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Geoffrey Miller's Five Things to Watch at Texas Motor Speedway
1. Martin Truex Jr.’s Texas Retribution
He’s not in the Chase. He’s not contending for a title. Only three races remain. On the outside, his pressure is only to run up front and try to nab a win. He gets to, as they say, “go for broke.” These should be fun times for Martin Truex Jr., right?
Thanks to the Richmond scandal that saw NAPA leave Michael Waltrip Racing and Truex lose his 2014 ride, it’s been a scrambled few weeks. And to make matters worse, his performance has dipped during the Chase he was initially qualified to participate in.
It’s become a bit of a nasty spiral: while Truex has fought for a new job, he’s not doing so well in his expiring one.
Fortunately, Truex got to announce Friday at Texas that he has signed a deal with Furniture Row Racing for 2014. Might it be a good omen?
Truex was the dominant car for much of the April race and lost the event thanks to a shock that broke sometime around the final pit stop. He fought an ill-handling car to a second-place finish behind Kyle Busch — and subsequently was penalized when the broken piece left his car outside of NASCAR’s technical parameters in post-race inspection.
With the concerns of 2014 now gone, the focus for Truex gets to return solely to the track. That can only be good news.
2. Where does Kevin Harvick’s RCR fallout land?
The older, wiser version of Kevin Harvick returned quickly Sunday morning at Martinsville after Saturday’s abrupt outburst left his soon-to-be ex-team owner seething, fans chuckling and his Sprint Cup team in an uneasy limbo of supporting its driver while being loyal to the family writing the paychecks.
It was the right move — if not the fun one — for Harvick, still entrenched in the championship battle with now three races left, to apologize and try to distance his disparaging remarks about the long-term future of Richard Childress Racing. But the words Harvick used to smart off after the incident in the Camping World Truck Series incident are not quickly taken back in a series of pre-race interviews.
There the type of hidden thoughts that, when exposed, have the ability to linger. Apologizing doesn’t change what was thrown in the open — especially when it seems as bitter as Harvick’s initial tone.
Will that moment be the breaking point of the No. 29 team?
It’d be terribly unfortunate for everyone involved to have gone so deep in to a “lame duck” season with such success only to have to it fall apart as November begins.
3. Martinsville may buoy Matt Kenseth It can’t be lost on Jimmie Johnson that Matt Kenseth beat him head-to-head at Martinsville Speedway for just the fourth time in the 24 starts they’ve shared on the half-mile short track. That Kenseth was able to tighten the point spread on a track Johnson has so readily dominated has to be a creeping concern.
For Kenseth, the runner-up finish to Johnson’s teammate Jeff Gordon last Sunday had to feel like a remarkable dose of validation in his pursuit of Johnson and a first championship in the Chase format. Actually toppling NASCAR’s perennial kingpin in the championship race seemed to grow more feasible.
How will that influence Kenseth Sunday at a track that ranks among his best on the circuit?
It certainly can’t hurt. Kenseth owns 15 top-10 finishes, two wins and no finish worse than 12th since the spring race at Texas in 2010. Johnson, in his own right, has been awful good at Texas, as well. His worst finish in the last seven races is 14th, and he’s defending fall race winner.
Regardless, Kenseth shuffled the deck a bit at Martinsville. Johnson, by most predictions, should have built on his lead at the short track. Instead it was wiped clean. What will the fallout — if any — be for Johnson? And can Kenseth capitalize?
4. Spring results not indicative of Gordon’s, Earnhardt’s strength
Lost in the finishing order of the April race at Texas were two Hendrick drivers who could very well play a leading role in Sunday’s race.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished four laps down when a sequence of mistakes pulled him from a third-place running position just past halfway. Earnhardt first had a battery that went south, and expecting the team had to swap the car’s power source for a new one, he came to pit road.
While there, Earnhardt sped entering pit lane — his gauges had gone on the fritz, rendering him unable to realize pit road speed — and he soon was reminded that he had a switch in the car that could flip to a backup battery.
He immediately dropped to 34th and was so many laps down by that point that he could recover. He finished 29th.
Meanwhile, Gordon was a top-5 car until he suffered a broken suspension piece in the last 30 laps that forced him to the garage. After leading 15 laps, Gordon earned a 38th-place finish for his luck.
5. “Head games” officially a part of Chase at Texas, though impact remains limitedWithout fail, the idea of “head games” entered the Chase storylines during Friday’s early media visits at Texas. Matt Kenseth was asked by reporters at the track if he had any mental tricks that could impact Johnson’s ability to compete.
Kenseth, the sport’s king of deadpan, looked at Johnson standing nearby and said, “Oh, hey Jimmie,” before insisting he wasn’t smart enough to take that mental edge. But it’s likely not an intellect problem for the Ford driver. Kenseth probably remembers that verbal jabs of Johnson in the past — Denny Hamlin took some hearty verbal swings during the 2010 Chase — haven’t made a lick of difference.
Johnson is simply not a guy who gets rattled easily. Brad Keselowski can verify that fact by looking at the results of last fall’s Texas race, when Keselowski made a desperate, dangerous push to take the win from Johnson in the final laps. He came up short, even though Johnson had little to lose by playing conservatively for a second-place finish. Keselowski would win the title when Johnson faltered with mechanical trouble in the final two races.
All told, it might be Johnson’s typically unwavering performance as the season ends that is the biggest head game of them all.
Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller