On Sunday, for the first time this season, the stock cars in the Cup series will be running at a high-speed oval with the new spoiler, which replaced the rear-wing at Martinsville Speedway three weeks ago. But Martinsville and Phoenix, site of last weekend's race, are both relatively slow tracks where aerodynamics aren't a significant factor, meaning there wasn't a lot of difference between how the cars ran and handled with the wing and with the spoiler. But that changes on Sunday.
"Texas will be the true measure of whose got the edge with the spoiler and whose figured some things out," Matt Kenseth told me at Martinsville. "Everyone in the garage is circling that race."
Indeed, whoever performs well at Texas should have the upper hand for the rest of the season -- and, perhaps, in Chase. Remember: five of the 10 Chase races take place at high-speed intermediate tracks like Texas, so it's absolutely imperative to run well at these venues to compete for the championship. Everyone in the sport knows this, which is why teams have spent months -- and millions of dollars -- prepping for Sunday's shootout in the Lone Star State.
Here are the five drivers to keep an eye on:
1. Jimmie Johnson
No shocker here. Johnson, the four-time defending champion, already has won three races this season and currently holds a 36-point lead over Matt Kenseth in the standings. Johnson isn't traditionally a fast starter, and it's fair to say his dominance throughout the seven races has caused a here-we-go-again vibe to fall over the garage. Johnson's crew chief Chad Knaus has been studying the spoiler as much as anyone in the sport, so don't expect Johnson to fall off in Texas. If he doesn't finish in the top five, it would be an upset.
2. Jeff Gordon
As I wrote in the magazine two weeks ago, Gordon may be the one driver who stands to benefit the most from the change to the spoiler. Unlike Johnson, Gordon rarely felt comfortable with the wing. His car seemed to have a chronic case of the wiggles and shakes whenever it encountered traffic with the wing. But Gordon has won more races (81) and won more championships (four) with the spoiler than any current driver. He's already ripped off a third-place finish and a second place run with the spoiler, and on Sunday I think he reaches Victory Lane. Gordon, for my money, is the leading candidate to dethrone Johnson this year.
3. Jeff Burton
Burton consistently flashed the most speed during the first and only test session with the spoiler last month at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Currently eighth in points, Burton has lead laps in four of the seven races in 2010. He's been an afterthought for the better part of three years now, but he could make a strong statement on Sunday with a top-three finish, which I think he's capable of pulling off.
4. Denny Hamlin
Last Saturday night in Phoenix, Hamlin authored one of gutsiest NASCAR performances in recent memory when he piloted his No. 11 Toyota just ten days after undergoing reconstructive surgery on his left knee to repair a torn ACL. Though Casey Mears was on hand as a backup driver, Hamlin finished the race, which he described as a "miserable experience." Hamlin's car wasn't fast all weekend -- having nothing to do with his knee and everything to do with his setup -- and he came in 30th.
But I think Hamlin, despite the wounded knee on his breaking leg, bounces back on Sunday. The No. 11 team is championship caliber but their season, even though it's just April, is on the brink. Currently 18th in points, Hamlin is already running out of time if he's to make the Chase. In his last start at Texas, Hamlin finished second. More important, his team -- Joe Gibbs Racing -- has devoted as many resources to figuring out the spoiler as any organization in the sport.
5. Matt Kenseth
Remember back in 2003 when Kenseth won the championship by reeling off one top-10 finish after the next? Though he won only one race that season, he essentially had the title wrapped up in the summer, which in turn prompted NASCAR to adopt the ten-race Chase for the Championship, playoff-style format.
Kenseth is doing it again. Through seven races, he has six top-10 finishes. Though he's only led a total of 10 laps in 2010, Kenseth is very much a Cup contender. Kenseth has always flourished on intermediate tracks like Texas, and on Sunday he should run fast once again. He's authored six straight top-10 runs at the track, so go ahead and pencil him in for another one this weekend.