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Virtual Pit Reporter: News on top 25 Cup teams

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1) Jimmie Johnson, No. 48 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
  • This week: After a week off, Johnson returns to action on top of the Nextel Cup standings after just two races. ... Johnson has scored top-10 finishes in seven of the nine races since Kansas City last October. ... One year ago he ranked second in the point standings. ... Johnson has ranked among the top-10 for 71 straight races, since Atlanta in March 2004. ... After the break, it's off to Las Vegas where he has competed in four races at the desert 1.5-mile oval, scoring two top-10 finishes, including one victory (2005). ... Johnson has never finished worse than 16th (March 2004) and has led in all four of his races at Las Vegas. Johnson has an 8.5 average finish at the track, second only to the late Dale Earnhardt who had a 7.6 average finish in three races there.
  • Last race: Johnson finished second in the Auto Club 500 at California Speedway two weeks ago. He did not compete in the Busch race at Mexico City on Sunday.
  • Etc.: Jimmie and Chandra Johnson announced the creation of the Jimmie Johnson Foundation to aid charities that work with children and families. "This is the culmination of a lot of hard work and a lot of thought by a lot of people," Johnson said. "Chandra and I have been very blessed in our lives. We get to do what we enjoy doing in life. Not everyone is as fortunate. So we wanted to give something back. Chandra and I decided we wanted to help families, particularly children." ... Johnson said the mission of the foundation is to fund five existing charities: the American Red Cross, Victory Junction Gang, Randy Dorton Memorial Fund, Make-A-Wish and the Hendrick Marrow program. "These aren't the only charities that we plan to support, but these are the ones we are concentrating on as we begin the foundation," said Chandra Johnson. "We hope this grows in the coming years and will be a vehicle to promoting a lot of good in the community." The foundation's first activity is an eBay online charity auction that started at the beginning of the year. The auction includes racing and sports memorabilia but will separate itself from most online auctions by offering fans the chance to bid on experiences with celebrities and professional athletes. Fans can bid on the souvenir items and experiences at www.ebay.com/jimmiejohnsonfoundation.

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    2) Casey Mears, No. 42 Dodge, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
  • This week: Mears joins Jimmie Johnson as the only drivers to start the season with top-10 finishes in both races. ... Mears begins the season with his career-best points ranking. ... One year ago he ranked 28th in the point standings. ... Mears has scored top-10 finishes in four of the five races since Texas last November. ... He finished fourth at Texas, fifth at Homestead, second in the 2006 Daytona 500 and seventh at California. ... Mears has competed in three races at Las Vegas, posting top-15 finishes in all three. ... Despite his good performance, he has yet to lead a lap there. Mears finished seventh in this race one year ago duplicating his best Las Vegas finish set in 2004. ... Mears has a 9.67 average finish at the Vegas track.
  • Last race: Mears finished seventh at California scoring his second top-10 finish of the season.
  • Etc.: Mears has the unusual role of being the senior driver at Chip Ganassi Racing now that longtime driver Sterling Marlin has moved on and Mears' teammates are rookies Reed Sorenson and David Stremme. "I'm definitely happy to take on that role," Mears said. "First and foremost I've got to focus on my season and make sure we have success this year. That's going to take a lot of time and effort. In the meantime, anything I can possibly do to help Reed and David, I'm going to do. I know how difficult it was my first couple of years coming into this sport. Obviously, they've had a lot more stock car experience coming into the Cup Series level, but anything I can do to help I'm going to be there for them. So far we've worked well together, but it's kinda hard at Daytona to get in the nuts and bolts of things too much as far as car setup and things like that. You're just working on speed, and it's not like a lot of other races we run throughout the year. We'll be grouped more tightly as far as the race meetings and after practices trying to figure out how to get better, but I was able to give them some information and help them out on what I've learned in the draft. To me it's going to be rewarding to be able to help those guys and at the end of the day them come back to me and tell me I told them something that helped them on the racetrack. I'm happy to do that. The worst kind of problem that could come out of it would be we share all the information we possibly can and end up going for the championship at the end of the year."
