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Las Vegas NASCAR race winner Tony Stewart gained eight spots in the Sprint Cup Series standings following his victory on Sunday, but he wasn't the biggest gainer of the day.
That honor belonged to Jimmie Johnson, who moved up 14 positions to 23rd in points after a runnerup Las Vegas finish. Jamie McMurray's eighth-place run paid big dividends as well, as the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing driver vaulted 11 spots from 36th to 25th in points.
Not everyone had such a good day. Brad Keselowski plummeted nine spots in the standings after a fuel pump problem – he's now 21st – and Bobby Labonte, AJ Allmendinger and Landon Cassill lost five spots apiece.
Here's a look at the updated NASCAR Sprint Cup Series point standings after Las Vegas:
Two races into the current NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season, it appeared Jamie McMurray's recent string of frustration would continue after he opened the year by finishing 31st and 37th at Daytona and Phoenix, respectively.
But in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, McMurray had an eighth-place result and his season took a turn for the better.
If only the same could be said about his health.
"He showed up this morning and he was sick," crew chief Kevin 'Bono' Manion said. "I don't think he slept last night. He hasn't eaten. So for Jamie to come through like he did for us today was really big. ... He could barely talk after the race."
Somehow, McMurray powered through his illness and came home with his best finish at a 1.5-mile track since he won at Charlotte in October 2010. It was also his first top-10 finish since coming home fifth last August at Bristol – a span of 14 races.
For a team which hasn't had much to celebrate lately, a solid finish on a style of track which encompasses almost a third of the Sprint Cup schedule provides some much-needed hope.
"We're not overly excited about an eighth-place finish," Manion said. "I believe we had a top-five car with all that happening at the end. The team needed a (good) finish. Last week was a disappointment and we just haven't had a finish."
It was easy to throw dirt on Jimmie Johnson when he was -23 points in the hole and facing the prospect of losing his crew chief Chad Knaus for up to six races two weeks ago after the Daytona 500.
But after a fourth-place run last week in Phoenix followed by a runner-up finish on Sunday in Las Vegas, Johnson has sent a loud and reverberating reminder he is still the same man who has won five championships and 55 Sprint Cup races.
"Definitely a lot to be proud of today," Johnson said after the race. "Look at our pit stops on pit road, the consistent speed we had there and the consistent fast race car that we had all day long.
"We did have one set of tires maybe two stops from the end we lost a bunch of spots. Something was off with them. Outside of that, I mean, the car was pretty close to the fastest car all day long. Traded back and forth with Tony (Stewart). I can't take anything away from them; they were awfully strong and had the fastest car all day long."
Despite a wreck in Saturday's final practice session that destroyed his primary car and necessitated his team going to a backup car, Johnson wasted no time working his way to the front. By lap 82 with a pass of Kevin Harvick, Johnson moved into second place behind Matt Kenseth, and on lap 99 he took the lead after a lengthy battle when he passed Kenseth going into Turn 3. Altogether, Johnson led for a total of 35 laps on the day.
With three cautions in the final 23 laps, Johnson had his opportunities to work his way around race-leader Tony Stewart on the subsequent restarts. But the defending Sprint Cup Series champion was on his game and never opened the door for Johnson or anyone else to walk through.
"The first (restart), I know that I just jumped on the gas too hard and spun 'em," Johnson said. "That was my fault. The second restart, I didn't spin 'em. I felt really good and he was still running away from me."
Despite missing out on scoring his first win of 2012, a second-place finish and the points that come with it is huge for a driver trying to dig out of a massive hole.
Now though, thanks to back-to-back top-five finishes, the deficit Johnson found himself in one race into the season is no longer as overwhelming. The five-time champion jumped 14 spots in the standings and sits 23rd in points heading into the Food City 500 next Sunday at Bristol Motor Speedway.
"With everything we went through this weekend, we will take it," Johnson said. "Man, I want to win. We were close."
Carl Edwards might be apologizing to Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth in the Tuesday morning team meeting.
Edwards pulled a daring three-wide move down on the final restart with four laps to go in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and it put Kenseth in a precarious position. Kenseth ended up wrecking his car shortly thereafter and finished 22nd instead of a potential top-three result.
"Matt spun his tires a little bit (on the restart) and I got a run on him," Edwards said, "and then Greg (Biffle) and I went around him, and he ended up getting wrecked. I feel terrible."
The replay showed Kenseth may have had a slow restart, and Edwards responded by darting down to the apron to make it three-wide. But when Kenseth got back up to speed, Edwards was the slower car and impeded his teammate's progress.
