Complete Preview and Prediction for the 2014 Sprint Cup Series at Las Vegas

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMarch 5, 2014

Complete Preview and Prediction for the 2014 Sprint Cup Series at Las Vegas

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    Julie Jacobson/Associated Press

    Oh yeah, it's Vegas, baby!

    This week NASCAR stops in the city that never sleeps, with non-stop action, beautiful women, handsome men, more beautiful women and fast race cars at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (LVMS).

    On everyone’s list of top-five favorite stops on the NASCAR Sprint Cup circuit, Las Vegas is stop No. 3 of 26 on the road to the Chase. It’s also the first of the 1.5-mile, "cookie cutter" tracks that litter the Sprint Cup schedule. It’s the first chance to see if your team’s 1.5-mile track setup is on target. It had better be, because you can be sure that the No. 48 team’s setup will be right on the money.

    Dale Earnhardt Jr. enters race No. 3 leading the driver points by six over Brad Keselowski. Neither driver has won a Cup race at LVMS, but Jeff Gordon, who is third in points (down by 10) has. Gordon’s fifth-place finish at Phoenix last weekend is likely an indication that this Hendrick Motorsports team is just getting warmed up, and Vegas could be lucky for the No. 24.

    Forty-eight cars will vie for the 43 starting spots, making Friday’s knockout qualifying session worth watching. Since the track is longer than 1.25 miles in length, there will be three rounds of qualifying, unlike the two rounds contested in Phoenix.

    *All quotes and statistics in this slideshow are taken from official team media releases and official NASCAR sources.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway by the Numbers

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    Associated Press

    Race Name: KOBALT 400 (Round 3 of 36 of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series)

    Date: Sunday, March 9

    Time: Green flag approx 3:20 p.m. ET

    TV: Fox

    Radio: Performance Racing Network, Sirius XM Ch. 90

    Race Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps)

    Last year's race winner: Matt Kenseth

    Sprint Cup teams will be on track a day early (Thursday, noon to 4 p.m. local time) to test the new rules package being implemented for use on 1.5-mile tracks beginning this season. 

    Changes to the rules package include: 1) setting the race car ride height (measurement from the ground to the top of the fender) in a stationary position and eliminating the pre- and post-race front height rules and inspections; 2) change to a square leading edge on the front splitter, side skirt and rear fascia adjustments; 3) a new eight-inch rear spoiler.

    In addition, the size of the radiator pan under the front of the car (a safety provision) has also been changed. 

    Weather information

    Driver appearances and Las Vegas information

A Brief History Lesson

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Construction to build the Las Vegas Motor Speedway (LVMS) began in 1995. Speedway Motorsports, Inc. acquired the property in 1998.

    The first NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a NASCAR K&N Pro Series West race won by Kenny Schrader on Nov. 2, 1996.

    The first NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race was held on March 1, 1998, and it was won by Mark Martin.

    In 2006, a transformation took place at LVMS, and the track was reconfigured to include progressive banking. Pit road was brought closer to the seats on the front straight, and the Neon Garage, a unique fan zone, was built in the infield along with many other improvements to make the track fan-friendly.

    There have been 16 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

    Jimmie Johnson owns the Las Vegas Motor Speedway record books with four wins in just 12 starts, the most of any driver starting the race with him on Sunday. Johnson currently sits fifth in points. He also leads the series in average finishes at LVMS with a 9.5; Carl Edwards (9.6) is the only other active driver with an average finish in the top 10.

    Three other drivers have multiple wins at Las Vegas: Matt Kenseth (three), Jeff Burton, Carl Edwards (each has two).

    Ford leads all manufacturers with seven NASCAR Sprint Cup Series wins at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

    Roush Fenway Racing leads the series in wins at Las Vegas with seven, followed by Hendrick Motorsports with five.

New Qualifying Rules in the Spotlight

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    Tom Pennington/Getty Images

    Group qualifying in the Sprint Cup Series got its first test last weekend at Phoenix. Most teams gave it a thumbs-up. 

