Mash The Gas: Las Vegas Preview

Brad Keselowski, the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway defending champion, is looking for two wins in a row in 2017. [Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images]

Brad Keselowski, the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway defending champion, is looking for two wins in a row in 2017. [Credit: Sean Gardner/NASCAR via Getty Images]

by Dan Margetta and John Wiedemann

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins its trek out West this weekend in the bright lights, glitz, and glamour of Las Vegas as the Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosts the Kobalt 400 Sunday afternoon.

Kobalt 400
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Sunday, March 12
3:30 p.m. ET
FOX, 3:30 p.m. ET
PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
400.5 miles (267 laps)
Stage 1 (Ends on lap 80)
Stage 2 (Ends on lap 160)
Final Stage (Ends on lap 267)
While news of a second Cup Series date for the Vegas facility will dominate the weekend, this is the first race with the 2017 lower downforce package matched with a tire Goodyear had time to prepare for and test. It’s also the first time the new stage racing format will be used in Vegas which should leave the drivers no time to take it easy with so many valuable points on the line. While the same length as last weekend’s Atlanta Motor Speedway, Las Vegas is a different track with it’s own idiosyncrasies. How the new set-up affects the cars over the well-known Vegas bumps, especially in turns one and two, could be a key difference in deciding a winner on Sunday.

With the Daytona plate racing and Atlanta’s coarse surface behind us, we should get a good strong look on who the early season contenders are following the Las Vegas event and here are some drivers to watch…

Chase Elliott (Dan Margetta)
We got a glimpse of the current low downforce aero package on the cars in races at Kentucky and Michigan last year as well as last weekend at Atlanta and Chase Elliott has been a factor in just about every one of them. He finished third after leading many laps in Michigan last year and was fifth last weekend after running up front all day. Couple those runs with his strong performance at Daytona, and Chase Elliott is poised to get that first Cup victory in the very near future. It could very well happen this weekend in Vegas as despite finishing a disappointing 38th in his only Vegas start, Elliott and the #24 team appear to be on a roll to start 2017. He’s listed at 7-1 odds to win this weekend and is a good bet to be challenging for the victory on Sunday.

Matt Kenseth (John Wiedemann)
A speeding penalty early in the race at Atlanta looked to doom Matt Kenseth, but strategy and Kenseth’s perseverance salvaged and third place finish when the checkers flew. Kenseth will win a race this season and a win may come this weekend at Las Vegas where he has three victories. So, race points won’t matter as much for Kenseth to make the playoffs. What may matter is the Playoff Points which are given out for Stage wins. Look for Kenseth, 12-1 odds, to run up front this weekend and battle for those Stage wins as well as make a run for the overall victory.

Kyle Larson (DM)
Another driver knocking on the door of victory is Kyle Larson who won the Michigan race last year and finished second last weekend in Atlanta. Larson has been passed for the lead late in the last three Cup races dating back to last season and he will be looking to prove he can close the deal this week in Vegas. The low downforce aero package suits his slideways driving style perfectly and he’s listed at enticing 12-1 odds to win this weekend. There was a lot of off track chatter this week about Larson possibly giving away the win last week by moving up to block Brad Keselowski instead of running the faster inside lane and I’m confident that will give Larson plenty of motivation heading into Las Vegas this weekend. Look for Kyle Larson to prove he can seal the deal this weekend and find victory lane in Las Vegas.

Joey Logano (JW)
Statistically, Joey Logano should have at least one win at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Logano has a series best average finish of 10.75 and has two top five and four top ten finishes in eight races. Maybe race number nine will be the charm. Logano has been a great pick on 1.5 mile tracks and his teammate Brad Keselowski just drove to the win last weekend at Atlanta. Wheel issues have plagued Logano’s team this year and to find victory lane, you usually need to have a mistake free race. If Team Penske can provide that mistake free raceday for Logano, then the 7-1 odds will make a number of #22 fans very happy. But Logano’s biggest threat might just be his teammate, he finished second to him last year and that could happen again… more on that in a bit.

Kevin Harvick (DM)
After last week’s dominating run in Atlanta, Kevin Harvick is the clear cut favorite heading into this weekend’s event in Las Vegas. Harvick had the Atlanta race in hand until a speeding penalty on the final pit stop relegated him to a ninth place finish. A similar situation happened to him in Kentucky last year as he led the most laps but failed to win in another race using the low downforce rules package. The odds makers have listed Harvick as a 5-1 favorite this weekend and his Vegas track record includes a victory to go along with four top five finishes and seven top ten results. If you are looking for safe bet in Vegas this week, Kevin Harvick is your guy but remember lady luck has a way of ruining those safe bets in Vegas and this team and driver’s penchant for mistakes creep up late in races all too often.

Brad Keselowski (JW)
Yes, if Kevin Harvick doesn’t speed on the final pit stop, he probably wins the race. But, he did and that allowed Brad Keselowski to charge past Kyle Larson to take the checkers. Would Keselowski have been able to do the same to Harvick? We’ll never know. This weekend gives Keselowski another shot at the win and it is highly possible that he will take it. Keselowski has won two of the last three races in Sin City including the last one. At 6-1 odds, Keselowski is the second favorite of Vegas this weekend and he is my pick to win back-to-back Cup races and keep Ford’s victory lane streak going.

Ryan Blaney (DM)
Vegas loves long shots and my long shot pick this week is Ryan Blaney who comes in at 80-1 odds to win. Blaney has a 12.5 average finishing position at Vegas with one top ten, a sixth place finish last year. Plus Blaney’s Wood Brothers Racing team is closely aligned with the Penske team whose cars have always raced well at Vegas as Brad Keselowski won last year and Joey Logano finished second. So far in 2017, Blaney has run strong having finished second in Daytona and he could surprise some people this weekend. If you are looking for a long shot pick with some bang for your buck, take a close look at Ryan Blaney for the Kobalt Tools 400 on Sunday.

Trevor Bayne and Ricky Stenhouse Jr (JW)
Currently in tenth place in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series standings, Trevor Bayne, along with his Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr, is looking to put a number of down years in the rear view mirror. Both RFR drivers have run surprisingly well in the first two races this season and now it will be interesting to see if they can continue solid runs and be part of the series leading Ford bandwagon. In six starts at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Bayne has one top ten (2012) and a 19.5 average finish. Other than the top ten in 2012, Bayne’s best finish was last season when he finished 17th. Stenhouse has run four races in the top NASCAR series at Las Vegas and his best finish was last season’s 12th place run. Last weekend Bayne ran 12th with Stenhouse right behind at the finish line. Another weekend like that would prove that RFR is on the right track and trending dramatically upward.

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