Through the Gears: Four things we learned in the Kobalt Tools 400 in Las Vegas
Matt Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff. (ASP, Inc.)
If Matt Kenseth were a betting man, he’d have bought a Play 4 ticket on the way out of Las Vegas.
The numbers? 3-3-3-3.
Kenseth, in the third race of the 2013 season, became career Sprint Cup driver number three to win a race on his birthday (joining Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch). The new, third member of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable also has more career victories in Vegas (along with Auto Club Speedway) than any other track on the circuit: Three.
Too bad Richard Childress isn’t willing to part with that number, huh? To me, the number could also apply to something else we’re getting a sense of: the list of early title favorites. Has Kenseth snuck into that picture? Let’s find out while going “Through the Gears” after a weekend out in Sin City…
FIRST GEAR: The title is shaping up to be a Johnson-Keselowski affair
One driver was third, the other sixth. Neither was a factor for the win late at Vegas although they combined to lead a total of 78 laps. But a quick look at the first three races shows that Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski, the same two men who battled down the stretch for the 2012 Cup Series title, are in cruise control up front.
Leading the points is the No. 48 team, with top-10 starting spots in every event, an average finish of 3.0 and a Daytona 500 trophy on the shelf. Crew chief Chad Knaus, who was lauded for being ahead of the curve with NASCAR’s Car of Tomorrow chassis, was expected to do the same with the Gen-6. That’s what you expect from the best mechanic in the sport, and to his credit, Knaus has delivered.
Sitting five points behind Hendrick’s top team is Keselowski, who has battled through far more adversity but still has the same number of top-10 results (three-for-three). Considering the offseason changeover (new manufacturer, new teammate, new engines) the speed and versatility Penske Racing’s top team has shown is just as impressive. It’s driver’s confidence as reigning champ is palpable, retaining his outspoken nature while continuing a role as an emerging leader within the sport. While Denny Hamlin’s “slap on the wrist” from NASCAR caused him to be a bit off on Sunday, finishing 15th, Keselowski has had no such detours after his talking-to at Daytona. That’s what separates the good from the great: an ability to tune out distractions and fight through the pressure.
The Gen-6 car was supposed to provide a big opportunity for the other teams to catch up to this duo. But the standings three races in aren’t an indictment on those changes; instead, it’s a showcase of how this rivalry is elevating both drivers to remain head and shoulders above everyone else. Too bad we have to wait until the Chase in September for them to push down on the accelerator for good.
SECOND GEAR: Meanwhile, Kenseth and Joe Gibbs Racing sit as sleepers
No question, anyone with a brain and a pulse expected Kenseth to outpace Joey Logano in Joe Gibbs’ No. 20 Toyota. But even the most optimistic of souls has to raise an eyebrow on what this new combination is doing. Three races in, Kenseth is one-half way towards the total number of victories that car has had in the past four years. His 128 laps led, a NASCAR best, is well on its way to eclipsing Logano’s four-year total of 337 in a matter of several weeks. If not for a faulty engine in the waning laps of the Daytona 500 this team could be out in front of everyone — a point that’s not been lost on its pilot.
“All three races we had a car, if everything would have went right, that we could have won,” he said Sunday night. “And it feels pretty awesome to have this win here.”
Kenseth’s emotions during and after Sunday’s victory made it clear he’s a man on a mission to prove the choice to leave Roush Fenway was the right one. Crew chief Jason Ratcliff has worked out well; his pit strategy of a fuel-only stop was the winning call.
So can JGR catch the top two? The beauty of it is that there is six months left in the regular season to fine-tune on intermediates. But unlike Kenseth, the rest of the stable has to stop shooting itself in the foot. Case in point: Kyle Busch’s speeding penalty, which knocked him out of the top spot at Vegas and threatened to derail his day. Denny Hamlin, for all the fan support he has surrounding the Gen-6 criticism, caused a huge distraction by reacting emotionally to the situation. Add in the motor problems and that’s why this Toyota trio remains a step below for the time being. But the speed is there.
Junior Nation: Loud and ... green. (ASP, Inc.)
THIRD GEAR: Earnhardt’s loss could be Gordon’s gain
This theme of “three” brings up the ghost of the Intimidator, Dale Earnhardt, Jr.’s late father, who is likely smiling down on how well his boy is handling the new Gen-6. Sitting third in points and joining Johnson and Keselowski as the only drivers with three top-10 results, the No. 88 car has shown a habit of improving consistently throughout an event. Part of that has to be the benefits of top equipment — after all, this team works in the same shop as Knaus and Johnson.
But for Earnhardt, there’s more at play. From the first day I arrived at Daytona, you couldn’t help but notice Earnhardt’s enthusiasm for 2013. It’s clear the Gen-6 chassis for him was considered a prime opportunity for redemption; he’s perhaps the only one unconditionally harping on its success every time the camera lights go on (or off). I remember, in particular, an unsolicited rant in the media center about how great the season would be after this year’s Daytona 500. It was something you would never have heard from him even two years ago, when crew chief Steve Letarte was just the last-ditch experiment and a slumping driver had lost his confidence. Now, Earnhardt has begun to believe, pushing forward mentally in a sport where the smallest edge can make the biggest difference.
