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NASCAR driver capsules, March 5

By By The Sports Xchange
Published On: Mar 05 2014 02:29:02 PM CST
Racing generic, winners flag

Caren Firouz/Reuters

Capsules for the top 20 drivers in the Sprint Cup standings, plus five additional drivers of note.

By Jerry Bonkowski and Bob Moore

88 DALE EARNHARDT JR., Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: Dale Earnhardt Jr. leads the Sprint Cup Series standings for the second straight week after Sunday's race at Phoenix International Raceway. Earnhardt leads second-ranked Brad Keselowski by six points and third-ranked Jeff Gordon by 10 points.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: 14 career starts, 0 wins, 2 top-5s, 7 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Second in 2003 and 2008. Finished seventh in this race last year and was 10th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Earnhardt comes into Las Vegas off to the best start of his 15-year Sprint Cup career. He won in the season-opening Daytona 500 and finished runner-up Sunday at Phoenix. Here's his thoughts about Sunday's race: "Vegas has a lot of bumps going into Turn 1. 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."

LOOKING BACK: Earnhardt continued to have the best start of any driver in the Sprint Cup Series, finishing second at Phoenix to winner Kevin Harvick.

ETC.: Earnhardt has completed 91.0 percent (3,312) of the 3,640 total laps contested in 14 career starts at Las Vegas. His average start there is 21.1 and his average finish is 15.6. He has two DNFs there.

2 BRAD KESELOWSKI, Ford

Team: Penske Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Brad Keselowski moved up one spot, from third to second, after Sunday's race at Phoenix. He trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by just six points and leads third-ranked Jeff Gordon by four points.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: 5 career starts, 0 wins, 1 top-5s, 1 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: Third in 2013 (after starting from the pole). Finished third in this race last year and 32nd in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Keselowski has been consistent in the first two races, finishing third each time. He's off to a good start and looking to avenge last year's disappointing season, where he failed to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup, let alone defend his 2012 Cup championship. Here's his thoughts about Sunday's race in Las Vegas: "Our No. 2 Miller Lite Ford team has come out strong in the first couple of races and I am proud of the effort. Now we just have to get that last little bit in order to win races. We will continue working with winning in mind in order to ensure we position ourselves to be in the new championship playoff format. It's nice to be sitting second in the points early in the season. The best part is that we're just getting started."

LOOKING BACK: Keselowski had the strongest Ford at Phoenix and challenged Kevin Harvick all the way to the checkered flag. If there had been another lap or two, the outcome may have been different.

ETC.: Keselowski has completed 94.4 percent (1,277) of the 1,353 total laps contested in five career starts at Las Vegas. His average start there is 14.0 and his average finish is 25.0. He has zero DNFs there. Up until last year's third-place finish, he had never finished higher than 26th in his prior four starts at Las Vegas.

24 JEFF GORDON, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: Jeff Gordon moved up one spot, from fourth to third in the Sprint Cup standings, after Phoenix. He trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 10 points, is four points behind second-ranked Brad Keselowski and leads fourth-ranked Kevin Harvick by one point.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: 16 career starts, 1 wins, 6 top-5s, 7 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in 2001. Finished 25th in this race last year and was 12th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Gordon is off to a good start, exactly what he needs to do if he hopes to win a fifth Sprint Cup championship this year (and if he does so, he's already said he'll retire then). Here's Gordon's thoughts on Sunday's race at Las Vegas: "The challenges we will face at Vegas are the same challenges we have faced in the past. We're up against the loads (of the car) in general at speed but also trying to get over these bumps, and that's very, very challenging. You can run up high (to avoid bumps in Turn 1), but even then usually your left-side tires are on them."

LOOKING BACK: After helping teammate Dale Earnhardt Jr. to a win in the season-opening Daytona 500, Gordon again helped push Earnhardt to a runner-up finish Sunday in Phoenix. Gordon had a good run himself, finishing fifth in the race.

