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.”

******

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.

*****

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.”

*****

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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Christopher Bell wins third straight Chili Bowl

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Christopher Bell passed Kyle Larson on the final lap of the 55-lap A-Feature to win the 33rd Annual Lucas Oil Chili Bowl Nationals. Bell is only the second driver in event history to win three consecutive Golden Drillers, joining Kevin Swindell who holds the record with four.

“Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would be able to win the Chili Bowl,” Bell said at ChiliBowl.com. “To do it three straight times is just unbelievable, but man, I don’t even care about three straight. What about that race? I don’t think I’ve ever really been a part of a last lap race like that, so I’m just glad that thing came out in the end.”

As the white flag waved on his eighth appearance in Saturday’s main event, it seemed Larson was finally going to walk away with his first Golden Driller. This was closest he’s been to the win.

Larson took the lead from Logan Seavey on Lap 21 after a five-lap hot pursuit. Bell moved into second for the first time on Lap 27 but a caution forced him back to third as the field realigned to the last completed lap.

On Lap 33, Bell passed Seavey again for second before another caution reset the field. On the next restart Bell road the rim diving to the hub in Turns 3 and 4. With Larson in sight, Bell started to think about where he was going to put his third trophy.

The final caution flag of the night waved with 20 to go to set up the Bell vs. Larson shootout fans had been waiting for since Larson retired early from the race last year. Larson pulled away on the highline in Turns 1 and 2. He switched to the low in 3 and 4.

With five laps to go Larson hit traffic. That gave Bell the opportunity to close the gap. With two to go Bell was on top of Larson and challenging for the lead. On the final lap Bell passed Larson in Turn 2 as they bumped tires. Glued together through the final pair of turns, they touched twice more before Bell pulled away on the final stretch.

The action wasn’t over, however. Bell wound up on his lid following the win. His donuts got a little out of control and he rolled his midget.

Justin Grant took third by passing Brady Bacon on Lap 36. Bacon followed for fourth with Zach Daum in tow to complete the top five.

Tyler Courtney was the hard charger of the night finishing sixth after starting in 22nd. Brad Sweet and CJ Leary finished seventh and eighth.

Seavey was able to hold onto third until late in the race but ultimately the pole sitter who led the first 20 laps faded to ninth.

Tanner Thorson rounded out the top ten.

Friday’s Main Event

1. Christopher Bell
2. Kyle Larson
3. Justin Grant
4. Brady Bacon
5. Zach Daum
6. Tyler Courtney
7. Brad Sweet
8. CJ Leary
9. Logan Seavey
10. Tanner Thorson
11. Danny Stratton
12. Jonathan Beason
13. Tucker Klaasmeyer
14. Colby Copeland
15. Rico Abreu
16. Michael Faccinto
17. Chad Boat
18. David Gravel
19. Cole Bodine
20. Robert Dalby
21. Jake Neuman
22. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
23. Shane Golobic
24. Sean McClelland