The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series will travel to Las Vegas, Nevada this week for the Kobalt Tools 400.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway is considered a “Cookie Cutter” race track, but it is much different than other 1.5-mile tracks. It is a fast and very aero-sensitive race track. Having a loose race car is a common problem at Las Vegas. This makes passing very difficult so track position will be at a premium this week.

The key to winning this race will be to have a car that has balance through turn four. Most of the wrecks in the race involve cars trying to carry too much speed through the tricky turn. Teams will push the limits to have a car that is fast through this turn, but teams who go over the limit will find their car in the garage.

Keep in mind the teams who had success last week at Atlanta will be the favorites Sunday. Although the race tracks are nothing alike, teams that figured out the new down-force and aero-packages last week will be the teams which will be fast Sunday.

Here are my picks for the Kolbalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas…

 

Yahoo Group A Picks

The drivers in Group A of the Yahoo Fantasy Auto Racing game are placed into this group because they have had a lot of success at the 1.5-mile race tracks. It is impossible to be considered an elite driver in the Sprint Cup Series without being able to navigate the race tracks which make up a majority of the race schedule.

Team Penske will be the team to watch this week. Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano started on the front row last year with Keselowski finding his way to Victory Lane. Logano is off to a great start this season and there is no reason why he should cool off in the desert. Both drivers would be excellent selections for your team.

My sleeper pick for Group A this week is Dale Earnhardt Jr. He had this race won last year. Earnhardt started 14th and led 51 laps before running out of gas on the last lap. Earnhardt is off to a good start this season with two top-five finishes. He may not qualify up front, but he will be one of the drivers competing for the win at the end of the race.

Here are the two drivers I selected for Group A…

Jimmie Johnson

Another name for Las Vegas Motor Speedway could be Jimmie’s Playground. Johnson four wins in his 13 career starts in Sin City. He will have momentum after winning the race last week. The No. 48 team is back and fantasy NASCAR players must consider Johnson a favorite at each race track.

Kevin Harvick

I had a hard time selecting the last driver for Group A. The Team Penske drivers would have been great for qualifying points. Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Matt Kenseth are almost locks for a top-10 finish. I went with Harvick, although his stats here are not great. Harvick was running down Kyle Busch for the lead last year when he had rotor problems. He is too hot to ignore right now.

Other good choices: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth

 

Yahoo Group B Picks

I learned three things from last week’s race at Atlanta about Group B… 1. Carl Edwards will be the best driver in this group so fantasy teams need to use their allocations wisely with the No. 19 team. 2. It is sad to say, but Tony Stewart looks like he should be retiring at the end of the season. 3. There are many sleepers in this group including Martin Truex Jr., Aric Almirola, AJ Allmendinger and Casey Mears.

My sleeper pick this week is Brain Vickers. Some teams may forget about him since this is his first race back in the car. Last week Brett Moffitt finished eighth in the no. 55 car. Vickers should be able to run up front this week too.

Here are the four drivers I selected for Group B…

Carl Edwards

Las Vegas is Edwards’s third-best race track. He has two wins and six top-10 finishes in his 10 career starts at the race track. Edwards has a streak of four consecutive top-five finishes at Las Vegas. These stats are with Edwards driving for Roush Fenway Racing. He should be one of the favorite to win in his No. 19 Joe Gibbs racing Ford.

Kasey Kahne

It is hard to trust Kahn on your fantasy team. Last week he looked like a lock for a top-10 finish, but barely finished in the top 15. His stats at Las Vegas are good, so it may be wise to give him another chance. Kahne finished the last two races at Las Vegas in the top 10. Hendrick Motorsports looks like the team to beat, so Kahne should have a fast car Sunday.

Martin Truex Jr.

If there is one thing I learned the first two weeks of these season it is that the No. 78 car looks like the car Kurt Busch drove two years ago. Truex is off to a great start this season. He finished second in the Sprint Unlimited, fifth in the Budweiser Dual, eighth in the Daytona 500 and sixth at Atlanta. If you need some luck in Las Vegas, grab Truex for your team.

Paul Menard

Las Vegas is Menard’s second-best race track. He has a streak of three consecutive top-10 finishes, including a third-place finish in last year’s race. Menard always runs well on the 1.5-mile race tracks early in the season. This is the time to use Menard for your team.

Other good choices: Brian Vickers,Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Jamie McMurray

 

Yahoo Group C Picks

Selecting a driver for Group C is not as difficult as it looked on paper entering the season. Danica Patrick has shown improvement this season. David Ragan and Regan Smith are providing teams an option while the Busch brothers are out of their cars. Some unknown drivers (Brett Moffitt and Matt Crafton) have came out of nowhere provided some help for fantasy teams.

My sleeper pick for Group C this week is Ryan Blaney. He will be driving the No. 21 Wood Brothers Ford. The team has an alliance with Team Penske and he should be able to learn a lot from Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski this week.

Here are the two drivers I selected for Group C…

David Ragan

Ragan has not had much success at Las Vegas. When he drove for Roush Fenway Racing he finished most of his races in the top 25. Ragan did have a seventh-place finish at the race track in 2008. Last week was his first race with the No. 18 team and he finished 18th. Ragan should be able to learn from last week’s race and finish in the top 20 this week.

Regan Smith

Smith has not been great while filling in for Kurt Busch, but he has not been too bad either. Smith has two consecutive top-20 finishes this season and there is no reason to believe he cannot finish in the top-20 again this week. It will be important to use Smith to save allocations for other drivers later in the season.

Other Good Choices: Danica Patrick, Ryan Blaney and Justin Allgaier

 

Fantasy Live Picks

One of the biggest misconceptions for Fantasy Live is that fantasy teams must select drivers who start in the back of the field. Fantasy teams get too caught up in where a driver starts the race and overlook the best drivers for the race. Track position is so important at Las Vegas that it will be important to select the best drivers in the field, regardless of where they begin the race.

Last season three drivers led over 50 laps at Las Vegas. Each of these drivers scored at least 25 bonus points for their fantasy teams. If a driver qualifies up front and has a dominant car in the Saturday practice there is a good chance the driver will lead many laps in the race Sunday. These drivers must be on your team at Las Vegas.

Here are the five drivers I selected for Fantasy Live for the race at Las Vegas:

Driver 1: Kevin Harvick $27.50

Driver 2: Jimmie Johnson $27.00

Driver 3: Carl Edwards $22.50

Driver 4: Martin Truex Jr. $17.00

Driver 5: Regan Smith $5.00

Pick to Win: Jimmie Johnson

* Driver prices based on prices at Atlanta

 

Fox Fantasy Racing

Fantasy teams will have a tough decision to make for Fox Fantasy Racing this week. This games awards fantasy teams for finding the drivers who start in the back and finish up front. The problem is there usually are not many drivers who can make their way through the field at Las Vegas.

As we saw at Atlanta, anything can happen during qualifying. If for some reason the best drivers have difficulties in qualifying and start in the back of the field it will be important to select the driver for your team. My picks this week are based upon recent success at Las Vegas and drivers with an opportunity to win the race.

Here are my selections for Fox Fantasy Racing for Las Vegas:

Driver 1: Dale Earnhardt Jr. $12,900

Driver 2: Jimmie Johnson $10,500

Driver 3: Brad Keselowski $11,500

Driver 4: Carl Edwards $9,400

Driver 5: Regan Smith $5,200

* Driver prices based on prices at Atlanta

 

*Stats from Driveraverages.com and career stats from Racing-Reference.Info

 

“To be able to get out there and race and be out there with good cars - those Gibbs cars are awfully strong,” Johnson said following his victory. “So to size myself up against them and see what kind of runs they can create and try to put on me. At the start of the race, I was behind those two trying to figure out to get by them. All in all, it was a very productive night.”

