Tuesday, March 6, 2012

2012 Las Vegas Kobalt Tools 400 Preview: Stewart Looking for First Vegas Win

By Micah Roberts

Bad final pit stop cost Tony Stewart the Vegas win in 2011 (Getty)
I’ve been to NASCAR races across the country with the sole purpose of being entertained, not so much by the race itself, but by the environment a race creates and I can say -- without any hint of hometown bias -- that Las Vegas tops them all.

When you look at all the elements that make a trip fun, Las Vegas is hard to top against any city in the world even without a NASCAR race.

There are places like Daytona and Bristol that capture more of a NASCAR feel, or historical places like Richmond, Darlington or Charlotte where you can almost feel the roots of the sport creeping into your soul, but after that, what are you going to do?

Are there hundreds of restaurants catering to all ends of a budget? Is there dozens of places that your kids can have the time of their life at? Or how about just a quality hotel to stay at with little fear of bed bugs invading your NASCAR weekend? Unlike anywhere else, Las Vegas answers all those questions with a resounding YES

It doesn’t matter whether you come with your family, buddies or by yourself, there is always something for everyone which is why over 150,000 people cram into the Las Vegas Motor Speedway every March while other tracks are seeing declines. Fans want to maximize their dollar on the few vacations they get over a year and Vegas gives them all an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone.

We have another amenity here in Las Vegas that appeals to some. Gambling.

Casino tables with be jumping all night long with little fear of losing this type crowd to the plush clubs where the new generation seems to spend all their money and time at in Las Vegas. Gambling isn’t a new experience to people from all over the country with all the Indian casinos sprouting up, but there’s no place you can roll the dice in such style and luxury as Vegas.

The one gambling equation that is purely unique to Las Vegas alone is actually being able to bet on the race. Sports books around town appeal to the masses by offering propositions on the race in Super Bowl-style propositions.

Most sports books offer odds to win on the weekly races with a small few offering head-head matchups. But when the Vegas race comes around, every book works diligently to put up as much as they can because the demand far outweighs the supply compared to the other races.

Las Vegas sports books can expect to do 95% more volume for this weekend’s Nationwide and Sprint Cup races than they’ll do for any other race this season, minus the Daytona 500. The only reason the Daytona 500 has so much volume is that the betting is open for almost six weeks before the green flags drops and they capture all the new daily visitors over that time.

Jimmie Johnson comes into this weekend’s Kobalt Tools 400 as the 7-to-1 favorite not just because he’s won at Las Vegas four times in the last seven years, but because his top competitor doesn’t look to be as strong.

Carl Edwards has brought a strong chassis this week (Getty)
Carl Edwards won at Las Vegas last year for the second time, but struggled last week at Phoenix, a track he had the best car at for three straight races prior. It’s not an indication that Edwards will do poorly, but it is a sign that his program might not be as good for the next few weeks which is why he is 10-to-1 and not the favorite.

However, this week Edwards is bringing a chassis to Las Vegas that makes it hard to believe it will run poorly like he ran last week when he ran a brand new car. Some of the great history includes runner-up finishes at Homestead and Texas along with a third-place finish at Charlotte. This car is a stud and should contend for the win.

“Last year was a huge weekend for us and I’m excited to go back," said Edwards. "I love racing at Vegas and it’s a fun place to go for the fans. This will be our first opportunity of the year to run on a 1.5-mile track and to try the things Bob Osborne and everyone at RFR have been working on over the winter. It’s a huge event for us strategically on the schedule to build our intermediate program, which is obviously very important in our quest for the championship.”

The fortunate part for bettors this week is that he did run poorly last week giving perhaps the best value on Edwards on this type of track in two years. Granted, his last win on the series was exactly a year ago at Las Vegas, but 10-to-1 is too hard to pass up. He should be included in all wagering equations this week.

Kenseth is using winning car from Texas and Charlotte
Matt Kenseth is a two-time Las Vegas winner and finally might be able to take a breath of fresh air and enjoy his Daytona 500 victory after being paraded around the county on a publicity tour last week. He’s a great candidate this week just because of his success last season on these type of tracks where he won at Texas and Charlotte, the 1.5-mile sister tracks of Las Vegas. It's also a nice attraction with Kenseth that he's brought the exact same chassis that won both of those races.

“Las Vegas has been a good track for this team and organization, so I’m looking forward to racing there this weekend," said Kenseth's crew chief Jimmy Fennig. "It’s a racetrack I enjoy every year because I always look forward to having a fast race car there, and Matt (Kenseth) has had a lot of successful races at Las Vegas as well. We’re bringing a car that was a multiple race-winning car last year for us, so we’re hoping to have similar results out of it starting this weekend for our Zest team.”

Las Vegas remains one of the few tracks Tony Stewart has never won at, but he’s been real close with as runner-up twice. Last season he had the victory snatched out of his hand late with a lengthy final pit stop in car that was head and shoulders above everyone else. He won five races in last seasons Chase after not winning any in the first 26 and three of those wins came on 1.5-mile tracks.

It’s an entirely new season with changes to the car, electronic fuel injection and changes to Stewart's team with Steve Addington taking over as crew chief, but Stewart should be in goods hands this week. It was Addington who lead the way for Kyle Busch to win his Cup race in his home town in 2009.

Kevin Harvick has a 13.2 average finish in his 11 Vegas starts, the first of which was his very first Cup start after taking the ride over for Dale Earnhardt. The city is also a special place for the Bakersfield, CA native because it is where he and his wife Delana got married. The couple is expecting their first child this season with hopes adding to the excitement by finishing the year off with Harvick's first championship.

In order to get that championship it starts with tracks like this that dominate the schedule. Whoever does well in Las Vegas sets the tone to who will be good for the remainder of the season. Stewart and Edwards finished in the top-2 at Vegas last season as well as season points. In three of Johnson’s Vegas wins, he went on to win the Championship.

Other drivers we should expect to do well this week include Kasey Kahne, Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Greg Biffle. Kahne looked to have the best car last week at Phoenix, but hit the wall early on to ruin a great opportunity at a win.

Enjoy the race weekend everyone and good luck with all your bets. Most of all, enjoy the city to it’s fullest and let it all hang out. Remember, there’s no last call in Las Vegas.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:
#14 Tony Stewart (8/1)
#48 Jimmie Johnson (7/1)
#99 Carl Edwards (10/1)
#18 Kyle Busch (8/1)
#17 Matt Kenseth (12/1)

Be sure to check back later during the week as I'll be posting some notes on how the cars performed in Friday and Saturday practices.

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