Dropping the Hammer: Previewing the NASCAR Sprint Cup Race at Las Vegas

Rob TiongsonSenior Analyst IFebruary 26, 2010

LAS VEGAS - MARCH 01:  Jeff Gordon, driver of the #24 DuPont Chevrolet, drives during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Shelby 427 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 1, 2009 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images)
Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

While it may be hard to believe that the NASCAR Sprint Cup tour has visited Las Vegas for the past 12 years, the action at this exciting quad-oval, state-of-the-art facility lends itself to the saying that "seeing is believing."

Originally a relatively low-banked, 1.5-mile speedway, LVMS has recently rebranded itself as a challenging and high-speed arena with corners banked at 20 degrees. Transitions are somewhat rough, and the once comfortable driving that racers were used to prior to the track's reconfiguration in late 2006 have all but disappeared.

On the surface, it may look like a variation of the Bruton Smith-formulated facility as 1.5-mile quad-oval with at least 20 degrees of banking in the turns. In reality, this track has a character of its own, as drivers race into the corners at nearly 200 miles per hour.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway's corners aren't exactly pedestrian in nature, with a relatively abrupt transition that grows more challenging with the setting sun toward the latter portions of the race. While a low-line may be the preferable groove in terms of speed, a high-line will definitely aid in carrying speed off the corner with more momentum as a run progresses.

Sunday's Shelby American (Live , 3 p.m. EDT on FOX) may be race number three of a long Sprint Cup season. However, it is a crucial race for those struggling in the points standings as well as for teams who are out of the top-35 bubble.

With Las Vegas and Atlanta on the docket before a week off in mid-March, for certain Sprint Cup teams, now is the time to make up ground in terms of points and positions. There are familiar faces who are soundly absent and missing from their usual dinner table seats in the top-12.

Who to Watch

Drivers like Jeff Gordon, Denny Hamlin, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kyle Busch desperately need to cash in this 267-lap event with a top-10 finish after a rough day in the office at Auto Club Speedway. These usual suspects need to bring out theri best hand, never flinching or folding with the guise of poker faces from their fellow competitors.

Gordon has yet to crack a top-five finish this year, much less a top-10 result in 2010. If the No. 24 DuPont Chevy team wants to make its case for that elusive fifth title, a strong performance must be backed up with a great finish in the Sin City.

Hamlin was gambling for the victory last Sunday until he ran into a pair of problems toward the finish, both involving cut tires. Frustrated and flustered, nothing says a pick me up for the FedEx team than to deliver a victory for the driver who most feel could derail the Jimmie Johnson title express.

Meanwhile, Earnhardt Jr. ran into a case of the 2009s, which meant for a very long afternoon with an ill-handling beast. An array of problems left for a very distraught No. 88 AMP Energy/National Guard crew, with a driver who certainly needs a few confidence boosts to dispatch any doubts of his legitimacy as a Sprint Cup racer.

All things considered, Busch had the "best" day of the Frustrated Four, bringing his No. 18 Toyota home in 14th spot. Still, that didn't leave for a satisfying taste for the M&M's/Interstate Batteries racer.

"We just had to battle back all day," he said. "Just had more bad luck when the caution came out when we were pitting. Just a frustrating day."

Of the quartet, Busch will feel most at home at his asphalt playground. After all, he's a native of Las Vegas and there's nothing like some home-cooking for a morale booster in front of family and friends all around the track.

Look for these four to have better finishes on Sunday, mixing it up among the top-10 with the normal roleplayers like Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton, and Clint Bowyer.

Whoa, did I just call the Richard Childress Racing trio "normal role players?" Why of course!

And why not? Nothing says hot streak like the RCR gang who have really turned the corner with this once fledgling multi-car operation. Seemingly experiencing a case of the "Katy Perry Syndrome," this is the hottest team in terms great finishes and victory lane potential.

It's not exactly a gamble if you know you're going to win. Picking any of the Childress racers may just be a certain choice for a trip to Victory Lane...well, with bragging rights, of course!

The Game Plan

There's absolutely no let-up at Las Vegas with the passing, with multiple racing grooves allowing for side-by-side dramatics all afternoon long. While qualifying up front is pivotal for track position and pit selection, a poor starting spot doesn't necessarily translate to an entirely long Sunday.

That said, everything we've seen thus far at Daytona and Fontana will be key in terms of getting that car to perform at optimum conditions. Drafting is a relatively esential factor in terms of the traffic that'll sprinkle the track as the race progresses, but nothing like the buddy systems that we saw at "The World Center of Racing."

While aerodynamics, horsepower, and handling are always crucial factors at about any track, entering and exiting pit road will most definitely determine the winner of Sunday's race. This factor was greatly demonstrated by Gordon, who missed the entrance down pit lane just after the halfway point of the race.

The result?

How does a torn-up fender sound? Gordon had to lock up on the brakes, which punctured his left tire, cutting it down and shredding up pieces of his fender in the process.

Fortunately, his crew was able to patch up his machine as aerodynamic as possible, propelling "Four Time" to a sixth-place finish on what otherwise could have been a disastrous finish. Days like that can be the difference between contending for titles or missing the chase.

The Checkered Flag

Whoever wins will most likely be a team that performed strong during the final races of 2009. Typically, those who fared well down the stretch still carry that momentum into the early segments of the next season, so that might be good news for fans of "Dennis the Menace" or the Childress boys.

Denny Hamlin is certainly a driver to watch, as he's prime to make his first trip to the winner's circle, ACL or not. Tracks like these suit his aggressive yet somewhat polished driving style around this fast speedway.

However, as I'll mention on Creature vs. Creature this week, my pick will be Jeff Burton. He was the first two-time winner at this facility, taking home a spectacular sibling showdown in 1999 and a rain-shortened letdown in 2000.

With all the momentum from late last year still on the No. 31 CAT Chevy team's side, "Mr. Nice Guy" is going to show the critics and fans that he's not forgotten how to drive a racecar. His confidence is back and that desire for a first Sprint Cup title is there with the South Boston, VA hero.

If he falls through, Harvick or Bowyer will be more than happy to take the checkered flag home. Like teammate Burton, both have winless streaks and would like nothing more than to soak in the sun with the championship belt and a trophy to boot.

As always, feel free to chime in and give me your take on this Sunday's race! Damned if I'm wrong or prophetic if I'm right, it's certain that racing fans are in for a great show where everything that happens in Vegas certainly stays there.

Or does it?