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Weekly Preview: Racing the Vegas Oval

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 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series 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 plays host to the Kobalt Tools 400 on Sunday. 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 intermediate tracks this season. It will also be our first look at the rookies and new teams on 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 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 trending well right now 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 to expect for most of the drivers in 2014 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 nine years of competition at this 1.5-mile oval. Let's take a look at the loop stats for the last nine races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

Jimmie Johnson9.03113164081,825112.3
Jeff Gordon14.23341773701,870103.8
Tony Stewart14.22981873571,733103.4
Greg Kahne10.92701501151,754103.0
Kyle Busch11.83581101401,904102.8
Carl Edwards9.73441551601,76898.8
Matt Kenseth12.92531932921,55198.7
Kevin Harvick10.926760151,68094.8
Dale Earnhardt Jr.14.828490881,59088.2
Kasey Kahne15.3245881291,49887.7
Jeff Burton13.226247751,31487.6
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.18.0399121583.5
Joey Logano14.014319173883.1
Kurt Busch22.818627421,10682.7
Ryan Newman18.225232451,44180.5
Martin Truex Jr.16.32101651,05580.0
Denny Hamlin13.121219383279.2
Jamie McMurray18.22161421,04674.3
Marcos Ambrose14.610016140474.1
Clint Bowyer17.1212191797072.9

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 races at LVMS, so no one really holds a grip on this intermediate oval. Last season the Sprint Cup Series returned to the Nevada desert and Matt Kenseth rolled into victory lane for the first time in nine years at LVMS. With Kenseth 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 Toyota 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. Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards in addition to Kenseth will be among some of the drivers knocking at the door. The dark horse candidates will be the Stewart Haas Racing teams. Kevin Harvick has enjoyed some success at the 1.5-mile oval, but he has never won at Las Vegas. So if an upset is to occur it could come in the form of the No. 4 Chevrolet team. Coming off Harvick's been Phoenix victory, we wouldn't rule out this scenario. Also we wouldn't rule out the Penske Racing guys, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, who've yet to really leave their mark on this track. However, the two drivers come to Sin City this weekend with a lot of momentum and energy after the first two races of the season. 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 a dominant performance at Phoenix and his first season at Stewart Haas Racing is off to a great start. The driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet has strong career numbers at LVMS, despite having yet to visit victory lane there. Harvick owns a strong 10.9 average finish over the last nine races there and owns three Top 5s and four 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.

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 three-race Las Vegas Top-10 streak into this weekend's Kobalt Tools 400. In this race two years ago he led 70 laps and appeared to have the car able to get that first Vegas victory, but the effort fell short. Now that Earnhardt has set his career in fast-forward after the big Daytona 500 win, the checkers look more possible than ever at Las Vegas for the Hendrick Motor Sports star.

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 last year. 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 43% 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 performed on these intermediate ovals last season, it's difficult not to consider Kenseth this Sunday afternoon.

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 the end of 2013 he's an obvious choice this weekend. The Penske Racing star has 50 laps led, one victory and three Top 10s in his last three intermediate oval races at the end of last season. The win came at Charlotte in October, and it was a very impressive performance. Keselowski had a top car at Phoenix this past weekend, so it's clear he and his team have hit the ground running in 2014. In this race one year ago, the driver of the No. 2 Ford turned in a career-best Vegas performance with the pole position and third-place finish.

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

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 six 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. With numbers that include 421 laps led, five Top-5 and seven Top-10 finishes in 12 starts, how can we not like the reigning champ this weekend?

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. His 50-percent Top-10 rate at LVMS is well above the series average at the facility. Busch's performance in this race one year ago yielded 27 laps led and a fourth-place finish.

Carl Edwards -
With two victories and four Top 5s 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 16th-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 forged a hard-fought eighth-place finish at Phoenix this past weekend, so Edwards is gathering momentum coming to LVMS. The Roush Fenway Racing star has a great deal of upside in the Kobalt Tools 400.

Joey Logano -
The young driver is doing his very best to break into the upper tier of Sprint Cup Series drivers. It could be that after this season, Logano will have finally arrived among the NASCAR elite. 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 steady 14.0 average finish at the oval, but only one Top-10 finish to his credit. We believe that will change this weekend. In the last six intermediate oval races of last season Logano hammered out three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes along with an eye-popping 144 laps led over that span. He is coming into his own coming to Las Vegas this weekend.