"Carl just laid back and got by me three-wide, and then it just didn't seem like there was a lot of room getting into (Turn) 1," Kenseth said. "And then I did get clear behind him and he just stopped in the middle of the corner. I don't really know what happened. ... I thought I got a good start."
At the same time, Kasey Kahne got a run on the outside of Kenseth and seemed to suck the air off the 17 car, sending him into the wall. Kenseth made contact with Kahne at the same time, and the 5 car also sustained damage.
Edwards finished fifth and, according to Speed's Wendy Venturini, quickly left pit road after seeing the replay to try and reach Kenseth at his hauler and apologize. But Kenseth had already left the track by that time.
"I mean, you got to get what you can get," said Biffle, who finished third. "...Unfortunately, these days you got to race each car like you have to pass for position.
"... As long as we're not beating and shoving on each other, I suppose anything goes, I guess."
On a day when Dale Earnhardt Jr. led more laps in a single race than he had in all of 2011, NASCAR's most popular driver was fired up about not finishing better than his 10th-place result at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
"I think we should run better than that," he said. "I think the team felt like we should have been better than that. We're just a little bit disappointed."
Earnhardt Jr. said his car was tight at the start of the race, even when he was leading lap after lap – 70 in all – and the driver failed to communicate that fact to crew chief Steve Letarte.
"It's a lesson you learned a long, long time ago, and we just didn't do a good job of working on the car during the race," Earnhardt Jr. said. "It was more my fault than anything."
The driver said he knew changes were needed to free the car up, but blamed himself for not making that clear to Letarte. In his experience, the track gets tighter and tighter as the race goes on – particularly in the last 60 laps, when there are multiple cautions.
"You just know that from years and years of driving," he said. "Knowing how it drove that first run, even though it was really fast, we should have worked on it and I should have told Steve more about it. I should have let him understand what was going on."
The driver was also frustrated with his former Hendrick Motorsports teammate, Mark Martin. With roughly 25 laps to go, Earnhardt Jr. made contact with the No. 55 car after getting a run in the outside lane, and he inadvertently put Martin in the wall.
Earnhardt Jr. said he was frustrated prior to the incident and Martin's move "kind of sent me over the edge." But he maintained Martin made a breach of racing etiquette with the block.
"I don't have a problem with Mark; I have so much respect for him," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But to me, personally, there's an unwritten etiquette that if...I'm coming 10 mph faster off the top of the racetrack; you stay low. Don't knock a half-second off my lap time being a jerk about it. Stay low.
"You're going to get it in the next corner, the position is going to be yours, just don't pull up in front of somebody when they're going to come up off the corner 10 mph faster."
Earnhardt Jr. said he didn't believe Martin's move was how drivers were supposed to race, though he acknowledged Martin probably feels differently and added the drivers "definitely disagreed right there at that moment."
"We just want to win really bad," he said, "and it felt like we should have finished better than we did today."
Martin was unavailable for comment after the race because he had already left the track before Earnhardt Jr. made his comments to reporters.
Tony Stewart scratched another racetrack off the bucket list.
Powering away from Jimmie Johnson after a restart with four laps left in Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the reigning Sprint Cup champion took the checkered flag .461 seconds ahead of Johnson.
The victory was Stewart's first at the 1.5-mile track, leaving only Darlington and Kentucky as active Cup tracks at which he hasn't won. The win was Stewart's 45th, 15th all-time, in 467 Cup starts.
Greg Biffle, Ryan Newman and Carl Edwards came home third through fifth, respectively. Clint Bowyer, Paul Menard, Jamie McMurray, Trevor Bayne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. completed the top 10.
Stewart took two tires during a pit stop under caution on Lap 204 and pulled out to a comfortable lead over McMurray. A caution for debris slowed the field for the fifth time on Lap 228, and Stewart came to the pits for fuel only.
Brad Keselowski and Bowyer remained on the track and led the field to green on Lap 234, but Stewart regained the top spot with a three-wide dive to the inside moments after Keselowski crossed the stripe.
Stewart pulled out to a one-second lead over Keselowski before Landon Cassill's blown engine caused the sixth caution. As Stewart sped away after the restart on Lap 250, Keselowski's fuel pickup failed, and the driver of the No. 2 Dodge took his car to the garage.
Here are the full results from Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 NASCAR race at Las Vegas:
Here are some storylines for today's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:
Big names in new places need big days
Kasey Kahne and Clint Bowyer were two of the more prominent names to switch teams over the offseason. Thus far, two races into 2012 neither have had much success with their respective new rides.
Kahne has wrecked four cars, hasn't finished better than 29th and finds himself buried 31st in the standings. Bowyer, while not having near the same misfortune as Kahne, has had his own issues. At Daytona he ran out of fuel while running in the top 10 and had to scramble just to finish 11th; and last week at Phoenix he blew two right-front tires within the first 25 laps.