Compare that to Jeff Gordon, whose success with the Gen-5 (a record 30 top-10 finishes in 2007, the first year it was introduced) was expected to repeat itself. Instead, three races in the fourth member of the Hendrick stable looks a level very much below his mates. What’s troubling here is the opposite of Earnhardt: Gordon goes backwards the second the green flag drops. His average start is 5.7, one of NASCAR’s best, yet the difference between those spots and where he finishes is a disappointing -37. He and Gustafson aren’t on the same page with adjustments, and that needs to change before it’s too deep a hole from which to recover.
FOURTH GEAR: The real Gen-6 grade: Incomplete, no matter how much NASCAR tries to push the issue
The official statistics say 22 lead changes, an increase over 2012. And the loop data for Vegas had 2,342 green-flag passes, the highest number in seven years. But despite the drivers trumpeting praise, seemingly as a result of Hamlin’s $25,000 fine for even suggesting the Gen-6 still needs some work, Sunday’s race was far from an A-plus. It wasn’t bad; clearly, the end-of-race battle alone with Kenseth and Kahne was worth the price of admission. But it still seems, as the cars settle in after a restart, passing 20 to 30 laps into a run is a risk drivers seem afraid to take.
One issue that might help continues to be the tires. Goodyear’s latest compound, while safe on Sunday, was so rock hard speeds didn’t fall off quickly enough. Considering Vegas’ surface is one of the more abrasive, there was a missed opportunity for a more “Atlanta” or “Rockingham” style race where that type of management came into play.
Instead, what we were left with was a race that had a few stops and starts but wasn’t the A++ version NASCAR covets. And a simple point in the wake of the Hamlin discipline remains: if things were so peachy with this new Gen-6, making everyone from fans to television partners happy, why feel the need to even control perception? Stepping in, managing a comment mostly forgotten gives the impression there’s something wrong even if those concerns are overblown.
Kenseth gets first win for Joe Gibbs Racing in third start.
Matt Kenseth celebrates in Victory Lane. (ASP, Inc.)
The biggest name in NASCAR's 2012 version of Silly Season made his presence known early in the 2013 season. Matt Kenseth, in only his third start with Joe Gibbs Racing, gave the No. 20 team its first win since June 2012, when he won the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.
Having spent the first 13 years of his Cup Series career at Roush Fenway Racing where he won two Daytona 500s and the 2003 title, Kenseth accepted one of the most coveted seats in the Sprint Cup Series with Gibbs’ No. 20 team — a group that had only two wins since Tony Stewart left the team following the 2008 season. In the season opener in Daytona, Kenseth was one of a handful of favorites but lost an engine while leading with just over 50 laps remaining. He followed that up with a workman-like top 10 at Phoenix.
On Sunday in Las Vegas, it all came together for the driver, crew chief Jason Ratcliff and the No. 20 bunch.
In classic Kenseth fashion, the Wisconsin native showed up when the money was on the line. In a race dominated by Kasey Kahne, Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson, Kenseth assumed the lead late — with 41 laps remaining — and used clean air at the front of the field to his advantage.
A strategy call on a pit stop under yellow earned Kenseth the point. Taking zero tires while most others took two, he led the field to green and held the top spot even after the second-place machine of Brad Keselowski appeared to jump the start.
A blown engine in the Chevy of Ryan Newman precipitated another restart with 27 laps to go. Again, it appeared that Keselowski jumped the start, but no ruling came from NASCAR. Still, Kenseth recovered quickly, pulling by on the backstretch.
However, Kenseth’s toughest challenge would come from Kahne, who also disposed of Keselowski within a lap of the restart.
Kahne, who led a race-high 114 laps, prowled in Kenseth’s tire tracks for the final 26 laps, but in an ending that proved anti-climactic, never mounted a serious attempt at the pass. Clean air for the leader, coupled with a lack of front-end downforce on his No. 5 Chevy, forced Kahne to settle for second.
“We're only three weeks in, but man, all three races we had a car — if everything would have went right — that we could have won, and it feels pretty awesome to have this win here,” said Kenseth.
Keselowski, Busch and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5 on an afternoon that witnessed five caution periods.
NASCAR opened the track on Thursday for a test session to give teams extra time with the new Gen-6 car on the circuit’s first intermediate track stop. High-banked intermediate tracks — typically 1.5- or 2-miles in length — make up more than half of the Sprint Cup Series’ 36-race season. The new cars are designed with the intent to improve action on these tracks to allow more side-by-side racing.
Still, aero-dependency ruled the day on Sunday, as evidenced by Kahne not being able to pass Kenseth in the waning laps despite having newer tires — and by all outward appearances, a faster car.
“Clean air is like an extra tire,” said Carl Edwards.
“When I was out front my car was fast as heck,” Busch said. “As soon as (Kahne) went by me (for the lead) I was out of the racetrack, wrecking loose. I had to give up 10 car lengths to him in order to get my car comfortable again to where I could drive it.”
Those teams that were able to hit the setup thrived, as five cars — Kenseth, Kahne, Keselowski, Busch and Johnson — led 261 of the 267 laps. This on the heels of a largely single-file Daytona 500 and a veritably regular trip to Phoenix’s eccentric one-mile oval.
So while the cars may be a work in progress, the chemistry on JGR’s No. 20 team looks well ahead of the curve.
“I'm glad we got a win, but it's still only week three,” Kenseth said of his new team. “I feel like this is the beginning, you know, and I have a lot of confidence — I had a lot of confidence after our first meeting and decided to go do this and just had a great feeling about it. And I still do.”
