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Kobalt Tools 400 Preview: Viva Las Vegas!

Mark Taylor

Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A four-time FSWA award winner, Taylor was named the 2016 Racing Writer of the Year. He is also a military historian, specifically the World War II U.S. Navy in the Pacific.

The Sprint Cup Series and the new Gen-6 race car will make their 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. 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. It will also be our first look at the new generation car on the first of many intermediate ovals in the schedule. With this being the third race of the season, we should begin to see some trends form, especially after racing on our first 1.5-mile track. 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. So what happens in Las Vegas doesn't necessarily stay in Las Vegas, at least in terms of team performance. This style of track makes up a vast percentage 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 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 2013 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 eight years of competition at this 1.5-mile oval. Let's look at the loop stats for the last eight races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

Jimmie Johnson9.42882833421,558110.9
Jeff Gordon12.93121773701,812107.9
Tony Stewart14.62831853571,666106.4
Greg Biffle10.12611471151,690106.3
Kyle Busch12.8301831131,656100.9
Carl Edwards10.33031391601,50198.2
Matt Kenseth14.42071772501,28695.9
Kevin Harvick11.121452151,41394.1
Jeff Burton11.626044751,31390.8
Mark Martin16.420739731,25190.1
Dale Earnhardt Jr.15.822982881,32686.2
Kurt Busch23.118625421,10684.6
Joey Logano14.51295168383.2
Ryan Newman15.822932451,41283.1
Kasey Kahne17.020839151,23181.3
Denny Hamlin12.919014065077.4
Marcos Ambrose12.810016140477.3
Martin Truex Jr.17.416310578876.6
Clint Bowyer15.7209181796075.8
Trevor Bayne14.5444010373.3

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 Tony Stewart rolled into victory lane for the first time at LVMS, and racked up Chevrolet's second win at the oval in the last four years. With Stewart 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 Bowtie camp we need to realize that contenders will come from several different stables this weekend. Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet have each scored a win at Vegas in the last four seasons. Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards 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 Michael Waltrip Racing guys like Clint Bowyer and Mark Martin 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

Matt Kenseth -
The new 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. He hasn't won there since 2004, but he's managed to maintain a very high level of performance at LVMS over the years. Kenseth has led 471 laps for his career at Vegas and sports a strong 39-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 on the big oval at Daytona a couple weeks ago, Kenseth should bring a very fast car to Las Vegas.

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 five 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 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.

Kyle Busch -
The Joe Gibbs Racing star won from the pole here in 2009, and that 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 yet to rack up career win number two at his hometown oval but that may be taken care of soon enough. The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has always been a good qualifier at this oval, but has just come up short on finishes and luck. Busch has yet to make his mark on the 2013 season, but this weekend could be the first of a few victories for this JGR team.

Carl Edwards -
With two victories and four Top 10s in the last six Vegas races, Edwards is one of the more successful drivers in the Sprint Cup Series at this intermediate oval. In this event one year ago, the No. 99 team charged from 21st-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. 99 Ford has taken well to the new Gen-6 car, as his victory this past weekend at Phoenix showed, so he will be a leg up on the competition in the Kobalt Tools 400.

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

Brad Keselowski - This pick flies in the face of historical stats at the Las Vegas oval, but when you look at Keselowski's work on 1.5-mile tracks since last season he's an obvious choice this weekend. The Penske Racing star has 290 laps led, one victory and four Top 10s in his last six intermediate oval races. Keselowski had a top car at Phoenix this past weekend, so it's clear the reigning Sprint Cup champion and his team have hit the ground running in 2013. We expect to see Keselowski post a career-best Vegas finish in this weekend's Kobalt Tools 400.

Clint Bowyer -
The Michael Waltrip Racing star is fresh off his first Top-10 finish of the season this past weekend at PIR. He'll ride that momentum into the intermediate oval at Las Vegas. The intermediate ovals have been kind to the No. 15 Toyota team and Las Vegas Motor Speedway is no exception. Bowyer racked up brilliant sixth-place finish there last year in his debut at the facility. That was one of three Top 10s in his last four trips to the oval outside Sin City. Bowyer has five Top 10s in his last six intermediate oval events entering this weekend, so the vibes are great for this driver and team.

Tony Stewart -
The driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is a one-time Las Vegas winner and Stewart sports the fat 64 percent Top 10 rate at this facility that is attractive to all fantasy racing players. In this event one year ago Smoke led 127 laps and picked up his first career win in the Kobalt Tools 400. With close to 300 laps led in just his last two visits to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, we really feel that the Stewart Haas Racing team has this intermediate oval dialed-in. We expect Smoke to be a regular face in the Top 10 throughout the day in the 400-mile event at LVMS.

