November 06, 2009

After the ghoulish Halloween madness at the biggest baddest track of them all, a return to a cookie cutter venue at Texas Motor Speedway will bring some much needed normalcy to the Sprint Cup this weekend. Just three races remain on the 2009 slate and for some, the end of the season can't come soon enough.

But while the Championship is all but decided, no doubt there are plenty of you in the throes of a heated "Fantasy NASCAR" battle. Those that are would do well to carefully consider their lineups; we're at the stage of the season where there is zero margin for error. Texas Motor Speedway is a 1.5-mile quad shaped oval with 24 degrees of banking in the corners -- very similar in style to Atlanta and Charlotte. As we approach the track and the denouement of 2009, here are your favorites, sleepers and longshots for Sunday's 500-miler.

Jimmie Johnson: With an unprecedented fourth title all but wrapped up -- courtesy of a incredibly fortuitous sixth place finish in the carnage at Talladega last weekend -- Jimmie Johnson heads back to a track at which he has (surprise, surprise) had a lot of success. If you can still activate the presumptive champ, don't hesitate. In fact, mark him down as a favorite for all three of the remaining tracks this season. At Texas, Johnson has one win, six top fives and nine top 10s in 12 attempts, an impressive effort even by his lofty standards. This weekend may very well go a long way to rubber stamping the inevitable.

By the numbers: A statistical anomaly, perhaps, but Johnson does have one finish of 38th place at Texas, in the first race of 2007, in amongst an almost uninterrupted plethora of top-10 runs.

Matt Kenseth: Jamie McMurray became the first non-Chase participant this season to win a "Chase" race, at 'Dega last week, and Kenseth might just become the second this weekend. Statistically speaking: Kenseth excels at Texas with one win, six top fives, and nine top 10s in 14 attempts. For Roush Fenway Racing, it's been a year when expectations have fallen well short of reality, but in Kenseth's case, he's still run well at his better tracks (Fontana, Dover, etc.) despite his otherwise mediocre form elsewhere. Don't be surprised to see the No. 17 car at the front of the pack this weekend.

By the numbers: TMS is Kenseth's second best track, where he has an average finish of 9.7. The only track he runs better at is Fontana (9.2).

Carl Edwards: 13 drivers have won a race at TMS, and atop the list with a series-best three victories is Carl Edwards. Reduced to little more than an afterthought in this year's Chase, Edwards is winless this year and desperate to return to Victory Lane, even if his broken foot (sustained through a vicious game of that lethal sport of Frisbee) will preclude his trademark flip.

This hasn't been, by any stretch of the imagination, the season Edwards expected -- he was a preseason pick to dethrone the practically invincible Johnson -- and while a win wouldn't sweep away the misery of 2009, it would go a long way to restoring some sheen and luster to an otherwise forgettable season.

By the numbers: Edwards swept at Texas in 2008, winning both races; he has an average finish of 13.4 in nine attempts.

Jamie McMurray: Jamie Mac needed a positive result this past weekend in the worst possible way. With the contraction of Roush Fenway from five to four teams (per NASCAR mandate), the Joplin native finds himself out of a ride for 2010. All signs point to him taking over the seat in the No. 1 car, which Martin Truex Jr. is vacating for a ride with Michael Waltrip Racing next season, and the win will have done his chances a power of good. At Texas, McMurray has three top fives and six top 10s in 11 starts and he finished third last year; a race in which he led 56 laps. With plenty of positive momentum, don't be shocked if McMurray backs up his 'Dega effort with another solid run.

By the numbers: McMurray's average finish at TMS is 15.1, significantly better than his average start of 28.5.

Kevin Harvick: Harvick has not exactly lived up to his "Happy" moniker this year, but much of that has been a result of his horrible form this season. When all is said and done, in 2009, Harvick is likely to record career lows in laps led, top 10s, and average finishes. As you might expect with the irascible Harvick, he's made his opinion fairly clear, and with one year left on his contract, it looks as if he will be exiting RCR at the end of 2010. Of course, there's plenty of time for that to change, and a solid final few runs in 2009 would kick start the healing process between driver and owner. With five top 10s in the last seven races at TMS, Sunday might just be the start of an uphill swing.

By the numbers: Harvick has completed 4340 of 4352 laps at Texas (99.7%) but has led only four in 13 attempts.

Ryan Newman: As you might expect from someone who spent several minutes wedged upside in his car after another Talladega horror show, Newman, more than any other driver, will be glad to see the back of the Alabama behemoth. Unfortunately for the Stewart-Haas driver, TMS is not a venue where he has had much success of late. He did win his second race there, back in 2003, but with only two additional top 10s since then, don't expect Newman to be challenging the leaders this weekend. Like many of the other Chasers, his Championship challenge withered and died before it even began; but however you slice it, 2009 has, epic crashes notwithstanding, been an excellent first year for the 10-year veteran with the fledgling SHR outfit, especially after such a slow start.

By the numbers: Newman has an average finish of 23.3 and 3 DNFs at TMS.

Next Up: The penultimate race of the 2009 NASCAR season at Phoenix International Raceway.

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