However, this weekend it appears both Kahne and Bowyer's luck looks to be changing for the better. With a speed of 190.456 mph, Kahne blazed to his 23rd career pole, while Bowyer qualified a very respectable fifth. Now let's see if that speed in qualifying carries over to today's race.
Showing your hand
Because Las Vegas is the first of the 11 mile-and-a-half tracks on the schedule, what happens today will be a great indicator of what we can expect to see play out over the course of the year. If a team shows great speed throughout the race, it's to be assumed that speed will carryover to Texas, Kansas, Charlotte and the other 1.5-mile tracks that clutter the schedule.
There is a reason why in the Chase era, only once has a driver won at Las Vegas and not gone on to make the Chase.
For proof, look no further than last year's Vegas results where Carl Edwards and Tony Stewart finished first and second, a precursor to what we witnessed in the Chase as the title combatants slugged it out for the championship.
Stewart looking to finally hit it big in Las Vegas
Las Vegas is one of three tracks Tony Stewart has never won – Darlington and Kentucky are the others – but it's not as if he's never come close. As mentioned above, the defending series champ finished second in this race a year ago as well as in 2000, he also has six other top-10 finishes in 13 career starts.
And one more thing: Today he will be driving the same chassis which he won with at Chicagoland – another mile-and-a-half track – last September to open the Chase.
Can Michael Waltrip Racing keep the momentum going?
Now its sixth year, Michael Waltrip Racing has never started off a year as strongly as it has this one. Martin Truex Jr.'s worst finish is 12th so far, while teammate Mark Martin hasn't finished outside the top 10 and won the pole last weekend in Phoenix. As a result they sit sixth and seventh in points, respectively.
With Martin having a Vegas win under his belt (1998) and Truex finishing fourth here a year ago, there's little reason to think that momentum won't continue for at least another week.
• Of the 14 races run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, half of them have been won by a driver with a blue Ford oval on their hood, including last year's race-winner Carl Edwards.
• Kyle Busch is the only driver to have won this race from the pole. But it does come with a bit of an asterisk, as Busch was forced to start in the back due to an engine change between practice and the race.
• When the green flag waves today, it will signal the 400th career Sprint Cup start for Dave Blaney.
1. Matt Kenseth
There are a lot of things to like about Matt Kenseth's prospects this weekend. He's a two-time Vegas winner (2003 and '04), drives a Ford for the man who's won nine races here and has the intermediate tracks figured out more than anyone else. Plus, and in qualifying Friday, he clocked-in the 11th fastest time – and when Kenseth qualifies well, he typically runs well – eight of the last 11 times he qualified in 11th or better, he's finished in the top 10.
2. Jimmie Johnson
As last week proved when Jimmie Johnson led 55 laps and rallied back from a loose wheel to finish fourth, any talk of him and his team being distracted by Chad Knaus' possible suspension is merely that – talk. With Johnson having been to Las Vegas' Victory Lane four times, it would be silly to discount his chances this afternoon.
3. Tony Stewart
Unlike Kenseth and Johnson, Stewart has never won in Las Vegas; however, as detailed above, he has come close. With him wheeling the same chassis he's won with on a similar type track, pardon the pun, but I'm not betting against him this afternoon.
Jeff Burton's 10.7 average finish in Las Vegas is better than every driver in today's field except for one – Jimmie Johnson and his 10.6 average finish. With how well Burton has run this year – he finished fifth at Daytona and was in the top 10 at Phoenix before his engine expired – a good day should be in the cards for the veteran driver.
Dodge is learning it has plenty of options to remain in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series next season despite its surprising breakup with Penske Racing.
After unveiling its 2013 Dodge Charger on Sunday morning at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Dodge SRT brand CEO Ralph Gilles said he's been pleased with the amount of interest from Cup teams.
"Based on the way our phone is ringing, I'm not too concerned (about 2013)," Gilles said. "With every storm, there's a sunny day later. (The Penske breakup) was unexpected, to be honest with you, but we're ready for it. We've been knocked down a few times in our history, and we come back."
Penske Racing announced March 1 it was leaving Dodge for Ford in 2013. Gilles offered few hints as to Penske's reason for the move, but said one factor may have been the manufacturer's reluctance to offer Penske a five-year contract (Dodge preferred more flexibility).
Gilles said Dodge hopes to pick a new team – or teams – by mid-summer, though he couldn't talk about the potential partners on the record.
