Kobalt 400: Winners and Losers from Las Vegas

Bob Margolis@BobMargolisContributor IIMarch 10, 2014

Kobalt 400: Winners and Losers from Las Vegas

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    And the winner is:

    Brad Keselowski, Paul Wolfe and the entire Team Penske No. 2 car team.

    OK, so it was a fuel-mileage win, but it was a win nonetheless for the 2012 Sprint Cup champion, who did not make the Chase field last year. Sunday’s victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (LVMS) essentially locks him into the Chase. This was his first Cup win of the year and his 11th in 164 races.

    Runner-up Dale Earnhardt Jr. admitted in the post-race press conference that his team members knew they would likely be short on fuel. They gambled...and lost.

    Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was a bellwether for each team's 1.5-mile track setup. New rules, which made substantial changes to the race cars for the 1.5-mile tracks, were in place for the first time at LVMS. On Thursday of race weekend, a day which is normally reserved for travel, all teams had a test day so that they could get one more opportunity to try out their 1.5-mile track setups.

    On race day, several teams were on target or very close. A handful of big names, including Tony Stewart, were not.

    Keselowski swept both the Nationwide and Cup races on the same weekend. It had not been done here since Jeff Burton did it in 2000. 

    *All quotes in this slideshow are taken from official team and manufacturer media releases unless otherwise stated.

Winner: Dale Earnhardt Jr.

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    Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images

    OK, so he didn’t win the race. But you have to give the No. 88 team big kudos for trying. 

    “We weren’t going to run first or second had we not stayed out on that strategy,” said Dale Earnhardt Jr. on pit road after the race. “We knew we were a lap short. We tried to save as much as we could. We got it to about half a lap and it ran out off of (turn) 2 there.  We took a gamble and didn’t win the race, but it still worked in our favor to run second. [The strategy] gave us a chance to win.

    “I mean running out of gas like that is tough, but the one thing you can’t do is let it get under your skin and get under your team’s skin. We have got a good thing going, we’ve got to be positive. We’ve got to keep trying to win races.  I know my fans are disappointed, but we got to stay positive. Now, we look forward to Bristol and try to win there.”

    It may be early (race No. 3 of 36), but with the kind of attitude shown here, it can keep this Steve Letarte-led team in the top five in points for the rest of the season. 

    Junior remains the Sprint Cup points leader, but a slim margin—one point—over race winner Keselowski.

Loser(s): Kevin Harvick and Tony Stewart

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Both men had bad days in the Nevada desert but for different reasons.

    Kevin Harvick had a good day going until he had a mechanical issue. The left front wheel seized up on Lap 193, sending him to the garage for lengthy repairs. 

    “It started to get really loose which makes sense with that left-front brake dragging like that,” said Harvick. “[It’s] just a little parts failure there and we will figure out the cause of it and try to just keep that from happening. 

    “I have to thank everybody on this team. They have done a great job and our Jimmy John’s Chevrolet was ‘Freaky Fast’ again.” 

    Harvick returned to the race and finished in 41st place.

    His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate’s day was troubled almost from the start of the race. Stewart complained over his team’s radio early that his race car was not handling well. Each subsequent pit stop apparently made the car worse. At one point, it was as if Stewart was having to manhandle the car in every corner. It was an embarrassing outing for the three-time (2003, 2005, 2011) Sprint Cup champion.

    Stewart finished the race 33rd, four laps down from the race leaders.

    “I’ll be honest, I’ll be more happy when everybody quits asking me how I feel,” said Stewart in a press conference prior to last weekend’s Cup race at Phoenix.  “I’m not 100 percent. I’m not going to be 100 percent for a while.” 

    If Stewart (whose relationship with the media can run hot and cold) wanted the press to stop bugging him with questions about his leg, he certainly gave them a new reason to ask him questions. 

    Of course, there’s no guarantee that he’ll be in the mood to answer them.

Winner: Paul Menard and Richard Childress Racing

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    HHP/Christa L. Thomas for Chevrolet)

    Richard Childress Racing (RCR) was a bit of a question mark after the first two races of the season. Daytona Speedweeks looked promising after rookie Austin Dillon won the pole for the season opener, the Daytona 500.

    Last week at Phoenix was a different story, as all three teams did well, but the organization’s short-track setup did not live up to the promise shown in Daytona.

    Paul Menard’s performance at Las Vegas, along with teammate Ryan Newman’s seventh-place finish erased any questions as to whether or not the RCR teams would be competitive this season.

    Even teammate Dillon delivered a top-20 (16th) finish, revealing that this organization’s 1.5-mile setups are pretty close to being dead center.

    “It was cool going up and passing Jimmie (Johnson) for the lead and passing him for a few laps, but (I’m) just proud of my guys,” Menard told the media in the post-race press conference. “We're clicking really well, we got a couple of new engineers and of course (crew chief) Slugger (Labbe) is back for our fourth or fifth year working together, so (its) a good group of guys. Our pit crew's pit stops were awesome.”

