Kobalt Tools 400 Preview: Trends Begin to Emerge

Kobalt Tools 400 Preview: Trends Begin to Emerge

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 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 hosts the Kobalt Tools 400 this Sunday afternoon. With the shakeup to the schedule this is our second straight week of racing on a cookie-cutter oval. This race combined with the previous week's race at Atlanta will set the expectations 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 cookie cutter ovals two weeks in a row. 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, Charlotte and Kansas. So what happens in Las Vegas doesn't necessarily stay in Las Vegas, at least in terms of racing. This style of track makes up a vast percentage (33 percent) of the ovals that the Sprint Cup Series races on, so this 400-mile event will be an early season barometer for what's to come. The drivers that succeed this week will be ones to watch in the coming weeks.

LVMS is just the second of our many intermediate ovals on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. While the banking and configuration varies a bit from the other intermediate ovals, Las Vegas should

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 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 hosts the Kobalt Tools 400 this Sunday afternoon. With the shakeup to the schedule this is our second straight week of racing on a cookie-cutter oval. This race combined with the previous week's race at Atlanta will set the expectations 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 cookie cutter ovals two weeks in a row. 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, Charlotte and Kansas. So what happens in Las Vegas doesn't necessarily stay in Las Vegas, at least in terms of racing. This style of track makes up a vast percentage (33 percent) of the ovals that the Sprint Cup Series races on, so this 400-mile event will be an early season barometer for what's to come. The drivers that succeed this week will be ones to watch in the coming weeks.

LVMS is just the second of our many intermediate ovals on the Sprint Cup Series schedule. While the banking and configuration varies a bit from the other intermediate ovals, Las Vegas should be a good indicator of what to expect for most of the drivers in 2015 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 10 years of competition at this 1.5-mile oval. Let's take a look at the loop stats for the last 10 races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson8.73653464422,090113.6
Jeff Gordon13.73851813702,130103.7
Kyle Busch11.73951221922,125103.4
Matt Kenseth12.62951972941,77498.1
Greg Biffle12.02811501151,75997.9
Carl Edwards9.23901591611,87997.8
Tony Stewart16.12981883571,73397.1
Kevin Harvick13.931689381,87094.5
Dale Earnhardt Jr.13.53361081391,85791.5
Kasey Kahne14.6290941291,73588.1
Joey Logano12.3185364599887.5
Ryan Newman17.129837451,66781.9
Martin Truex Jr.16.02601851,31981.9
Kurt Busch23.118928421,11180.8
Denny Hamlin13.02541941,04279.7
Brad Keselowski21.0134586674378.0
Kyle Larson19.024705476.6
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.22.56210126376.2
Austin Dillon18.5291018074.7
Jamie McMurray17.92631521,17974.5

Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a track of parity the last several seasons. We've seen different racing camps and different manufacturers dominate at the Nevada oval. Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota have each won in the last three years at LVMS, so no one really holds a grip on this race track. Last season the Sprint Cup Series returned to the Nevada desert and Brad Keselowski rolled into victory lane for the first time at the 1.5-mile tri-oval. With Keselowski picking up that 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 a Ford camp we need to realize that contenders will come from several different stables this weekend. Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet drivers have each scored a win at Vegas in the last three seasons. Jeff Gordon and Kevin Harvick in addition to Joey Logano will be among some of the drivers knocking at the door. The dark horse candidates will be the Joe Gibbs Racing teams. Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards have each won multiple races at the Las Vegas oval. So if an upset is to occur it could come in the form of the No. 20 or No. 19 Toyota teams. Coming off Jimmie Johnson's big Atlanta victory, we wouldn't rule out that scenario either. Also we wouldn't rule out Denny Hamlin who's yet to really leave his mark on this track. Here are our picks for fantasy racing success at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick -
The track in Las Vegas has produced a lot of repeat winners, but a first-time winner could be waiting in the wings this weekend. Harvick is fresh off strong performances at both Daytona and Atlanta as this Stewart Haas Racing driver is off to a great start to the season. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet has strong career numbers at LVMS, despite having yet to visit victory lane there. Harvick owns an impressive 13.9 average finish over the last 10 races and has three Top 5s and five Top 10s over that span. The veteran driver has yet to lead a significant number of laps at this facility and he's yet to have a brush with victory lane. But all this goes out the window with the current streak the driver and team is on.

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 is the current active wins leader at LVMS, but he's only won one race at the track in the last seven tries. Johnson is looking to get back into victory lane at the 1.5-mile speedway this weekend. Intermediate ovals have always been a favorite of the six-time champion and he's looking to reestablish his dominance at these facilities. Coming off the big Atlanta victory this past weekend, momentum shouldn't be a problem for the Hendrick Motorsports star. With numbers that include 455 laps led, five Top-5 and eight Top-10 finishes in 13 starts, how can we not like the Atlanta victor this weekend?

