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Wednesday, February 24, 2010
Las Vegas preview: Expect Johnson, Harvick to shine

By Mark Garrow

Two races into the new ESPN Stock Car Challenge in conjunction with, New England Larry is leading Big Ben 1234 1599 to 1596, and third-place RBBTeamCunningham is only seven points out of first in the overall standings. I play in two leagues -- Jayski Junkies, where I scored 762 points last week, and Virginia Connection (some old guy said he was going to kick my young butt, so I had to join), where I topped out at 852 points with Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, Mark Martin and Clint Bowyer as my five-driver lineup. I had Juan Pablo Montoya, who led 29 laps but then had a broken engine, in place of Bowyer on my other team.

On my Sunday race day chat session, I told everyone who would listen that Harvick and Burton were the Group B picks, picking Burton over Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray. We also told you Team Red Bull was reporting that Scott Speed had his best practice ever Saturday. He then went out and finished 11th. I also picked Martin, Johnson, Montoya, Harvick and Bowyer as my top five picks. All but Montoya had strong finishes, and JPM would have been up front if his motor didn't blow.

Our Sunday NASCAR Race Day Chat this week begins again at noon ET.

Now, let's double down on Las Vegas.

First, we'll give you a little history lesson. Often times, California is a pretty good gauge of who's going to be strong in Las Vegas. The tracks are about the same size, and teams that are competitive in Fontana usually roll into Vegas ready to rock. On the flip side, if a team struggled at California, it has no time to come up with a different chassis or engine package. For instance, in 2006, seven of the top 10 from Fontana ran top-10 at Vegas, too. In 2007, it was six drivers. In 2008, only three drivers were top-10 in both races, but nine drivers finished top-15 in both events. A year ago, four guys were top-10 in both.

Group A

Jimmie Johnson was my top prerace pick in this group a week ago, and he is again. He captured back-to-back wins at Vegas in 2006 and 2007, and both times he was coming off strong runs at Fontana (a second and a third).

You'll also find Mark Martin snooping around the front all day, just as you did Sunday. That team is clicking on all eight cylinders, and he'll have a shot to win.

Clint Bowyer lucked into the runner-up finish at Las Vegas in 2009, but he won't need that Sunday. Richard Childress Racing has it going on right now. The aero and chassis packages are as good as anyone's, and they have plenty of ponies to pull them down the straights. If Bowyer hadn't run hot Sunday, I think he would have wound up in the top 5 instead of eighth.

Expect big things again from Juan Pablo Montoya, too. He's running the same engines as the RCR gang and just caught a bad break last week with engine failure.

As for the others who I think can score some big points in Group A, look at Roush Fenway's Greg Biffle and Matt Kenseth. Also pay attention to how Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon practice. My dark-horse pick in this group is Kurt Busch. He hasn't done much on his home track in Vegas lately, but the new Dodge engine has plenty of steam and he did not just back into the sixth-place finish at Fontana.

I'm a little concerned with how pedestrian Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin were at Fontana and think you should save those guys to fight another day. Busch is the race's defending winner, but when he captured the checkered flag last season he was coming off a third-place finish at Fontana. This year, he stumbled home 14th at the Auto Club Speedway. I would probably stay away from Carl Edwards as well. He was average last week, and he's got to be distracted as he awaits the birth of his first child.

Group B

Do you remember how when I was talking about Clint Bowyer I gushed about how RCR is on a roll? Then it will be no shocker that Kevin Harvick and Jeff Burton head up my top picks in Group B.

Harvick is leading the points and had a serious chance to win both races this year. I think he could hit the jackpot Sunday, ending his drought that dates back to the 2007 Daytona 500. If he doesn't get to Victory Lane, you can still count on some bonus points for leading laps and a probable top-5 finish. You could see this kind of performance coming by the way Harvick ended last season with a fifth at Texas and a third at Homestead-Miami.

The same can be said of Burton, who ended last season with a pair of runner-up finishes and has obviously picked up where he left off in 2009. The 42-year-old Virginia native led 46 laps last week and, if not for the late yellow, could have easily triumphed in California.

The best of the rest in this category should probably start with Jamie McMurray. He had the speed at Fontana -- you can't win the pole without it -- but he struggled during the race. He was ninth a year ago at Vegas and is certainly with a stronger team now.

I was also impressed with the way Joey Logano ran last week as he drove to a solid fifth-place finish. Logano got a big boost by doing the Goodyear tire test at Fontana, and they should be using the same compounds this week, which is a plus for the young driver.

Others in this group you might want to keep an eye on in the prerace practices are Martin Truex Jr. and his teammate David Reutimann. Also, I don't think what Scott Speed did Sunday was a fluke.

I'm still going to stay away from Dale Earnhardt Jr. He's got to prove to me he can put together a strong race from start to finish on a non-restrictor plate track. Yes, he had a mechanical problem last week, but qualifying 27th and running the way he did before he had the problem didn't exactly make my heart flutter. I'll be rooting for Junior, but he won't be on my team. Speaking of which, the fantastic five I have on my pre-Sunday chat team are Johnson, Martin, Bowyer, Harvick and Burton.

Remember, if you'd like to challenge me every week join my league Jayski Junkies and at Virginia Connection if you'd like as well. You can also follow me on Twitter @GuruGarrow!