This week, the drivers of the Sprint Cup Series will be in Sin City for the Kobalt Tools 400. You can gamble on slots in Las Vegas, yes, but I feel like races here are also a good time to do a little gambling in fantasy leagues. Unlike last week in Phoenix, no active driver really dominates at this track on a consistent basis, and there tends to be new faces up front each race (possibly because there’s only one event here each season). To prove my point: in the last three races here, there have been fifteen different drivers who have notched top 5s at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This track is your typical 1.5-mile tri-oval cookie cutter.
During The Last Race At Las Vegas…It was the Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards show here last March. Those two led 232 of the 267 laps ran (163 and 69, respectively) but it was Carl backflipping in the end. Smoke finished 2nd with Juan Montoya, Marcos Ambrose, and Ryan Newman rounding out the top 5.
Practice Schedule…This is the type of practice schedule that I prefer. There will be one practice session on Friday afternoon (3:00 pm) followed by qualifying at 6:30 pm that evening. On Saturday at noon, a second practice will be ran, and at 3:00 pm, Happy Hour will be held. All cars should be in race trim on Saturday. The race is set to start around 3:00 pm on Sunday. All times are in EST.
Top Fifteen Ranking Entering The Kobalt Tools 400:
1. Greg Biffle – You really can’t ignore the hot start that The Biff has gotten off to in 2012, and I wouldn’t expect him to cool off in Sin City this weekend. It seems like Biffle always runs well at Vegas, but sometimes he fails to get the finish he deserves (like last season when his pit crew ruined his great day). Well, good thing for Greg is that he pretty much has an entire new crew. Before that, he had three straight top 10s at Vegas and has finished there in five of his eight starts here. Biffle has had a driver rating of at least 103.6 in six of the last seven races here, which is real impressive to me. The #16 should be challenging for the win at the end of the 400 miles on Sunday, as long as he doesn’t run out of gas again.
2. Tony Stewart – Speaking of gas, I bet “Smoke” doesn’t make the same mistake he made in Phoenix again. Someone has to learn, I guess. Anyway, Vegas has been a good track for Stewart over his career, although he hit a bit of a rough patch from 2006 to 2009. However, after his 36th-place finish here in 1999 (Tony’s rookie year), Smoke six straight finishes of 12th or better, and four of those were top 5s. As I said before, Stewart led the most laps here last season, and in 2010 he led seven laps en route to a 7th-place finish. Over the last two years, Stewart has the third-best average finish (10.1) on the tri-oval tracks, and Stewart-Haas Racing has been the best at Vegas over that span.
3. Matt Kenseth – The Daytona 500 champion is a two-time winner at Las Vegas (in 2003 and 2004) and sat on the pole in last season’s event. He cut a tire down early (like lap 13 early) but battled back for an 11th-place finish in the end. Kenseth’s average finish in Sin City is 11.7 and he has led a total of 450 laps in twelve career starts, which is second-best in the series. It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that Matt has the best average finish on tri-oval tracks in the past two seasons (8.1) without a single DNF. Kenseth has just one finish out of the top 20 in his twelve career starts at Las Vegas, and I highly doubt he adds to that total this weekend.
4. Jimmie Johnson – Five Time isn’t consistently dominant at Las Vegas like he is at other tracks, but he still has the best average finish of anyone in the series here (10.6 in ten races). His car wasn’t great here last season when he finished 16th, but that was right around the time the #48 team was struggling on the cookie-cutter tracks, so I’m not really worried about that. Jimmie has four victories at Las Vegas (in 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2010) and he has led at least one lap in eight of his ten starts here. Chad Knaus may be gone this week starting his suspension, so that might bring Jimmie’s ranking down a little but, but I still see him as a top 10 driver at least on Sunday, with or without Knaus.
5. Kyle Busch – When you look at the tri-oval race statistics over the last two years, there’s really nothing there to show that Rowdy deserves this ranking. However, it looks like Gibbs is over their engine problems from a season ago, and Kyle is due for a good run in my book. He’s had some great cars at Las Vegas over the last four races (top 5 qualifying effort in all four), but the finishes haven’t really shown that (one lone top 10, a win in 2009 from the pole). With that being said, Busch had a great car here last season but blew an engine early, and he’s had only one race here in the last seven with a driver rating under 100.0. Last week was a quiet top 10 for Rowdy in the desert, but I expect this team to make more of a statement all weekend in Las Vegas and come away with a solid top 5.
6. Carl Edwards – I’m really starting to believe the whole “hangover” theory for drivers that lose the championship even though Cousin Carl hasn’t ran too terrible thus far in 2012. However, I think this week will be a big test for the #99 team to prove they still have it; this is Edwards’ bread and butter track type and he has two wins here in seven starts. Those two victories, though, are his only top 5s here in seven career starts, which is a bit surprising. Still, Carl averages an 11th-place finish in Sin City and should at least run top 10 come Sunday, along with the other big three at Roush-Fenway.
7. Kevin Harvick – Statistically, “Happy” Harvick has been great on the tri-oval tracks in the last two years, and he hasn’t been too shabby at Las Vegas, either. In the nineteen tri-oval cookie-cutter races in the last two years, Harvick has recorded eleven top 10s and has the fifth-best average finish of anyone in the series, with 11.2. Kevin’s never won in Sin City, but he did finish 2nd here in 2010, and he had another top 5 in 2008 (4th-place). If this little streak continues, maybe another top 5 is in the cards for Harvick on Sunday. Right now, though, I have him as just top 10.
