As the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup season is taking shape, the sport heads out to Nevada for it's annual visit to Sin City. A fan-favorite track for the city life, area, and competitive racing, the Kobalt Tools 400 is always a race I look forward to every year. While Denny Hamlin and Greg Biffle have gotten off to fast starts, usual contenders such as Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson find themselves outside the top 20 in points. The Cup schedule is compromised of mostly intermediate tracks, such as this one, a type of track where the circuit has yet to visit. This race will surely be a predictor of late season contenders and pretenders.
One of the newest tracks on the schedule, Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a 1.5 mile tri-oval, located just a few miles north of the Strip in Las Vegas. It was part of NASCAR's multiple-track expansion in the late 1990's, which also included Texas Motor Speedway, Homestead-Miami Speedway, and what is now Auto Club Speedway. Since the track was reconfigured from it's original flat-track like state to it's current steep banking in 2007, the track has featured much side-by-side racing and some incredibly close finishes. The track today has 20 degrees of banking in the corners, 9 degrees on the front straightaway, and 3 degrees on the back straight. Pit road speed limit is 45mph, average for a track this size.
LVMS is quite popular with not only fans, but drivers too. Here's what Kevin Harvick has to say on the track: “It hasn’t seemed to change a lot. It seems like it’s still really fast and every time we go out there during this time of the year it’s always pretty cool so the cars seem to grip well. The way that they paved that particular race track, it started off rough and it’s still rough. I think everybody’s adapted and it adds character to the track. You can move around the race track and you have options. It’s a different race track than most everywhere else we go.”
While it may just seem a regular "cookie-cutter" track on the schedule, the truth is that it is just as unique as any other speedway. As Kevin said, the temperatures here have a lot to do with keeping the asphalt in good condition. There is so much grip, drivers can run 3 or even 4-wide confidently on the wide surface. NASCAR has proven that, and last year IndyCar wanted to venture over to Vegas to test that out, too. The race, as we all know, turned out terribly; as fast speeds, side-by-side racing, and the large pack led to the death of 2011 Indianapolis 500 winner Dan Wheldon. The lap 12 crash also took fellow competitors Pippa Mann, Will Power, and others to hospitals. Thankfully, our sport has much more safety than open-wheel racing, and chances are much higher that we need not fear such a tragedy. But last October's race reminded us what can happen when speeds and competition runs too high.
Now, back to NASCAR. As my friend Jordan McAbee said in his Fantasy Preview, there is no one driver that consistently dominates here. 15 different drivers have finished in the top 5 in the past 3 races here. In other words, no one finished in the top 5 twice within the past three years. But in my Fantasy teams, I like two things: experience and hot streaks. These drivers, if chosen wisely, can be the saving grace of your season. So, for LVMS, there are 3 "must have" drivers. The first is Greg Biffle, who has two consecutive top 5s to start the season. On top of that, the driver of the No. 16 has finished in the top 10 in three of the past four starts here, along with an average rating of over 103.0 in 6 of the past 7 races. Second is Jimmie Johnson, who leads the series in wins and average finish. Four wins in 10 career starts is just fantastic, and while he seemed to struggle in 2008 and 2009, I believe that slump is over. Finally, we have Matt Kenseth, who won the Daytona 500 a bit over two weeks ago. Except in 2009, when he blew an engine, Mr. Consistency has never finished worse than 20th in his career, including a pair of wins.
The weekend schedule consists of 3 practice sessions, the first of which is on Friday afternoon at 3pm ET on Speed. That broadcast continues with qualifying at 6:30pm, before the Cup competitions concludes for the day. On Saturday, the two practices will also be on Speed, this time at 12:30pm and 3 pm ET. FOX's broadcast of the Kobalt Tools 400 (400.5 miles/267 laps) begins at 2:00pm Sunday afternoon, with the green flag scheduled to drop at approximately 3:16pm.