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“FIVE THINGS YOU NEED TO KNOW” FOR TODAY’S O’REILLY AUTO PARTS 500
By John Sturbin
The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series makes the first of two stops this season at Texas Motor Speedway with today’s 21st annual O’Reilly Auto Parts 500 (12:30 p.m. CT, TV: FOX, Radio: PRN, SiriusXM Channel 90 and 95.9 FM The Ranch locally). Five items to ponder before the green flag drops:
1.WHAT HAVE WE LEARNED ABOUT THE REPAVE?: Saturday’s XFINITY Series My Bariatric Solutions 300 was the first full-distance NASCAR event run on TMS’ repaved and re-profiled 1.5-mile oval. The entire layout, including pit lane, was repaved during the offseason, with the Texas Tire Monster logging overtime laps in a bid to “age” the new, smooth surface. Additionally, the banking in Turns 1 and 2 has been reduced from 24 degrees to 20 degrees, presenting drivers and crew chiefs an additional set-up challenge. Turns 3 and 4 remain banked at 24 degrees.
The XFINITY race, won by Cup rookie Erik Jones for Joe Gibbs Racing, produced 11 lead changes among seven drivers, including 112 laps-led by Jones; six caution periods for 31 of 200 laps, including a pair of spins in Turn 2 and a five-car incident in Turn 3. In between, the new surface produced long stretches of green flag racing, green flag pits stops and two-tire/four-tire strategies. In other words...pretty typical NASCAR race. Let’s just hope everyone makes it through Turn 1 on Lap 1.
2. SEGMENT RACING MAKES CUP DEBUT: NASCAR’s new-for-2107 segment racing format will be on display during the 334-lap/501-miler. Segment winners will be awarded points after breaks following 85 and 170 laps, with the overall winner celebrating in Victory Lane after Lap 334. The “enhanced format” has added a heightened level of competitiveness for bonus points and strategy, especially at the close of each segment.
3. AS USUAL AT TMS, JIMMIE IS LURKING: Seven-time/reigning Cup champion Jimmie Johnson emerged from an otherwise ho-hum weekend of hot-lapping to top the time sheet after Saturday’s third/final practice. Johnson clicked off a lap in 27.719-seconds and 194.812 mph in his No. 48 Lowe’s Chevrolet SS during a run of 45 laps, more than twice as many as he recorded (21) earlier in the morning. Johnson’s sluggish season to-date features only one top-10 finish (ninth at Phoenix) and he currently ranks 14th in points _ 127 behind leader Kyle Larson. But as a six-time Cup winner in Fort Worth, you brazen enough to bet against Jimmie?
4. FEELS LIKE THE FIRST TIME: There’s been no more dramatic, or popular, first-time winner at TMS than Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose initial Cup victory at TMS in April 2000 was punctuated by an emotional bear hug from his father, seven-time Cup champion Cap E. So, who’s next? Could be pole-sitter Kevin Harvick, who is a not-to-be believed 0-for-28 in Cup starts in Fort Worth. Today also could be historic for Chase Elliott, whose father, Bill was 0-for-16 here. Or consider Ryan Blaney, whose father, Dale, was 0-for-23. Or maybe Erik Jones will complete the weekend sweep.
For the record, Harvick leads a list of six drivers to have made at least 20 Cup starts in Cowtown without visiting TMS President Eddie Gossage in Victory Lane. The other O-fers are Jamie McMurray (26), Martin Truex Jr. (23), Clint Bowyer (22), Paul Menard (21) and David Ragan (20).
5. BREAKING GOODYEAR’S TIRE CODE: TMS’ offseason repave and re-profiling was completed in early-March. Tire-supplier Goodyear opted to not conduct a compound test at the facility and then build the quantities needed for this race weekend. Given the commonality of the asphalt mix, along with the results from Speedway Motorsports Inc., sister track Kentucky Speedway’s race last July, the decision was made to bring a tire set-up with the same tread compounds as raced at Kentucky.
So, Cup teams are running the same tire set-up provided for Saturday’s XFINITY race. This is the same left-side tire code (D-4688) teams in all three national NASCAR series ran at Kentucky in 2016. There is, however, a new right-side tire (code D-4718), which features the same tread compound as the right-side Cup teams ran at Kentucky last July, with a minor construction change. As on all NASCAR ovals greater than 1-mile in length, teams are required to run liners in all four tire positions at TMS.