Johnson led a race-high 31 laps as he blocked Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth for the final handful of laps. After expressing his No. 48 car’s strengths in the second half of the race, the six-time champion fought off the Toyota-powered cars to earn the victory.

Ryan Blaney finished inside of the top five in the Wood Brothers Ford. Blaney will race in his first Daytona 500 in what will be the beginning of an 18-race stint with the No. 21 team.

Danica Patrick, who was on the verge of missing the Daytona 500 after spinning on Lap 56, finished 10th to race her way in. Following the race, Patrick and Denny Hamlin exchanged words on pit road in a heated discussion. Patrick believed that Hamlin got into the rear end of her No. 10 car, but he continuously denied it.

Front Row Motorsports driver David Ragan entered the second Budweiser Duel 150 with no owner points and a qualifying time outside of the top 30. With the No. 34 car’s owner points going to new teammate Cole Whitt, Ragan had to race his way into the Daytona 500 by finishing inside of the top 16. On Lap 19, Ragan and Justin Allgaier got together on the frontstretch. Ragan’s car received rear end damage, and he fell one lap down following a lengthy pit stop under caution. However, after getting back on the lead lap, he was able to surge into the top 16 – finishing 14th.

Reed Sorenson, who nearly didn’t have the opportunity to race on Thursday evening due to not having a backup car at the track, executed his way into the top 10 late in the race, along with Mike Wallace as the two made it into the Daytona 500.

Brian Scott missed the Daytona 500 in the No. 62 Chevrolet. Bobby Labonte finished 20th, but was able to use the champion’s provisional to make his way into Sunday’s event. Jeb Burton and Alex Bowman didn’t qualify for the race after being involved in a wreck on Lap 36 with Sam Hornish, Jr. and Austin Dillon. Hornish made the race based on owner points, and Dillon was able to continue and finished 15th. Josh Wise wasn’t able to get going from the start of the race in his Phil Parsons Racing No. 98 Ford. He was able to make it back on track for a handful of laps, but finished 24th.

 

Starting lineup via NASCAR.com.

 

RowInsideOutsideExplained
1 Jeff Gordon Jimmie Johnson Top two qualifiers (Final round of Coors Light Pole Qualifying)
2 Dale Earnhardt Jr. Kyle Busch Top 15 from Duel races (Inside: First race; Outside: Second race)
3 Joey Logano Carl Edwards Top 15 from Duel races
4 Tony Stewart Greg Biffle Top 15 from Duel races
5 Clint Bowyer Martin Truex Jr. Top 15 from Duel races
6 Kevin Harvick Ryan Blaney Top 15 from Duel races
7 Kasey Kahne Reed Sorenson Top 15 from Duel races
8 Jamie McMurray Mike Wallace Top 15 from Duel races
9 Landon Cassill Justin Allgaier Top 15 from Duel races
10 Cole Whitt Danica Patrick Top 15 from Duel races
11 Paul Menard Ryan Newman Top 15 from Duel races
12 Michael McDowell Kurt Busch Top 15 from Duel races
13 JJ Yeley David Gilliland Top 15 from Duel races
14 Michael Annett David Ragan Top 15 from Duel races
15 Kyle Larson Austin Dillon Top 15 from Duel races
16 Ty Dillon Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Top 15 from Duel races
17 Aric Almirola Michael Waltrip Four fastest qualifiers from any round
18 Matt Kenseth Johnny Sauter Four fastest qualifiers from any round
19 Denny Hamlin Brad Keselowski 2014 owner points
20 Trevor Bayne AJ Allmendinger 2014 owner points
21 Sam Hornish Jr. Casey Mears 2014 owner points
22 Bobby Labonte xxxxxxxxxxxxxxx Past champion

 

Hendrick Motorsports’ season could be described in one word – disappointment. None of their four cars made the final round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup after entering the season with high expectations. However, in the midst of some tough luck throughout the year, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. and Jimmie Johnson were able to record eight wins between the two.

