|03/06/12 04:21PM||Kobalt 400, Kurt Busche, Kyle Busch, NASCAR|
Las Vegas Victory A Special Achievement For Hometown Drivers
Anniversaries are fun to celebrate, but this weekend’s observance is one Carl Edwards would prefer to be less significant.
The Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway marks exactly one year on the schedule since Edwards’ last victory. Another win or two over the remainder of the 2011 season might have made the Missouri driver the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion – avoiding the win-match that fell in Tony Stewart’s favor when the pair posted identical point totals at season’s end.
Interestingly, Edwards comes into the third race of the season mirroring the start of his last campaign.
He won the Coors Light Pole at Daytona and finished eighth. A year ago he was second in the Daytona 500.
His performance in Phoenix’s spring race hasn’t been memorable in either year: 28th in 2011, 17th last Sunday.
Edwards ranked 12th in points entering last year’s Las Vegas race. He’s currently 10th.
Don’t bet against the Kobalt Tools 400 being a case of déjà vu – especially with Roush Fenway’s Las Vegas resume and the team’s fast start across the board in 2012.
Edwards is a two-time Las Vegas winner, also taking the checkered flag in 2008. Teammate Matt Kenseth likewise has a pair of victories. The third Roush Fenway driver, Greg Biffle, has yet to go to Victory Lane in Las Vegas but is off to one of his best starts, posting third-place finishes at Daytona and Phoenix.
Each of the three Roush Fenway Ford drivers rank among the top 10 in points: Biffle second, Daytona 500 winner Kenseth fourth and Edwards 10th. Not a bad way to celebrate the team’s 25th season in NASCAR.
Based on its Las Vegas history, odds are good the organization’s record will have improved even more when Sunday’s checkered flag falls.
In 65 total starts, Roush Fenway drivers have recorded seven wins, 17 top-five and 34 top-10 finishes and led more than 1,200 laps.
More striking, at least one Roush driver has finished among the top 10 in all 14 of the track’s NASCAR Sprint Cup races, 12 times in the top five. The 1998 inaugural race saw Roush Fenway drivers finish second, fourth, sixth and 10th behind winner Mark Martin.
New Pieces Fitting Nicely At Joe Gibbs Racing
For Joe Gibbs Racing, change is a wonderful thing.
After a less-than-spectacular season a year ago, JGR installed two new crew chiefs and overhauled its Toyota engine program.
With a victory and all three of its drivers ranking among the top 10 in the championship standings – for the first time since 2008 – it’s definitely so far, so good.
Last year’s championship crew chief Darian Grubb, now calling the shots for Denny Hamlin, put the No. 11 Toyota in Victory Circle in just his second outing last weekend in Phoenix. Hamlin is the points leader entering this week’s race in Las Vegas.
Jason Ratcliff, promoted from the NASCAR Nationwide Series with a stellar resume containing two championships and 30 victories, has backed Joey Logano to consecutive top-10 finishes.
Dave Rogers, the sole holdover crew chief, watched Kyle Busch finish sixth in Phoenix and win last month’s Shootout at Daytona.
It’s been more than a year since JGR finished all three of its cars among the top 10 in the same race. Hamlin won at Martinsville Speedway on Oct. 24, 2010, with Busch and Logano placing fourth and sixth respectively.
Odds Good For Hendrick Motorsports Spinning ‘200’ In Vegas
You probably can’t go wrong putting money on a Hendrick Motorsports driver gifting the company its signature 200th victory on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The team, which trails only Petty Enterprises among winning organizations, counts five wins in its 14 trips to LVMS. That’s second only to the seven victories recorded by Roush Fenway Racing.
Jimmie Johnson has four wins – three of those victories coming in his 2006-07 and 2010 championship seasons. Four-time NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Jeff Gordon owns the other win in 2001, his most recent title season.
Dale Earnhardt Jr. was HMS’ only top-10 finisher (eighth) in 2011. Newcomer Kasey Kahne finished 14th after starting 30th. Johnson recorded the team’s 199th win at Kansas Speedway last October.
HMS has started slowly in 2012. Earnhardt, fifth in points, is the only team member ranked among the current top 20.
Superlative Start Across The Board For These Three Top-10 Teams
Success in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series means bringing a friend. Or two. Even three.
Three teams – Joe Gibbs Racing, Roush Fenway Racing and Michael Waltrip Racing – have two or more drivers among the top 10 in points with two races complete.
That might not be enough races upon which to base a long-term trend.
Still, it signals that off-track activity over the winter months has produced positive results.
