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NASCAR Notebook for Las Vegas

by Dave Grayson
Friday, February 27, 2009

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Can Carl Edwards repeat?
NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series teams are now in Las Vegas getting prepared for Sunday's Shelby 427. It's an extremely exciting weekend in Sin City because, let's face it, the names NASCAR and Las Vegas truly belong in the same sentence. The city will be loaded with players, who will be sitting at the gaming tables or loading up slot machines, looking for a streak of good luck that leads to good fortune. In direct comparison the Las Vegas Motor Speedway garage will be filled with players also looking for some of that same good luck. 

Obviously all 43 starters in Sunday's Shelby 427 will be hoping to receive that extra edge of Las Vegas luck. But there are some who are going to need it more than others. The big concern here is NASCAR's top 35 in owners points which guarantees teams a starting berth in future races. Presently NASCAR is using the 2008 owner's points rankings. But that will end following the fifth race of the season, March 8th at Atlanta, when the current 2009 points will become effective. A solid position within the top 35 is crucial. This is especially true of the many teams who are still trying to shore up sponsorship deals needed to run the entire NASCAR Sprint Cup schedule.

If you check the bottom of the 2009 top 35 rankings there are two high profile names and teams that really stand out: Dale Earnhardt Jr and Ryan Newman. Both teams have endured horrible luck during the first two races of the year. Both drivers need a good run at Las Vegas to shore up their position in the owner's points and start the process of rapidly moving forward towards the final cut for the Chase For The Championship.

Now in his tenth season in the Sprint Cup Series, Earnhardt, and his Amp Energy-National Guard Chevrolet, is currently ranked 35th in the owner's standings and is only two points ahead of the team in the 36th position. The well discussed, to the point of beating it to death, problems during the Daytona 500 got this team off to a terrible start in the new season.

Things were not any better last Sunday during the Auto Club 500 in California. First off he could only muster a 35th qualifying run last weekend. The day before the race a faulty transmission had to be replaced and that meant his car had to moved to the back of the starting field. During the race he blew an engine and finished 40th. In the days that followed the race Hendrick Motorsports announced that the situation was attributed to a faulty valve train failure directly related to a bad batch of parts recently received from a vendor.

Earnhardt goes into this weekend with an average finish of 33.0 for the first two races of 2009 and has only led one lap. In the past it was generally believed that the Las Vegas Motor Speedway was not one of his better tracks. But that may only apply to his tenure with Dale Earnhardt Inc and the Budweiser Chevrolet. Last year, in his first season with Hendrick Motorsports, he finished second.

Earnhardt is already having to listen to a lot of speculation that says he's 34 years old and time is running out for him to win that NASCAR championship he covets so badly. Don't believe a syllable of that. It's the type of story one expects from a slow news day. Also bear in mind that the legendary needed Bobby Allison18 years to win his championship and was nearly 46 years old when he accomplished it. Also Dale Jarrett had to race 13 seasons before winning the Sprint Cup title and he was close to his 44th birthday at the time.

Meanwhile Ryan Newman, driver of the U.S. Army-Burger King Chevrolet, also finds himself scraping the bottom of the luck barrel. Before Newman could even officially take the green flag for the Daytona 500 he endured a blown engine and two wrecked race cars. Actually three cars if you count the fact that the second accident collected his owner and team mate Tony Stewart. During the race itself Newman's car fell off the jack during a pit stop and he fell two laps down.

The bizarre bad luck was even worse at the Auto Club Speedway last Sunday. It began when Newman had to make an unscheduled pit stop because his transponder, which feeds data to NASCAR's timing and scoring system, stopped working. There was another unscheduled stop when the end plate broke off of the car's rear wing. Then, with 15 laps left in the race, a windshield tear off sheet from another car flew off and landed on his front grill which caused his water temperature to max out.

Newman is presently 33d in the owner's points standings but is only three points away from falling to 36th. Commenting on his team's need for some Las Vegas luck he said "don't look for anyone from our team to be seen at the tables in a casino. (Crew Chief) Tony Gibson and I think we'll either lose all of our money or completely use up what good luck may be coming our way."

GUESS WHO'S HOLDING ALL OF THE ACES IN LAS VEGAS?

That would be any team belonging to Roush Fenway Racing or Hendrick Motorsports. The numbers these teams have amassed at this track is simply astounding. In eleven previous races these teams have won nine of them. Sterling Marlin has the distinction of being the only non Roush/Hendrick driver to win a Cup race at Las Vegas.

