Cue the gambling clichés as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday's Kobalt 400.
Jimmie Johnson is still the champ, but Kevin Harvick might be NASCAR's new king
The last time Jimmie Johnson visited Las Vegas he celebrated his sixth Sprint Cup championship by recreating moments from ‘The Hangover." Three months later the driver of the No. 48 rolls into Sin City with far less fanfare, as Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kevin Harvick and others have consumed the headlines this season. All the while Johnson has quietly opened with a fifth-place finish in the Daytona 500 followed by a sixth-place performance last week at Phoenix.
Johnson has an excellent shot of returning to the spotlight Sunday, as he owns a track-best four wins and his 9.5 average finish is tops among active drivers. But he'll likely have to contend with Harvick, coming off a dominant win last week at Phoenix and consistently among the fastest here in every session.
That Harvick has been formidable this weekend comes as no surprise. Dating back to a December test at Charlotte Motor Speedway and into this season, the Stewart-Haas Racing driver has continually been atop the timing charts. That speed has caught the attention of those in the garage who see Harvick as the driver to beat -- not just Sunday but throughout the season.
"I think that the Phoenix race was just a sign of more to come," Earnhardt said Thursday. "When we went to test at Charlotte his car was by far superior to everyone else there. I was like ‘man everybody better watch out, everybody better wake up because this is going to be a strong team.' They are going to be tough and deservingly so."
Why Las Vegas matters
This weekend may appear to be just another in a long line of races on 1.5-mile tracks, when in actuality it provides a very good indicator of what to expect the rest of the year. In seven of the previous nine Las Vegas races the winner has gone on to either win the championship or finish runner-up.
A year ago it was Matt Kenseth setting the tone in his first season with Joe Gibbs Racing, winning his first of seven races en route to a second-place finish in points. And Kenseth's win was also telling because it showcased the forthcoming dominance JGR would have on the intermediate tracks in 2013. Overall, the team would win seven times on similarly sized speedways.
The correlation between hitting the jackpot in Sin City and striking it big later in the Chase for the Sprint Cup is evident when you look at the schedule, as Las Vegas is the same distance and shares many characteristics to a host of other Cup tracks. And this is particularly true in the Chase where half the tracks are of the size.
"It's always an interesting race because it's so early in the season and usually one of our first big tracks that we compete on," Johnson said. "You find out how you stack up and where you are at."
Rule changes create great unknown
In an effort to enhance the on-track product, NASCAR implemented several rule changes over the offseason. The modifications include alterations to the ride-height, rear spoiler and front splitter were done to primarily increase side-by-side racing on intermediate speedways.
It's still to be determined whether the changes will have the desired effect, as the results have been mixed. We'll have a better idea collectively after 400 miles of racing Sunday.
- Five different winners (Kenseth, Tony Stewart, Carl Edwards, Johnson and Busch) have won the last five Las Vegas races.
- Only once has a driver won from the pole at Las Vegas, but that comes with an asterisk. When Busch did so in 2009, he forfeited his starting position and dropped to the rear of the field after making an unapproved engine change.
- In his first outing of the year, Jeff Burton qualified 19th. The veteran, running a part-time schedule for Michael Waltrip Racing, sat out Daytona and Phoenix after having made 626 consecutive starts.
1. Jimmie Johnson
Not often is the defending and six-time champion overlooked, but that appears to be the case. Expect that to change by Sunday evening as Johnson celebrates his fifth Las Vegas victory.
2. Kevin Harvick
He's never won at Las Vegas, but Harvick did finish second to Johnson in 2010. And if there has been a constant this weekend it's the No. 4 Chevrolet near the top of the scoring charts. Harvick had the second-fastest average speed over 10 consecutive laps in final practice.
3. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In practice the series points leader hasn't distinguished himself to the degree of Johnson or Harvick, but Earnhardt has been almost as fast. And after opening the season with a win and a second, he deserves the benefit of the doubt Sunday.