"I would love to kind of sit with you at a bar and discuss this," Gilles said with a laugh. "There's a lot of options. It's a big deal to reinvent how we go about it. We may look at multiple teams. ... We're going to have some fun with this."
Dodge is making a list and will evaluate all of its options, Gilles said, and could change the way it conducts business in NASCAR.
In the meantime, Gilles insisted the manufacturer will do everything it can to help Penske win in 2012.
"All I'm going to say about Mr. Penske is I would love to be the company that gives him his first championship in NASCAR," Gilles said. "That's how we're going to approach 2012: We're going to race as hard as ever."
(Photo: Jeff Gluck / SB Nation)
It is a "Chamber of Commerce Day" for Las Vegas Motor Speedway and the Kobalt Tools 400. The sunshine continues as it has all weekend with race temperatures into the low to mid 70s. Towards the second half of the race, the winds may begin to increase out of the south-southwest getting up to 15-20 miles per hour.
Since the weather has been so nice this weekend, I decided to attend today's race. Here's hoping the action on the track is as good if not better than the weather has been all weekend.
3:00 p.m ET
Sprint Cup race – Mostly sunny skies – temp: 71
4:00 p.m ET
Sprint Cup race – Mostly sunny skies – temp: 72
5:00 p.m ET
Sprint Cup race – Mostly sunny skies, breezy – temp: 74
6:00 p.m ET
Sprint Cup race – Mostly sunny skies, breezy – temp: 75
It's NASCAR race day at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and we've got the actual race start time, the starting lineup and some other facts about today's race for you below.
What time does the race start today? Grand marshal Tim Allen – yes, that Tim Allen – will give the command to fire engines at 3:08 p.m. Eastern time (12:08 local time). After a few pace laps, the race will take the green flag at 3:16 p.m. Eastern. And remember, that's Eastern Daylight Time – hopefully you set your clocks to "spring forward" last night.
Race name/distance: The Kobalt Tools 400 is 267 laps around the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, so there's actually a total of 400.5 miles instead of 400. This is a big race for Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 team, because Kobalt is a Lowe's-owned brand of tools.
TV and radio: Today's race can be seen on FOX. Every Sprint Cup Series race through May will be on the FOX network. Unfortunately, there is no live streaming of the race – but you can listen on the Performance Racing Network's Web site (just click the red link). You can also check PRN's site for a list of affiliate stations in your area.
National anthem: American Idol finalist Pia Toscano will sing the national anthem today. Toscano, if you recall, also sang the anthem before last year's season finale at Homestead – and that turned out pretty well (both the race and her version of the anthem).
Tickets: The Las Vegas race has not been announced as a sellout, so there should still be tickets available if you're in the area and want to make a last-minute trip this morning. Although you should probably get in the car right about now.
Weather: The unofficial NASCAR weatherman, Brian Neudorff, says NASCAR is in for a rain-free day at Las Vegas. Neudorff is so confident, he's attending the race himself and says it'll be a pleasant day.
Last time: Carl Edwards won last year's Las Vegas race – and hasn't won a Sprint Cup Series points race since, if you can believe that.
Starting lineup for today's NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:
By her own admission, Johanna Long has a lot to learn when it comes to racing on NASCAR's bigger tracks.
The 19-year-old short-track ace feels comfortable rubbing fenders at places like Bristol and Martinsville, but the 1.5-mile intermediate tracks seem a bit more foreign.
So while Long wasn't thrilled with her 19th-place finish in Saturday's Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas, she also was grateful for the chance to gain more experience.
"Just to know how these things drive and how to keep the momentum up in the cars on mile-and-a-halfs (is different)," she said. "You get back there and you just try to pass them like at a short track, and it doesn't work."
Long, a Florida native, won the 2010 Snowball Derby – one of the country's most prestigious short-track races. She then raced in 17 of the 25 Camping World Truck Series races last year and is a rookie running a partial Nationwide Series schedule for ML Motorsports this season.
Saturday's race was just her second Nationwide Series event (she finished 21st at Daytona) and her seventh 1.5-mile race in any series.
"It's just about getting the most experience we can each time we're coming to the racetrack," she said. "In practice, (the goal is to) follow guys and learn the best we can. Even in the race, when the good guys are passing me, I'm trying to learn something from them and be better for the next time."
Long said she's determined to race hard – even against the veteran drivers – but give people room.
"Just like any race, anywhere," she said.
Though it'll take time for her to gain the experience she needs, Long said she's taking steps toward understanding what it takes to have a good weekend. For example: Until Las Vegas, she wasn't at all sure what she needed out of a Nationwide Series car (Daytona was much different, obviously) or how to communicate that to the team, she said.
Long plans to have a better idea next week at Bristol.