    Menard’s wife Jennifer is due to deliver the couple’s first child on Tuesday, and Menard had a standby driver all weekend, just in case he got the call.

    “Matt Crafton is my backup and he really wants to get in the car, so I told Jennifer if it's important, call Matt because he's sure as hell going to tell me,” Menard told the media. “I didn't get the call, though, so I guess everything is good.”

    Menard is obviously a man who knows how to work with pressure.

Loser: Richard Petty Motorsports

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    Sean Gardner/Getty Images

    Aric Almirola (pictured) and his Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Marcos Ambrose both had forgettable races at Las Vegas.

    Almirola’s weekend started off on a high note when he placed the legendary No. 43 on the fourth row (eighth) for the start of the race. After qualifying, both his and crew chief Trent Owens’ spirits were high.

    “We fully anticipate to win a race and I think we’re certainly capable of that, but we need to maximize how many points we get every weekend as well,” said Almirola after advancing to the final round of qualifying on Friday.

    On Sunday, with track conditions quite a bit different than during qualifying (it was warmer), the No. 43 team had its share of problems with an ill-handling Ford Fusion. Almirola finished 25th, three laps down from the race leaders.

    Teammate Ambrose had an issue during qualifying that forced his team to replace his engine before the race, sending him to the rear of the field for the start of the race. Ambrose at least made his day entertaining for the fans in the stands who were paying attention as he made daring pass after daring pass early in the race in an attempt to move up through the field. 

    Midway through the race, his luck ran out, and his day ended up with a 24th-place finish, one better than Amirola.

    Ambrose sits 19th in points, while Almirola is 24th. All the chatter about team owner Richard “The King” Petty racing Danica Patrick isn’t going to solve this organization’s problems on race day. Both drivers need a good showing at Bristol (nothing but a top 10 from both will do) next week or their 2014 campaign to the Chase will be close to being over—unless they happen to win a race. 

Winner: NASCAR's New Qualifying Rules

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    This was the first race for NASCAR’s knockout-qualifying format on a track longer than 1.25 miles. That meant there were three rounds of qualifying as opposed to the two seen the week before at Phoenix.

    Once again, the format has shown that it is more exciting than the decades-old format of single-car qualifying and if Friday’s three sessions are any indication of how things will be on the big tracks for the rest of the season, the new qualifying format is here to stay.

    There are still two lingering issues that need to be addressed by NASCAR officials. One is when a car that is on a qualifying run encounters one that has just completed a hot lap and is cooling down the tires and engine. The speed differential is substantial and potentially dangerous.

    NASCAR’s vice president of competition and racing development Robin Pemberton told NASCAR.com’s Kenny Bruce, "We're going to sit for a while, field all the questions and see what happens. It's a very small snapshot of qualifying so far. 

    "Other than the cars running around on the bottom and you had one or two complain that it was a close call … again, we're listening to them, but we want to take a better snapshot of it.”

    The other issue of note is some teams have yet to figure out the cooling issue. The rules do not allow teams to raise the hood during qualifying, which would permit them to cool the engines but also give them access to make changes to the engine, which is not permitted.

    The cooling issue is likely to be resolved by allowing teams to place special fittings on the front of the car where they can access the engine cooling system without having to raise the hood. 

    The other situation has yet to be resolved, but sending cars out in smaller groups and other modifications to the qualifying procedure could address the slower car issue. 

    The tight confines of Bristol Motor Speedway next weekend may hasten a solution to the slower car issue.

    Bottom line: NASCAR's new qualifying rules are here to stay—with a few tweaks to come.

Loser: The Television Viewing Audience

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    Todd Warshaw/Getty Images

    Week after week, NASCAR fans who are not at the track and are watching the television broadcast of the race are being robbed of seeing the action and excitement of what is actually happening before, during and after a Sprint Cup race.

    From the weak and often “phoned-in” pre-race shows to the lack of quality post-race interviews, the casual fan watching at home might very well think there are only a dozen or so cars competing, and Danica Patrick is likely leading the points.

    One of the biggest complaints from fans watching at home is that the racing is boring. It is not boring. When you are watching the race at the track, you see that there is a lot of action and passing. The problem is, the director and producer of the television broadcast, this being from Fox Sports at this point in the season, usually go into a race with a pre-set agenda.

    This involves showing the race leader most of the time, showing the distance between the driver and the second-place car, occasionally showing a mid-pack battle between two cars driven by drivers who most fans will recognize, showing Dale Jr., Jimmie Johnson and of course Patrick.

    Although I will have to say that Fox Sports isn’t as enamored of Ms. Patrick as ESPN is, something which we will have to endure during the second half of the season when the Disney-owned network is broadcasting the Sprint Cup races.

