Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Texas Samsung Mobile 500 Preview: Kenseth Looks To Be Driver To Key On

By Micah Roberts

Earnhardt Jr. is all smiles this year after five straight solid finishes
Everything is big in Texas except the NASCAR Sprint Cup point lead after six races that seems to shuffle to a new leader almost every week. Las Vegan Kyle Busch is mere five points ahead of Carl Edwards with the next seven drivers in line all within 19 points of Edwards. The changes to the point structure make the points appear smaller than they are, but it really has been a competitive season thus far with a legitimate case made for at least 12 drivers to win the Championship.

Because of the competitiveness, we’ve seen a fluctuation with the odds to win the season championship at the Las Vegas Hilton Super Book with quite a few drivers odds differing from what they opened with back in December.

Defending five-time champ Jimmie Johnson opened the season as the 5-to-2 favorite to win for the sixth straight year, but has been bumped to 7-to-2 in light of all the new serious contenders. Johnson moved up two positions in points last week and is 3-points ahead of Kevin Harvick, a driver that has made believers out of Las Vegas oddsmakers. Harvick opened at 8-to-1 and is now 9-to-2 as the second choice to win the title with Carl Edwards.

Last season Harvick made a drastic improvement on the tracks that rule the season, the 1.5-mile and 2-mile tracks which are essential to winning a championship. Already this season, Harvick has won on two tracks he has never won on before, including Martinsville, a track that he hadn’t gained a top-five on for his entire career until the fall of last season. When looking at all the other tracks, he’s got those covered too; Road courses, check! Restrictor-plate tracks, check! Short tracks, check! And intermediate tracks like Phoenix, New Hampshire and Richmond, check!

Harvick has the whole season covered. Then when adding in that X-factor of his team getting better in the later part of races like has happened the last two weeks, well, it’s not hard to see why Las Vegas sports books think he’s just as capable as the trendy pick of Edwards to unseat Johnson this year.

Perhaps the biggest mover in respectability with Las Vegas is Dale Earnhardt Jr. who moved up four positions in points with his runner-up finish last week. Junior sits eighth in points and has gone from 50-to-1 opening odds to 20-to-1. Through the six races run, his worst finish has come on what is typically his best type of track, a 24th-place finish at Daytona in the opener. Junior has finished 12th or better since then in the ensuing five races.

The driver to take a major tumble in odds has been Denny Hamlin who opened as the 6-to-1 second choice to win, but has slid all the way back to 10-to-1 because his team still looks like they’re in a daze from Homestead last year when they blew the title. Despite being 19th in points, there still is considerable respect for Hamlin and what he’s capable of doing which is why Las Vegas only has four drivers listed with lower odds than Hamlin.

Hamlin and Harvick go for 3-in-a-row this week
This Saturday night’s race at Texas Motor Speedway will see Harvick and Hamlin trying to get a three-peat. For Harvick, now dubbed as the ‘closer’, he has won the last two races on the season with late come from behind wins. It’s the second time Harvick has won back-to-back races in his career and each of those wins this year also represented his first win ever on the track. Harvick would really shock the racing world with another win becoming the first driver since Jimmie Johnson since 2007 to win three straight races. If he does, it would also be his first win at Texas.

Hamlin doesn’t have a win this year, but is coming into this race having won two Texas races in a row sweeping the 2010 season. Last week was supposed to be a confidence builder, or sort of a crutch, for the struggling Hamlin because he had won three in a row at Martinsville, but it didn’t happen. He finished 13th, his worst finish on his home state track since his first Cup start there. It wasn’t like he wasn’t good, though, he led quite a few laps and looked to have one of the top three cars on the track.

The drivers to watch this week can be found be looking at what happened in Las Vegas and a little bit from California. They are both good indicators to who will be strong on this high-banked super fast 1.5-mile track.

Kenseth was strong at Vegas and Fontana 
The one who stands out the most is Matt Kenseth who also happens to have the best average finish of 7.3 on the track since he won in 2002. Kenseth started on the pole at Las Vegas, practiced well and finished 11th, a race won by teammate Carl Edwards. At California a couple of weeks ago, Kenseth finished fourth.

Edwards is a three-time winner at Texas, the most any driver has there, and in addition to his Vegas win, he also finished sixth at California. The interesting thing about Edwards at Texas is that he doesn’t have a top-five finish on the track with the exception of his three wins, which is why he has such a high average finish of 17.7 in his 12 starts. In his last three starts there, he’s had a 39th, 33rd and 19th.

It’s surprising that for all Johnson’s success at Las Vegas, Charlotte and Atlanta, that he wouldn’t have more than his one win in Texas. Even more surprising is that Johnson doesn’t have a win yet and has now gone 14 races dating back to last year without one. At Las Vegas and California, he didn’t give much indication in practice that he’d be a major player in the race, but in each instance, his team worked hard throughout the race adjusting the car and made it strong at the end. In addition to Johnson’s lone win on the Lone Star track, he also has four runner-up finishes. This week he'll be using his runner-up chassis from Fontana.

Others to key on this week include both Busch brothers, Greg Biffle and Tony Stewart. It could be argued that Stewart had the best car at both Las Vegas and California, but had some unfortunate mishaps at the end of each.

A sleeper for the week could be Juan Pablo Montoya. He's never done much at Texas, but is using the same car that he finished third with at Las Vegas.

Top 5 Finish Prediction:
1) #17 Matt Kenseth (20/1)
2) #14 Tony Stewart (12/1)
3) #99 Carl Edwards (9/2)
4) #49 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
5) #29 Kevin Harvick (8/1)

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