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.

NASCAR makes its annual visit to Sin City this weekend for the Kobalt Tools 400 at the intermediate oval of Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. 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%) of the ovals that the Monster Energy 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 Monster Energy 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 2017 on these style

NASCAR makes its annual visit to Sin City this weekend for the Kobalt Tools 400 at the intermediate oval of Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday. 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%) of the ovals that the Monster Energy 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 Monster Energy 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 2017 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 12 years of competition at this 1.5-mile oval. Let's take a look at the loop stats for the last 12 races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson10.94344145632,443113.4
Kyle Busch11.04261352302,366103.4
Kevin Harvick12.34031891812,39799.6
Matt Kenseth14.33802193052,22296.9
Joey Logano10.8255971661,50894.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.12.34221281422,37194.1
Kasey Kahne14.43801151292,20589.1
Brad Keselowski16.821898991,21186.6
Martin Truex Jr.14.33572781,79785.7
Ryan Newman15.639749592,12883.2
Ryan Blaney12.55012026383.0
Austin Dillon15.5785246982.2
Chase Elliott38.0516021882.2
Kurt Busch21.822345731,29381.9
Denny Hamlin12.832425141,41481.8
Kyle Larson20.38610036877.4
Paul Menard16.53243991,29075.0
Jamie McMurray17.23071521,37674.2
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 21.510412143972.0
Clint Bowyer18.526825171,12971.0

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 four years at LVMS, so no one really holds a grip on this race track. Last season the Monster Energy Cup Series returned to the Nevada desert and Brad Keselowski rolled into victory lane for the second time in the last three seasons at the 1.5-mile tri-oval. With Keselowski picking up those victories as well as the win this past weekend at Atlanta our focus shifts to the possibility of a 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 four seasons. Kevin Harvick and Chase Elliott in addition to Kyle Busch 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 Busch have each won over the years at the Las Vegas oval. So if an upset is to occur it could come in the form of the No. 20 or No. 18 Toyota teams. Also we wouldn't rule out Martin Truex Jr. 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, and it could again with the 2015 LVMS winner, Harvick. The No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team is fresh off a strong performance at Atlanta as this veteran driver is off to a great start to the season. Were it not for a late pit road speeding penalty, Harvick would have walked away with the win last week. The driver of the No. 4 Ford has strong career numbers at the Vegas oval, despite having just the one-career win there. Harvick owns an impressive 13.4 average finish over his 16 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and has four Top 5s and seven Top 10s over that span. Harvick led 142 laps en route to the dominant victory at this facility two years ago.

Brad Keselowski –
The two-time Las Vegas winner looks to keep his good roll going in the Kobalt Tools 400. Keselowski staged a late-race comeback at Atlanta this past weekend to charge to the checkers and take his first-career victory at that intermediate oval. His resume at this Las Vegas facility has been dramatically improving in recent seasons as well. The Penske Racing star has really made headway at this cookie cutter track in his last few visits. He has one pole position, 108 laps led, two victories and three Top-3 finishes in those last four efforts at the Vegas oval. It's for this reason alone that we think Keselowski will be strong this weekend, possibly stronger than he was at Atlanta. The driver of the No. 2 Ford is getting off to a strong start to the season, and its time to strike while the iron is hot.

Chase Elliott –
Based on what we observed this past week in Atlanta and even in the Daytona 500, it's time to start talking seriously about Elliott becoming a first-time winner in the Monster Energy Cup Series. The young driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet had easily the second-fastest car on track last week to Kevin Harvick. He spent much of that event in hot pursuit of the No. 4 Ford. Elliott is just one crucial break away from taking the win in his first Cup event. That break could come this weekend. He didn't have a great outing in his Vegas debut last season, so motivation to perform well will be high. Crew chief Alan Gustafson is putting great cars under him right now and they really have a good grasp on the current low-downforce package. If there's a bolt from the blue this Sunday afternoon, it's likely Elliott and his No. 24 Chevrolet team.

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 35-percent Top-5 rate at the track. Those numbers place him among the elite performers at this oval in the Monster Energy Cup Series. Considering how strong the No. 20 Toyota looked at Atlanta this past week in cruising to an impressive third-place finish, it's difficult not to consider Kenseth a contender to win this Sunday afternoon.

