Motor Mouth: Who went for broke and who just broke down in Vegas

The saying is “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas,” but in NASCAR it’s not that easy. While Lady Luck smiled on select drivers during Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400, she downright spit on others. Some drivers experienced a change of fortune for the better, but for others, being on Lady Luck’s bad side took its toll in the less than forgiving new points system.

Since five is my lucky number, let’s look at five drivers who played their cards right at Vegas and five who rolled snake eyes (for your added amusement, let’s also see how many Vegas puns I can use in one column):


Carl Edwards: Though he didn’t have the dominant car at Las Vegas, Edwards and the No. 99 team knew when to play their hand. Edwards capitalized on Tony Stewart’s pit road penalty to take the lead, and on the final pit stop used Stewart’s own two-tire strategy against him to take the win. This marks Edwards’ third win in the last five races and his second top-2 finish this year. Those sound an awful lot like Jimmie Johnson-type numbers. Edwards insisted at the end of last year not to consider him a championship contender for 2011, but with the numbers he’s been putting up on the track, it’s hard to see him as anything but.

Kurt Busch: The odds were stacked against the Las Vegas native, who had finished outside the top 20 in his last four races here. Even Lady Luck seemed to be toying with Busch, who spun out in the No. 22 nearly halfway through the race. Busch managed to save the car without hitting anything and recovered to finish 9th, his best finish at his hometown track since 2005. Busch, who hasn’t finished outside the top 10 this year, hit the jackpot at the top of the standings, tied with Tony Stewart for points leader.

Dale Earnhardt Jr.: NASCAR’s most popular driver charged from a 33rd starting spot to run in the top-4, finishing 8th after taking four tires on the last pit stop. Vegas marks Earnhardt Jr.’s third strong run with new crew chief Steve Letarte, giving the driver of the No. 88 back-to-back top-10s for the first time since July 2010. The duo really seem to be clicking - the right adjustments are being made during the race, giving Dale Jr. a much-needed confidence boost. Earnhardt Jr. now sits 10th in the points, the highest of the Hendrick Motorsports drivers. After struggling for the last two seasons, is Dale Jr.’s luck finally turning around?

Brian Vickers: The driver of the No. 83 Red Bull car returned to NASCAR competition this season after being diagnosed with blood clots last May. But his return had been anything but smooth. Vickers was involved in a multi-vehicle wreck at Daytona and was taken out in “the Big One” at Phoenix, starting the year off with a pair of finishes in the 30s. But Vickers’ fortunes changed at Las Vegas - he ran a steady race and finished 10th. The effort matched his finish at Darlington, the last race he competed in before taking the eight-month break. Nice to have you back, Brian.

Credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images for NASCAR
Marcos Ambrose: In only his third race in the No. 9 for Richard Petty Motorsports, Ambrose gained notice with his impressive qualifying effort, starting on the outside pole in a display of Ford strength alongside fellow "Blue Oval" driver Matt Kenseth. Unlike Kenseth, Ambrose was able to cash in on the prime starting spot and finished 4th, his best result since a 5th-place effort last fall at Richmond.


Tony Stewart: Although Stewart had the dominant car at Lady Vegas, Lady Luck dealt him a cruel blow. After leading 127 laps, Stewart left his pit box with an air hose still attached and was penalized by NASCAR. The driver of the No. 14 took two tires during the race’s final caution and regained the lead, but in doing so Stewart showed his cards to the field and ended up being beaten by his own strategy. Stewart had to take four tires on the final pit stop, Edwards took two, and that’s the moment Stewart said he gave the win away. Stewart was visibly upset after the race – not even the points lead could console him. In a sport where you can expect some drivers to talk about having “a good points day,” Stewart shoved the notion away, simply saying “Second sucks.” Watching Stewart, it became clear that the Ricky Bobby line “if you’re not first, you’re last” was all too true.

