With six races and six different winners already in the books, the unpredictability of the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season will continue on Sunday in the Duck Commander 500 from Texas Motor Speedway.
The 1.5-mile track will be a major departure from last week's short-track race at Martinsville, but the competition won't be any less intense. Many of NASCAR's top drivers are still champing at the bit to get their first win of the season, and they'll take some chances in order to do so.
Wins are more important than ever this season, as a victory almost cements a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup. Every driver in NASCAR is well aware of that, and fans have already seen that teams are willing to gamble in order to reach Victory Lane.
All 43 drivers will empty the tank in order to capture the famous cowboy boot trophy, but only one will be lucky enough to hoist it. Here is everything you need to know about Sunday's Duck Commander 500, along with predictions for how NASCAR's top drivers will fare.
Where: Texas Motor Speedway in Fort Worth, Texas
When: Sunday, April 6 at 3 p.m. ET
Live Steam: Fox Sports Go
Radio: Performance Racing Network
Duck Commander 500 qualifying will take place on April 5 at 3:10 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 2. Here is a look at the order in which the cars will roll out on Saturday.
|NASCAR at Texas Qualifying Attempt Order|
|1||Dale Earnhardt Jr.||88|
|19||Martin Truex Jr.||78|
|23||Ricky Stenhouse Jr.||17|
Drivers to Watch
With three wins, 10 top fives and 16 top-10 finishes at Texas Motor Speedway, nobody has had more success than Jimmie Johnson. The defending Sprint Cup champion is winless through six races, although he has come agonizingly close on a few occasions already. After finishing second at Martinsville, there is no question that JJ will be hungry and determined to close the deal in Texas.
Johnson is the most recent Sprint Cup winner at Texas, as he took the checkered flag during the fall race last year. He also finished sixth in the spring race, so he enters Sunday's competition with a great deal of confidence and momentum. On top of that, he appears to have an extremely fast race car. According to Nate Ryan of USA Today, Johnson tore up the field in practice:
Strong practice runs don't always translate on race day, but Johnson has been so proficient at Texas over the years that it is difficult to imagine him struggling unless his machine fails him in some way. Even though Johnson has suffered through some tough breaks this season, he is a threat every week, and the same will be true on Sunday.
With just five victories to his credit since 2009, it is no secret that Greg Biffle has often struggled to close the deal. That wasn't an issue earlier in his career, but it almost seems as though he suffers from Jeff Gordon syndrome. Both Biffle and Gordon run consistently well on a weekly basis; however, it usually doesn't translate to trophies.
If "The Biff" is going to win at any track, though, Texas Motor Speedway is a good bet. With two career wins at Texas, Biffle is one of just seven drivers with multiple triumphs in the Lone Star State on the Sprint Cup circuit. Also, much like Johnson, Biffle had a strong showing in practice that should set him up for success on Sunday, according to Roush Fenway Racing on Twitter:
Biffle's average career finish of 15.1 at Texas may not jump off the page, but it's somewhat misleading. He had several finishes outside the top 20 early in his career. Few drivers have been more consistent at Texas Motor Speedway in recent years, though. Biffle hasn't finished worse than 12th at Texas in 11 races since 2008, so there is little doubt that he'll be in the mix with an opportunity to come out on top.
With four top-five finishes through six races, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is atop the Sprint Cup standings and on pace for the best season of his career. There is reason to believe that his strong start will continue on Sunday since Texas has traditionally been one of Junior's best tracks. With 13 top-10 finishes to his credit deep in the heart of Texas, it's tough to argue with that notion.
Earnhardt's only Texas win came way back in 2000, but he usually puts himself in position to challenge for a victory.
He hasn't finished the job in 14 years, although it can be argued that he is due in that regard. Junior's spot in the Chase isn't assured, but it feels fairly secure at this point with a win to his credit. Even so, Earnhardt has no intentions to sit idly by while his competition wins races, per Jenna Fryer of The Associated Press:
Junior has always been an aggressive driver, and while it hasn't always paid off, it is part of his personality. Having a win in the bank essentially gives Earnhardt license to gamble and take some risks, so look for the No. 88 team to do anything possible to get to the front of the field and stay there on Sunday.
That obviously doesn't guarantee success, but it probably isn't wise to bet against Junior based on how well he is running right now.
Any one of Johnson, Biffle or Earnhardt could win at Texas, but they are far from the only candidates. Texas Motor Speedway has been generous in terms of spreading the wealth over the years, so a lot of different drivers have done some great things there.
Matt Kenseth certainly can't be left out of any Texas discussion, as he has won there twice, has the best average finish of any driver at 8.3 and has led more laps than anyone else at 775. Kenseth is second in the standings, but he still hasn't won, so there is definitely some pressure on him to get one soon.
Kenseth's former Roush Fenway teammate Carl Edwards also figures to be in the mix. Like Johnson, he has three Texas wins under his belt. He entered last week's race at Martinsville atop the points standings, and even though he dropped two spots, he is in fine form.
Denny Hamlin and Tony Stewart are also multi-time winners at Texas. They find themselves in pedestrian positions in the standings so far this season, and neither has won a race yet. That makes them both very dangerous on Sunday.
If you're looking for somewhat of a dark horse, don't count out Kasey Kahne. He has won once at Texas and has finished seventh or better in three of his past five races there.
Predicting a winner from one week to the next is so difficult due to the depth of talent on the Sprint Cup circuit right now, but since Johnson has come close to breaking through so many times this season, he has to be considered the favorite and the most likely winner of the Duck Commander 500.
Follow @MikeChiari on Twitter.