NASCAR: Five Things to Watch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Denny Hamlin is not as happy now. (ASP, Inc.)
Five storylines for the Kobalt Tools 500 in Las Vegas
1. Hamlin draws NASCAR’s (thin-skinned) ire
NASCAR suddenly, quickly and, well, mistakenly landed a $25,000 shot to Denny Hamlin's wallet on Thursday as Sprint Cup teams set up shop in Las Vegas. And no: this wasn't a case of Brian France cleaning Hamlin's clock at a swanky blackjack table.
Hamlin is expected to pay up for doing, allegedly, at least $25,000 in damage to NASCAR's apparently fragile image for answering a completely legitimate question at Phoenix International Raceway about NASCAR's new race car. Hamlin's most grievous offense can be found in the following span of sentences:
“I don't want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning.”
Athlon Sports regrets posting such serious and offensive comments.
That was exactly Hamlin’s reaction Thursday during a break from testing and later in the night when he released a statement on Twitter. NASCAR never contacted Hamlin before the fine was issued, even though it came later than usual. Hamlin has vowed to appeal the fine and voiced even greater concern for the message it sends.
“I feel as if today NASCAR lost one of its biggest supporters vocally of where our sport is headed,” Hamlin wrote in a tweet, conscious of his 2010 “secret” fine for saying things that also crossed NASCAR. “So in the end there are no winners.”
Hamlin said the statement was “taken out of context” and that the fine isn't about money. Instead it’s about his ability to give an honest and fair assessment to reasonable questions.
“Since being fined in 2010 I have been a lot more careful about what I say to media and I felt this past weekend felt completely in my rights to give an assessment of the question asked,” Hamlin wrote.
2. Testing, testing, 1… 2… 3…
Beyond the Hamlin episode, teams got down to work earlier than usual on Thursday, as NASCAR opened the track in Las Vegas to a full day of testing.
It wasn't the first time NASCAR's new Gen-6 car has been on a 1.5-mile intermediate track, but Thursday was the first day Sprint Cup drivers got to toss the new car design around Las Vegas Motor Speedway. NASCAR opened the track a day early for two sessions of car fitness tests that, unlike a typical race weekend practice session, allowed the use of data and telemetry recording devices.
Greg Biffle's lap of 189.427 mph late in the second of two sessions put his No. 16 Ford atop the speed charts — a familiar place for Roush Fenway Racing at LVMS. Kasey Kahne set the track record a season ago in Sin City at 190.456 mph.
“It doesn’t matter how long you have practice or how much testing you have, there will be cars on the track until NASCAR throws the red and black flag,” Martin Truex Jr. said. “And even after all of that, we will always think, ‘Darn, if we only had two or three more laps.’ We are always striving for perfection so there is never enough time in my opinion to get ready for Sunday’s race.”
Indeed, many teams placed focus on race setups to start the second weekend of the early-season West Coast swing for NASCAR. Nine of the top-10 drivers in the second session’s speed charts posted their fastest lap in either the second-to-last or last run of the day, likely with qualifying setups installed.
The last major test on 1.5-mile tracks for most teams came at Charlotte Motor Speedway in January. Snow postponed part of that test conducted in extremely cold conditions — a stark contrast from Thursday’s sunny and mild weather in Las Vegas.
Aric Almirola: A Vegas sleeper? (ASP, Inc.)
3. Trump cards could quietly be in The King's court
The temperature at that Charlotte test before the start of the 2013 campaign wasn't a factor for the Florida-born Aric Almirola. His No. 43 Ford turned the quickest lap during that test that proved to be a culmination of a lot of right steps that both he and his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose have taken on NASCAR's intermediate tracks of late.
Expect both to be under-the-radar contenders when Sunday’s 400-mile race gets underway.
“Toward the end of last season, we were really good at the mile-and-a-half tracks, and doing well at the test gives us some momentum going into this weekend,” Almirola said.
Almirola picked up a pair of top-15 finishes in last season’s final two intermediate track races at Texas Motor Speedway and Homestead-Miami Speedway. Tire troubles and a crash ruined an even stronger day just weeks before at Kansas Speedway — another 1.5-miler — after Almirola led 69 laps.
Ambrose, the road course ace, has shown flashes of strength on the same types of tracks. To start this season, he has a pair of 18th-place finishes in Daytona and Phoenix.
“We haven't had a great finish yet, but we haven't had a terrible one either. We just need to get a little better,” Ambrose said.
Las Vegas, where Ambrose has a best finish of fourth in 2011, could be just the place.
4. Edwards thought Las Vegas, not Phoenix, was his ace in the hole
The backflip Carl Edwards executed after track position and a good handling car sent him to victory last weekend at Phoenix looked pretty good for a guy who had waited 70 Cup races since his last one. It also looked good for a guy who felt his gymnastic move wouldn't be needed for at least another week.
Edwards admitted this week he didn't expect to snap his win drought at Phoenix.
“I know this is probably wrong to admit, but I didn’t really have Phoenix marked on the calendar as the one that we were going to go win the first race,” Edwards said. “I was looking at Vegas as the race that would be the really good one, so I’m really excited about Vegas.”
Edwards can probably point to the success of his still fledgling relationship with tough-nosed crew chief Jimmy Fennig. Their relationship — a meeting of alpha personalities — has been one to keep track of early in 2013. Fennig has changed a lot Edwards’ routine and at-track preparation.
