NOTES FROM THE NASCAR NATION: VIVA LAS VEGAS, SEVEN COME ELEVEN, BABY NEEDS A NEW SET OF TIRES

The elite of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series are making their annual visit to Las Vegas, the city that never sleeps at night, for this Sunday’s running of the Kobalt Tools 400. By the time the checkers falls on this race, we may be getting a clearer picture of the potency surrounding NASCAR’s new championship points structure. Las Vegas could turn out to be a case of who earned the points they needed and who now desperately needs any and all points they can find.

THE STORY BREAKDOWN

The current NASCAR Sprint Cup points standings has become a case of two brothers who also happen to be two Las Vegas favorite sons. Kyle Busch leads the standings over his older brother Kurt by three points. This could turn out to be one of the better story lines during Sunday’s race. First off, with NASCAR’s new 43 to 1 points breakdown, anything a driver can do to advance their points is now vitally important even during this still early stage of the season.

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Then there’s the matter of major bragging rights. Every driver in the world covets a win in his home town in front of his home fans. Also, let’s not overlook the Biblical Cain and Abel concept. These guys are brothers who spent a significant portion of their lives trying to out perform each other in every competitive scenario you could name. I’m not saying one is going to kill the other, as in the case of Cain and Abel, but one brother is not going to back down to the other when the green flag falls this Sunday afternoon.

There are other interesting areas of the current points standings as well including the fact that there are only a 17 point separation between the top ten drivers. Pre Chase favorite Tony Stewart is tied for third with a surprising A J Allmendinger. Jeff Gordon, on the strength of his popular win at Phoenix last week, elevated himself to a tie for fifth with team mate Mark Martin. Former Cup champion Bobby Labonte leads a three way tie, with Ryan Newman and Juan Pablo Montoya, that covers positions seven through nine while the surprising David Gilliland holds down the tenth spot.

While we all have a tendency to pay attention to which drivers are at the top of the charts, this new points structure also has us keeping a close eye on who are listed in the bottom half of the standings as well. It will be interesting to watch these teams to see what they can accomplish in terms of a rebound in their points status.

This is especially true of Richard Childress Racing’s Kevin Harvick, Jeff Burton and Clint Bowyer. All three RCR drivers made the 12 man roster for the 2010 Chase for the Championship and all three were favored to be championship contenders this year. Following a blown engine and a 36th place finish at Daytona, Burton got caught up in the big crash last week at Phoenix and could only muster a 26th place finish. “The Mayor of the NASCAR garage” now finds himself 32nd in the points, 53 points out of first and more importantly 36 away from that all important top ten. This situation is going to require a lot of rebounding that will not be easy.

Meanwhile Clint Bowyer started the season with a 17th at Daytona and also found himself caught up in the big crash at Phoenix where he finished 27th. He goes into the Las Vegas event 21st in the standings and 45 points from the top.

However Kevin Harvick may be the one RCR shining example of how a rebound can work within the new points configuration. Harvick left Daytona, following a rare blown engine, 42nd in the standings. Following a strong run, a fourth place finish, at Phoenix last Sunday, Harvick jumped 20 positions in the standings. He’s still 36 points from the top but only 19 away from the top ten.

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So, imagine yourself standing in front of the famed MGM Grand Hotel and Casino on the Las Vegas strip searching for a taxi cab to whisk you away to your next source of Vegas nightlife. All of a sudden there’s this low rumbling sound from a Chevrolet which greatly resembles a NASCAR Sprint Cup stock car although it does seem to have a lighted taxi sign on it’s roof. A second look inside of the car reveals the fact that the driver is NASCAR’s Tony Stewart.

All of this fun was a special promotion last Wednesday night presented by Stewart’s sponsor Mobil 1 Oil. Stewart was out in one of his Stewart Haas Racing cars playing taxi driver. The car required a few modifications to make the promotion work such as passenger seats along with head and tail lights. Earlier in the day Stewart did some intern work at the local Lucky Cab depot to learn the ins and outs of transporting passengers. Some of those passengers included premiere magician David Copperfield as well as the ghost of Elvis. That would be one of those famed Vegas impersonators seriously in need of a tanning booth.

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How much fun is Michael Waltrip having these days? The “almost” retired driver brought his well received “Michael Waltrip’s Comedy Garage” to Las Vegas for some stand up shows at the Mirage Hotel and Casino. Waltrip himself does a stand up set and recently said “I’m normally funny unintentionally, now it’s time to do it on purpose.” Waltrip has some strong allies in his Comedy Garage with the presence of stand up aces Henry Cho and John Repp.

Waltrip is also enjoying his new found status as a best selling author. His book, “In The Blink Of An Eye,” remains number eight on the best seller’s list and has been very well received. Waltrip is looking forward to meeting his fans for a book signing Friday and Saturday night at the Mirage.

But the new job title Waltrip cherishes the most is the role of grandfather. His daughter Caitlyn presented him with a grandson back on February 22nd.

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THE VEGAS BREAKDOWN

To no real surprise the Las Vegas based World Sports Exchange, (WSE), has Jimmie Johnson sitting on top of their favorite rankings this week at 5 to 1 odds. When the Las Vegas Motor Speedway underwent its major reconfiguration, prior to the 2007 race, Johnson, and his #48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, just simply took all of the Vegas action. He has compiled four wins, in his last six starts, along with four top five finishes, five top tens along with an average finish ratio of 10.0. It’s no wonder that some observers call this speedway Johnsonville. There’s also a strong emotional tie for Johnson connected to Sunday’s race. Kobalt Tools is a long time team sponsor as well as the race sponsor. That combination generally makes a driver and team dig a little bit harder. Johnson with the element of extra motivation could turn out to be formidable on Sunday.

