be expected to have a great race Sunday as his top lap of the three sessions netted him only 20th-fastest.

While Johnson, Hamlin and Harvick all battle in their own little world of racing for points, the drivers to beat Sunday look to be Kyle and Kurt Busch. The brothers were sitting 1-2 in last year's race when Kyle ran out of fuel while leading with three laps to go. Kurt raced by to capture his first career win at Texas.

Kyle Busch set himself up for a great weekend because of all the success they had last month at Charlotte when Busch led the most laps before settling for a runner-up finish behind Jamie McMurray. That Charlotte run made it four straight top five-finishes on the high-banked sister tracks dating back to the April Texas race, where he finished third. After an average practice and qualifying session on Friday, his crew used all those great set-up notes to get his car perfect for Saturday’s practice where he was fastest in both sessions. 

Kurt Busch is the only driver to have won twice on the sister tracks this season — three times if you count the non-points all-star race at Charlotte. Busch won at Atlanta and then at Charlotte in May. This week, Busch will be using that same winning Charlotte chassis, a car that many thought he would use at an earlier juncture of the Chase. Just like brother Kyle, both are no longer candidates to win the Chase and it’s all about going for wins by all means necessary this week.

The Roush-Fenway drivers have always had success at Texas. Jeff Burton won the inaugural race in 1997 and Mark Martin followed it up the year after with a win. Since then, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle and Carl Edwards have all claimed victories. For Edwards, he has three wins, the last coming in 2008 when he swept the season. All three drivers had outstanding practices, led by Edwards, but the Roush driver that no one talks about, David Ragan, could outshine them all. During the final practice session Ragan had the second-fastest individual lap and the third-fastest average lap speeds.

Winning Chassis’ Racing at Texas
Each week we usually see one winning chassis from another race compete, and sometimes none, but this week we have four drivers starting winning cars. Kurt Busch has his winner from the Coca-Cola 600, Greg Biffle has his winner from Pocono, Tony Stewart has his from Fontana and David Reutimann is using his winner from Chicago. 

Week of the Long Shots?
It’s not inconceivable to believe that the traditional favorites of Hamlin and Johnson will point-race and be cautious with their moves to avoid trouble. It’s also possible that Kyle Busch or Kurt Busch might not win the race, which leaves open a lot of possibilities for some juicy underdog prices to wager on in Las Vegas sports books.

Based on this weekend's practice, a few drivers stood out, beginning with Martin Truex Jr. (50-to-1), who had a terrific final two practice sessions Saturday. David Ragan (100-to-1) looks like he’s got the best equipment he’s ever had, while Joey Logano had solid average practice times using the same set-ups as his Gibbs teammates Kyle Busch and Hamlin. David Reutimann (50-to-1) also is a candidate just because of the car he’s using, which thoroughly dominated the end of the Chicago race.    

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