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Driver Reports: Previewing the Las Vegas race

March 06, 2014, Brad Norman, NASCAR.com

Driver Reports: Previewing the Las Vegas race
Analyzing the race favorites, trends and sleeper picks

1. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (No. 88)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Standing: Earnhardt Jr. leads the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series standings with 90 points.
Past two races: 2nd at Phoenix, 1st at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 win, 2 top-fives, 2 top-10s.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Earnhardt Jr.'s average finish is 14.8 and his average running position is 14.9 over the past eight years. In 14 career starts at Las Vegas, he has two top-fives and seven top-10s.
Quick hit: With five top-10s in the past six races at Las Vegas, history shows Earnhardt Jr. is good bet for a good finish in the Sin City. His torrid start to the season suggests much more is possible, too.

2. Brad Keselowski (No. 2)

Penske Racing, Ford 

Standing: Keselowski is second in the standings with 84 points.
Past two races: 3rd at Phoenix, 3rd at Daytona.
Season stats: 2 top-fives, 2 top-10s.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Keselowski's average finish is 25.0 and his average running position is 21.7 over the past eight years. In five career starts at Las Vegas, he has one top-five and one top-10.
Quick hit: Keselowski finished third last year as Las Vegas, but his average finish in the previous four races at the 1.5-mile track is 30.5. Which way will he go this time? Considering Keselowski opened the season with consecutive third-place finishes, expect him to perform better than his Vegas history would indicate.

3. Jeff Gordon (No. 24)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet 

Standing: Gordon is third in the standings with 80 points.
Past two races: 5th at Phoenix, 4th at Daytona.
Season stats: 2 top-fives, 2 top-10s, 1 pole.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Gordon's average finish is 14.2 and his average running position is 10.0 over the past eight years. In 16 career starts at Las Vegas, he has one win, six top-fives and seven top-10s.
Quick hit: Three times in 16 starts, Gordon hasn't finished the Las Vegas race. When he avoids trouble, though, he finishes in the top 10 more often than not. Sunday's race in the desert should show us if the veteran's hot start is merely a mirage.

4. Kevin Harvick (No. 4)

Stewart-Haas Racing, Chevrolet 

Standing: Harvick is fourth in the standings with 79 points.
Past two races: 1st at Phoenix, 13th at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 win, 1 top-five, 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Harvick's average finish is 10.9 and his average running position is 11.7 over the past eight years. In 13 career starts at Las Vegas, he has three top-fives and five top-10s.
Quick hit: Due to the strength of his team's intermediate package and the way Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers seem to be ahead of the game with the new rules package, Harvick has a real shot to go back-to-back and claim his first career Vegas victory at the same time.

5. Jimmie Johnson (No. 48)

Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet

Standing: Johnson is fifth in the standings with 78 points.
Past two races: 6th at Phoenix, 5th at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-five, 2 top-10s.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Johnson's average finish is 9.0 and his average running position is 9.6 over the past eight years. In 12 career starts at Las Vegas, he has four wins, five top-fives and seven top-10s.
Quick hit: Johnson once won three consecutive races here, and his four career wins at the track -- the most all-time -- came over a six-year span. Like Phoenix last week, both Johnson's average place and average finish over the past eight years are tops in the series.

6. Joey Logano (No. 22)

Penske Racing, Ford 

Standing: Logano is sixth in the standings with 75 points.
Past two races: 4th at Phoenix, 11th at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-five, 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Logano's average finish is 14.0 and his average running position is 14.7 over the past eight years. In five career starts at Las Vegas, he has one top-10.
Quick hit: Logano is off to the best start of his career, and the Penske program is performing at an elite level. Forget his tepid history at this track -- Logano is a sleeper pick to win the race.

7. Matt Kenseth (No. 20)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Standing: Kenseth is seventh in the standings with 70 points.
Past two races: 12th at Phoenix, 6th at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Kenseth's average finish is 12.9 and his average running position is 14.4 over the past eight years. In 14 career starts at Las Vegas, he has three wins, six top-fives, seven top-10s and one pole.
Quick hit: As the defending race winner, Kenseth knows the best way around the Vegas oval. He's led at least one lap in 10 of his 14 starts here, so expect him to run up near the front Sunday.

8. Denny Hamlin (No. 11)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Standing: Hamlin is eighth in the standings with 68 points.
Past two races: 19th at Phoenix, 2nd at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-five, 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Hamlin's average finish is 13.1 and his average running position is 16.7 over the past eight years. In eight career starts at Las Vegas, he has one top-five and four top-10s.
Quick hit: Las Vegas isn't one of Hamlin's better tracks, and four of his past five races here have resulted in a finish of 15th or worse. The No. 11 team, which faced great hardship last year, also has to overcome its first miss of the year at Phoenix.