"It'll feel more like home when we go back there (to a short track)," she said. "When we go back to Bristol, it's like going back to the roots."
Danica Patrick seemed headed for another top-five finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Saturday until she was burned on a late restart and forced to settle for 12th.
Patrick was in the sixth position after what proved to be the final caution of the day, but the combination of a tight car and her struggles on restarts cost precious track position and a shot at a top-10.
"I don't think the result shows for how I felt in the car and how consistent I felt the car was," she said. "... I need to work on my restarts, I know that. I just lost a bunch of spots there."
After finishing fourth in last year's Vegas race – the highest finish for a female in NASCAR history – Patrick had high hopes entering Saturday's event. But she fell back at the start after qualifying 12th, thanks to a loose car, and took much of the race to get back toward the front.
When the team got the car more to her liking, she drove up into the top 10 and was making passes to get in position for a top-five finish. But then the last restart came, and Patrick just couldn't hold her spot.
"I was thinking, 'I'm really pissed that I'm falling back, because I was in sixth and now I'm not,'" she said. "In those moments, I get a little more angry and a little more fired up. These are not the kind of cars you can just drive harder and go faster. ... You can't just charge in the corner, because you're going to push or get loose. It's about perfecting the way you come out of the throttle."
The lack of a left-side mirror (it came loose and folded in during the race) also caused her problems, she said, as did her depth perception on pit stops.
"In IndyCar (pit stops), the guys are set out, so that poor guy on the right front is down on his knees like this," she said, dropping to her knees to demonstrate, "and there are cars coming in around him with their wheels exposed. But you could see them, and at least you were driving around a stationary object.
"But when you're pitting with (another car) who is coming in at the same time as you, those guys are coming over the wall, and it's difficult for me to know exactly how much I can cut into that box behind me. I felt like I almost hit somebody on the first stop."
Patrick, who said Friday she's worried about letting her fans down with disappointing results and overly high expectations, moved to 15th in points after Saturday's finish. She's a better driver on 1.5-mile tracks than short tracks, she said, because it's something she's used to.
"You're getting load in the corner...instead of the car just kind of skating around (like at a short track)," she said. "And I was decent in mile-and-a-halfs in IndyCar, too. So perhaps it's a technique, perhaps it's a confidence thing. I don't know."
Her short-track abilities will be tested again next week at Bristol, though, where she crashed and finished 33rd in her only start there last year.
"Just as a competitor and someone (running for) the points now, I would like to get some good results," she said. "But if I keep going through the process, and if I keep learning, they'll come."
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. dominated the last 50 laps of Saturday's Sam's Town 300 NASCAR Nationwide Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, pulling away from Mark Martin during a 39-lap green flag run to the finish.
The victory was Stenhouse's first of the season and third in the series – and his first on an intermediate speedway. Series leader Elliott Sadler came home third, followed by Trevor Bayne and Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan.
Cole Whitt, Austin Dillon, Justin Allgaier, Sam Hornish Jr. and Kasey Kahne completed the top 10.
Stenhouse drove away from Martin after a restart on Lap 162, opening a lead of 4.785 seconds with 20 laps left. The defending Nationwide champion maintained a comfortable lead the rest of the way.
Danica Patrick finished where she started, running 12th after qualifying 12th.
Fighting an extremely loose handling condition, Kyle Busch spun off Turn 2 and backed his No. 54 Toyota into the inside wall on Lap 26. Busch drove the car to the garage, where he lost 70 laps while his team made repairs.
Here are the full Nationwide Series results from Saturday's race at Las Vegas:
Tony Stewart has never started off a season exceptionally well. Sure, he's had some good finishes in the early part of the year, but the reality is just one of his 44 career Sprint Cup victories have come in the months of February or March.
Thus far, the 2012 season two races in is no different for Stewart, as the defending series champion opened the year with a16th-place finish in the Daytona 500 and followed that up by finishing 22nd last Sunday in Phoenix.
However, those mediocre results mask just how competitive Stewart has been.
Throughout Speedweeks, the No. 14 Chevy was a constant presence up front among the race leaders. Stewart finished a very close second to Kyle Busch in the non-points Budweiser Shootout, won his Gatorade Duel qualifying race and in the Daytona 500 was very much in line for a top-10 and possible win before getting caught up in an accident not of his own doing.
Stewart had just as good of a car last weekend on the one-mile Phoenix oval, as throughout the race he was a fixture in the top 10. Unfortunately, an electrical gremlin surfaced, preventing him from re-firing his car after he had shut off his engine in an effort to save fuel.
Later, Stewart would learn a breaker had short-circuited unbeknownst to him – a direct byproduct of NASCAR's switch this season to the new electronic fuel injection system.
