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Kobalt Tools 400 Preview: What Happens in Vegas Doesn't Stay in Vegas

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.

NASCAR will make its annual visit to Sin City this weekend for the race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The intermediate oval in the Nevada desert plays host to the Kobalt Tools 400 this Sunday afternoon. 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. 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 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. So what happens in Las Vegas doesn't necessarily stay in Las Vegas, at least in terms of stock car racing. This style of track makes up a vast percentage of the ovals in the Sprint Cup Series, so this 400-mile event will be an early season barometer for what's to come. Drivers trending well 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 2012 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 seven years of competition at this 1.5-mile oval. Let's take a look at the loop stats for the last seven races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUAL. PASSES# of FASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15DRIVER RATING
Jeff Gordon13.02781773681,708112.1
Jimmie Johnson10.42582403071,338110.3
Kyle Busch11.3273831131,536104.7
Greg Biffle11.12151171131,424104.0
Tony Stewart16.62631402301,399101.3
Carl Edwards11.02651371601,29198.2
Matt Kenseth13.31871322291,02593.9
Jeff Burton11.325344751,29893.5
Mark Martin16.119239731,18292.3
Kevin Harvick11.118640111,17792.2
Kurt Busch21.416923421,06086.7
Joey Logano14.01203159185.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.16.619749181,08182.3
Ryan Newman17.420932451,15180.8
Denny Hamlin11.717514063679.8
Kasey Kahne16.7164341597779.5
Marcos Ambrose12.77616137877.9
Juan Pablo Montoya22.411226745176.9
Martin Truex Jr.17.513610553973.4
Clint Bowyer17.3177181470272.8

Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a track of manufacturer and driver parity for the last several years. Last season the Sprint Cup Series returned to the Nevada desert and Carl Edwards rolled into victory lane for the first time at LVMS since 2008, thus stopping Chevrolet's brief reign at the oval. With Edwards picking up his second career victory at the intermediate oval our focus shifts to the possibility of a potential streak developing at this facility. However, before we cede the trophy to the Roush Fenway Racing star we need to realize that contenders will come from several different stables this weekend. Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth will be among the primary drivers knocking at the door. The dark horse candidates will be Richard Childress Racing teams. Kevin Harvick has 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 Hendrick Motorsports guys like Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon 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 reignite his dominance at the oval in the Nevada desert this weekend. The No. 48 team won four out of six years between 2005 and 2010 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Johnson is looking to get LVMS re-dialed-in, after missing the checkers three of the last four races at the 1.5-mile speedway. Intermediate ovals have always been a favorite of the five-time champion and he's looking to reestablish his dominance at these facilities. It was a big reason why the Hendrick Motorsports star won consecutive championships for five straight years.

Carl Edwards -
This event one year ago was the lone victory in the 2011 resume for Edwards. He's hoping to rediscover that thunder and build on it for the rest of the 2012 season. 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 Ford team has rolled into victory lane at this facility two of the last four seasons. So it's no mistake that Edwards finds himself in our contenders list. The last time we saw him in action on an intermediate oval, Edwards was finishing runner-up in last November's 500-mile affair at Texas Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran doesn't have the best stats at Las Vegas, but that's starting to look irrelevant at this point. What's looking relevant is the No. 11 team's new crew chief Darian Grubb. Coming off a great Daytona 500 and a dominant win at Phoenix this past weekend, we're beginning to realize why Tony Stewart won five races in the Chase last season and eventually the championship. Hamlin should be right back out front again this Sunday afternoon. He has only one career Top 5 and no laps led at the intermediate oval. We're willing to bet it's a career-best weekend for the JGR driver at LVMS, and potentially a first time win at the oval.

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 450 laps for his career at Vegas and sports a strong 42% Top 5 rate at the track. Those numbers place him among the elite performers at this oval. Considering how strong the No. 17 Ford looked on the big oval at Daytona, Kenseth should bring a very fast car to Las Vegas.

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

Jeff Gordon -
Gordon is one of only a handful of drivers to make all 14 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway since it became a Sprint Cup Series 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 seven trips to the 1.5-mile track have resulted in finishes of sixth or better. Gordon has led well over 350 laps during this span. The Hendrick Motorsports star should keep his Top 10 roll well intact after Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400.

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. The Roush Fewnay Racing veteran is off to a great start this season and runner-up in the driver standings entering this event. Biffle sports the consistency at this intermediate oval that fantasy racing players crave. The No. 16 Ford has raced to five Top-10 finishes in eight starts at this facility. That 63 percent Top 10 rate with only one DNF is what gives Biffle great value this weekend. Given how well he's racing right now, Biffle is easily an outside contender for the win at LVMS.

Kevin Harvick -
Harvick's success has been rather sporadic at Las Vegas Motor Speedway over the years. Two of his three career Top 5's have occurred in the last four events at LVMS. While his statistics are not stellar by any means, the veteran driver has managed a solid average finish of 13.2 for his career at Nevada oval with no DNF's. In summary, this is a “streak track” for Harvick and the No. 29 team and they're streaking to start the season. With the RCR star on the up-swing right now, it's a great time to roll him at the 1.5-mile Nevada oval.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star won from the pole here three years ago, and gave Busch his first career Sprint Cup Series win at his hometown track. 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 four trips to Vegas, so he knows what it takes to run up front here. Busch has yet to make his mark on the 2012 season, but this weekend could be the first of a few victories for this JGR team.