ETC.: Gordon has completed 96.3 percent (4,018) of the 4,174 total laps contested in 16 career starts at Las Vegas. His average start there is 13.6 and his average finish is 15.4. He has three DNFs there.

4 KEVIN HARVICK, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Kevin Harvick moved up eight spots, from 12th to fourth, after his win Sunday at Phoenix. He trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 11 points, third-ranked Jeff Gordon by one point and leads fifth-ranked Jimmie Johnson by one point.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: 13 career starts, 0 wins, 3 top-5s, 5 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Second in 2010. Finished ninth in this race last year and was 11th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Harvick is bound and determined to not only win more races with his new team, Stewart-Haas Racing, he also thinks he can finally win his first Sprint Cup championship this year with the team, as well. Here's his thoughts about Sunday's race in Las Vegas: "We tested with the new no ride-height rule at Charlotte ... at the end of last year and I expect the cars to have a little bit more grip and a little bit more speed than what we had before (at Las Vegas). ... I know they've worked hard on it, but things happen a lot more aggressively coming into the pit stall and everything is hot and so you've just got to make sure that's right."

LOOKING BACK: Harvick said he wanted to win early for his new home, Stewart-Haas Racing, and that's what he did in Sunday's second race of the season. He had the most dominant car, leading 224 of the 312 laps.

ETC.: Harvick has been about as near-perfect as you can be at Las Vegas, completing 99.9 percent (3,487) of the 3,492 total laps contested in 13 career starts at Las Vegas. His average start there is 21.1 and his average finish is a significantly better 12.7. He has zero DNFs there.

48 JIMMIE JOHNSON, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: Jimmie Johnson dropped one spot in the rankings, falling from fourth to fifth after Sunday's race at Phoenix. He trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 12 points, is one point behind fourth-ranked Kevin Harvick and leads sixth-ranked Joey Logano by three points.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: 12 career starts, 4 wins, 5 top-5s, 7 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in 2005, 2006, 2007 and 2010. Finished sixth in this race last year and was second in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Johnson is one of the most dominant drivers at Las Vegas, and if there's a place for him to pick up his first win of the 2014 season, Sin City is as good a place as any. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race: "We are looking forward to the opportunity for the extra test day in Vegas. With all the rule changes, we really need that time on these types of tracks to figure some things out. Again, this weekend will be pretty interesting. Plus this race is sponsored by Lowe's/KOBALT so we want to do well for KOBALT and keep that trophy in house."

LOOKING BACK: After finishing fifth in the season-opening Daytona 500, Johnson just barely missed a second consecutive top-five finish, ending up sixth at Phoenix.

ETC.: Johnson has completed a near-perfect 99.9 percent (3,222) of the 3,225 total laps contested in 12 career starts at Las Vegas. His average start there is 13.4 and his average finish is an outstanding 9.5. He has zero DNFs there.

22 JOEY LOGANO, Ford

Team: Penske Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Joey Logano climbed four spots, from 10th to sixth, after Sunday's race at Phoenix. He trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 15 points, is three points behind fifth-ranked Jimmie Johnson and leads seventh-ranked Matt Kenseth by five points.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: 5 career starts, 0 wins, 0 top-5s, 1 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Sixth in 2010. Finished 12th in this race last year and was 16th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Logano continues to build upon last season's breakout year, when he qualified for the Chase for the Sprint Cup for the first time, and is continuing that roll already this season. When asked whether the new format for the Chase for the Sprint Cup will change the way he races, Logano said, "Yes and no. I mean, you are going to take more chances at the end of the race. That is what happened with us last weekend. At the end, I thought I would try and stick it in there three-wide and make a pass for the lead. That is what you have to do to try and win one of these things. We lost a spot because of it, but that's not a big deal. But you aren't going to try something if you could lose a bunch of spots, because points are still important. A fourth is still better than a 20th. So it will be a case-by-case thing, but I think you will see a lot more of people 'going for it' at the end of races."

LOOKING BACK: Logano has certainly gotten off to a strong start this season, finishing 11th in the season-opening Daytona 500 and fourth this past Sunday at Phoenix.