That’s particularly true at JGR, where Denny Hamlin, his championship hopes dashed in the season’s final two races despite winning eight times in 2010, went flat two seasons ago.
His Phoenix win followed a fourth-place finish in the Daytona 500 – a race he likely could have won with some drafting help.
Roush’s three teams continue to bask in the afterglow of Matt Kenseth’s Daytona 500 victory. Greg Biffle boasts back-to-back top-three finishes and Carl Edwards held onto 10th in the standings despite a late Phoenix altercation that cost him a possible top-five finish.
And Waltrip? Truly the early surprise performer, although Martin Truex Jr., ranked sixth, finished 2011 with top 10s in four of the last five races. Mark Martin grabbed his 52nd Coors Light Pole at Phoenix, finished ninth and stands on the cusp of becoming the series’ oldest winner at age 53.
Kurt Busch entered the 2012 season bidding for his 25th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series victory, a milestone that would match Jim Pascal and Joe Weatherly for 24th on the all-time win list.
Reaching that threshold this week in his hometown would be the icing on the cake – and then some.
Busch has competed 11 times at LVMS without significant success. A third-place finish in 2005 is best among three top 10s. He won the Coors Light Pole two years ago but finished 35th, one of five placements outside the top 20.
“It’s my hometown and all of the people who have helped me through the years in racing are there,” said Busch. “So it’s always a nice homecoming, and then you have to put the hometown adrenaline aside and get focused to make the car work for 400 miles of racing.”
A victory also would equal his younger brother Kyle’s performance at their home track. Kyle Busch won from the pole in 2009 but finished 38th after suffering engine failure in last year’s race.
Brendan Gaughan, like Kyle Busch, will be doing double duty this weekend. He finished 22nd in his only previous NASCAR Sprint Cup start in 2004. Gaughan won the track’s NASCAR Camping World Truck race in 2003.
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series, Etc.
Milestone Watch: Dave Blaney will attempt to make his 400th NASCAR Sprint Cup Series start this Sunday. He’s currently 49th on the all-time start list. … Ryan Newman again aims to become the ninth driver to win 50 career Coors Light poles … Sunday’s pre-race offerings include a unique opportunity for race fans. For the first time ever at LVMS, race fans will be able to attend the pre-race drivers’ meeting for the Kobalt Tools 400. Weather permitting, the meeting will take place adjacent to the main stage in the center of the Neon Garage. … The 2013 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Dodge Charger R/T will be revealed on Sunday, March 11, in the Neon Garage at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. … Last weekend in Phoenix, the No. 11 tied the No. 43 for most wins all time at 198. Cale Yarborough scored the most wins in the No. 11 (55). … Celeb Watch: Las Vegas headliners Jersey Boys will perform a 10-minute medley at LVMS on Sunday. Season 10 American Idol contestant Pia Toscano will sing the national anthem prior to the start of the Kobalt Tools 400 and popular television star Tim Allen (“Home Improvement,” “Last Man Standing”) will give the command to start engines. Tony Stewart recently made a cameo on “Last Man Standing.”
Sadler, Dillon Have Richard Childress Racing Out Front Early Richard Childress Racing teammates Elliott Sadler and Austin Dillon have been setting the standard early this season in the NASCAR Nationwide Series sitting one-two in the driver standings. Ten points separate the teammates after Dillon finished fourth and Sadler captured his first win in seven starts at Phoenix International Raceway to put RCR on top.
“When you are affiliated with a team like Richard Childress Racing that has the simulation program that they have and Chevrolet gives you a ton of backing and a ton of wind tunnel time, a ton of information to make our cars competitive week in and week out, nothing gets lost in translation and it has been that little bit extra to take us over the top,” said Sadler.
After winning the series driver title with Clint Bowyer in 2008, Richard Childress Racing scaled back. The organization ran only for the driver championship in 2009 and then sporadically the following two seasons before resurfacing this year after an off-season merger with Kevin Harvick Inc. Needless to say, RCR is back in contention for the NASCAR Nationwide Series championship.
Sadler heads to Las Vegas having made five previous starts, posting a series-best finish of seventh in 1999. His pre-race Driver Rating (97.2) is ranked ninth in the series and in his last two starts he has spent 99.8 percent of his laps completed in the top 15. Sadler’s Average Running Position (6.9) is ranked third in the series at Las Vegas. Dillon, now atop of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, will be making his series track debut at Las Vegas this weekend. Dillon has made two NASCAR Camping World Truck Series starts at Las Vegas, including his win from the pole in 2010.