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    3) Matt Kenseth, No. 17 Ford, Roush Racing
  • This week: Kenseth's average finish at Las Vegas in the Cup Series is 9.2, tops among all drivers with at least five starts there. He has led 221 laps at Las Vegas in his Nextel Cup career, more than all other drivers active or inactive. Kenseth's last victory at Las Vegas marked the fifth for owner Jack Roush out of a possible eight races in which the Cup Series has run at Vegas. "You know, to win at Vegas you just got to have a car that turns really good and you have to get good traction off the corners," Kenseth said. "Vegas, as the pavement ages, you've got to be able to turn really good, but then you've got to worry about the back tires at the same time because the track gets really slippery. You can get it too loose to where it wants to spin the tires off the corners. You've got to keep it turning good and keep the back end under you off the corners." ... One year ago, Kenseth ranked 36th in the point standings. He has posted top-15 finishes in the first two races in 2006 and has scored four top-five finishes in his last six races, since Atlanta last October. He has competed in six races at Las Vegas, scoring top-10 finishes in his last three races there, including two victories (2003 and 2004). He finished eighth in this race one year ago.
  • Last race: Kenseth won the Auto Club 500 at California, scoring his first top-10 finish of the season.
  • Etc.: Las Vegas is the only active track in which Kenseth has scored multiple Cup victories (two). The only other track in which Kenseth has won twice in Cup is Rockingham (two).
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    4) Kasey Kahne, No. 9 Dodge, Evernham Motorsports
  • This week: Kahne hopes the team can use what it learned in a January test at Las Vegas and transfer it to a winning race car on Sunday. "I feel like we had a great race car at the test," he said. "We'll just have to work hard. We have to keep making the right adjustments, and I have to keep giving the right information to (crew chief) Kenny Francis. He'll take it and make the right adjustments. If we do that we'll have as good a shot to win out there as anybody. The competition is as high as it's ever been. I think we've just got to step up and do the job." ... This ties his best points ranking, set after Atlanta in March 2004. Kahne has scored top-15 finishes in the first two races in 2006. One year ago he ranked 34th in the standings. ... Kahne has competed in two races at Las Vegas. He finished second in his first race there in 2004 and 38th in this race one year ago. ... Kahne earned his first career Cup Series pole -- setting a track record of 174.904 mph, 30.874 seconds -- in his first career Cup visit to Las Vegas in 2004. The feat marked the first time a rookie had won the pole at Las Vegas and tied Mark Martin and Kurt Busch for the earliest a rookie had won a pole (third career start).
  • Last race: Kahne finished fourth at California. He was among many drivers who took the weekend off last week instead of driving a Busch car at Mexico City. "I had a really good off-week," Kahne said. "My sprint car team was racing out in Arizona, and they had a couple of good races out there. I would have loved to be out there with them because I had the weekend off, but I don't get any time to go to Supercross races, so finally this weekend I did. I went up to the RCA Dome in Indianapolis and hung out with Ricky Carmichael and his team all day Saturday and Saturday night and watched him win his 45th Supercross. It was pretty fun. I hadn't been to a Supercross in three or four years, so it was exciting to be down in the middle of it and be involved. I pretty much stuck with him throughout the entire day and night. I ended up with him at his press conference at the end of the night and everything. It was interesting to see how those guys go about their whole race weekend."
  • Etc.: Kahne plans to bundle up when he heads to Vegas for what could be a cold and wet race weekend. "That forecast is interesting," Kahne said. "It was a lot warmer when we tested out there. The tires get hot and slide around a lot more than when the track is colder, so if it's that cold on those days it'll just be faster. You'll have more grip. The front and rear of the car will handle better. It may be a better race. I feel like a lot of times when the track's real warm you get a few cars that really get it figured out and can kind of dominate the race. When it's colder sometimes you'll have seven or eight cars that are really good throughout the entire day."
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    5) Dale Earnhardt Jr., No. 8 Chevrolet, Dale Earnhardt Inc.