ETC.: Logano has been near-perfect at Las Vegas, completing 99 percent (1,352) of the 1,353 laps contested there. His average start is 12.2 and average finish is 14.0.

20 MATT KENSETH, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Matt Kenseth fell one spot in the standings, from sixth to seventh, following Sunday's race in Phoenix. He trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 20 points, is five points behind sixth-ranked Joey Logano and is two points ahead of eighth-ranked Denny Hamlin.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: 14 career starts, 3 wins, 6 top-5s, 7 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: First in 2003, 2004 and 2013. Finished first in this race last year and was 22nd in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: After winning a series-high seven races last season, Kenseth is still in pursuit of his first win of the 2014 season. Las Vegas is one of his favorite and most successful tracks. Here's what crew chief Jason Ratcliff has to say about Sunday's race: "I'm anticipating things are going to get exponentially better as we head to Las Vegas this weekend because I feel that we were able to learn so much last week at Phoenix in regards to the new rules package, as well as the new qualifying format. Even though I feel like we might not be performing up to our expectations that we had hoped for so far, we're learning a lot of stuff really quickly, and I think we'll be able to start applying some of that this week. Vegas is really special for this group because it was our first win with Matt last season. I have a really good feeling about this weekend."

LOOKING BACK: After finishing sixth in the season-opening Daytona 500, Kenseth could manage only a 12th-place finish Sunday at Phoenix.

ETC.: Kenseth has completed 92.3 percent (3,360) of the 3,640 total laps contested in 14 career starts at Las Vegas. His average start there is 17.2 and his average finish is a very strong 11.6. He has one DNF there.

11 DENNY HAMLIN, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Denny Hamlin fell the most positions of any driver in the top-10, dropping from second to eighth after Sunday's race at Phoenix. After tailing points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by only five points after the season-opening Daytona 500, Hamlin now trails Earnhardt by 22 points, is two points behind seventh-ranked Matt Kenseth and leads ninth-ranked Carl Edwards by three points.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: 8 career starts, 0 wins, 1 top-5s, 4 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: Third in 2007. He finished 15th in last year's race and was 20th in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Having come so close at Daytona (finished second), Hamlin looks to get back on the right track Sunday in Las Vegas after finishing 19th at Phoenix.

LOOKING BACK: Hamlin struggled with an ill-handling car and had less than ideal track position for much of Sunday's race at Phoenix, ultimately finishing 19th.

ETC.: Hamlin has completed a perfect 100 percent (2,156) of the 2,157 total laps contested in eight career starts at Las Vegas. His average start there is 20.1 and his average finish is 13.1. He has zero DNFs there.

99 CARL EDWARDS, Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Carl Edwards took a big jump forward at Phoenix, gaining six positions to climb from 15th to ninth. He trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 25 points, is three points behind eighth-ranked Denny Hamlin and leads the three-way tie for 10th place between Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears by one point.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: 9 career starts, 2 wins, 4 top-5s, 5 top-10s, 0 poles. Best career finish: First in 2008 and 2011. Finished fifth in this race last year and was also fifth in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: It's almost prophetic, but whenever Edwards has a good race at Las Vegas, he typically goes on to have a good season overall. Here's his thoughts on Sunday's race in Sin City: "We had an extremely fast car in Phoenix. We've been working very hard on our mile and a half program and I'm excited to go to Vegas. We have got the test day which should be good. Hopefully we can build on this good run and have some fun and get our first win of the season. If we had qualified better at Phoenix I think that we would have been really good, so that says a lot about our team."

LOOKING BACK: Edwards had a decent race at Phoenix, not exactly one of his best tracks, leading one lap and finishing a very respectable seventh place.

ETC.: Edwards has completed a perfect 100 percent (2,424) of the 2,424 total laps contested in nine career starts at Las Vegas. His average start there is 13.8 and his average finish is a very strong 9.7. He has zero DNFs there.