    The rules deal with qualifying change when the track is longer than 1.25 miles. LVMS is 1.5 miles. There will be three rounds of knockout qualifying instead of the two rounds at Phoenix.

    Here is how qualifying will play out on Friday afternoon, beginning at 3:40 p.m. local time.

    1. The first qualifying round is 25 minutes in duration, unless otherwise authorized by the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series director.

    2. All cars must compete in the first qualifying round. Upon the completion of the first qualifying round, the 43 eligible cars for starting positions 1-43 will be determined.

    3. The 24 eligible cars that post the fastest single lap time from the first qualifying round will advance to the second round.

    4. The remaining cars will be sorted based on their times posted in the first round of qualifying in descending order.

    5. There will be a five-minute break after the completion of the first round, and the 24 eligible cars that advance to the second round will have their times reset.

    6. The second qualifying round is 10 minutes in duration, and the 12 eligible cars that post the fastest single lap time will advance to the final round.

    7. The fastest remaining cars will earn positions 13th through 24th based on their times posted in qualifying in descending order.

    8. There will be a five-minute break after the completion of the second round, and the 12 eligible cars that advance to the final round will have their times reset.

    9. The final qualifying round is five minutes in duration, and the fastest single lap time will determine positions first through 12th in descending order.

    Last year's pole-sitter was Brad Keselowski. Qualifying was rained out and the field was set by owner's points.

Key Storylines

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    Christian Petersen/Getty Images

    Several drivers have gotten off to a slow start in 2014, including Clint Bowyer (above) who sits 23rd in points. Other drivers feeling the pressure this weekend are Kasey Kahne (18th), Tony Stewart (20th), Kurt Busch (30th) and Martin Truex, Jr. (35th). All five drivers have been in the Chase in the past.

    Two key issues came out of last weekend’s initial group-qualifying sessions for the Sprint Cup cars. Drivers reported that during the first session, when all cars are on the track, the drivers that had already made a qualifying lap and were slowing down on the track had presented a hazard for the cars that were still making their hot laps.

    Crew chiefs also reported an issue with overheating during qualifying. Current rules forbid teams from raising the hood of their car during qualifying. This is to prevent adjustments to the engine. NASCAR officials responded to both concerns by telling teams they will continue to monitor both issues and make changes to the rules if necessary.

    A Bumpy and Slick Road to Victory

    Las Vegas Motor Speedway is notorious for the bump in the middle of the racing groove just past the entry to Turn 1. Crew chiefs have to compensate in their setups to get the race car to settle after hitting the infamous bump. Also, as the laps wind down on Sunday, Turns 3 and 4 get slippery from the heat and sun. This often makes the exit of Turn 4 "Calamity Corner" as drivers fight to keep their cars off of the outside wall.

    The First Test

    Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the first 1.5-mile, so-called "cookie cutter" track on a Sprint Cup schedule that features seven tracks of similar length and layout. It is critical for a team to have built a reliable, yet flexible car to use on the 1.5-mile tracks. Teams and manufacturers spend the majority of their manpower on the engines and cars for these tracks.

Drivers to Watch

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    This Hendrick Motorsports duo (above) brings two different weapons to LVMS this weekend. Johnson (l) brings his stellar record at the track. Earnhardt brings the momentum of the points lead and two brilliant weekends in a row. These two could finish one-two. The question is: In what order?

    Kevin Harvick

    The Phoenix winner has three top-fives at LVMS. He will be in similar equipment as the Hendrick teams. There remains a question as to how good the Stewart-Haas Racing team’s 1.5-mile setups are. 

    Jeff Gordon

    Gordon sits third in points and brings an LVMS resume of one win and seven top-10 finishes. Gordon’s determination to get his fifth title could bring him a win this weekend, which could reserve his place in this year’s Chase.

