Jay Pennell looks at favorites and darkhorses for Sunday's race in Las Vegas
by Jay Pennell
While our 2012 fantasy season got off to a great start in Daytona, last weekend's race at Phoenix International Raceway proved even the hands-down favorite — in this case Kasey Kahne — can find trouble and ruin a fantasy day.
Anything can, and will, happen throughout the course of a race, making NASCAR one of the toughest fantasy sports to predict.
This weekend, the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series hits the desert for the second time in as many weeks, as the early season schedule rolls into the Sin City for the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Simply looking at the statistics, it is easy to see which team will head into Sunday's race the favorite. In a town built on gambling, this weekend's safe bet is Roush Fenway Racing. In the speedway's 14-year history, no organization has had more success than the Roush cars.
The “Cat in the Hat” Jack Roush has had one of his drivers celebrating in Victory Lane in seven of the 14 Sprint Cup events held at the venue. Carl Edwards earned his lone victory of the 2011 season on the 1.5-mile track, beating an otherwise dominant Tony Stewart in the process. Edwards was coming off two impressive performances at Daytona and Phoenix, although a wreck at PIR led to a 28th-place finish. This year, another Roush Fenway Racing driver finds himself in a similar situation.
Greg Biffle has a renewed confidence in 2012, after an extremely disappointing performance last year. He has been candid in his comments and criticism of the team’s 2011 showing and also outspoken about its upcoming trip to Vegas. With consecutive third-place finishes to open the season, Biffle seems poised to make his return to Victory Lane this weekend at a 1.5-mile venue where he’s clicked off five top 10s in eight starts. Biffle tops the list as this week’s fantasy favorite.
While Biffle’s teammate, Edwards, went to Victory Lane in last year’s Vegas race, his No. 99 Ford was not the most dominant car that day. That honor went to the aforementioned Stewart.
Leading 163 of the 267 laps, Stewart had to come through the field after a pit road penalty sent him to the back of the pack. Taking two tires to regain track position, Stewart was forced to take four tires on the final pit stop while Edwards took two.
Las Vegas is one of only two tracks currently on the Cup schedule where the defending series champion has yet to win (the other being Kentucky Speedway). After last year’s disappointing second-place finish, Stewart is eager to knock Vegas off his yet to win list.
Stewart was on par for a strong finish last Sunday in Phoenix, but an issue with the Electronic Fuel Injection system led to a 22nd-place finish (following a 16th at Daytona). Given their disappointing finish last weekend, I expect Stewart and his Steve Addington-led crew to put up a solid finish this week, making the defending champion my safe play of the weekend.
Another driver I have my eye on this weekend is five-time Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson.
Like Stewart, the 2012 season has not gotten off to the kind of start Johnson or his Hendrick Motorsports team expected. Issues during the initial inspection at Daytona cost the No. 48 team 25 driver and owner points, a hefty fine, and the loss of crew chief Chad Knaus and car chief Ron Malec for six races (pending appeal).
Once in the race, a wreck on Lap 2 resulted in a 42nd-place — and his sixth straight finish of 27th or worse in the Daytona 500. The subsequent penalty from the failed inspection left Johnson heading to Phoenix with negative points in the championship standings.
While Knaus and Malec have been able to remain at the track as NASCAR and HMS work through the appeal process, the No. 48 team is in a huge hole. That said, the team was able to recover nicely in Phoenix, scoring a fourth-place finish on Sunday, but Johnson is currently 38th in the standings, 71 points out of the lead.
Sitting so deep in the standings, Johnson has set his focus on making the Chase — one way or another. Well out of contention for the points lead, the former champion understands that at this point, his best bet to make the Chase could be through one of the two Wild Card spots. That means the No. 48 team will be looking to win races early and often.
And if that’s the objective, Vegas is a good track for Johnson to meet the goal. His 48 team has four wins, four top 5s and five top 10s in 10 LVMS starts. With that track record and Knaus and Malec still at the track, I expect the 48 to be among the front-runners throughout Sunday’s race, leading to a strong day on the fantasy side of things.
For this weekend’s darkhorse pick, I’m looking towards Richard Petty Motorsports’ Marcos Ambrose. Although the driver of the No. 9 Ford has only three starts at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Ambrose lists the track among his favorite on the circuit. During last year's event, Ambrose started from the outside pole and finished the day in fourth after showings of 14th in 2010 and 20th in ’09.
Already in 2012, Ambrose and the team have shown they are capable of running up front and contending for wins. After a strong run throughout the afternoon in Phoenix, engine issues late in the race ruined what looked to be an assured top-10 run. If Ambrose and his Todd Parrott-led team can avoid mistakes and engine issues, I expect a solid fantasy day from the No. 9 group.
Throughout the weekend, keep a close eye on practices and qualifying, as track position will be key in Sunday's race. Clean air and pit strategy will be paramount in determining the winner at the end of 400 miles in Vegas.