Of the previous six Cup races run at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, four have been won by a Roush racing-powered Ford. Mark Martin claimed the inaugural victory in 1998 followed by back-to-back wins by Jeff Burton and then last year’s win by eventual series Cup champion Matt Kenseth.
Beyond the Cup wins, Roush has also claimed three Vegas Busch series wins and two Vegas Truck series wins.
Thus, it’s safe to say that Jack Roush knows a little something about Las Vegas and how to set up a car for winning on Vegas’ configuration.
With the current group of drivers Roush has now, it’s very likely that he could sweep both the Busch and Cup race this weekend, as he’s done twice before. It could be said that one of the reasons that he’s done so well is because the law of averages of having five cars among 30 quality cars on the track gives him a decided edge.
To a degree, there is some merit to that philosophy, but it hasn’t equated to wins on several other type of tracks for the multi-car team.
The tracks Roush has been successful on are all similar to Vegas in all facets, such as banking, width of the track, and length of the track. There is a common ground that makes the set-up good almost everywhere.
Jack Roush has modestly stated several times that all the teams do their own thing, deflecting praise for the team’s successes, but his engines, chassis, and management have made him the racing king of Las Vegas.
His prize pupil for this years race is Vegas’ own Kurt Busch (8-1), who also comes into the race as the co-favorite. Busch’s Vegas resume hasn’t been very good in the Cup series, but his performances on similar tracks have been very impressive.
Last season he had wins on tracks that can be likened to Vegas in California and Michigan. Despite the half-mile longer length at the two Penske built tracks he won on last year, the width and banking of those two tracks make them similar.
Past successes for Roush in California and Michigan aren’t as glaringly solid as Vegas, but he has eight Cup wins combined between the two.
The second driver to watch for in the Roush stable has a chip on his shoulder and for good reason. Defending race and series champ Matt Kenseth (10-1) had to deflect a lot of undue criticism for winning the title with only one victory of the season. Some have even gone so far to blame him for the current rule changes in the points system, when the fact is that the point system has always been outdated and has never placed an emphasis on winning.
After winning at Rockingham two weeks ago, Kenseth made a point to dedicate the win to all the critics. The bottom line with Kenseth is that he is to be respected as a possible candidate to win every race. He is always near the front and that’s all you can ask of a driver, to have that chance of winning late.
Two seasons ago, he led the series in wins with five and finished eighth in points. Knowing now that he can go after another title and not have to play the points game, it’s likely that Kenseth’s chip on his shoulder may elevate him to several more wins on the season.
As long as he’s in the top 10 in points or within 400 points of the leader, he gets into the NASCAR post season and can points-race then. Look for another strong race from Kenseth this week.
Jeff Burton (25-1) has won at Las Vegas four times, twice each in the Busch and Cup series. If there ever were a driver in a must win situation, it’s Burton. He is racing for his season this week. This is the last week of his sponsorship. Pennzoil will be on his No. 99 Ford this week for a one-race sponsorship deal and after that no one knows.
It’s hard to believe that a driver with Burton’s credentials and Roush’s backing can be sponsorless when the likes of Ken Schrader can get a multi-year deal and it would be a shame if one of the more talented and colorful drivers in the circuit had to sit out waiting for a phone call.
Mark Martin (25-1) has only one win in the last three seasons and hasn’t won in his last 60 races, but at Vegas he can’t be discounted. He’s one of only two drivers to finish in the top 10 in five of the six Vegas races (Jeff Burton is the other). That streak ended last season when he finished 43rd, but the value is there with him especially considering he’s under the umbrella of the "cat in the hat."
Greg Biffle (30-1) is the final Roush entry for the Cup race and he too has experienced winning in Las Vegas when he piloted a Truck to victory in 1999.
Of all the Roush drivers, Kurt Busch, the Las Vegan, is the only one not to experience victory lane in any series on the Speedway. He’ll have plenty of supporters and should he win, he’s already got his victory celebration planned.
In the same fashion as fined NFL stars over the last two seasons, he’s premeditating his celebration claiming that he’ll stop at the start-finish line next to the fans, take the steering wheel off and sign it with his sponsors’ product, a silver Sharpie pen, and then frisbee it into the stands. If Busch were to do this, it would be the craziest celebration ever; I only wish he wouldn’t have told us ahead of time!
Others to watch
The Dodges of Ray Evernham’s organization came to Las Vegas for a testing session just prior to the Super Bowl and blew everyone away with all three cars sitting in the top 5 for the unofficial overall times during the four-day session.
Despite the fast times, Evernham’s crews said they weren’t even using their best engines and that they used the session exclusively to acquire new notes for the Vegas race and beyond because everything they’ve done in the past was useless due to the changes on the Dodges noses and the softer tires.