    "The challenges we will face at Vegas are the same challenges we have faced in the past," said Gordon. "We're up against the loads (of the car) in general at speed but also trying to get over these bumps, and that's very, very challenging. You can run up high (to avoid bumps in Turn 1), but even then usually your left-side tires are on them."

    Matt Kenseth

    Last year's race winner Matt Kenseth has three wins overall at the track—second in the series behind Jimmie Johnson’s four. Two of Kenseth’s Vegas wins have come in his two best seasons—his 2003 championship-winning year and last year’s championship runner-up result. (His other Vegas victory came in 2004.)

    The Busch Brothers

    Local favorites Kurt and Kyle always seem to step it up a notch for the home crowd. Unfortunately, Kurt will be dealing with the distraction of his announcement this week that he will attempt the “double"—racing in both the Indy 500 and the Coca Cola 600 on the same day this Memorial Day weekend.

    He’s not always been kind to the media, so it should be interesting to see how he handles the barrage of questions. Younger brother Kyle has one win (2009) and five top-10s at LVMS in a Cup car. He sits 14th in points and needs a good weekend. How good are the Joe Gibbs Racing Camrys on the 1.5-mile tracks?

    "Yeah, Vegas always means a little bit more pressuremore pressure on myselfjust because it's the hometown and you want to win there," said Kyle Busch. "Thankfully, I have won there and I’ve knocked that one off the list, but certainly you want to win there every year." 

    Carl Edwards

    Edwards has two wins and four top-10s at LVMS and sits ninth in points. He carries the weight of the Roush Fenway Racing organization on his shoulders. Since almost winning the title in 2011, Edwards hasn’t returned to the form of previous years. A win here would be big on many levels.

Keep an Eye on These Drivers

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano

    Yet another duo worth watching (shown above at Daytona). While LVMS isn’t one of Keselowski’s better tracks, the odds are that Team Penske has a good 1.5-mile car, and the strength this Michigan native has shown already this season is likely to continue in Vegas. LVMS isn’t one of Logano’s best tracks, but so far this season, he’s shown the kind of maturity that can make this 23-year-old a Chase contender.

    Denny Hamlin

    Hamlin got his season off to a fast start, winning everything but the Daytona 500, where he finished second. Phoenix was a disappointment (19th). If Joe Gibbs Racing’s 1.5-mile cars are as good as last year’s, Hamlin should be back in form this weekend and be vying for the win. 

    Kasey Kahne

    Kahne is often the forgotten man at Hendrick Motorsports. He’s frequently overshadowed by his teammates, yet he delivers the goods almost every weekend. 

    "I’ve been doing this for a while now, and I think with experience you get better to a certain point," said Kahne. "I feel like each year I can keep excelling and getting better." He won the pole here 3 times and his record on 1.5-mile tracks is far better than most. And remember, he’ll have a Hendrick car and horsepower.

    Austin Dillon, Kyle Larson, Justin Allgaier, Cole Whitt, Alex Bowman, Parker Kligerman, Michael Annett and Ryan Truex

    This year’s stellar class of rookies is worth watching this weekend to see who handles himself best on the 1.5-milers. Unfortunately, all but Dillon, Larson and Allgaier will be saddled with underfunded and underengineered teams and will all have to race their way into the field. Whitt could be the surprise here.

And the Winner of the KOBALT 400 Is:

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    Jimmie Johnson

    Johnson’s record at Las Vegas Motor Speedway makes it difficult to not pick the six-time and reigning Cup champion.

    Three reigning NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champions have gone on to win at Las Vegas the following season: Matt Kenseth (2004), Jimmie Johnson, the only one to do it multiple times (2007, 2010) and Tony Stewart (2012). Statistics don’t lie, and the Chad Knaus-led squad is just too good on the 1.5-mile tracks. When they’re not, they know how to make the right adjustments so they are.

    My "second-guess: pick is any one of the three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers: Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth or Denny Hamlin. 

    Follow me on Twitter: @Bob Margolis