This weekend's Samsung Mobile 500 at the Texas Motor Speedway provides a number of firsts for the young 2012 Sprint Cup season. It is the first scheduled night-race of the season, though the Daytona 500 of course ran in prime time (and well into the early morning) in February. It also marks the first 500-mile downforce race of the season and will provide a sterling test of machine as well as man. The 600 miles at Charlotte in May aside, few races are as hard on engines as the annual 334-lappers at the 1.5-mile oval in Fort Worth.
Another first could be on tap for two particular drivers, both of whom have visited victory lane several times in their careers - including Texas - but have experienced long absences from the winner's circle that quite possibly could end Saturday evening.
Point leader Greg Biffle won the April 2005 race - the first year TMS hosted a pair of races - and is a perennial threat to pick up the cowboy hat and pistols in victory lane every time the Sprint Cup Series visits the Lone Star State. Off to the best start of his career, it seems only a matter of time before Biffle picks up his first win since October 2010 at the Kansas Speedway.
Dale Earnhardt Jr., meanwhile, got his first-ever victory at Texas in April 2000. That win, in just his 12th series start, sparked an emotional celebration with his legendary father who's pride for his son's achievement was clear in his wide grin. The younger Earnhardt also scored his first Nationwide Series win at TMS in 1998. His winless streak is well documented; everyone, fan or not, is well aware that not since a fuel-mileage victory in June 2008 has Earnhardt been to victory lane. He is nipping at Biffle's heels for the point lead, however, and Saturday could be the night that his Steve Letarte-led team breaks through for just Earnhardt's second triumph with Hendrick Motorsports and his fourth since the end of the 2004 season when he won a career-high six races.
Looking to spoil the party for Earnhardt and Biffle will be reigning Sprint Cup champion Tony Stewart, who dominated last November's race for one of his five Chase victories that propelled him to the title. Denny Hamlin, who swept the season in 2010, will be another factor, as will defending Samsung Mobile 500 champion Matt Kenseth. Carl Edwards has three Texas wins to his credit, a track record that Stewart, Hamlin, or Kenseth could equal, but he could also extend it with his first victory of the 2012 season and his first in over a year.
Regardless of who picks up the win, one can be certain fans will be in for one of the most entertaining victory lane celebrations of the year. Track president Eddie Gossage always kicks things up a notch, with race winners sporting a cowboy hat and brandishing a pair of pistols that they fire off in celebration as flames shoot into the air behind them. Throw in the lovely "Great American Sweethearts" and one has the makings for a celebration well worth the 500-mile effort put in to get there.