Earnhardt, Jr. started off 2014 with a bang – winning his second career Daytona 500. The momentum carried over throughout the first half of the year, and he was able to sweep the Pocono races. For the first time since 2004, he had a multi-win season, which was a key to the mindset of the No. 88 team.

Working with Steve Letarte for the final year, the two were deemed for success. Earning 12 top fives and 20 top 10s on the year, he was on track to contend with teammate Jeff Gordon for a championship. However, with three consecutive finishes of 20th or worse in the midst of the Chase, Earnhardt, Jr. missed the cut for the third round. Although he came back to win the next race at Martinsville, the disappointment of not finishing in the top five in points for the second straight year was immense.

The chemistry between the two finally paid off in 2014, but it wasn’t enough for them to win a championship. Earnhardt, Jr.’s No. 88 Chevrolet led at least one lap in 17 events this year, which tallied up to a total of 383 laps led – the most for him since his first year at Hendrick. But inconsistency prior to the Chase destroyed the momentum that he had as the competition began to catch up with Hendrick’s pure speed.

As for Johnson, 2014 was one he would love to forget. Or maybe not.

Finishing a career-low 11th in points, the six-time champion had the worst year in 13 full-time seasons in NASCAR. Although he scored four wins like Earnhardt, Johnson’s luck deteriorated over the course of 2014. What seemed like his usual summer drought became more than that. Spanning Daytona in July to Watkins Glen in mid-August, he had five finishes of 14th or worse.

His luck changed just in time for the Chase, yet the speed that the No. 48 team had earlier in the season was not seen in NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Besides leading 21 laps at Michigan, Johnson failed to run up front spanning Bristol until Charlotte. The stretch of races eliminated him from the Chase at the same time as the No. 88 team. Johnson scored a win in dominating fashion at Texas late in the year, which helped him become the seventh driver in the sport’s history to do so. But that was the lone bright spot of his Chase efforts.

Throughout the season, Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus experienced plenty of drama. The two have worked together since 2002, and they have been able to overcome all types of adversity. However, Johnson was adamant to reporters asking about a possibility that Knaus would oversee another driver’s car in 2015. Hendrick had plenty of reasons to find a new crew chief for Johnson, but the win at Texas showed they still have what it takes to be successful given the right circumstances. 

2015 Preview:

The 2015 rules package should provide Hendrick Motorsports with multiple advantages. As the largest and most successful team in the sport, they have more resources to help out with the only testing coming from the Goodyear tire tests. However, Earnhardt will have a new crew chief in Greg Ives, which could create a rough start for the No. 88 team.

With the no testing policy going into place for the new season, the duo will have limited time to gel at the intermediate tracks. However, with a similar personality to Letarte, Ives and Earnhardt should click very well. After having one of the best seasons of his career, he’s expected to run inside of the top 10 on a consistent basis; picking up from where he left off in 2014.

As for Johnson, he will be a championship contender once again. Although this past season didn’t go as planned, the No. 48 team showed they have what it takes to win. Knaus is always ahead of the competition when a new package is released, which should give them an advantage in 2015. Besides the new rule’s package, the two have a great incentive to win, and that’s to prove people wrong like they have in the past.

Johnson had career-lows in top fives and top 10s and average finish in 2014, but 2015 should see more success for the Lowe’s team. He ended the year on a high note, and Hendrick is deemed for success with their 2015 lineup. 

Win or go home. Sounds simple, right? Well, maybe not.

Less than a week after being fined $50,000 for a post-race battle at Charlotte Motor Speedway, the No. 2 car is back in Victory Lane.

With some wild moves to block his competitors, Brad Keselowski charged to the front in an intense battle during a green-white-checkered finish at Talladega Superspeedway. Keselowski won his sixth race of the year with the victory in the Geico 500 over a hard-charging Matt Kenseth in what was arguably the most intense race of the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series season.

