Dale Earnhardt Jr. isn’t in the Chase. Neither is Jimmie Johnson. Those two racing staples have been relegated to spoiler roles as NASCAR’s playoffs head down the stretch.
But there are plenty of other storylines going into Sunday’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway.
Start with the obvious — Jeff Gordon’s final race in the Lone Star State. The racing icon is calling it quits on driving a full-time schedule after the season, and is looking to go out with a fifth championship.
Gordon has already clinched a spot in the championship round, and is likely to focus mostly on getting his car and team ready for the championship race later this month at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
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But the No. 1 storyline around the sport has been the talk of retaliation. Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecked Chase contender Joey Logano last week at Martinsville, Va., a move that has been ripped and praised by fans.
Kenseth’s actions will have a impact on the championship, possibly leaving Logano out of the mix, and NASCAR came down hard by suspending Kenseth for two races.
But, as Logano has said, what’s past is past. Let’s move forward by looking at the eight Chase drivers, in qualifying order, going into Sunday’s race:
Comment: Keselowski knows he’s essentially in a must-win situation to secure one of four spots in the championship round. And he’s OK with that, even though he has only one win this season compared to six a year ago. Although Keselowski has never won at Texas, he has led at some point in seven of 14 career races here and has five top-10 finishes in his last six races at TMS.
Quote: “Hopefully we can make the most of [pole position]. I am pumped about this race. Track position is so important everywhere.”
Comment: Reigning series champ knows what it takes to win the later rounds, and is in position for a second consecutive championship. Harvick is searching for his first win at Texas, where he has finished runner-up the last two times.
Quote: “I feel good about our team. We’ve overcome a lot of adversity. I think we’ve overcome a lot of situations and performed at the right time. It’s really about surviving and advancing.”
Comment: Outside of Jeff Gordon, Busch is in the best position of any remaining Chasers. He’s second in the points standings but would love to get a berth in the title round with his fifth win of the season. It would also mark Busch’s first win in the Chase as a contender.
Quote: “We don’t need to win, but we would love to win. I feel like this is a good opportunity for us to have a really good day and for us to score a victory. We come to every race trying to win and this one’s no different. I hope that Texas will bode well for us and we can score that win. If not, a solid top-five finish is exactly what we need. That’s where we need to be at the end of the day.”
Comment: Some feel he was a victim of a classless retaliation move by Matt Kenseth last Sunday. Some feel Logano deserved it for his actions against Kenseth two weeks ago at Kansas. Regardless, Logano now must win one of the next two races to keep his championship dreams alive. Logano feels the intentional wreck could end up being a good thing for his No. 22 Ford team.
Quote: “Our team is more fired up than ever. I am more focused than ever. I am pumped about being here at the track today. What happened last week is what happened last week.”
Comment: Busch, the 2004 Cup champ, knows he must win to make it to the championship after finishing 34th at Martinsville. Texas is a track at which he can win, given that he’s won here before (Nov. 2009) and was the pole-sitter last spring.
Quote: “We are down but not out. We can go to Texas and win. It’s a tough mile-and-a-half racetrack … the speed that you carry at the beginning of a run is very different than the speed at the end of the run.”
Comment: Edwards can’t be counted out of this race. He has three career Cup wins at Texas, including winning from the 30th position in the fall of 2005. He also won from the 16th position in the fall of 2008. However, it’s been rough going for Edwards at Texas since, with an average finish of 15.6 in his last 13 races.
Quote: “We have such a strong race car, these guys did a really good job with it. … We can win this thing and it’s a 500-mile race, so 13th isn’t the end of the world.”
Comment: Gordon can put it in cruise control the next two weeks and focus on the championship race at Homestead later this month. He has already secured one of four championship berths with his win at Martinsville. But don’t count Gordon out. He’s made major moves at Texas before, going from 34th to fourth in the spring of 2012, and going from 23rd to sixth in the fall of 2011.
Quote: “We are just lacking speed. I’m pretty optimistic, but that was about all we had and obviously we want more.”
Martin Truex Jr.
Comment: Truex Jr. has flown under the radar most of the season, a one-car team somehow contending with the big boys. He would be in the championship if it started today, but knows that doesn’t mean much, given how much can happen the next two weeks. To stay in the championship picture, Truex likely needs to make at least a double-digit jump today.
Quote: “I really enjoy the underdog role. It’s really cool for a lot of reasons. If you look at our race team, we are an underdog. I’ve never been in a championship battle in this series. I’ve got a rookie crew chief. We’re a single-car team in Denver. There are a lot of reasons why we really do fit the mold of an underdog.”
AAA Texas 500
1 p.m. Sunday , KXAS/5