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

Tony Stewart -
Stewart battled out a tough 16th-place finish at Phoenix last weekend. While it wasn't terribly impressive, it was noteworthy considering it was his second race back from the injury. Stewart will have his ups-and-downs this year as he progresses, and this week could be an up occasion. The driver of the No. 14 Chevrolet is a one-time Las Vegas winner and Stewart sports the fat 60-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. Three of his last four trips to the 1.5-mile track have netted Top-10 finishes. With close to 500 career laps led at LVMS it's clear that Stewart is comfortable navigating this oval. The owner/driver has a lot of upside in the Kobalt Tools 400.

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 11th-place finish at Phoenix last weekend and is focus 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 five Top-10 finishes in 10 starts at this facility. That 50-percent Top 10 rate with only two DNF's is what gives Kahne great value this weekend. In this event one year ago, he led 114 laps and finished runner-up to Matt Kenseth.

Ryan Newman -
The new Richard Childress Racing driver made a big splash with his first Top 10 for the No. 31 team at PIR 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 season. Newman has two Top-5 finishes in his last three trips to Sin City. That builds on a career resume that includes six Top 10s in 13 starts or around 46-percent. The last time we saw this veteran driver in action on an intermediate oval similar to LVMS, he was racing to a steady 17th-place finish at Homestead Miami Speedway in the season finale last year. Newman should do even better in this 400-mile event.

Paul Menard -
The Richard Childress Racing driver is in search of his first Top-20 finish this weekend at Vegas. After 32nd- and 23rd-place finishes at Daytona and Phoenix, he sets his sights much higher coming to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. The No. 27 team has a great record at the intermediate desert oval. Menard rides a two-race Top-10 streak at the track into this weekend's Kobalt Tools 400, and he has four consecutive finishes inside the Top 20 here as well. Intermediate ovals have been kind to this driver and team the last couple seasons, and we expect this Sunday afternoon will be no different.

Kyle Larson -
The rookie driver opened eyes with his gutsy Top-20 finish at Phoenix International Raceway last weekend. Larson qualified well, raced on the lead lap the entire event and he finished strong in his No. 42 Chevrolet. Now he'll take aim at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and his first career Cup start at the Nevada oval. However, Larson isn't a complete stranger to the Vegas oval. He has one Nationwide Series start at the track, which unfortunately ended in a DNF. Still, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver had great numbers in that lower division of NASCAR on the intermediate ovals. We believe he'll feel right and home and likely have a very good car for 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. Bayne has been steadily improving over his 47 career Sprint Cup Series starts. His resume shows three pretty solid starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Finishes of 20th-, ninth- and 23rd-place show that he can race and finish on the lead lap. Bayne should be up to the task of equaling if not improving on these efforts this Sunday afternoon.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

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 until contact with Justin Allgaier damaged her car and relegated her to the bad finish. She has a short Sprint Cup resume, but enough to show that 1.5-mile ovals have been unkind to this driver and team. Again, Patrick's problems mostly stem from poor qualifying efforts and that's what she had at this facility last season. A 37th-place starting spot on the grid led to battling tough traffic and a disappointing 33rd-place finish in this event one year ago.

Denny Hamlin -
The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran doesn't have the best career stats at Las Vegas. Despite a career 50-percent Top-10 rate at LVMS, his success came mostly earlier in his career at this oval. Only one of his last five races at this facility has netted a Top-10 finish. While Hamlin is coming off a strong Speedweeks at Daytona, he did have a disappointing finish at Phoenix last weekend. The strong No. 11 Toyota that we saw to start the season was missing last weekend at the Arizona oval. Hamlin's Las Vegas numbers are just suspect enough to warrant taking a pass on him, at least this week for the Kobalt Tools 400.

David Ragan -
The Front Row Motorsports teams are off to a rough start this season. Ragan has battled to 34th- and 28th-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 seven starts and an average finish of 26.1. 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 2014 campaign only dulls our optimism for Ragan at LVMS.

Kurt Busch -
The season hasn't started as well as some hoped for the No. 41 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 13 starts at the 1.5-mile oval. Busch finished an uninspiring 20th here one year ago for the Furniture Row Racing team. It will be hard to outrun his reputation at this oval this weekend.