Brad Keselowski, with his signature 'fist' in victory (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
This might not be the cowboy capital of the world, but then again it just might be.
The land of stockyards and steaks, boots and bulls and rodeo, a twice-daily cattle drive, and a downtown that really works, and sparkles.
The place where the real West begins. Catch the old Chisholm trail and head into the sunset.
And for Denny Hamlin, it's good town for a little sightseeing...now that his NASCAR championship run is over, three races shy of the finish line.
The tide turned at Martinsville four days ago for Hamlin and crew chief Darian Grubb, a broken switch apparently the electrical culprit.
Now it's a two-man race for the Sprint Cup title, Jimmie Johnson versus Brad Keselowski.
But there are two stories here:
The NASCAR championship playoffs....and the TV ratings for the NASCAR championship playoffs.
And over the first seven playoff races, which all played to great weather, the TV ratings are down. Way down.
Viewers are down too. In fact NASCAR's chase has lost from one million to 1.5 million viewers each Sunday, versus the period when ABC-network carried the playoffs in 2009.
ESPN reports its broadcast of Sunday's Martinsville 500 earned a 2.8 household rating, with 3.6 million viewers. That compares to last fall's 3.6 rating.
Of course NASCAR ratings have been going down for several years now. But the drop in ratings for the fall playoffs, with the sport's well-hyped championship chase, seems curious, and worth debating.
Looking back to NBC's last two seasons covering NASCAR in the fall, 2006 and 2005, and the drop seems striking.
Kansas this fall pulled a 3.0; in 2006, a 4.0, and in 2005, a 4.5.
Talladega this fall pulled a 3.7; in 2006, a 4.8, and in 2005, a 5.3.
Charlotte this fall pulled a 3.2; in 2006, a 4.7, and in 2005, a 5.1.
Martinsville this fall pulled a 2.8; in 2006, a 4.1, in 2005, a 4.7.
What's going on here?
It doesn't seem logical to blame the economy for a drop in TV viewership....
Danica Patrick: what does she do for NASCAR demographics? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
Meanwhile, Keselowski, looking bulletproof in the chase, is doing his part to add drama to the playoffs.
He appeared dead in the water Sunday morning at Martinsville, after spotting Johnson 31 positions in qualifying. But Sunday afternoon Keselowski, clearly relieved at dodging the bullet, was feeling much better about his chances of waylaying the five-time champ in the tour's final three events, here in Sunday's Texas 500, next weekend in the Phoenix 312, and the Nov. 18th Homestead-Miami 400.
"When you have a team like we have, it's easy to stay calm in the face of adversity," Keselowski says coolly. "We all have each other's back."
So instead of Keselowski's team biting the dust, it was Hamlin's.
Thus it's a two-man title duel, and Chevy versus Dodge.
Clint Bowyer and Kasey Kahne do have outside shots at the title, but either man would have to finish about 10 spots ahead of both Johnson and Keselowski in the final three races, not likely.
Johnson now has the points lead, and he's got momentum, and Texas Motor Speedway is a good track for him...and not such a good track for Keselowski.
Keselowski has run eight races here in his short career, and he's never finished on the lead lap, never finished in the top-10. His best run was a 14th two years ago. In five of those eight races he didn't even finish top-20.
And if Keselowski follows form here, he won't qualifying very well either.
But write him off?
If he's a cat with nine lives, he's still got plenty of life. This year is the best he's ever had; and at 15 tracks he's either matched or bettered his previous best.
"We like our role is in this chase," Keselowski says. "There are many who think we are still too young a team to seriously challenge Jimmie Johnson. We like it that way.
"We are a very good race team, primed to take this fight right down to the last lap at Homestead-Miami Speedway.
"I'm very confident in our abilities at Texas this weekend. The 1-1/2-mile tracks have been really good to us this year. We had an awesome car in April at Texas, probably the best car I've ever had there, but fuel issues kept us from challenging for the win.
"This weekend I'm expecting to challenge for the win."
Is this the guy to stop Mr. FIve-time? (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)