8. Denny Hamlin – If you haven’t read much of my fantasy advice, then you don’t know that I hate going against the most recent winner. And this week is no exception. Denny looks like he got over his hangover of last season, and Darian Grubb is getting calls on Twitter as the best crew chief in the series. We’ll see about that, there’s still a lot of season to go. Anyway, Hamlin has the fifth-best average finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and has just one finish outside of the top 20 in his six career starts here (and that was 22nd in 2010). Last year, Hamlin finished 7th at Las Vegas, and he has been the eighth-best driver on the tri-oval tracks in the last two years (with just three finishes outside of the top 20 in nineteen races). Got to pick the drivers that are hot.
9. Kasey Kahne – Yep, he burned me on most of my rosters last weekend as well. However, in fantasy racing, you have to be able to get over things quick, and Kahne should get a solid top 10 this weekend as long as he doesn’t nail the wall…on lap twenty-two…again. We all know how good Kasey is on the cookie-cutter tracks, and the Hendrick Chevys have found success here in the past with Jimmie Johnson and Jeff Gordon collecting six wins combined. In Kahne’s eight career starts here, he owns an average finish of 14.9 and is on a streak of four straight finishes of 14th or better. His two bad finishes here (38th in 2005 and 35th in 2007) were due to accidents. Real surprising…
10. Jeff Gordon – Jeff has won twice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and has five top 5 finishes in the seven races at Las Vegas since 2005. So why is he ranked this low? Because Gordon hasn’t been too great on the tri-oval tracks in the last two years. In those nineteen races, Jeff has just eight top 10s and an average finish of 16.7. I have no doubt that the #24 Chevy can be top 5 material on Sunday, but I’m being conservative right now with this ranking. His six top 5s in Sin City is tied with the next driver in this ranking for best in the series.
11. Mark Martin – I’m a firm believer in picking people often when they start off the season hot (like Scott Speed a few years ago, for example) and Mark Martin is your best bet this weekend. He hasn’t been too bad at Las Vegas in his career (13.1 average finish and one win in fourteen starts) and it helps that his Michael Waltrip Racing equipment was strong here a season ago, with Martin Truex, Jr. finishing 6th and David Reutimann finishing 13th. Mark finished 4th here in 2010 and has four straight top 10 qualifying efforts in Sin City. I see it as very obtainable for Martin to go 3-for-3 in top 10s for this season.
12. Marcos Ambrose – Man, what a heart breaker for this guy last weekend in the desert. Luckily, the series is going to a track that Marcos has found some success at in the past, especially his 4th-place run here last season. Ambrose has only made three starts at Las Vegas, but he hasn’t finished outside of the top 20 and has an average finish of 12.7. For all those looking to bank in on qualifying bonus points, remember that Marcos started on the outside pole here last season. Surprisingly enough (to some), Ambrose really has been consistent on these tri-ovals over the past two years, with an average finish of 16.1 and fourteen top 20s in nineteen starts. I’ll pencil the Tasmanian in around the teens for Sunday, but he may bump up if his Ford looks sporty in practice.
13. Joey Logano – And Joey’s make-it-or-break-it season continues with another “make it” run in Phoenix… A good thing for Logano is that he has been pretty good in Las Vegas, at least qualifying wise. In the last two events here, Sliced Bread has started both of them in 6th place, and in the 2010 event he finished there as well (a career-best in his three starts here). He ended up in 23rd in the event last season, but I’m overlooking that stat because of how miserable the #20 team’s 2011 was. Logano finished 13th in his other start here after starting 23rd. I’m expecting a result similar to that this Sunday.
14. Jeff Burton – As Ryan from ifantasyrace.com said, “2012 is Jeff Burton’s come back year and Las Vegas is a good track for his renaissance to continue (10.7 career average finish).” Jeff’s average finish here is second-best in the series and he has just two finishes outside of the top 20 in fourteen starts at this track. He won here in 1999 and 2000 and Burton had five-straight top 15s at Vegas before his 21st-place showing here last season. I’m not expecting a great run out of this team on Sunday, but a mid-teens finish wouldn’t surprise me one bit, and if they get a little luck maybe a top 10.
15. Clint Bowyer – I’m giving Clint the nod over Dale Earnhardt, Jr. in this spot right now simply because I think Bowyer is a better cookie-cutter racer. In four of his six starts at Las Vegas, Bowyer has finished in the top 15 (including each of the last three events here) and he finished 2nd in the 2009 race. His driver ratings worry me a bit, though, as Bowyer’s best has been 89.4, which came in the 2010 race where he ended up 8th after starting 13th. Like I said before, I think the MWR Toyotas will be good in Sin City this weekend, but if Clint doesn’t blow me away in practice, I may just leave him off of my rosters this weekend.
Those To Avoid Entering The Kobalt Tools 400:
Juan Montoya – I’m not convinced with JPM’s 3rd-place run in this race last season. Before that, Montoya’s best finish was 19th in his first four starts and he only finished on the lead lap in one of those events. Statistically, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing has been the worst team at Las Vegas over the last two seasons. Obviously, I’d stay away from Montoya’s teammate, Jamie McMurray, as well.
David Reutimann – If Reutty was in the same #10 car that Danica Patrick drives, I might have given him a chance this weekend, but I’m just not convinced that this team has the equipment to make it through the race (remember last week in Phoenix?). Even at the tri-oval tracks in 2010, Reutimann wasn’t very great and he was in a lot better equipment. David finished 4th here in 2009 and ended up 13th in the last two events at Vegas, but I’d be surprised to see this team crack the top 25 on Sunday.
A.J. Allmendinger – Penske Racing has struggled to get finishes here over the last few years–although Kurt Busch did qualify well here in this Double Deuce–and when you couple that with the fact that The Dinger struggles at Vegas as well, I’d suggest leaving him off your rosters this week. Last year, Allmendinger looked promising with a 7th-place start, and he also posted a career-best finish at this track. With that being said, he ended up 19th in that race, and I just don’t see him improving on that this weekend.