Could downforce package bring return of mid-2000’s duels at Texas?

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FORT WORTH – Saturday’s Duck Commander 500 at Texas Motor Speedway is an important mile marker on the Sprint Cup season.

Six weekends into the 36-race schedule, it’s the first night race of the year. Also significant – it will be the first night race with the series’ new low-downforce package.

With memorable finishes populating the first batch of races, the question was raised Thursday about how the package will react to being under the lights. Could we see the return of the late-race duels of the mid-2000s, which included the one seen in November 2007, when Matt Kenseth tried holding off Jimmie Johnson?

“I hope not, because he beat me,” Kenseth said Thursday.

Seven months after being passed on the last lap of the April race by Jeff Burton, Kenseth found himself facing a similar situation with Johnson. Kenseth and Johnson began dueling with seven laps to go. While Johnson could pull even with Kenseth, he wouldn’t push his No. 48 to the lead until there were two laps to go.

Johnson would win by .94 seconds.

“I can’t really predict what’s going to happen in the race,” Kenseth said. “Typically this has been a great race track. It’s got a lot of character with the bumps and real abrasive and kind of worn out. I think the track has always been pretty good with passing, and I think that will continue to get better with the rules change.”

Kenseth has two wins at TMS (2002, 2011) and has finished among the top three spots eight times but not since his second win.

Johnson, on the other hand, has become the mayor of the track. The Hendrick Motorsports driver’s win in 2007 was his first at the 1.5-mile track.

“I’m not sure Matt found it to be as much fun,” said Johnson, who has won five of the last seven visits to Texas. “Knowing it was Matt, I knew we were going to race hard and I didn’t have anything to worry about. And we put on a great show for the fans.”

Will the show return Saturday?

“I think the rules package is going to be another great step in the right direction here,” Johnson said. “It’s warm during the day. I’m not sure how much it’s going to cool off. But the less grip, I think the happier we’re going to be, as competitors. If that’s through the slick track conditions, the tire wearing out, or lack of downforce, that’s going to continue to make good racing.”

Texas is the third track in the 1.5-mile family to host the low-downforce package. The first was sister track Atlanta Motor Speedway, where Johnson claimed his first of two wins this season.

“I think that Atlanta and Texas and the old Darlington, there are some tracks that really play out as we would hope,” Johnson said. “And as drivers continue to talk about taking downforce off the cars and putting on a softer tire, we’re just trying to create tire wear. And this track naturally does that. Atlanta naturally does that.”

Johnson said everybody continues to hear drivers “banging this drum” for taking further downforce off the cars.

The drumming could become louder Saturday.