16 GREG BIFFLE, Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: Greg Biffle dropped three spots in the standings after Phoenix, falling from seventh into a three-way tie for 10th with Jamie McMurray and Casey Mears. Biffle trails points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr. by 26 points, is one point behind ninth-ranked Carl Edwards and leads 13th-ranked Ricky Stenhouse Jr. by one point.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: 10 career starts, 0 wins, 2 top-5s, 6 top-10s, 1 poles. Best career finish: Third in 2008 and 2012. Finished 17th in this race last year and was third in the 2012 race there.

LOOKING AHEAD: Biffle seems to always be in the hunt at Las Vegas, but he still hasn't taken the checkered flag first. Maybe that will change this Sunday. Here's his thoughts: "I love the city of Las Vegas and I love the race track. We run really well there and I have the American Red Cross on the car, I cannot wait to get to Vegas. It takes a lot of things to win at Vegas. Track position is crucial. We've been really close to winning in the Cup car before and hopefully this is it."

LOOKING BACK: After finishing eighth in the season-opening Daytona 500, Biffle fell off the pace Sunday at Phoenix, ultimately finishing 17th.

ETC.: Biffle has completed 90.8 percent (2,443) of the 2,691 total laps contested in 10 career starts at Las Vegas. His average start there is an excellent 8.6 and his average finish is 13.8. He has one DNF there.

Driver Capsules for the Week of March 4, 2014

13 CASEY MEARS, Chevrolet

Team: Germain Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 11th, no points out of the top 10. Lost one spot last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Three top-10 finishes in 10 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Mears said, "We're looking forward to getting to Las Vegas and getting on the track. We've definitely started this 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. Thursday's test will be beneficial as we continue to learn about the new car."

LOOKING BACK: Mears finished 14th at Phoenix. "We had a good car and the Germain Racing crew did a good job of making adjustments to the 13 Geico Chevrolet, which clearly helped me as the race went on," said Mears. "We're focused on getting better and continuing to learn more about the car and working closely with RCR and Chevrolet in building the Geico program."

ETC: Mears is quite pleased with how the season has started and feels 2014 could be his best season since joining the 13 team in 2010. "We're sitting 11th in points, which says a lot about our team and how hard these guys have worked," said Mears. "We all feel our new working relationship with RCR is already paying big dividends and will pay a lot more dividends as we get into the season."

1 JAMIE MCMURRAY, Chevrolet

Team: Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates

WHERE HE STANDS: 12th, no points out of the top 10. Gained one spot last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Four top-10 finishes in 11 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: McMurray said, "I am really looking forward to heading to Las Vegas this week. We are coming off a strong run at Phoenix, and Vegas is a track I really like. We have had really good cars the first two weeks of the season and I hope to carry that momentum to Vegas. I think having the test on Thursday will help us to know where we will be for this weekend. I am really excited with the program and effort from our team early in this race season."

LOOKING BACK: McMurray finished 10th at Phoenix, only his third top-10 finish in 22 starts at the one-mile track. "Overall a good day," said McMurray. "It's really hard to pass here. I think a top-10 is a great way to start (the year), especially after being really quick in all the practices and qualifying in what I would say is our first race of the season. We have had solid cars in both races so far this year and I can't wait to get to Las Vegas."

ETC.: McMurray is a big fan of the new qualifying format, but he believes NASCAR needs to change the rules on how the teams cool their engines. "I think NASCAR needs to look at letting us cool the engines down on pit road so we can run full tape the full time," said McMurray. "The whole running around (the race track at drastically reduced speeds) with that difference in speed is not good. We need to be able to work on cooling the engines down on pit road. I feel confident that everyone would have the same opinion I do."

17 RICKY STENHOUSE JR., Ford

Team: Roush Fenway Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 13th, one point out of the top 10. Lost six spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Finished 18th in his Vegas debut a year ago.

LOOKING AHEAD: Stenhouse calls Las Vegas Motor Speedway "one of my favorite tracks. So I am excited to race there this weekend. The guys have been working hard over the off-season on new cars, so we should get a good feel how our cars are compared to the rest of the field."

