Pit road and restarts key to success at Texas Motor Speedway

You can parse the numbers a hundred different ways, but the reality is Matt Kenseth and Jimmie Johnson are in a virtual dead heat, both in points and a whole host of statistical measurements.

That isn’t likely to change in this afternoon’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, where Johnson will start third behind the Fords of Brad Keselowski and Carl Edwards, with Kenseth three spots back of Johnson.

There are at least half a dozen drivers other than the title combatants who look like they could win today, with Keselowski, spring Texas winner Kyle Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Edwards, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick topping the list.

Clearly, though, all eyes will be on Kenseth and Johnson, who come into today’s race even in points.

It’s obvious that both Kenseth’s No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota and Johnson’s No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports are equal or very, very close to equal in speed.

But on the fast aero-dependent 1.5-mile tracks like Texas, winning isn’t always a matter of pure speed. In fact, this year, winning isn’t usually about who has the fastest car. It’s about who does the best job at two critical junctures: On pit road and on the restarts that follow caution flags.

In six of the nine races contested this season on 1.5-mile trucks, the race-winning final pass for the lead was made four times during pit stops and twice more on the restarts. Truex had a huge lead in the spring Texas race and lost it on pit road during a late-race caution for debris. Kyle Busch was the first off pit road on Lap 315 and went on to lead the final 20 laps to win the race.

Interestingly, only four times this year has the driver who led the most laps at a 1.5-mile track gone on to win the race.

When Keselowski won at Charlotte Motor Speedway three weeks ago, he led just 11 of 334 laps. But he led the only one that pays money, Lap 334.

Keselowski, who won Saturday’s NASCAR Nationwide Series race at TMS, thinks today’s tussle could be more of the same.

“As far as the Cup race is concerned, I think we are really strong,” Keselowski said. “I think we have a great shot at it. I think there is probably about three or four cars and whichever one gets the lead at the end will probably win. Whichever one gets the lead on the last restart or last pit cycle is probably going to win the race. I think the 20 (Kenseth) car, myself, the 18 (Kyle Busch) and the 48 (Johnson) are all really strong.”

That said, Keselowski likes Kenseth to win the title.

“I would say Matt because he has the strongest pit crew on pit road,” Keselowski said. “We have seen that track position is attained on pit road and is critical and that will probably win him the Chase. That is my gut.”

We’ll all know soon enough if he’s right.