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

Kyle Busch –
The driver of the No. 18 Toyota had a bit of a flub performance at Atlanta this past week, but it's no surprise given his up-and-down career at that facility. We expect Busch to rebound solidly though this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a one-time winner at his hometown track, and he owns six Top-10 finishes in 12 starts. Two of his last three efforts have netted a pair of strong fourth-place finishes at this facility. Those last three starts have also yielded 117 laps led, so Busch has not only been finishing up front here, he's been leading laps. This championship contending driver needs to jump start his season after poor Daytona and Atlanta outings, so Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens should have their "A" game on for the Kobalt Tools 400.

Kasey Kahne –
The veteran driver is writing his name into the blank of rebound driver of the year early in this 2017 season. Kahne has one Top-5 and two Top-10 finishes in the first two events of the campaign, and he's looking more like the driver we remember from 2012-13. His no-nonsense style of driving last week earned him a stellar fourth-place finish at the tough Atlanta oval. Things will be easier this week at Las Vegas. Kahne owns three-career poles here and seven Top-10 finishes (54-percent). Three of his last four visits to the Nevada speedway have netted Top 10 efforts. When this Hendrick Motorsports driver was at the peak of his game a few years ago, it was these intermediate ovals that he was most dangerous on, and that's the driver we expect to see in this 400-mile battle.

Joey Logano –
Logano has been one of the more consistent 1.5-mile oval performers of the last three seasons. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been no exception to that rule. He's going to continue carving out that reputation this Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has a strong 10.8 average finish at the oval, and he's led over 150 laps there in just his last three starts. He's started on the front row in all three of those races and finished fourth-, 10th- and second-place in those events as well. Logano had a bit of a struggle at Atlanta this past week, but still finished sixth. That was a race of tire-management and we won't see that in Sunday's race at Las Vegas.

Kyle Larson –
We're very high on the young Ganassi Racing driver after what we witnessed in the season finale at Homestead last season, and last weekend at Atlanta. Larson has aced the last two intermediate oval events and is beginning to show his stardom that is about to emerge. Both of those outings were runner-up finishes, so he and the CGR team have the low downforce package and these cookie cutter ovals pegged. Larson has three career starts at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. One of those starts netted a fifth-place qualifying effort and eighth-place finish. We expect the No. 42 Chevrolet to be fast this weekend and be even better than that career-best Vegas effort.

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

Kurt Busch –
Considering how good he was at Atlanta last week, it's difficult to slot the Stewart Haas Racing star in sleepers list this week, but Vegas has been a work in progress for this veteran driver. Busch peddled his way to a hard-fought seventh-place in last week's event. Vegas has been tough on this driver over the years. Busch's hometown track beat him up early in his NASCAR career, but of late it's started to yield some pole positions and Top 10s. In this event one year ago the driver of the No. 41 Chevrolet had one of his better Vegas outings with a pole, 31 laps led and a respectable ninth-place finish. Given how well he's performed in the low downforce package dating back to last season on these style ovals, you're safe to deploy Busch in your fantasy lineups this weekend.

Jimmie Johnson –
Johnson slips to the sleepers list this week after his almost improbably poor Atlanta outing. Four-time Las Vegas winner Johnson will look to rebound solidly at the Nevada desert oval this Sunday afternoon. 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 starts. Johnson has reeled off a steady flow of Top 10s here since the 2012 season. Those finishes have been second-, sixth-, sixth-, 41st- and third-place. Aside from the one poor outing, he's been pretty dialed in at this facility. Johnson is simply too good on these intermediate ovals to let his Atlanta hangover affect him this week. Proceed with some fantasy racing caution, but we expect to see a tail-end of the Top 10 type of effort at the Vegas oval.

Martin Truex Jr. –
The Furniture Row Racing driver is carrying his strong 2016 season into the new campaign. After a strong eighth-place performance at Atlanta this past week, the No. 78 team comes to Las Vegas looking to get on a roll. Truex really carved up these style tracks last season with two victories and six Top-10 finishes. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has held some recent success for this veteran driver. He has three Top-10 finishes in his last six visits to LVMS. Truex's average finish over that six-race span is a surprising 9.7. This is the perfect combination of a track-specific fantasy play combined with a hot driver. The No. 78 Toyota team should continue their recent Las Vegas success in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400.