Right behind Johnson, at 6 to 1, is hometown favorite Kyle Busch a former race winner. Busch is a threat to win a race anytime he straps himself inside of a race car. He also has the extra motivation of wanting another win in front of his hometown fans. Busch also has a healthy average finish ratio of 11.7 at Las Vegas.

Third in the WSE rankings is Jeff Gordon, last week’s popular and emotional winner at Phoenix. Here’s another driver who will be bringing a lot of motivation to Las Vegas. Gordon is a former winner at Las Vegas and has compiled six top fives along with an average finish ratio of 13.3. But it’s the severe hiccups of NASCAR fan Courtney Sterner everyone will be on the look out for. The evening before Gordon’s last four Cup wins, Sterner found herself dealing with a severe case of the hiccups. In a telephone interview with the SPEED Channel on Thursday, Sterner said she had dined on Buffalo hot wings Saturday, got the hiccups and then Gordon won the next day at Phoenix. It makes one wonder if Gordon sent a case of spicy wings to her home this week.

At 8 to 1 odds is Carl Edwards, a former race winner and a driver whom everyone is saying has a very good chance of winning Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400. A bit of an off track dare devil, Edwards seems to be pumped up from his extra curricular activities. Last week, during a pre race promotional visit, he plummeted 885 feet, strapped to a cable, from the roof of the Stratosphere Hotel and Casino. I understand the view is breathtaking. Then on Thursday Edwards visited nearby Nellis Air Force Base and went on a wild, 9.1 G, ride with the famous Thunderbirds. Yeah, he’s pumped up for Sunday.

Next on this week’s WSE rankings we have Denny Hamlin, 10 to 1, Tony Stewart, 11 to 1 and Kevin Harvick at 12 to 1. All of them are solid potentials. Hamlin has a 12.6 finish ratio at Las Vegas. He’s currently 14th in the championship standings, 22 points from the top, and will be looking to improve that status by Sunday afternoon. Stewart has a bigger mission in mind. Las Vegas is just one of two tracks where he’s never won at. He’s zero for 12 in Sin City and he’ll be looking to change that score. Also look for a hard charge from the aforementioned Kevin Harvick who will be attempting to dig himself out of his points hole.

At 14 to 1 you will find Kurt Busch and Greg Biffle both, of whom, would make good long shot considerations. Kurt Busch is the other hometown favorite who really wants a win at his native Las Vegas. But to pull it off he’s going to have to improve performance numbers at intermediate sized race tracks. He currently has a 21.9 finish ratio at Las Vegas. Meanwhile Biffle has dealt with bad luck during the first two events of the season. He’s in a points hole, currently ranked at 28th, and he’s going to need a strong finish at Las Vegas to get his Chase contender status back in the right direction. Right behind this pair of drivers is Kasey Kahne’s Red Bull Racing Toyota who is ranked at 20 to 1 for Sunday’s race.

If you’re the type who has nerves of steel, one who can handle the stress of a major long shot wager, then the WSE’s 25 to 1 category is right up your alley. This group lists five drivers who are win and points hungry featuring Clint Bowyer, Jeff Burton, Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth and Mark Martin. The standouts here include Burton, a two time Las Vegas winner, who has finished in the top five during two of his last three starts there. Kenseth, also a former winner at Las Vegas, would love to reinstate the former Roush Fenway Racing dominance at Las Vegas this Sunday. Martin could be the big surprise here. He has a win, six top fives and 10 top tens along with an average finish ratio of 12.8.

The bottom portion of this week’s WSE listing is pretty much what was expected. Earnhardt Ganassi team mates Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya are ranked at 30 to 1, followed by Ryan Newman at 33 to 1, Brian Vickers and Dale Earnhardt Jr. come in at 35 to 1 this week while David Reutimann finishes the list at 40 to 1.

Now for the disclaimer: NASCAR wants us to remind you that these posted numbers are for information and entertainment purposes. They neither encourage, nor condone, the placing of wagers on their races. But for those of you who are going to do it anyway, the best of luck to you. A NASCAR race at Las Vegas is about as unpredictable as the dice numbers on a casino craps table.

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THE RACE BREAKDOWN

The Kobalt Tools 400 is 267 laps/400.5 miles around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway’s 1.5 mile oval. Jimmie Johnson is the defending race winner from 2010.

The race has 44 entries vying for the 43 starting berths. Nine of those teams are on the go or go home list meaning they are not guaranteed a starting berth because they are currently outside of NASCAR’s top 35 in owner’s points. These teams will have to rely on qualifying speed to make the race. One of them, Bill Elliott and Phoenix Racing, is guaranteed a starting berth based on Elliott’s past champion’s provisional status.

The Las Vegas weather should be ideal for racing. Saturday’s forecast calls for partly cloudy skies and 70 degrees. Sunday, race day, calls for sunny skies and daytime highs of 73 degrees.

The Las Vegas Motor Speedway opened in 1996. The first NASCAR Sprint Cup race was held in 1998 and won by Mark Martin. The speedway has hosted 13 Cup events that has sent eight different winners to victory lane.

The track qualifying record, 188.719 MPH, was set in February of 2010 by Kurt Busch.

The Las Vegas Motor Speedway has 20 degrees of banking in all four turns, and nine degrees on the straights, following a track reconfiguration project prior to the 2007 race. The front stretch measures 2,275 feet, the backstretch is 1,572 feet long. The pit road speed is 45 MPH. The speedway presently has seating for 142,000.

The Kobalt Tools will be broadcast live by Fox Sports with the pre race show beginning at 2:30 pm-eastern. The race re-air will be on the SPEED Channel Wednesday, 12 pm-et.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of SpeedwayMedia.com.

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