  • This week: Earnhardt is back in the top five for the first time since Daytona in February 2005, ending a 36-race absence. He opened the 2006 season with finishes of eighth (Daytona) and 11th (Fontana). The team has led at least one lap in each of the two races this year, marking the first time Earnhardt has accomplished such a feat. If he finishes 21st or better this weekend in Las Vegas, it will be the best three-race start of a season in his career. His best average after three races to this point is 13.6 (2004), followed by his 2000 average of 14.0. Only once (2000) has Earnhardt started the season with three consecutive top-20 finishes. Through two races this year, his average finish is 9.5. ... Earnhardt has two top-10s in six starts at Las Vegas but has led laps in four of those events for a total of 144 laps. His best outing at this 1.5-mile speedway came in 2003, when he started fourth and led 97 laps en route to a second-place finish. But he has finished 35th or worse in his last two races there. He finished 42nd in this race one year ago and has a 21.3 average finish at the Vegas track. "It used to be a pretty decent track for us," Earnhardt said. "I know you're only as good as your last race, but, man, it wasn't too long ago that we were knocking on the door to some wins there. Every time we ran there in the Busch Series, we were a solid top-five team. We went in as Nextel Cup rookies in 2000, led a bunch of laps and finished 10th. Then, a few years ago we finished second to Matt (Kenseth). I was pretty happy. But the last two or three years we struggled quite a bit. I think we're on our way to getting back in the game. (Crew chief) Tony (Eury) Jr. has been working real hard, and I'm working real hard to give him the best feedback I can possibly give. I know if we can get through this race, we'll be looking pretty good (in the point standings). We've won at eight of the next nine tracks on the schedule after Vegas."
  • Last race: Earnhardt finished 11th in the Auto Club 500 and climbed from sixth to fifth in the standings.
  • Etc.: Earnhardt on the proposed changes at Las Vegas, which include variable banking similar to Homestead-Miami Speedway: "I like driving on racetracks with more banking, so I'm excited about the changes," Earnhardt said. "I think if it's anything like you've seen in the past with places like Homestead, you'll see a lot of success with it. I have my own theory about banking, progressive banking and how to create a track that will have multiple grooves. If you're going to make a track that has multiple grooves, the top of the corner has to be the same altitude as a straightaway, and you have to basically dig out the bottom of the corner. It has to be lower in altitude than the straightaway itself. You know, I think that you'll have that opportunity at Las Vegas with the front straightaway. The back straightaway is a little flat, and if you're just going to pile a bunch of dirt up in the corner, nobody is going to drive up a hill to go into the top groove. You'll just go right to the bottom. But if you look at a lot of the tracks like Dover and other places where there's multiple grooves, the bottom of the corner is the lower altitude than the straightaway itself. So it makes sense that you might try different ways around the corner."
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    6) Mark Martin, No. 6 Ford, Roush Racing
  • This week: In eight races at Las Vegas, Martin has one victory (in the inaugural race in 1998) and six top-10 finishes, the most among all drivers there. He has led 186 laps at the track and has a 12.6 average finish. He finished 30th in this race one year ago. In four Busch races there, he has two victories (including last year) and two poles. "We won the first race there in 1998 and that win really stands out in my memory, so that has made Las Vegas a special track for me," Martin said. "It's not really often over the years that I ever took a moment to let something soak in, but for some reason that win in 1998 really stood out. I realized that it wasn't just a win on some dirt track in Arkansas, but that we had just done something special and unlike a lot of the wins, I put off thinking about the next race for a couple of minutes and just let it all soak in. Also, the fans out west are incredible, and it's always fun to go out there and put on a good race for those guys." One year ago, Martin ranked third in the point standings. He has scored six straight top-15 finishes, since Atlanta last October. He has had only one DNF (Talladega in October 2005 -- accident) in the 26 races since Dover in June 2005.
  • Last race: Martin was ninth at California to rise from 11th to sixth in the point standings.
  • Etc.: Crew chief Pat Tryson is taking chassis RK-315 to Vegas, a car that won at Kansas City last fall and also was run at California, "where we were actually a lot better than our finish showed," Tryson said. "Las Vegas has been one of Mark's best tracks on the circuit, so we know the pressure will be on us to make the car run fast. If we can do that, I'm confident that we will be able to compete for a top-five finish and hopefully the win."
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    7) Ryan Newman, No. 12 Dodge, Penske Racing South
  • This week: Newman will drive chassis PRS-20, which he also ran at California Speedway. "We didn't qualify extremely well in California (11th) and definitely didn't perform during the race like we wanted," he said. "In the final 30 laps or so of that race, we got the car figured out. Too late, of course, but we learned a lot. We also took the car to Kentucky last week. We learned some things about the handling and hope to put that to good use this weekend." ... Newman has ranked among the top 10 in points after 28 of the last 29 races, dropping to 11th after Fontana last September for one race. He has competed in five races at Vegas, scoring three top-10 finishes. His best Las Vegas finish, a fourth, came there in 2002. He has led in three of his five races there. ... Newman finished ninth in this race one year ago and has a 16.0 average finish at the 1.5-mile oval.
