Bet On This: NASCAR in Vegas, Baby

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By: Melissa S. Wollering

Sin City hosts Sprint Cup Racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this week. Developments in the last seven days: McMurray is “lovin it” with a new sponsorship, engine smoke will be the only kind fans in Michigan can enjoy, “Suitcase Jake” passes away at the age of 73 and axle problems on the track are more widespread than those on the ice for skaters in Vancouver.

It’s your weekly Sprint to The Chase Preview, breaking down the top contenders. Each week I analyze their strength for the race at hand as well as their chances for The Chase! Foot, pedal, gas, throttle, green flag…

You know you’ve made it WHEN… Big Mac’s appear on your doorstep and Golden Arches are being detailed on your stock car. Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray now has McDonald’s as a sponsor for 11 Sprint Cup races this season. Apparently, the deal was in the works for a year, not since the 500 win. Jaime’s nickname was “Big Mac” for a while. So, it’s a win-win with pickles and onions on a sesame seed bun.

The only thing smokin’ will be engines on the track at Michigan International Speedway. The track is banning smoking in most areas May 1. To their credit, the whole state is going smoke-free, so it’s not their fault.

You may not know him by name, but you certainly know his significance among crew chiefs in stock car racing. J.C. Elder, known as “Suitcase Jake” was a NASCAR crew chief for superstar drivers David Pearson, Dale Earnhardt and Darrell Waltrip. He passed away at the age of 73 in North Carolina this past week.

A little known fact: Elder never finished grade school, could not read nor write. Many of his drivers had no idea. The man knew so much about cars that it never mattered. He definitely was a celebrity among racing fans, and that’s saying something for a crew chief.

Axle me this, Batman. With just one week between Las Vegas and Atlanta (a track notoriously nard on axles) would you bet your joker on the recent axle problems drivers are having? Dale Earnhardt Jr. finished 32nd in California, blaming it on a broken axle, but the problem could be more widespread.

Earnhardt’s crew chief says the axle of race winner Jimmie Johnson was about six laps from breaking and more issues were discovered on other Hendricks Motorsports cars during Saturday’s final practice.

Here’s why the axle is such a problem: coming into the pits it could look like a flat tire. When the crew comes to find out it’s a broken axle, by that time the drive shaft could also be broken. And a spare axle is not something you normally have on your pit box.

And Danica fans, this just in: her debut is not as hot as she is. In her second Nationwide race in California, Patrick finished 31st, three laps off the pace. Bumpy.

Okay, here are my potential picks:

Jeff Burton. He a driver with an average finish at Vegas in the top 10. He has been has been running at the finish in all 12 of his races there and finished on the lead lap in the past eight races. Bout’ time? Yep. Last victories here were in 1999, 2000. 10-year anniversary = time for another win.

Joey Lagano. He’s not a Sprint Cup contender persay, but he’s going to get props throughout the first half of this season just for his red-hot 2009 rookie season and he will consistently make this list of mine. Lagano is running well in the Sprint Cup and the Nationwide Series. This is why he’s proving that he’s no longer a rookie and no longer a longshot.

Jamie McMurray. His racing wasn’t the problem last week, the car was. He finished 17th but his driving at Daytona was superb and a rebound in Vegas is a possibility., McMurray laid down the fastest lap in qualifying for last Sunday’s event and in his last five Vegas starts he has one top five and 3 top ten finishes. C’mon Big Mac. Make magic happen. And can I get fries with that?

Jeff Gordon. Vegas isn’t exactly his track, he took the hardest hit of his career at this track. But he has won here, has 5 top five finishes and 6 top ten. He would have to bounce back from a disappointing 20th place finish due to spark plug issues in Cali. He still had a fast car, so if he can avoid the other issues, he could work his way up in the field.

Kevin Harvick. He is fire compared to his water-drenched 2009 season. In California, Harvick quietly ran in the top 10 for most of the day. He could have caught Johnson in the last few laps of the race, but touching the wall slowed his momentum and he couldn’t pull it off, finishing second. With 2 top fives and 3 top 10’s in Vegas, Harvick could pull off a win.

Jimmie Johnson. He won California. Could he pull of two in a row this early in the season? I hate to say it, but don’t put it past him. Johnson has 3 wins, 3 top fives and 4 top 10 finishes in Vegas. Johnson also has a series’ best drivers rating of 113.6 with an average finish of 11th.

Predicted Winner: Kyle or Kurt Busch. You love to HATE both brothers, however, Kyle and Kurt are natives of Vegas, baby. Kurt is the older brother and he has a “bit” more patience, so he could run his brother down.

But if I had to lay down some money in LV, I’d go with Kyle instead. He has one win, 3 top five finishes and 4 top tens. He’ll come up the pack early on Sunday and if he’s in contention near the end, he’ll make the moves he needs to in order to win. In the Nationwide race last Saturday, Busch squeaked by Gregg Biffle out of the final turn in a green-white-checker finish to win by .051 seconds. A win for Kyle could also set the tone of his whole season, something his crew chief is definitely hoping for.

No Way He’ll Win: Dale Earnhardt, Jr. No wins at the track, ever. Average finishing position is 17.8. Change is a comin’ but not when you always roll snakeyes in Vegas.

And the BIG question: should I bet on Vegas racing? Well, you should bet on all racing. It is a lose-lose for The House. Compare motorsports to golf, which offers matchups and individual odds. But I would argue NASCAR is even better than golf. It is fairly easy dinero for the up-to-date and well-educated NASCAR fan. Again, relatively speaking.

Join me next week as I break down the top contenders and analyze their strength for HOTlanta Motor Speedway as well as their chances for The Chase!

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