What do Coca-Cola Racing Family drivers Tony Stewart, Greg Biffle, and Denny Hamlin have in common, aside from the fact that they will all start in the top-10 in today's Duck Commander 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway (along with fellow CCRF members Ryan Newman and Joey Logano)?
All three of them have done NASCAR's version of the Texas Two-Step by claiming a pair of wins at the super-fast Fort Worth oval. Newman also has a single win at TMS, as he scored his first of a career-best eight wins in 2003 in that season's trip to the Lone Star State.
Stewart - the polesitter for today's race - led a combined 451 of 673 possible laps in his two Texas wins. The first came in November 2006, the first of only two seasons Stewart has failed to qualify for the Chase for the Sprint Cup (the other of course being last year, after his season was cut short by a broken leg). Coming off a win at the Atlanta Motor Speedway the week prior (and having won earlier in the Chase at Kansas, albeit on fuel mileage, a gamble afforded by the fact that he was not in title contention), Stewart sent his strongest message yet of what might have been had his Joe Gibbs Racing team been a part of the playoff. He led 278 of the 339 laps. On his final pit stop, Stewart's team changed two tires on his No. 20 Chevy, while Jimmie Johnson's group bolted on four fresh Goodyears. A hard crash by Biffle in turn 2 set up a dash to the end, then Scott Riggs had an equally vicious accident off turn four that pushed the race into overtime. With the eventual champ breathing down his neck with better rubber, Stewart ran his fastest lap of the race on the final circuit to beat Johnson and pick up his 29th-career Sprint Cup win.
Five years later, the scenario was entirely different for the man called Smoke. Now both the owner and driver of his No. 14 Chevrolet, Stewart headed to Texas seven points in arrears to leader Carl Edwards. Edwards, Biffle, and Matt Kenseth did most of the leading in their Roush-Fenway Fords for the first 117 circuits, before Stewart really flexed his muscle. He dominated from that point on, leading 173 of the 334 laps. The only drama came late, as Jeff Burton attempted to steal a win by stretching his gas tank to the finish. The founding member of the Coca-Cola Racing Family made it within six laps of the finish when Stewart swept past his fuel-starved Chevy. From there, Stewart cruised to a victory of just over a second on Edwards. It was his fourth win of the 2011 Chase, after being shut out during the "regular season." The championship margin now stood at three points with two races left, which Stewart would of course overcome with a fifth Chase win at the season-finale in Homestead to record his third Sprint Cup championship.
For Biffle, who will roll off fourth this afternoon, his first day in the Texas sun came in perhaps the most-impressive performance of his Cup career. The official record of the 2005 April event at TMS shows that he dominated from the fifth position, leading 219 laps in a rout of the field. That is because official starting positions do not note if a car has to drop to the rear of the field before the start of an event, as Biffle did that day in Texas. See, during the Saturday morning practice after that fifth-place qualifying run, Biffle blew a tire and destroyed his primary No. 16 Ford. Aside from the pains that go with slamming the wall at a track like Texas and the lost of a very good race car, the accident proved to be of little consequence. It took all of 87 laps for Biffle to get his backup car to the lead, from which point he led all but 28 circuits. The number would have been even less had Casey Mears not led 13 laps by staying out on the race's penultimate yellow. In the list of legendary performances that you hardly hear a peep about, Biffle's spring '05 romp at Texas would have to rank near the top.
When the April 2012 Texas event rolled around, The Biff was in quite the dry stretch, however. He had not won a race since the fall of 2010 at Kansas, and after missing the Chase in a winless 2011 campaign the questions were beginning to grow louder as to how much time he had left in NASCAR's top division. It seemed almost a certainty that he would find himself dumped in favor of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. sooner, rather than later. Then Biffle got off to a terrific start in '12, scoring a trio of third-place finishes to open the year and finishing no worse than 13th in the first six races. In the seventh, he started third at Texas and dueled back and forth for much of the night with Johnson. A late brush of the wall for the No. 48 was all the opening Biffle needed, as he swept through to the lead and ended his drought in style.
Speaking of style, Hamlin's season-sweep of Texas in 2010 had plenty of that. He arrived in April for his second race following surgery to fix a blown-out left knee. When a massive late-race accident eliminated Stewart, Jeff Gordon, and most of the other contenders for the win, Hamlin was left with the lead and Johnson breathing down his rear bumper. Despite still being in a great deal of discomfort, Hamlin outdueled his nemesis to pick up his second victory of the year (having also won at Martinsville three weeks prior in his last race before the surgery). There was no discomfort that November, though, when Hurricane Hamlin blew through Fort Worth a second time. Hamlin again won in a thrilling duel, this time with Kenseth (who, in case no one has noticed, seems to always come up on the losing end of thrillers at TMS). The win, his eighth of the year, propelled him into the points lead. Though things ultimately wound up swinging into Johnson's favor in the end, for a moment in Texas' victory lane Hamlin stood atop the NASCAR world and looked like the foil to one of the greatest dynasties in sports history. If he can parlay his sixth-place qualifying effort into a third Texas win, perhaps it could net him the Chase berth he needs to finally exorcise the demons of 2010's last two weeks and finally win a Sprint Cup title.