“(Fennig) wants me to make sure that I understand the changes they have planned for practice, that I make sure to be there and be available to the engineers after practice, and that I’m actually sitting there engaged with them so we don’t miss something,” Edwards said. “I thought that was pretty cool for him to just lay it out there. He didn’t say, ‘How did you do it last year?’ He said, ‘This is exactly what I want. This is how I’m going to do it.’
“I think that leadership and knowing what he wants is something that’s going to pay off a lot.”
Edwards, already the owner of two career Sprint Cup wins at Las Vegas (both after the 2006 reconfiguration), is a decent pick to hit it big Sunday.
5. The tricky nature (or lack thereof) of Las Vegas’ Turn 1
The 2006 reconfiguration of LVMS created a remarkably different track than drivers had been used to since the first Sprint Cup event at the track in 1998. The track added banking — it was the first purpose-built progressive banking track in NASCAR — and watched the average pole speed jump more than 12 miles per hour.
Just as any track, LVMS has aged under the extreme heat that Nevada desert summers bring. That process allows the track and its foundation to move and settle. Such character, drivers say, can now be found in Turn 1 at LVMS where a set of bumps have created uncertainty from lap to lap in the driving line.
“You’ve got to tune your car around (the bumps),” David Gilliland said. “It puts more in the hands of the individual teams and drivers to make it work.”
The bumps haven’t proved a notorious causal factor for crashes in that end of the speedway. The numbers, though, are slightly raised. Since reconfiguration six races ago, there have been 19 cautions for incidents in Turns 1 and 2 and 15 for crashes in Turns 3 and 4.
“It has a rougher surface in that there are more bumps. The track has some character to it,” Ryan Newman said. “Over the past couple of years, the bumps in the track have typically been pretty tricky, but that’s something I like.”
The bumps seem to be more noticeable to some drivers than others. Even teammates.
“The track is really smooth and that lets you work on the attitude of your car, and I think that’s a luxury that we have there that we don’t necessarily always get everywhere else because every track has its unique set of bumps,” said Tony Stewart. “Vegas has bumps too, but for the most part, it’s so smooth that you can really fine-tune the attitude of the car.”
For now, we'll listen to Stewart. A win at Las Vegas in 2012 and a second-place finish in 2011 give him a bit of credibility.
The Las Vegas et cetera
Mark Martin, now the second-oldest pole winner in NASCAR history after last week's top qualifying effort at Phoenix, now takes aim at being the oldest Sprint Cup winner. Martin, 54, would top Harry Gant who was 52 when he won in 1992 … Martin also won the inaugural race at Las Vegas in 1998 … Las Vegas is the first of 16 Sprint Cup races at intermediate tracks this season … Most teams had extra transporters meet them in Phoenix after last Sunday's race to swap cars and parts, as making a trek from Phoenix to Charlotte and back to Las Vegas in time is nearly impossible … Just one of 15 Sprint Cup races have gone past the scheduled distance at LVMS.
The odd makers have spoken — and Vito Pugliese piles on
Photo by ASP, Inc.
As will be pointed out ad nauseam on FOX this weekend, Las Vegas is the home to gambling, betting, taking chances and all sorts of other illicit activities. So if you want to dial a cliché, cue up NASCAR’s Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. To honor this yearly tradition, the Vegas odds makers have beaten everybody to the punch and are already taking bets on who will win the race this Sunday.
Below is how things are shaping up according to the LVH Superbook. If you happen to be going this weekend or have buddy at a bachelor party on site (or still have access to some clandestine off-shore gambling sites) here are the top-10 drivers who stand a shot at making you some cash. Assuming nobody’s right front tire blows out.
JIMMIE JOHNSON 5-1
So far in 2013, Johnson has finished first and second — and he was whining about the latter result — so you know he’s going to be loaded for bear. The Hendrick camp always comes correct when there’s a new car, plus his sponsor is on the walls this weekend. Remember when Charlotte was Lowe’s Motor Speedway and he’d win everything in sight? This could be the second coming of this for JJ and company this weekend at a track where they’ve won four times in only 11 starts.
KYLE BUSCH 8-1
It has been an inauspicious start to 2013 for Kyle Busch, who blew an engine at Daytona and cracked the nose at Phoenix. He dominated the Nationwide race last Saturday in his Monster Energy car, but the odds makers are only concerned about what happens on Sunday. Las Vegas is Busch’s hometown, so it is the one track on the circuit where he won’t be showered with the kind of boos that are typically reserved for third world dictators once they’ve passed. Yah, hear that Hugo?! As high as Rowdy is on the list, he may find a rough go of it this weekend. Kyle does have a pair of poles and a win here back in 2009, but his last three finishes have been 23rd, 38th and 15th.
BRAD KESELOWSKI 8-1
Brad Keselowski is making great strides to project the persona of a Sprint Cup champion. His brutal honesty has gotten him in some hot water with NASCAR, but I seem to remember The Intimidator making a few pointed comments here and there that ended up helping the sport, as well. In 2013, Keselowski has had to work with a new car, a new manufacturer, his fourth teammate in two years and a new engine shop. No matter – a pair of fourth-place finishes have been the result, with Daytona being a constant battle with garbage bag bodywork. The Keselowski/Paul Wolfe combo have once again put this team on their collective back. You saw his championship interview at Homestead, so you know he likes to party. The Blue Deuce will be ready for Vegas.
