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Can Johnson Win Make It Two In A Row At Vegas? He Will Have To Find Speed To Get Past The Roush Boys

Jeff Gordon snapped his 66-race winless streak in Phoenix last week, surviving through a (surprisingly) crash-filled race to take the checkered flag over Kyle Busch. Last week’s race ruined many people’s rosters with “The Big One”–which is usually expected only at the plate races, and definitely not a flat, one-mile racetrack. Will the race here in Las Vegas keep up with the unpredictability of the season? I doubt it, but you never know what will happen on Sunday. The last five races here have averaged almost ten cautions per race, but don’t expect a large number of cars to be taken out in one of them.

The last time the Sprint Cup series came to Vegas, in February 2010, Jeff Gordon dominated the race, leading a race-high 219 laps before getting passed by teammate Jimmie Johnson late and finishing 3rd. “The Champ” won the race with Kevin Harvick finishing runner-up. Full results for last year’s race can be found by clicking here. In case you missed seeing Matt Kenseth edge Marcos Ambrose for the pole yesterday afternoon, or want to know the entire starting lineup, click here for the qualifying results for the Kobalt Tools 400.

Top Fifteen For The Kobalt Tools 400:

1. Carl Edwards – Starts 3rd – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group/$26.66 game
Change from my preview: +7 spots. — Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
Well, for the second week in a row Carl Edwards has a super fast car. But will he be able to get the finish he thinks he deserves? Edwards won here in 2008 but has only two top tens in six career starts at this track (that’s why he’s Medium Risk). But as long as he doesn’t get wrecked again, there’s no way that Cousin Carl won’t be challenging for the lead in the end. He was first in Happy Hour average practice speed and second in ten-lap average during that session. My recommendation? Pick the 99. Edwards said on Friday that “this race will show how good this team is” and whether they are for real. Well, ladies and gentlemen, this team is for real this year. He hasn’t finished worse than 26th at Las Vegas and has a wicked fast car here; expect a top five at worst.

2. Greg Biffle – Starts 4th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group/$28.62 game
Change from my preview: +3 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
It’s time to load up on the Roushkateers. Biffle followed suit with his teammates, posting super fast laps in practice (and ending up 2nd-fastest on the average speed sheet in Happy Hour). He’s not as fast as Carl but he will be right there all race with him. Greg is on a streak of three top tens at this track and has only finished outside of the sixteen once (in his rookie year). With a driver rating of over 100 in five of his last six starts at Las Vegas, you know he is consistent, and the Fords look very fast this week. The Roush cars dominated qualifying on Friday and practice on Saturday. Will they make it the trifecta? I wouldn’t bet against them.

3. Kyle Busch – Starts 5th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group/$28.32 game
Change from my preview: -1 spot. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
One driver has the chance to spoil the Roush party this weekend: Rowdy Busch. He’s the only driver with a top five in the first two races this season, and there’s no reason to think he won’t continue that streak: Busch starts 5th and had the 5th-best average speed in Happy Hour (yes, I know, that’s a lot of fives). Will Kyle get the redemption from not pulling off the trifecta last week? He certainly has a shot. Like Biffle, Busch’s worst finish came in his first start at this track, but since then his lowest finish is 15th. Rowdy’s lowest driver rating over the past six races here has been 95.7. You may not like him, but Kyle Busch will be up front again this week (and will ride that momentum into Bristol, one of his best tracks).

4. Matt Kenseth – Starts 1st – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group/$28.36 game
Change from my preview: +2 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
I’ve learned one thing about Matt Kenseth over my years of watching NASCAR: when he qualifies good, watch out. Kenseth has made eleven starts at Las Vegas, amassing two wins and only one finish outside of the top 20 (and that was due to an engine problem). In six of the last eight races here, the 17 has ended up in the top ten. Kenseth was uncharacteristically fast in practice, ending at 6th overall in Happy Hour average speed. He was also 3rd in ten-lap average during Happy Hour. This week isn’t the time to take chances: load up on Roush and go into Bristol after an awesome week at Las Vegas.

