NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series makes its annual pilgrimage out to the desert on Sunday for the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Two races into the 2016 season and NASCAR fans have already been treated to two exciting finishes, the first being Denny Hamlin winning the closest Daytona 500 in the event’s illustrious history.
Last week, Jimmie Johnson tied Dale Earnhardt with his 76th career Sprint Cup win, taking the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It’s early, but Kyle Busch maintains the slightest of edges in the point standings over defending Sprint Cup champion Kevin Harvick.
2016 Kobalt 400
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front
Chevrolet/Hendrick. Despite a surprise announcement last week that partner Stewart-Haas Racing would jump to Ford in 2017 Hendrick Motorsports flexed its muscle at Atlanta. Johnson led a flurry of HMS chassis at the front, all of whom combined to lead 245 of 330 laps. Four HMS-supported cars ran inside the top 6 while Johnson, holder of six titles made it clear he’ll be contending for a seventh this season.
Who’s at the Back
Ford. There’s a reason why the Blue Oval crowd poached SHR. Team Penske, led by Joey Logano, appeared a bit off at Atlanta and failed to contend late in the season-opening Daytona 500. Toyota and Chevrolet have dominated the headlines thus far; it’s now been a dozen years since the manufacturer last won a Sprint Cup title (2004).
Who’s Making News
NASCAR’s new rules have caused a flurry of penalties this week as officials look to tighten the noose early regarding technical inspection. All three RCR teams (and two satellites) lost 10 championship owner and driver points over illegal body attachment mounts and supports. It’s notable the team did not appeal the violation, an early blow to a group that tries to make NASCAR’s postseason through racking up points rather than wins.
Perhaps the most curious penalty though was 15 championship points lost by Martin Truex Jr. after a roof flap violation found during Atlanta technical inspection. Crew chief Cole Pearn also was suspended for a race as the sanctioning body stressed the importance of safety. Furniture Row Racing has appealed, meaning Pearn will be on top of the pit box Sunday until a final decision is reached.
“What we’d like to do,” said FRR General Manager Joe Garone on SIRIUS XM Radio this week, “Is understand clearly why it’s such a severe penalty. There’s norhing to gain from it on competition and it was found before we got on track.”
Television ratings have been a big problem for the sport in recent years and 2016 is no exception. But a year-to-year drop in viewership of more than 25 percent at Atlanta is raising eyebrows. It’s the smallest audience for the sport this early in the season since at least 2000, a sign that NASCAR’s new rules package will need time to catch on with fans.
There are plenty of reasons surrounding the decline: Jeff Gordon’s retirement and Tony Stewart’s injury are chief among them. What’s concerning though is in the past those fans would have simply moved on to other drivers. Instead? They’re taking this opportunity to exit the sport altogether.
At least the racing at Atlanta was highly competitive, a good sign moving forward as NASCAR hits two tracks of similar length (including Las Vegas) in the next three races.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Wins by Jimmie Johnson at Las Vegas, the most of any active driver. Johnson was 41st last year and has only one top-5 finish since his last victory at the track (2010).
Average number of lead changes in Las Vegas the last three seasons. This number is one to track as NASCAR’s new rules are designed for more passing up front.
The number of cars attempting to qualify for Sunday’s event, tied for the smallest Sprint Cup field we’ve seen since 1996. Only 39 cars started the event at Atlanta last weekend.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Harvick took his first win of the season here last year, leading 142 laps to jumpstart what became the best year of his career (sans title). There’s nothing so far in 2016 to suggest he won’t be running up front once again and remember, should he fall short of victory lane this man is a master at collecting top-3 finishes.
A driver whose career is built on consistency, Newman ran third at Las Vegas last year and hasn’t finished outside the top 10 at this track since joining Richard Childress Racing in 2014. Teammate Austin Dillon seems to be on top of the new rules package and that knowledge is bound to carry over to the No. 31 sooner rather than later.
Roush Fenway Racing
Jack Roush’s team has experienced early success in Sin City, winning five of the first seven races held out in Las Vegas. Those drivers (Jeff Burton, Mark Martin, Matt Kenseth) have long since retired or left the program; RFR has of course fallen on hard times in recent years. But a surprising top 10 by Ricky Stenhouse Jr. at Atlanta could provide momentum that carries over. Both he, Trevor Bayne and Greg Biffle would be cheap picks in any league with tremendous upside.
Who? The twentysomething rookie running for Richard Petty Motorsports is the modern-day equivalent of Paul Menard; family riches mean an unexpected promotion to the top. That said, Scott can provide a surprise performance on occasion and was 13th at the Las Vegas race last year. That’s good enough for a flier considering there won’t be many more places worth putting him on your roster this season.
What Vegas Thinks
Harvick has the inside line with 4/1 odds according to Vegas Insider Friday morning. Johnson follows suit with 5/1 and then it’s Joey Logano, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth with 6/1 odds.
What I Think
At some point, the bad luck has to end for Kenseth. He’s had one of the faster cars on track these first two weeks only to have some freak occurrences (last-lap Daytona pass, fueling penalties) deny him finishes atop the podium. Las Vegas should end that streak, providing Kenseth with his first victory there since 2013 and an early clinch to a Chase he’ll no doubt be a part of come September.
— 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.
(Photos by ASP Inc.)