The Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series in Las Vegas

Bob MargolisContributor IIMarch 3, 2014

The Biggest NASCAR Storylines to Watch Ahead of Sprint Cup Series in Las Vegas

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    Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

    Why is this man smiling?

    It could be because he’s getting a Budweiser shower.

    Or it could be because he’s started off the 2014 NASCAR Sprint Cup season with a win. A precious win, in a series where wins are hard to come by.

    Of course, it came at a track that Harvick knows as well as the back of his hand. His victory on Sunday came at a track, Phoenix International Raceway, where he now holds the record for most Cup wins with five. He was supposed to win.

    And he did.

    More often than not, it doesn’t happen that way.

    Winning is always great, but so is the momentum this team has going into Las Vegas.

    SHR gets its cars and engines from Hendrick Motorsports, so it should be no surprise that the driver who finished second was...

     

     

    *All quotes in the slideshow are taken from official media releases supplied either by team or manufacturer representatives.

The Junior Juggernaut Continues

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    The 2014 Daytona 500 winner came to Phoenix tired but energized after a weeklong frenzy of media activities that had him crisscrossing the country, giving interviews and appearing in front of every television camera that would have him.

    Earnhardt Jr. and crew chief Steve Letarte hadn’t seen each other since the day after the Daytona 500, but that didn’t appear to slow down their momentum. The National Guard Chevrolet was fast right off the hauler, which immediately calmed any anxieties Junior may have had.

    Junior flexed the team’s muscles during qualifying (starting fifth) and, during Sunday’s race, the 88 team continued to show that this is a group in sync with what it takes to win in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series.

    Earnhardt Jr. leads the point standings by six points over Brad Keselowski.

    “Steve (Letarte) and those guys just keep getting better and better,” said Earnhardt Jr. after the race. “These cars I’m driving I think are the best in the garage.”

    This team’s “close but no cigar” performance might have been a disappointment to them and the entire Junior Nation. But to the rest of the NASCAR garage it was a not-so-subtle reminder that this team is for real and that crew chief Letarte and Earnhardt Jr. have their eyes firmly focused on the prize—the Sprint Cup.

Calling All Toyotas

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Kyle Busch (above) scored the best finish by a Toyota (ninth) at Phoenix on Sunday.

    His Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin, finished 12th and 19th. Sandwiched between them was Michael Waltrip Racing driver Clint Bowyer, who finished 13th.

    There’s certainly no reason for Toyota’s NASCAR execs to panic at this stage of the season. But the memories of those heady days in mid-February, when Denny Hamlin’s Toyota was destroying the competition, have to still be fresh in their minds.

    Maybe they're just saying "Everything is OK. it’s only two races into the season and there’s always next week." After all, Kyle Busch did win Saturday’s rain-shortened Nationwide Series race driving a Toyota Camry. In fact, Busch’s Camry destroyed the competition. Made them look silly, in fact. However, it was Kyle Busch behind the wheel, it was Mr. Nationwide himself. He could probably win a Nationwide race driving a showroom stock Camry!

    All eyes are now focused on Las Vegas and the Sprint Cup series' first 1.5-mile track on the 2014 schedule. That’s the real deal there, one of the “cookie cutter” tracks. There are so many of them on the schedule. Perhaps that’s where all of Toyota’s energies are focused.

    Yeah, that’s right. Those 1.5-mile tracks. That’s got to be what’s going on with Toyota.

Team Penske Makes a Statement

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    “It feels good to run up front and be competitive,” said third-place finisher Brad Keselowski in the Phoenix post-race press conference. “We know under this system wins are the only things that count. Last year you would have said second and thirds were great but this year they are just so-so. We were close.”

    Their post-race comments mask a good deal of disappointment. Team Penske came to Phoenix to win.

    Both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were optimistic before the race. They qualified 1-2. But race winner Kevin Harvick was untouchable for much of the race. It took Dale Earnhardt Jr., with an engine that came from the same building as Harvick’s, to even come close.

    Keselowski posted his fourth top-10 finish in ten races at Phoenix International Raceway. And he did it without regular crew chief Paul Wolfe, who was back at home in North Carolina for the birth of his first child.

    This organization is so obviously focused on winning. Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano also made reference to the importance of winning in his post-race comments.

    “With a win being so important you might as well go for it…overall it is all about the win,” said Logano. “We didn’t quite get that today but we will go to Vegas and try again.”

    Count on this duo to be upfront and tough this upcoming weekend in Las Vegas. It would be hard to believe that their 1.5-mile setup isn’t just as good as their superspeedway and short track setups have been.

