NASCAR moves from its shortest, slowest track to one of its fastest this weekend while holding the sport’s first night race of the year. Texas Motor Speedway will play host to both the Sprint Cup and XFINITY Series, an intermediate oval that should continue the trend of high-quality racing under the new 2016 rules.
A sport that has suffered under continued ratings declines this season saw a slight bump at Martinsville for the first time all year. Can momentum continue during a difficult time slot switch to Saturday night?
2016 Duck Commander 500
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth, Texas)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
Busch swept both NASCAR events last weekend at a track, Martinsville Speedway, where he had never won. Leading the most laps in both the Cup and Truck races there the 30-year-old reasserted himself atop a grid that’s seen Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson slip ahead during the early part of the 2016 season. Busch also is climbing toward a record no driver has ever accomplished: victories at every NASCAR track on the active schedule. Pocono, Charlotte and Kansas are the three places remaining where Busch hasn’t tasted Victory Lane.
“It's certainly neat to be able to show your diversity and be able to go out there and win at any single style of racetrack that there is,” Busch said. “Whether it comes all this year or whether it takes a few more years to get it all, hopefully I can be here for a little while longer and we can accomplish that.”
Third in the standings, Busch is just five points behind Harvick for the top spot with Johnson sandwiched in between. The trio has won four of the six races thus far in 2016.
Who’s at the Back: Matt Kenseth
The bad luck surrounding Kenseth is almost comical at this point. Part of Toyota’s Joe Gibbs Racing quartet, he’s led 144 laps this season and been in position to win at least two of six races down the stretch, including the sport’s crown jewel: the Daytona 500. But entering the final two turns of that event teammate Denny Hamlin made his move, Kenseth lost control – albeit for just one second - and that minor slip tanked him to 14th at the finish. A similar failure, albeit less dramatic, happened on Martinsville’s final restart where he got muscled from second place on the outside to 15th by the checkered flag. One of the fastest drivers in the sport, as a result has yet to finish higher than seventh all season.
The aforementioned Kenseth, despite his slump still hasn’t lost his giving spirit. As the widow of former FOX announcer Steve Byrnes approaches the one-year anniversary of his death from cancer Kenseth surprised both she (Karen) and her son, Bryson with a replica sword given to winners from Bristol Motor Speedway. Kenseth also presented the Byrnes’ with a framed photo of his No. 20 team in Victory Lane last year holding up signs they created which supported Steve. The gift exchange was part of an event held Tuesday at NASCAR’s Hall of Fame in Charlotte.
Danica Patrick remained vocal about a $20,000 fine she received at Auto Club Speedway for walking onto the racetrack following a crash. The rule was put in place following the death and subsequent lawsuit caused when Kevin Ward Jr. was struck and killed by Tony Stewart following a local Sprint Car race. “I understand that NASCAR has to do whatever they can to protect drivers,” she told ESPN this week. “[But] did I feel like I was in danger? Absolutely not. It’s my body. Some of the most exciting throwback videos you see of NASCAR are of drivers getting all rowdy and all mad...”
Kevin Harvick continues to deny persistent rumors he’ll leave Stewart-Haas Racing after the season and stick with a Chevrolet team (Hendrick Motorsports in place of Kasey Kahne? Chip Ganassi Racing?) while SHR’s four-car operation switches to Ford. Ford leader Dave Pericak, for his part issued a statement this week saying, “there is no doubt in my mind” Harvick will make the switch; however, the buzz continues.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-10 finish for Kasey Kahne this season through six races. By comparison, his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates have combined for 10 along with two victories and 224 laps led (Kahne has zero).
Number of cautions so far through six races, a 39 percent decline over 2015. Just eight of those 34 yellow flags have been for debris, fluid on the track or a NASCAR-based competition caution.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Brad Keselowski came oh, so close to a win last fall and a bid in the Chase final four. Leading 312 laps, he was snookered on the final restart by a resurgent Jimmie Johnson and had to settle for second. Both are good options to use here. However, Keselowski, who has six top-10 finishes in the last seven races here, came into Texas motivated for revenge. With one victory already this season at a 1.5-mile oval (Las Vegas) the No. 2 car appears the safest bet for your roster.
Quietly consistent to start the 2016 season Carl Edwards heads to Texas with momentum from a short track recovery at Martinsville. He lost a lap early, fought for nearly the entire race to get it back and then sliced through the pack in the closing stages for a top-10 finish. That bodes well heading to a place Edwards has won three times; the last of those came in 2008 but he was 10th and fifth, respectively with his No. 19 team at the track last season.
You don’t think of Jamie McMurray as a Texas expert but he’s riding a run of three straight top-10 finishes down in Fort Worth. Both he and teammate Kyle Larson have shown speed this season at Chip Ganassi Racing; they’re just not always getting the finishes those cars have deserved. That should change this weekend.
I’m always hesitant to say “Take Danica!” a second straight week because Ms. Patrick has struggled with inconsistency throughout her Cup career. However, Martinsville gave her momentum as 16th was a season best; she was also 16th in both Texas races last year. Maybe that weird numbers voodoo can translate into a solid pick-me-up for your team?
What Vegas Thinks
Oddsshark has Jimmie Johnson the odds-on favorite to win the Duck Commander 500. He’s got 4/1 odds eking ahead of Kevin Harvick (5/1) and Kyle Busch (7/1). As mentioned above, it’s no surprise the trio atop the Sprint Cup standings continues to get a little extra love from Vegas.
What I Think
I feel like Saturday night is Carl Edwards’ time. As someone who’s known for success on intermediates it’s shocking the drought at Texas has reached eight years. Capitalizing on early-season strength, watch the No. 19 team, currently fourth in the standings, head toward the front late and become the third Joe Gibbs Racing entry to lock down a spot in NASCAR’s playoff.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)