Johnson still in the chase, odds 5-7 at LVH

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Jimmie Johnson may not have won last Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway, but his sixth-place finish – coupled with point leader Matt Kenseth’s 11th – impressed Las Vegas so much he is now the 5-to-7 favorite to win the Sprint Cup with six races remaining in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.

Even though Johnson is still 3 points behind Kenseth, who has three more favorable 1.5-mile tracks to race on, the LVH Super Book thought enough of Johnson’s consistency over his last four Chase races to raise him considerably higher than Matt’s 5-4 odds. Basically, we’ve seen this out of Johnson before as he’s won more Chase races than anyone in NASCAR history, while Kenseth is kind of new to being the top dog.

Kenseth does have a Cup title to his credit, but that came in 2003, one year before the Chase was implemented. It is said by many the entire Chase process was thought up because of Kenseth’s rather boring championship run that year, which saw him win only one race on the season, but still take the title.

In all the other sports, we like to talk about nerves and how a pitcher deals with the emotions of a big moment or stage he’s never been on, or a quarterback starting for the first time on the road. Even though Kenseth has been racing in the Cup series since 2000, two years longer than Johnson, he doesn’t have the same database on similar situations like Johnson has acquired in winning five championships under the Chase format.

Granted, winning in NASCAR is usually more about the car and less about the driver, but for the 30 percent that may come down to the driver, Johnson is the one most would want to have their money on. So it’s more than an odds standpoint on what risk LVH might have on the two drivers. A factor involved is the perception of what the public is thinking. Five of the last seven seasons we’ve seen Johnson come out ahead.

This week’s race at Charlotte will be the ninth event on 1.5-mile tracks. Kevin Harvick won the first race there in May and also took home the checkers last week in Kansas. His two wins on these types of tracks should give him and his team plenty of confidence this week plus later on at Texas and Homestead. He’s only 25 behind Kenseth and has been posted at 15-1 to win the Sprint Cup and around 15-1 to win this week.

Kenseth will be the favorite and comes in with two Charlotte wins over his career, including his first career win in 2000 as a rookie. He won this race in the fall of 2011, but what mostly sets him apart as the favorite here, beyond anything he’s done specifically at Charlotte, is his four wins on 1.5-mile tracks this season. However, the one negative for Kenseth is none of his wins came on the high-banked tracks like Texas, Atlanta or Charlotte.

Kyle Busch dropped to fifth in the standings, 35 points behind Kenseth, after an accident caused a 34th-place finish at Kansas. It ended his run of three straight top-5s in the Chase, but he looked doomed for a terrible weekend after crashing in practice as well.

Is Busch resorting back to old his Chase failures now? Is this the beginning of the end? I don’t think so, and it’s just because of Charlotte being a track he has run well at despite never grabbing a win there. On the high-banked tracks where Kenseth failed to win, Busch has two wins this season. Look for a big bounce back this week.

Johnson has six wins all-time at Charlotte, but none since 2009. He won five of six at Charlotte from 2003-05. Since his last win he’s finished 22nd or worse in four of seven races. During the Chase last season he finished third, which ties his best finish since 2009.

So far, so good for Johnson in two 1.5-mile races in the Chase. He finished fifth at Chicago and then sixth at Kansas, which is the best two-race stretch on these types of tracks throughout the season. However, he has yet to win on any of the 1.5- or 2-mile tracks this season, which would be the first time in his career he’s gone winless on those types in a season. He has three chances remaining.

A long shot to take a shot with might be Kurt Busch, who has now finished five straight 1.5-mile track races with finishes of sixth or better. The string started with his third-place runs at Charlotte in May and continued through last week with runner-up at Kansas. He has yet to win on the season, but does have a 2010 Charlotte win.

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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