LOOKING BACK: Stenhouse battled an ill-handling race car for most of the day as he finished 18th at Phoenix. "Overall today was frustrating," said Stenhouse. "We just missed something so we will go back to work. I am proud of my team as they never gave up and helped me get my lap back. You have to look at the positives and learn from the negatives to make us better and a top contender."

ETC.: Crew chief Mike Kelley believes Las Vegas "really suits Ricky's driving style. Last weekend was our first time under the new qualifying format so we learned a few things which we feel can help our qualifying efforts this weekend. We get an extra day out there for testing so hopefully we can get the 17 Zest Ford dialed in to Ricky's liking. I'm confident we will have a strong showing on Sunday."

18 KYLE BUSCH, Toyota

Team: Joe Gibbs Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 14th, only three points out of the top 10. Gained four spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: One win and five top-10 finishes including four top-five's in 10 starts. Finished fourth a year ago after leading 27 laps.

LOOKING AHEAD: Busch is the youngest pole winner and race winner in Las Vegas track history, but it has been five years since he scored his lone win at his hometown track. "We need to be a little better than we have been there recently," said Busch. "We had a good car last year so hopefully that means we are back to running as well there as we did earlier in my career (when he put together five straight top-11 finishes including a win, a second and a third-place finish)."

LOOKING BACK: Busch finished ninth at Phoenix for his second consecutive top-10 finish and fourth in the last five races at the Arizona facility. "We fought hard all day with our Skittles Chevy," said Busch. "Just didn't have the speed we were looking for, especially getting off the corner. Dave (Rogers, crew chief) and the guys made the car better during the day, but we just didn't have the handle to run with the leaders."

ETC.: Busch became the first driver to win three straight Nationwide Series races at Phoenix by dominating the rain-shortened event on Saturday. Busch led 155 of the 168 laps run before rain ended the race. The victory was Busch's 64th of his Nationwide career, extending his own Series record. "All the credit goes to Adam Stevens (crew chief) and everybody back at the shop," said Busch. "I think just the pure dominance we've shown here the last few times that we've come here and the amount of laps we've led with how fast our cars are is pretty phenomenal."

31 RYAN NEWMAN, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 15th, only four points out of the top 10. Gained six spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Has finished in the top five in two of the last three races. Overall has one win and six top-10 finishes in 13 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Newman believes this weekend will be "a good vibe for what is our backbone core of racing. I think Las Vegas is going to be extremely important for everybody since it is the first 1.5-mile track that we run with the new rules. You are going to have a much better idea of what you have and what you need to work on after this weekend."

LOOKING BACK: Newman finished seventh at Phoenix for his second straight top-10 finish and third in the last four races at the one-mile facility. "It was a good team effort for our Quicken Loans Chevrolet," said Newman. "The guys did a good job in the pits. We caught a break with the debris caution (with 60 laps to go), which was a good thing for the team. It feels good to run up front, lead laps and earn a top-10 finish with my new team." Newman joined RCR during the winter after five seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing.

ETC.: Newman is a big fan of the extra four hours of testing that NASCAR is giving the teams on Thursday. "I think it's important," said Newman. "I think it's important to know how your car is and how comfortable you are as a driver. It kind of gives you a different perspective on how you need to unload the race car on Friday. Do you need to spend more time in race trim or in qualifying trim? The extra little bit of laps is good for giving you a heads-up."

3 AUSTIN DILLON, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 16th, eight points out of the top 10. Lost seven spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Finished 21st in his Cup debut a year ago.

LOOKING AHEAD: Dillon calls Las Vegas Motor Speedway "one of my favorite venues we go to. I was fortunate enough to race there in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year and we had a decent car, so this year I'm excited to try it again," adds Dillon. "Having a full test day there Thursday will be a big help."