MATT KENSETH 8-1
Matt Kenseth has shown muscle early in his move from Roush Fenway Racing to Joe Gibbs Racing. Two races in, and the No. 20 is running as it did in the Tony Stewart days. Kenseth had what may have been the strongest car in Daytona (at least the strongest car left) before it fell out with engine failure. He was near the front most of the day in Phoenix, as well. He and crew chief Jason Ratcliff are still working to get on the same page as far as adjustments and late-race decisions, but that is part of a process that takes time to perfect. Kenseth has won twice at LVMS, but back in the, uh, Generation 4 cars, though he did win a pole as recently as 2011. The understated Kenseth has made his bones in recent years on superspeedways, but he’s still a 1.5-miler at heart.
Photo by ASP, Inc.
CARL EDWARDS 9-1
After he crashed out of the Daytona 500, wiping out his fourth car of Speedweeks, Edwards declared that, “We’re just going to go to Phoenix and win.” He did just that, snapping a 70-race winless streak and showing Jay Glazer how to do a backflip without knocking yourself silly. Roush cars always run well at Las Vegas, having won seven of the 15 Cup races. Edwards snatched one away from Tony Stewart here in 2011, which coincidentally was the last race he had won before the Phoenix performance. Might we be seeing the resurgence of Edwards as a Sprint Cup contender? Vegas will be telling.
KASEY KAHNE 9-1
This season was supposed to be the year that Kasey Kahne went on a tear in his now-familiar Hendrick surroundings. So far, that tear has been more of a tear (i.e., the kind that run down your face when you are overwhelmed with unfathomable sorrow). Kahne was turned early at Daytona, and after a front row qualifying effort in Phoenix, the No. 5 faded to a 19th-place finish. The season is young, and so is Kahne, and girls still think he’s dreamy. The Beiber haircut is a bit disconcerting, but No. 5 is about to come alive as it did in 2009 and challenge for the championship. Half of Kahne’s 14 career wins have come on banked tracks 1.5 miles or larger (Charlotte, Texas, Michigan and California). Las Vegas fits that bill. So, there you go girls: he has a shot at winning this weekend. Just don’t try to claw at Miss Sprint Cup if she’s smiling at him in Victory Lane. That’s her job.
DENNY HAMLIN 10-1
Denny Hamlin seems to be regaining the performance, perspective and promise that he showed throughout the 2010 season when he won eight races and came this close to being a titlist. How his $25,000 fine — levied by NASCAR after he supposedly criticized the Gen-6 car — will affect him is a mystery. He was mad as hell during Thursday’s test session, which could serve him well. However, what he really needs are some wins to help set things off. That last lap banzai pass attempt on Jimmie Johnson missed by only about six inches at PIR, but his record of late in Vegas may come up even shorter: 20th, seventh, 19th and 22nd isn’t an encouraging stat-line.
TONY STEWART 12-1
Tony Stewart shows up to win in Las Vegas, particularly after becoming an owner, with finishes of seventh, second and first in the last three trips. The second-place run would have been a win, but miscommunication during a pit stop after leading 163 laps was his undoing. Stewart needs a rebound performance, especially after the crushing disappointment that was his Daytona 500. Stewart’s teammate has been getting most of the attention lately — not that that’s a bad thing — as has talk of Kevin Harvick coming on board at Stewart-Haas Racing in 2014. No matter. A few good finishes (and possibly a win this weekend) to follow up last season’s Vegas triumph will have Smoke catching fire en route to a possible fourth championship. How’s that for bad clichés?
JEFF GORDON 12-1
Gordon is in a similar situation as Stewart. A multiple-time champion who had bad luck at Daytona with rising water temps and falling water pressure had him falling back at the end after leading 31 laps. A top-10 run at Phoenix was steady, but there’s been nothing remarkable thus far. His last few years at LVMS have been up and down – sixth, third, 36th and 12th in the last four visits. Gordon has one win here (2001) but his most vivid Vegas memory was a last lap crash in ’08 that ripped the radiator and front end off the car. Hopefully, he doesn’t put the new Gen-6 car to the test this weekend in a similar fashion.
DALE EARNHARDT JR 12-1
This year looks to be picking up where 2012 left off for Dale Earnhardt Jr. Before he got a concussion at Talladega, that is. Second in points through two races with a pair of top 5s, Junior and crew chief Steve Letarte look to be killing ’em with consistency again. His recent record in Vegas is OK – 10th, 16th, eighth and 10th. At the very least, he’ll net a top-10 run, but wins are all that matter for the most part. If you’re picking him for a top-three run, he’s still a solid pick, as the Hendrick cars typically adapt quicker to car changes. And this one is supposed to drive more like the Generation 4 car, which Junior drove to 17 wins.
Predicting the best fantasy drivers in Las Vegas so you don't have to.
Tony Stewart took checkers in Vegas last year. (ASP, Inc.)
The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup season rolls on to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Kobalt Tools 500. To help guide you through the 2013 Fantasy NASCAR season, Athlon Sports contributor Dustin Long will be offering up his best predictions for each race. And because Yahoo's Fantasy Auto Racing game is arguably the most popular, he’ll break down the picks according to its NASCAR driver classes—A-List, B-List, C-List.
So, without further ado, Dustin's fantasy predictions for Las Vegas, ranked according to each driver's likelihood of taking the checkered flag (or at least finishing toward the front):
Won last year’s race after finishing second there the year before. Has led 290 of 534 laps (54.3 percent) run in the last two races at Las Vegas.