5. Jimmie Johnson – Starts 14th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group/$29.05 game
Change from my preview: -2 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
You didn’t think “The Champ” would fall that far would you? Heck, even this 5th-place ranking is lower than most would put the winner of four of the last six races here. He was never extremely strong in qualifying here, but he knows how to get the finish. In nine career starts at Vegas, Johnson has an average start of 15.3 but averages a 10th place finish. He was 20th in the average speed chart for Happy Hour, but don’t let that fool you; JJ will be up toward the front by the end of race Sunday, and while I don’t think he will be a challenger to take the win, a top five isn’t out of the question by any means.

6. Tony Stewart – Starts 15th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group/$27.93 game
Change from my preview: +3 spots. — Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
One of the biggest surprises when I looked at average speeds was Tony Stewart. “Smoke” rarely ever shows his hand in practice, but this week he ended up 4th in average speed during Happy Hour. Does that mean he has a fast car, though? I’ve been studying average speeds for a few years and when Stewart is good in practice, he usually backs it up in the race. His best finish in the last six races here has been 7th, so don’t expect a dominating performance, but four of Stewart’s six top tens here have been top fives.

7. Jeff Gordon – Starts 13th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group/$27.64 game
Change from my preview: -6 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
Last week’s winner hasn’t been very impressive thus far this weekend: he spun in first practice, qualified 13th on Friday, and looked horrible during Happy Hour on Saturday (32nd in average speed). It’s hard for anyone to compete with the Ford power on Sunday, and the way it’s looking right now, it will be hard for Gordon just to finish in a decent spot. Don’t worry, though, he may have been trying something new for the race to see what works and what doesn’t. Gordon has finished in the top six in five of his last six starts at Las Vegas, so it’s hard for me not to recommend him this weekend. However, I do think there are better picks this weekend, but I’ve been wrong before.

8. Jeff Burton – Starts 21st – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group/$27.00 game
Change from my preview: -4 spots. — Risk Factor: Low Risk**
It’s hard to go against Burton this week: Vegas is his best track statistically. In thirteen career starts here, Jeff has managed to pull off two wins and has only one finish outside of the top 20. Like most of the Childress stable, Burton didn’t blow anyone away in practice (11th-best average speed in Happy Hour) but he should challenge for a top ten on Sunday. His last three finishes at Las Vegas have been 11th, 3rd, and 5th.

9. Mark Martin – Starts 10th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group/$19.41 game
Change from my preview: no change. — Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
Coming in at 15th on the Happy Hour average speed chart is Mark “The Kid” Martin. Historically Las Vegas has been kind to Martin, as he has ten finishes in the top ten in his thirteen starts at the track. When he doesn’t finish outside of the top ten, though, the results can be disastrous to a fantasy team (all three of them have been 30th or worse). I’m still not sold on the crew chief swap benefiting Martin, but I will give it a few more weeks to give a final decision. He most definitely won’t challenge for a win, but a solid finish between 8th and 12th should be expected from the 5 car this weekend.

10. Paul Menard – Starts 18th – Yahoo! Fantasy C Group/$18.54 game
Change from my preview: wasn’t ranked. — Risk Factor: Extreme Risk**
Flash back to 2010: Menard was always fast in practice on these 1.5-mile tracks, but he never could get the finish. Enter 2011: Menard switches over to Richard Childress racing, and once again looks wicked fast in practice (3rd in Happy Hour average speed). Now, the question is: will he get the finish this week? We’ll have to wait and see. He jumped from my “Underdog” list to being ranked, so expect to see the 27 car on most of my rosters. You have to use extreme caution when picking Menard, but he’s the fastest Chevy in the field and has a knack for these tracks. He finished 17th in this race in 2010.

11. Joey Logano – Starts 6th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group/$19.43 game
Change from my preview: no change. — Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
“Sliced Bread” has been pretty quietly consistent this week. He starts on the third row and posted the 16th-best average practice speed in Happy Hour. Logano has raced twice at this track in the Sprint Cup series, posting finishes of 6th and 13th. Last year was when he got that sixth-place finish, and he started 6th in that race as well. I’ll be conservative and put Logano at 11th this week.

12. Kevin Harvick – Starts 26th – Yahoo! Fantasy A Group/$29.30 game
Change from my preview: -5 spots. — Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
As usual, Harvick didn’t wow anyone in practice (21st in Happy Hour average speed), nor in qualifying. Last week in Phoenix the 29 crew showed great teamwork in repairing Kevin’s car and earned a top five finish in the end. Harvick has finished outside of the top 12 only once at Las Vegas since 2005 and I don’t see turning into twice since 2005 this week. Like Logano, I’m being conservative with Harvick, but it’s hard to overlook the speed of the other guys in the field this week.