New Qualifying Format Gets Mixed Reviews

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    Rick Scuteri/Associated Press

    Group qualifying in the Sprint Cup Series made its debut at Phoenix to mixed reviews. Obviously, teams that qualified near the front were happy with the format. Others, not so much.

    After qualifying was over, several drivers expressed concern over the traffic during the first session, when the entire field was on the one-mile racetrack.

    Others pointed out that a dangerous condition occurred when cars that had just finished a qualifying run were driving around the track much slower than the rest of the field in an attempt to cool down their engines.

    Crew chiefs lobbied to be able to cool down their engines, which would require raising the hood of the race car. According to NASCAR’s new qualifying rules, raising the hood is not allowed. This is to prevent engineers from making changes to the engine during qualifying.

    The speed differential issue was brought to the attention of NASCAR competition executives, who declined to make changes this early, but offered to monitor the situation.

    The problems facing NASCAR with the new qualifying format did not escape the race’s pole winner, who likes the new rules but sees room for improvement.

    “I think it is always a concern to see cars that are significantly slower than other cars on the track,” said pole winner Brad Keselowski. “That is why NASCAR has a minimum speed rule in the race. What is difficult is if you are in NASCAR’s position and you disallow those tactics, then essentially you will kill this format and it won’t work because the cars won’t be able to be cool enough to run a second or third time which is what makes this format relevant. It is a tough line to walk.”

    Las Vegas weather this weekend calls for temperatures in the mid to upper 70s with no chance of rain. And since the track is 1.5 miles in length, knockout qualifying will be three sessions instead of two.

    Most Cup crew chiefs are smart and will likely find a solution to this cooling issue. If not, expect an adjustment to the rules before the race at Auto Club Speedway on March 23.

Newman off to Solid Start

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    For many NASCAR fans, its good to see the No. 31 Richard Childress Racing (RCR) entry running up front.

    Most observers expected fan favorite Ryan Newman to get off to a fast start in 2014 with his new team and he definitely has. His seventh-place finish at Phoenix has him sitting 15th in points heading into Las Vegas, a track where he has one pole and three top fives to his credit.

    The 2013 Brickyard 400 and 2008 Daytona 500 winner is often overlooked as a contender for this year’s Chase, even though he has made the Chase field three of the past five years.

    This season there may be a change in scenery and a longer drive from home to the RCR shop in Welcome, North Carolina every week, but the Chevrolet Newman races every weekend is as good or better than his ride the past five years.

    Newman still has a lot to prove. Many observers felt his move from Stewart-Haas Racing to RCR didn't exactly qualify as a sideways move. Team owner Childress is counting on Newman to produce wins for at least a year or two until the Dillon Brothers take over the world.

    Expect Nemwan's weekend in Vegas to be an memorable one.

Where's Jimmie?

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Just because he hasn’t won yet this season, don’t forget about Mr. Six Time, his co-star crew chief Chad Knaus and their merry band of winners.

    Coming off a sixth-place finish at Phoenix following a fifth place at Daytona, this team is ready, willing and able to move up to the top of the podium and score a win this weekend at Las Vegas, where Jimmie Johnson has a stellar record. No, wait. Jimmie owns this place.

    Six-Time has four wins in just 12 races at Las Vegas and when he’s not winning there, he’s a sure thing to finish in the top 10. His average finish is ninth. His average driver rating of 112.3 leads all active drivers.

    All bets are off when it comes to picking Johnson as this weekend’s race winner because any fool looking at his season so far and his stats at Vegas can see that the 48 team is due.

Roush Fenway Racing Poised for Bigger and Better Things

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    Greg Biffle (pictured) and his Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) teammates Carl Edwards and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. haven’t had much of a chance to make noise so far this season, but expect all that to change this weekend.

    All three drivers rank in the top 12 in driver ratings at the Las Vegas track, with Biffle among the top-three closers.

    Las Vegas has been good to the RFR trio.

    Edwards has two wins (2008, 2011) in nine races. Biffle has one pole and six top 10s. Stenhouse recorded one win in the Nationwide Series in 2012.

    Coming out of Phoenix, all three RFR drivers are currently in the top 15 in driver points, Edwards is ninth, Biffle 10th and Stenhouse 15th.

    Edwards comes off a top-10 (ninth) finish.

    RFR's 1.5-mile setup, which should improve with the new Fusion nose, has always been one of the best in Sprint Cup. And Biffle is always a threat in the final laps. As is Edwards.

    Count on one or more of the members of the RFR trio of drivers to be a big part of the news coming out of Vegas this weekend.

Next Lesson for the Rookie Class

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Dillon may be getting most of the attention while fellow RoY candidate Kyle Larson (above) is getting it done on the racetrack.