2. Jimmie Johnson
Has the highest driver rating (110.9) in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has the highest average finish of 9.4 during that span. Has a victory and a runner-up finish in last five starts but placed 16th or worse in the other three starts in that stretch.
3. Clint Bowyer
Has finished eight or better in three of the last four Las Vegas races. Also has qualified in the top four in three of the last four races on 1.5-mile tracks (same size as Las Vegas).
4. Jeff Gordon
Has run a series-high 84 percent of his laps in the top 15 in the last eight races at Las Vegas. Also has led the most laps (370) during that time, among current drivers.
5. Kevin Harvick
Has two top-five finishes in his last five Las Vegas races and has led 15 laps during that stretch.
6. Kasey Kahne
Has three poles in Vegas, including last year, but only finished 19th in the race.
7. Matt Kenseth
Won the pole in Vegas in 2011, but has one top-10 finish in last five starts here.
8. Denny Hamlin
Has never started better than 16th at Las Vegas. Has one top-10 in his last four starts there, a seventh in 2011. Has never led a lap in a Cup car at Vegas.
9. Brad Keselowski
Has never finished better than 26th in four career starts at Las Vegas. Best starting position in that time is a 13th in 2009. Also has led only one lap there.
Kyle Busch is in need of a solid finish. (ASP, Inc.)
1. Kyle Busch
Has started no worse than fifth in the last five races at his hometown track, but has only one top-10 finish, a win in 2009, during that stretch. Does have eight top-10 finishes in the last nine races on 1.5-mile tracks in the series.
2. Carl Edwards
Phoenix winner has finished fifth and first in his last two starts at Las Vegas.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Has started in the top four twice in the last three years at Vegas and has four top-10 finishes in last five races here. Started fourth and finished 10th last year, leading 70 laps.
4. Greg Biffle
Has four top-10s in last five Las Vegas races, including a third last year, and has led 57 laps during that stretch. He’s also been running at the finish a series-high 38 consecutive races.
5. Ryan Newman
Has two consecutive top-five finishes at Las Vegas.
6. Mark Martin
Has one top-10 in last four Las Vegas races.
7. Kurt Busch
Scored two top-10 finishes in the four races on 1.5-mile tracks he ran with Furniture Row Racing at the end of last season.
8. Jamie McMurray
Finished eighth at Las Vegas last year, the second time in the last four races here he scored a top-10 finish.
9. Paul Menard
Finished 11th or better in two of the last three races on 1.5-mile tracks last season, including a third at Kansas. Placed seventh at Las Vegas last year.
10. Joey Logano
Has one top-10 in four career starts at Las Vegas.
11. Juan Pablo Montoya
Placed third at Las Vegas in 2011 but finished 25th here last year.
12. Marcos Ambrose
Has never finished worse than 20th in four starts at Las Vegas, placing 13th, fourth, 14th and 20th.
13. Martin Truex Jr.
Has one top-10 finish in seven career starts at Las Vegas.
14. Jeff Burton
Did not have a top-10 finish in any of the 11 Cup races on 1.5-mile tracks last season (best finish on such tracks was a 12th at Atlanta).
15. Bobby Labonte
Has finished 26th, 24th and 38th in last three Las Vegas races.
16. Aric Almirola
Has never finished better than 24th in a Cup car at Las Vegas in four starts.
1. Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
One of 12 drivers to have completed every lap in the first two races of the season.
2. Austin Dillon
Making Cup debut at Las Vegas. Finished seventh in Nationwide race here last year. Won a truck race at the track in 2010.
3. Casey Mears
Has a best finish of 13th in last five races at Las Vegas.
4. Danica Patrick
Making Cup debut at the track but has three Nationwide races here with finishes of 12th, fourth and 36th.
5. David Ragan
Finished seventh at Las Vegas in 2008, only time in six starts here he’s placed in the top 20.
6. David Stremme
Best finish at track is an 18th, which came in 2009
7. Dave Blaney
Finished no better than 29th in last three starts here.
8. Travis Kvapil
Has not finished better than 24th in last three Las Vegas starts.
9. David Gilliland
Has not finished better than 30th in last three Las Vegas starts.
10. David Reutimann
Finished 31st here last year. Best finish at track was a fourth in 2009.
11. Scott Speed
Finished 22nd at Las Vegas in 2010, last time he raced Cup here.
12. JJ Yeley
Failed to finish the last two races at Las Vegas.
13. Ken Schrader
Has not had a top-20 at Las Vegas since 2000.
14. Michael McDowell
Has never finished better than 38th in three career starts at track.
15. Mike Bliss
Finished 39th in 2010 in last start at the track.
16. Josh Wise
Finished 40th here last year in only Cup start at track.
17. Joe Nemechek
Has failed to finish in each of his last five starts here.
Honestly, Carl Edwards hasn't been that bad. (ASP, Inc.)
The Gen-6 car for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, after a two-race introduction, appears to be a work in progress. Passing last weekend at Phoenix International Raceway was at an all-time low for its current configuration (1,213 green-flag passes, down from 1,995 in the 2012 race) and pit stop speed decided the race for a driver who hadn’t seen Victory Lane in almost two calendar years.
