O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 Preview

O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 Preview

by April 4, 2014 0 comments

Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images for Texas Motor Speedway

FORT WORTH, Tex. — As the NASCAR Nationwide Series returns to action Friday night at the Texas Motor Speedway for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300, a battle between two super-teams is looking to take the stage to fight it out for the win.

Out of every team entered for the’s race, Joe Gibbs Racing possesses the best record at the track. Entered for the stable this week are Elliott Sadler in the No. 11 Camry, Matt Kenseth in the No. 20 car, and Kyle Busch in the No. 54 car. Kenseth and Busch have combined for eight wins at the 1.5-mile D-shaped oval, finding themselves in victory lane in 30-percent of the races ever held in Fort Worth. Of drivers entered for Friday’s race with more than one start at the track, both Kenseth and Busch possess the two lowest average finishes – 7.1 and 7.7, respectively.

Sadler, Joe Gibbs Racing’s only Nationwide Series regular, heads into Texas looking for another consistent finish. After returning to the Nationwide Series full-time in 2011, Sadler has never finished lower than 13th in six starts, he has also not finished higher than the fifth position. Sadler has been making up ground in the Drivers’ Standings after a 17th-place finish at Bristol, and a strong performance on Friday night can bring him even closer to the points lead.

The largest obstacle for Joe Gibbs Racing to overcome will be the JR Motorsports stable, who will be bringing four race cars to a track for the first time in their organization’s history. Leading the charge for JR Motorsports will be Kevin Harvick, who in 15 races has drove into TMS’s victory lane five times in a Nationwide Series car, his last victory coming in the fall 2012 race – a race that he beat Busch in.

Team owner Dale Earnhardt Jr. will make his third start of the year in the Nationwide Series this weekend, returning to a track that brought him a series victory in 1998.

Also joining the two current Sprint Cup drivers will be Nationwide regulars Chase Elliott and Regan Smith. For Elliott, this will be his competitive debut at the Texas Motor Speedway and his competitive debut on a 1.5-mile D-shaped oval as well. He finished in fifth-place at a differently shaped 1.5-miler in Las Vegas in Nationwide competition earlier this year.

Smith heads into Texas looking to break his current tie with Trevor Bayne for the points lead, and he has certainly come to the right place to regain the lead. In this race last year, Smith finished seventh and then followed that up with a sixth-place finish later on in the fall. Despite last year’s successes in Fort Worth, Smith is motivated to do even better in this year’s first Texas race.

“We’ve been clicking off top-10s since Phoenix, but we all know that isn’t going to be good enough,” Smith said. “We can do much better. Now is our time to regroup and refocus. Texas is a great track where we’ve had some success. The goal is to get back to running up front and winning races.”

Unlike Smith, Bayne has a Texas Nationwide Series victory to his name – winning in the fall of 2011. Outside of that win, however, Bayne has never finished in the top-10 in Fort Worth in six other starts. The driver of the No. 6 Mustang has proven to be consistent in Texas though and has always been running at the finish and has completed all but two laps in his seven career starts at the track. While Smith carries more momentum heading into the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300, Bayne will be sure to provide quite the challenge towards the driver of the No. 7 Camaro.

Brad Keselowski will be unable to defend his win here from last fall; however, in his place will be Ryan Blaney. Blaney was able to finish second in his lone Nationwide Series start at Texas in the 2012 fall race, beating the likes of Busch, Denny Hamlin, and eventual series champion Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Even though Blaney has proven to be quick in the Lone Star State, he knows that the No. 22 team’s strategy from a year-and-a-half ago will need to undergo some tweaks to replicate or even better their success.

“The cars constantly change and improve and the guys are always trying new setups and working on new parts and pieces,” Blaney said. “So you take the experience and you have notes on how the race played out and mental notes, but that’s about all you can take from him. Other than the fact that we really want to finish one spot better than last time.”

Last fall’s Camping World Truck Series Texas race winner, Ty Dillon, will make his second Nationwide Series start at Texas on Friday. In his first start at Texas in an NNS car in last fall’s race, Dillon finished 12th but did manage to run as high as fifth in the middle stages of the race. The driver of the No. 3 Camaro believes that he can put together the drive to earn his first career Nationwide Series victory this weekend; he certainly has the car to do it as Dillon was the fastest driver in both practice sessions for the O’Reilly Auto Parts 300.

“I love going there, it’s definitely one of my favorite tracks,” Dillon said regarding Texas. “Hopefully, we can carry the mentality and that confidence from last season at Texas Motor Speedway over to the Nationwide Series. Danny and I have worked really well together in the first few races, so we should be able to pick up where I left off last November and be a contender for the win.”

As has been the case for the last several tracks that the Nationwide Series has visited since Daytona, qualifying position will be an important factor in one’s likeliness of winning on Friday. The past 11 NNS races at Texas have been won from a top-10 starting position, with nine of those 11 races coming from a top-four grid position. In the four races since Daytona this season, each race winner has come from a top-10 qualifying position – indicating that each track’s trend of having their winners start from a position towards the front is unlikely to be broken on Friday night.

Despite the track’s high speeds and older racing surface, the Nationwide Series at Texas Motor Speedway has not provided for many wreck-filled races. In 26 races at the circuit, only one race has had cautions in the double-digits, that being the lone 2003 race. Given that, we should see a good amount of long green-flag runs throughout Friday night’s race.

Thus far in practice, Dillon and the No. 3 team have been the class of the field but there are a couple of contenders who would like to wrestle that honor away from the No. 3 crew. Kyle Larson was able to earn his first career Nationwide Series victory two weeks ago in Fontana, will Dillon be able to follow suit? Or will drivers such as Busch and Harvick add on to their already impressive Texas records?

The O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 will air live on ESPN2 on Friday night with coverage beginning at 8:00 p.m. ET.

Kyle Pokrefky
Follow Kyle Pokrefky on Twitter at @KPokrefky

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