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Kobalt 400 Preview

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I may be a little biased, but after going to several NASCAR races across the nation I can't help but feel Las Vegas is the ultimate destination across the circuit. Sure, it's just another 1.5-mile cookie cutter, but the amenities that the city has to offer make it an easy No. 1 in my book.

Despite gambling offered across the city, colleges and universities think so too as four conference basketball tournaments are being played in town this week. Forget that the players can't participate in some of 21 and over activities, the conferences want the parents and alumni to show up for tickets sales, and they do.

NASCAR and Monster Energy also think it's a cool place too which is why an announcement is expected this week that Las Vegas will finally be getting a much deserved second Cup date next season. It's likely to be in the Chase and possibly, I hope, the season finale. Monster Energy wants more bang for the buck and the show Las Vegas could put on for the Championship race is unmatched.

The way I see it is I only have so many dates a year I can take off and most of the time my girl wants to go with me, except for my NASCAR weekends. Sometimes that's a good thing -- time away can be good, and it's the same story with my friends who meet me at tracks. But when March rolls around with Vegas, their wives always make the trip. That's the allure of Vegas. It always passes the wife test.

For bettors, it's also the most fun race to visit because of all the action offered around town. Las Vegas kicks off NASCAR's three-race West Coast swing and it will be the most wagered race of the season, and the difference between second-place isn't even close. The action wagered in the months leading up to the season opening Daytona 500 two weeks ago will be more than quadrupled this week for Sunday's Kobalt 400.

Because of all the action with over 100,000 visitors in town for the race, the sports books amp up their wagering menu in a similar fashion as they do for the Super Bowl. Odds to win the race are the most popular bets, but you'll be able to bet anything that's in a race box score.

And I really do mean ANYTHING.

How about lap leaders, different drivers to lead a lap, cautions, finish position by several drivers, average speed or winners of the first two stages? Whatever you can think of, you'll be able to find around town at one of the many sports books. At a few books that offer US Fantasy Sports pari-mutuel wagering, you can even bet the drivers like horses with win-place-show, exactas and daily-doubles.

Before you go to the bet window and simply take your favorite drivers -- the sports books love that type of blind loyalty, let's try to figure out how Sunday's race might play out. We'll get a final read on who the drivers to beat are during Saturday's final practices, but we've already got a big piece of data to go off of and that's breaking down last week's Atlanta race.

While the layout and surface of Las Vegas' sister track at Atlanta is vastly different, both are high-banked 1.5-mile tracks and require similar set-ups. Drivers that did well at Atlanta last week should be just as good this week. We got a glimpse of how the new low downforce package would run last season at Kentucky and Michigan and it was amazing to see drivers that did well then also look outstanding at Atlanta.

It's not a coincidence that last years Kentucky winner, Brad Keselowski, won Sunday at Atlanta and that Sunday's runner-up, Kyle Larson, won last year at Michigan with Keselowski finishing third. Kevin Harvick would lead the most laps at Kentucky, but finish ninth -- just like he did Sunday at Atlanta -- and would finish fifth at Michigan. Chase Eliott would finish third at Michigan and ended up fifth at Atlanta. They all tie in together and they all have the new downforce package figured out the best meaning those are the drivers you should start with in any handicapping equation.

Jimmie Johnson holds the Las Vegas track record with four wins, the last coming in 2010, but the seven-time Cup champ didn't look very competitive during happy hour at Atlanta and ended up finishing 19th on race day. Still, he's finished sixth or better in four of the past five Vegas races and is to be respected.

Harvick won at Las Vegas in 2015 and he emphatically answered any questions some may have had about how Stewart Haas Racing's transition from Chevrolet to Ford would go on its first crack on a 1.5-mile track, one week after teammate Kurt Busch gave the 'thumbs-up' with a restrictor-plate package win in the Daytona 500. Harvick looked just as good as ever leading a race-high 292 of 325 laps at Atlanta. In fact, he even had some of the same bad luck happen Sunday with a late speeding penalty that kept him from a sure win. He easily had the best car on the track, but it was the sixth straight time he's led the most laps in a race and didn't win.

Keselowski won at Las Vegas last year and also 2014. Joey Logano was runner-up last season to give Team Penske a 1-2 finish. Logano finished sixth at Atlanta last week and should be given serious consideration to grab his first win at Las Vegas where no one has a better average finish than him at 10.7 in seven starts. Johnson is second-best with a 10.9 average.

Matt Kenseth is a three-time Vegas winner, the last coming in 2013, and has a 12.9 average in 17 starts. He's tied with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for most the Vegas starts. Junior has never won in Vegas, but should be someone to consider as well due to looking very good in practice at Atlanta before a flat tire ruined his race day.

Martin Truex Jr. was runner-up at Vegas in 2015 and finished 11th last year which was one of the few races on 1.5-mile tracks that he didn't lead a lap. He led the series with 883 laps led on 1.5-mile tracks in 2016. He finished eighth at Atlanta last week and didn't lead a lap.

Only five drivers led a lap at Atlanta and there were only nine lead changes. There were six cautions, including the two after the first two stages, which I found surprising because it seemed like every car was slipping as they made turns with the shorter spoiler on the new package.

As for who I'm going with to win, I'm going to ride with Harvick to pick up the win in a race that is 100 miles shorter than last week -- he would have won at Atlanta if it was a 400-mile race. It will be a nice anniversary gift for wife Delana Harvick, who married each other in Las Vegas 16 years ago prior the Vegas NASCAR week.

I hope to celebrate with them and cash a ticket!

Top-5 Finish Prediction

1) #4 Kevin Harvick (6/1)
2) #2 Brad Keselowski (7/1)
3) #24 Chase Elliott (10/1)
4) #42 Kyle Larson (12/1)
5) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)

NASCAR Expert Picks
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