  • Last race: Newman finished 20th at Fontana and dropped from third to seventh in the point race. One year ago he ranked 12th in the point standings.
  • Etc.: Newman said of his team's visit to Vegas, "It's no secret that we're all a bunch of poker players. There's actually an underlying battle of who is the best poker player on the team. Sometimes the guys try to settle that out in Vegas."
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    8) Clint Bowyer, No. 07 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
  • This week: Bowyer will pilot chassis No. 152 from the Richard Childress Racing stable. Built new for 2005, this is the same Chevrolet Dave Blaney raced to a 20th-place finish last fall at Dover and to a 28th-place finish in November at Texas. Since then, with the exception of the chassis, the car has been completely stripped and rebuilt from the ground up. Bowyer raced the same car two weeks ago at California Speedway. ... Bowyer began the 2006 season with two top-15 finishes, the best record among the 2006 Rookie of the Year contenders. ... Bowyer's first start came at Phoenix last April, where he finished 22nd. ... Bowyer will attempt to compete in his first Nextel Cup race at Las Vegas. ... Bowyer will also race RCR's No. 2 ACDelco Chevrolet at Las Vegas on Saturday in the Sam's Town 300 NASCAR Busch Series race.
  • Last race: Bowyer finished 16th Sunday in the NASCAR Busch race at Mexico City. He was 14th at California and remained eighth in the standings for the second consecutive week.
  • Etc.: This weekend, Bowyer's No. 07 Chevy will shed its traditional black-and-white Jack Daniel's paint scheme in favor of a red-and-black layout promoting Sunday's season premiere of HBO's series, "The Sopranos." The Sopranos logo will be showcased on the hood and on the quarter panels of the RCR-owned entry. Some of the show's other businesses are also getting into the act, with the Bada Bing logo appearing on the car's rear quarter panel. The 07 team's crew uniforms will also include a patch advertising Satriale's Pork Store. "I've got some pretty big shoes to fill," Bowyer said. "I just hope they don't end up being cement shoes when the race is over. Everyone at RCR is very enthusiastic about running The Sopranos car this weekend. We went up to New York a couple weeks ago and got to meet some of the cast and crew from the show. It was a ball. I was kidding with some of the guys from the cast, telling them that they weren't actors, they were real mobsters that got to play themselves on TV. I'm not sure if they thought I was funny or not, but they made it pretty clear they weren't very good losers so we're going to figure something out. Maybe Tony Soprano can put a call into Mike Helton or Brian France just to make sure NASCAR keeps it fair."
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    8) Brian Vickers, No. 25 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
  • This week: Vickers has a 33.0 average finish at Las Vegas, dragged down by a 43rd-place finish last year. He ranked 20th in the point standings after two races last year.
  • Last race: Vickers finished 18th at California and dropped from seventh to ninth in the points battle. He was nailed for speeding down pit road late in the race and, with only a few laps left, was not awarded the "Lucky Dog" by getting back on the lead lap. "I take full responsibility for the speeding penalty," Vickers said. "It's not like me to get penalized for speeding. I hate it for everyone on the team because the guys did a great job in the pits and Lance (McGrew, crew chief) helped to make good adjustments to the car. I think our GMAC Chevrolet was capable of a top-10, probably even a top-five finish."
  • Etc.: Vickers' non-racing heroes include Franklin D. Roosevelt and Albert Einstein. "My heroes all had a dream and were willing to do all that it takes to reach it," Vickers said. "Some of them, such as Adam Petty, Dale Earnhardt and Ayrton Senna, made the ultimate sacrifice -- their life -- while pursuing their goals." While Vickers may know a little about historical figures, one of his favorite movies is "Dumb and Dumber."
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    10) Elliott Sadler, No. 38 Ford, Robert Yates Racing
  • This week: Sadler, who ranked sixth in the point standings after two races one year ago, hopes to improve on a less than stellar record at Las Vegas (one top-10, a sixth, in seven races). He has ranked 14th or better since the 2004 Daytona 500, 74 straight races. He finished 29th in this race one year ago. His other Las Vegas finishes have all been 20th or worse, giving him a 28.4 average finish.
