Las Vegas Motor Speedway treated fans and drivers to a fast-paced and exciting Kobalt Tools 400 on Sunday.
The race didn't produce many incidents, and the battle on pit road became a big factor as a result. Teams gambled with two- and four-tire stops throughout the distance, and making the wrong choice often threw would-be leaders deep into the pack. Those with the best cars, however, worked their way forward again with patience and consistency despite the different challenges of maintaining a lead and picking through traffic.
Tony Stewart dominated the race, and ultimately claimed victory on the day. He won by holding off Jimmie Johnson, who also looked like a driver that had the capability of taking home the trophy. Stewart showed more muscle and held off the surging Johnson. Despite the loss, it was a strong run for the No. 48, who will have its Daytona penalty appeal heard this Tuesday. But it was Stewart's day in the limelight.
This week's race at Bristol Motor Speedway presents a unique challenge to drivers and teams. The high-banked, short circuit tends to create a lot of contact, very close and entertaining racing and plenty of fireworks. Usually, contact is a given at the tight track, and that typically furnishes the genesis of feuds that will dominate headlines throughout the rest of the season.
The team that wins this Sunday will be the one that can keep its nose clean, and maneuver through the traffic that will surely ruin more than a handful of drivers' days.
Greg Biffle - Biffle is off to a tremendous start in 2012. He performed exceptionally at Las Vegas, hanging around the top 10 all afternoon, and working his way into the top 5 in the final laps, coming home third. The finish was his third top-5 this season and puts him solidly in the points lead. Certainly, Biffle looks like he could score a few wins this season after a two-year dry spell. To make things even better, he is a top dog at Bristol. Two top-5s and four top-10s in the last five Bristol races show that he knows what he is doing on the small Tennessee oval. Fantasy owners should look confidently to Biffle, who could nab his first victory since 2010 this week in Thunder Valley.
Tony Stewart - Despite his ability to strike top finishes at other tracks, Stewart hasn't exactly been a model to follow at Bristol. His average finish in the last five races at the bullring is 21.8, and only includes two finishes on the lead lap. He finished second in the 2010 Food City 500, but didn't even finish in the top 15 in his four other attempts. He dominated much of the race last weekend and is rarely a driver to bet against. For that reason, fantasy owners may choose to look past his recent Bristol statistics. His victory Sunday was his earliest win in a season, and Stewart knows how to leverage victories to score even more top finishes.
Kyle Busch - The Busch brothers have dominated Bristol Motor Speedway through their time in NASCAR. Kyle is the more successful of the two in the last five events, and with three wins it is hard to argue that opinion. Last week he scuffed the wall early, but overcame the adversity and put himself into the top 10 with less than 10 laps remaining. Disappointingly, he lost control on a late restart due to a left-rear tire failure and lost gobs of positions as a result. He restarted at the back of the field but did not have enough time to finish any higher than 23rd position. Despite the poor finish, the No. 18 ran well Sunday and expects to seal the deal this week at Bristol.
Matt Kenseth - Two top-5s and three other top-10s in the last five Bristol races make Kenseth a driver to consider starting this week. His average finish with those results is 7.0. Having already won the Daytona 500 this season, and powered by powerful Ford engines, Kenseth is one to watch in the near term. Bristol will equalize the power advantage that Roush Fenway Racing seems to have on larger tracks, but the team is on a wave of momentum. He came forward in the final 100 laps of Sunday's race, building on the right decisions all afternoon, before contact in the final laps dented his progress. It would not be wise to count Kenseth out of the top 5 this weekend.
Kurt Busch - After a miscue on pit road Sunday, Busch found himself trying to fight his way forward. He struggled mid-pack throughout much of the distance and ended the day in the wall. Busch hasn't won any of his last five Sprint Cup races at Bristol but does have more than five victories in his 22-race career at the track. His average finish in the last five tries is 8.6, including a top-5 and four top-10s. While his best results at the bullring haven't come in the recent past, he loves this track and can find ways to get to the front of the field. This may be the week for fantasy owners to use Busch with confidence.
Jamie McMurray - Sunday proved to be quite the injection of confidence for the No. 1 team. McMurray worked his way to the front of the field early in Las Vegas and hung around in the top 5 for much of the afternoon. He was in the top 10 at the halfway point of the race, and finally in the end, too. Sunday's effort was a necessary tonic since McMurray and Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing are still recovering from their hangover from winning the biggest races of the 2010 season. This week presents an opportunity to get a little more momentum in their sails. McMurray has a strong average finish from the last five Bristol events, 9.6, which includes two top-5s and another top-10.
Joey Logano - Logano started Sunday's race with power, holding down second place through the opening laps. He looked like a top finish would be a certainty throughout the first half, but faded as the miles wore on. For whatever reason, Logano's team wasn't able to make the adjustments and the calls on pit lane that would keep the car on pace with his chief competitors. His Bristol results won't generate much excitement either. His average finish in the last five races is 23.0, but only includes one lead lap finish, despite scoring pole in 2010. Logano continues to show flashes of power, but hasn't consistently delivered over a full race distance.
Denny Hamlin - Hamlin recorded an equal number of finishes off the lead lap in his last five Bristol tries as he has top-10s. The statistics show that the driver is hot and cold at the tiny track, and fantasy owners are constantly seeking consistency. His Bristol results almost mirror what we saw from him last Sunday, too. After coming into the Las Vegas race with a full glass of momentum, Hamlin struggled to consolidate a position in the top 15 for much of the afternoon. It was another hot-and-cold performance from the No. 11 stable. Hamlin struggled with the competitiveness of his car throughout the Kobalt Tools 400, and recorded a very mediocre afternoon. Fantasy owners should proceed with caution when considering him for Bristol.
Kevin Harvick - Harvick once was a mighty Bristol competitor but has recently fallen off the radar. His career average finish at the track is 12.5, with a win and nine top-5s, but is only 18.2 in the last five tries with no top-5s. His effort at Las Vegas might sway some critics regarding his potential this week, though. The No. 29 was very competitive Sunday on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas oval, looking like he could be in line to challenge for the victory when the checkered flag waved. Instead, he dropped back on the final pit stop under caution, and had an uphill climb to get back to where he probably should have finished. The team is starting to roll, but could stumble this week.
Kasey Kahne - Sunday was just a preview of what Kahne can accomplish with Hendrick Motorsports. He started the race from pole position, and kept his nose right in the thick of the action all afternoon. While he faded later in the distance, Kahne is clearly learning how to leverage his new team. Late-race contact with Kenseth ruined his chances for a top-10. Kahne claims one of the lower recent finishing averages at Bristol in the last two seasons. His five-race average result at the track is 17.4. His 19th-place finish at Las Vegas proves that he doesn't quite have everything going for him just yet, though he looks likely to make himself a player sooner rather than later this season. Bristol may be too soon.
Brad Keselowski - After a strong Daytona 500 before his late crash, and a top-5 at Phoenix International Raceway, Keselowski hit trouble in Las Vegas. His car faltered on a restart and was forced into the garage for repairs. He won the last outing at Bristol, under the lights, but finished no higher than 13th in his three prior starts. Some drivers know exactly what Bristol requires and seem to be competitive in any car they arrive in, and Keselowski could be one of those drivers. Worryingly for fantasy players, though, is his up and down trajectory this season. He was strong in Daytona, but crashed. He finished well in Phoenix, but suffered another blow in Las Vegas. Which team will show up this week?
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