Joey Logano -
If there is any doubt that Logano has arrived among NASCAR's elite, let there be no question after his Daytona 500 win and strong performance this past week at Atlanta. He's going to continue carving out that reputation at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has a strong 12.3 average finish at the oval, but only two Top-10 finishes to his credit. We believe that will change this weekend. The Penske Racing driver was one of the most dominant drivers in the series last year on intermediate ovals and we don't see that changing in 2015. In this race one year ago, Logano won the pole and led 44 laps before finishing fourth in the Kobalt Tools 400. He is coming into his own coming to Las Vegas this weekend.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran doesn't have the best career stats at Las Vegas. Despite a career 44-percent Top-10 rate at LVMS, most of his success came earlier in his career at this oval. Only one of his last four races at this facility has netted a Top-10 finish. Hamlin is coming off a strong Speedweeks at Daytona and a fast car at Atlanta this past week before the unfortunate late-race crash. Only Matt Kenseth has been his equal at Joe Gibbs Racing to this point in the season. Hamlin's strong performances on intermediate ovals to close last season and to start this season are reason enough to view the No. 11 Toyota team as a "stealth" contender this week for the Kobalt Tools 400.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the Top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Matt Kenseth -
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver made his mark on the Nevada oval early in his career with two victories in the first five races at the track. Kenseth broke a nine-season dry spell by returning to victory lane at LVMS with the No. 20 Toyota team in 2013. He led 42 laps that March afternoon and out-dueled Kasey Kahne for the win. Kenseth has led over 500 laps for his career at Vegas and sports a strong 40-percent Top-5 rate at the track. Those numbers place him among the elite performers at this oval in the Sprint Cup Series. Considering how strong the No. 20 Toyota looked at Atlanta this past week, it's difficult not to consider Kenseth this Sunday afternoon.

Carl Edwards -
With two victories and five Top 5s in the last seven Vegas races, Edwards is one of the more successful drivers in the Sprint Cup Series at this intermediate oval. He brings that expertise to his new Joe Gibbs Racing team for this visit to the Nevada oval. In this event one year ago, he charged from an 11th-place starting spot to pick up a brilliant fifth-place finish. It seems that no matter how well Edwards is performing when he visits this oval outside Las Vegas he gets his game face on. The driver of the No. 19 Toyota had a Top 5 performance going at Atlanta this past week before tire problems bit him late. The Joe Gibbs Racing star has a great deal of upside in the Kobalt Tools 400.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. -
Earnhardt 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. Like Harvick, Earnhardt rides into Vegas with a ton of momentum after his strong start to the season. To his credit, the driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet also rides a four-race Las Vegas Top-10 streak into this weekend's Kobalt Tools 400. In this race last year, Earnhardt led 51 laps and claimed a brilliant runner-up finish. With the veteran driver starting the season with a pair of Top-5 finishes, the trophy looks more possible than ever at Las Vegas for the Hendrick Motor Sports star.

Jeff Gordon -
The farewell tour has gotten off to a rocky start for Gordon. After leading most of the Daytona 500 only to crash late, he followed that up with a rough outing at Atlanta this past weekend. Gordon had battled to make a potential Top 10 happen only to see it slip away when he was caught up in Denny Hamlin's crash late in the race. He'll hit the reset button at one of his better ovals this weekend. Only Jimmie Johnson has led more laps and has a better driver rating that Gordon at LVMS. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet sports a steady 47-percent Top-10 rate at this 1.5-mile track and he finished ninth in this event one year ago. Gordon should get back on track at Las Vegas this weekend.

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

Brad Keselowski -
The defending event champion of one year ago falls short of the solid plays list this week, but just barely. Keselowski struggled mightily to crack the Top 10 at Atlanta this past week, so that reflects a bit in his listing here. The Penske Racing star has really made headway at this intermediate oval in his last two visits. He has one pole position, 65 laps led, one victory and two Top-5 finishes in those efforts. It's for this reason alone that we think Keselowski will be strong this weekend, stronger than he was at Atlanta. However, we don't believe he's ready to win in 2015 just yet.

Kasey Kahne -
This promises to be a good weekend for Kahne at Las Vegas. He has always raced well here and even has three poles to his credit at the track. The Hendrick Motorsports veteran is coming off a steady 14th-place finish at Atlanta last weekend and his focus is for better this week. Kahne sports the consistency at this intermediate oval that fantasy racing players crave. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet has raced to six Top-10 finishes in 11 starts at this facility. That 55-percent Top-10 rate with only two DNF's is what gives Kahne great value this weekend. He rides a two-race Las Vegas Top-10 streak into this weekend that includes a runner-up finish in 2013.

