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Kobalt Tools 400 Preview: Trends Begin to Form

Mark Taylor

Mark Taylor

Taylor covers NASCAR for RotoWire. He is a three-time winner of the FSWA's Racing Writer of the Year award. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

We stay out west this week as NASCAR returns for its yearly visit to Sin City, otherwise known as Las Vegas. The intermediate oval in the Nevada desert hosts the Kobalt Tools 500 on Sunday. This is the first of many 1.5-mile ovals on the circuit. This race will set the standard for the races to come on the intermediate tracks this season. With this being the third race of the season, we should begin to see some trends form, especially after racing on our first intermediate oval. This race will be a good example of what we can expect going forward for many of the drivers. Those who perform well at Las Vegas are set up to run well at upcoming facilities like Texas and Atlanta. This style of track makes up a vast percentage of the ovals that the Sprint Cup Series races on, so this race will be an early season barometer for what’s to come. The drivers trending well right now will be ones to watch in the coming weeks.

LVMS is the first of our many intermediate ovals on the Sprint Cup Series tour. While the banking and configuration varies a bit from the other intermediate ovals, Las Vegas should be our first good indicator of what's to come for most of the drivers in 2011 on these style tracks. Since historical data is so valuable in developing our weekly driver list, we'll take a quick look at these track specific statistics. The loop stats in the table below span the last six years and include the last few races of lower banking at the track and also include the first few races with the new variable banking. Let's take a look at the loop stats for the last six races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jeff Gordon9.22541763661,527117.0
Jimmie Johnson9.52322353071,240116.4
Kyle Busch6.8246731131,442108.0
Greg Biffle8.3185971021,280103.8
Jeff Burton9.725044751,29398.7
Tony Stewart19.023162671,19196.0
Mark Martin15.816539731,13895.9
Matt Kenseth13.716112022697995.6
Kevin Harvick10.215737111,06794.7
Carl Edwards12.7219101911,02992.2
Kurt Busch23.5118194186685.7
Joey Logano9.5803135684.0
Kasey Kahne17.2148321589980.9
Dale Earnhardt Jr.18.0155391890580.7
Denny Hamlin12.614214050879.0
Ryan Newman19.5158314594978.7
Clint Bowyer17.8142181359272.7
Jamie McMurray19.31198061172.5
Juan Pablo Montoya27.38512020066.5
Martin Truex Jr.19.8874227666.5

Las Vegas has been a track of parity for much of the last several years. Last season the Sprint Cup Series returned to the Nevada desert and Jimmie Johnson strolled into victory lane for the first time at LVMS since 2007, thus ending Ford and Toyota's short reign at the oval. With Johnson picking up his fourth career victory at the intermediate oval our focus shifts to the possibility of another streak developing at this facility. However, before we cede the trophy to the Hendrick Motorsports star we need to realize that contenders will come from several different stables this weekend. Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch and Jeff Gordon will be among the primary drivers knocking at the door. The dark horse candidates will be Richard Childress Racing teams. Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer have enjoyed some success at the 1.5-mile oval, so if an upset is to occur it could come from this stable. Also we wouldn't rule out some of the Roush Fenway guys like Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle who've had their share of success at the track in times past. Here are our picks for fantasy racing success at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Jimmie Johnson –
Four-time Las Vegas winner Johnson will look to continue his dominance at the oval in the Nevada desert. The No. 48 team returned to victory lane here in this event one year ago after a two-season hiatus. Now that Johnson has LVMS re-dialed-in, he should be a tremendous contender for the win this weekend. Intermediate ovals have always been a favorite of the defending champion and he's coming off second-, third- and ninth-place finishes in last season's Chase for the Cup 1.5-mile tracks.

Carl Edwards –
Before we're ready to completely buy into the “championship contender” label for Edwards this season, the race at Las Vegas should be a very telling indicator. After a runner-up performance at Daytona two weeks ago, and a potential great run ruined at PIR this past week, the Las Vegas outing should be a great indicator of what to expect from the Roush Fenway Racing star for the remainder of the season. The No. 99 team rolled into victory lane at this facility three years ago but has struggled to get back there since. We expect the back-flipping star driver to assert himself in the Kobalt Tools 400.

Kyle Busch –
The No. 18 team strolled into victory lane here two years ago and brought hometown driver Busch his first career win at this facility. Busch will back up that spectacular driver rating that he has at LVMS with another strong performance this weekend. He has led well over 100 laps and won two poles in his last three trips to Vegas, so he knows what it takes to run up front here. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has yet to make his mark on the 2011 season, but this weekend could be the first of a few wins for this JGR team.

Jeff Gordon –
Gordon is one of only a handful of drivers to make all 13 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway since it became a Sprint Cup track. He has only one win to show for in those starts, but he's made it a regular occurrence to race up front at this intermediate oval, particularly of late. Five of the No. 24 team's last six trips to the 1.5-mile track have resulted in finishes of sixth or better. Gordon led a career-best 219 laps in this event one year ago en route to a stellar third-place finish.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for a Top 10 and have an outside shot at winning

Matt Kenseth – The Roush Fenway Racing veteran made his mark on the Nevada oval early in his career with two victories in the first five races at the track. He hasn't won there since 2004, but he's managed to maintain a very solid record at LVMS over the years. Kenseth has led well over 400 laps for his career at Vegas and sports a strong 55% Top 10 rate at the track. Those numbers place him among the elite performers at this oval.

