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Who's Next? Who Will Gain a Victory In Vegas?

Mar 05, 2014

Earnhardt Resetting Odds, Going Into Las Vegas

Granted, it’s early. But here’s a Dale Earnhardt Jr. statistic worth noting: for the second time in his career, he has led the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series points for the first two weeks of the season.

After his Daytona 500 victory and second-place finish this past Sunday at Phoenix, he’s likely causing odds makers to reset his chances of winning the series championship for the first time, as the series rolls into Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Only once before has Earnhardt had this sort of start, in 2004 – his first Daytona 500 victory, followed by a fifth-place finish at North Carolina Motor Speedway (Rockingham), which gave him two weeks’ time atop the standings.

Said Earnhardt, following the strong run at Phoenix: “I would have loved to have won the race … but our team is performing so well.  Got a lot of great chemistry and good communication going back and forth.  Everybody's confidence is very high.  Everybody's mood and morale is really high.”

Las Vegas has been a so-so proposition for Earnhardt through the years, with seven top 10s but only two top fives in 14 starts. An average finish of 15.6 and a Driver Rating of 88.2, ninth-best in the series, show consistency in lieu of trips to Victory Lane. Consistency, though, takes a back seat under the new Chase format. It’s all about winning; by capturing the Daytona 500 Earnhardt virtually assured himself a spot in NASCAR’s “playoffs.”

Somewhat lost amid the celebration of winning the 500 and nearly winning again at Phoenix is the fact that Earnhardt’s resurgence actually cranked up late last season; he had eight top 10s in the 10-race Chase including three second-place finishes. That clearly set the table for this year’s impressive start.

“I was wondering if we would carry on the momentum from last year, running so good in the Chase,” Earnhardt said. “The performance is there for us. Hopefully we can maintain it.  We go to a completely different track [this week] at Vegas, but we have a whole day Thursday [during testing] to figure it out.”

Remember That Guy Jimmie Johnson?

Austin Dillon, driving the iconic No. 3, won the Coors Light Pole for the Daytona 500 – an unbelievably cool story. Then, Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the Daytona 500, capturing everyone’s hearts and minds – and covers … in the case of Sports Illustrated.

Then, Kevin Harvick went out to Phoenix and blew the doors off the place.

Lots of storylines have swirled around the early goings of the 2014 season – almost none of which has revolved around the greatest driver of the last decade. Weird.

Well, Jimmie Johnson’s break from the spotlight just might end come Lap 267 in Sunday’s Kobalt 400 – an appropriate name for a brand that occasionally graces Johnson’s hood.

Johnson, one of only two drivers to average a top-10 finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, has a series-high four victories at the 1.5-mile track. He has finished in the top 10 in two of the last three races – leading double-digit laps in both. He has led laps in 10 of his 12 starts, which matches Matt Kenseth for most of any driver.

And it’s not like Johnson has struggled in the first two races. He scored top 10s in each, with two Driver Ratings over 100 points.

Hard-Charger Kenseth A Three-Time Winner At Vegas  

Matt Kenseth won last year’s Las Vegas event and has three wins overall at the track – second in the series behind Jimmie Johnson’s four Vegas triumphs. It’s safe to say another win would be encouraging for Kenseth. Two of his Vegas wins have come in his two best seasons – his 2003 championship-winning year and last year’s championship runner-up result. (His other Vegas victory came in 2004.)

Las Vegas is a track that illustrates that Kenseth is indeed all about winning races; for him, the new Chase qualifying format is made-to-order. During his 2003 championship season he simply got a bad rap, as he had only one victory and won the title largely on the strength of 22 top 10s. When the Chase was implemented the next season, critics cited Kenseth as the catalyst for the new format even though, in 2002, he had a series-high five victories.

Well, since 2003, Kenseth has won 24 times in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series – including last year’s series-leading seven wins – and another 14 times in the NASCAR Nationwide Series. Along the way, he has won the Daytona 500 twice. That’s hard-charging by any measurement.

 

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