Clint Bowyer –
Last week we advised to take a "wait and see" approach to Bowyer in Atlanta. Well, we waited and what we saw was a pretty good performance for a driver that has historically struggled at that oval. Bowyer peddled his way to a steady 11th-place finish, and raced inside the Top 10 at times during that event. It seems that Stewart Haas Racing has gotten off to a great start with their new Ford program, and all four of their teams are seeing benefit and a bump in performance. Go ahead and rack up this veteran driver for Las Vegas weekend. The driver of the No. 14 Ford only has three-career Top 10s in 11 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. However, don't let that drive your thinking. This rejuvenated driver has the team to give him a Top 10 car this weekend.

Austin Dillon –
The Richard Childress Racing driver didn't get the finish he deserved last week at Atlanta. Dillon spent the latter half of that event racing in the Top 5 and guiding his team towards a finish inside that Top 5 before a late-race battery failure ruined their hopes. If the No. 3 Chevrolet team brings that type of speed to Las Vegas this week, and their luck holds up, some great things could happen. Dillon has four-career starts at this facility, but easily his best performance came in this event one year ago. The young driver qualified fifth on the grid and finished fifth after 267 laps of action. That was Dillon's first-career Top 5 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but we're willing to bet not his last. He should finish what he started at Atlanta last week and get the finish he deserves at the Vegas oval.

Jamie McMurray –
Of all the drivers at Atlanta this past week, we were very impressed with McMurray. He bucked historical trends and showed a lot of speed at AMS to finish 10th in that event. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver will look to build on that success and recent success at the Las Vegas oval this Sunday afternoon. McMurray owns one Top-10 and four Top-15 finishes at the desert oval in the last five seasons. The No. 1 Chevrolet was powerfully strong at Atlanta last week and McMurray has had two great performances in his last two races with this low downforce package. Crew Chief Matt McCall and McMurray seem to have this aero setup pretty well figured out. Don't be surprised if this veteran driver and team visit the Top 10 in Sunday's 400-mile battle.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Denny Hamlin –
Hamlin will look to put an unfortunate mechanical failure at Atlanta behind him this week. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran doesn't have the best career stats at Las Vegas. Despite a career 46-percent Top-10 rate at LVMS, most of his success came earlier in his career at this oval. Only one of his last five races at this facility has netted a Top-10 finish. Hamlin is coming off a couple disappointing weeks to start the season. The pressure to rebound this week at Vegas will be very high. Unfortunately, this is not the best facility for the No. 11 team to circle the wagons and stage a comeback. What we're likely to see from Hamlin this weekend is a Top-15 to Top-20 finish, and that's not a bar high enough to warrant fantasy racing deployment this weekend.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. –
Given the length of Earnhardt's layoff from racing the last half of last season, we realize he has virtually no experience with this new low downforce package. That was painfully apparent at Atlanta this past week, and the host of problems that followed only buried the No. 88 Chevrolet deeper in the field by the checkered flag. 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 several seasons. Still, this will likely be another weekend of this driver and team figuring out the setup for intermediate ovals. Earnhardt's current streak of six-consecutive Top 10s at LVMS is at stake this Sunday, and we believe that string will be snapped.

Daniel Suarez –
The rookie driver's season is only two races old, but the going has been tough to say the least. Suarez crashed and finished 29th in the Daytona 500, and he battled furiously to capture a 21st-place finish, two laps down to the leaders at Atlanta last week. The learning curve is even steeper than we anticipated for this young driver right out of the gates this season. Things will be a bit easier this weekend with the more forgiving oval at Las Vegas. However, we don't expect the driver of the No. 19 Toyota to take any quantum leaps. Suarez is still in what we consider to be "wait and see" mode. If any light bulbs flip on or trends begin to climb upward, we'll be the first to let you know. For now, keep Suarez on the sidelines until further notice.

Aric Almirola –
After poor qualifying and poor finishing efforts in his last two intermediate oval starts, we have to recommend avoiding the No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports team this week. Almirola slogged to a 40th-place finish in the season-finale at Homestead last year, and he struggled to 27th-place this past week at Atlanta. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has held little to no success for this driver over his career. Almirola has only one Top-20 finish in eight-career starts at this facility. That works out to a lowly 29.8 average finish at the Nevada speedway. We had some relative optimism that this driver and team could rebound to better performance this season, but early on it's not looking so good.

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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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