Fantasy NASCAR Race Preview: Kobalt Tools 400
Las Vegas Motor Speedway is labeled as a cookie-cutter track due to its 1.5-mile length. However, the site features a slightly different set of banking characteristics than most other intermediate courses, particularly the steeper corner banking. The racing surface at LVMS was redesigned in time for the 2007 season, offering a total of six Cup races in which to analyze as the track hosts just one event per year.
Since Vegas marks the first test on an intermediate track, teams will learn quite a bit about the state of their 1.5-mile programs this week. In all, eight 1.5-mile tracks will host a total of 11 races this season. Owners will want to monitor the driver trends that develop across these sites. Success on these intermediates is pivotal, both in reality and fantasy.
This week, the open testing session at LVMS that was originally planned for late January will take place on Thursday, providing extra practice data to digest.
Practice sessions: Thursday, March 7 at 11:30 am EST, 3:30 pm EST; Friday, March 8 at 3:00 pm EST; Saturday, March 9 at 12:00 pm EST, 2:35 pm EST
Drivers to keep an eye on
Over the last five years, Biffle has recorded an average running position of ninth or better on four occasions at LVMS. In those races he notched a top-10 finish each time, highlighted by a pair of podium finishes. The lone hiccup was a promising run in the 2011 race that was spoiled by multiple fueling issues in the pits. The Biff typically qualifies very well in Sin City and is among the top middle-tier drivers this week.
Stewart has nearly broken Vegas each of the last two years. After leading 163 of 267 laps during a runner-up performance in 2011, Smoke won this race last March by pacing another 127 circuits while never dropping outside of the top 10 in the running order. Stewart heads to LVMS as the only driver with an active streak of three top-10s at the site.
Prior to a crash in 2011 and a mediocre run last year, Gordon was very much a high roller at LVMS. He never held an average running position worse than seventh in four consecutive Vegas races, which was capped by a monster performance in 2010. Gordon led a whopping 219 laps, or 82 percent of the race, to notch an average running position of first. He would fall just 5.8 points short of a perfect driver rating after finishing third.
Since LVMS was redesigned for the 2007 race, Earnhardt owns an average finish of 9.5, second-best among all drivers. He's also one of just four drivers with four top-10s on the new Vegas strip. Despite all the success, Earnhardt has managed only one finish better than eighth. After starting the season with a pair of top-fives, Earnhardt is seeing his odds of adding another improve quite a bit.
Tire failures caused an early exit and a disappointing 40th-place finish last week at Phoenix International Raceway for Newman. PIR ranks among his best tracks, but Vegas has proven to a lucky venue lately with two straight top-five finishes. In addition, Newman has held an average running position outside of the top 15 at LVMS just once since 2007. Last week's disappointment could result in owners avoiding another roll of the dice on Newman, creating a value opportunity.
The top driver on the current Vegas setup is Edwards, who just snapped a 70-race winless streak last week in a different desert. Since 2007, he is the only driver to score three top-fives in six LVMS races. During that time, Edwards never held an average running position worse than 11th. In the win column, Edwards has made a pair of trips to the Vegas winner's circle, which has him tied with Jimmie Johnson.
Burton won two Vegas races early in the career but hasn't been too bad on the new surface, either. Over the last half dozen races he has finished outside of the top 15 only once. Burton is coming off a solid 10th-place run at PIR and could do something similar if things are finally turning around in the No. 31 camp after two disappointing seasons.
In his two championship seasons on the Nationwide Series, Stenhouse ran strong each time at LVMS, spending all 400 combined laps running inside the top 15. In 2011, he finished eighth with an average running position of fifth. Last year, Stenhouse won the event while running third and leading 55 laps. With finishes of 12th and 16th to start his rookie Cup season, Stenhouse may quickly rise above his current lower-tier driver status.
Temper your expectations
In four trips to Vegas, Keselowski has gone bust each time, failing to record a top-25 finish. Last year, he went all in late in the race and stayed out in an effort to steal a good finish. However, Keselowski experienced an issue during the restart and finished back in 32nd. The champ may have celebrated his championship in Vegas during the annual postseason awards banquet, but he has yet to come up with an ace on this race track.
Since 2007, Hamlin has two top-10s at LVMS but he has also finished 19th or worse three of the last four years. Hamlin also never held an average running position better than 15th and is still looking to lead his first lap at the site. Despite finishing on the lead lap in both 2010 and 2012, Hamlin spent fewer than six percent of his laps running inside the top 15 each time.
About Eric McClung
Eric McClung has been profiled by the FSWA for covering the fantasy sports spectrum and is a two-time award finalist. He's also made several appearances in print and on radio. McClung began contributing to KFFL in 2008 and currently serves as one of KFFL's featured fantasy NASCAR experts. Follow @EricMcClung
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