Photo: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images

Up to Speed: Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Preview

By David Morgan, NASCAR Contributor

Viva Las Vegas!

After spending the first two weekends of the 2017 season on the East Coast, the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series packs up and heads west for the first leg of “NASCAR Goes West” at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with Sunday’s running of the Kobalt 400.

Las Vegas began its life on the NASCAR circuit as a 1.5 mile oval with 12 degrees of banking in 1998, but following the 2006 running of the race, the track underwent a massive reconfiguration that saw progressive banking put in place with the new banking ranging from 18 to 20 degrees. This change has helped to promote more side-by-side racing and also helped increase speeds on the track. Given the track characteristics as well as the new low-low downforce package, Sunday’s race should see more of the same slipping and sliding and entertaining racing that we saw last weekend.

In true Las Vegas fashion, over the last eight years, we have seen seven different winners at the track. Will that trend continue this weekend or will we see a repeat winner? 400 miles on Sunday will tell the tale.

By the Numbers

Opened: 1996 (First Cup Race: 1998; Re-configured: 2006)

Track Size: 1.5 mile oval (Turns: 20 degrees, Straightaways: 9 degrees)

Race Length: 267 laps, 400.5 miles

Stage Lengths: Stage 1 and 2: 80 laps; Final Stage: 107 laps

Pit Road Speed: 45 mph

Pace Car Speed: 55 mph

2016 Race Winner: Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – Started fourth, 24 laps led

Track Qualifying Record: Kurt Busch (27.498 seconds, 196.378 mph – 3/4/2016)

Top-10 Driver Ratings at Las Vegas

  • Jimmie Johnson – No. 48 Chevrolet – 113.4
  • Kyle Busch – No. 18 Toyota – 103.4
  • Kevin Harvick – No. 4 Ford – 99.6
  • Matt Kenseth – No. 20 Toyota – 96.9
  • Joey Logano – No. 22 Ford – 94.8
  • Dale Earnhardt, Jr. – No. 88 Chevrolet – 94.1
  • Kasey Kahne – No. 5 Chevrolet – 89.1
  • Brad Keselowski – No. 2 Ford – 86.6
  • Martin Truex, Jr. – No. 78 Toyota – 85.7
  • Ryan Newman – No. 31 Chevrolet – 83.2

From Atop the Pit Box

“Vegas is a little peculiar among the higher grip places because it is rough,” said Joey Logano’s crew chief, Todd Gordon. “The track isn’t super smooth. Some of the high grip places that you look at like Michigan, Kansas and Kentucky last year became one, they are all fairly smooth. Vegas is the one that stands out on its own as being rough with character with a fair amount of grip in it but you have to work on making grip because of the bumps there. It is cool. It is a totally different mindset than what we had in Atlanta because of the tire fall-off we fight there. I look forward to when we get to Vegas because it will be interesting because the data point everybody will have for the segments will be from Atlanta and it will take a different mindset to be successful at Las Vegas. It will be fun to watch how everyone adapts to that.”

Last Season’s Results

Despite the start being delayed by rain and heavy winds, the skies above Las Vegas Motor Speedway eventually cleared and allowed the Kobalt 400 to get underway as normal. The second race with the new low downforce package did not disappoint and by the time all was said and done, Brad Keselowski found himself hoisting the Kobalt wrench trophy in Las Vegas victory lane.

After taking the lead with a banzai move from sixth to first at lap 224, Kyle Busch looked to be the man to beat as the laps clicked off around his home track, but Keselowski was too strong, rebounding from a pit road speeding penalty to make his way to the point with six laps remaining and he would not relinquish it for the remainder of the race.

Keselowski’s Las Vegas win broke a 33 race winless streak, gave him his second win at the track, and his 18th career win in the Cup Series.

“This is really, really great,” said Keselowski. “It seemed like there were plenty of challenges, whether it was pit road or the weather or cautions. They threw everything they had at us today but this Miller Lite Ford team was too strong and we were able to fight them off and get to victory lane.”

“He (Kyle Busch) had a really good short run car but it fell off on the long run. That is part of this new package, some are good on short run and some are good on long run and we had a really good long run car today.”

Joey Logano, Keselowski’s Team Penske teammate, finished the day in second, followed by Jimmie Johnson in third, Busch in fourth, and Austin Dillon in fifth. Rookie Ryan Blaney ended the day in sixth place.

Who to Watch

  • Joey Logano – Logano has yet to cash in at Las Vegas, but given the fact that his team was one of a handful to test at the track in the offseason, he may just have a leg up on the competition this weekend. In eight starts, Logano has two top-five finishes, four top-10 finishes, one pole, 166 laps led, and an average finish of 10.8.
  • Jimmie Johnson – With the most wins of any active driver at Las Vegas, Johnson is a good bet to run well once again in the race he shares a sponsor with. Johnson has four wins (2005, 2006, 2007, and 2010), six top-five finishes, nine top-10 finishes, 576 laps led, and an average finish of 10.9 in 15 starts.
  • Ryan Blaney – Still searching for his first Cup Series win, Vegas may just be the place he finally hits the jackpot. In his two starts at the track, Blaney scored a sixth place finish last season after starting 14th to give him an average finish of 12.5.
  • Denny Hamlin – Las Vegas is one of seven tracks Hamlin has yet to win at and his career at the track reads like a heartrate monitor with peaks and valleys in his performance over the years. Though he only has one top-five finish in the last five races, things are bound to turn around for the No. 11 team and it could start this weekend. In his 11 starts, Hamlin has two top-five finishes, five top-10 finishes, 14 laps led, and an average finish of 12.8.
  • Matt Kenseth – Over the years, Kenseth has had a decent amount of success at Las Vegas with three wins at the track, two of which came prior to the re-configuration in 2003 and 2004 and the third coming in 2013. Career-wise, Kenseth has his three wins, six top-five finishes, nine top-10 finishes, one pole, 526 laps led, and an average finish of 12.9 in 17 starts.

Weekend Schedule (All Times Eastern)

Friday, March 10

  • MENCS Practice (2:00 pm to 3:25 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Qualifying (7:45 pm – FOX Sports 2)

Saturday, March 11

  • MENCS Practice (Noon to 12:55 pm – FOX Sports 1)
  • MENCS Final Practice (2:30 pm to 3:20 pm – FOX Sports 1)

Sunday, March 12

  • MENCS Kobalt 400 (3:30 pm – 267 laps, 400.5 miles – FOX)

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.

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