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Driver Highlights  ·   Odds & Ends  ·   Practice Notes

The best way to get started in handicapping this week’s race is to first look at what the Cup Series drivers did in the most recent races held at Texas Motor Speedway's sister tracks, Atlanta and Charlotte. Although each track has their own unique traits, the set-ups required by each team are similar due to the high banked 1.5-mile layout of all three.

Atlanta was run in early September and Charlotte on Oct. 13. Drivers that ran well in those two races should run well Sunday at Texas. Those two recent races hold more weight this week than the first Texas race run in April, just because it's more recent, therefore more relevant.



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The top performer at Atlanta and Charlotte was Denny Hamlin, a two-time Texas winner. Hamlin won at Atlanta and finished runner-up at Charlotte. He even finished runner-up in the late May Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte. This is why he's listed as the 5/1 co-favorite this week.

The only question with Hamlin this week is how he'll respond to having his dreams of winning a Sprint Cup title flushed down the toilet after finishing 33rd last week at Martinsville. The last time Hamlin may have been as disappointed was when he blew his chances at a title in 2010 and it took him an entire 2011 to get over it.

However, the difference between 2011 and this year is that there is no winter gap in between. All the winning set-up notes crew chief Darian Grubb has will be utilized on whatever chassis the team decides to use this week (Joe Gibbs Racing drivers don't report what chassis they use each week, per Joe Gibbs, something that strangely started occurring after their trip to Las Vegas this season).

Even if Hamlin's head isn't in the race this weekend, it's likely that his car will be so good that he won't have time to think about blowing the 2012 season and will find himself competing for the win.

Jimmie Johnson is other co-favorite at 5/1, mainly because of his current form. We haven't seen Johnson win on any type of 1.5-mile track this season, but he's been close. He finished third at Charlotte three weeks ago and he also finished runner-up in the April Texas race. He's had one win over his career at Texas (2007) and has the second-best average finish (9.7) in track history.

Matt Kenseth has the best average finish (8.6) in track history that includes two wins. He's on a streak right of four straight top-5 finishes at Texas, which makes it understandable why he likes racing there so much.

“Texas is a really great race track that I really enjoy racing at twice during the season," Kenseth said earlier this week. "There are a lot of fans who always come out and support us there, and it’s also a place that I’ve been lucky enough to have had some great races and finishes at. Texas is a fast 1.5-mile track where we have options to run several lines. It’s a place that can be challenging as well since the straightaways are fairly flat while the corners have some high banking in them. I’m looking forward to this weekend and hope to have another strong performance at a 1.5-mile track similar to our run at Kansas.”

That Kansas win showed that Roush Racing had finally figured out the aero-package program that NASCAR changed at mid-season. Roush drivers had fared well on the 1.5-mile track prior, including Greg Biffle's win at Texas in April, and Biffle is optimistic about completing the sweep this week.

“I’m excited about heading to Texas this weekend and hopefully we can make it a sweep," said Biffle who will be using the same chassis from the earlier Texas win. "We tested the 2013 car there about a month ago and feel good about Texas, but to win there you have to have everything right. You’ve got to drive hard like we did in the spring and there will always be four or five guys to contend with at the end. You can run up the track, down the track, pit stops are important and the track really flattens off the corner. You have really got to watch what you do or that thing will sneak up and bite you, kind of like what happened to me in Chicago.”

That rough September day in Chicago for Biffle and the Roush team was the last of their issues on the 1.5-mile mile tracks as they found the solution they had been looking for with the aero-package. The next crack at a 1.5 was at Charlotte where Biffle finished fourth and then following week, Kenseth won at Kansas.

Like Kenseth, Biffle has a streak of four straight top-5's at Texas. But perhaps the biggest reason to like him this week, besides his 10/1 odds, is that he is using the same chassis that captured both his wins (Texas and Michigan) this season.

Look for all the Roush cars to run well this week, and maybe even Carl Edwards. Hamlin will be a beast, and Johnson will likely not press his car too much, but it will be out all with Texas guns-a-blazin' for the Roush drivers.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #17 Matt Kenseth (10/1)
2) #16 Greg Biffle (10/1)
3) #48 Jimmie Johnson (5/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (5/1)
5) #15 Clint Bowyer (12/1)


  
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