NASCAR in Las Vegas: A Hendrick vs. Gibbs Showdown in Sin City

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Geoffrey Miller's five things to watch at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

NASCAR debuts a new aero package, Kevin Harvick is on a hot streak, Roush Fenway Racing is off to a slow start, Dale Earnahrdt Jr.'s rotating spotters and a Hendrick vs. Gibbs showdown lead us into the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Each week, Geoffrey Miller’s “Five Things to Watch” will help you catch up on the biggest stories of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series’ upcoming race weekend. This week, the debut of a new aero package, Harvick's hot streak, Roush's slow start, Earnahrdt's spotters and a Hendrick vs. Gibbs showdown lead us into the 400-miler at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

 

1. Las Vegas serves as debut of new aero package
Thursday’s test session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a welcome sight to nearly every crew chief in the Sprint Cup garage — it’s not often that a team gets to open a race weekend with a full day of wide-open data collection — but also an important one for the sport as officials search for better racing at 1.5-mile, intermediate tracks. All told, it served as a bit of a last-minute confirmation test of car changes NASCAR mandated after tests in the offseason.

In that list includes a statically set ride height, a squared off edge on the front splitter, adjustments to the side skirts and front fascia plus an eight-inch rear spoiler — up from 7.25 inches. The changes were on the cars a week ago at Phoenix, though with minimal impact.

“(Teams) could probably only harvest maybe 30 to 40 percent of the capability of the package (at Phoenix), so really this will be the first race where we get to see they can fully exploit the aerodynamic and chassis changes,” said Gene Stefanyshyn, NASCAR’s vice president of innovation and racing development.

Kevin Harvick’s lap of 190.148 mph proved fastest during the test. That’s just slightly off of the 2012 pole-winning speed at Las Vegas — 190.456 mph by Kasey Kahne — which was the last Cup qualifying session at the track after the 2013 edition was washed out.



2. Childers, Harvick riding high after Phoenix  Kevin HarvickThat Harvick led the speed charts Thursday was no surprise to his crew chief Rodney Childers. The No. 4 team leader made that much clear this week.

“Our Las Vegas car is even better than our Phoenix car,” Childers told the Associated Press earlier this week.

Those are strong words considering Harvick is coming off leading 224 laps and scoring a dominating win in that Phoenix race. He joined Dale Earnhardt Jr. as the first two drivers all but qualified in the 2014 Chase for the Sprint Cup.

If Harvick does go back-to-back with a win Sunday, it’d be his first ever at Las Vegas in the Cup Series and just his fourth top-5 finish. His best result was a second-place run in 2010. Last season, Harvick was ninth at the checkered flag.



3. Weekend off to slow start for Roush Fenway RacingThey didn’t contend at Daytona, and they didn’t contend at Phoenix. Surely, of all places, the Roush Fenway Racing team can find a bit of a groove at Las Vegas, right?

It’s not starting that way.

Carl Edwards, 27th quickest, was the fastest among that camp’s in-house teams during the Thursday test. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Greg Biffle were both 29th or worse.

Vegas was once one of Jack Roush’s strongest tracks — his teams collected wins on the old pavement at the venue in each of the track’s first three seasons — and Edwards won there just three seasons ago. A restoration of that magic couldn’t be more timely for the Ford operation this weekend.

 

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4. Odd mix of spotters ends Sunday for EarnhardtTJ Majors’ last appearance on the Sprint Cup spotter’s stand came late on a Florida Sunday night two weeks ago when he helped guide his driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. to his second Daytona 500 win. The celebrations for Majors — originally hired by Earnhardt to race the NASCAR K&N Series after meeting while racing online — didn’t last long. An intestinal virus sidelined him from joining Earnhardt at Phoenix.

It’s kept Majors away from the track at Las Vegas, too, but Laura Scott from Hendrick Motorsports’ media relations staff tweeted Thursday that Majors would return in time for Sunday’s race. In the mean time, the group filling in for Earnhardt has been quite an eclectic one.

Former champion Bill Elliott covered practice and qualifying for Earnhardt at Phoenix and was scheduled to be on the stand again Saturday when Earnhardt practices the Cup car plus races in the Nationwide Series event. Driver Regan Smith spotted for Earnhardt during Thursday’s series-wide test session at Las Vegas and former Kyle Busch spotter Jeff Dickerson worked last week’s Phoenix race for the No. 88.


5. Race may again come down to Hendrick vs. Gibbs  Matt Kenseth and Kasy Kahne
One year ago, Las Vegas generated a pretty good finish when Kasey Kahne battled Matt Kenseth in the final laps for the top spot. Ultimately it was Kenseth and his then-new Joe Gibbs Racing team who won out over Kahne and the Hendrick Motorspots bunch.

It wouldn’t be a surprise to see that again.

Last year, five of the top seven finishing positions went to drivers from either of the two teams. It wasn’t an end-of-race fluke either, as the post-race loop data showed Kahne as the best driver overall by average running position (2.6) with Jimmie Johnson second (2.9), Kyle Busch fourth (5.8), Kenseth fifth (6.0), Earnhardt Jr. in seventh (6.8) and Denny Hamlin in 10th (11.9).

Even the long-term loop data skews toward a Hendrick/Gibbs finish. Johnson is shown as the best at Las Vegas by running position (9.5) in the last nine years there while Jeff Gordon is second (10.0) and Kyle Busch (10.3) is third.


Follow Geoffrey Miller on Twitter: @GeoffreyMiller
Photos by Action Sports, Inc.

 

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