"They told me when I flipped the switch back on it didn't start, which I already knew," Stewart said Friday. "I didn't ask any more questions. ... I don't need to know about electronics too much. If I can't see it work, I don't get too interested in it."
By the time his team did figure out the problem, Stewart was two laps down and ended the day 22nd.
As a result, the owner/driver finds himself 15th in the standings heading into this weekend's event in Las Vegas and once again staring up at quite a few drivers above him in the championship order. It's certainly not an insurmountable hole to climb out of this early in the season, and by no means an unfamiliar position for Stewart who is accustomed to coming out of the gate slowly.
One thing Stewart is not doing is looking back about his decision last fall to replace then-crew chief Darian Grubb at the end of the year.
Any lingering bitterness there may be between Stewart and Grubb is nonexistent, according Stewart. In fact, Stewart was among the first to congratulate Grubb last Sunday when he won the Subway Fresh Fit 500 with his new driver, Denny Hamlin.
Grubb's replacement at Stewart-Haas Racing is Steve Addington, who used to work with Stewart at the driver's previous employer, Joe Gibbs Racing. While the two have shown promise working with one another, the chemistry between driver and crew chief is still a work in progress. Nonetheless, Stewart feels a big step was taken over the past week.
"The great thing is that Steve and I got to spend some time together this week," Stewart said. "It was fun to go from Phoenix to here. A lot of the crew guys stayed out and we all got to spend time together as a team. When you have a new team leader like that, it's important for myself and for all the guys to try and spend as much time with each other as we can and for all of us to get to know him a little better and for him to get to know his guys."
In spite of Las Vegas Motor Speedway being one of three tracks he has never won on before – Darlington and Kentucky are the others – Stewart has had success on the 1.5-mile track in the past. That includes last year, when he led a race-high 163 laps and finished runner-up to Carl Edwards as a late-race penalty for dragging an air hose out of his pit box negated any chance Stewart had to contend for the win.
"I'm excited about (returning to Las Vegas)," Stewart said. "This was probably in all reality was the strongest race that we had last year. We had a car that just was dominant and we still let it get away from us. It was real disappointing to lose it with a penalty last year."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. hasn't won in 131 races. Jeff Burton has gone 115 races without a victory. And it's been 83 races since Mark Martin last won.
But as hard as it is to believe, Carl Edwards is a member of the drought club, too. The man who led the Sprint Cup Series a year ago in top-five and top-10 finishes, and who lost the championship to Tony Stewart on a tiebreaker, hasn't visited Victory Lane in a points race for more than a full year.
As the series rolls into Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday's running of the Kobalt Tools 400, Edwards finds himself immersed in a 35-race winless drought – to the surprise of many.
In a sport where consistency is key, winning can sometimes take a back seat to finishing regularly in the top 10 and the idea of making sure you score as many points as possible on a given weekend.
Nonetheless, winning races and championships is how a driver is ultimately measured – and in that degree Edwards hasn't fared well as of late.
Not that it bothers him.
"It doesn't feel like that to me," Edwards said when asked Friday what it feels like to not have won in a year. "I guess it's reality, but we go out every week and race as hard as we can, and there were many races last year that we very well could have won if things would have gone slightly different."
If someone can relate to Edwards' dry spell, it's his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Matt Kenseth. Not too long ago, the 2003 Sprint Cup champion suffered through a winless streak that saw him go 76 races between wins.
"Carl was extremely consistent last year," Kenseth said. "He was only able to win that one race, but he was in contention to certainly win a few more races and came up short for whatever reason.
"It's really, really hard to win these races. ... You have to enjoy them when you can win them because, like I said, it is difficult for anybody out there, no matter how good you are, to be able to put everything together just right on Sundays to be able win those races."
It's not as if Edwards didn't come close to winning multiple times in 2011. In fact, what's surprising is that he didn't win more often considering how frequently he put himself in position to do so. All told, on a variety of tracks from superspeedways to short ovals to intermediate tracks, last year's championship runner-up finished second on seven different occasions.
"We obviously ran very well (last year)," Edwards said. "I think we had the best average (finish) we've ever had. The way this sport works is, if you run that well, you'll win your fair share of races."
However, there is no better place to snap that losing streak than Las Vegas. It is, after all, a track where Edwards enters as the defending race winner and a place where his car owner Jack Roush has won more races than anyone else.
With this race being the first of 11 contested on 1.5-mile tracks, Sunday's results will go a long way toward showing who has what for the balance of the season, and who should be viewed as the title favorite.
