Wins in the Sprint Cup Series are important, now more than ever, and Hendrick Motorsports driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. nearly cemented his place in the Chase in mid-March with a victory at Las Vegas. But crew chief Steve Letarte gambled with the fuel, and was just off on the calculations by about a half-mile. The No. 88 machine ran out of gas around Turn 3, and that allowed Team Penske driver Brad Keselowski to take advantage andt ake his Miller Lite Ford to Victory Lane.
It was a great weekend for the Blue Deuce, or I guess that would be White Deuce in retro Miller Lite colors. In any event, Keselowski also picked up a victory in the Nationwide race Saturday, and is building steam as he looks to bounce back after a disappointing 2013 campaign. It was the first weekend sweep by a Ford in four years since Carl Edwards turned the trick at Phoenix in 2010. Keselowski is also the first guy to sweep the Vegas weekend events since Jeff Burton in 2000.
Dale Jr. is off to a rousing start for his Fantasy owners, posting three straight Top 2 finishes to kick off the season. Loop Data, historic statistics and Average Finish Positions over his career at the various tracks have meant nothing, and it is even more impressive considering the first three races have been on a restrictor-plate track, a flat track and an intermediate track. It doesn’t matter, as the No. 88 is doing it and doing it well.
Quote of the day
“I continued to save until he got within about eight car lengths, and then I started running hard, and we were fast enough to keep him behind us. As soon as I got to the top of Turns 1 and 2 the last several laps, I was real comfortable that he wasn’t going to get to me, felt fine about, if we had enough gas, we weren’t going to have a problem, but we didn’t have enough gas.” – Dale Earnhardt Jr.
Last in the battle for the top spot was Richard Childress Racing’s Paul Menard, who came out of nowhere to post a third-place finish. Fantasy owners likely shied away from him because of his past poor performances at Vegas, but he really shined on the intermediate tri-oval this past weekend. It was his first Top 5 finish in eight starts at LVMS. And Keselowski’s teammate Joey Logano ran well most of the day, and he has gotten off to a great start over the first three races. Logano brought it home in fourth place, and he has been a rock-solid Fantasy selection regardless of the track type, as the maturation process continues.
Menard’s teammate, Ryan Newman, battled all day and steered his Chevy to seventh place. Vegas hasn’t been terribly kind to Newman over the years, and Fantasy owners likely had him taking a seat this past weekend, but he has really started well despite getting his feet wet with a new team, crew chief, etc. In fact, the way he is going, Stewart-Haas Racing might already be kicking themselves for letting him go.
Speaking of SHR, it was a lost weekend for what looked to be the next super team. Kevin Harvick followed up his victory at Phoenix with a 41st-place showing, as a left front hub issue forced him to the garage, killing his day. Tony Stewart wasn’t much better, rolling to 33rd place. As mentioned previously, he isn’t quite 100 percent recovered from his broken leg last summer, and continues to fight to get back. But he isn’t there, and it shows. Kurt Busch limped home in 26th, and Danica Patrick actually led the team with a 21st-place run. When Danica is the best finisher of the group, that tells you a little bit about how the team is struggling. For Fantasy purposes, it is best to avoid all SHR cars until someone starts to turn in consistent runs. To date, not even Harvick, has done so.
Five things we learned on Sunday
Don’t bet on Toyota at LVMS: If you were hoping to see a Toyota in Victory Lane at Las Vegas, it wasn’t even close. The best finish was Joe Gibbs Racing’s Matt Kenseth in 10th. So far, Toyota is dead-last in manufacturer points, with Chevrolet turning in two wins, and Ford getting the win Sunday. Always note the manufacturer results if you play on NASCAR.com.
Pit stall selection matters..: This isn’t exactly a news flash, but Logano ran well from the pole. At some tracks, it isn’t as meaningful as others, but at Vegas it was a key. He chose Pit Stall 1, and that helped him to stay on top most of the afternoon with an advantageous position. But did you know Keselowski chose Pit Stall 15, and Clint Bowyer, who qualified third, selected Pit Stall 31? That’s because 15 and 31 have an opening in front. Ask Jimmie Johnson how important that is, as he nearly decked Martin Truex Jr. on Pit Road when each were in for service. That brief hesitation to avoid collision cost the No. 48 valuable seconds, and he had to battle to make up the time.
…but the pole doesn’t necessarily matter: Did you know in 17 Sprint Cup Series Vegas races all-time, the winner has started from the pole just once? Keselowski, who started from the second spot, was just the second winner from the outside of the front row, and only five of the 17 winners at Vegas have started from the fifth spot or better.
Mixing it up again: The streak was oh-so-close to ending with Dale Jr. pushing for the win, but for the fourth straight Sprint Cup Series season we have had three different winners in the first three races of the season. Jimmie Johnson won the second race of the season at Auto Club, and third race of the year at Las Vegas, back in 2010.
The Grand Marshall was, well, interesting: This year’s Grand Marshall was Jonathan Goldsmith. Not familiar with the name? He started his acting career in the 1960’s, and has appeared in films with John Wayne. Still stumped? He is best known as ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World’ from the Dos Equis beer commercial campaign.
Looking ahead to next week
The Sprint Cup Series moves across the country for the first short-track run of the season at Bristol Motor Speedway.
NASCAR’s Loop Data is a factor that a growing number of Fantasy owners have been very mindful about. Over the past three years (six races), Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kenseth has the highest Driver Rating at 109.9 at Bristol. He has turned in a 12.2 Average Finish, and he has rolled up 414 laps led.
However, Loop Data doesn’t necessarily paint the entire picture, so don’t depend on it completely. For instance, over the past six races, Kenseth’s teammate, Kyle Busch, is not listed among the Top 5 in Driver Rating at Bristol. However, he is tied with Hendrick Motorsports driver Jeff Gordon and brother Kurt Busch for the most wins among active drivers with five. In fact, Rowdy tops the charts among active drives with a 9.9 Average Finish Position in 18 career starts in Thunder Valley, the only driver who averages better than a Top 10 finish at the short track. Earnhardt Jr. is second among all active drivers with an 11.5 Average Finish in 28 career starts, but just one win.
If you expand the Loop Data out to include the past 10 races at Bristol, the No. 48 leads the pack with a Driver Rating over 106.0, while running in the Top 15 a whopping 81.4 percent of the time. That’s slightly better than teammate Gordon, who is at 79.1 percent, while Kenseth is at 73.8 percent and Kyle Busch at 73.8 percent. In fact, the past 10 races of Loop Data creates a truer picture about who has been dominant for Fantasy purposes. In salary cap structured pools, you’re definitely going to want to try and squeeze in at least two of those drivers at Bristol.
As far as those to avoid, we mentioned SHR’s struggles to date. Even when healthy, Stewart hasn’t had a whole mess of success in Thunder Valley. In 29 career starts, he has just one Bristol win and only six Top 5s. He has a rather pedestrian 18.1 Average Finish position. And Furniture Row Racing’s Truex Jr. has flat out stunk at Bristol, starting 16 races while bringing it home fifth or better just twice. His Average Finish of 19.3 is awful among Fantasy regulars, as is the 20.3 Average Finish for Brian Vickers. And Danica? Well, in three career runs at Bristol, she has displayed an ultra-slow learning curve, qualifying just 35.3 on average, while posting a lousy Average Finish of 27.7.