The Roush Fenway success especially applies to the red hot Matt Kenseth and his team known as "The Killer Bees." Kenseth has already tied a record for winning the first two races of a brand new season. Can he make NASCAR history by being the first to win three in row? You bet he can because he has some very strong numbers at this race track. Kenseth and company has two wins, four top five and five top ten finishes at Las Vegas. His 2004 trip to victory lane came from a 25th starting position which gives the track record for being a race winner from the lowest point in the field. He also holds the record for most laps led, 123, in a winning effort also from 2004.                       

Of course we all know that the Roush Fenway Stable also has some other impressive victory lane candidates including defending race winner Carl Edwards. The #99 team of Edwards has an axe to grind when it comes to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Last year's race was the scene of the famous oil cap incident. Following a post victory lane technical inspection, NASCAR officials discovered that the oil cap, located inside of the car behind the driver's seat, had become dislodged in Edward's car. There were some who even suggested that the cap was intentionally removed to create some sort of aerodynamic advantage. Many others debated that point, even called it stupid, and pointed out that the intense heat and fumes from the oil tank were a clear and present danger to the driver and no one in their right mind would let Edwards drive that car knowing the cap was loose. The end result was a NASCAR penalty which took away 100 drivers and owner points which many feel was the difference between Edwards finishing second in the Sprint Cup standings versus winning the title.

Roush Fenway also has three other strong teams in Sunday's race. When you add the likes of Greg Biffle, Jamie McMurray and David Ragan to the mix then look for another strong team performance from Sunday's race.

The strength at Hendrick Motorsports is equally impressive. The HMS effort is led by reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson who has parked a car in the Las Vegas victory lane three times. Johnson generally has great runs in Las Vegas and is heavily favored to win Sunday's race.

Jeff Gordon is also very strong at this speedway. Look for a rejuvenated Gordon team to charge to the front for reasons beyond wanting to win the race. First off he likely feels like Las Vegas owes him one due to that horrendous crash during last year's race. Gordon hit an inside backstretch wall, that wasn't protected by the SAFER barrier, and completely destroyed his car. Thankfully he wasn't injured and a matter months later the speedway installed the energy absorbing foam to that section of the crash wall.

Gordon now insists that what happened last year is completely out of mind and he's going to focus on ending last year's winless streak. He also has a great chance to elevate his status in the NASCAR record books at Las Vegas. If Gordon can lead at least 11 laps in this race, and that's very possible, then he will make the impressive list of NASCAR drivers who has led 20,000 laps or more. The 64 laps he led last Sunday in California elevated him to sixth on the all time lap leaders list.

You can't overlook the other two Hendricks drivers. Mark Martin has won a Cup race, for Jack Roush, at Las Vegas and he's the defending NASCAR Nationwide Series race champion. This veteran definitely knows the fast way around this race track. Also don't forget that the aforementioned Dale Earnhardt Jr finished second in this race last year during his first season driving a Hendrick car.

SO, WHAT ARE THE VEGAS BOYS IN THE BACK ROOM SAYING?

The World Sports Exchange, WSE, is one the more prominent Las Vegas based sports book agencies. The WSE has Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards ranked in a dead heat at 5 to 1 odds which makes all the sense in the world. Both of these drivers will be coming on strong Sunday for all of the right reasons. Yet another good ranking is Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth at six to 1. Busch is red hot these days and would love to finally win a race in front of his home town Las Vegas fans. The also red hot Kenseth will be vying for that record breaking third consecutive win. The WSE ranks Jeff Gordon at seven to 1 and Greg Biffle at eight to 1. Both are safe bets from teams who has a lot of success in Las Vegas.

Looking down the list the WSE has Dale Earnhardt Jr and Denny Hamlin at 15 to 1 odds. But one has to wonder if that ranking shouldn't be lower. The same can be said about Mark Martin and Jamie McMurray at 20 to 1. Martin, in a Hendrick Car, knows how to win at Las Vegas.  McMurray, in a Roush Fenway car, has created a string of solid runs that dates back to the end of last season and one has to think that he's due to win his next Cup race very soon. Many racing fans might question Jeff Burton being rated at 30 to 1 simply because he's a two time winner at this speedway. But both of those wins were with Jack Roush. Burton's present team, Richard Childress Racing, has struggled at Las Vegas in the past.

As always we have the weekly disclaimer that tells us NASCAR does not encourage or condone making wagers on their races. In reality betting on a stock car race is like making a wager on the precise time of day you're going to wake up tomorrow morning. You have a really sense of when that's going to happen so you make what seems to be a pretty safe bet. But there's always unexpected circumstances that can lead to losing your hard earned money. 

THE SHELBY 427 RACE BREAKDOWN.