This weekend’s race at speedy intermediate Las Vegas Motor Speedway is expected to provide a jump in on-track excitement. While I can’t possibly guarantee a more enticing product, there are some intriguing story lines within the numbers this week that should pique your interest and they involve a bevy of fan-favorite drivers. So that’s some excitement there, right?
12.8 and 84.29 percent During the Carl Edwards 70-race winless streak, the No. 99 Roush Fenway Racing team averaged a 12.8-place showing and finished in the top half of fields 84.29 percent of the time.
Those numbers aren’t awful. Despite not winning, Edwards and team were, for most intents and purposes, admirable across that two-year winless stretch. The perceived slump is just that; any team in the Cup Series would welcome the finishing average and that high of a relevance mark (finishes in the top half of fields encapsulates a team’s ability to avoid mistakes). The No. 99 team was never a downtrodden unit. It just didn’t win for an extended period of time. The last place Edwards won at prior to Phoenix? Funny you should ask …
6.750 With two Vegas wins in the last five races, Edwards leads the series in track-specific PEER (Production in Equal Equipment Rating) during that time frame.
The most recent winner in the Cup Series just happens to be a stud on the Vegas 1.5-mile quad-oval track. His performance has been feast with a little bit of famine; outside of his two victories at LVMS in the CoT era, he has finished fifth (last year), 12th and 17th. His winning past doesn’t make him a lock for the victory this weekend, but with the recent headlines, he’ll be one of a handful of drivers in the spotlight.
Does Kyle Busch have something figured out? (ASP, Inc.)
+54 Kyle Busch’s combined pass differential in the Cup Series and the NASCAR Nationwide Series races last weekend at Phoenix was a plus-54.
By virtue of a bad pit stop in the Nationwide Series race and a pre-race motor change in the Cup Series race, Busch was given the task of having to navigate through the field from a low-ranking position. The plus-26 differential — he made 26 more green-flag passes than the amount of times he got passed — resulted in his first Nationwide win since 2011; however, his march on Sunday had a different result. His plus-28 differential was one of the afternoon’s best on a day in which passing came at a premium — it was down over 39 percent from last year’s race — but his early-race spin placed him off the lead lap. Still, if passing in the Gen-6 is an elusive trait, Busch has demonstrated that he might be one of the few that is able to positively maneuver in traffic.
+56.3 percentDale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 team have been stalwarts in the final 10 percent of races, improving their running positions by 56.3 percent.
That plus-56.3 percent position retainment difference is helped by his 12th-to-second run in the waning laps at Daytona, but Earnhardt, crew chief Steve Letarte and team were also factors at Phoenix — where they finished fifth — a track previously unkind to them during the CoT era. Their 3.5-place average finish through the first two races this season places them second in the current Cup Series standings.
290 Across two races and 534 total laps in the last two Las Vegas races, Tony Stewart has led a combined 290 laps.
That’s a 54.3 percent take, which is dominant to say the least. These performances resulted in finishes of second and first in 2011 and 2012, respectively. Through the last five races in Vegas, which includes a last-place finish in 2008, he ranks second to Carl Edwards in track-specific PEER. Fans of Smoke can expect a concerted charge for the win on a track that he’s averaged a 3.3-palce finish the last three years, especially considering he and the No. 14 team are currently rank 23rd in the point standings.
-0.750 Las Vegas native Kurt Busch’s Las Vegas-specific PEER is -0.750, which ranks 45 out of 49 drivers with at least two starts in the last five seasons.
This isn’t the kind of homecoming Busch would prefer. He finished ninth behind the wheel of a Penske Racing entry in 2011, but beyond that, his showings have been dismal. Finishes of 38th (DNF), 23rd, 35th (after starting on the pole) and 35th (DNF) constitute the norm for him during the CoT era. Additionally, he’s only led briefly; he has paced the field for a total of two laps in that five-race sample size.
It took 27 races for Tony Stewart to find Victory Lane in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series last year. Four additional wins followed in the remaining nine weeks and Stewart earned his third Cup championship in one of the more dramatic finales in the sport’s history.
Stewart made it known on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that his No. 14 team will not only be a force in the Chase, but in NASCAR’s 26-race regular season, as well. Stewart dominated the Kobalt Tools 400, leading a race-high 127 laps, holding off all challengers through three restarts in the final 34 laps to score his first win of the 2012 season.
“It seemed like if we could get six or eight laps under our belt, we could start building that margin out again,” Stewart said of leading the field in the closing laps. “As soon as you started pulling away, the caution would come out again. You hate having to reset it like that, knowing for the first three laps you had to be spot on and not let them take advantage of a restart like that.
“You sit there and go, ‘How many times are we going to risk losing this race because of a restart? Something is going to get taken away from us because of this.’ It's very nerve-wracking.”
Stewart’s eventual race-winning move came on the first of the final three restarts. When the green flag waved with 34 laps remaining, Stewart, lined up in row three, shot his car to the tri-oval apron and around Brad Keselowski for the lead in Turn 1.
“The big thing was, that was when Matt (Kenseth) and Jimmie (Johnson) had taken four tires and we had taken two. We knew if we could clear those guys, it would give us a little bit of a buffer and have some lap cars that would keep them occupied. We didn't know we were going to have three or four restarts after that. It was key to get out front right away and try and build a gap.”
Johnson held on for second, his second straight top-5 finish after a disappointing 42nd in the Daytona 500. Greg Biffle inherited the lead in the point standings with his third consecutive third-place run. Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards rounded out the top 5.
