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Mash The Gas: Texas Preview

Kyle Busch leads a pack of cars at Texas Motor Speedway in 2016. [Photo by Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images]

Kyle Busch leads a pack of cars at Texas Motor Speedway in 2016. [Photo by Robert Laberge/NASCAR via Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

After a brief and exciting one week stint at a short track, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series heads back to a familiar 1.5 mile tri-oval as the Texas Motor Speedway hosts the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 Sunday afternoon.

O’Reilly Auto Parts 500
Texas Motor Speedway
Distance: 501 miles (334 laps)
Stage 1 (Ends on lap 85)
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 170)
Final Stage (Ends on lap 334)
Sunday, April 9
1:30 p.m. ET
FOX, 1:30 p.m. ET
PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
While the 1.5 mile Texas configuration is familiar in that it resembles a majority of the tracks the circuit competes on, a brand new pavement projects greets the drivers this time around. The new Texas surface should be smooth and provide ultra-fast speeds especially entering the turns. And that is where the excitement will be as turns one and two have been re-profiled, dropping the banking from 24 degrees to 20 degrees and increasing the racing width from 60 to 80 feet. The new surface and turn configurations combined with the low aero cars may give some of the drivers a handful on Sunday.

Here are some drivers to watch…

Martin Truex Jr. (Dan Margetta)
I’m going with drivers this week that have never won at Texas but have proven to be very good at similar tracks with the low downforce cars. One driver who stands out to me is Martin Truex Jr., the winner at Las Vegas earlier in the season. When it comes to the 1.5 mile tracks Truex and the #78 Furniture Row team have been dominant, and while not having as many victories as they deserve, they have led a majority of the laps. Last year, the team gave this race away with a late pit call made while leading. At Las Vegas they showed they now know how to capitalize on their strong runs and find victory lane. Entering this weekend at 6-1 odds, Truex has three top five finishes at Texas and twelve top ten results. I doubted this team earlier this year at Las Vegas and was dead wrong. I’m picking them to win this week at Texas.

Kyle Busch (John Wiedemann)
Putting aside the media meltdown of the fact that a Joe Gibbs Racing driver has yet to win this year, Kyle Busch has been close and I believe this is the weekend that he will find victory lane. If there is one driver that excels at the unknowns of racing on a new track surface with new aero configurations, it is Kyle Busch. Many drivers are comparing the new Texas surface to Kentucky Speedway. If that turns out to be true, it favors Busch even more. I’m not buying the doom and gloom of JGR winless so far in 2017. Yes, the team is a bit off but that can change quickly. Add the fact that Furniture Row, their sister team, is doing well and you know that JGR will be back soon. I’m betting this is the weekend and Kyle Busch, the defending champion of this race, will be leading the way.

Chase Elliott (DM)
Here we go again….listing Chase Elliott as a driver I feel will run strong at Texas. He’s been on just about every list this season, yet is still in search of that elusive first victory. Last year Elliott finished fifth and fourth at the two Texas races and he had top five performances this season at Atlanta and Las Vegas, so he should be good on the newly paved 1.5 mile Texas circuit. He’s listed at 7-1 odds to win this weekend and he does have the best average finishing position here at Texas, although he’s only raced in two events. Once again the opportunity to win has presented itself to Chase Elliott and the #24 team, now we will have to see if he can close the deal and find victory lane.

Jimmie Johnson (JW)
Another team that has yet to win this season is Hendrick Motorsports with defending and seven time series champion only finding a top ten finish one time so far with his ninth place at Phoenix. Johnson is the series leader with six wins at Texas Motor Speedway. With an 8.4 average finish, 14 top five and 20 top ten finishes to go along with those six wins, Johnson truly knows how to get around Texas. But, will the newly configured turns and fresh pavement throw him for a loop? We’ll have to see. I betting that Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the #48 team turn it around this weekend. If not, don’t worry, they’ll find their way to the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick (DM)
It’s hard to believe Kevin Harvick has yet to win at Texas but he is still looking for that first win in the Lone Star State. He does have six top five finishes and sixteen top tens here and we can’t forget how strong he was in Atlanta earlier in the year. Crew Chief Rodney Childers returns this week and that should also give Harvick a boost as he is riding a string of five top ten finishes at Texas. In the last five races, Harvick has finished sixth, tenth, third, second, and second so he may be due for a win. Listed at 7-1 odds, Kevin Harvick is a good bet to be a strong contender for the win this weekend at Texas.

Joey Logano (JW)
While teammate Brad Keselowski, who is a favorite again this weekend, has picked up two quick wins this season – Joey Logano is looking for victory lane. Logano has been quick in practices and qualifying but issues during the races have kept him out of victory lane so far this season. Don’t expect that to last too much longer. Logano will grab that elusive checkered flag and it could be this weekend. Logano has one win and seven top five finishes at Texas to go along with a not so fantastic 16.6 average finish in 17 races. It is the last eight races that really show how well Logano has run at Texas. Besides one blemish, Logano has an average finish of 4.3 in seven of the last eight races. Logano will be in the mix this weekend.

Erik Jones (DM)
Erik Jones makes his second Texas start in a Cup car this weekend and he is my long shot pick as he comes to Texas listed at 40-1 odds to win. In his only start at Texas, Jones finished twelfth filling in for the suspended Matt Kenseth in 2015. Plus we can’t forget Jones is the teammate to Martin Truex Jr. and the Furniture Row group has been very strong on the 1.5 mile tracks. Jones has been impressive so far in his rookie season, spending a lot of time racing in the top ten and I think that makes him a good candidate to win Sunday as a long shot. Don’t count this rookie driver and team out when looking for contending drivers on Sunday.

Ryan Blaney (JW)
Ryan Blaney falls into the category of “keep picking him till he wins”. Texas has not been kind to Blaney as he sports a 31st place average finish in four races there. Blaney has been running great this season and has scored the sixth most points in Stage 1 and Stage 2 so far. Running up front like he has can only bode well for the youngster at Texas and should help him get his first top ten at the track. Or, is Texas just one of those tracks that will prove difficult throughout his career? Blaney just might be happy for the new surface and banking to turn around his success at TMS.

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Dan Margetta

Dan Margetta