Ryan Newman -
The Richard Childress Racing driver had a good performance with his first Top 10 of the season at AMS last Sunday. Newman used good pit strategy and strong moves on the track to battle to that Top-10 finish. He now turns his focus to an oval that has been successful for him in recent seasons. Newman has two Top-5 and three Top-10 finishes in his last four trips to Sin City. That builds on a career resume that includes seven Top 10s in 14 starts. The last time we saw this veteran driver in action on the Vegas oval, he was racing to a respectable seventh-place finish in last season's Kobalt Tools 400. Newman should be just as dependable in this 400-mile event.

David Ragan -
The stand-in driver for Kyle Busch made a respectable effort at Atlanta last Sunday afternoon. Ragan raced inside the Top 10 at times and generally held the lead lap for most of the race. At one time the handling went away on his No. 18 Toyota, but he held steady in finishing 18th in what was a very tough race. We expect the veteran driver to up the ante this week at Las Vegas. Considering that Ragan's career stats at this oval aren't the greatest, we still expect him to pick up some knowledge and experience based on his Atlanta outing. This will be the best race car he's ever driven at LVMS, and the results should show. Ragan should push inside the Top 15 in the Kobalt Tools 400.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing driver is the early candidate for rebound driver of the year. After strong performances at Daytona and Atlanta that have led to eighth- and sixth-place finishes, the No. 78 team comes to Vegas on a roll. In just two races Truex has almost halved the number of Top 10s he collected in all of last season. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has held some recent success for this veteran driver. He has a pair of Top-10 finishes in his last four visits to LVMS. Truex's average finish over that four-race span is a surprising 11.3. This is the perfect combination of a track-specific fantasy play combined with a hot driver. Fill your lineup with the No. 78 Chevrolet and you won't regret it.

Casey Mears -
In the deep sleeper category this week, we offer Germain Racing driver Mears. After a strong Top-10 finish at Daytona, which was expected, he followed up with an even more impressive Top 15 at Atlanta this past weekend, which was not expected. It looks like this small race team is finally heading in the right direction after five years of hard work in NASCAR's top division. Mears' career numbers at Las Vegas Motor Speedway are nothing special, but they do show three Top-10 finishes earlier in his career when he was with Ganassi. We expect to see this hot team continue to roll and for Mears to find his old groove at Vegas this Sunday afternoon.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Kyle Larson -
We're very high on the young Ganassi Racing driver, but consider this week just a temporary downgrade for Las Vegas. His sophomore season in the Sprint Cup Series has gotten off to a rocky start after finishes of 34th- and 26th-place in the first two events. The No. 42 team will look to hit the reset button at the Las Vegas oval. However, that could be a trickier proposition than first thought. Larson actually struggled at this track in his debut last season, finishing 19th one lap down to the leaders. That was an uncharacteristic performance for him on the cookie cutter ovals last season, but worthy of taking note. Larson could face headwinds in turning his slow start around in the Kobalt Tools 400.

Tony Stewart -
Stewart battled out a tough 30th-place finish at Atlanta last weekend. The traditionally slow starting driver has held true to form in 2015. Smoke comes to Vegas 35th in the driver standings and looking to change his current fortunes. The driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is a one-time Las Vegas winner and Stewart sports the fat 56-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. However, his current slump and woeful performance at Atlanta trump all this history. Stewart's last couple visits to Las Vegas Motor Speedway have been far from impressive with finishes of 11th- and 33rd-place each of the last two seasons. It's best to stay clear of Stewart until he can find his groove later in the season.

David Gilliland -
The Front Row Motorsports driver is off to a decent start to the season with 11th- and 22nd-place finishes each of the last two weeks. So it would seem inappropriate to put him in the slow down list this week, but that's exactly what we see before us. Hope abounds for this weekend's Kobalt Tools 400, but we have to look closely at Gilliland's Vegas resume. He has only one career Top 20 at the intermediate oval in eight starts and an average finish of 27.0. Considering that four of the last five starts have been finishes outside the Top 30, it's his more recent outings that have been the most troubling. Gilliland's good start to the 2015 campaign could hit a speedbump this weekend.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. -
Another slow starting driver this season has been Stenhouse. He drove hard at Atlanta this past week, but really over-drove his No. 17 Ford to the back of the field. He was running deep in traffic when the late-race crash took him out short of full distance. Stenhouse will look to regroup this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His resume here is short with only two career starts. Those were finishes of 18th- and 27th- in the last two seasons. Given his struggles at Atlanta, and his shaky history so far at the Las Vegas oval, it's difficult to be too optimistic about his chances in the Kobalt Tools 400.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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