Drivers facing the great unknown at brand new Texas Motor Speedway

Drivers+facing+the+great+unknown+at+brand+new+Texas+Motor+Speedway

Robert Laberge

Texas Motor Speedway has always been known for doing things bigger and better. That will be no different this weekend.

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series travels to the Lone Star State for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 this Sunday. But a newly repaved and reconfigured track is primed to give drivers fits, as they come into with zero track time and not knowing what to expect.

WHAT: O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (501 miles, 334 laps, stages of 85, 85 and 164, respectively)

WHEN: Sunday, April 9, 2017. Green flag at approximately 1:15 p.m. ET. TV on FOX, radio on MRN

WHERE: Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas. (1.5-mile intermediate quad-oval)

FAVORITES: Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. (6-1)


LAST YEAR’S WINNER

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/NASCAR via Getty Images

Kyle Busch,along with his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, dominated en route to his second consecutive win of the

2016 season. He had won at Martinsville Speedway the weekend prior. Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott rounded out the top five.


THE LINEUP

Kevin Harvick swept all three rounds of Coors Light pole qualifying on Saturday evening, earning his second pole of the 2017 season and the 19th of his career.

The pole winning lap was 27.217 seconds (198.405 mph), and Ford Performance swept the top five spots. Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski will follow Harvick to the green flag on Sunday, with Jamie McMurray, Martin Truex Jr., Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch rounding out the top ten starting positions.

Photo: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

 

Some other notable starters include Denny Hamlin in 17th, Daniel Suarez in 20th, Jimmie Johnson in 24th after spinning in round one and Austin Dillon in 25th.


MORE INSPECTION ISSUES

A total of nine cars (Dale Earnhardt Jr., Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Kasey Kahne, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones, Chris Buescher, Derrike Cope and Timmy Hill) failed to pass inspection in time to make a qualifying attempt. They all will start the race from the rear.

In case you forgot, NASCAR mandated a new rule at the beginning of the season stating that teams must go back through every inspection station, not just the one they didn’t pass, if they fail. This causes a huge time delay, and in turn, teams miss their attempt to qualify. It has happened before this season, most notably at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

“We don’t feel good about anybody missing qualifying,” Elton Sawyer, NASCAR Vice President, Officiating and Technical Inspection told reporters. “But it is something that happens when teams are pushing the envelope. Teams know our expectations and every team was afforded the opportunity to go through inspection. Some needed multiple tries and some weren’t able to get their cars ready in time to qualify.”

Jones also won the XFINITY race, the My Bariatric Solutions 300 on Saturday afternoon.


A TEXAS SIZED FACELIFT

After a 90 minute rain delay in the spring race and over a seven hour drying effort in the fall playoff race, it became clear that Texas Motor Speedway needed some fixing.

The 1.5-mile quad-oval underwent a complete repave and slight reconfiguration this offseason. The drainage system underneath the new asphalt, which is now limestone infused, has been replaced and the dreaded weepers are nonexistent.

Translation: bring it on, Mother Nature.

Okay, I’m kidding. Stay away, Mother Nature. Anyways, the whole track was repaved with new asphalt, but while they were at it, the speedway, track president Eddie Gossage and Speedway Motorsports Inc. (SMI) decided to make another huge change.

Turns one and two are now banked at 20 degrees and have been widened from 55 to 80 feet in an effort to make the track a little different from the other 1.5-milers on the circuit. Turns three and four remain banked at 24 degrees. Lane lines have also been added in all four turns.

Photo: Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

“One of the drivers said to me, ‘It’s not supposed to be easy,’ and I do agree,” Gossage told reporters. “It does throw a curveball at them and that’s okay. I’m just anxious to get drivers and race cars on the track. It’s been finished for almost two months.”


BUT HOW WILL THE RACING BE?

When a race track repaves the surface, the racing, unfortunately, is typically boring.

This is mostly because of the lack of cars on track creates the lack of multiple grooves. The fastest way around the track is at the very bottom, and that’s also where all the grip is. So, naturally, everybody runs their cars down there and nobody dares to slide up even a tad.

Heck, we’ve seen in multiple practice sessions and in the XFINITY Series race this weekend that if a car slides up even a mere six inches, they get loose and end up spinning out and/or losing multiple spots in one corner. Drivers who are the best of the best like Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson have had trouble. People forget, this is hard.

If the bottom is the only place to go for all 334 laps, it’ll be a boring race. But if drivers can work in another groove, the racing is sure to pick up. And as the new surface ages, more grooves will pop up. Just look at Atlanta, Fontana, Las Vegas, Richmond, etc.


PENSKE POWER

Coming off the heels of his win last weekend at Martinsville Speedway, Brad Keselowski looks to claim his first ever MENCS victory at Texas. He has four top fives, six top 10’s and one pole in 17 starts at TMS. His average finish of 16.2 is good enough for 11th-best in the Cup Series. Keselowski also leads the series with 10 playoff points and is the only driver with two wins.

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images

But his teammate at Penske is no slouch, either. He won this race back in 2015 and has seven top five finishes in 17 starts. He has yet to find victory lane this season, but No. 22 fans shouldn’t panic. He won his first race in 2016 all the way in July.


LESS IS MORE

Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports have dominated the MENCS for the past three to four years. What’s common between all of those powerhouse teams?

They are four car operations. Well, only one team from a four-car operation has found victory lane this season (Kurt Busch at Daytona). Everybody else has been a part of a two-car operation, with one being a three-car one (Keselowski, Truex Jr., Newman, Larson).

Does this mean that less is in fact more? It’s too early to tell. Just ask Zack Albert, as he spoke this week on Victory Lane about tempering our early judgments on big names not performing well out of the gates to start 2017.

PREDICTION

I’m taking Brad Keselowski to go back-to-back and assert his dominance in that No. 2 car as the guy to beat this season. As a dark horse, look no further than Ryan Blaney. He starts on the outside of the front row and was fastest in a practice session on Friday. Enjoy the race at 1:30 p.m. ET on FOX, everybody!