The third NASCAR race of season takes the green flag Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with defending Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski starting on the pole.
Here are some storylines to keep an eye on and drivers to watch for during the Kobalt Tools 400.
A true test for the Gen-6
When the Gen-6 car was conceived, the idea was that it would improve the quality of racing on the plethora of intermediate-style tracks that comprise the Sprint Cup Series schedule. The manufacturer-specific car would greatly reduce a driver's dependency to be in clean air while at the same time doing away with the dreaded phrase "aero push" and making it easier to pass and race side-by-side.
Thus far, the results have been decidedly mixed with single-file racing dominating the proceedings at Daytona and passing being limited at Phoenix. But to be fair, those races were never going to be an accurate litmus test of the where the Gen-6 stands at this point in the early stages.
Daytona after all is Daytona, where, with the exception of Talladega, the use of restrictor-plates makes it unlike every other track on the schedule. And Phoenix, because of its unique layout and new asphalt was going to offer a challenge to drivers no matter what model of car was used.
This brings us to this weekend and the first true assessment of where the Gen-6 stands, as the circuit tackles an intermediate oval for the first of 14 times this season.
If the race is competitive Sunday and the field doesn't get as strung-out as it typically does at Las Vegas and drivers can run side-by-side, then the pessimism that has hovered over the new car will likely dissipate.
However, conversely, if Daytona and Phoenix prove to be a sampling of what's to come, expect the criticism to ramp up and for NASCAR to be left scrambling for answers.
Using Las Vegas as a gauge for the Chase
Want a hint of which drivers are going to make the Chase in September? Look at what happens in March at Las Vegas.
During the Chase era, eight of the nine winners of the Las Vegas Cup race have gone on to claim a spot in the Chase. The only exception was Kyle Busch in 2009, who would have qualified under the current system via a wildcard.
Furthermore, of those eight drivers that visited Victory Lane, five went on to either win the championship or finish runner-up.
So why is there a correlation between hitting the jackpot in Las Vegas and striking it big later in the Chase?
As noted above, at 1.5-miles in length Las Vegas is similar in nature to host of other Cup tracks -- particularly in the Chase where half the tracks are of the size. Accordingly, Sunday should be a good gauge of how a team will perform the rest of the season on the intermediate ovals.
A week ago Carl Edwards snapped a winless streak spanning 70 races spread across nearly two full seasons. That victory further shifts the spotlight to a host of big name drivers who come to Las Vegas hoping to end their dry spell. Among those looking to get back to Victory Lane include Jeff Burton (151 races without a win), Mark Martin (107), Juan Pablo Montoya (88) and Jamie McMurray (79).
But it is Martin Truex Jr., whose lone Cup win came 205 races ago at Dover, who appears to have the best shot Sunday to score the win. In Saturday's final practice the No. 56 Toyota posted the fastest single lap and over 10 consecutive laps had the fourth-fastest average speed.
If Truex can win the Kobalt Tools 400, it will be his first victory since June of 2007 and his first driving for Michael Waltrip Racing.
- Matt Kenseth is celebrating his 41st birthday Sunday and with a victory he will join Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch as the only drivers to win a Cup race on their birthday. Yarborough did so twice at North Wilkesboro (1977) and Atlanta (1983), while Busch won at Richmond in 2009.
- Lady Luck shined on Brad Keselowski when qualifying was rained out and the field was set primarily using 2012 owner points. But this is a track that has not been good to the defending Cup champion, who has never finished better than fourth in four career Las Vegas starts.
- Tony Stewart (23rd overall), Kasey Kahne (29th) and Kevin Harvick (30th) all made the Chase in 2012. However, after two races each is well back in the standings and still trying to recover from poor finishes at Daytona. While it's too early to start panicking at this point in the season, it's worth keeping an eye on how each runs Sunday, because another sub-par day could easily put them in scramble-mode going forward.
1. Kyle Busch
After finishes of 34th and 23rd to start the year, Kyle Busch rolls into his hometown in desperate need of a good result to right his season. The good news for him is he has won here previously (2009), was in the top three in Saturday's two rounds of practice and had the fastest car on long runs.
2. Carl Edwards
The last time Edwards snapped a 70-race winless streak at Phoenix he followed that up by going out and winning again the next week. And considering he's a two-time Las Vegas winner and he was among the fastest in practice, no reason why history can't repeat itself two weeks in a row.
3. Jimmie Johnson
The final spot on this list was between Jimmie Johnson and Kevin Harvick. But while Harvick showed more speed in practice, the nod goes to Johnson, whose four Las Vegas victories are tops among all drivers and has started the year off with a win at Daytona and runner-up finish at Phoenix.