  • Last race: Sadler was 23rd at California to drop from fourth to 10th in the points.
  • Etc.: While Sadler took last weekend off, Marc Goossens, driver of the No. 90 CitiFinancial Ford, turned in a strong performance for Robert Yates Racing, finishing ninth at Mexico City. The road-course regular started the event in the sixth position and did not waste any time working his way into the top-five, which is where he remained for the majority of the event. After leading two laps with about 30 laps remaining, Goossens brought the CitiFinancial Ford down pit road for four tires and fuel. A problem with the jack on the pit stop resulted in a lengthy stop, and the No. 90 team rejoined the race in 27th. Within the next 25 laps, Goossens would pass 18 cars en route to a ninth-place finish. He also ranked No. 1 among the field Saturday for drivers with the most consecutive laps with a pass, posting 46. "I think we had a chance to win this race for CitiFinancial, but something went wrong on that pit stop when I was leading and I came in," said Goossens. "There was a problem there and I don't know exactly what it was, but we lost quite some time there. I was able to work my way back through the field, so I'm pretty happy with a top 10. This team did an excellent job today and I am so happy that I had the chance to work with Robert Yates Racing. This was my first NASCAR race. I did a test in Sebring in January -- a one-day test and that's all I did. I'm very pleased with my finish."
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    11) Dale Jarrett, No. 88 Ford, Robert Yates Racing
  • This week: Jarrett, who won the pole position for the first Cup race at Las Vegas in 1998, has finished 11th or better in five of the eight races at the track. His second pole came in 2001, and he finished second in that event after leading for 42 laps. Crew chief Slugger Labbe is looking forward to this weekend. "I think we had an excellent test (in January)," said Labbe. "We made a lot of progress during the two days and I think that gave Dale a lot of confidence in what we are doing and trying to accomplish."
  • Last race: It was a quiet off week for Jarrett, but the crew spent the week getting ready for the Vegas event. Labbe decided to take the same car that Jarrett ran at California. "We made the basic changes to it that makes it more compatible for the track at Las Vegas," said Labbe. "So we feel pretty good about this weekend's race."
  • Etc.: Jarrett plans to play at least one round of golf while he's in Vegas. "There are some really beautiful and tough golf courses that my teammate, Elliott (Sadler), and I try to visit at least once when we're in town," Jarrett said.
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    12) Kyle Busch, No. 5 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
  • This week: Busch finished second at his hometown track a year ago. "Coming to Vegas, my hometown, of course it's always special, you always want to do well," said Busch. "We tried something completely different than what we raced here last year in the (January) test. We are doing everything we can to get a win here."
  • Last race: Busch, who led once for five laps, finished seventh in the Busch Series race at Mexico City. But his chances for a victory went astray on lap 54 when he collided with local hero Michel Jourdain Jr. while battling for the lead. Busch knew the Mexican fans were not too happy with him. "I'm sorry," he told his crew immediately following the incident. "I should not have done that. I bet I'm hated in Mexico."
  • Etc.: Jourdain was not pleased with Busch's Mexico City maneuver. "There was still like 27 laps to go. I don't know what Kyle was thinking," Jourdain said. "He hurt himself, not as much as myself, but I don't know sometimes what these guys are doing."
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    13) Martin Truex Jr., No. 1 Chevrolet, DEI
  • This week: Truex will be making his first Nextel Cup start at Las Vegas. In his two Busch Series starts at the track, he finished 16th in 2005 and 14th in 2004. "We tested our Cup car there in January and then went back to the shop and built a brand-new car that we took to California," said Truex. "We finished 16th with it there and learned a lot we're going to be able to use this weekend. If we can get ahead of the game by being fast right from the start, then we'll be looking forward to a good race on Sunday."
  • Last race: Truex was 15th at California. While he took full advantage of the week off, his crew spent the week building new cars and getting ready for the coming stretch of five races in five weeks.
  • Etc.: Truex is pleased with his 13th-place standing after the first two races of the season. "We knew coming up to this level, with the races being longer, that you have to take care of your equipment. You have to be there at the end to earn the points and good finishes," he said. "Right now, it's about earning respect from your fellow drivers, and that's something I think I've been doing right from the start."