LOOKING BACK: It was a long, long afternoon for the rookie driver as he finished 24th at Phoenix. "It was a long day for sure, but I learned a lot," said Dillon. "The handling of the American Ethanol Chevrolet SS changed completely from yesterday to today. We were extremely loose to begin the day. I definitely learned a lot throughout the race and by the end of the event; we were running some of the fastest lap times of the race."

ETC.: Dillon feels it is "cool being able to have Phoenix and Las Vegas back-to-back because you can stay out West with your guys on the team and have a good time, then get focused by Thursday and have a good time at the track." Dillon said he likes "to play a little blackjack. I like to hang out at South Point (Hotel and Casino, where he will participate in an autograph session on Thursday at 5:30 p.m. Pacific Time)."

9 MARCOS AMBROSE, Ford

Team: Richard Petty Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: 17th, 15 points out of the top 10.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: One top-five finish in five starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Ambrose will be running a new car this weekend, and he couldn't be happier. "One of the things that RPM has committed to myself and the entire organization is to take the new sponsorship funds our partners have given us and dedicate it to the cars," said Ambrose. "We expect to run more new chassis this year as we go along, especially at the tracks like Vegas where downforce matters so much. We're really putting an emphasis on this."

LOOKING BACK: Ambrose finished 21st at Phoenix. "Our starting position (29th) didn't help us today," said Ambrose. "Our car was pretty good in clean air, but racing where we were there just wasn't enough of it. The few times we did have clean air in front of us we were running some of the fastest laps on the track, but I just didn't have any grip in traffic. I fought really hard for the majority of the race to get that lucky dog (and get back on the lead lap), but our timing wasn't the greatest today."

ETC.: Car owner Richard Petty was named one of the five recipients of the Winner's Circle awards, given annually since 20004 by the North Carolina Division of Tourism, Film and Sports Development. The award is given to people who have made significant and continuing contributions to the growth and success of North Carolina's tourism industry.

5 KASEY KAHNE, Chevrolet

Team: Hendrick Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: 18th, 17 points out of the top 10. Gained 11 spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Finished second a year ago after leading a race-high 114 laps. It was his second runner-up finish at the 1.5-mile track.

LOOKING AHEAD: Kahne feels "we have a couple of really nice changes with the Farmers Insurance team this season with engineer Chris Spaulding moving up and Kenny (Francis, crew chief) is excited - that's a big part of it, too, going into the season with a lot of excitement, momentum and motivation. And I feel like each year I can keep getting better (as a driver)."

LOOKING BACK: After battling an extremely "loose" race car at the beginning of the 312-lap event at Phoenix, Kahne rallied in the final half to finish 11th. "We struggled at the start, but Kenny made some great changes to the car and we were a lot better the last 100 or so laps," said Kahne. "If the race had been a few laps longer, we would have finished in the top 10. That is how much faster we were at the end than at the start."

ETC.: Kahne had a very special guest during the Phoenix weekend - Seattle Seahawks Super Bowl-winning quarterback Russell Wilson. "With Kasey being from the Washington area and all that, he's a big Seahawks fan and we have a connection," said Wilson. "We are teaming up for a charity event (a golf and concert event called The Drive on June 23-24 that will raise money for the Seattle-area Boys and Girls Clubs). I had a good time with Kasey this weekend."

36 REED SORENSON, Chevrolet

Team: Tommy Baldwin Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 19th, 23 points out of the top 10. Lost four spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: His best finish in four starts is 18th.

LOOKING AHEAD: Sorenson said he, too, is "excited about heading out to Las Vegas this weekend. We will have a full day of testing at the track on Thursday, which will definitely help out everyone on this 36 team. We are still learning and growing together as a new team. Hopefully, this weekend we will get a good finish and continue the momentum from Daytona."

LOOKING BACK: Sorenson struggled all afternoon as he finished 31st at Phoenix. "It was just a long weekend," said Sorenson. "We ran a lot better at the end than we did early on. We really struggled at the start. But Todd (Parrott, crew chief) kept throwing things at it and by the end we were a lot better."