 “Obviously this win is huge,” Keselowski said. “We feel like we have been one of the strongest teams all year here, especially the second half of the season. This team has worked hard and I feel like they deserve a shot at a championship. The issues we had at Kansas put us behind and having to fight all the way back, everyone executed and did their job today.”

After receiving damage to his right side door panel from a wreck with Michael McDowell on Lap 59, the 2012 Sprint Cup Series champion faced adversity throughout the day. However, without any major repairs needed, he worked his way through the field and led five different times throughout the race for a total of 12 laps.

With eliminations on the line, Jimmie Johnson led a race-high 84 laps on Sunday afternoon. For the No. 48 team, that was not enough to send him onto the Eliminator Round of the Chase. Johnson used the low line throughout the day, and threw countless blocks to maintain the lead. However, prior to the final round of green-flag pit stops, Danica Patrick swerved around the six-time champion to take the lead. Johnson dropped back a few spots in the midst of the first green-white-checkered stint and had to save gas during the caution period as well. But on the final restart of the day, the pre-season favorite slipped back to finish 24th at Talladega – eliminating him from championship contention.

Besides Johnson, two of his Hendrick Motorsports teammates did not advance to the next round of NASCAR’s version of the playoffs. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. ran up front throughout the 500-mile event. Yet even with 31 laps led, the No. 88 Chevrolet could not survive the chaos at Talladega. On Lap 187, David Gilliland tapped Earnhardt on the backstretch; causing major damage to his vehicle. Entering Sunday, he had to win in order to advance to the next round of the title. After having his first multi-win year since 2004, he will not contend for the championship.

Kasey Kahne, who made the Chase with a win at Atlanta, was also eliminated from the Chase after Talladega. Although he was inside of the top-eight in points, with Keselowski’s win – he was sent back one position in the Chase Grid. Kahne finished 12th at Talladega, and was just three points behind teammate Jeff Gordon after the sixth race of the Chase.

Kyle Busch entered Talladega as the highest-ranked driver without a win in Round 2. For the majority of the day, he worked with Kenseth at the rear of the field – approximately four to five seconds behind the lead pack. The strategy was working, but then chaos erupted with “the big one.” On Lap 102, with cars wrecking in front of him, Busch checked up and was hit by rookie Austin Dillon. Busch’s car slammed into the wall and received major cosmetic damage and injured the toe of his race car. Although he was able to get back on track – 49 laps down – Busch was able to gain just three positions. He was four points behind Kahne and trailed Gordon by seven markers.

Team Penske drivers Keselowski and Joey Logano will advance to the next round of the Chase. Gordon will be the lone HMS driver in Round 3. Ryan Newman was just four points behind Logano after Talladega, and represents Richard Childress Racing as their only driver in the Chase. Kevin Harvick will advance to the next round along with Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Kenseth and Denny Hamlin. Carl Edwards will also advance for Roush Fenway Racing.

Here are some notables from the Geico 500:

-Terry Labonte finished 33rd in his final Sprint Cup Series start (890th total) for Go FAS Racing.

-Landon Cassill finished fourth on Sunday for Hillman Racing. Prior to this race, his best career-finish was 11th at Talladega earlier in the year.

-Travis Kvapil ended the day in the sixth position for Circle Sport Racing in the No. 33 car. The finish marks the first top-10 for Kvapil since an eighth-place finish at Talladega in 2012.

-Casey Mears earned his third top-10 of the year for Germain Racing with a 10th-place finish.

-Cole Whitt finished 15th for BK Racing. His previous best career-finish was 18th-place at Auto Club Speedway earlier in the year.

-Martin Truex, Jr. led his first lap of the year for Furniture Row Racing, but finished in 27th.

Joseph Wolkin can be followed on Twitter at @JosephNASCAR

After winning two races early in the year, Kevin Harvick has been on a winless streak for over six month. On Saturday evening, the driver of the No. 4 Chevrolet drove back into Victory Lane at the Charlotte Motor Speedway in the Bank of America 500.

