Weekend NASCAR Preview: Texas Motor Speedway

FORT WORTH, TX - NOVEMBER 05: Kurt Busch, driver of the #41 Haas Automation/Monster Energy Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, lead the field past the green flag to start the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway on November 5, 2017 in Fort Worth, Texas. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Martin Truex Jr. arrives at Texas Motor Speedway still feeling perhaps a bit robbed of at least two Playoff victories, including last week at Martinsville Speedway when a final lap tussle between Truex and Joey Logano resulted in Logano’s victory and a ticket for him to the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship race later this month in Miami, Florida.

The near-miss last week with Logano was the fourth-time Truex has been in late-race contention for a victory in the Playoffs and come just short of hoisting a trophy. So Truex may very well be the driver most looking forward to a hard-nosed redemption opportunity this week in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (at 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

The reigning Monster Energy Series champion has never won at Texas, but he sure has come close. You’d be hard-pressed to a find a more motivated organization this week than Truex’ No. 78 Furniture Row Racing Toyota team, which is disbanding at the conclusion of the season.

“We have faced plenty of adversity in the Playoffs so far but we’re still in it,” said Truex, who is fourth in the standings – tied with seven-race winner Kevin Harvick – 23-points behind Playoff standings leader Kyle Busch.

The top four drivers in the standings will be championship eligible for the Nov. 18 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway. That includes any race winners in the next two weeks among the eight current Playoff drivers, plus the highest ranking driver (s) in the standings.

“We should have been in Victory Lane at both Charlotte and Martinsville and have a secured transfer spot for the championship round at Homestead,” Truex said, referring to a pair of races where he was overtaken by daring last lap passes.

“Our guys at the track and at the shop are giving everything they have. They all want that championship as bad as I do. None of us are quitting because the team is shutting down at the end of the season. We all have one mission and that’s to successfully defend our championship.”

Frankly, there would be no better time for Truex to score his first Texas win than on Sunday. He had an incredible streak of six straight top-10 finishes at the track prior to this April; when his car had a flat tire and hit the wall only 80 laps into the 334-lap race.

Truex was runner-up to Harvick in this race last year en route to a dramatic career first championship. He was runner-up in the spring of 2013 and has four top-three finishes at the track. He’s led 363 of his 595 career laps led (61 percent) at Texas in just the last five races.

“We sure have had our opportunities to cash it in at Texas, but have not been able to close the deal there,” Truex said. “If we can stay away from mistakes, accidents and continue to have fast pit stops we should be right there battling it out as one of the contenders.

“I think strategy at Texas all depends on how the cautions fall, what’s going on in the race and what kind of day the Playoff drivers are having. I try not to worry about all the things on the outside, what people are talking about. All the noise. Just block it all out.

“I feel like that’s one of my strong suits as a driver and hopefully that will work in my favor again.’’

Xfinity is up for grabs

A first-lap accident collecting four Xfinity Series Playoff cars in this round’s opener at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago shuffled the championship standings significantly and really makes this week’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 at Texas Motor Speedway (at 4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) even more significant in the title hunt.

The two winningest drivers of 2018 were caught up in the Kansas melee – six-time race winner Christopher Bell and five-time race winner, regular season champion Justin Allgaier among them. The result is a points shuffle that has early season championship leader Elliott Sadler leading the way again.

Sadler, who paced the championship field for 15 weeks early in the season, announced that this will be his final full season of NASCAR competition. And he’d obviously, like nothing more than to hoist a championship trophy on his way out.

He holds a one-point advantage on second place Daniel Hemric, who is three points up on third place rookie Tyler Reddick and 13 points ahead of fourth place Bell.  Just behind and needing to break into the top four to advance to the Nov. 17 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway are Matt Tifft (one-point behind Bell), Allgaier (-5), Cole Custer (-23) and Austin Cindric (-43).

