By Jared Turner
On the heels of the first short-track race of 2016 comes the season’s first Saturday night race: The Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
While Jimmie Johnson has won five of the past seven races – including three in a row – at the fast, 1.5-mile track, Saturday night’s showdown should be an entertaining affair.
At least if NASCAR’s history at TMS means anything.
It was at Texas, after all, that normally tempered veterans Jeff Gordon and Jeff Burton literally came to blows in the fall of 2010.
It was also at Texas – in that same race, no less – that team owner Rick Hendrick made the surprising in-race decision to swap pit crews on the No. 48 team of Johnson and the No. 24 team of teammate Gordon.
More recently at Texas – last fall – Johnson executed a late-race pass on Brad Keselowski to score the win, prompting suspended Matt Kenseth to troll NASCAR chairman Brian France on Twitter by calling Johnson’s pass “quintessential.”
France had used the same term to describe Joey Logano’s bump and run on Kenseth a few weeks earlier at Kansas Speedway, where Kenseth wrecked and Logano went on to win.
Texas is also the place where a young rookie driver named Dale Earnhardt Jr. became a first-time Sprint Cup Series race winner in just his 12th career start.
Now many years later, the third-generation driver still thinks it’s cool that track president Eddie Gossage – one of the sport’s most creative promoters – and his PR staff have used his victory to sell tickets and generate fan interest.
“They have used the fact that I won that race in various ways to make me proud of that moment and make that moment more special to me,” Earnhardt said. “It shows me that it meant something to them that I had won here.”
Of course, Earnhardt’s win is hardly the only sell at Texas Motor Speedway.
Here’s the bottom line: The saying that “everything’s bigger in Texas” certainly rings true when it comes to NASCAR’s visits to the Lone Star State. Even the speeds here are no exception.
One of the fastest tracks on the Sprint Cup Series tour, Texas – with its quad-oval layout, long backstretch and 24 degree banks – is a place where drivers like to get on the gas.
“Texas is going to be really, really fast,” said Martin Truex Jr. “I am sure that we’ll run wide open or close to it during qualifying. I expect a new track record – it’s going to be ridiculously fast. Texas is about speed and maneuvering through the bumps. Finding the right setup is tricky, but the teams that do will be the same ones you’ll see running up front.”
Paul Menard has a similar sentiment about the Fort Worth track.
“What can you say about Texas Motor Speedway that hasn’t already been said in regards to how fast it is around that place?” Menard said. “We’re going to need a good setup under our Chevrolet to get through the turns and great horsepower from ECR Engines to be successful.”
But what about Johnson, the undisputed master of Texas in recent years? What’s been the secret to the success of Johnson and his No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports team here?
“Texas is one of the tracks with an older surface on it and it just fits for me. That’s really it,” the six-time Sprint Cup Series champion said. “The longer the race, the more adjustments that need to be made … I’ve always thought a big thing has been our ability to communicate and talk through what I’m feeling and where we think things are going to go and making the right adjustments.
“Those are really the races where I shine and the 48 shines.”