As much as I enjoy the National Football League and covering the Dallas Cowboys for 103.3 FM ESPN and ESPNDallas.com, my true passion is auto racing, and especially Nascar. This weekend the Sprint Cup Series makes its first of two visits to the Great American Speedway and the running of the Samsung Mobile 500.
For the first time, the race will be competed under the lights at Texas Motor Speedway. Since speedway president Eddie Gossage was able to secure a second race date for Texas, the November race has started in the daylight but finished at night. Never has an entire race been run under the lights, and it will be interesting to see the different setups these crews use to dial their cars in.
Texas Motor Speedway is already one of the fastest tracks in the Sprint Cup Series and when the racing is done during the day, the track becomes hot and slick, making it even tougher to navigate. Under the lights, the grip and speeds will increase to serious levels. Crews do not have any real notes to go off of but might look to other mile-and-a-half tracks that run races at night -- such as Charlotte and Chicago -- for setups.
Something to also watch in Texas is the long green flag runs. If we see this type of action with fewer cautions, how will crews be able to make time for adjustments under green flag conditions?
Top 5 Drivers to Watch:
1. Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Fed Ex Office/March of Dimes
Hamlin swept the two Sprint Cup races at TMS in 2010. In 11 career starts at TMS, he has two wins and eight top-10 finishes. Hamlin started 29th and 30th in the field in his victories, a tribute to the strength of his team. Something to note: Joe Gibbs Racing has struggled with some engine issues. Word in the garage is they feel they've solved the problem, but it's something to watch.
2. Carl Edwards, No. 99 Scotts Turf Builder
Edwards comes into the race second in the Sprint Cup Series points standings. In six starts this year, he has a win and four top-10 finishes. Edwards is a three-time winner at TMS, and like Hamlin did in 2010, he swept the season races in 2008. Edwards is in the top 5 of total laps led at the speedway and is a master when it comes to stretching fuel mileage to finish a race. Something to note: In two of last three races at TMS, Edwards has suffered a DNF.
3. Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Crown Royal Black
Kenseth is the teammate of Carl Edwards at Roush Fenway Racing. He is ninth in the Sprint Cup Series but has not had the consistency of his teammate early this season. But when he passes through the tunnel at TMS, no matter how up and down his season has been, he will be a factor in that upcoming race. In 17 career races at TMS, Kenseth has a win and 11 top-10s. Not known as one of the better drivers when it comes to qualifying, Kenseth won the 2001 event when he was able to pilot his Ford from the 31st starting position -- the deepest a winner at TMS has ever started from. Something to note: Kenseth has finished in the top 10 every time he has started in the top 10 here.
4. Jimmie Johnson. No. 48 Lowe’s
Jimmie Johnson is the model of consistency. The five-time defending Sprint Cup champion has made 15 starts at TMS, winning once with 11 top-10 finishes. Johnson has never started outside the 18th spot and had a string of six races in a row where he never started outside the top 8. Johnson has suffered only one DNF at TMS, and that was in the Spring race of 2007. It was in the fall race at TMS in 2010 where Johnson’s crew chief Chad Knaus sent a message to his team after several poor pit stops by switching his crew out for members of Jeff Gordon’s team during the middle of the race after Gordon had crashed out. Johnson went on to finish ninth in that day. Something to note: In eight of Johnson’s 15 starts at TMS, he has failed to lead a single lap. When he won the fall race in 2007, he only led nine laps.
5. Mark Martin, No. 5 Go Daddy.com
Mark Martin knows how to get around Texas Motor Speedway. Jeff Burton, Jeff Gordon and Bobby Labonte are the only other drivers to compete in all Sprint Cup Series races run at this facility. In 20 career starts, Martin has one victory and 12 top-10s. In his last four races at TMS, he has finished no worse than sixth. Martin is at his absolute best at the finish of races. In 2011, of a possible 1,987 laps, he has yet to miss a lap. Martin is first in the Sprint Cup Series in that stat, one lap ahead of Kyle Busch. Something to note: Martin has finished 18 straight races at TMS. The only race that he received a DNF was his first one in 1997. He found himself in teh winner's circle the following spring.