NASCAR Sprint Cup Series: Raceday at Las Vegas | Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400

jutter@charlotteobserver.comMarch 8, 2014 

  • Race facts

    Where: Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Las Vegas, Nev.

    Track type: 1.5-mile slightly banked, paved, quad-oval

    Race distance: 267 laps or 400.5 miles

    Weather: Sunny with a high in the low 70s.

    TV: Coverage at 2 p.m. on Fox. Green flag is 3:17 p.m.

    Radio: Performance Racing Network

NASCAR continues to evaluate new qualifying

NASCAR officials will continue to monitor and evaluate its new knock out qualifying procedures, which have drawn almost universal praise by competitors and fans but have also raised some potential safety concerns.

During Friday’s Cup series session at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, there were some close calls on the track with cars running at full speed to post fast laps nearly missing cars running off the pace while attempting to cool their engines between runs.

Driver Brian Vickers, who won the first of three rounds, called the session “the most dangerous thing I’ve ever done in a race car.”

Friday’s session was just the first on a superspeedway and first using the three-round format.

“As we discussed with the teams in the offseason, we expected to use the first few weeks of the season to get a good snapshot of how things went and how things played out on various size race tracks,” said NASCAR spokesman Kerry Tharp. “We’re still in that process.

“However, the new format has been deemed a success almost universally by the competitors, promoters and fans and that is a very positive development for the sport. We’re getting great feedback and ideas from the garage and if we can tweak it to make it even better moving forward we will.”

Teams have the ability to address the problem now, if they elected to remove tape from their front grille areas. But unless every team decided to do so, some teams would have an advantage over others.

When NASCAR first announced the new qualifying procedures it was not going to allow teams to make any changes to the cars during the sessions. It was only upon receiving feedback from teams NASCAR elected to allow changes to be made.

Notebook

Almirola making strides: Aric Almirola, driver of the No. 43 Ford at Richard Petty Motorsports, and new crew chief Trent Owens have gotten off to a good start with the new qualifying format, advancing to the final round at Phoenix and Las Vegas.

Almirola, who will start eighth in Sunday’s race, said Owens has brought a new way of thinking to his approach each weekend.

“It’s really easy to get stale and get stagnant and kind of get stuck in your ways and he seems to really be knowledgeable about the race cars and does a great job of thinking through the changes that he wants to make,” Almirola said.

Final practice update: Jamie McMurray led the way in Saturday’s final Sprint Cup practice session, posting an average lap speed of 186.942 mph. Austin Dillon was second-fastest, Clint Bowyer was third, Kasey Kahne fourth and last weekend’s race winner, Kevin Harvick, was fifth. Brian Vickers was fastest in Saturday morning’s first session.


Three things to watch

1. Last season, Joe Gibbs Racing was by far the most dominant organization on 1.5-mile speedways like Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Can JGR pick up where it left off?

2. NASCAR did a lot of work in the offseason to come up with a new aerodynamic package which would help improve the quality of racing on intermediate tracks. Sunday’s race will be the package’s first real test.

3. Kevin Harvick, last week’s race winner, has yet to win a Cup race at Las Vegas, but has come close. He earned a runner-up finish in 2010, and owns three career top-five and five top-10 finishes.

Observations

• Putting aside the potential safety concerns that have been raised about the new qualifying procedures, the three-round elimination format used Friday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was an unqualified success, in terms of generating excitement and interest from fans. Speedway officials said Friday’s qualifying day crowd was the largest in several years. The rounds seemed to run much smoother than a week ago at Phoenix and three rounds of competition appeared to be much more exciting than the two rounds used on short tracks.

• Rookie Austin Dillon won the pole for the Daytona 500 and Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the race. Kevin Harvick won last weekend in just his second race with his new team. Team Penske has dominated knock out qualifying. There have been a lot of big stories so far this year. What’s missing? How about Jimmie Johnson? Never fear. Johnson is one of only two drivers to average a top-10 finish at Las Vegas and owns a series-high four victories at the track.


Best bets

Three picks for your fantasy racing team:

Brad Keselowski, Jimmie Johnson, Brian Vickers

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