Although Sadler hasn’t won an Xfinity race at the Texas track – nor have any of the 2018 title hopefuls – he does have an impressive 10 top-10 finishes in the last 11 races – the other result, 11th. His best showing is a runner-up finish in 1998 but he was fourth-place in the 2017 Playoff race – first among the Playoff contenders.

Go time in Trucks

Johnny Sauter’s victory last week at Martinsville Speedway marked a career-high six season wins and serves as the golden ticket for an opportunity to defend his 2016 NASCAR Camping World Truck Series championship on Nov. 16 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

And there are no expectations for the veteran to slow down soon. He is the two-time defending winner at Texas Motor Speedway, site of Friday night’s Jag Metals 350 (at 8:30 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). In fact Sauter (five wins) is one winner’s cowboy hat away from tying Todd Bodine for the most series victories (six) at the track. A win would also put him one-victory shy of Brendan Gaughan’s record of four consecutive wins at the track.

And yet for all of Sauter’s hard work, the 2018 championship remains very much in heated contention. With Sauter already in the Championship 4, Noah Gragson now leads the standings with a 24-point edge over Justin Haley in fifth place and 34 points over Matt Crafton in sixth.

However, Haley is only two points behind fourth place Grant Enfinger and 15 points behind third place Brett Moffitt – keeping this weekend’s Texas race crucial in a tightly-contested run to be championship eligible.

Sauter and Crafton – who won in 2014 – are the only two drivers currently championship eligible with previous victories at Texas. In fact, this is only Moffitt’s second race at the 1.5-mile speedway and the fourth ever for Gragson, Haley and Enfinger.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series

Next Race: AAA Texas 500

The Place:  Texas Motor Speedway (Fort Worth, Texas)

The Date: Sunday, Nov. 4

The Time: 3 p.m. ET


Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 500 miles (334 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 85),

Stage 2 (Ends on lap 170), and Final Stage (Ends on lap 334)

What to Watch For: When it comes to Texas, Jimmie Johnson has proven himself the master. His seven wins is most all-time and includes an unprecedented three consecutive wins from 2014-15. His last win was April, 2017. …. Johnson’s seven win total is more than double that of any other driver in Sunday’s race. … Kevin Harvick is the defending winner of the Playoff race at Texas – scoring his only victory in 31 starts. … Current championship leader and regular season champ Kyle Busch won this race in April, finishing just ahead of Harvick. It was Busch’s first win of the season and he proceeded to win the next two races as well – at Bristol and Richmond. … Only four of the eight Playoff drivers have won on the Texas high banks – Kyle Busch (three times), Harvick (once), Joey Logano (once) and Kurt Busch (once). … For whatever reason TMS has lent itself to back-to-back winners more so than other tracks of similar age. Carl Edwards was the first to do it (2008), followed by Hamlin (2010) and then Johnson’s threesome (2014-2015). These wins make up 20 percent of the races held at the track. …The largest Margin of Victory in a Cup race was 25.6-seconds when Kurt Busch scored his only win at the track in 2009. Hamlin was second that day. … Current Xfinity Series championship leader Elliott Sadler holds the record for closest Margin of Victory at Texas. He edged then-teammate Kasey Kahne by .028-seconds to win in April, 2004. … Three times a non-Playoff driver has won the Playoff race at Texas. Tony Stewart did it in 2006 and Johnson did it twice in 2014 and 2015. …. Chase Elliott’s 7.4 average finish is best in the field among drivers with at least five starts. … David Ragan (April, 2011) and Martin Truex Jr. (Nov., 2007) won their first career pole positions at TMS. …. Johnson leads all drivers in best average starting position (9.4) and Ryan Blaney is next best at 9.6. … Johnson is the all-time wins leader at 1.5-mile tracks, such as Texas. He has 28 victories. His former Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon is next on the list with 17. …The deepest in the field a winner has started is 31st. Matt Kenseth won the race from that grid position in 2002. …. Chevrolet has won twice as many Playoff races at Texas (seven) of the three manufacturers. Chevy and Ford are tied with 13 wins each in all races at TMS – best among the four manufacturers.

