NASCAR

10 things learned in Texas Cup race

NASCAR Sprint Cup highlights from Texas Motor Speedway
NASCAR Sprint Cup highlights from Texas Motor Speedway
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Lee Spencer

Lee Spencer is the Senior NASCAR Writer for FOXSports.com. She has provided award-winning coverage of auto racing over the last 15 years. Spencer has lent her expertise to both television and radio and is a regular contributor to SiriusXM Radio and the Performance Racing Network. Follow her on Twitter.

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Tony Stewart was the talk of the track coming into Texas.

BOOGITY! BOOGITY! BOOGITY!

NASCAR on FOX brings live coverage of the Sprint Cup race at Dover International Speedway on Sunday. The green flag drops at 1 p.m. ET, with coverage on FOX beginning at 12:30 p.m. ET.

After all, who could forget the boxing robe and gloves the champ donned after delivering a crushing blow to Carl Edwards’ Chase for the Sprint Cup hopes with his victory in the AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway last November?

Then Stewart came out and won the first intermediate track race of the season at Las Vegas in March. Two weeks later at Auto Club Speedway, a 2-mile track, Smoke exhibited tremendous speed again in pursuit of his second win of 2012.

But Stewart was virtually a no-show last weekend in the Lone Star State. He wasn’t alone. Just 12 cars finished on the lead lap on Saturday night. Many of the drivers were victims of the longest green-flag run in the 1.5-mile track’s history – 234 laps or 351 miles – bookended by a record two cautions for the event.

With so many green-flag pit stops, if a team missed the setup on the car, there wasn’t adequate time to make the necessary adjustments to catch up with the track or the leaders. Yes, the wind was ferocious. And certainly a night race offers its own challenges as track conditions change dramatically as darkness sets in.

Still, while some fans did not appreciate the long green runs, Dale Earnhardt Jr. found the challenges at Texas intriguing.

“I love it,” said Earnhardt, who finished 10th. “I love races like that. I know that it’s probably not the most exciting thing as a green-white-checkered or watching the field with a lot of cautions. But those races to me are really strategic and I can appreciate them for what they are. I think there are positives to having a lot of cautions and positives to race caution-free, in my mind. There is a lot of strategy.

“When it comes down to there not being any cautions, man you’re really asking a lot of the driver to run and to put together 60-lap series of runs back-after-back-after-back and try to put together fast laps over the entire race. Anyway, you never know when all that time is going to add up and get you a spot.”

Try as he might, however, Stewart was never a factor last weekend. He ran mid-pack during the first practice on Thursday and slapped the wall during his second lap of Happy Hour on Friday, which forced the team to pull out the back-up car. The results weren’t much better. The driver returned to the track in the same car he led 173 laps in en route to his fall win. But in 38 circuits, Stewart couldn’t advance higher than 35th on the speed chart.

Despite Stewart’s immense talent, he never recovered from qualifying 29th and settled for a 24th-place finish on Saturday night.

“We just couldn’t get the handle on this thing tonight,” Stewart said. “We started off really loose and then we sort of went the other way, and I needed to be freed up. We chased it all night. We’ll go back to the shop, tear it apart and see what the deal is.”

With just five days to prepare for the next intermediate track, Stewart and other teams that missed the set-up at Texas Motor Speedway will be searching for answers before unloading at Kansas Speedway on Friday. Although the 15-degree banking in the corners isn’t as severe as TMS’ 24-degree elevation, the weather can be every bit as challenging.

Here are 10 other storylines to watch entering this weekend and beyond:

1. Roush Fenway Racing on a roll

All three RFR Sprint Cup drivers finished in the top 10 at TMS. Not only did Greg Biffle solidify his status atop the points standings by padding his position to 19 over second-place Matt Kenseth, he ended a 49-race losing streak. Oh, and the site of Biffle’s last victory? Kansas Speedway, his second victory at the track where he holds the best average finish – 8.3.

The ever-consistent Kenseth notched another top-five at TMS and gained a spot in the standings after Earnhardt Jr. finished 10th. While Kenseth has never won at Kansas, four of his last five starts resulted in finishes of seventh or better. His 39th-place finish in the fifth race stemmed from an engine failure in 2009.

Teammate Carl Edwards forged a dramatic comeback on Saturday night after a loose lugnut knocked him back to 30th for the Lap 101 restart. Perseverance carried The Carl to an eighth-place finish and he remained 11th in points. The Columbia, Mo., native, who considers Kansas Speedway his home track, has the fifth-best average finish (10.7) on the 1.5-mile track, including finishes of fifth in both 2011 races.

