OK, let’s get these out of the way first: Roll the dice, hit it big, jackpot, aces high, what you know about seven and always bet on black.
These are the only stupid Las Vegas clichés you will read in this article.
With Vegas playing host to the third event of the year, it is also a time to sit and reflect about a season that’s already one-twelfth complete. It precedes an off week for both Sprint Cup and Nationwide schedules, and can help carry some much needed momentum through the spring stretch that traditionally separates pretenders from contenders in the points race.
In addition, it serves as a barometer to how teams may fare at the intermediate tracks that lay ahead such as California, Texas and Darlington. For those who struggled at Phoenix, the-short-track-that’s-not-a-short-track, this past weekend was an opportunity to get a do-over in the desert. If Daytona was a disappointment, Sunday marked the last chance to gain some ground before the next landmine on the schedule that lies ahead in two weeks: Bristol.
So which drivers are sticking in my head to watch moving forward? Three surprises in particular stand out; let’s delve into their seasons and find out why.
While Carl Edwards wasn’t quite able to pull off a Daytona 500 win, placing second on the Trevor Bayne miracle train, he certainly had the machine to beat the following week in Phoenix. That was, of course, until Kyle Busch connected with the No. 99 Roush Fenway Ford and sent him over the rumble strips. Edwards, who had started on the pole, went Colt Seavers over the red and white warning curb, then into Jeff Gordon and the robin’s egg-blue walls of PIR that turned his mood from jubilant to junky.
While Bob Osborne flipped out on the war wagon, Edwards had plenty of time to stew about it these past 10 days. Even though he and Busch are on the same page and cool with everything, he was still hot about not winning, pulling into Vegas on a mission for redemption. After all, it isn’t often one gets a car that dominant in a Cup race, and if Edwards is going to contend for the championship this year – especially with the unknown that is the new points format – every race, win and point is going to count.
Seeking salvation, Edwards found it in the most unlikely of places: Sin City. Hey, whatever works, right? The disappointment of Phoenix was quickly erased as Edwards was thrust into contention after a pit road equipment penalty on the No. 14 of Tony Stewart (and a no-call for the No. 99 on a tire that had exited his pit stall) led to his first win of the year and third in the last five races dating back to 2010. Considering Daytona was in his grasp and Phoenix was the one that got away, Edwards clearly has the driver and car to beat, primed to pick up some serious steam heading into an off week.
With Kyle Busch running the majority of the Nationwide Series races, winning 32 of them in three seasons and generally dominating to the point of making it nearly irrelevant – and prompting a NASCAR-wide rules change – it won’t be long before he passes Mark Martin as the all-time wins leader in that division. But Busch will have to now win five more races before tying Martin, who took the victory in Saturday’s Sam’s Town 300 at LVMS. It was Martin’s third win in his last three Nationwide attempts at Las Vegas, a nice addition to a trophy collection that includes the inaugural Cup race held there in 1998.
This one came with a stroke of Lady Luck involved. Brad Keselowski was leading on the final lap when his Dodge Challenger suffered a tire failure entering turn 1, clearing the way for Martin in his Turner Motorsports No. 32 Dollar General Chevrolet to cruise by and take the win – the first for the organization which had once been the familiar Braun Motorsports entry, one of the few full-time Nationwide teams to see action up front in recent years.
The outcome was ironic, if anything, as the drivers who finished second and third both played a part in his other two Vegas victories in 2005 and ’08. In ’05, Edwards blew a tire in the closing laps, sending him spinning through the infield grass, while Martin took control with nine laps remaining to win. In 2008, Edwards, Martin and Keselowski were battling for the win with five laps remaining when Martin made incidental contact with Edwards, sending him up into Keselowski in one of his first runs driving JR Motorsports’ No. 88 US Navy car.
And so it goes. While one individual has made a number of comments regarding “winning” the last couple of weeks, Martin in Las Vegas has managed to back it up once again.
“Who’s the big winner here tonight at the casino?… Mikey’s the big winner… Mikey Wins.”
That is from one of the best scenes a movie set in Las Vegas, 1996’s Swingers, which brought notoriety and relevance to a pair of actors named Jon Favreau and Vince Vaughn.
At a race set in Las Vegas on Saturday, it did the same for Danica Patrick and her burgeoning NASCAR career. Her fourth-place finish this weekend was a watershed moment for what appears to be an eventual move to stock cars, as it was her first top-five performance and the highest ever for a female in NASCAR history.
While not quite a win, it was a major step in the development process for Patrick, who had struggled in her initial outings in the Hendrick Motorsports-backed effort of JR Motorsports. In her first eight races last year she had averaged a less than impressive average finish of 31st – in a series that isn’t exactly chock full of competition lately.
But after a Charlotte coaching session, paired with the series all-time win leader Martin last fall, Patrick showed immediate improvement; she had only one finish worse than 22nd in her final five starts for 2010. Not exactly earth-shattering numbers, for sure, but about on par with what most other open-wheelers have done in recent years after making the move to the Land of Fenders.
Patrick has another helping hand on board for 2011 in Nationwide and Truck Series champion, and Cup Series Rookie of the Year, Johnny Benson Jr. – who had been all but absent from the sport after being unceremoniously dismissed from his Red Horse Racing Truck Series ride in 2009, only to have subsequent injuries suffered at his home track of Berlin Raceway in Marne, Mich. The extra help has obviously paid off, with Patrick’s first three finishes this season being a 14th at Daytona, 17th at Phoenix and now a fourth at Las Vegas.
Some may scoff by saying it was the result of late-race pit strategy, but the battle shown from her in-car camera with Bayne speaks otherwise. It appears as if she is finally getting the hang of wrestling around racecars that are polar opposite from what she is used to driving, and that after 16 starts scattered through a little over a year of competition, she is getting up to speed, literally, in a series that could benefit greatly from her continued participation and ability to compete – and contend.
So there you go – three big Vegas winners this weekend, without using any cheesy gambling phrases. Please forgive the movie quote though from Swingers, even though you’ve got to admit… it was money.
About the author
Vito is one of the longest-tenured writers at Frontstretch, joining the staff in 2007. With his column Voice of Vito (monthly, Fridays) he’s a contributor to several other outlets, including Athlon Sports and Popular Speed in addition to making radio appearances. He forever has a soft-spot in his heart for old Mopars and presumably oil-soaked cardboard in his garage.
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