NASCAR rolls into Vegas

Mar 7, 2006 4:29 AM

It’s show time in Las Vegas! The greatest annual Vegas event gets started this Friday as the NASCAR Nation roars into town for the 9th time.

Of all the racetracks on the circuit, it’s hard to make a case for any other as being a better NASCAR vacation weekend. While the track surfaces and configuration is relatively ordinary by itself, the atmosphere is electrifying.

And the fans here have responded, big time, by happily filling the Speedway’s 150,000 seats, year after year.

Because of NASCAR’s popularity here, the parent company of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Speedway Motor Sports Inc., is spending over $300 million to develop the Speedway into a NASCAR fan fest with some of the most innovative events ever imagined.

NASCAR and Las Vegas have evolved together over the last nine years. So many facets of each operation has progressed to successful heights that most thought could never happen. From the Wall Street naysayers to the "experts" who professed NASCAR was just a "Southern thing," Las Vegas proved them all wrong.

The city could rake in more than $100 million in non-gaming revenue this weekend, and we need to remember two visionaries who helped make it possible. Ralph Engelstad and Bill Bennett built the Speedway with no guarantee of any race. Engelstad was owner of the Imperial Palace and Bennett owned Circus Circus Enterprises (now Mandalay).

Both have died, but we should continue to give them thanks each time we see the two operations — NASCAR and Las Vegas — beautifully collide like they will once again this weekend.

The story of this year’s Las Vegas NASCAR Nextel Cup race is the same story it’s been every year, "Is there anyone who can stop Roush racing?" After eight previous questions like that, the scoreboard reads YES 3, NO 5.

As we roll in for the ninth version of the question, it gets scarier because Roush has never been a better, more complete team than it is now. The addition of Jamie McMurray (12-1) and emergence of second year driver Carl Edwards(12-1) gives Roush five of the top teams in NASCAR today. They were already loaded with Greg Biffle(10-1), Matt Kenseth(11-1) and Mark Martin(12-1). They were so good last season that all five of the Roush drivers made the chase for the championship, a 10-race chase in which only the top 10 drivers are invited to compete.

When Jack Roush came up with idea of focusing on these types of down-force tracks is a mystery, but it’s probable that it came right about the time that California, Texas, and Las Vegas came onto the Cup scene.

Prior to that, it was much more difficult to channel all your resources into one area. There was no Chicagoland, Kansas, and Homestead cookie cutter style; it was two races a year at places like Rockingham and Darlington and there also wasn’t as many races.

Concentrating on one area of racing wasn’t smart unless it was Daytona, which has the biggest purse of the season.

Roush saw the writing on the wall and made the most of it. Five years later after winning the inaugural Las Vegas race with Mark Martin, Roush won a championship with his philosophy and then he won another the year after.

He still has never won the Daytona 500 and hasn’t won a road course race since 1997, but what Roush does have is a lot of wins on the cookie cutters. He is the master of the down force chassis. His combination of weight placement, shock absorber, and tire pressure make Roush the best there ever was on these tracks.

Two weeks ago in Fontana, another Roush driver rolled to victory and it’s likely that most of the teams will run similar this week to the way they did then. Last season’s Vegas winner, Jimmie Johnson, finished second the race prior at California.

When looking at the California race from two weeks ago, two names stick out as dominant figures. Tony Stewart (12-1) and Greg Biffle dominated that race, at least for 458 miles. Stewart had engine problems while Biffle blew a cylinder a bit later. Both were stout and both equally had the best car with Stewart getting the nod. The major difference this week is 100 less miles.

Despite the poor start for Stewart after two races, he’s very optimistic about how things have gone so far. "Compared to last year, we feel like we’re starting this year off a lot better. Las Vegas may be a different situation, but if The Home Depot Chevrolet drives anywhere like it did at California, I’m going to be real excited about the year."

Stewart should be in prime position to get himself back on track with a Las Vegas win. He’s never won in Las Vegas, if you don’t count a doubleheader USAC sweep in 2002 at the Bull Ring, but he’s pressed a few times. He’s got four Top 5 finishes in seven career Vegas Cup starts and has the longest active streak going at the track with four consecutive top 10 finishes. His best Las Vegas finish is second in the rain-shortened event of 2000.

I’ll go against the grain and trends and take Stewart and Johnson to finish 1-2 with Kasey Kahne close behind followed by five Roush drivers.

A longshot to take a look at is rookie Reed Sorenson. We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention our favorite Las Vegas NASCAR brothers, Kurt and Kyle Busch, both of whom finished in the Top 3 in last year’s Vegas race.

Kurt’s new team looks solid and they’ll be in the 2004 Dodge Intrepid just to prove a point to NASCAR that the new Charger is slower on the down force tracks. Kyle won the California fall race last year and should be primed as the second best team in the Hendrick organization.

 

TOP 5 at LAS VEGAS

1.   #20  Tony Stewart       12-1

2.   #48  Jimmie Johnson    10-1

3.   #9    Kasey Kahne       17-1

4.   #26  Jamie McMurray 14-1

5.   #16  Greg Biffle           10-1

 

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