1. NASCAR shifts schedule for Final Four
Since Texas Motor Speedway added on a second NASCAR Sprint Cup Series date in 2005, a majority of its spring races have been run in the daytime. But the schedule shifted in 2011 to move the April date from Sunday afternoon to Saturday night.
For this year — and this year only, presumably — the race returns to its traditional Sunday afternoon time slot. The change was made to accommodate another event in the Dallas/Fort Worth area you may have heard about: the NCAA Final Four.
With Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin all shipping teams to nearby AT&T Stadium (on a good traffic day, it’s about 30 minutes from the speedway) for the semi-final rounds on Saturday night, it made sense for NASCAR to not rival the popular event locally and nationally. A year ago, the initial games earned a TV audience estimated at 15.7 million viewers and more than 80,000 people are expected to watch them in person.
The result of the shift has produced some schedule departures from normal. The Nationwide Series race will still run Friday night at TMS, but Sprint Cup qualifying — typically a Friday event for the Saturday night race — will move to Saturday afternoon at 3:10 p.m. ET.
2. Tire durability expected to play central role
The tire package used by Goodyear didn’t produce any concern during the season’s first race on a fast 1.5-mile track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway when teams and drivers were able to push cars to the end of a fuel run before swapping rubber. That all changed two weeks ago at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway.
A rash of tire issues caught up with the field and led to a race that had cautions so frequently that teams up front never made intentional decisions to pit during green flag conditions. The longest green flag run — 28 laps — ended just as many others did at the California track when a driver blew a tire and either crashed or deposited debris.
After the race, a small controversy erupted as teams blamed Goodyear for not appropriately preparing for the event — the tire supplier never tested NASCAR’s offseason handling changes at ACS — while Goodyear blamed aggressive setups for the woes.
Two weeks later, bygones aren’t quite bygones and concern from the garage area remains for Sunday’s race at Texas because the track’s age and condition are similar to ACS. The worn pavement grinds tires more than a newly-paved track.
Goodyear plans to bring the same left side tires as 2013 for Sunday’s race and has shifted the right side package to something similar to that raced at Atlanta last year. While Goodyear didn’t test the combination at Texas, you have to wonder if the concerns for Sunday’s race are a bit overblown if only for how Goodyear categorizes racetrack types.
Texas’ surface is considered a “Group 2” track by Goodyear in a seven-group system the supplier uses to compare racetrack types. Group 2 includes tracks like Las Vegas, Charlotte and Chicago while California — and the tire issues — fell into a Group 3 track.
The concern? Those right-side tires Goodyear plans to use come from experience at Atlanta last fall — another Group 3 track.
3. Seven races, seven different winners?
Movie director John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven from 1960 featured a group of American gunfighters being hired to protect the interests of a small Mexican village. It has no real bearing on Sunday’s race or how NASCAR has operated so far in 2014, but this is Texas — and this is NASCAR. Should a seventh different driver find victory lane you can bet someone will make the clichéd reference to the movie featuring Steve McQueen in a supporting role.
Magnificent or not, NASCAR is on a peculiar ride with six different winners to start the season. Should a seventh break through Sunday — and there are plenty of worthy contenders in a sport that has seen just one driver from Hendrick Motorsports and one driver from Joe Gibbs Racing win so far — it would mark the first time since 2003 that the first seven races in a season featured seven different winners.
It’s exactly the start that NASCAR could only hope for in a season that has placed more value on winning a regular season race thanks to changes in the championship process. 2003, as it turns out, was the last season to produce 16 different winners in the first 26 races — the same number of Chase spots available to regular season race winners this year.
The multiple-winner talk does have a funny element, too. Remember Las Vegas? The third race of the season nearly went to Daytona 500 winner Dale Earnhardt Jr. until he ran out fuel halfway through the final lap.
Oh the difference a few tablespoons of race fuel makes.
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4. When will Jimmie Johnson break the spell?
Speaking of multiple winners, answer this: If someone would have told you that NASCAR’s first six races of 2014 would go to six different drivers, would you have guessed Jimmie Johnson was one of them?
Of course you would. It’s Johnson, after all, a six-time Sprint Cup champ and general sport dominator.
Now that he’s not actually won one of the first six it’s all about figuring when he’ll break the “drought.” If Sunday’s race does figure to share conditions with those from California two weeks ago, Johnson should be in good shape. Crew chief Chad Knaus had Johnson out front in the waning stages of that race and destined for a win until he also suffered a tire issue.
Johnson, a three winner at Texas (two of the last three), enters Sunday’s race as the second-best driver in the series at Texas by average running position. He’s the best, however, late in the race. In the final 10 percent (about 34 laps) of the last 18 races at Texas, Johnson has gained an average of 2.1 spots.
If Johnson is in the top 5 past the halfway point, he’ll be a factor at the checkered flag.
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5. Texas an oval track where Marcos Ambrose can succeed
Richard Petty Motorsports driver Marco Ambrose seems like a likely addition to this year’s Chase for the Sprint Cup thanks largely to his road course racing acumen. All he needs to do is win at either Sonoma or Watkins Glen and then maintain a spot inside the top 30 of the point standings to join the Chase field.
Recent success and an infusion of resources to his RPM team, however, may make his No. 9 an unexpected winner on an oval track first.
Ambrose, now 14th in the point standings, has collected two top-5 finishes in the past three weeks at the short tracks of Martinsville and Bristol. After six races it counts as the best start of his NASCAR career.
He’ll bring a new chassis to Texas – one built as the program has received more funding than ever – and will look to rekindle some of the success in 2011 and 2012 at the track. While finishes of 11th, 20th and 32nd in three consecutive races during the period don’t illustrate much, consider that Ambrose raced nearly 96 percent of those races inside the top 15.