A few takes from the Vegas grandstands
For the first time in a while, I got to take in a race from, really, the best place one can possibly take one in - the grandstands. Sunday was also my first trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, situated just north of Sin City and right next to a beautiful mountainscape in the Nevada desert. There's something that gets lost on racing when you don't see it in person or when you do, you see it from behind the glass of a press box. Just sitting in the stands, with the crowd, with fellow fans reminds you of why you became a fan and helps you feel the heartbeat of NASCAR nation. Every media member should do this at least once a year. It changes the perspective, it sharpens it. And since I was out there enjoying the race more than just covering it, here are a few quick takes from the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
- Is Kevin Harvick's No. 4 actually a part of the same Stewart-Haas Racing as Tony Stewart, Danica Patrick, and Regan Smith? That Rodney Childers-led team is again head and shoulders above the others in the stable and the 2014 champ has picked up where he left off. He really did - he has finished first or second in his last six races, dating back to last fall's Texas Motor Speedway race. The race after that was Phoenix International Raceway, where Harvick won and where the Cup Series races this weekend. SHR teammates are way off - Smith's average finish is 16th, Patrick's 19th, and Stewart's? 35th. Stewart is the lowest-ranked driver in points (34th) of all that have competed in three races this season (Landon Cassill would be lower, but he is taking Xfinity Series points). While he crashed at Daytona, his Atlanta and Las Vegas finishes were just flat out bad performances, especially for a three-time champ.
- The racing was more exciting in person at LVMS than the TV broadcast may have conveyed. The restarts were extremely exciting and there was always a race for position somewhere in the pack, even on long green flag runs. It's fun watching drivers try different lines, trying to make up positions. Both Jeff Gordon and David Ragan started from the back of the pack and watching them knife through traffic was particularly interesting and fun. But the ballyhooed rules changes for the racecars really has not made passing any easier. Judging on the past two races, drivers had trouble getting around cars they had caught. The main thought in the garage seems to be that the cars are still too fast and have too much downforce. That makes sense, as Jeff Gordon broke the LVMS qualifying record Friday.
- Why in the heck did NASCAR throw a yellow flag on lap 140 for Brad Keselowski's tire that got loose in the infield? It had been sitting there for several laps after the No. 2 team's stop, but NASCAR kept the race green. In fact, they kept it green just long enough for Keselowski's teammate Joey Logano, who was the only car not to have pitted in that cycle, to get to pit road. That may have been a strategic and fair move (as it set the field back in order of how it ran before the stops), but it again shows the total inconsistency as to when yellow flags fly. There are have been other times when random debris cautions have messed up a pit sequence before and hurt drivers' days. Please, NASCAR, stay consistent. If the tire was not a danger before Logano's stop, what made it dangerous enough to throw the yellow after?
- Roush Fenway Racing is still hurting. Greg Biffle was a respectable 14th Sunday, but youngsters Trevor Bayne (28th) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (29th) never had a fighting chance in Vegas. They pointed to the Atlanta race on the calendar as one to show where their program had improved or not. They were just as bad there: Bayne 19th, Biffle 25th, and Stenhouse Jr. 36th (he wrecked, but struggled beforehand). What's interesting is that RFR's Xfinity Series teams are actually running fairly well, even having won the Daytona race (Ryan Reed).
- Jeff Gordon has had rotten 2015 luck: got wrecked on final lap of Daytona 500, missed qualifying and started in back at Atlanta Motor Speedway, got wrecked late in the AMS race, got crash damage after rear-ending rookie Jeb Burton in Sunday's LVMS race and finished 18th. His final season is off to a horrible start at 30th in points just three races in. But the good news is that he has been fast each weekend (two poles). He just needs Jimmie Johnson's horseshoe.
- Richard Childress Racing-powered entries are off to a great start and did especially well at LVMS. Martin Truex Jr. finished 2nd in the race for Furniture Row Racing, Ryan Newman 3rd for RCR, and A.J. Allmendinger was 6th for JTG-Daugherty Racing. Casey Mears had a bad finish, but was quick in practice and qualifying last weekend and is 9th in points. This RCR team (and its satellite organizations) have been far behind the Hendrick-powered Chevys...but they're catching up now. By the way Truex Jr. has three top 10s in the first three races of 2015 - he had five in all of 2014. And Austin Dillon was untouchable in Saturday's Xfinity Series race, though Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney almost caught him in the closing laps.
- The crowd at LVMS was tremendous Sunday, though the Turns 3 and 4 grandstands were closed. The place was packed and energetic. One thing that has to be attributed to is the activation that NASCAR has in the area. McCarron Airport had signs welcoming race fans, casinos had NASCAR signage and driver appearances, and almost everyone was aware that it was race weekend, whether they cared or not. And there were plenty of fans in casinos, decked out in NASCAR gear, having a big time. This makes fans feel like they are part of something big, when the event they are attending is front and center at all of these places. Vegas is more of a destination than other cities for sure, but I'd sure like to see some Atlanta businesses roll out the red carpet for NASCAR race weekend here. That would help some of the issues AMS has had drawing fans.
- As much as I think I know about racing, I almost always lose in the few times I have bet on it. I play for $100/season in a Fantasy League and have barely won anything. And I bet on races for the first time in Vegas and lost $120. I'm not much of a gambler at all and this proves exactly why. That reminds me, I need to put $10 down for the 100-1 odds the Atlanta Braves with the World Series this year.
The Race Capsule returns next week after the Phoenix races, which should be interesting to take in, for sure.