As NASCAR and sports suffer through a set of modern-day challenges, from attendance to rights fees to relevance, the next chapter of growth has centered on Las Vegas. Sin City has been forgiven for its role as the center of gambling in America; the shift has been so pronounced that now, most major organizations think they need to support such an activity in order to keep thriving. It’s put an NHL expansion team in the region this coming season, the Raiders have expressed an interest in relocating while the NFL powers that be explore the possibilities, while both MLB and the NBA look on with interest.
No wonder NASCAR put a gamble on a second date.
After holding just one race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile oval north of the city, for 20 years starting in 2018 stock car racing will add a second date during the fall, held smack in the middle of their 10-race playoff run. Rumors persist that the Las Vegas event will eventually become the season finale each year, a weekend tripleheader of Trucks, XFINITY, and Cup competition NASCAR hopes will attract upwards of 100,000 fans each November.
That may come as a shock to those who love Homestead, the current November landing spot for stock car racing’s championship festivities. But a sport is a business, money talks, and admission revenues dropped 7.4 percent last season. That’s the ninth straight year NASCAR has faced declines, increasingly dependent on a bloated television contract to stay solvent.
Faced with those trends, a sold-out crowd of 46,000 an hour south of Miami pales in comparison to a potential sellout of 123,000 out west (plus the infield). The larger seating capacity of Las Vegas, however, doesn’t match up to arguably weaker competition this track has given us over the years. Despite this, people are still coming – to the tune of 115,000 last season, as one of the track’s better events historically was won by Brad Keselowski.
Forgotten in this transition is New Hampshire Motor Speedway, dropping from two dates to one for 2018 while losing its spot in the playoffs. But NHMS, a flat one-mile oval, was suffering from competition and attendance issues as well. The loss comes more from a shift away from the Northeast, perhaps the most difficult market historically for the sport, in favor of expanding elsewhere. Now, a fan in the region has just the summer NHMS date next year and perhaps the two races in Pocono, Pennsylvania, within driving distance.
But NASCAR, despite its continued push to involve Fortune 500 companies, has struggled to gain a foothold in both the New York City and Boston markets. So in 2017, the choice is to go where the money and fan bases already are. The clock is already ticking on a rights fee bubble that already burst; add in just a two-year deal with title sponsor Monster Energy and there’s pressure to show this sport is starting to turn around.
So NASCAR joins many others in taking a risk on Sin City, a place where fans view events as part of a larger vacation destination and may potentially ignore the higher costs of attendance. It’s all about the experience, it seems these days, tradition and competition be damned.
Will that gamble pay off?
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Sure, he didn’t win Atlanta, the final victim of the pit road speeding penalty police. But the No. 4 car dominated the race, leading 292 of 325 laps and leads the points despite a ninth-place finish. How? He’s won three of the six “stages” in NASCAR’s new points format and finished second in a fourth, accumulating a bonus of 39 points. That’s made the difference for him in a year where Harvick’s average finish is just 15.5 thus far.
Who’s at the Back: Toyota
It’s far too early to panic for a manufacturer that ended Chevy’s run of titles in Cup. But there are just eight full-time Camrys on the circuit, two of which come from underfunded BK Racing, and early returns have left them a step behind. Joe Gibbs Racing, their top organization, failed to lead a lap at Atlanta while struggling through handling issues all afternoon. JGR has just one top-five finish, courtesy of Matt Kenseth through the season’s first two weeks.
Toyota’s satellite program Furniture Row Racing, despite employing promising rookie Erik Jones, looks a bit overmatched after expanding to a two-car program. Another set of poor results at Las Vegas, one of the cookie-cutter tracks that comprise most of the sport’s 2017 schedule, and there’s reason to be concerned here.
See above for the biggest news of the week, Las Vegas earning a second date on the 2018 NASCAR schedule. Next year will see New Hampshire slip back to one spot on the schedule for the first time since 1996.
Three loose lug nuts proved costly for AJ Allmendinger. The violation cost him 35 driver points while crew chief Randall Burnett has been fined $65,000 and suspended from the next three Monster Energy Cup Series races.
The momentum from the Daytona 500 came to a screeching halt in Atlanta, an event dominated (but not won) by Kevin Harvick. The 3.6 rating for that Atlanta race was another year-to-year decrease for NASCAR in the Nielsens, the lowest for the season’s second event since the TV contract went fully national in 2001.
Charlotte Motor Speedway may be making both left and right turns for NASCAR in 2018. Rumors persist the 1.5-mile oval, which has struggled with attendance lately despite being in the sport’s home market, may use their road course for the sport’s playoff event in the fall of 2018. The Coca-Cola 600 May race would be unaffected, still using the layout that’s been the subject of frustration and weakened competition over the last decade.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Number of Cup cars that failed to finish last weekend’s race at Atlanta due to wrecks. Fifteen cars crashed out of the Daytona 500 a week earlier.
Laps led by Kevin Harvick in his last four Atlanta starts. He has failed to win any of those events.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Brad Keselowski, coming off a win at Atlanta, is a good bet for two in a row. In the last four years at Las Vegas, he’s won twice, never run worse than seventh and earned an average starting spot of 4.5. That number, of course, is before he won the pole for Sunday’s race. I’d call him a pretty safe bet.
Stay away from Jimmie Johnson here. He’s won at Vegas as recently as 2010 but has three duds of 24th or worse in his last nine starts. There’s too much risk here that gets your fantasy season off to a rocky start.
I like what I’m seeing from Kasey Kahne so far this season. It’s the first time in nearly a decade he’s started off with two top-10 finishes as the pressure ramps up for him to succeed at Hendrick Motorsports. A strong start is imperative with young William Byron waiting in the wings; should Dale Earnhardt Jr. sign a contract extension this season, Kahne becomes that much more disposable.
Las Vegas is a great place to build on this start, a track in his 1.5-mile wheelhouse where he’s finished no worse than 19th in his five years driving the No. 5 Chevy. Consider he was 10th last year in what was arguably the worst season of his career; Kahne is a dark horse for a top-five finish Sunday.
Rookie Erik Jones, despite the struggles of Toyota expansion reference above, seemed to have his act together at Atlanta last week. A 14th-place finish bodes well for the future, heading to a track where new employer Furniture Row Racing ran 11th with Martin Truex Jr. last year. He’s worth a flyer although I expect the growing pains at FRR to continue for the next few months.
How about young Trevor Bayne? He’s quietly inside the top 10 in points this season as the Roush Fenway Racing consolidation down to two cars is paying dividends. He’s got four top 20s in six Las Vegas starts, including a top-10 finish in 2012 and was 17th here last season.
What Vegas Thinks
Odds Shark has Kevin Harvick leading the way at Vegas, posting 4/1 odds. Brad Keselowski is next with 6/1 odds with Jimmie Johnson and Kyle Busch not far behind.
What I Think
After seeing the weekend thus far, I think Team Penske has themselves on point. While Keselowski is the favorite for two in a row I’m going to go with Joey Logano, starting sixth for Sunday’s race. This two-car team wants to lock both their men inside the playoffs as soon as possible and I expect them to do just that.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.