-The race was renamed in honor of race sponsor Carroll Shelby Automotive and his famous line of custom cars.
-The race is 285 laps, 427.5 miles, around the 1.5 mile oval track.
-The 2007 reconfiguration of the Las Vegas Motor Speedway now features 20 degree banking and wider straightaways which is conducive to good racing
-The pit road speed is 45 MPH.
-The speedway seats 142,000 and the race is reported to be very close to a sell out.
-The speedway was opened in 1996. The First NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held in 1998.
-There has been 11 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Las Vegas. Jimmie Johnson leads the driver's list with three wins.
-Ford has the most manufacturer's win with six.
-The Las Vegas Motor Speedway has two track qualifying records based on pre and post track configuration. Both records are held by Kasey Kahne. Kahne set the original record, 174.904 MPH in 2004. The new record, following the reconfiguration, was set by Kahne in 2007 and stands at 184.856 MPH.
-There are 51 entries in the race vying for the 43 starting positions. There are 15 drivers on the "go or go home" list, or those who must earn a starting berth in the race based on qualifying speed. 
The race will be televised by the Fox Network. The pre race show begins at 2 pm eastern time.

THE NATIONWIDE SERIES RACE: SOME UNIQUE REASONS WHY MICHAEL MC DOWELL COULD WIN THE SAM'S TOWN 300.

Michael McDowell is the driver of the #47 JTR/Daugherty Racing Toyota in NASCAR's Nationwide Series. Many observers consider him an up and comer in the series. Recently some very special circumstances could create some special Las Vegas luck that in turn could lead to victory lane in Saturday's Sam's Town 300. Those circumstances came last Wednesday, February 25th, when McDowell's wife, Jami, presented the couple with their first child a son named Trace.

The numbers regarding the baby's birth seems to be Las Vegas perfect. The baby's weight was 7 pounds 7 ounces and arrived at exactly 7am on the dot. Anyone who has ever put a coin in a Las Vegas slot machine will tell you that triple sevens is always a good sign. Now combine the sevens with the ultimate joy of a first time father and then factor in his driving talent and the quality of his race team. With that mix you've got the makings of a first time series winner.

In fact the happy first time father probably best last Thursday when he said "I'm headed to Las Vegas to do what I love to do, I have a brand new fan and I'm rolling all sevens. I wouldn't bet against me this week."

HERE'S ANOTHER SPECIAL OCCASION THAT COULD LEAD TO VICTORY LANE

Saturday is DeLana and Kevin Harvick's eighth wedding anniversary. The Sam's Town 300 is actually not the first time that Harvick had to spend the couple's special day behind the wheel of a race car. The Harvicks were married in 2001 in Las Vegas but there was no time for a honeymoon. Harvick had double duty at the Las Vegas Speedway in both the NASCAR Cup and Nationwide Series races.

However looking back DeLana Harvick notes that they received some very special wedding presents during the year 2001. Her husband won the first, of two. Nationwide Series championships that year. Also in 2001 Harvick scored the first, of two, Sprint Cup wins and won the series' rookie title that same year. 2001 was also the year the couple formed their own race team, Kevin Harvick Inc, and entered their first NASCAR Craftsman, now Camping World, Truck Series race.   

THE LAS VEGAS NATIONWIDE SERIES RACE IS FAMOUS FOR CLOSE FINISHES.

The margin of victory in four of the last five races has been less than a half second and it's becoming a Las Vegas tradition in this race. The same can be said for surprising finishes. In 2007 Jeff Burton won the race on the final lap following contact with Kyle Busch who went spinning backwards across the line to finish second.

In 2008 it appeared that Brad Keselowski, driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr's team, was going to win his first series race for himself and Junior. Then came a late in the race tap from Mark Martin, also in an Earnhardt car, that caused Keselowski to crash. Martin went on to win this race.       

THE SAM'S TOWN 300 BREAKDOWN

-The 300 mile race is 150 laps long around the speedway's 1.5 mile oval.
-There are 48 entries in the race vying for the 43 starting berths.
-There are 15 drivers on the "go or go home" list meaning they have to earn a starting berth in the race based on qualifying speed.
-Chevrolet leads the manufacturer's win total with seven but Roush Fenway Fords have four wins in this race.
-Pre race favorites include: Carl Edwards who has a 7.3 average finish ratio in Las Vegas Nationwide Series events.
-Jeff Burton, who won the 2007 event, has a healthy 8.5 average finish ratio.
-The red hot Kyle Busch is still waiting to win a Nationwide Series race in front of his home town Las Vegas fans. He led 84 laps in last year's event.
-Brad Keselowski, in the Dale Earnhardt-Rick Hendrick owned Chevrolet, could be the class of the field in Saturday's race.
-The Sam's Town 300 will be aired by ESPN2 at 4pm eastern time. 

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