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Four Burning Questions:  Kobalt Tools 400

Four Burning Questions: Kobalt Tools 400

*Q1: Which Busch brother is poised to benefit the most from this weekend’s home cooking?*

Looking at overall past performances, it’s looking like Kyle might get the upper hand over his older brother. However, do not count out the No. 22.

In seven career starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle has one victory (2009, from the pole), three top 5 and four top 10 finishes. His average finish is 11.7, making it one of his best tracks. That average also includes a 41st-place finish in 2004, due to a crash just 11 laps into his Cup debut, driving a part-time fifth Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Subtract that race, and Kyle has finished every lap he’s run at his home track. The average finish would then decrease to a 6.83. That’s a very strong pick.

Meanwhile, brother Kurt has struggled at times. In 10 career starts at Las Vegas, Kurt has one top 5 finish (a third in 2005) and two top 10s. He started from pole last year. He also has two DNFs at the track due to crashes (2003 and 2008).

What is really startling about Kurt’s struggles is that he is generally an excellent qualifier on the 1.5 mile tri-oval; he has never started the Kobalt Tools 400 worse than 10th. However, only once has Kurt ever improved upon his qualifying effort (2005). Most of the time, he falls off substantially. As a result, his average finish is just slightly better than 22nd. It is Kurt’s worst track on the circuit, and it has been worse than that since Kurt moved to Penske Racing from then-Roush Racing. Since 2006, his best finish at the track is a 16th, the only time he managed to finish on the lead lap. His average finish is a horrible 27.6. Kurt would do well to improve on that.

*Q2: Can Jeff Burton avoid another wreck and get a decent result?*

It’s been a rough and tumble start to 2011 for Jeff Burton, and with the new points system penalizing back-end finishes more than ever, the No. 31 team is already nearing must-win mode headed into Las Vegas.

If there is a track where Jeff Burton can go to regain his mojo, Las Vegas is probably it. Burton is a past winner at the track; one of those wins (the 2000 CarsDirect.com 400) was in a rain-shortened event, the other an epic duel between Jeff and his brother Ward.

In all 13 races, the only time that Jeff has been involved in an incident in Las Vegas was on the second lap of the 2001 event, the only time he’s failed to finish on the lead lap. That crash can be seen at the 0:52 mark of this “clip”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y57s0ftQEvA. After repairing the crash damage, Burton came back out to finish 39th, 80 laps down. Other than that one wreck, his worst finish is 17th.

Regardless of where the Sprint Cup Series is, Burton needs to be able to put up some kind of a decent result this weekend. After getting involved in wrecks not of his own making in both Daytona and Phoenix, Burton currently stands in a tie for 32nd in driver points with Brian Vickers. In the owner points, the No. 31 is tied for 33rd, just two points ahead of Front Row Motorsports’ No. 37 in 36th. While it’s not time to outright panic, Burton needs to deliver.

It is still a bit unclear as to how quick one can rise up the standings with good runs under the new point system. Mark Martin’s 2009 season started just about as bad as Burton’s has so far this season. It was bad enough that Martin entered the Food City 500 with his No. 5 in 35th in owner points. From there, Martin went on a run to win five races, including the first Chase race, and give Jimmie Johnson a run for his money before eventually conceding. However, it’s quite telling that it took a near career year from Martin just to get into the Chase with the old system. With this new system, where bad finishes apparently hurt more than they did before, Burton had best start winning sometime soon if he plans on making the Chase.

*Q3: Can Juan Pablo Montoya break through for his first career oval victory in Las Vegas?*

If you’re basing your opinion solely on past results, no. Montoya has never finished better than 19th in Las Vegas. That race (the 2008 event) was also the lone time that Montoya finished on the lead lap. As you may remember, last years’ event (the Shelby American) saw Montoya get collected in a “crash”:http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=irySt-MQ64Q with teammate Jamie McMurray, then rant to FOX’s Dick Berggren about McMurray’s tactics afterwards. Montoya did eventually get back on track, but he finished 37th, 20 laps down

However, in this week’s edition of “Mirror Driving”:http://www.frontstretch.com/md/32968/, I decided to press my luck by picking Montoya to win. Why did I decide to go out on a limb like that? Sometimes, my choices for predictions have nothing to do with stats. It definitely didn’t involve favoritism.

I chose Montoya because of his drive to succeed. Yes, Montoya has two career Sprint Cup victories. However, both of those were on road courses (2007 at Infineon Raceway, last year at Watkins Glen). While those wins were nice, Montoya wants more. He wants to prove that he is capable of winning on an oval.

Also, there is the fact that Montoya is off to a good start so far this season. Currently, Montoya is in a tie for seventh in points with Bobby Labonte and Ryan Newman on the strength of a sixth-place finish in the Daytona 500 and a middling run in Phoenix. Despite the decent finishes, Montoya is yet to put together a race without something going bad on him. If Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing can give Montoya a great setup, and he doesn’t get swept up into someone else’s mess, expect the No. 42 to be in the hunt on Sunday.

*Q4: Is Jimmie Johnson a prohibitive favorite to win?*

Not necessarily. However, if he doesn’t have issues on Sunday, he’ll likely be someone that has to be dealt with. Since Las Vegas Motor Speedway was reconfigured for the 2007 season, Johnson has won two races there, including last years’ Shelby American. However, the other two events have been uncharacteristically poor for Johnson.

In 2008, Johnson finished two laps down in 29th after starting in 33rd. Johnson was running as low as 38th just before halfway and had to rush just to recover to there. In the 2009 Shelby 427, Johnson finished 24th, one lap down after qualifying third and leading 92 laps; a miscue on pit road trapped Johnson a lap down and derailed his run.

Since then, Johnson’s pit crew has been completely overhauled, first with the controversial swap last November in Texas, and now with Knaus’ A and B-team crews that operate on a somewhat similar basis to a Major League Baseball team. These moves were taken to, if not eliminate, then minimize the chances of Johnson losing a race because of his crew.

Overall, Johnson has an average finish of 10th at Las Vegas in his nine career starts. Other than his four victories, he has only one other top 10 finish at the track, a sixth as a rookie in 2002. If Johnson can just achieve his average at Las Vegas, expect him to be in the top 5 in points once 400 miles have run on Sunday.

“Contact Phil Allaway”:http://www.frontstretch.com/contact/18440/

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