If they have better engines than what they used, they’ll be scary this week. Here’s a closer look at the three Evernham drivers:
Bill Elliott (25-1): He’s going to run a limited schedule this year and is only guaranteed to run at Vegas and Texas. His best finish at Vegas was a fourth and has two other top 10’s.
Jeremy Mayfield (18-l): In six Vegas races, he’s had two top five finishes, the last coming two years ago in his first season with Evernham when he finished 2nd.
Kasey Kahne (18-1): Following his millisecond loss to Kenseth at Rockingham two weeks ago, a great run by Kahne won’t be a surprise to anyone. He took over Bill Elliott’s team from last year and should have the best car of the 3 running this week.
Penske Racing’s trio will be as tough as any team to beat this week. Ryan Newman (8-1) is listed as a co-favorite and leads the Penske charge because the guy can just flat out wheel on these open tracks. Of his series-leading seven wins last season, three came on tracks similar to Vegas.
The last two seasons at Vegas, Newman has had solid performances with a 3rd two years ago and a 7th last season. He also has started in the top three in each start and led laps in both.
Rusty Wallace (15-1) was the fastest during the Vegas pre-season testing five weeks ago. His best finish at Vegas was a 3rd, but this year’s version of team Rusty is completely different. Virtually all of his crew members are new after Rusty finished outside the top 10 in points last year. It’s almost been three full seasons since he won a race, but that race was at California, a track similar to Vegas. The test session should serve as a positive and have them primed for a good run this week.
Brendan Gaughan (35-1) had a good Vegas test session and will finally be racing a Cup car in a place he’s comfortable with. During his first two weeks of racing on the series, he’s played it extremely smart. His car is faster than some who have finished ahead of him, but he’s doing what it takes to finish respectable while learning. Both Daytona and Rockingham are very difficult tracks for first-time drivers, but Vegas should give him his first opportunity to unleash the Penske power. Most of Gaughan’s successes in NASCAR have come on wide, open 1.5 mile tracks. This week he’ll have a lot of pressure on him because it’s in his hometown, but a top10 finish wouldn’t be a stretch by any means.
Hendrick Motorsports has another young hot shot going for them this year with last years Busch series champion Brian Vickers (35-1). Teams are going more and more with the young drivers and Rick Hendrick started it all with Jeff Gordon. Ever since then, everyone has been searching for the next Jeff Gordon and giving younger drivers better cars to run while some of the veterans have had less impressive rides.
A perfect example of that is in the Hendrick camp with two time series champion Terry Labonte (50-1). Even though Labonte had a very successful season last year, when comparing it to his last five years, it doesn’t come close to what he did through 1997. It’s obvious Labonte isn’t getting the same stuff under the hood as teammates Jimmie Johnson, Gordon, and Vickers.
The Hendrick teams came to Vegas and tested as well and the unofficial results weren’t as impressive as the Evernham and Penske camps, although Vickers turned some fast laps. That should come somewhat of a surprise because Hendrick teams have fared well on these type of tracks.
Gordon (10-1) won two of the first three California races, won in Las Vegas three seasons ago, and has two Michigan victories as well. Gordon has had some headaches in Vegas, though. In six races, he’s only had one other top 10 finish to go with the win. There is no consistency from the team to match the strength over time like Roush has done.
Jimmie Johnson (8-1) is listed as a co-favorite on the strength of his past at California and his ability to take control of just about any race track on the circuit that has only right turns.
The Gibbs gang has been pretty quiet of late. Two weeks ago at Rockingham, the dup of Tony Stewart (11-1) and Bobby Labonte (14-1) were about as non-competitive together as they’ve ever been. This was a shock because of all they’re past success there and also after both coming off of great Daytona runs. Stewart and Labonte each have three top five finishes at Vegas. Last season they finished 4th and 5th.
DEI did even better than Gibbs at Vegas last season. Both Dale Earnhardt Jr. (9-1) and Michael Waltrip (25-1) finished in the top three right behind Kenseth. For Junior, it wasn’t much of a surprise, but Waltrip’s 3rd place finish was.
After years of not winning races and hearing about it, now they all say is that all he can win is restrictor plate races. He still hasn’t won in a non-plate race, but the Vegas race last year did give him a confidence booster that his car could do well elsewhere.
Junior will be the fan favorite, despite three Las Vegans participating in the race. He’s dialed in leading the points and on his way to a championship chase. As is the case with some of the top competing championship chasers, the point structure gives the drivers a lot of maneuvering ability so if they take a chance, the season won’t be over.
UAW Daimler-Chrysler 400
TOP 5 Finish Prediction
#12 Ryan Newman (8-1)
#8 Dale Earnhardt Jr (9-1)
#97 Kurt Busch (8-1)
#9 Kasey Kahne (18-1)
#17 Matt Kenseth (10-1)
Honorable mention goes to Bill Elliott (25-1), Jeremy Mayfield (18-1), Jeff Gordon (10-1), Tony Stewart (11-1) and Brendan Gaughan (35-1).