"I think we're gonna kind of know where we stand on these mile-and-a-halves after this race weekend," Edwards said. "Now, you might not get the result that you deserve this weekend, and the points might not shake out and they might not represent the speed that everyone has, but you can bet if a guy has a good, strong run here, that can give you a lot of confidence going to the rest of these race tracks.
"Any week would be a good week to go ahead and win another one, so this week would be just fine."
If Kasey Kahne is going to turn things around at Hendrick Motorsports, then Friday's qualifying session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a good start.
Kahne won the pole position for Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race, a much-needed boost for a driver who sits 31st in the point standings after the first two races with his new team.
The 31-year-old claimed the 23rd pole of his career with an average lap speed of 190.456 mph – a new track record at LVMS.
"The lap felt great," Kahne said. "... Feels good to get the first (pole) with Hendrick Motorsports. Nice to get it out of the way early in the season."
Kahne said after last week's race at Phoenix he needed to "calm down" and blamed himself for making a mistake that cost the team. Certainly, there's a chance Vegas could provide the spark he needs to get back in Chase contention.
Kyle Busch will start on the outside pole at his home track, with Kevin Harvick, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Clint Bowyer rounding out the top five.
"Certainly there's added pressure here for myself, feeling like you want to go out and run well here in front of the hometown crowd," Busch said.
Only two drivers failed to qualify for the race: Scott Riggs and Robby Gordon.
Here is the starting lineup for Sunday's NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Las Vegas:
Denny Hamlin was relaxing in his hotel room after a victory in last weekend's NASCAR race at Phoenix, admiring the trophy he'd just won in the Subway Fresh Fit 500.
Suddenly, it dawned on him: Hamlin went to Victory Lane in a race sponsored by the company that was his first employer.
Yep, that's right. Hamlin is a former Subway "sandwich artist" who made it big.
"It was a part of my life, it was a part of me growing up," he said. "It's been such a ride getting to the spot where I am right now, sometimes you forget the peaks and the valleys you go through. It's amazing to me when you look back at it."
Back in the day, Hamlin was a Virginia teenager making Subway sandwiches and collecting $4.75 an hour, pouring every bit he had into his beloved truck.
"That (truck) is all I cared about," he said. "Even though things are all great and glamorous now, your level of happiness is not that much different than what it was then. It's all relative."
So was Hamlin a talented sandwich artist?
"The only thing I was good at was going back and eating all the cookie dough in the freezer," Hamlin said as reporters laughed. "Their cookies are really good!"
The typical NASCAR driver press conference begins with a moderator asking a question about the weekend, followed by questions from the media.
Danica Patrick's session with reporters on Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was different, though, and understandably so. Friday marked Patrick's first visit to LVMS since the death of former IndyCar colleague Dan Wheldon, who was killed in an October crash.
Patrick was in the race that day along with Wheldon, and so she asked to give an opening statement before taking questions.
"I think we just wanted to...lead it off and let you guys know that...obviously, the last time we were here was a big weekend and a sad weekend," Patrick said, trying to find the right words. "Thoughts are still with Susie (Wheldon) and the kids. There won't be a time when I come to Las Vegas that I won't think about Dan and think about the family. I hope that they're doing well."
The rest of the press conference had a somber tone and felt somewhat tense as reporters listened to Patrick describe her emotions upon returning to the track.
"Our job is to drive the race car, and we need to be able to do that with our whole heart and mind," she said. "So I went out there (in practice) and drove just like any other day. But I think it's in the moments when you don't have a singular focus...that it gets to you."
Patrick said walking into the media center or going into the garage and seeing where she pitted that weekend triggered memories of what happened. The memories don't completely go away while on the track, she said, but it helps to concentrate on driving.
"Especially when you're trying to get the car to its very limit, you need to be able to focus on that one thing," she said. "The thoughts outside of the car and being in the (track's) surroundings is when you remember so much."
Patrick said the cause of the IndyCar accident – open-wheel cars making contact and climbing over one another – is unlikely to happen in NASCAR, and she finds "some peace in that."
But when she walks the Strip and remembers driving her IndyCar there in a parade last October, or sees a restaurant where she ate that weekend, the memories return.
"It will never completely escape," she said. "That's what tragedy will do to you."
Juan Pablo Montoya's infamous Daytona 500 car – the one that blew up the jet dryer and caused a two-hour red flag last month – has arrived at its final resting place: The woods on Dale Earnhardt Jr.'s expansive property in North Carolina.
Former Earnhardt Jr. team engineer Chris "Sunshine" Heroy is now the crew chief for Montoya, so he called Earnhardt Jr. and offered to add it – for free – to the driver's large collection of wrecked cars.
