Sprint Cup Notes and Quotes for Sunday’s Kobalt 400 in Las Vegas: Will Junior stay hot?

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Pop quiz: Who has been the most consistent driver in Sprint Cup over nearly the last dozen races, dating back to the latter part of last season?

Jimmie Johnson, who won his sixth Cup championship last season, right?

Wrong.

Hard as it may seem to believe, especially to his haters, but the most consistent driver since last fall’s Chase for the Sprint Cup race at New Hampshire – the last 11 races, that is – has been none other than Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Junior has an average finish in that 11-race stretch of 4.8, according to NASCAR’s crack stats team.

Of course, Johnson isn’t far behind, with an average finish during that same time of 5.2.

Sunday’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway should be a classic battle between the two Hendrick Motorsports teammates.

Johnson has finished first or second in five of his last nine races at LVMS, while Earnhardt – still in pursuit of his first career win in Sin City – has finished in the top-10 in five of his last six starts there.

And let’s not forget that Junior is off to the best start of his 15-year Sprint Cup career (has it REALLY been 15 years already?), with a win in the Daytona 500 and runner-up finish this past Sunday at Phoenix that kept him atop the Sprint Cup standings.

Here’s Junior’s scouting report on LVMS:

“Vegas has a lot of bumps going into Turn 1,” he said. “They are something else. I’m impressed each time I go there how much rougher it is. That really challenges you to set the car up to be able to get through the bumps.

“Your performance at Vegas can set the tone for the other intermediate tracks. Confidence is everything and when you go to Vegas. If you run well, you expect to go to the next mile-and-a-half and run well.”

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Whenever the Sprint Cup tour visits LVMS, we invariably hear about how well two of Las Vegas’s most famous sons want to win at their so-called home track.

Kurt Busch’s average finish at Las Vegas is 21.7, his worst finishing average of ANY track on the Sprint Cup circuit.

In 13 starts at LVMS, the elder Busch brother has just one top-five and two other top-10 finishes. He also has a pole.

Younger brother Kyle – aka “Shrub” – has been significantly better at the 1.5-mile high-banked track. He has one Sprint Cup race win (plus two poles) and four top-five finishes there, with a 7.1 average start and 14.7 average finish.

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One of the biggest surprises thus far in the early 2014 season has been Casey Mears, believe it or not.

After finishing 10th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 14th this past Sunday at Phoenix, Mears is part of a three-way tie for 10th-place in the Sprint Cup standings heading into Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

His Phoenix finish was his best in a year on a non-restrictor plate oval (not including ninth at Daytona last July and 12th on the road course at Watkins Glen a month later).

“We’re looking forward to getting to Las Vegas and getting on the track with our No. 13 GEICO Chevrolet SS,” Mears said. “We’ve definitely started the year on a strong note and the new relationship with Chevrolet and Richard Childress Racing has been working really well.

“Mile and a half tracks have been a challenge for us over the years, so we’re hoping to be able to close the gap and have a strong run with our new Chevy. … We have a top ten and a 14th place finish heading into Las Vegas, so the guys on the team are in good spirits. It’s also nice to be sitting in a three-way tie for 10th in the point standings. The guys on this Germain Racing team have worked really hard, so I’m happy that we’ve been able to have a couple of strong races and get some good results.”

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Danica Patrick isn’t the only driver who has had a rough start of it this season (she’s currently 39th in the Sprint Cup standings, 77 points behind series leader Dale Earnhardt Jr.).

Parker Kligerman may be two spots ahead of Patrick in the standings at 37th, but he carries a dubious distinction of being the only Sprint Cup driver thus far this season who has recorded back-to-back DNFs in the first two races.

Kligerman was involved in a crash seven laps from the finish of the season-opening Daytona 500 (finished 29th) and managed to complete just 226 laps of the 312 at Phoenix before his engine blew up.

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Coyne transitioning from underdog to Indy 500 threat

Photo: IndyCar
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For most of the team’s existence, Dale Coyne Racing has been the Chicago Cubs of American Open Wheel Racing – a team whose history was more defined by failures, at times comically so, than success.

The last decade, however, has seen the tide completely change. In 2007, they scored three podium finishes with Bruno Junqueira. In 2009, they won at Watkins Glen with the late Justin Wilson.

The combination won again at Texas Motor Speedway in 2012, and finished sixth in the 2013 Verizon IndyCar Series championship. That same year, Mike Conway took a shock win for them in Race 1 at the Chevrolet Dual in Detroit.

Carlos Huertas scored an upset win for them in Race 1 at the Houston double-header in 2014, and while 2015 and 2016 yielded no wins, Tristan Vautier and Conor Daly gave them several strong runs – Vautier’s best finish was fourth in Race 2 at Detroit, while Daly finished second in Race 1 at Detroit, finished fourth at Watkins Glen, and scored a trio of sixth-place finishes at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Road Course, Race 2 at Detroit, and the Mid-Ohio Sports Car Course.

And 2017 was set to possibly be the best year the team has ever had. Sebastien Bourdais gave the team a popular win in the season-opening Firestone Grand Prix of St. Petersburg, and then rookie Ed Jones scored back-to-back top tens – 10th and sixth – at St. Pete and the Toyota Grand Prix of Long Beach to start his career.

But, things started unraveling at the Indianapolis 500. Bourdais appeared set to be in the Fast Nine Pole Shootout during his first qualifying run – both of his first two laps were above 231 mph –  before his horrifying crash in Turn 2.

While Jones qualified an impressive 11th and finished an even more impressive third, results for the rest of the season became hard to come by – Jones only scored two more Top 10s, with a best result of seventh at Road America.

But, retooled for 2018, the Coyne team is a legitimate threat at the 102nd Running of the Indianapolis 500.

Bourdais, whose No. 18 Honda features new sponsorship from SealMaster and now ownership partners in Jimmy Vasser and James “Sulli” Sullivan, has a win already, again at St. Pete, and sits third in the championship.

And Bourdais may also be Honda’s best hope, given that he was the fastest Honda in qualifying – he’ll start fifth behind Ed Carpenter, Simon Pagenaud, Will Power, and Josef Newgarden.

“I think it speaks volumes about their work, their passion and their dedication to this program, Dale (Coyne), Jimmy (Vasser) and Sulli (James Sullivan) and everybody from top to bottom. I can’t thank them enough for the opportunity, for the support,” Bourdais said of the team’s effort.

Rookie Zachary Claman De Melo has been progressing nicely, and his Month of May has been very solid – he finished 12th at the INDYCAR Grand Prix on the IMS Road Course and qualified a strong 13th for the “500.”

“It’s been surreal to be here as rookie. I’m a bit at a loss for words,” Claman De Melo revealed after qualifying. “The fans, driving around this place, being with the team, everything is amazing. I have a great engineer, a great group of experienced mechanics at Dale Coyne Racing.”

While Conor Daly and Pippa Mann struggled in one-off entries, with Mann getting bumped out of the field in Saturday qualifying, Daly’s entry essentially puts three Coyne cars in the race – Daly’s No. 17 United States Air Force Honda is a Dale Coyne car that has been leased to Thom Burns Racing.

Rest assured, the days of Coyne being an “also ran” are long gone, and a Coyne car ending up in Victory Lane at the biggest race of the year would complete the Chicago Cubs analogy – the Cubs won a World Series title in 2016, and an Indy 500 triumph would be the crowning achievement in Coyne’s career.

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