NASCAR Sunday: In The Fast Lane In Las Vegas

Another NASCAR Sunday is ahead of us, this time in Las Vegas, where the Kobalt 400 will go at 2:30 PM ET on Fox, and NASCAR time at TheSportsNotebook means it’s time for me to pick up the phone and call my brother Bill, who follows this stuff the way I follow college hoops, spring training and NCIS Los Angeles. Which makes it appropriate that this week’s race gave Bill an opportunity to point out something where NASCAR bears an unfortuante similarity to baseball. The wave of baseball stadiums that arose in 1970s were known as “cookie-cutters”, because between the dimensions and the artificial turf, the parks in places like Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Philadelphia and St. Louis looked like they were stamped out of the same cookie-cutter. Baseball’s learned its lesson and followed the lead of Baltimore’s Camden Yards that ushered in a new era of uniqueness and style to each park. NASCAR fans aren’t so lucky.

“A lot of fans are irritated with NASCAR”, Bill told TheSportsNotebook. “Las Vegas is a mile and a half tri-oval with no real unique feature and that’s more and more common.” I speculated that perhaps this generic track style is the reason that results at Vegas have followed a generic pattern. Jimmie Johnson has been the top racer on the circuit overall and has won here four times since 2005. Only two other drivers have won in Vegas, and Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch are hardly longshots. While Bill didn’t necessarily debunk my generic track=favorites winning theory, he did point out the necessity of each crew making sure the car is properly fit to run on each track and adjusting throughout the race, and that this is something Johnson has done well in Las Vegas.

Johnson, Edwards and Tony Stewart are the tri-favorites in this race at 7-1. Stewart, last year’s Sprint Cup champion, hasn’t made his mark in 2012’s first two races. Bill said the reason is that Stewart had some fuel problems during a caution flag, resulting in him running out and causing a critical delay. Before we jump on Stewart and his team though, Bill pointed out that NASCAR has new rules governing fuel-injection in these situations and that Stewart won’t be the first to have problems. Either way, the defending champ is going to need to step it up with at least a strong finish and a good chunk of points sometime in the immediate future.

Another driver who had fuel issues, although it had nothing to do with the rules, was Kevin Harvick, who just missed catching Denny Hamlin for the win last week in Phoenix. “Happy Harvick” was making a strong push before his fuel ran out and he had to basically coast in and hold on to second place. Harvick is third in the overall standings thus far, while Greg Biffle, who also hasn’t won a race yet is second. Hamlin leads up the pack, with Daytona winner Matt Kenseth running fourth. No one else is within ten points of the lead at this early date in the schedule.

If you’re looking for a pleasant surprise, Bill pointed out Kurt Busch. “He’s doing surprisingly well, considering he’s a one-man operation with limited funds”, Bill advised. While Kurt Busch hasn’t made a run at a win yet, he deserves credit for being the Tampa Bay Rays of the circuit.

When it comes to picking a winner on Sunday, Bill’s liking his own personal favorite driver of Kasey Kahne, who’s run well here in the past and is available at 10-1 odds. I like Biffle, based on the more generic theory that when you get a successful veteran who’s second in the overall standings and can bet him at 20-1 odds, take a shot at it.