Earnhardt Jr.'s property manager drove to the Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing shop, loaded the car on a truck, brought it back and used a front-end loader to dump the 42 somewhere in the car graveyard (Earnhardt Jr. hasn't seen where he put it yet).
"(Heroy) is a buddy of mine, and he gave it to me," Earnhardt Jr. said Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. "I got about 50 or 60 cars out there; I didn't buy any of 'em."
Earnhardt Jr. said the jet dryer assassin car ranks among the most famous crashed vehicles in his collection. Another notable one is the car Dennis Setzer demolished in a 2010 Nationwide Series wreck at Talladega.
"That one is pretty cool," Earnhardt Jr. said. "But (Montoya's car) ranks right up there – it's one of the top two or three."
So will Earnhardt Jr. try and obtain the jet dryer itself to complete his 2012 Daytona 500 collection?
"I'd like to have it, but I don't know where it is," he said. "Probably somewhere in Daytona, or NASCAR might be studying it somewhere. I think we'll just stick to race cars out there."
Another great weather weekend is in store for Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Lots of sunshine through the weekend with highs in the mid 70s and lows overnight into the 50s. There will be no weather delays this weekend, enjoy.
1:30 p.m ET
Nationwide practice – Sunny – temp: 68
3:00 p.m ET
Sprint Cup practice – Sunny – temp: 70
5:00 p.m ET
Nationwide final practice – Sunny – temp: 73
6:40 p.m ET
Sprint Cup Qualifying – Sunny – temp: 70
12:30 p.m ET
Sprint Cup Practice – Sunny – temp: 65
1:30 p.m ET
Nationwide qualifying – Sunny – temp: 72
3:20 p.m ET
Sprint Cup Final Practice – Sunny – temp: 73
5:00 p.m ET
Nationwide Race – Sunny – temp: 73
3:00 p.m ET
Sprint Cup race – Partly sunny, breezy late afternoon – temp: 74
The Daytona 500 was memorable, but had nothing to do with the rest of the NASCAR season. Last week's Phoenix race offered perhaps a few more hints as to how the Sprint Cup Series schedule will unfold, but the 1-mile oval somewhat stands on its own.
That's why this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is so important. The majority of the tracks in NASCAR are 1.5-mile venues, and this is the first such "intermediate" race of the year.
Will Tony Stewart and Carl Edwards be able to pick up where they left off? Or have others made gains? Who will be the surprises this year?
We'll know much more about who the Chase contenders really are after Sunday's race.
Here's the Las Vegas Motor Speedway NASCAR weekend schedule (all times Eastern; track is on Pacific):
1:30 p.m. – Nationwide Series practice (1 hour, 20 minutes)
3 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice (1 hour, 30 minutes)
5 p.m. – Nationwide Series final practice (1 hour, 30 minutes)
6:40 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series qualifying
12:30 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series practice
1:35 p.m. – Nationwide Series qualifying
3:20 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series final practice
5 p.m. – Nationwide Series race (200 laps, 300 miles)
3 p.m. – Sprint Cup Series race (267 laps, 400.5 miles)
Driving in to Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a strange and sad experience on Friday morning.
I hadn't thought about Dan Wheldon's tragic crash on the drive from the hotel up I-15 toward the track, but as I pulled off the Speedway Blvd. exit and saw the grandstands, it suddenly hit me.
Butterflies filled my stomach, and I felt a sense of dread as I approached the infield tunnel that passes almost directly under the spot where Wheldon flew through the air in October's IndyCar Series finale and made a sickeningly hard contact with the fence, killing him instantly.
I wasn't there that day, but I had watched the TV coverage intently and was very affected by it all. The first race I ever paid attention to was in 2004, so the era of frequent driver deaths had far preceded me and I wasn't used to that type of scene.
We all saw the replay over and over. We saw the worry and fear for Wheldon's life on the faces of drivers and fans alike. We saw the drivers file somberly out of the infield media center's first floor meeting room after being told of Wheldon's death. We saw IndyCar CEO Randy Bernard's official announcement that Wheldon had died, made from a stage not 30 feet from me right now. We saw the heartbreak and devastation of those at the track once the news was public, and we saw the IndyCar drivers pay tribute to their fallen comrade by driving in a series of parade laps.
As time has gone on, I've mostly pushed those images out of my head. How can you be around racing and think about that possibility all the time? I image many race fans feel the same way about watching it.
But here at Las Vegas, all the memories are back. They're still fresh, too. And so while we should feel free to enjoy NASCAR's visit to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend, we should also remember Wheldon's family and friends who must go through life with a hole that can never be filled.
JGR looks as strong as ever after two races, marking a dramatic turnaround for the team from 2011.
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