Johnson leads; Busch seeks history
Just because Jimmie Johnson appears to have the Chase for the Sprint Cup locked up doesn't mean there still isn't plenty to watch in Sunday's Dickies 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
There will be plenty of Dale Earnhardt Jr. fans cheering on the No. 88 to see if he can return to Victory Lane. And what about the wild and unpredictable Kyle Busch, who is a Sprint Cup win away from a historic weekend sweep? He isn't afraid to take some risks to get himself to the front of the field. Maybe a sleeper could emerge as a winner in Texas, stealing some of the spotlight from Johnson and his Hendrick teammates.
Let's take a look at five things to watch when the green flag waves Sunday:
1. No. 48 pit crew: Jimmie Johnson is cool, calm and collected behind the wheel of the No. 48, but he's the first to tell you that his crew deserves plenty of credit when it comes to championship runs. Crew chief Chad Knaus seems to make the right calls at the right times.
At TMS in 2007, Knaus put four fresh tires on Johnson's car, and he eventually tracked down Matt Kenseth (who had two new tires) to win a memorable six-lap duel. Even when the car doesn't seem right, like it did in November 2008 at TMS, Knaus makes just enough adjustments to keep Johnson out of trouble and, most of the time, in contention.
Pay attention to how efficient that team is when Johnson slides into his pit box. He's not likely to lose places on the track while on pit road. Don't be surprised if Knaus makes a critical call late that puts Johnson in position to drive to Victory Lane.
2. Triple threat: The sidebar to Johnson's championship run is whether Hendrick Motorsports can make more NASCAR history. No team has ever had three drivers finish 1-2-3 in the standings. But that's where they sit going into Sunday's race at TMS. Mark Martin is 184 points behind teammate Johnson. Jeff Gordon is just eight points behind Martin.
The closest pursuers to the Hendrick trio are Juan Pablo Montoya and Tony Stewart. Montoya is 47 points behind Gordon and Stewart is 87 points back. One good race at Texas by either could hurt Hendrick's chance at the unprecedented triple.
The good news for Hendrick: Johnson, Martin and Gordon have all won at TMS. Johnson won the fall race in 2007, getting by Kenseth in the closing laps. Martin won in 1998, but finished sixth in the spring race this season at TMS. Gordon will start Sunday's race from the pole. He won the spring race this season after starting second and was the runner-up in last year's Dickies 500. So it's very possible that Texas could be the springboard all three drivers need to secure more history this season.
3. Slump busters: Earnhardt and Carl Edwards come into Texas winless in 2009. For the sport's most popular driver, he's got a points-race drought that extends back to June 15, 2008. That's 54 races without a win. He has legions of fans at every track, and TMS is no exception.
Earnhardt has good feelings at Texas. He got his first Cup win at TMS in 2000 and got a big bear hug from his father in Victory Lane. Earnhardt has had some tough finishes the last few years, never placing higher than 12th since 2007. But he's led plenty of laps, only to get caught up in a wreck or have something else go wrong. He could certainly be a factor Sunday. Earnhardt needs a victory in the final three races to avoid his second winless season in the past three years.
Edwards' slump may be even more remarkable. He won nine times in 2008, his final victory coming at the season finale at Homestead. But Edwards hasn't managed to find Victory Lane this season. He's had only one runner-up finish, and that was in Pocono.
Edwards, though, should have good vibes at TMS. He swept both races in 2008, leading an impressive 212 laps in his victory in last year's Dickies 500. He was 10th in the spring race.
4. Sleepers: Roush Fenway Racing has won its share of races at TMS since the track opened in 1997. So Kenseth has to be considered one to watch on Sunday.
Kenseth hasn't won since taking the checkered flag in the first two races of the season. But he has two top 10s in the Chase and has been running better recently. Kenseth's record in Texas should give his team some confidence. He won in 2002 and was runner-up in 2006 (spring) and in both races in 2007. He was fifth in the spring this season, so Kenseth's team has the right setup for TMS.
Another guy that could surprise some folks is Kasey Kahne. He remains the only driver to win a Cup race at TMS from the poll, completing that feat in 2006 (spring). Kahne, who usually qualifies well at Texas, did so again on Friday. He'll start the race on the outside of Row 1.
5. Busch brothers: Kyle Busch will make his second start under new crew chief Dave Rogers, who moved up to Busch's car from the Nationwide Series. Busch has four wins this season, his last coming at Bristol in August. He leads the non-Chasers in the standings as he prepares for next season. But it means he has nothing to lose. And that makes him a contender Sunday. Busch had three top-10s in his past four races at TMS.
His brother, Kurt, sits sixth in the standings. He'll start third on Sunday, his best starting spot at TMS since the fall of 2006. Busch has never won in Texas, but he has eight career top-10s in 13 starts. He was eighth in the spring race despite starting 28th. He had four top-10s in the first five Chase races, before the past two weeks. Busch was 30th in Talladega, getting caught up in a late wreck.
Look for the Busch brothers to make things interesting on Sunday.
Richard Durrett covers auto racing for ESPNDallas.com. E-mail him at email@example.com.