The win was notable for Stewart in that it was his first career Cup triumph as Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Darlington Raceway and Kentucky Speedway (which was added to the Cup schedule last season) are the only two active tracks where Stewart has yet to notch a Cup win.
“I take a lot of pride in being good in different types of cars, at least being competitive in different types of cars, being competitive at different racetracks,” Stewart said. “This is one we've been close a couple times and it got away. To finally check this off the list … that's what makes today so special — not so much the time of year we're getting it, just the fact we finally got this one.”
Encouraging run for Earnhardt Dale Earnhardt Jr. started second in the Kobalt Tools 400. By the exit of Turn 2, he wrested the lead from teammate Kasey Kahne and held it for the next 43 laps. So dominant was his Chevy that Earnhardt chose to not report a tight condition on his car because the speed was so good.
“Knowing how it drove that first run, even though it was really fast, we should have worked on it and I should have told Steve (Letarte, crew chief) more about it,” Earnhardt said. “I should have let him understand what was going on.”
The car tightened up further once in traffic, and he was never able to fight back to the point. He finished 10th. Still, his 70 laps led bested the 52 he led in the entirety of the 2011 season.
Watch what you say Brad Keselowski saw a good run go bad when his car appeared to run out of fuel on a restart with 17 laps remaining while running second.
Keselowski was fined last year for criticism of NASCAR’s new Electronic Fuel Injection system.
“We're not doing this because it's better for the teams,” Keselowski said in November. “I don't think we're really going to save any gas. It's a media circus, trying to make you guys happy so you write good stories. It gives them something to promote. We're always looking for something to promote, but the honest answer is it does nothing for the sport except cost the team owners money.
“Cars on the street are injected with real electronics, not a throttle body (like in NASCAR). So we've managed to go from 50-year-old technology to 35-year-old technology. I don't see what the big deal is.”
Following the 32nd-place finish in Vegas, Keselowski took to Twitter, noting that the problem he experienced was not an empty gas tank, but a lack of fuel being delivered to the engine: “Just to be clear. On the last restart the engine ran out of fuel, the fuel tank still had gas. This means the fuel system had a problem.”
Play nice, teammates Roush Fenway Racing teammates Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards may need to have a meeting of the minds before drivers take the gloves off at Bristol.
Edwards dove beneath Kenseth on the race’s final restart with four laps remaining while both ran in the top 5. The move put Kenseth in a precarious middle-lane position as the bunched-up field maneuvered through Turns 1 and 2. Kenseth’s car broke loose on corner exit and sideswiped the wall. Edwards drove on to a fifth-place finish while the damage dropped Kenseth to 22nd.
“Carl just laid back and got me three-wide, and it just didn’t seem there was a lot of room getting into (Turn) 1,” Kenseth said. “And then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don’t really know what happened.”
“Matt spun his tires a little bit (on the restart) and I got a run on him, “Edwards explained. “And then Greg (Biffle) and I went around him and he ended up getting wrecked. I feel terrible.”
While our 2012 fantasy season got off to a great start in Daytona, last weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway proved even the hands-down favorite — in this case Kasey Kahne — can find trouble and ruin a fantasy day.
Anything can, and will, happen throughout the course of a race, making NASCAR one of the toughest fantasy sports to predict.
This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits the desert for the second time in as many weeks, as the early season schedule rolls into the Sin City for the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Simply looking at the statistics, it is easy to see which team will head into Sunday's race the favorite. In a town built on gambling, this weekend's safe bet is Roush Fenway Racing. In the speedway's 14-year history, no organization has had more success than the Roush cars.
The “Cat in the Hat” Jack Roush has had one of his drivers celebrating in Victory Lane in seven of the 14 Sprint Cup events held at the venue. Carl Edwards earned his lone victory of the 2011 season on the 1.5-mile track, beating an otherwise dominant Tony Stewart in the process. Edwards was coming off two impressive performances at Daytona and Phoenix, although a wreck at PIR led to a 28th-place finish. This year, another Roush Fenway Racing driver finds himself in a similar situation.
Greg Biffle has a renewed confidence in 2012, after an extremely disappointing performance last year. He has been candid in his comments and criticism of the team’s 2011 showing and also outspoken about its upcoming trip to Vegas. With consecutive third-place finishes to open the season, Biffle seems poised to make his return to Victory Lane this weekend at a 1.5-mile venue where he’s clicked off five top 10s in eight starts. Biffle tops the list as this week’s fantasy favorite.
While Biffle’s teammate, Edwards, went to Victory Lane in last year’s Vegas race, his No. 99 Ford was not the most dominant car that day. That honor went to the aforementioned Stewart.
Leading 163 of the 267 laps, Stewart had to come through the field after a pit road penalty sent him to the back of the pack. Taking two tires to regain track position, Stewart was forced to take four tires on the final pit stop while Edwards took two.
Las Vegas is one of only two tracks currently on the Cup schedule where the defending series champion has yet to win (the other being Kentucky Speedway). After last year’s disappointing second-place finish, Stewart is eager to knock Vegas off his yet to win list.
Stewart was on par for a strong finish last Sunday in Phoenix, but an issue with the Electronic Fuel Injection system led to a 22nd-place finish (following a 16th at Daytona). Given their disappointing finish last weekend, I expect Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew to put up a solid finish this week, making the defending champion my safe play of the weekend.
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.