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NASCAR at Las Vegas 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Kobalt 400

Brendan O'MearaFeatured ColumnistMarch 3, 2016

NASCAR at Las Vegas 2016: Preview, Prediction for the Kobalt 400

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    The West Coast swing, NASCAR-style, commences in Sin City for the Kobalt 400.

    A year ago, the Kevin Harvick Dominance Tour started en masse.

    He won the Las Vegas race, the Phoenix race and came one lap shy of winning the Fontana race for the what will forever be called…The Gold Rush.

    He had the epic average finish of 1.3333333333333333 (four divided by three, and those threes keep like going on forever) over the course of those three weeks.

    So we start in Vegas; many drivers need to get it together. Looking at you, Team 20.

    There are others too who mustn't slip too far out of the top 16. Yes, it's only the third race of the season, but last year's top 16 sort of established itself in the first few races (the exception being Kyle Busch for obvious reasons).

    So let's set the table for the Kobalt 400.

By the Numbers: Las Vegas Motorspeedway

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Kobalt 400

    Place: Las Vegas Motorspeedway

    Date: Sunday, March 6

    Time: 3:30 p.m. (ET)

    TV: Fox, 3 p.m. (ET)

    Radio: Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio

    Distance: 266-ish laps, 400 miles

    Defending winner: Kevin Harvick

Biggest Storylines

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    Chuck Burton/Associated Press

    NASCAR Suspends Cole Pearn

    Following a post-race inspection at Atlanta, NASCAR announced it had suspended and fined Cole Pearn $50,000.

    NASCAR is not feeling the Pearn.

    The violation involved roof flaps, and NASCAR, if nothing else, is intolerant of roof flaps and the violations thereof.

    Furniture Row Racing took umbrage to the whole fiasco and predictably appealed, according to Kenny Bruce of NASCAR.com:

    Due to the severity of the P3 penalty levied against Furniture Row Racing and its crew chief Cole Pearn today (Wednesday), the No. 78 Sprint Cup team has informed NASCAR it will appeal the decision. The infraction, which was immediately corrected following technical inspection at Atlanta Motor Speedway last week, was safety related and not competition related. We sincerely appreciate that NASCAR has an appeal process so we can review the level of the penalty.

    Martin Truex Jr., the operator of the car in question, was docked 15 championship points. The way he's been driving through the first two races would suggest the docking of 15 points will be nothing but a pesky mosquito in the ear.

    This team will endure.

     

    The Low-Downforce Aero Package Rolls On!

    We now live in a post-high-downforce era. The L-DAP makes its West Coast debut at Las Vegas, and the package, on the whole, is first-date rosy.

    But don't take my word for it! Hear what the stars of NASCAR are saying after the race in Atlanta!

    "It was fun," Joey Logano said, according to Pete Pistone's Motor Racing Network.

    Thanks, Joey. Care to add something, I don't know, of value to the conversation?

    We were sideways, sliding around, the cars were moving. I think the real test is next week when you get to a race track that there's not much tire wear, but I thought a faster car can pass the car in front of them, no doubt. We started 27th and we drove up into the top five without a caution, so you could show how fast our car was by how we were all capable of passing out there.

    And what say you, Carl Edwards?

    "They just need to keep taking more," he said. "This is real racing. We're driving hard. You can see the guys out here just digging for everything they're worth. I'm worn out. That's a tough race and just a lot of fun."

    Las Vegas Motor Speedway will be the perfect canvas for the L-DAP and yet another challenge for tire management and pit strategy.

    After all, it was pit strategy that granted Jimmie Johnson his win in Atlanta. Expect more of the same.

     

    Will Kevin Harvick Rise to the Top?

    Harvick was right in the thick of the first two races of the season. He finished fourth in the Daytona 500 and was stalking, stalking, stalking Johnson in Atlanta before he flubbed the overtime restart and finished sixth.

    Harvick's dominance of the West Coast swing in 2015 was laughable but laughable in that can-this-guy-seriously-be-this-good kinda way.

    He won in Vegas. He won in Phoenix. He finished second at Fontana.

    Let the games begin.

The Favorites

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    Matthew Bishop/Associated Press

    Matt Kenseth

    Matt Kenseth saw the Daytona 500 blow by him in a FedEx blur.

    For an encore, Kenseth watched his chances of winning in Atlanta fly by in the blur of a black flag with a cross on it. Improper fueling, am I right?

    The latter ultimately set him back two laps. It doesn't get much more frustrating than that. Kenseth said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (h/t Jared Turner of FoxSports.com):

    Sometimes you make you [sic] own luck, sometimes things fall your way, sometimes they don't. I think you just go through periods like that, and obviously the last three or four months have been a little tough as far as results go and other things going on. I think you just keep your head down and keep working on it.

    Kenseth, one of the more level-headed drivers on the circuit (excluding Martinsville circa 2015), will strike back with a Kensethian vengeance (excluding, again, the Martinsville circa 2015 varietal. Mulligan? Ah, whatever.).

     

    Jimmie Johnson

    With four wins and 500 laps led at Las Vegas, Johnson is a heavy favorite to win for one of his signature sponsors (helluva socket wrench) and notch his second win of the season.

    The second win is a big one for the No. 48. It will put him ahead of Dale Earnhardt Sr. with 77.

    The win in Atlanta was almost overshadowed, if that's even possible, by the evocation of the Intimidator's name. It's amazing the shadow Earnhardt still has on the sport. That's no criticism, merely an observation of one man's indelible mark.

    Should Johnson win again, it will be another chance to call Earnhardt's name, and Johnson will be the first to pay homage to the Man himself.

     

    Kevin Harvick

    Duh.

    See previous slide.

Dark-Horse Pick: Kyle Larson

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    For the second week in a row, Kyle Larson is the dark-horse pick to win the race in question.

    None of NASCAR's top 16 drivers could be considered a dark horse. You know the names. Even though Brad Keselowski is a bit cold these days, he has long graduated from dark horsiness.

    So we look to the second tier of drivers.

    As an aside, part of me really wants to name Larson the dark-horse pick every week until he wins because he may be the darkest horse in all of NASCAR.

    It's half-comical, half-serious to name him the DH, but in this case he's actually a deserved DH.

    In two career races, he has one top-10 and an average finish of 11th at LVMS. That's a quality DH line.

    Larsonmeter reading: tepid

And the Winner Is...Matt Kenseth

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The third race in the frustrating season for Kenseth will become far less vexing after three hours of herd-ker hard-core racin' in Vegas.

    He's had one of the best careers at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and is a favorite, as Tom Jensen of FoxSports.com writes, "because he's led more laps (516) at Vegas and has the best average finish of 11.375 of any driver in the race. Plus I'm sure he still has a bit of a chip on his shoulder after the first two races of the year."

    Color me DeWalt black and yellow; that sounds like winnin' figures.

    You almost have to favor all the Toyota Engines of Merit, especially if they've been singed with the Joe Gibbs cattle-branding iron.

    Kenseth has zero top-fives, while all his do, yet Kenseth has had perhaps the best car in both races so far. Intriguing.

    So it's with great pleasure to announce Kenseth will stand tallest among a heap of Las Vegas spoils.

     

    All stats come courtesy of Racing-Reference.info.

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