Kyle Busch: The points leader entering Las Vegas, the younger Busch was a favorite to win at his home track. And for the first 100 laps, it looked like Busch had a car to contend with, running as high as second. But he never got that chance. Busch’s bad luck started with a blown tire and only a few laps later his engine exploded, his opportunity literally going up in flames. Busch’s 38th-place finish left him in the red, dropping him a crushing 13 spots in the points. If the Chase started now (I know it's early to use this line, but still), the former points leader wouldn’t even make the cut.

Credit: Todd Warshaw/Getty Images for NASCAR
Jeff Gordon: Hoping to cash in on the momentum from his surprise win at Phoenix, the dice didn’t roll in Gordon’s favor. A flat tire on lap 195 put him in the wall, sending Gordon home in 36th place. Where Gordon’s win had propelled him 21 spots to 5th in the points last week, the fallout from Vegas dropped him back down to 19th. In just one race, the points effect of the win that ended his 66-race losing streak was nearly erased.

Greg Biffle: The Biff had a fast car Sunday, leading for 11 laps, until his luck ran out in the pits. The new gas can system proved to be a thorn in the No. 16’s side, and the fueling woes took Biffle out of contention for the win. Biffle left Las Vegas in 28th place, burrowing deeper into a hole at 31st in the standings.

Matt Kenseth: Kenseth started the weekend strong, claiming his first pole since 2009. The fastest of the Fords in the practices, we never got to see Kenseth’s full hand when the No. 17 had a tire go down early. Kenseth went a lap down immediately and struggled to get back on the lead lap. Even though he salvaged an 11th-place finish, Lady Luck’s stinging rebuke snuffed out Kenseth’s best chance to date at ending his ongoing winless streak.


Juan Pablo Montoya finished third, scoring his second top-10 this year (the driver of the No. 42 finished 6th at Daytona). Montoya’s two Cup wins have been limited to road courses, but could that elusive oval victory be on the way this season?

Though he went unnoticed for much of the race, Denny Hamlin was the biggest mover of the race Sunday, starting in the back after an engine change and finishing 7th in the No. 11.

Jimmie Johnson had a so-so day, finishing 16th with an experimental setup. Though he never contended for the win, the finish was enough to move the five-time champion into the top 12 in points.

Kevin Harvick is still trying to climb out of the hole created when his engine blew at Daytona, starting off the season with a 42nd-place finish. After a speeding penalty disrupted his progress at Las Vegas, Harvick was stuck in traffic and had to settle for 17th-place finish. Despite a mediocre day, Harvick gained two spots in the points standings and is up to 20th.

Harvick’s Richard Childress Racing teammate Jeff Burton did not fare any better, also the victim of a speeding penalty. With two DNFs and a 21st-place finish at Vegas, Burton sits buried 32nd in the points.


The Sprint Cup and Nationwide Series are off this week, just a month into the new season. If you’re starting to panic, don’t worry: The Camping World Truck Series will fill your racing needs. If you thought Lady Luck was moody, wait until the trucks get on track at Darlington. What will the Lady in Black have in store?

Even though there’s no Cup race, Sunday will still feature NASCAR programming. FOX will air a documentary about Trevor Bayne’s historic Daytona 500 at 1 p.m. ET. Tune in for a behind-the-scenes look at NASCAR’s Super Bowl and the young man who has garnered nationwide attention for the feat. The documentary is not only a great way to fill the NASCAR gap this Sunday, but with sales of Bayne’s Daytona 500 merchandise setting records, the airing is likely to appeal to the sport’s newest fans (and remind them of the regular race timeslot).

"Motor Mouth" is a new weekly column in which I spout off on - what else? - NASCAR. Feel free to keep the conversation going by leaving your comments below.

Motor Mouth: Who went for broke and who just broke down in Vegas Motor Mouth: Who went for broke and who just broke down in Vegas Reviewed by Rebecca Kivak on Tuesday, March 08, 2011 Rating: 5