By Jared Turner
In a city world-famous for gambling and gamblers, don’t be surprised if some NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams roll the dice in this weekend’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Nothing would be more appropriate. Moreover, it wouldn’t be the first time.
After locking up a berth in the Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup last season with a victory in the Daytona 500, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and his No. 88 Hendrick Motorsports team rolled into Vegas with literally nothing to lose.
So they gambled on fuel strategy – and lost. Taking the lead when Earnhardt ran out of gas on the final lap, Brad Keselowski scored the win and locked up his own berth in the Chase.
Expect similar strategies to play out this weekend when others will be looking to join 2015 Daytona 500 champion Joey Logano and last weekend’s Atlanta Motor Speedway winner, Jimmie Johnson, in punching their ticket to the Chase with a trip to Victory Lane.
Of course, to even be in a position to execute a winning strategy, a driver must first have a car that runs fast around the 1.5-mile Vegas layout. And that is Ryan Newman’s top priority.
“The challenges here at Vegas are the bumps in (turns) 1 and 2,” said Newman, who finished second to Kevin Harvick in the 2014 championship race but hasn’t gone to Victory Lance since joining Richard Childress Racing ahead of last season. “To me, the bumps are worse getting into Turn 3 than they’ve been in quite a while. I don’t know if it’s just because of the heat of the summer or the cold of what it is, but the track definitely has more character than it used to have. And it had more character than most tracks that that point.
“Just getting a balance in the race car and a good ride quality gives you the ability to kind of have confidence to move around the racetrack and pass people.”
Tony Stewart, who won at Las Vegas in 2012, believes there’s no one ingredient to running well here.
“It’s just like anywhere else you go. You just have to have a well-balanced car,” said Stewart, a three-time Sprint Cup Series champion. “It seems like track position is really, really key there, but as long as you can get your car driving well and stay ahead of it – it seems like as the day changes, or the longer the day goes, the more the track changes and the more you have to stay up with it.
“You just can’t have any mistakes there because you cannot afford to lose the track position, and you have to be able to stay up with the changing track conditions as the day goes on.”
While some drivers may not count Vegas among their favorite tracks, you’ll be hard-pressed to find many folks who don’t like making the annual early-season voyage out to Sin City.
“The way the garage is built, the way the fans have access to us throughout practice and they can really get on top of the car and see what we’re doing, Victory Lane and how they do the driver’s meeting here is unlike any other place, where we all walk out on the red carpet into a sea of fans and sit there throughout the driver’s meeting amongst all the fans,” Earnhardt said. “The track itself is an impressive facility when you compare it to other tracks on the circuit. Driving in here and when you’re inside and looking around just the facility here for the media, it’s a really nice place and very representative of Las Vegas itself. I think it’s very fitting, and the track itself is fun.”
And ripe for gambling.