ETC.: Parrott also feels the Thursday test will be quite beneficial to the 36 team. "Reed and I are still getting to know each other and having those four hours to test and understand what he likes in a car will really help me as we go forward. We can try a lot of different things without having to worry about qualifying or getting ready for the race. We can do all that on Friday and Saturday."

14 TONY STEWART, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 20th, 27 points out of the top 10. Gained 12 spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Won the 2012 event after finishing second in 2011. Has earned nine top-10 finishes including six top-five's in 15 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Stewart said there is no "real key" to running well at Las Vegas. "It's just like anywhere 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 the changing track conditions as the day goes on."

LOOKING BACK: An ill-timed caution flag ended any hopes Stewart had of a top-10 finish at Phoenix. Instead, he had to be content with a 16th-place finish. Stewart made a routine four-tire stop on lap 237 while running in the top 10. But a caution for debris 11 laps later left him a lap down and in need of a "wave around" to get back on the lead lap. "We just needed better track position at the end," said Stewart.

ETC.: While Stewart wasn't happy with how his day ended, he was delighted with how teammate Kevin Harvick's day ended - in victory lane. "Kevin had the best car yesterday in practice, so I'm glad to see those guys finish it up," said Stewart after congratulating Harvick in the winner's circle. "Kevin had a lot of confidence in Rodney (Childers, crew chief). I didn't know Rodney that well, but Kevin's been pretty keen on all aspects of this. He's been confident all winter with our program, and today it showed."

43 ARIC ALMIROLA, Ford

Team: Richard Petty Motorsports

WHERE HE STANDS: 22nd, 29 points out of the top 10. Gained 14 spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Finished 16th last year for his best finish in five starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Almirola said, "It's going to be interesting when we get to Vegas to see how we stack up to the competition because we've gone to all these tests and are just comparing ourselves to ourselves. We're trying to make our car better based on what we just ran two sessions ago. I feel really confident going into Vegas. Our Charlotte test went really well. We were able to compare ourselves against other race teams there, and I felt like we were one of the cars that could pass people and my car drove really well there."

LOOKING BACK: Almirola finished 15th at Phoenix. "We had a good car and ran in the top-10 most of the day," said Almirola. "Trent (Owens, crew chief) made some good pit calls, and we were in a good position in the end. Unfortunately, the race didn't play out the way we hoped. We had a lot of cautions in the final laps and just couldn't get going at the beginning of runs. We had a lot of long runs early and really showed the speed of our Farmland Ford."

ETC.: On Thursday, Almirola will join Farmland Foods at Smith's Food and Drug Stores in North Las Vegas where they will donate 40,000 pounds of food. "This is one of my favorite parts of my job and a big reason I enjoy working with Smithfield Foods and their brands," said Almirola. "It's an honor for me to be a small part in giving back throughout the season and building awareness for the hungry."

27 PAUL MENARD, Chevrolet

Team: Richard Childress Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 24th, 30 points out of the top 10. Gained six spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Will be shooting for his third straight top-10 finish.

LOOKING AHEAD: Menard said, "Las Vegas has been a good track for us the past couple years. We haven't won, but I feel like we can every time I roll through the tunnel in turn two to enter the track. The pavement is wearing and the track is gaining more and more character with the high frequency bumps and grip level going away. It is a track where multiple grooves come in and you can pass more easily than other tracks."

LOOKING BACK: Menard finished 23rd at Phoenix. "We just seemed to struggle with changing track and handling conditions during the entire week," said Menard. "We'd make the change to fix one part, and then the other end of the track would give us problem. But, we never gave up, tried to race our way back onto the lead lap there at the end, but we couldn't gain on the two cars in front of us that were on our lap."

ETC.: Menard loves going to Vegas, but not to gamble. "I'm not a gambler, so the casinos don't matter to me that much," said Menard. "But, there are some great restaurants we take advantage of while we're in town."

55 BRIAN VICKERS, Toyota

Team: Michael Waltrip Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 25th, 31 points out of the top 10. Gained three spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Has finished in the top 10 in two of his last three starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Vickers is quick to point out "it's been a few years since I have raced at Vegas in a Sprint Cup car. I think because of the progressive banking it should be a little easier to pass than it was at Phoenix. But how much is debatable. I think you will see a good race. I just hope we are part of the battle up front."