NASCAR Xfinity Series

Next Race: O’Reilly Auto Parts 300

The Place: Texas Motor Speedway

The Date: Saturday, Nov. 3

The Time: 4:30 p.m. ET


Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 300 miles (200 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 45),

Stage 2 (Ends on lap 90), and Final Stage (Ends on lap 200)

What to Watch For: Veteran Elliott Sadler has reclaimed the championship lead by a single point over Daniel Hemric. It’s the first time Elliott has led the standings since the race at Kentucky Speedway this summer. …. The first two TMS Playoff races were won by non-Playoff drivers. Kyle Larson won in 2016 and Erik Jones in 2017. In both races, the highest finishing Playoff driver was fourth. … None of the current championship eligible drivers have ever won at TMS. … Regular season champion and five-race winner Justin Allgaier is ranked sixth, 4-points behind fourth place Christopher Bell. He has never scored a top-five at TMS in 16 starts. His best finish is sixth – twice, in the 2011 and 2016 spring races. …. Allgaier and the season’s winningest driver – seven-time race winner Bell joined two other championship drivers in a Lap 1 incident in this Playoff round opener at Kansas Speedway two weeks ago. Bell is hopeful his fate improves this week as he has been good at Texas previously. He has two top-10 finishes in two starts including a runner-up to race winner to Ryan Blaney this April. … John Hunter Nemechek, a non-Playoff driver who won this round’s opening race at Kansas two weeks ago, will be racing again in the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet at Texas. …. That 42-car has helped the Ganassi team to a 50-point advantage over JR Motorsport’s No. 1 Chevrolet in the series owner’s championship. … Tyler Reddick reclaimed the rookie points lead following Kansas. He now holds a 10-point advantage over Bell. … Rookie Austin Cindric is ranked last among the eight Playoff drivers – 43 points behind leader Sadler. He will be making his second series start at TMS. He finished ninth at the track this spring.

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series

Next Race: Jag Metals 350

The Place: Texas Motor Speedway

The Date: Friday, Nov. 2

The Time: 8:30 p.m. ET


Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

Distance: 350 miles (147 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 35),

Stage 2 (Ends on lap 70), and Final Stage (Ends on lap 147)

What to Watch For: Johnny Sauter earned the first of four positions in the championship round with a victory last week at Martinsville, Va. … Noah Gragson leads the points standings now with a 24-point advantage on the field. … Justin Haley (-2) and Matt Crafton (-10) are just below that championship four cutoff line – ranked fifth and sixth headed to Texas. …Sauter is the winningest driver in the field this week with five previous Texas wins, one short of Todd Bodine’s six-victory record. Twice he has won back-to-back races (2012 sweep, 2017 Fall and 2018 spring). …. Sauter’s older brother Jay Sauter won this race in 1999. They are the only racing brothers both to hoist a trophy in Texas Victory Lane. …Brendan Gaughan holds the record for consecutive victories at the track. He won four straight sweeping the 2002 and 2003 seasons. …. There are still two pairs of teammates among the six Playoff-eligible drivers. GMS Racing’s Sauter and Haley. And ThorSport Racing’s Crafton and Grant Enfinger. … Four Playoff drivers have fewer than four previous starts at the big Texas track. This will be Brett Moffitt’s second start. It will be Gragson, Haley and Enfinger’s fourth start. …Six drivers are making their Texas Motor Speedway debut this weekend. …While Sauter leads this week’s field in wins (five), veteran Crafton leads all-time in most top-fives (14) and top-10s (23) at the track. … GMS Racing leads the owner’s championship by 29 points over Kyle Busch Motorsports. … Toyota is the winningest manufacturer at TMS with 17 truck wins. Chevrolet has 15 and has won the last two races with driver Sauter. …The closest Margin of Victory in this race is .116-seconds, when Todd Bodine beat Mike Skinner for the win in June, 2006.  …. The championship veterans Sauter and Crafton – who won in 2015 – are the only winners from the last 10 Texas races entered this week.

Greg Engle