Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s victory in last weekend’s Eliminator Round opener at Martinsville Speedway ensured that at least two of the four spots for the Sprint Cup Championship Race will be decided on points.
Could that number go up to three today? The spotlight may be on the Eliminator 8 in today’s AAA Texas 500 at Texas Motor Speedway, but the field is littered with potential spoilers that can wipe out another automatic bid to South Florida.
That would be a bad scenario for three Chasers in particular – Carl Edwards, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick, all of whom are currently below the cutoff for advancement by double-digit margins (although Harvick would still be somewhat buoyed by the fact that he’s basically owned Phoenix, which hosts the Eliminator Round finale next weekend).
So which non-Chase competitors should you keep an eye on today in Fort Worth? Here’s five…
1) Jimmie Johnson – Starts 3rd
Eliminated from the Chase in the Contender Round, Johnson’s all about making sure everybody knows that he’ll be a force once again in 2015. He topped final practice yesterday and in that session, he also had the best 10-consecutive lap average as well. It would appear he has the race pace to contend today for a fourth Texas win, which leads to a big question: Could Chase Grid leader Jeff Gordon (starts 2nd) have to battle a Hendrick Motorsports teammate again for a win that would propel him to the Championship?
2) Tony Stewart – Starts 6th
The relief on Stewart’s face was palpable after he squeezed out a Top-5 finish last weekend at Martinsville. And this weekend at Texas, he’s shown that he’s got a fast hot rod by popping the first 200-mph qualifying lap on a 1.5-mile oval in NASCAR history. He’s been toward the top of all three practice sessions, so look for “Smoke” to continue his momentum.
3) Kyle Busch – Starts 9th
Bummed as he may be over getting knocked out of the Chase, a triple-header sweep at Texas would raise Rowdy’s spirits – even if it would make things more tense for Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, his two Joe Gibbs Racing teammates that are still in the Chase. However, it bears noting that while Busch has won 11 NASCAR national series races at TMS, only one of them have come in Sprint Cup competition.
4) Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Starts 12th
We didn’t get to see much of Junior this past spring at Texas. On Lap 13 of the race (which was postponed to Monday because of heavy rains), Earnhardt slipped a tire into the tri-oval grass and then slammed into the outside wall in a fiery crash. But considering Hendrick’s overall performance on 1.5-milers like Texas, Earnhardt can have a say in today’s outcome if he can avoid trouble.
5) Martin Truex Jr. – Starts 8th
We needed a non-Chaser outside of that Hendrick/Gibbs/Hendrick-powered group, so let’s go with Truex, who finished fourth a few weeks back on the 1.5-miler at Kansas. The Furniture Row has been steady this weekend at Texas in the practice runs – fourth in both first and second practices, and seventh in “Happy Hour.”