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    14) Jeff Burton, No. 31 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
  • This week: Burton is a two-time winner at Las Vegas, but both of his victories came when he was racing for Jack Roush. He has five top-10 finishes in the eight races at the track. He also has two wins in the Busch Series at Vegas. "Las Vegas is a track where I've always run well and it should be the type of track where this team will run best," said Burton. He'll be driving a car that was tested at Vegas and finished fifth at California. "The car is really good," he said.
  • Last race: Burton rested up last week after his fifth-place finish at California.
  • Etc.: Burton does not agree with the decision to change the banking at Las Vegas Motor Speedway from 12 to 20 degrees following this weekend's race. "That's a shame," said Burton. "I am so frustrated at the company (that owns the speedway) for making that change. Vegas is one of the best race tracks on the circuit, puts on great races and doesn't need to be changed. And the fact of the matter is they're more likely to screw it up than ... help it." ... On Monday, Burton took part in a Coca-Cola commercial and then flew to Vegas for another commercial shoot, this time with primary sponsor Cingular Wireless. He will be signing autographs at a Cingular store on Craig Road in North Las Vegas on Friday night.
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    15) Jeff Gordon, No. 24 Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports
  • This week: Gordon has one win and three top-five finishes in the eight races at Vegas. "These types of tracks were a weakness for us last year, and we addressed that during the final 10 races of 2005 and during the offseason," said Gordon. "We started to see improvement with good runs at Atlanta and Homestead. There's still room for improvement. We want to get back to where we're leading laps, running in the top five and battling for victories on a consistent basis."
  • Last race: Gordon got as far away from the racing scene as he could last week after finishing 13th at California. For crew chief Steve Letarte and the rest of the team, it was a busy week as they continue to make changes to the bodies on the car in hopes of improving the team's performance on the intermediate tracks.
  • Etc.: Poker professionals Chris "Jesus" Ferguson, Robert Williamson III, Steven Dannamann and 2003 World Series of Poker champion Chris Moneymaker teamed up with Gordon, Tony Stewart, and bull-riding champion J.W. Hart and other celebrities in a special "all-in" poker tournament to benefit the Jeff Gordon Foundation on Wednesday morning at Caesar's Place in Las Vegas. Gordon established the Foundation in December 1999 to support the physical, social and intellectual needs of children and their families. The Jeff Gordon Foundation is the official charity of the 2006 World Series of Poker.
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    16) Ken Schrader, No. 21 Ford, Wood Brothers/JTG Racing
  • This week: Despite competing in all eight races at Las Vegas, Schrader has yet to score a top-10 finish there. "The Woods and Fatback (team manager Michael McSwain) have certainly put a lot of time in to improving their cars over the winter," said Schrader. "And I think it will pay off at a lot of places, including Vegas."
  • Last race: Schrader, who was 28th at California, ran his dirt track car twice last week at Texas Motor Speedway. In addition, he spent a good portion of the week working on the opening of the track in Paducah, Ky., that he and Dale Earnhardt Jr. purchased last winter.
  • Etc.: Crew chief David Hyder said "Schrader is really good to work with. Sometimes he'll get a little excited, but I know the boiler point of that and try to keep him under control as far as getting the feel of what is going on before it gets to that point. The key with any driver is to learn their personality and they learn yours so you get a better understanding of what is going on with each other without really having to say it."
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    17) Robby Gordon, No. 7 Chevrolet, Robby Gordon Motorsports
  • This week: In six starts at Vegas, Gordon's best finish is a 13th, and that came in his first appearance at the track in 2000. Gordon believes he will better that in 2006. But he knows that qualifying is first on the list of things to do since he is not guaranteed a spot in the field. "These first five races are real nail-bitters for sure," said Gordon.
  • Last race: Determined to improve on his 26th-place finish at California, Gordon skipped the Mexico City event to get ready for Las Vegas. "I feel good about my team and all the hard work they have done over the winter," said Gordon. "We will take what we learned at California and rebuild some stuff and be better when we go to Las Vegas."
  • Etc.: Gordon is pleased with his start to the 2006 season. He is 17th in the point standings, only 50 points out of the top 10. "The key is the first five races of the year," said Gordon. "If we can stay in the top 15 to 20, I believe we can surprise a lot of people this season (and contend for a spot in the Chase for the Championship)."
