Another driver I have my eye on this weekend is five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Like Stewart, the 2012 season has not gotten off to the kind of start Johnson or his Hendrick Motorsports team expected. Issues during the initial inspection at Daytona cost the No. 48 team 25 driver and owner points, a hefty fine, and the loss of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec for six races (pending appeal).
Once in the race, a wreck on Lap 2 resulted in a 42nd-place — and his sixth straight finish of 27th or worse in the Daytona 500. The subsequent penalty from the failed inspection left Johnson heading to Phoenix with negative points in the championship standings.
While Knaus and Malec have been able to remain at the track as NASCAR and HMS work through the appeal process, the No. 48 team is in a huge hole. That said, the team was able to recover nicely in Phoenix, scoring a fourth-place finish on Sunday, but Johnson is currently 38th in the standings, 71 points out of the lead.
Sitting so deep in the standings, Johnson has set his focus on making the Chase — one way or another. Well out of contention for the points lead, the former champion understands that at this point, his best bet to make the Chase could be through one of the two Wild Card spots. That means the No. 48 team will be looking to win races early and often.
And if that’s the objective, Vegas is a good track for Johnson to meet the goal. His 48 team has four wins, four top 5s and five top 10s in 10 LVMS starts. With that track record and Knaus and Malec still at the track, I expect the 48 to be among the front-runners throughout Sunday’s race, leading to a strong day on the fantasy side of things.
For this weekend’s darkhorse pick, I’m looking towards Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose. Although the driver of the No. 9 Ford has only three starts at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Ambrose lists the track among his favorite on the circuit. During last year's event, Ambrose started from the outside pole and finished the day in fourth after showings of 14th in 2010 and 20th in ’09.
Already in 2012, Ambrose and the team have shown they are capable of running up front and contending for wins. After a strong run throughout the afternoon in Phoenix, engine issues late in the race ruined what looked to be an assured top-10 run. If Ambrose and his Todd Parrott-led team can avoid mistakes and engine issues, I expect a solid fantasy day from the No. 9 group.
Throughout the weekend, keep a close eye on practices and qualifying, as track position will be key in Sunday's race. Clean air and pit strategy will be paramount in determining the winner at the end of 400 miles in Vegas.