NASCAR wanted to put a premium on winning when it went to this knockout-style Chase for the Sprint Cup two years ago. And the competitive juices have flowed because of it.
At Texas Motor Speedway, though, that has led to Chase drivers being overly aggressive and seeing their days end before the checkered flag drops. That’s why a non-Chase driver the past two seasons — Jimmie Johnson in each case — had the opportunity to play “spoiler.”
Johnson, who has already secured a spot in this year’s championship, was out of contention in 2014 and 2015, and won each Chase race at Texas. Had a Chase driver won those races they would have punched their ticket to the championship round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
Does it hurt having a spoiler win the race? Texas is the only track where a Chase driver has failed win a race during this format.
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“No,” TMS president Eddie Gossage said. “I think it’s a great thing. Anytime you can make things more difficult in sports, it makes it more enticing to watch. Whoever the fastest man or woman is on Sunday, bring them on to Victory Lane.
“All I’m interested in is us having a great race.”
Johnson agreed, saying there are at least 15 to 20 drivers every race who have a chance to win. And, Johnson said, he’s gone home happy to win at Texas the past two falls, but was also kicking himself for not staying alive in the Chase to make that win even more special.
“It’s just part of it,” Johnson said.
Johnson then joked that he’d prefer the old Chase format, saying: “Man, I won six [championships] with the other one. I want the other one back. ... But there’s no doubt this is exciting.”
There should be no complaints when an all-time great such as Johnson wins. Or if a retiring legend such as Tony Stewart has his best race to take one more checkered flag this year.
Stewart would be a sentimental favorite, but he’s not a realistic threat to win Sunday. Stewart has finished outside the top 10 in his last three races at Texas, and has only one top 10 run so far in the Chase races.
All I’m interested in is us having a great race.
TMS president Eddie Gossage
Here are three spoilers to watch at Sunday’s AAA Texas 500:
Chase Elliott: The rookie has yet to win a Cup race even though he’s been competitive in most races. He posted a top-five run and led a lap at Texas in April, and may be able to snap a 38-race winless streak on Sunday. After all, he won his first Xfinity Series race at Texas in 2014.
38 Race winless drought to open Chase Elliott’s Cup career
Having Elliott win his first Cup race would be another coup for Texas, which is the track of Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s first victory. Elliott is a budding star who has replaced Jeff Gordon in the famed No. 24 Chevrolet. And, much like Elliott, Gordon struggled to get his first win at the Cup level. Gordon didn’t win until his 42nd career race.
Brad Keselowski: Keselowski was in the championship picture until a wreck and engine failure in the Round of 12 knocked him out. Now, the 2012 champ has set his sights on leading NASCAR in wins this season.
Keselowski has four, and would love to add a fifth at Texas, a track he has never won at. Keselowski finished runner-up in this race a year ago, dominating much of the race until Jimmie Johnson overtook him with four laps remaining. Two years ago, he made headlines when he cut race leader Jeff Gordon’s tire in the closing laps that led to a brawl along pit road.
Keselowski is hoping to become a storyline for the right reasons this time around.
Martin Truex Jr.: Contending for a championship with a one-car operation is not common nowadays, but Truex and Furniture Row Racing have bucked the trend of power teams. In fact, Truex Jr. had a storybook season going for much of the year until an engine failed him at Talladega two weeks ago to end his title hopes.
Truex with Keselowski tied for the most wins (four), but has never won at Texas. Truex has three consecutive top 10 runs at Texas, and has a career-best finish for second in the spring of 2013.
Truex would be more than happy to play the role of spoiler and show he deserves the title of best non-Chase team.
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AAA Texas 500
1 p.m. Sunday, KXAS/Ch. 5