One of the greatest annual Las Vegas festivals takes place this weekend with three days of NASCAR action beginning with practices and qualifying on Friday.
Cup practice and the Xfinity series Boyd Gaming 300 and culminating with Sunday’s Kobalt 400. This will be the 19th straight year the Sprint Cup series has rolled through town in early March.
While the Las Vegas Motor Speedway has the nicest spread among all tracks in the series, complete with its ground-breaking Neon Garage that allows fans watch to watch crews work in the garages above giant glass windows, the real attraction the Vegas date has that nowhere else does is legal sports betting.
After 18 years, the regular visitors for the Vegas race have become very adept at how to wager. There are still the occasional first-timers who come to the window not knowing how the betting works, but for the most part they now come in with all their bet numbers written down and fire away. It’s been a long education process, but the fans are now seasoned bettors.
Sunday will be the highest handled Cup race of the season, almost four times the action the second most wagered (Daytona 500) takes in. With over 160,000 fans in town just for race action, the handle piles up quickly.
And the sportsbooks around town do a great job of providing bettors with a wide array of propositions.
Just about anything that appears in a NASCAR box-score can be wagered on. Lap leaders, cautions, car number to win, manufacturer to win, margin of victory – anything you can think of that has an official result tied to it, you’ll be able to find some action on it. Then of course there’s the staple of NASCAR wagering, which is simply picking the winner, which almost everyone in the stands seems to have a couple tickets on.
That’s where we’re going to start here. Who will win?
Last week’s Atlanta race won by Jimmie Johnson gave us some great insight to what might happen Sunday just because it was the first race of 2016 using the new low downforce package. We saw two races last season with it at Kentucky and Darlington and Joe Gibbs Racing had a huge edge over everyone while winning both.
Team Penske wasn’t far behind and the Chevrolet teams like Stewart Haas Racing and Hendrick Motorsports looked a little behind.
Kevin Harvick would lead the most laps (131) at Atlanta, Kurt Busch had the second most (62) and Johnson third (52). Matt Kenseth would lead 52 laps and Martin Truex 47 for Toyota. It was quite the turnaround from what we saw last season. Chevrolet is no longer behind, and they may have even passed the Gibbs Toyotas with the package. Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi also looked fast for Chevy during Atlanta practices.
Atlanta is a 1.5-mile track like Las Vegas, but it’s much faster because of a higher banking. Tire wear shouldn’t be as difficult this week, but the Vegas race is 100 miles shorter than Atlanta.
There were surprisingly only three cautions at Atlanta, which was a big drop-off from Kentucky’s 11 and Darlington’s 18 last year. Drivers are obviously more comfortable with this package and know how to roll the corners now at maximum speed without sliding as much as last year.
While the most important equation into picking the winner this week is the low downforce package, we also can’t ignore history. A couple of drivers have some great history in Las Vegas beginning with Johnson and his LVMS-best four wins. Kenseth has three wins and a track best 11.3 average finish in 16 starts. Carl Edwards is a two-time winner with a 12.2 average.
Kevin Harvick won this race for the first time last season and has led more laps in the past 25 races since 2014 on intermediate tracks than anyone else in the series – by over 500 laps more than Joey Logano with the second most.
Harvick also has some great personal history in Las Vegas. Beyond his early days of racing in the Winston West series in Las Vegas, the Bakersfield native also got married to his wife Delana in 2001 during the Vegas race weekend, one week after making his Cup debut in Rockingham when taking over the RCR car the late Dale Earnhardt drove. A week later he would win his first Cup race in Atlanta in only his third career start.
There was enough evidence in Sunday’s Atlanta race to believe Harvick should be the driver to beat this week, just like there was last year when he led 131 laps at Atlanta (runner-up) before winning a week later in Las Vegas.
Let’s go with “Happy” Harvick on his anniversary to go back-to-back in Vegas. Three other drivers have gone back-to-back as well.
Micah Roberts is a former Las Vegas race and sports book director, one of The Linemakers on SportingNews.com , and longtime motorsports columnist and sports analyst at GamingToday. Twitter: @MicahRoberts7 Email: [email protected].