Following The Leaders

Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevy
Analysis: Sometimes you have to take the chalk. Johnson won the Daytona 500 before finishing second in the Subway Fresh Fit 500. He’s locked and loaded already, and that’s bad news for the drivers of the Sprint Cup Series. The big run continues this week at Las Vegas, where he owns the third-best average running slot (10.4) in the circuit over the past eight years. That translates into the best average finish (9.4).

He is one of only two drivers to win multiple races at Las Vegas in the past decade, having claimed the checkered flag four times in the past nine years.

Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevy
Analysis: Gordon hasn’t won in the past decade at Las Vegas, but he has produced the best average running position on the circuit. He’s produced five top-10 charges at the track, including four top-5 efforts. There is some risk, as Gordon posted two DNFs during this period. The No. 24 Chevy has raced inside the top 15 in 84% of laps run during this period.

Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Toyota
Analysis: Hamlin has been in the news for his criticism of the Gen-6 car, but you won’t find an issue in his on-track performance. He charged up 21 positions from his qualifying effort at Daytona to run 14th, and he followed that effort up with a fantastic third-place run in Phoenix.
Hamlin has registered four top-10 finishes in seven career starts at Las Vegas to generate a 12.9-position average finish (tied for sixth). It’s an impressive accomplishment considering that Hamlin has run inside the top 15 in only 34.4% of his laps run at the track.

Kyle Busch, No. 18 Toyota
Analysis: As always, Busch represents a high-risk, high-reward option here. He’s put together four top-10 finishes (three top-5s) and a victory in nine starts, but he’s also logged two DNFs. Take the strong qualifying effort (6.4 with three poles) and big runs (15.9-position average finish). Look for Busch to make a huge run on the home course.

Greg Biffle, No. 16 Ford
Analysis: One of my longtime favorites in these pieces and in video format is a favorite here. Biffle owns the second-best average running position over the past eight years at Las Vegas (9.7) and his 10.1-position average finish is second only to Jimmie Johnson on the circuit. Biffle’s produced six top 10s (two top 5s) in nine Vegas starts.

Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford
Analysis: It was only fitting that Edwards back-flipped onto the Phoenix track in a race sponsored by Subway. It was unexpected, but fitting. Edwards now turns to a track where he’s enjoyed tremendous success. As I mentioned above, Edwards is one of only two drivers to claim multiple victories in Vegas (Johnson). He’s logged four top-10 finishes in eight Vegas starts and a 10.3-position average finish overall.

Tony Stewart, No. 14 Chevy
Analysis: Stewart is tied for the most top-10 finishes at Vegas in the past decade, generating six top-10 effort, including a victory. He’s averaged a 10.8-position average running slot during the past eight years while racing inside the top 15 in more than three-quarters of all laps run.

Bring Out The Caution

Jeff Burton, No. 31 Chevy
Analysis: When you put the leaderboard for this track together, Burton quietly enters the list in the third slot. If you asked fans to rank drivers at the trick, his name would probably not come to mind quickly. Burton owns a fantastic 11.8-position average finish here in the past decade. Yes, he’s only generated three top-10 finishes during this period, but that average finish note says it all. Burton runs well and avoids the mess (zero DNFs).

Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Chevy
Analysis: Harvick ranks just behind Burton on the leaderboard. He’s produced a 12.2-position average finish in the past decade in Vegas, including three top-10 finishes. If you take a longer view, Burton has produced six top-10 finishes in 15 career Vegas starts with a 10.9-position average finish.

Joey Logano, No. 22 Ford
Analysis: I’ll keep it brief with regard to Logano. He’s raced to a single top-10 finish in his four career starts at the track, but owns a 14.5-position average finish. Logano’s 13.6-position average running slot ranks ninth on the circuit.

Dale Earnhardt, Jr., No. 88 Chevy
Analysis: Teammate Johnson is getting the headlines, and deservedly so, given his smoking start to the 2013 campaign. Junior has been fantastic as well, producing back-to-back top-5 finishes while charging through the field. He didn’t qualify well in either venue, but averaged a 16.5-position average improvement.

The No. 88 rates a solid play this week at Las Vegas, where Earnhardt, Jr. has had some recent success. Earnhardt, Jr. has produced four top-10 finishes in his past nine Las Vegas starts to yield a 17.9-position average finish. He’s averaged a 15.9-position average running slot in the past eight years. There are better options at the track, but it’s hard to dismiss this car right now.

Matt Kenseth, No. 20 Toyota
Analysis: Kenseth couldn’t avoid the pitfalls of Daytona in the season opener (37th), but he rebounded nicely in Phoenix to produce a seventh-place finish. He’s a fantastic option this week at Las Vegas, where he’s produced five top-10 finishes (four top 5s) in nine starts.

Kasey Kahne, No. 5 Chevy

Kahne qualified well in both events this season, but couldn’t hold the line on race day. He was part of the big wreck at Daytona which resulted in a 36th-place finish. Kahne then raced to a disappointing 19th-place finish in Phoenix after starting in the front row. As a result, the No. 5 rates a difficult play this week.
Kahne has claimed the pole three times while producing four top 10s (15.3-position average finish). He’s also logged two DNFs during this period. Approach him with caution.

Mark Martin, No. 55 Toyota

Alas, Martin couldn’t sustain the momentum of claiming the pole at Phoenix. He finished a disappointing 21st, but there’s still a lot to like about this ride. Martin’s been a steady option at Las Vegas during this past decade, producing five top 10s (three top 5s) in nine starts. He’s averaged a 14.7-position average running slot here in the past eight years (16.4-position average finish).


Marcos Ambrose, No. 9 Ford
Analysis: Ambrose represents a fantastic option for fantasy participants this week. He’s run very well at Vegas during his brief tenure in the Sprint Cup Series. Ambrose charged to a fourth-place finish in last year’s event, a pronounced improvement from his 13th-place finish (still strong) in 2011.

Kurt Busch, No. 78 Chevy
Analysis: Busch slides into my roster as a longshot ride for this week. He’s obviously struggled out of the gate in 2013, producing 28th and 27th-place finishes. I’m still intrigued to see Busch on his home course. He’s averaged a 7.7-position average qualifying effort during the past decade in Vegas, but hasn’t been able to finish the average weekend on a high note. He’s averaged a disappointing 21.6-position finish during this run. Busch has logged three top-10 finishes in his past nine starts at Vegas with two DNFs

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr., No. 17 Ford
Analysis: Stenhouse, Jr. has never run a race here at Vegas in the Sprint Cup Series. Still, I can’t look past his strong start to the 2013 campaign. Stenhouse, Jr. has registered 12th and 16th-place finishes to open the year. He’s currently sitting in the eighth position on the circuit. I’m burning the starts while he’s on a roll.

My team for this week includes Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. Take the chalk.