5 Questions Before ... Kobalt Tools 400

Viva Las Vegas! The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series heads to Sin City this weekend for the Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and how fitting that Vegas’ own brotherly duo — Kyle and Kurt Busch — are leading the standings heading to their home track. However, 41 other drivers will be waiting for the perfect moment to strike and take home the victory.

Here are some questions on my mind heading into the race …

Can Hendrick Motorsports continue their momentum? … All four Hendrick Motorsports drivers finished strong last weekend in Phoenix. Jeff Gordon broke a 66-race winless streak to bring home the victory, five-time defending champion Jimmie Johnson finished third, NASCAR’s most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 10th, and 52-year-old Mark Martin finished 13th.

Last year, all HMS drivers except for Johnson went winless and the only other driver to make the Chase for the Sprint Cup was Jeff Gordon. He finished the season out in 9th place.

Martin and Gordon have one win apiece at LVMS, while Johnson leads all drivers with four victories. Earnhardt has finished second there twice — 2003 and 2008.

What 2010 Chase drivers will redeem themselves this week? … Seven of the 12 Chase for the Sprint Cup Series drivers last season are currently sitting outside the top 12 after two races in 2011: Jimmie Johnson, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Matt Kenseth, Greg Biffle, Clint Bowyer and Jeff Burton. Carl Edwards, Tony Stewart, Kyle Busch, Jeff Gordon and Kurt Busch are still in the top 12.

Yes it’s still early in the season, but consider this: Of all the drivers sitting in the top 12 after three races last season, only three of them failed to make the Chase: Mark Martin (13), Joey Logano (16) and David Reutimann (18).

In 2009, 7 of the 12 drivers in the top 12 after Las Vegas missed the Chase. In 2008, five of the drivers in the top 12 after Vegas missed the Chase.

With the new points system implemented over the off-season, it will be much harder than in previous years to make up lost ground. Burton has the most ground to make up, sitting 32nd 53 points back from leader Kyle Busch.

Will we see any payback?… After Phoenix, we had a couple of drivers not so happy with the other. Carl Edwards was upset with Kyle Busch for what he felt was an unnecessary crash and Brian Vickers all but warned Matt Kenseth to watch his back in the coming weeks.

While Edwards’ and Vickers’ comments could be attributed to the heat of the moment (because drivers are notoriously forgiving, right?) who isn’t itching for a few “Boys have at it?” incidents to add to the highlight reels?

Will we see another record broken? … Sunday’s race at Phoenix International Raceway saw a track record of 28 lead changes, the second race in two races this season to break the record number of lead changes at that weekend’s track.

The week before Phoenix at Daytona International Raceway, the 500 saw a record number of lead changes (74) and leaders (22). Last year, NASCAR boasted that 2010 was its most competitive season ever, and so far 2011 has been very competitive as well.

The most lead changes ever at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was 25, set twice back in 1999 and 2005.  

Will ratings increase as well? … Sunday’s race at Phoenix was the most watched race ever at that racetrack, which was very good to hear considering NASCAR’s TV ratings have been declining over the past few seasons. Phoenix’s spring race was moved up to the second race of the season after Auto Club Speedway lost one of its dates. Ratings were up 5% over last year’s race at ACS on the same weekend, and up 59% over the race in Phoenix last season which was broadcast in April.

Ratings were up for the Daytona 500 too, seeing a 17% increase over the 2010 pothole-infested Daytona 500.

Last year’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway earned a 4.4/9, down from a 6.5/12 in 2009. We’ll see if the rise in viewers continues this weekend.

Bonus questions: How many driver sightings will there be on The Strip this week? … Which driver will “shoot craps” first? … How many times will the new NAPA Know How commercial be played?  
5 Questions Before ... Kobalt Tools 400 5 Questions Before ... Kobalt Tools 400 Reviewed by Summer Dreyer on Thursday, March 03, 2011 Rating: 5