    So much for those veteran NASCAR observers who ranted and raved about how Larson was “too young,” “too inexperienced” and “just not ready” for a full-time ride in the Cup Series when he replaced Juan Pablo Montoya. Larson is proving them all wrong with his car control and poise, even when having a bad day like he had at Daytona.

    After having issues early and often at Daytona, Larson felt right at home at Phoenix, a short track similar to many of the tracks he grew up racing on.

    His 20th-place finish was best of the rookie class.

    Dillon sits 16th in driver points, leading all rookies. He struggled all weekend long at Phoenix and looks to rebound at Las Vegas.

    Justin Allgaier was involved in a wreck at Phoenix with Danica Patrick and David Ragan, midway through the race and he came home in 30th place. Cole Whitt quietly recorded a 27th-place finish.

    The track at Las Vegas is fast and bumpy and will be a difficult test for this year’s rookie class. Expect Larson and Dillon to lead the pack once again, but keep one eye on Allgaier, who sometimes can hit one out of the park.

Is Phoenix a Starting Point for Stewart-Haas Racing?

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    Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press

    OK, so one of your four drivers won the race in Phoenix. Now what?

    Kevin Harvick’s win was a much-needed shot in the arm for Stewart-Haas Racing (SHR). Harvick is fourth in points while team owner Tony Stewart sits 20th. The news is not that good for teammates Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick, who are 30th and 39th respectively.

    Not to worry though. This organization is still hopefully headed in the right direction, even if the stats don’t show it. You see, there’s this guy named Stewart at the helm of this ship and he knows how to win.

    Stewart is back to being his grumpy self with the media after a stint of self-imposed “Mr. Nice Guy” played out on his return to racing at Daytona. Stewart had little patience for the media in Phoenix. They just couldn’t stop asking him about his leg.

    “I’ll be honest, I’ll be more happy when everybody quits asking me how I feel,” said Stewart at a pre-race press availability. “I’m not 100 percent. I’m not going to be 100 percent for a while.”

    Maybe he’d rather prefer the press ask him about his racing organization, especially the three drivers he truly cares about—himself, Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick.

    And that fourth driver at SHR, the one that his partner Gene Haas hired, you know, Kurt Busch? Wait, I get it now. Busch has been talking about the Indy 500. Maybe he told Haas "OK, so one of your four drivers won the race. Now what?"

    The racing world is still trying to figure out why Gene Haas hired Kurt Busch, in spite of his explanations. He just doesn't seem to fit. Wait, I get it now. Busch has been talking about the Indy 500. Maybe he told Haas (whose focus these days is in the heady world of Formula One) that his heart is really in open wheel and that he wants a real challenge and he offered to drive the F1 car— for cheap, after the Indy 500 experience.

    That’s exactly why Haas hired him.

    Smoke wasn’t all that happy after leaving Daytona. He’s likely feeling a little better after Phoenix. And Vegas? Despite Harvick’s win at Phoenix, this is an organization that is in desperate need of a good weekend in Las Vegas, all around. 

    Then again, aren't we all?

    Who knows how this special setup—the trio of friends plus one—will perform? Just think, if it’s not the kind of weekend they need, the media could always go back to asking Stewart about his leg.

     

Viva Las Vegas

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    When Speedway Motorsports (SMI) purchased the Las Vegas Motor Speedway in December of 1998, SMI CEO Bruton Smith already had plans in his head to convert the existing racing facility into something that was better suited for the city where it was located.

    It took eight more years, but Smith and SMI did a fine job of reconfiguring the old track and pit road, adding progressive banking so that it would be more friendly to stock cars and replacing many fan amenities, including the addition of the Neon Garage—a unique fan zone built in the infield of the race track.

    Since the track was reconfigured, Jimmie Johnson has owned the place. He won the first Cup race on the reconfigured track in August 2006.

    Since the configuration, the track has aged and, more importantly, it has gained character. There are bumps at less-than-desirable locations for a Sprint Cup stock car. There’s a very noticeable one at the entrance to Turn 1 about half way up the track, right in the best racing line. Between Turns 3 and 4 the surface tends to get slick around the midpoint of the race as the sun beats down upon it. Then there is the transition from Turn 4 to the front straight, which was much worse with the old configuration and considered fixed when the track was reconfigured, the banking and the slick surface there can still cause a driver to be caught off guard, sending him into the outside wall.

    All this makes Las Vegas Motor Speedway one of the better races of the year and definitely a must-see event.

    It’s best seen in person, of course.

    That means a trip to Las Vegas.

    By the way, race winner: Jimmie Johnson.