Commentary

Jimmie Johnson time at Vegas?

Updated: March 8, 2014, 4:52 PM ET
By Joe Breeze | ESPN.com

LAS VEGAS -- So … what have we learned so far in the Sprint Cup Series?

Well, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is walking with a swagger we haven't seen from him in forever; Kevin Harvick looks insanely fast in that No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Chevrolet; and Danica Patrick continues to struggle.

But with just two races complete -- one at a superspeedway and the other at a short track -- we still have more questions than answers. Here are five things to ponder leading up to Sunday's Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET, Fox):

Does JJ make his move?

The last time we caught up with Jimmie Johnson in Las Vegas he was blistering his Goodyears on The Strip and hoisting his sixth Sprint Cup with crew chief extraordinaire Chad Knaus at the Wynn ballroom, site of the 2013 season-ending awards banquet.

[+] EnlargeJimmie Johnson
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesWill things be looking up for Jimmie Johnson come Sunday in Vegas?

Johnson's quest for seven Cup championships could get a considerable boost this weekend at Vegas, where William Hill oddsmakers listed Six-Time as the 7-1 favorite to win Sunday.

The reigning champ's numbers on the 1.5-mile oval in the Nevada desert certainly support the odds: four wins in 12 starts, seven top-10s and a series-best average finish of 9.5 among active drivers. He is the career wins leader at Las Vegas, and his driver rating of 112.3 there since 2005 crushes the next driver in line -- his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jeff Gordon at 103.8.

Now the scary part: JJ and the 48 crew enter Sunday's race with much momentum after finishing an under-the-radar fifth in the season-opening Daytona 500 and sixth the next week at Phoenix.

"I love this track, and I love the area," said Johnson, who qualified fifth fastest Friday. "One other thing to add to this racetrack and how you drive it -- for whatever reason, it's been a very intense track, a track that bravery usually pays off, and I think that fits my driving style and works good for me here."

In case you were wondering, the folks at William Hill listed Harvick, last week's winner at Phoenix, and Matt Kenseth, the defending race winner, next in line at 15-2 odds before qualifying. Oh, and Danica Patrick? She was the long shot of the field at 200-1.

Will Junior's torrid start continue?

Beware the 88 because Earnhardt is driving with a ton of confidence.

Earnhardt backed up his streak-busting Daytona 500 victory -- and subsequent weeklong media circus romp -- with a runner-up finish at Phoenix. He and crew chief Steve Letarte easily could have started the season with back-to-back celebrations in Victory Lane had Harvick not discovered a phantom turbo boost in his so-called freaky-fast Chevy at PIR.

A minor setback, Earnhardt said.

"Your confidence brings a positive attitude with it," the Sprint Cup points leader said before Thursday's four-hour test at LVMS. "We've been building that confidence, obviously, for several years, resulting in a really solid season last year, especially throughout the Chase. Starting off this year with a win and a second-place finish just continues to make us feel like what we're doing is working and what we're doing is heading in the right direction."

It's waaay too early to predict, but the Earnhardt-Letarte Farewell Tour could prove to be something pretty special. And remember, Earnhardt collected eight top-10s in the 2013 Chase, including a trio of runner-up efforts, so this team has been surging for some time.

Here's a gem from the ESPN Stats & Information group: Dale Jr. is the fifth driver since 2000 to begin a season with consecutive top-2 finishes.

The question facing the 88 this week: How will Junior's sudden spike in performance translate to the mile-and-a-half at Las Vegas, where Earnhardt has just two top-5s in 14 races and a rather pedestrian average finish of 15.6?

Is Brad K back?

Brad Keselowski produced one of the most memorable moments from the 2012 season in the finale at Homestead-Miami, hoisting a tall glass of Miller Lite and not holding back in an interview on "SportsCenter."

It was 100 percent Brad K, uncut.

[+] EnlargeBrad Keselowski
Jerry Markland/Getty ImagesBrad Keselowski opened the season with back-to-back third-place finishes in the No. 2 Penske Ford.

"I got a buzz going -- I been drinking for a little bit," Keselowski told the viewing audience about an hour after winning his first Cup title. " … It doesn't get any better than this."