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    18) Jamie McMurray, No. 26 Ford, Roush Racing
  • This week: In three starts at Las Vegas, McMurray has one top-five finish. He will be running the same car he raced at California, where he posted a sixth-place finish. "I was pleased with how the car ran in Fontana, and it was actually better on the track in Vegas (during the January test), so we should be strong," said McMurray.
  • Last race: Despite an early race mishap, McMurray rebounded to finish 10th in the Busch Series race in Mexico City. McMurray was driving a Dodge owned by Rusty Wallace in the event.
  • Etc.: Crew chief Jimmy Fennig believes the team is headed for a good weekend at Las Vegas. "With that finish (sixth at California) we began to dig out of the hole we made for ourselves at Daytona," said Fennig. "I think we can do even better in Las Vegas, though. Our test there was good."
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    19) Kevin Harvick, No. 29 Chevrolet, Richard Childress Racing
  • This week: Harvick finished fifth last year at Vegas despite starting 42nd. That was his second top-10 finish in five starts at the track. He won the Busch Series race at Vegas in 2004. "I really enjoy running in Vegas," said Harvick. "I always seem to run really well there."
  • Last race: Harvick finished third in the Busch Series race at Mexico City to maintain his hold on first place in the Busch point standings. "The U.S. Coast Guard Chevrolet was pretty good," said Harvick. "We just couldn't get off the corners and accelerate like the 20 car (Denny Hamlin). I felt like we were probably as good as the 9 car (Boris Said), but he just got by me."
  • Etc.: Harvick is in the last year of his contract with Richard Childress Racing, and both he and Childress have said they hope to make a decision on their future together by "early April." Added Childress, "It's got to be right for both of us. Hopefully we'll get something put together. Kevin is one of the most talented drivers out there, and I'd like to see him driving for us." ... Harvick and wife DeLana celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary on Feb. 28. They were married in Las Vegas.
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    20) Denny Hamlin, No. 11 Chevrolet, Joe Gibbs Racing
  • This week: This will be Hamlin's first Nextel Cup start at Vegas. He finished 12th last year in the Busch Series event. "We tested there at the end of January, and, in addition to giving me the opportunity to turn in a lot of laps, we feel we made a lot of progress on our setups for the intermediate tracks," said Hamlin. "As an organization I think we will be much more competitive this season than last, and that showed at California where Tony (Stewart) was unlucky not to be fighting for a win at the end, J.J. (Yeley) posted a top-10 and I just missed a top-10 finish (ending up 12th)."
  • Last race: Hamlin led the last 38 laps in winning the Telcel Motorola Mexico 200 for his first NASCAR victory. "I never imagined my first win would be on a road course, but it just seems like these flat tracks seem to fit me and we had a great car," said Hamlin. "We were strong on restarts as well as on long runs, and I was just able to pull away (from runner-up Boris Said) and just run my line." The victory moved Hamlin to third in the Busch point standings.
  • Etc.: Hamlin believes Mexico City would be a great site for a Nextel Cup race. "I think it won't be long before NASCAR reaches out and goes somewhere outside the country (U.S.). Hopefully they'll pick this race track," said Hamlin. "It's a great race track, and you've got everything you need here. On top of that, we've got great hotel accommodations. It's a fun place to be."
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    BEST OF THE REST

    21) Carl Edwards, No. 99 Ford, Roush Racing
  • This week: Edwards finished 14th in his debut at Vegas a year ago. Yet he says, "I'm really excited about Vegas. I feel like we've got a better car for Vegas (than the one he ran at California, where he finished third), so I feel very good about it (the race this weekend). I just feel real good about the new Fusion."
  • Last race: Edwards finished eighth in the Mexico 200. He also is eighth in the Busch Series point standings after the first three races of 2006. Edwards plans to run the full Busch Series this year in his quest for the championship.
  • Etc.: Edwards planned to leave "a couple of days early for Vegas so that I can enjoy a couple of days of mountain biking from sunrise to sunset. I am just looking forward to the whole week. Vegas is just a fun place to go. Plus Roush has always had a lot of success at the Las Vegas track (five victories in eight races)."
