Saturday night’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway (FOX, 7:30 p.m. ET) ought to be one of the more compelling races of the year so far.
Texas is the fastest 1.5-mile track on the NASCAR circuit, and one of the most treacherous as well, with daunting transitions at the entrances and exits of the corners.
So far, the five Toyotas from Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing have all been fast, as have the Fords of Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
And Jimmie Johnson has put the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet into Victory Lane in each of the last three races deep in the heart of Texas, so he has to be the favorite going in.
Here are four keys to victory tonight:
4. STAY IN CONTENTION — At 500 miles, this is a long race. Last year’s Duck Commander 500 took 3 hours, 33 minutes and 57 seconds to complete. Typically, there are long stretches of green-flag running, especially in the first half of the race.
If you want to win, that means staying on the lead lap, even if your car isn’t at its best early on. There’s plenty of time to tune on it, but you don’t want to lose touch with the leaders in the first half of the race
3. AIR PRESSURE — Lowering the air pressure below the Goodyear-recommended minimum increase grip, which in turn increases speed. And it also dramatically increases the risk of tire failure because it puts excessive load on the tires. We’ve already seen such failures on several occasions this season.
The key here is that NASCAR no longer polices the recommended tire pressures like it used to. Some crew chief undoubtedly will gamble on tire pressures tonight. And it could put his driver into Victory Lane, or it could put him into the wall.
2. TIRE MANAGEMENT — Managing air pressures is the crew chief’s job. Managing tire wear is the driver’s job. Texas is a very abrasive track, with a huge amount of falloff in the tires over the course of a green-flag fuel run.
That means each driver will have to balance risk vs. reward: Do you go fast early in the run to try and get track position, or do you bide your time so your car is at its best late in a run? That’s a decision each driver will have to make.
1. KEEP UP WITH THE TRACK — When the green flag falls to start the Duck Commander 500, it will be daytime. When the race finishes, it will be deep into the night. Over 500 long miles, the weather changes means the grip levels will change and so will how the cars handle.
Making the right adjustments as the track changes over the more than three-hour transition from day to night will be critical. It’s also one of the reasons Johnson is so good in 500-mile races. No one is better at managing a long race than Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus. We’ll see whether they can do it again tonight.