By Jared Turner
They say everything’s bigger in Texas. That’s certainly true for what’s at stake in Sunday’s AAA Texas 500, host to race No. 2 of 3 in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series’ Round of 8.
With Kyle Busch having earned an automatic berth in the season-ending Championship 4 race by virtue of his victory last weekend Martinsville, seven drivers are now competing for three remaining spots still up for grabs in the winner-take-all season finale that will take place on November 19 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Of the drivers in the championship hunt and looking to punch a ticket to Homestead, Jimmie Johnson might have the best opportunity this weekend in Fort Worth. The Hendrick Motorsports driver is the all-time Texas Motor Speedway wins leader with seven victories, and last triumphed at the fast 1.5-mile track when the Monster Energy Series convened there in April of this year.
Yet, there are at least two reasons why Johnson is not the clear-cut favorite this weekend. One, he has not been his typical front-running self for much of the season. And, two, this will be just the second race since Texas Motor Speedway was repaved — which opens the door to a host of unknowns.
Johnson, for his part, didn’t expect to be so strong at Texas in April in a race that was the first on the newly paved surface.
“It was really treacherous out there, very slick,” the seven-time series champion said. “You don’t have a second lane to work. That deep in traffic, the car is not comfortable at all at hard produced speeds. I’m really surprised and then also impressed with the car we built and created that could handle those conditions.”
Johnson won’t be surprised if the second race on the new pavement has a different feel.
“I think it’s going to be really fun when it widens out,” he said. “Once we can run the second to third lane, I think we can come close to running wide open around (turns) 1 and 2. I think the track will change a lot in the next four to six trips that we come here, and it’s only going to get better.”
The title contender with perhaps the most confidence coming to Texas is Martin Truex Jr., who despite never winning here, has been the driver to beat just about every time the series has ventured to a mile-and-a-half track this year. Truex, who is the series points leader, has high hopes for Sunday.
“It’s a challenging place, for sure,” said Truex, who finished eighth at Texas in April. “We ran decent there in the spring race. I feel like there’s some areas we know how to get better from what we did there. I’m optimistic that will be a good one for us.”
Currently in position to join Busch and Truex in the Championship 4 are Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. On the outside of the top four looking in are Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott. Hamlin and Elliott will no doubt arrive at Texas inspired after tangling while battling for the lead late in last weekend’s race at Martinsville.
Sitting 26 points outside of the Championship 4 cutoff and last among the eight playoff drivers, Elliott needs a stellar outing — if not a win — to advance to the Championship 4.
“I’m looking forward to getting back to Texas — what a fun place,” said Elliott, who has recorded top-10 finishes in all three of his Monster Energy Series starts at Texas. “I think Texas will always be special to me after getting my first XFINITY Series win there. It’s a place I enjoy going to, and after the good runs we’ve had there, I’m definitely looking forward to returning.”