2. The Hendrick 200

Yes, those 200th win hats continue to collect dust in Rick Hendrick’s trunk. But the wait could be over this weekend. Jeff Gordon won the first two races at Kansas Speedway. Jimmie Johnson was the last driver to win at Kansas, but his first victory there came at the track in 2008. Not only does J.J. top the Cup tour with 501 laps led and three poles at the track, his average finish of 8.4 is second only to Biffle. Although Junior’s record isn’t nearly as stout as his champion teammates' at Kansas, he finished second in this race last year. And if Junior has that breakthrough win in KC, expect one hell of a party at Oklahoma Joe’s.

3. The Hendrick Template

Teams were introduced to the new C-post template that NASCAR will put into use full time starting with Talladega Superspeedway recently at Martinsville. As a quick refresher, the C-post was that infamous area between roof and the rear quarter panel that came into question on the No. 48 car of Jimmie Johnson at Daytona International Speedway. The new template will consist of two pieces: one which locks on to the main grid and will be used from May 4 on and the second piece which connects to the first piece but will only be enforced at restrictor-plate tracks. Both pieces are intended to control the parameters of the gold surface or shape lines of the car.

4. Not Fueling Around

Fuel-delivery issues plagued Brad Keselowski on Saturday night, thwarting what certainly appeared to be a top-10 run for the No. 2 Dodge. Keselowski’s first trip to the garage on Lap 156 was short-lived as he returned to action eight laps later. But when fuel gremlins appeared 50 laps later, the team opted to change the fuel cell on Lap 212. Penske Racing teammate AJ Allmendinger experienced similar issues at Las Vegas, which proved equally catastrophic. Expect the team to offer a better diagnosis once the cars are broken down on Monday.

5. Dodge Ball

What will the Dodge line up look like in 2013? A lot depends on the engine program. While team owner and current Dodge competitor Roger Penske insists he’ll keep his engine shop open, it’s still unclear whether Dodges or Fords will be produced out of Penske Racing, which has already announced a move to Ford in 2013. A meeting with Penske, Jack Roush and Ford brass is scheduled for Thursday, which could offer a clearer view as to whether Penske will be building Ford or Dodge engines next season.

If Penske relinquishes the Dodge piece, there are several engine builders that have shown interest in picking up the pieces. Also, the number 16 has popped up — as in different teams interested in making the move to Dodge. Certainly, a factory-backed proposition would be welcomed by many in this economy.

6. Changing of the Guard

There’s been a shift at Toyota with Michael Waltrip Racing establishing itself as weekly contenders at the racetrack. At Texas, MWR cars once again outran the Camrys of Joe Gibbs Racing with Mark Martin and Martin Truex Jr. finishing third and sixth, respectively. MWR’s Clint Bowyer’s average finish of 12th is the best among the Toyotas in his home state of Kansas. But Denny Hamlin finished third in this race last year.

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7. Graduation Time

Jack Roush had a moment reminiscent of the one he had in Victory Lane in 2004 at Daytona when he declared Carl Edwards would be his next Cup driver. A similar experience happened on Friday night when, after Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s Texas win, Roush blurted out during the post-race celebration that his Nationwide champ will resurrect the No. 6 Cup Ford as soon as sponsorship can be secured. Regardless of the timetable, expect Stenhouse to be behind the wheel of the flagship RFR Ford full time in 2013.

8. Brutally Honest

Wind Tunnel with Dave Despain is must-see TV for race fans. But if you missed Sunday night’s interview with Phoenix Racing’s James Finch, here’s an excerpt from the owner’s perspective of the “honeymoon phase” with this year’s driver Kurt Busch:

“Kurt has put a lot of effort in it,” Finch said via a Speed release. “It’s kind of like a small team getting a big-time quarterback. (Saturday at Texas), it was 480 miles before we got a lap down. The pit crew did a real good job with all the green-flag stops. We’re just trying to catch up with Kurt. Kurt’s got the speed. We’re trying to get the crew chief up. We’re trying to get the pit crew up to be able to handle what Kurt can do. Hopefully, we’re getting there.”

9. The Mittler Touch

Mike Mittler’s truck has provided a launch pad for a variety of Sprint Cup drivers throughout the years, including Carl Edwards, Jamie McMurray, Brad Keselowski and Regan Smith. This week at Kansas, Mittler Brothers Motorsports will field the No. 65 Chevrolet for ARCA driver Scott Stenzil in Saturday’s Truck race. Now is your opportunity, Scott.

10. Numbers game

Finally, if Mark Martin, who has missed two of the first seven races but remains 20th in driver points, is ahead of your team in the standings, then it’s time to punt.
 

Tagged: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kurt Busch, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Greg Biffle, Tony Stewart, Martin Truex Jr., Carl Edwards, Mark Martin, Brad Keselowski

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