Greg Biffle –
This promises to be a good weekend for Biffle at Las Vegas. He has always raced well here and even has one pole to his credit at the track. Biffle is winless at LVMS, but he sports the consistency at this oval that fantasy racing players crave. The No. 16 Ford has raced to five Top-10 finishes in seven starts at this facility. That 71 percent Top 10 rate with only one DNF is what gives Biffle supreme value this weekend.

Kevin Harvick –
Harvick's success has been more recent at Las Vegas than some other drivers. Two of his three career Top 5's have occurred in the last three events at LVMS. While his statistics are not stellar by any means, the veteran driver has managed a solid average finish of 12.8 for his career at Nevada oval with no DNF's. It's this kind of dependability that fantasy racing fans recognize and highly value.

Clint Bowyer –
The driver of the No. 33 Chevrolet had his struggles early in his career at Vegas. After failing to crack the Top 10 in his first three trips to the intermediate oval, Bowyer has rallied in his last two appearances with second- and eighth-place finishes. We expect this rising star of the RCR stable to keep the trend going this weekend. Another Top-10 finish should be in store for Bowyer in the Kobalt Tools 500.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Las Vegas who can provide a solid finish

Jeff Burton – The Richard Childress Racing veteran has managed to accumulate one of the best statistical records of any driver in the series at Las Vegas. Burton is a two-time winner (1999-2000) at LVMS and he has a stellar eight Top 10's in 13 visits to the oval. His recent success has been just as brilliant. In the last five trips to the intermediate oval the No. 31 team has come away with three Top-10 finishes, and no finishes outside the Top 15. Burton has led 280 career laps at Vegas so we're used to seeing him race up front here.

Mark Martin –
Martin has had fast cars over the years at LVMS, but hasn't had a chance to visit victory lane yet. An engine failure in this event two years ago ruined one recent shot at winning, and his fourth-place effort at the 1.5-mile oval last year fell just short. Martin owns 10 Top 10's in 13 career starts at Las Vegas, and that factors out to a stellar 77 percent Top 10 rate for the No. 5 team.

Joey Logano –
The Joe Gibbs Racing prodigy is off to a rough start this season. Currently the No. 20 Toyota team sits 29th in the driver standings after two races, but that's no reason to despair Logano owners. He'll get his first crack at a cookie cutter oval this weekend, and should rebound nicely. Logano has two career starts at LVMS with 13th- and sixth-place finishes to his credit. With a strong race team backing him, and a veteran crew chief in Greg Zipadelli, Logano should challenge the Top 10 this weekend.

Kasey Kahne –
The new Red Bull Racing driver got a monkey off his back with just his second career Top 10 at Phoenix last weekend. The one-mile Arizona oval has been a real puzzle for the veteran driver. Now he comes to one of his better venues this weekend in Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Kahne has two career pole and four Top 10's in seven visits to Sin City. Stick with the No. 4 team and their momentum this Sunday afternoon.

Marcos Ambrose –
Ambrose showed his potential last week with a solid run at Phoenix International Raceway. He shook off the disappointment of Daytona and turned in a true workman like effort in cracking the Top 20 at PIR. This week we come to a track that has yielded good results for the Australian. Ambrose has 20th- and 14th-place finishes in his two career starts at Las Vegas. Considering that these came while racing with JTG/Daughery Racing, it's easy to get excited about his chances with the intermediate oval success the No. 9 team has had in recent years.

Travis Kvapil –
In the deep sleeper category this week, we offer the Front Row Motorsports driver Kvapil. FRM is a multi-car team on the upswing as demonstrated by Kvapil's teammate David Gilliland's Top 25 at Phoenix last week. We believe this week it will be Kvapil's turn to impress. He has one career Top 10 in four starts at the Nevada oval while racing for multiple teams. In Kvapil's first start for FRM at Vegas last season he posted a solid 24th-place finish. Similar, if not better results should be in store for the Kobalt Tools 400.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Brian Vickers – The early part of the Sprint Cup Series schedule has always presented problems for the Red Bull Racing star, and Las Vegas is no exception. Vickers' dismal record at the 1.5-mile oval is most puzzling. He normally performs well on these style tracks, but for some reason the No. 83 Toyota team just can't bring home a good finish at LVMS. Vickers scored a Top 10 here in 2009, but that has been his only good outing six starts. The dismal 25.2 average finish is a big indicator to lay off Vickers this weekend.

Juan Pablo Montoya –
Montoya has showed dramatic improvement on the ovals his last couple seasons in NASCAR. Still, success has avoided the Columbian driver at Las Vegas. In four career starts Montoya has only managed a top finish of 19th with an average of 27.2. There's just too much to risk in fantasy racing leagues to hope the No. 42 team bucks the trend this weekend.

Kurt Busch –
It's not often that we move the Penske Racing star to our flops list, so pay attention. Busch is normally an intermediate oval ace, but Las Vegas is a puzzle that the driver of the No. 22 Dodge has failed to solve. With a new season brings new hope, but we have to be bullish on his chances this Sunday. Busch has a mere two Top 10's in 10 career starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The last of those came as far back as 2005. Busch even won the pole here last season, but struggled his way to a 35th-place finish after 500 miles of racing.

A.J. Allmendinger –
Allmendinger has only two Las Vegas starts to his credit, but he's been around long enough to log many laps on intermediate ovals. The No. 43 team has struggled in their two LVMS starts and the Richard Petty Motorsports driver struggled at the end of last year at similar facilities. With these factors coming into play, it's hard to recommend a start for Allmendinger at this 1.5-mile speedway.

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