Friday, March 9, 2012

5 Things to Ponder before the Kobalt Tools 400

Carl Edwards rides behind Tony Stewart in the Victory Lap on the Las Vegas Strip in December. Can Edwards,
defending Las Vegas race winner, find his way back to Victory Lane? Credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images for NASCAR
After a wild and wacky Daytona 500, the Subway Fresh Fit 500 at Phoenix was relatively uneventful - except for a dominant performance from Denny Hamlin. Hamlin found redemption after essentially losing the championship at Phoenix in 2010, and crew chief Darian Grubb scored his sixth victory in the last 12 races - simply incredible.

Now as NASCAR heads to Las Vegas - that's right, you know you're thinking it - all bets are off. Lady luck can be your best friend or worst enemy at the 1.5-mile track in the middle of Sin City.

As we enter the third race of the 2012 Sprint Cup season, here are some things on my mind before Sunday's Kobalt Tools 400: 

1.) Return to scene of tragedy. The NASCAR community enters Las Vegas with a heavy heart. In October, IndyCar driver Dan Wheldon lost his life after a multi-car crash here during the series' season finale. In Wheldon’s memory, Earnhardt-Ganassi Racing drivers Jamie McMurray and Juan Pablo Montoya will display the “Lionheart” decal on their racecars this weekend. Danica Patrick also remembered her friend and competitor Friday, saying, “There won't be a time that I come to Las Vegas and won't think about Dan.” NASCAR has no plans to honor Wheldon this weekend, but racing fans on Twitter are mounting a campaign to tweet “77,” Wheldon’s car number, on the 77th lap of Saturday's Sam's Town 300 Nationwide race and Sunday’s Kobalt Tools 400 Sprint Cup race. 

2.) Does Tony Stewart regret letting Darian Grubb go? When Tony Stewart stuck with his decision to release crew chief Darian Grubb despite winning the 2011 Sprint Cup championship, Joe Gibbs Racing snatched up NASCAR’s most valuable free agent for Denny Hamlin, who was coming off a dismal year. Since the season started, the two pairings – Hamlin and Grubb, and Stewart and new crew chief Steve Addington – have been under the microscope as to who’ll fare better. With a fourth-place finish at Daytona and a win at Phoenix, the team of Hamlin/Grubb has an early edge over Stewart/Addington, who finished 16th at Daytona and 22nd at Phoenix. But it’s just that – early. Remember that Stewart’s finishes came as a result of bad luck at Daytona, where he was caught up in a late-race wreck, and an EFI-related failure at Phoenix, where he lost two laps when he couldn’t restart his car. Before those incidents, Stewart was competitive and headed for top 10s if not better in both races. So while the No. 11 has the lead now, it’s still too early to tell whether Stewart will regret letting Grubb go. 

3.) Can Edwards return to his winning ways? Carl Edwards returns to Las Vegas where he won his last Sprint Cup points race, hoping to end his one-year winless streak. Despite having just one win, Edwards led the standings for 21 weeks last year and tied Tony Stewart for the championship – but in the end, the wins made the difference. Stewart had five wins to Edwards’ one, including the season finale, preventing Edwards from claiming his first title. As Edwards returns to the scene of his last victory, he brings confidence from his track record at Las Vegas – two wins, two top 5s and three top 10s in seven starts – and the strength of Roush Fenway equipment. After finishing 17th at Phoenix after running out of fuel, Edwards just needs lady luck on his side. 

4.) Have personnel changes paid off for Michael Waltrip Racing? The early assessment is yes. Toward the end of last season, MWR hired former Richard Childress Racing competition director Scott Miller as executive vice president of competition. The organization’s new lineup of Mark Martin, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. finished 10th-11th-12th ay Daytona. Martin capitalized on the promising start by claiming the pole at Phoenix and finishing a solid 9th. Truex led laps in both races and scored his second top 10 of the season at Phoenix, finishing 7th. Truex and Martin now sit 6th and 7th in points, which must bring a smile to MWR officials. With Martin running a part-time schedule in the No. 55, the organization signed Brian Vickers to drive six Sprint Cup races, starting next week at Bristol. Vickers’ driving talent and relationship with Toyota make him a good fit for the seat. Though the season is still young, MWR is off to a good start. 

5.) Can the Busch Brothers get lucky at home? Now get your mind out of the gutter! Las Vegas natives Kyle and Kurt Busch ended 2011 on low notes: Kyle purposely wrecked Ron Hornaday at Texas and Kurt cursed out Dr. Jerry Punch before a TV interview at Homestead, giving way to a mutual parting of ways with Penske Racing. As the Busch Brothers return to their hometown, will lady luck smile upon them and grant one a win at their home track? The odds are in Kyle’s favor: he has one win here, as well as three top 5s and four top 10s in eight starts, while Kurt remains winless with one top 5 and three top 10s in 11 starts. Kyle’s odds also look better with top-tier team Joe Gibbs Racing than Kurt’s with the underfunded Phoenix Racing, though his 15th-place finish at Phoenix last week was impressive. With Joe Gibbs Racing on a roll after Hamlin’s win last week, you can bet Kyle will do his best to make it two-for-two in Victory Lane.

The Kobalt Tools 400 will be broadcast live on FOX at 3 p.m. ET Sunday. The green flag is scheduled for 3:16 p.m. ET.


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