Childress is also fielding a third car this season, the No. 33 with drivers Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick and, this week, Las Vegas native Brendan Gaughan behind the wheel.
Patrick Back in Vegas To Roll The Dice
No one said competing in the NASCAR Nationwide Series would be easy, and Danica Patrick is learning that first hand. Patrick’s start of her first full-time season has been slow, but she should be feeling lucky with Las Vegas the next stop on the schedule.
One year ago, Patrick made NASCAR history with a fourth-place finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That result was her career best and also was the highest finish ever by a female in NASCAR’s three national series.
Two weeks ago, Patrick sat on the Coors Light Pole for the season-opener at Daytona, but was the victim of an accident that involved her JR Motorsports teammate Cole Whitt. She ended up finishing 38th and left Daytona 26th in the standings.
Last week, following a drastic difference in venues, she finished 21st at Phoenix’s new 1-mile configuration, matching the effort she posted last fall. With that result, she gained five spots in the standings from 26th to 21st and is within 12 points of 10th.
Patrick heads to Vegas with a pre-race Driver Rating (73.8) ranked 19th in the series. Her Average Running Position at Las Vegas is 21.9 and in her last two starts she has averaged 20.0 Quality Passes.
Martin, Busch Epic Has Unique Twist in Las Vegas
When it comes to winning in the NNS, nobody does it better than Kyle Busch (51 wins) and Mark Martin (49 wins). The two drivers are one-two on the series all-time wins list, respectively, and each time these two compete head-to-head in the series, the competition level rises in intensity. This weekend promises to be more of the same, but with a unique twist.
Martin will be making his first-ever start for Joe Gibbs Racing in the No. 18 Toyota. The driver, who made the No. 18 car famous, Las Vegas native Busch, will be running in his own Kyle Busch Motorsports No. 54 Monster Energy Toyota. Thirty-eight of Busch’s 51 series wins came in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, including his last 36.
Now, it’s Martin’s turn in the flagship Gibbs car. Martin is no slouch at Las Vegas in the NNS. He has made six starts, posting two Coors Light poles (1998-99), four wins (1999, 2005, 2008, 2011), five top fives and six top 10s. Martin is just one win shy of 50 series victories.
Busch still seeks his first win at his home track in what will be his ninth try. He has posted a series career-best finish of second in 2007, his only top-five finish at Las Vegas. Busch’s pre-race Driver Rating (99.5) is ranked sixth in the series at the famed 1.5-mile speedway.
NASCAR Nationwide, Etc.
Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Johanna Long, 19, returns to race this week at Las Vegas after a solid series debut at Daytona, where she finished 21st. Long drives for Indiana-based and female-owned team ML Motorsports. … This is the first season since 1995 that double-duty NSCS drivers have not won the first two races of the year; Chad Little was the last full-time driver in the NNS to win the series’ first two events (1995). … Fourth-generation NASCAR driver Jeffrey Earnhardt will be making his Bristol debut in the No. 15 Sam’s Club Ford for Rick Ware Racing. It will also be the first time an Earnhardt has driven a Ford since 1983, when Dale Earnhardt drove the No. 15 Ford for Bud Moore. … Milestone Watch: Kenny Wallace will attempt to make his 525th NASCAR Nationwide Series start this weekend.
Daytona Winner King An Off-The-Track Field Filler
You’ll find John King – the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series’ latest rising star – down on the farm.
King, the surprise winner of last month’s 2012 season-opening race at Daytona International Speedway, spends his time away from the track on his family’s farm in Fort Blackmore, Va. The Kings raise cattle and horses and grow hay.
The 23-year-old Kingsport, Tenn., native, a NASCAR national series winner in just his eighth start, looks as comfortable with a pitchfork in his hands as attired in a driver’s uniform.
If he’s not on a tractor or out in the fields, King can be found at his favorite restaurant, the Front Porch Store & Deli in Fort Blackmore. That’s if he’s not in the woods with a hunting rifle or on a lake or creek bank with a rod and reel at the ready.
King grew up with three sisters, two older and one younger. “They didn’t give me a whole lot of slack,” he said.
In 2009, King was asked to join the Bill Elliott Driver Development program, operated by King’s boyhood racing hero. It landed him a ride in the UARA-STARS Late Model Series, where King won two Virginia asphalt races.
The leap from there and a best truck finish of 15th to the No. 7 Red Horse Racing Toyota and the World Center of Racing’s Gatorade Victory Lane was monumental, to say the least. With several more bye weeks on the schedule, King has plenty of time to savor that victory before heading to historic Martinsville Speedway for the March 31 Kroger 250 – one day before his 24th birthday.