Kobalt 400 Preview
March 3, 2015
By Micah Roberts
It's NASCAR week in Las Vegas where over 100,000 visitors to our fair city will come loaded with cash and ready to party in a way that only Las Vegas can provide. Last year those visitors had a $144 million impact in non-gaming revenue during NASCAR weekend.
It's not only a favorite for fans looking to kill two birds with one stone -- catch a race and take the family on vacation, but also for the drivers and crew members who can blend in with the thousands in town that aren't here for the race. Try that in Bristol or Martinsville. That's how well prepped Las Vegas is -- the city doesn't even blink with a such a big event.
The speedway isn't alone in making this such a great occasion. Every casino in town does their share to make it the best experience possible, as does the Metro Police Department and Highway Patrol to get all those visitors to and from the races in the quickest manner possible so they can get back to the casino and spend some more cash. It's a total team effort and Las Vegas is the shining star among all NASCAR cities.
Las Vegas always has beautiful spring weather this time of year and this weekend will be no different as all three days are expected to perfect. You kind of had to feel sorry for all those freezing fans at Atlanta last week, but as a Las Vegan, I felt like waving my 'Las Vegas is No. 1' big foamy finger.
Yes, I'm definitely biased, but I've been to several races across the country and nothing matches what Las Vegas and the speedway provide. The racing itself on the high-banked 1.5-mile oval is ordinary, but where we stand out more than any other is the amenities across the board. No other track in the country has anything like the Neon Garage where fans can stand above the garages and watch the crews go to work prepping their cars over the weekend.
It's amazing that Las Vegas hasn't been awarded a second race date because of all its strengths that other tracks lack, but having it only once a year adds to the appeal.
Another amenity Las Vegas provides for its race weekend is betting where visitors can wager on almost anything that shows up in the box score. Every sports book in town will increase their betting options Super Bowl-style and because of a captive audience, the Las Vegas race generates more volume than any other on the season -- in some cases four times more action than the second most bet race, the Daytona 500, and that February race has odds posted on it for up to three months before it goes off. The large action for the Las Vegas race is generated in just one week with odds posted on Monday.
This seasons race is a little different from years past because of the data we have before us where we can use what we saw at Atlanta's 1.5-mile high-banked track on Sunday. Las Vegas used to be the first 1.5-mile race of the season and there was a lot of uncertainty with only pre-season testing to go off to handicap who might be the best driver to wager on. This year there was no pre-season testing, but Atlanta gave us more than enough data from the new rules package between a test session last Thursday, practices on Friday and Saturday and then the race on Sunday.
Last week we suggested that whenever NASCAR makes changes to the set-up requirements that it's a good bet Hendrick Motorsports will find the edge quickest and that turned out to be the case as Jimmie Johnson grabbed his fourth career Atlanta win and Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished third. Kevin Harvick was strong (led the most laps), as was the Joe Gibbs Racing stable and Penske's Joey Logano.
The Atlanta disappointments last week include 2012 Las Vegas winner Tony Stewart and Roush Fenway Racing who won eight of the 17 Las Vegas Cup races. There is no reason to believe they'll have things figured out in one week and could be profitable drivers to bet against in driver match-ups this week.
While Logano, Johnson, Harvick and Earnhardt Jr. have finished in the top-5 of both races so far this season, Jeff Gordon currently sits No. 36 in the standings with two straight poor performances. However, it wasn't to his doing as he was involved in wrecks in both which isn't exactly the farewell tour he had imagined to begin the year.
On Sunday, Gordon will be the only driver to start all 18 Las Vegas races. He visited victory lane in 2001 in an emotional race two weeks after his friend and rival Dale Earnhardt has passed away at Daytona.
Momentum counts for a lot in NASCAR, but so does good equipment and Gordon's got it, and maybe even more so than his Hendrick teammates who are all excelling. Last week during an Atlanta test session Gordon not only posted the fastest single lap, but he also showed the fastest speed on long runs by having the quickest 10-consecutive lap average.
Gordon's team is too good to continue this run of bad luck and with good weather, great notes from Atlanta testing, and simply being Jeff Gordon -- arguably the greatest driver in NASCAR history, he's got a lot going for him. And because of his poor performances to start 2015, there are likely to be several sports books thinking his chances of winning are slimmer than they really are and offer some juicy prices on him.
If you've been reading this column over the years, you know I'm a sucker for the fairly tale ending of a NASCAR story. I'm wrong more than I'm right when I make a reach, but when adding in the odds, I'm actually ahead in the pocket with wishful thinking, and in Gordon's case, he's not really a reach.
Kevin Harvick has never at Las Vegas, but the city is special for him because he married his wife Delana at one of the chapels on the strip. To be fair, Harvick never had a car in Vegas that was considered the best until last year in his first season with Stewart-Haas Racing. He finished 41st in that race, but he'll come in as the favorite this week just because of dominating 1.5-mile races last season. The new rules package didn't slow him down as he was the driver to beat at Atlanta last week as well.
Matt Kenseth is a three-time winner at Las Vegas and Joe Gibbs Racing, and actually all the Toyota's, look vastly improved under the new rules package. This means that Denny Hamlin and two-time Vegas winner Carl Edwards are also a player this week, and to a lesser degree in match-ups, so is Michael Waltrip Racing's Clint Bowyer and Brian Vickers who will make his 2015 debut Sunday.
Jimmie Johnson came up huge last week in the late stages of the race to win at Atlanta despite not looking so great in testing and practices. His four Las Vegas wins and a 9.2 average finish are the best in track history.
Two other Hendrick Motorsports drivers should also be considered live on Sunday. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has the most starts (15)at Vegas without a win, but he also has the most second-place finishes (3), including last season when he ran out of a fuel a few yards short of the finish line. Kasey Kahne has always practiced well in Vegas, but it has only translated to two runner-ups.
I'm going to stick with a Hendrick car, and the good story of Las Vegas sending Gordon off into the sunset of his career here as a winner.
For all those in town visiting this weekend, everyone who lives here thanks you for coming and spending your hard earned cash. Have the time of your life, get a few cocktails and most of all -- win some money.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #24 Jeff Gordon (8/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/1)
3) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
4) #20 Matt Kenseth (9/1)
5) #48 Jimmie Johnson (6/1)
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