Winners: 2011 NASCAR Champions

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series: Austin Dillon
NASCAR Nationwide Series: Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Tony Stewart

Friday, February 27, 2009

Shelby 427 preview

The question on everyone's mind as the Sprint Cup Series comes to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for this weekend's Shelby 427 has nothing to do with the casinos or the cheap buffets or even the free shows.

No, what everyone wants to know entering Sin City is ... can Matt Kenseth make history?

No driver has ever won the first three races in the Sprint Cup season. Kenseth became just the fifth driver in history to win the first two races of the season after holding off Jeff Gordon to win at Auto Club Speedway last weekend. There's no way Kenseth and rookie crew chief Drew Blickensderfer can go 3-for-3, right?

To quote college football analyst Lee Corso, "Not so fast, my friend."

In nine career starts at LVMS, Kenseth has two wins (2003, 2004) and five top-10 finishes. He finished second in this race in 2006 and fourth in 2007. Kenseth's worst career finish at Las Vegas? That came last season, when he finished 20th.

It's also worth noting that his Roush Fenway Racing teammates, Carl Edwards and Greg Biffle, had good finishes in last year's race. Edwards won the race, while Biffle finished third. Roush cars have historically been strong at LVMS, winning six of the 11 Sprint Cup races held there. Mark Martin won the inaugural Cup race at the track in 1998, while Jeff Burton picked up a pair of Las Vegas checkered flags when he was still piloting the No. 99.

So logic dictates that even if Kenseth doesn't win on Sunday, one of his teammates will. Only three drivers not affiliated with Roush Fenway have ever won at Las Vegas -- Jimmie Johnson (three times), Sterling Marlin and Jeff Gordon.

Considering how Gordon ran in the Auto Club 500, leading laps and ultimately finishing second after giving Kenseth all he could handle in the closing laps, he has to be considered a contender this weekend. I realize LVMS is the site of Gordon's bad wreck last year -- I felt so bad for that poor radiator -- but he's got a much better handle on the new car this time around, and it wouldn't surprise me if he upends Kenseth.

And what of the race distance? Historically a 400-mile event, this year's race will be 427 miles as a nod to race sponsor Shelby. History has shown 400-mile races on relatively flat 1.5-mile ovals can turn into fuel mileage races (looking at you, Chicagoland and Kansas) -- will the extra 27 miles take fuel mileage out of the equation, or will there be an even greater emphasis on fuel conservation?

I think it all depends on how the cautions fall. If we see a lot of green-flag runs, it may again come down to fuel mileage. If we have a lot of cautions -- I'm thinking five or more -- it may not be an issue.

I think I'll go with Kenseth for the historic three-peat. No one is hotter than the No. 17 team right now -- not only is Kenseth fast on the track, his boys on pit road are getting the job done. Twice in Fontana, the No. 17 crew got Kenseth back on the track ahead of Gordon.

That clean air proved to be the difference in the race.

In addition, here are a few drivers a bit down in the points who need good runs on Sunday. It's still early, but if struggles continue, a lot of drivers' Chase hopes could go up in smoke. Those drivers are:

Jimmie Johnson (19th in points), Kasey Kahne (23rd), Mark Martin (27th), Jeff Burton (31st), Ryan Newman (33rd) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (35th).

I don't think any of them are in danger of falling out of the Top 35 in owner points by the time the series leaves Bristol in a few weeks, but if these teams aren't careful, Chase hopes could swirl down the drain. Especially if guys like Kurt Busch (3rd), Michael Waltrip (7th), Juan Pablo Montoya (10th) and David Reutimann (12th) keep their current pace.

But really, who expects Waltrip to stay in Chase contention. Certainly not me ....

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