We stay on the left coast again for the second straight week in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series as the series makes first and only visit of the season to the 1.5-mile tri-oval in the desert. An aging race surface, a green racetrack, and the first real look at how the new Gen6 car will perform on a more traditional 1.5-mile track, we head into another weekend with many unknowns surrounding the outcome of the 267 lap stanza on Sunday.
With a rare rain-out of both practice and qualifying yesterday, teams are scrambling to parlay the Intel they gained from Thursday’s 6-hour test session and apply it to their setups for Sunday Afternoon’s 16th Annual Kobalt Tools 400.
Per the NASCAR Rule Book, the field for Sunday has been set according to last season’s Owner Points, meaning The Champ, Brad Kesolowski will share the front row with last year’s bridesmaid, Clint Bowyer. As we saw last week in Phoenix, with the increased amount of downforce the Gen6 car is producing, tire wear is becoming the top story in this young season, and with a green racetrack in the desert again this week, handling and saving your equipment might be the key in driving to Victory Lane on Sunday.
Well, I published my column last week before Denny Hamlin was forced to change engines and start from the rear of the field in last Sunday’s Subway Fresh Fit 500. I really hoped for the best in not updating my column on Sunday morning, and it truly paid off as the guy I looked at to win last Sunday, was also sent to the rear of the field, and he did not fare as well as Hamlin did in working his way up through the field.
With Hamlin coming off the back last week, the combination of excellent pit strategy and quick pit stops were the key for the No. 11 FedEx Office team in their first top-five of the 2013 season. A three-wide pass on the white flag lap in the dogleg section of PIR vaulted the No. 11 team to a third place finish after battling a loose racecar for the majority of the day.
Hamlin spoke after his podium finish and was fined $25,000 by NASCAR for his comments about the new Gen6 racecar, and NASCAR has not released exactly what sparked the $25,000 slap, but the only negative comments Hamlin made appear to be comparing the Gen6 car to the Generation Five cars:
” We learned a lot. I don’t want to be the pessimist, but it did not race as good as our generation five cars. This is more like what the generation five was at the beginning. The teams hadn’t figured out how to get the aero balance right. Right now, you just run single-file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you. You would have placed me in 20th-place with 30 (laps) to go, I would have stayed there — I wouldn’t have moved up. It’s just one of those things where track position is everything.”
My dark horse pick fared quite a bit worse at the flat-track in the desert last week, despite winning each of the three practice sessions and after starting the race from the pole position. Michael Waltrip Racing’s Mark Martin was the car to beat going based off practice speeds and after taking the Coors Light Pole Award, but after an extra pit stop on lap 63 for a vibration on the right side of the No. 55 AAron’s Dream Machine Toyota, Martin had to first gain back the lap he lost on the stop, as well as pass 20+ cars on the lead lap to end up in Victory Lane. Luckily, the caution would fly just a few laps later, and Martin would climb his way back to the lead lap, but would fall short in the end following the wild conclusion of the Subway Fresh Fit 500. A 21st place finish is what I got out of my Dark Horse last week, not the finish I’m looking for.
Just one time a year we visit the 1.5-miler in the desert, and it’s probably a good thing we only make one trip to Sin City, both for the sake of the difficulty in handling drivers are experiencing this week and also for the sake of The Champ’s liver….
It’s very difficult not to look at Jimmie Johnson this week, as his impressiveness in the first few races each season is what kick-starts the No. 48 Lowe’s/Kobalt Tools Chevrolet team. Johnson tops the list of active driver performances at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with four wins, five top fives, and six top tens in just eleven races at the 1.5-mile tri-oval. Historically speaking, Johnson has been a contender in each and every Intermediate Track race the past seven or so seasons, and the odds-makers have made Johnson the preliminary front-runner in giving him 5-1 odds at taking home the trophy tomorrow for his car sponsor, who like last week’s race winner, Carl Edwards, will also be driving for the race sponsor tomorrow afternoon. He had the second-best 10-lap average in Thursday’s test session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the second-best time by any Chevrolet, and the best run by any of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers. He’s starting inside the second row, so he doesn’t have far to go to get to the front.
Dark Horse Pick
Richard Childress Racing claimed two of the top-five spots in final NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Happy Hour this afternoon, and the fifth-fastest 10-lap average went to RCR’s Paul Menard. Las Vegas Motor Speedway happens to be Menard’s second-best track in the past 2 years, averaging a finish just inside the top-10 at 9.5. At Las Vegas’ twin track, Kansas Speedway, which hosts two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races each year, Menard has boasted a finish inside the top 5 and the track happens to be his second-best track in his 10-year Sprint Cup Career. By definition, a long-shot is any driver with odds of winning of 20-1 or worse, and Menard currently sits at 100-1 to win the Kobalt Tools 400 on Sunday, so a Dark Horse is exactly what Paul Menard is for taking the home the trophy.
That’s all for this week, so until we roll on to the bull ring in the hills of Tennessee, you stay classy NASCAR NATION!