13. Ryan Newman – Starts 8th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group/$20.12 game
Change from my preview: wasn’t ranked. — Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
The Rocketman’s teammate is real fast, and Newman isn’t too far behind, ending up 14th in Happy Hour average speed. He got his first top five of the season last week, and while he won’t get a second one this week, a top 15 is definitely within reach. Newman has four top tens in ten career starts at Vegas with a best finish of 4th (in 2002). His last three finishes here have been 18th, 25th, and 14th, so choose wisely.

14. David Reutimann – Starts 25th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group/$18.24 game
Change from my preview: wasn’t ranked. — Risk Factor: Medium Risk**
Reutty needs a good run and is at the right track for one. David has wins in Chicago and Charlotte, which complement Vegas well, and he has a 4th-place finish to his credit here (in 2009). The 00 Toyota was 9th in Happy Hour average speed, so you know they got some power under the hood, and his teammate didn’t look too shabby either. Reutimann could surprise many people this week, but don’t be surprised to see him running with the leaders at some point in this race on Sunday.

15. Martin Truex, Jr. – Starts 13th – Yahoo! Fantasy B Group/$17.65 game
Change from my preview: wasn’t ranked. — Risk Factor: High Risk**
You should remember from last year that Truex, Jr. usually practices well, only to disappoint on Sunday. Once again, the 56 Toyota was near the top of the average speed chart (7th) on Saturday, but will Truex run into bad luck again this week (like he did so many times last year)? With such high expectations coming into the 2011 season, a good run is expected to come out of the 56 car soon, but it may be a little too risky to take him this week. In five career starts at Las Vegas, Martin Truex Jr.’s best finish has been 12th (in 2007).

“Surprise” Picks For The Kobalt Tools 400:

David Ragan – Like I said before, load up on Roush this week. Ragan starts 42nd, but he should find his way up to mid-pack quickly. He looked fast on Friday and pretty decent on Saturday, posting the 19th-best average speed rank in Happy Hour. David has one top ten here in four starts, and that came in 2008 when he finished 7th.

Marcos Ambrose – I told you to watch out for Ambrose in my preview article, and I hope you listened to me: the 9 car almost took the pole in qualifying and Marcos was 12th in Happy Hour average speed. Yes, the same Marcos Ambrose that everyone thought was just good at road courses. Of course it’s risky, but Ambrose finished 14th here last year.

Trevor Bayne – I have a feeling “Bayne Mania” will be back soon. Remember back to Texas when Bayne made his first start in the Cup series: he ended up 17th that day and showed he could hang with “the big boys”. He starts 16th and was 10th-fastest in Happy Hour average speed. Another top 20 could definitely happen this weekend, if not a (very surprising) top ten.

Stay Away From These Drivers For The Kobalt Tools 400:

Denny Hamlin – Another surprise in practice was Hamlin, as the #11 Toyota wound up 33rd in Happy Hour average speed. He has three top tens at Las Vegas, but his last two trips have ended with 19th and 22nd-place efforts. Denny didn’t seem as great as he should have been last week at Phoenix, and I don’t think he’s going to perform well on Sunday. I’ve been wrong before, but I’d stay away from Hamlin this week.

Jamie McMurray – Jamie Mac looked pitiful in practice (34th in Happy Hour average speed) and I expect him to fall back quickly from his 11th-place starting spot. Last year, in his first start at Vegas in the #1 Chevrolet, McMurray ended up 34th.

Kurt Busch – His brother is great here, but the elder Busch brother is quite the opposite. He was mid-pack in terms of average speed and hasn’t finished in the top fifteen at Vegas since 2005. Wait until next race to pick Kurt Busch.

My (Tentative) Fantasy NASCAR Picks: Favorite – Jeff Gordon, Darkhorse – Jimmie Johnson
Yahoo!: A-List: Kyle Busch, B-List: Marcos Ambrose, David Reutimann C-List: Paul Menard Fantasy Live: Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Paul Menard, David Reutimann, Trevor Bayne “The Showdown”: Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Greg Biffle, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard

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The boys have an off-week but will be back at Bristol on March 20th.