Leading a race-high 162 laps, Harvick was able to hold off Jeff Gordon on a restart with just a pair of laps remaining in the race to score his third victory of the season. With the triumph, he has now clinched his way into the third round of the Chase for the Sprint Cup.

“Everybody on our team has just continued to build better race cars and we know that we’ve had the cars to run up front and lead laps and do the things that we need to do,” said Harvick on his win. “Things just haven’t gone right and we’ve made some mistakes; things haven’t gone right ore than not. Oh, we came here and tested thinking that this was going to be the hardest round to get through because of Talladega. There’s so much that you can’t control there. We wanted to try to control the things that we could control. We felt like Kansas and here (Charlotte) were playing to our strengths; and just see where it fell after that once we get to the next round.”

Following the race, Brad Keselowski had an on-track altercation with Denny Hamlin on the cool down lap. The No. 2 car finished 16th, and was racing tightly with Hamlin through the final laps. However, Hamlin brake checked Keselowski on the cool down lap. Simultaneously, he spun Hamlin in Turn 3 and then hit Tony Stewart’s No. 14 Chevrolet as he was waiting in line to go into the garage on pit road.

“Through the whole sequence of events – I think the 20 car got in back of me on one of the restarts, it was just a racing deal and I wasn’t mad at him,” said Keselowski following the incident.  But when the last yellow came out he got the wave around and when he came by he swung at my car and tore the whole right-front off of it.  That gave us a big Chase hurt, which is unfortunate, and then for some reason after the race the 11 stopped in front of me and tried to pick a fight. I don’t know what that was all about and he swung and hit at my car, so I figured if we’re gonna play car wars under yellow and after the race I’ll join too.”

“I rubbed into the 20 and I think he gassed up and ran into Tony, and don’t think Tony knew what was going on so he’s probably upset and he has every right to be,” he continued. “His car got tore up, but there was a whole lot of other stuff going on and I’m sure when he sees the whole situation he’ll understand.” 

Following a confrontation with Hamlin, Keselowski was walking back to his hauler when Matt Kenseth jumped on his back. The No. 20 and No. 2 crews began to have a brawl, but they were separated within a few seconds. However, several drivers are calling for the 2012 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion to have a fine for what they believe was a dangerous move in the garage area.

Jimmie Johnson was running inside of the top-10 after struggling early on in the 500-mile race. The No. 48 team finished 17th after pitting during the final caution. Leading up to Talladega, he unofficially sits 12th in points; 26 markers behind Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne for the final position to advance to the Eliminator Round. Dale Earnhardt, Jr. finished 20th after going a lap down with a shifter knob issue during the race. He was never able to get back on the lead lap and is tied with Johnson in the standings.

Kyle Larson was battling Harvick for the lead prior to the final round of green flag pit stops, but slipped back to the sixth position. The No. 42 Chevrolet led six laps prior to sliding into the wall, which made him drop back a few spots. Larson’s Chip Ganassi Racing with Felix Sabates teammate Jamie McMurray came home in the third position after taking two tires on a late-race pit stop to gain track position and was able to contend for the win

Both Michael Waltrip Racing vehicles experienced engine issues on Saturday evening. Clint Bowyer’s engine let go on Lap 95 following a top-15 run. Meanwhile, Brian Vickers’ engine blew up with seven laps remaining in the race.

There were eight cautions that lasted 39 laps during the 334-lap event. During the race, there were 32 lead changes.  

Heading into Talladega, Joey Logano and Harvick are automatically locked into the next round of the Chase with victories. However, there are 10 other drivers vying for six remaining spots. Kyle Busch is the highest ranked driver without a victory, but is just 26 points ahead of Kenseth, who is the first driver on the outside looking in. Keselowski, Johnson and Earnhardt, Jr. are the four drivers that are currently outside of the top-eight.