LOOKING BACK: Vickers finished 25th at Phoenix. "The reality is I think we had a decent car," said Vickers. "The guys on this Aaron's Dream Machine Camry worked really hard and made a lot of gains over the weekend from where we started to where we finished. The first run, I think we were one of the fastest cars on the track and the second run we were trying to make an adjustment and the left-rear jack screw broke so we didn't get our adjustment. I think we even went the wrong way and that killed us - we lost track position and went a lap down."

ETC.: Vickers couldn't be happier that Jeff Burton has joined Michael Waltrip Racing as a test driver. "It's fantastic having Jeff involved and what he can bring to this team," said Vickers. "I think just having him on board, especially for me this past off-season, just being able to have two drivers in cars testing when I wasn't able to be in a car has been huge. We couldn't ask for a better guy to be in that role, in my opinion."

41 KURT BUSCH, Chevrolet

Team: Stewart-Haas Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 30th, 35 points out of the top 10. Lost 10 spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Three top-10 finishes in 13 starts.

LOOKING AHEAD: Busch admits "Vegas hasn't been that good to me, especially for it being my hometown track. But I feel this weekend can change all that. We had a good car at Phoenix, just had some bad luck. So I feel we will be good this weekend, especially with the test day on Thursday to help us out. I feel good about how this weekend is going to go."

LOOKING BACK: After running in the top 10 for most of the first 200 laps, Busch ran into engine problems with the power plant finally expiring with 20 laps to go. As a result, Busch finished 39th. "That was a disappointing finish for the 41 team," said Busch. "We had a good Haas Automation Chevrolet early on. To have a top-10 car all afternoon and then not finish the race is a tough way to end your day."

ETC.: Busch will be the first driver in more than a decade to attempt the "double" on Memorial Day weekend. Andretti Autosport announced Monday that Busch will be in one of their five cars attempting to qualify for the Indianapolis 500. Later that day (May 25) Busch will compete in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. The 500, if he qualifies for the race, will be his first IndyCar start. In 2013, Busch tested at Indy for the Andretti team and in the process passed the mandated Rookie Orientation program that will allow him to tackle the "Double." Busch called the possibility "a dream come true. To go to the famous Brickyard with the iconic Andretti name, it doesn't get much cooler or better than that. It is tough to do now for a variety of factors, but when the opportunity is there, I want to do it."

78 MARTIN TRUEX JR., Chevrolet

Team: Furniture Row Racing

WHERE HE STANDS: 35th, 41 points out of the top 10. Gained five spots last week.

LAS VEGAS RECORD: Finished eighth in 2013 for his second top-10 finish in the last three races.

LOOKING AHEAD: Truex will make his 300th Cup start this weekend at Las Vegas. "I had absolutely no idea that my 300th start is coming up," said Truex when informed of the milestone. "I've been blessed to be with some great race teams and have enjoyed plenty of fond memories. Looking back it seems like a long time ago that I made my first start (Oct. 31, 2004 at Atlanta) but it really wasn't. They say when you're having fun time flies, and in my case that is so true because I have had an incredible amount of fun over the years."

LOOKING BACK: Truex was another driver who suffered through a long afternoon as he finished 22nd at Phoenix. "Nothing worked for us today - I mean nothing," said Truex. "We made a number of chassis adjustments to our Furniture Row/Denver Mattress Chevrolet but never could find the grip that we needed. The guys worked hard to find a combination for this track but it just didn't materialize. We had to work really hard just to finish 22nd."

ETC.: Truex believes "the best is still yet to come as a driver. I am only 33 and have a lot more years in me. Hopefully Furniture Row Racing will be my new home for a long time and we can get to where we want to go. Las Vegas will be another good test to see where we are with the new rules package for the 2014 car. It would be nice to look back and remember how successful the 300th start was."