It certainly didn't get any better in 2013. Ten months after celebrating a NASCAR championship at the highest level, Keselowski failed to make the Chase. The Penske driver finished 14th in the standings, with a lone victory in the fall race at Charlotte to go with his 16 top-10s.

But Keselowski is off to a great start in 2014, recording consecutive third-place finishes at Daytona and Phoenix. In fact, if you consider the last four events of 2013, he and crew chief Paul Wolfe have collected five top-six finishes in six races.

And the Penske gang has this new elimination-style qualifying figured out. Keselowski will start Sunday's race alongside teammate and pole winner Joey Logano. A week ago at Phoenix, Keselowski won the pole and Logano started second.

"We've been very fortunate," Keselowski said after qualifying Friday. "The cars are fast, and I don't think it's much more difficult than that. When you've got fast cars, it makes your life a lot easier, and Team Penske has done a great job of finding speed in qualifying trim."

***

Can Kurt Busch limit the distractions?

Not only this week but for the next dozen weeks leading up to the Indy 500/Coke 600 weekend?

The last thing Busch needs right now is a distraction. But he has a doozy, and it's self-imposed.

Busch announced Tuesday that he intends to do the NASCAR/IndyCar double on May 25, becoming only the fourth driver to attempt it and the first since Robby Gordon tried it in 2004. Busch will drive a Dallara-Honda for Andretti Autosport in Indianapolis before flying to Charlotte, N.C., to pilot the No. 41 SHR Chevrolet in the Coca-Cola 600.

The cause behind the double is a good one: to promote the Armed Forces Foundation and build awareness for post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.

"I'm driving for our military," Busch told reporters Saturday, "and trying to push the focus around our Memorial Day weekend to recognize our military in a fashion that has never really been done in a unique platform like this."

In announcing his intent to do the double Tuesday, Busch said, "There's going to be a full-on workout regimen that I'm going to be full tilt with the next three months. It's hard to do 1,100 miles the same day. It's not just the physical side; it's the mental side, as well."

In other words, Busch will have his hands full between his new Sprint Cup ride at Stewart-Haas and the one-off IndyCar date with Andretti, never mind the learning curve he'll face in an open-wheel machine.

Busch's first season turning the wheel of the No. 41 has been forgettable thus far. After two events -- a 21st-place finish at Daytona (damage on pit road) and a 39th at Phoenix (blown motor) -- he's buried deep in the standings at 30th.

Compounding the concern is Busch's ho-hum history at LVMS, his hometown track: He has just one top-5 in 13 career starts. He'll start the Kobalt 400 from the 23rd position.

Now throw in the constant distraction of the looming NASCAR-Indy double. How will it play out? Not only this weekend but beyond?

Busch said Saturday that he's not worried, especially with the win-you're-in philosophy the new Chase format creates.

"We just need to get back in our own rhythm, settle in with our new team and develop this 41 car. We'll be fine," Busch said. "But if we get that one win, then it takes all the pressure off."

Will Smoke finally rise?

One of the big storylines heading into the season was Tony Stewart's return to the No. 14 Chevrolet after a six-month medical layoff. Stewart missed the final 15 races of the 2013 Cup campaign after suffering multiple fractures in his right leg in an August sprint car crash at an Iowa dirt track.

Unfortunately for the three-time Sprint Cup champion, a fuel-pressure issue relegated Stewart to a 35th-place finish in the opener at Daytona. And an ill-timed caution late at Phoenix turned what looked as if it would be a top-10 effort into a 16th-place finish.

Stewart, who is 20th in the Cup standings, hopes to beat the odds this weekend in Vegas. He'll start 24th on the grid Sunday.

"You know, there's really no key to it," said Stewart, who has a 5.3 average finish in his past four Vegas races, including a win in 2012. "It's just like anywhere else you go. You just have to have a well-balanced car. It seems like track position is really, really key there, but as long as you can get your car driving well and stay ahead of it -- it seems like, as the day changes, or the longer the day goes, the more the track changes and the more you have to stay up with it.

"You just can't make any mistakes there because you cannot afford to lose track position, and you have to be able to stay up with the changing track conditions as the day goes on."

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