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    22) Tony Stewart, No. 20 Chevrolet, Joe Gibbs Racing
  • This week: Stewart has finished in the top 10 in the last four races run at Las Vegas. In four of the last six events at the track, Stewart has finished in the top five, including a second in 2000 when the event was rain-shortened. After contending for the win at California, Stewart is anxious to see if that trend continues. "We seemed to stack up well against the Hendrick and Roush teams, but I'm anxious to do it again at Las Vegas," said Stewart. "We want to know -- are we where we need to be? Las Vegas may be a different situation, but if the Home Depot Chevrolet drives anywhere like it did at California, I'm going to be real excited about the year."
  • Last race: Stewart enjoyed his week off but he wishes "we could find a way of taking the three weekends we have off and spreading them out a little bit more evenly. On a 36-week schedule when you have 20 straight races and three weekends off in 16 weeks, it doesn't make a lot of sense."
  • Etc.: Stewart admits his confidence level is "definitely high, but that's only a small piece of the entire puzzle. As a driver, if you don't have confidence, you're not going to get the job done. It's the same for the race team. Starting the season with that kind of confidence is something that is definitely an asset."
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    23) J.J. Yeley, No. 18 Chevrolet, Joe Gibbs Racing
  • This week: Yeley is coming off a career-best finish of eighth at California, and crew chief Steve Addington plans to run the same car at Vegas. "This is the car that we ran second with at Charlotte (last year) with Bobby (Labonte)," said Addington. "We put a new body on it and brought it to California. That was the first race for it with the new body so I'm really proud of everyone at JGR in the fab shop. They've worked hard to give us good race cars."
  • Last race: Yeley finished fourth at Mexico City and stands second in the Busch Series point standings, just 14 points behind Kevin Harvick. "We had a really fast race car and I think we definitely had a shot at running in the top two," said Yeley, who rebounded from an early race incident. "We definitely didn't need that in lap two or three, whatever that was, getting turned around there. But we had good pit strategy, and it got us back (into contention)."
  • Etc.: Yeley, who has never raced in a Nextel Cup event at Las Vegas, finished 18th in the Busch Series race a year ago. He was 23rd in 2004.
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    24) Reed Sorenson, No. 41 Dodge, Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates
  • This week: Sorenson's luck so far this season hasn't been great thus far this season, but he was encouraged by a good test in January at Vegas. "We're taking the same car that ran so well in California two weeks ago," he said. "We didn't get the finish that we should have, but we ran strong and that has given us a good deal of confidence heading into this weekend."
  • Last race: Engine problems ended Sorenson's day in Mexico City as he finished a disappointing 36th. As a result, he dropped to 15th in the Busch Series point standings. Sorenson is among a handful of Nextel Cup regulars who plan to run the full Busch Series in 2006.
  • Etc.: The Ganassi teams plans to stick with the Dodge Charger, unlike the Penske operation, which will be running Intrepids at Las Vegas. "It's taken us awhile with the Charger," admits Andy Graves, general manager at Ganassi Racing. "But over the last six weeks of last season we felt we'd started to get a handle on it. And Reed drove all the way up to fifth (at California) on that green-flag run. So we're comfortable (with our decision)."
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    25) Kurt Busch, No. 2 Dodge, Penske South
  • This week: Busch finished third in last year's race at Vegas after leading for 40 laps. He was ninth in the 2004 event. Busch has led in four of the five races he's run at his hometown track. "It's my hometown and I love racing here just like everybody else does," said Busch. "It's definitely a fun place to race. I believe you can count Vegas as a top-five marquee event. You have Daytona, Indy, the Bristol night race, the Coca-Cola 600, and I think Vegas fits right in that category."
  • Last race: Busch, who was 16th at California, spent his week off at "home" as he and his friends spent a few days four-wheeling out in the desert. A few of Busch's "posse" had built their own version of an NHRA "Christmas Tree" staging system, and Busch's group held organized races while "out playing" in the desert.
  • Etc.: Car owner Roger Penske said he is "optimistic, but realistic" about his team's chances of winning the Nextel Cup championship this year. "Kurt already has a series championship and Ryan (Newman) has finished in the top 10 every year since his rookie season," says Penske. "Kurt has an entirely new situation, but he's with a young, eager crew that will provide him with a team that he can mature with."
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  • Tagged: Kurt Busch, Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton, Matt Kenseth, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson, Reed Sorenson, Dale Jarrett, Sterling Marlin, Kevin Harvick, Casey Mears, Kasey Kahne, Elliott Sadler, Tony Stewart, Dave Blaney

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