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

Tony Stewart -
The driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is coming off a heart-breaking weekend at Phoenix. The reigning champion had a car capable of winning at the desert short track, but ended up outside the Top 20 after mechanical problems. We expect a full rebound for Stewart this weekend at Las Vegas. In this event one year ago Smoke led 163 laps and finished runner-up in the Kobalt Tools 400. His career 62 percent Top 10 rate at LVMS is another great statistic to point towards. Champions respond to adversity with resilience and we expect to see that from Stewart at Vegas.

Kasey Kahne -
The new Hendrick Motorsports driver is off to a tough start this season. After a Daytona 500 crash and a run-in with the outside wall at Phoenix, Kahne finds himself a lowly 31st in the driver standings entering this weekend. That should change as we come to the Vegas intermediate oval. Kahne should find his groove on the comfortable banking of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He owns two poles and four career Top 10's at this facility. With finishes of sixth-, 11th, ninth- and 14th-place in his last four trips to LVMS, it shouldn't take long for he and crew chief Kenny Francis to put up their first good finish of 2012 for new boss Rick Hendrick.

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 14 visits to the oval. His recent success has been just as brilliant. In the last four trips to the intermediate oval the No. 31 team has come away with two Top-5 finishes, and no finishes worse than 21st. Burton has led 280 career laps at Vegas so we're used to seeing him race up front with the leaders here.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
The NASCAR icon has had a love-hate relationship with Las Vegas Motor Speedway over the years, but it's been trending more to the love side the last few seasons. Earnhardt has finishes of second-, 10th-, 16th- and eighth-place in his last four trips to the Nevada oval. The last time we saw the No. 88 Chevrolet team in action on an intermediate oval, Earnhardt was finishing a respectable seventh at Fort Worth last fall. We expect the Hendrick Motorsports driver to pick up right where he left off on these style ovals.

Marcos Ambrose -
Ambrose showed his potential last week with a solid run at Phoenix International Raceway. He was robbed of the Top-5 finish he deserved when his No. 9 Ford laid down on him while running third in the final laps. This week we come to a track that has yielded good results for the Australian. Ambrose has finishes of 20th-, 14th- and fourth-place in his three career starts at Las Vegas. Considering that his career-best finish at this oval came last season, he should be pumped about his prospects entering Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400.

Trevor Bayne -
In the deep sleeper category this week, we offer Wood Brothers Racing driver Bayne. This No. 21 Ford team is a part-time team, but they seem to target the intermediate ovals when they do race. Prodigy Bayne has been steadily improving over his 19 career Sprint Cup Series starts. He raced for the first time in a Cup car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway last season and posted a respectable 20th-place finish in this event one year ago. Bayne should be up to the task of equaling if not improving on that effort this Sunday afternoon.

Flops - Drivers to avoid at all costs

Regan Smith -
The Furniture Row Motorsports driver has had his share of problems at the Nevada oval the last few seasons. Smith's worst outing was without a doubt last year's Kobalt Tools 500. The No. 78 Chevrolet fried an engine just 77 laps into the 267-scheduled lap affair. That was Smith's second non-Top 30 finish in four starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. When Smith's equipment has held up or he's stayed out of accidents, he's been little better than a 20th-place finisher at the desert race track. Needless to say, we like Smith much more at other tracks in the Sprint Cup Series schedule.

Clint Bowyer -
The transition to the new No. 15 MWR team has been a rough one for Bowyer. He was less than his stellar self at Daytona and he repeatedly cut tires on his Toyota Camry at Phoenix this past week en route to a dismal 30th-place finish in the Subway Fresh Fit 500. Bower owns a lowly 33 percent career Top 10 rate at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, so we're not visiting the best track this week for him to find his groove with his new race team.

Kurt Busch -
Busch is normally an intermediate oval ace, but Las Vegas is a puzzle that the new driver of the No. 51 Chevrolet has failed to solve. With a new season and fresh start brings new hope, but we have to be pessimistic about his chances this Sunday. Busch has a mere three Top 10's in 11 career starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That's a Top 10 rate of well below 30 percent. The last time we saw Busch in action on an intermediate oval was last November's AAA Texas 500 at Fort Worth. The veteran driver only managed a lowly 30th-place finish in that intermediate oval race.

A.J. Allmendinger -
Allmendinger has three career starts at the 1.5-mile oval in Las Vegas. The new Penske Racing driver has 33rd-, 25th- and 19th-place finishes in those starts. While the trend is good, it still falls well short of where you want to see the driver of the No. 22 Dodge this weekend in the Kobalt Tools 500. Allmendinger is a talented driver, so we wouldn't rule out even more improvement, however the risks seem to be too high to pin fantasy racing hopes on at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
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