9. Carl Edwards (No. 99)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford 

Standing: Edwards is ninth in the standings with 65 points.
Past two races: 8th at Phoenix, 17th at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Edwards' average finish is 9.7 and his average running position is 11.6 over the past eight years. In nine career starts at Las Vegas, he has two wins, four top-fives and five top-10s.
Quick hit: Roush Fenway Racing has a good intermediate program, and Edwards has the best three-year stretch at Vegas among current drivers -- a win in 2011, followed by back-to-back fifth-place finishes the next two years.

10. Greg Biffle (No. 16)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford

Standing: Biffle is 10th in the standings with 64 points.
Past two races: 17th at Phoenix, 8th at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Biffle's average finish is 10.9 and his average running position is 10.7 over the past eight years. In 10 career starts at Las Vegas, he has two top-fives, six top-10s and one pole.
Quick hit: Biffle typically does well on 1.5-mile tracks, but his recent history at Vegas is spotty. He was 17th last year and 28th in 2011 (although with a third-place run in 2012 sandwiched in between). If you're a NASCAR Fantasy Live player, he's a cautious pick.

11. Casey Mears (No. 10)

Germain Racing, Chevrolet 

Standing: Mears is 11th in the standings with 64 points.
Past two races: 14th at Phoenix, 10th at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Mears' average finish is 22.5 and his average running position is 27.9 over the past eight years. In 10 career starts at Las Vegas, he has three top-10s.
Quick hit: Mears' three top-10s at Vegas came from 2004-06 with Chip Ganassi, and he only has one finish better than 25th in six races since. If he reverses history and records a third consecutive top-15 to open 2014, it'll be the driver's best career start.

12. Jamie McMurray (No. 1)

Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates, Chevrolet  

Standing: McMurray is 12th in the standings with 64 points.
Past two races: 10th at Phoenix, 14th at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, McMurray's average finish is 18.2 and his average running position is 18.7 over the past eight years. In 11 career starts at Las Vegas, he has one top-five and four top-10s.
Quick hit: McMurray performed well at one of his worst tracks last week. This week, he brings his No. 1 Chevrolet to a track he's become comfortable at. His back-to-back runs here of eighth (2012) and 13th are the best two-year span in his career.

13. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (No. 17)

Roush Fenway Racing, Ford

Standing: Stenhouse Jr. is 13th in the standings with 63 points.
Past two races: 18th at Phoenix, 7th at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Stenhouse Jr.'s average finish is 18.0 and his average running position is 12.9 over the past eight years. In one career start at Las Vegas, he finished 18th 2013.
Quick hit: Stenhouse Jr. seems to struggle on the short, flat ovals. Las Vegas is neither, so the sophomore driver may inch closer toward the top 10 in the standings following Sunday's race.

14. Kyle Busch (No. 18)

Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota 

Standing: Busch is 14th in the standings with 61 points.
Past two races: 9th at Phoenix, 19th at Daytona
Season stats: 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Busch's average finish is 11.8 and his average running position is 10.3 over the past eight years. In 10 career starts at Las Vegas, he has one win, four top-fives, five top-10s and two poles.
Quick hit: 'Rowdy' always puts an emphasis on winning in his hometown. He did that once, in 2009, and his fourth-place finish last year stopped a string of three consecutive finishes of 15th or worse.

15. Ryan Newman (No. 31)

Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet 

Standing: Newman is 15th in the standings with 60 points.
Past two races: 7th at Phoenix, 22nd at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-10.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Newman's average finish is 18.2 and his average running position is 16.1 over the past eight years. In 13 career starts at Las Vegas, he has three top-fives, six top-10s and one pole.
Quick hit: Newman is a risk-or-reward type of driver, fitting for Las Vegas. He has six top-10s, but also five finishes -- including last year -- where he wasn't close to finishing in the top 20, much less the top 10.

16. Austin Dillon (No. 3)

Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet  

Standing: Dillon is 16th in the standings with 56 points.
Past two races: 24th at Phoenix, 9th at Daytona.
Season stats: 1 top-10, 1 pole.
Track history: At Las Vegas, Dillon's average finish is 21.0 and his average running position is 24.0 over the past eight years. In one career start at Las Vegas, he finished 21st in 2013.
Quick hit: Dillon struggled last week, but so did the rest of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year class. Don't expect that to carry over to a mile-and-a-half track, where the driver of the No. 3 is more comfortable.