Jimmie Johnson became the first driver to punch his ticket in the Championship Round with a win at Martinsville on Sunday, the ninth of his career there. Only three spots remain with two races to go in the Round of 8 until the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Nov. 20 where the 2016 Sprint Cup championship will be crowned.
This week the series travels to Texas Motor Speedway for the second time this season for Sunday’s AAA Texas 500. It will be the 10th of 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks this season and the first nine should lend plenty of data to find who is most likely to win this week.
Kyle Busch won the April 9 race at Texas for his second career win on the high-banked track. However it was sixth-place finisher Martin Truex Jr. who led the most laps (141). Seventh-place Carl Edwards led the second-most (124).
Truex was eliminated from the Chase two weeks ago after Talladega, but has led the most laps (1,743) on all tracks this season, including the group of 10 races on 1.5-mile tracks. He should be considered at least the co-favorite to win this week despite never winning at Texas in 22 career starts. He has wins on 1.5s at Charlotte and Chicago already this season, and with a championship not in his future anymore his main goal is to lead the season in wins. He’s currently tied with Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Johnson and Busch with four wins each.
Edwards put himself in a rough spot by finishing 36th at Martinsville last week because now he has to win one of the next two races to advance. He’s a three-time winner at Texas, but doesn’t have any of his two wins this season on a 1.5. However, he was runner-up at Kansas three weeks at ago, a 1.5-mile track, but much flatter than Texas. He’s finished 10th or better in his last four Texas starts and his last win there was with Roush Fenway Racing in 2008 when he swept the season.
The driver I think you really need to consider as the winner this week is Johnson, who has won five of the last eight races at Texas and has six overall. He’s got the recent history there, but there are a couple of better reasons to support Johnson. First off, he has no pressure and he can race worry-free knowing no matter what happens he’s still in the Championship Round.
The next reason is probably the best in favor of Johnson winning. It was at a Chicago test session a few weeks before the Chase began where master crew chief Chad Knaus found something to get the team more speed on the 1.5s – a perfect balanced set-up for the No. 48. On the first 1.5-mile track after the test, Johnson led the most laps (118) at Chicago before a late race miscue relegated them to 12th. A few weeks later at Charlotte he would lead a race-high 155 laps and win, and then on the last 1.5 raced at he would finish fourth at Kansas.
What stands out most is the Charlotte win because Texas resembles its sister-track the most. So he’s got the whole pre-race package showing he’s most likely to win – car, speed, motivation plus both past and recent success. However, there are plenty of other drivers hungrier for a win and knowing Johnson is in the Chase, they’d have no problem punting him out of the way late to secure their own future. But first they have to catch him.
Those desperate drivers racing for a championship still are Edwards, Kurt Busch, Harvick and Joey Logano. Harvick won the last race on a 1.5 at Kansas and Logano finished third. Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth are both tied for second, five-points out from Johnson, and Kyle Busch is fourth, just four points ahead of fifth-place Logano. Kenseth and Hamlin are both two-time winners at Texas.