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. He has four Top-10 finishes in his last five trips to the Nevada desert. The last time we saw the No. 88 Chevrolet team in action at LVMS, Earnhardt was finishing a respectable 10th after leading 70 laps in this event one year ago. We expect the Hendrick Motorsports driver to continue his solid intermediate oval efforts in the Kobalt Tools 400.

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

Kyle Busch -
Due to the mechanical problems that the No. 18 team has been experiencing in the first two races of 2013, we have to downgrade Busch for his homecoming weekend. The loop stats show that the Joe Gibbs Racing star loves racing at his hometown track and he performs at a very high level. Hopefully Toyota Racing Development will have all the bugs worked out in their engines this weekend for the Kobalt Tools 400. Busch has the ability to lead laps and win at this oval, but proceed with caution until the Toyota team's engine problems are solved.

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 Fenway Racing veteran is off to a great start this season and he sits sixth overall 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 six Top-10 finishes in nine starts at this facility. That 67 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.

Mark Martin -
As the 54-year-old veteran showed us last week at Phoenix he's still capable of winning poles, leading laps and mixing it up with the leaders. Martin will carry that Phoenix momentum to one of his favorite tracks this weekend. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has held a lot of success for the Michael Waltrip Racing driver over the years. He has led 259 laps, one victory and 10 Top-10 finishes in his 15 starts at the oval outside Vegas. Martin's last two efforts at LVMS have been a pair of 18th-place finishes, but we feel he'll be much better than that with his fast No. 55 Toyota.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing driver is off to a decent start this season. After 21st- and 20th-place finishes at Daytona and Phoenix, he sets his sites higher coming to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. The No. 27 team rounded out last season pretty strong on the 1.5-mile ovals. Menard finished third at Kansas and 11th at Homestead, so the team's intermediate oval program is in good shape. His Vegas dossier includes finishes of 17th-, 12th- and seventh-place in the last three seasons. We like the RCR driver to keep that beat rolling in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400.

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 solid eight Top 10s in 15 visits to the oval. His recent success has been just as steady. In the last three trips to the intermediate oval the No. 31 team has come away with two Top-15 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. Based on his Top 10 run at Phoenix this past week, the veteran driver should be up for some Vegas action on Sunday afternoon.

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. Bayne has been steadily improving over his 35 career Sprint Cup Series starts. He raced for the first time in a Cup car at Las Vegas Motor Speedway two years ago and posted a respectable 20th-place finish in that event. He returned in 2012 and cracked the Top 10 with an impressive ninth-place finish at LVMS. 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

Danica Patrick -
The Phoenix debacle may indeed be a preview of what's to come for the No. 10 Chevrolet team this weekend at Las Vegas. Patrick battled a wickedly ill-handling race car at PIR last weekend and struggled with it until she cut down a tire and hit the wall, ending her day. The SHR fem has enough Sprint Cup resume to show that 1.5-mile ovals have been unkind to this driver and team. Patrick's last four starts on intermediate ovals have failed to yield a Top-20 finish and her average is a lowly 27.5. This weekend will be her first Sprint Cup start at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran doesn't have the best career stats at Las Vegas, and that's the first warning sign. The second warning sign is that Hamlin's recent body of work on the 1.5-mile ovals is lacking as well. The last three events of last season (Kansas, Fort Worth and Homestead) netted the No. 11 team finishes of 13th-, 20th- and 24th-place. That's well below what we expect for this championship-contending driver. Hamlin's last outing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a sub-par 20th-place finish in this event one year ago. Sure, he has the ability to prove us wrong in this one, but the warning signs are there so be forewarned.

David Ragan -
The Front Row Motorsports teams are off to a rough start this season. Ragan has battled to 35th- and 38th-place finishes to start the season. Hope abounds for this weekend's Kobalt Tools 400, but we have to look closely at Ragan's Vegas resume. He has only one career Top 20 at the intermediate oval in six starts and an average finish of 25.3. Considering five of those starts came with super-stable Roush Fenway Racing, there's good reason to be concerned for the No. 34 team this Sunday. The rough start to the 2013 campaign only dulls our optimism for Ragan at LVMS.

Kurt Busch -
The season hasn't started as well as some hoped for the No. 78 team and driver Busch. He's flat out struggled at both Daytona and Phoenix. The homecoming to Las Vegas won't be that much of a relief either. Quite frankly the hometown track at Las Vegas has been a career-long struggle for Busch, and that is considering all those years he raced for super-stables Penske and Roush. He has a scant three Top 10s in 12 starts at the 1.5-mile oval. Busch crashed and DNF'd here one year ago for owner James Finch. It will be hard to outrun that specter this weekend.