Jimmie Johnson returns to usual spot

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The NASCAR Sprint Cup series has run six races thus far as we head into Texas for some Saturday night racing on a fast, high-banked, 1.5-mile track.

Following Jimmie Johnson’s win last week at Martinsville, coupled with a poor run by Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson finds himself perched at the top of the standings heading a track where he’s won twice over his career, including last fall.

Johnson is still the 3-to-1 favorite over at the LVH Super Book to win the Sprint Cup championship, but for the first time since his rookie season, we might not be considering him one of the drivers to beat on these types of tracks.

The 1.5-mile tracks have been Johnson’s bread and butter over his career, but the change to the Gen-6 car may have given away some of Johnson’s edge over his competitors.

We’ve seen two races on high-speed, down-force tracks – Las Vegas and California – with Johnson coming in with his best effort at Las Vegas in sixth-place. At Las Vegas he led three times for 66 laps, but at California – a place he typically dominates, he didn’t lead a lap and finished a very un-Johnson-like 12th.

The drivers who have perhaps passed Johnson as those to look out for on this type of track come from the Joe Gibbs racing stable. Matt Kenseth won at Las Vegas and Kyle Busch at California. And although Denny Hamlin won’t be racing this week, we should still take note of the two-time, Texas-winning No. 11 car driven by Brian Vickers.

Although Las Vegas isn’t banked as steep as Texas, because the race was run so recently and because of history, we can look at a small group of drivers that should be expected to do well. The same group of drivers seem to continually pop up winning throughout the history of the two tracks.

We’ve seen Mark Martin, Jeff Burton and Kenseth win at the early stages of both tracks’ history, then we have Tony Stewart winning at Las Vegas last season after winning the fall 2011 race at Texas. In 2007, Johnson won at Vegas and Texas in the same season. The ultimate sweep was in 2008 when Carl Edwards won both Texas races along with Vegas.

Now we have races a little more than a month apart with Vegas knowledge that Kenseth and Busch look to be the drivers to beat this week based on their runs there. Busch finished fourth at Vegas before winning two weeks later at California.

Kenseth was already considered a candidate to win at Texas even without his Vegas win. He’s the all-time track leader with a 7.2 average finish that includes two wins, and he’s finished in the top-5 there in his last five starts.

At Las Vegas last month, Kenseth kind of stole the win away from what looked to be the most dominant car of the day driven by Kasey Kahne. Kahne led six times for a race-leading 114 laps before eventually settling for runner-up. Kenseth opted to take no tires on the final pit stop, got out front and stayed there for the final 42 laps.

Because of his dominating Vegas run, we have to consider Kahne the strongest candidate to slay Kenseth and Busch this week. Kahne also has a 2006 Texas win to his credit.

We’ve seen Carl Edwards end his long winless streak by taking the checkers at Phoenix this season, but he’s quietly come back to a contender on the type of tracks that made a name for himself over his career. The down force tracks have been Edwards’ best friend over the years, and after a couple lean seasons in the win column, it appears the Gen-6 car has helped him get back to a level close to 2008 when he won nine races.

Only Busch and Edwards finished in the top-5 at both Las Vegas and California. Edwards was fifth at Las Vegas and fourth at California. Over his career at Texas, Edwards has three wins and has finished eighth or better in three of his last four starts there.

Edwards’ teammate, Greg Biffle, has also been strong at Texas over his career. He doesn’t have a top-5 finish yet this season, but has been consistent, which has been good enough to place him sixth in points. He won this race last spring, and also in 2005, and is on a run of nine straight top-10 finishes there.

A long shot to take a look at this week might be Paul Menard who finished 10th at Las Vegas and eighth at California.

Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Follow Micah on Twitter @MicahRoberts7 Contact Micah at [email protected].

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