    I’ll admit, the audience could be subjected to worse than Chris Meyers, Mike Joy, Darrell Waltrip, Jeff Hammond and Larry McReynolds who do the Fox broadcasts. We’ve grown accustomed to these gentlemen about the same as we have to your brother’s friend Ralph.

    You know, he's the guy who comes over to watch the race at your brother’s house, who says he knows everything about NASCAR, drinks too much beer, farts too much and generally is a real jerk whom you wish would forget your brother’s address.

    But much like Ralph, who helped your brother get his job, the Fox guys aren’t about to go anywhere, anytime soon. 

    The solution to the weak effort that the television networks offer each week is to supplement your viewing using online tools like Twitter, Raceview and sports websites that offer a running commentary on what is happening, hopefully using information supplied by fans at the race track.

    Trust me, the show at the track is not at all like the show you see on television.

Loser: Kurt Busch

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Right about now Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kurt Busch must be thinking, “Yeah, that flight to Denver to see Todd (crew chief Berrier) and the guys wasn’t so bad after all.”

    This is a reference to his former team, the No. 78 Furniture Row car that Busch left after last season to head to the team that would get him back into serious championship contention, Stewart-Haas Racing. The team is based in Denver, which is a long way from North Carolina, where Busch resides.

    This is an example of when, as a child, your parents told you, “The grass isn’t always greener on the other side of the fence.”

    As adults, some of us get it at an early age. For others, the road to understanding the allegory can be a long, winding and tortuous one. Such is the situation for Kurt Busch, who, on Sunday, finished 26th, three laps down from the race leader.

    In case you were wondering, the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, being driven this year by Martin Truex Jr., finished 14th.

Winner: Carl Edwards

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    Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

    Finally, the performance from Carl Edwards (seen here before the race with Carrot Top and friends) and the No. 99 team that his fans have been waiting for. 

    OK, so he finished top five (fifth), and he’s still looking for a victory (and we the backflip), but there’s some real progress being seen by this team and the entire Roush Fenway Racing (RFR) organization.

    Even after Edwards hit the wall, he soldiered on.

    “I don’t know if you saw the right-rear when I hit the wall with it, but it’s a tough duck,” said Edwards on pit road following the race. “I had a good time.  Even though we couldn’t get to victory lane it’s a big day for Ford.”

    Teammates Greg Biffle (22nd) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (27th) didn’t quite show the same form, but it’s likely that the engineers will use the knowledge gained from Edwards’ outing and fine-tune the (RFR) 1.5-mile setup.

    I guess we’ll know of sure on April 6 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Winner (and Loser): Fuel Mileage Races and the Fans

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    Jerry Markland/Getty Images

    Yes, it’s true, Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran out of fuel with half a lap to go to the checkered flag. 

    And yes, Brad Keselowski, who you must admit was in Junior’s rearview mirror for many of the closing laps of Sunday’s KOBALT 400, was right there to take advantage of Earnhardt’s bad luck and drive on to take the checkered flag.

    But, that’s what happens sometimes.

    Before you get all up in arms about how fuel-mileage races stink and that Keselowski stole the win, you have to remember that winning is winning no matter how you get it—in other words, what you have to do on the race track to get to the checkered flag first.

    Earnhardt’s crew chief rolled the dice (gotta love that gambling reference for a race in Vegas) and came up snake eyes. Junior was philosophical about it.

    “We knew we were short. It’s not shock to us to run out,” said Earnhardt in the post-race press conference. “Steve (crew chief Letarte) said we were a half a lap short and that is about where it ran out. We wouldn’t have run second if we hadn’t of done that strategy. [I’ve] got to thank Steve and the guys for using good strategy to get us a top three finish there.”

    You see, despite getting a win early and securing a spot in the Chase, Earnhardt Jr. is still taking no chances and getting all the points he can. After all there’s nothing wrong with finishing in the points at season’s end in the top 10.

    Then, there is the race strategy behind fuel-mileage races. Keselowski’s crew chief made a call during the final pit stop, and his was the right one.

    "We were on a little different strategy today from time to time with everybody, but the thing that has made the No. 2 team successful over the last few years is being aggressive and we’re gonna be aggressive this year,” said crew chief Paul Wolfe in the winner’s post race press conference. “That’s what we did today and it paid off in a big win for us.”

    It definitely paid off. His decision-making put Team Penske in the Chase. And now for the rest of the season, this group can be as aggressive as it wants to be.

Loser: Joe Gibbs Racing

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    Uncredited/Associated Press

    My mother always said that if you didn’t have anything nice to say, then say nothing at all.

    So I’ll keep this short.

    What is going on with Joe Gibbs Racing?

    Sunday in Las Vegas:

    • Matt Kenseth, the king of the 1.5-mile tracks in 2013—10th
    • Kyle Busch—11th
    • Denny Hamlin—12th

    Not the trifecta that J.D. Gibbs (pictured above on right) had his money on going into the race.

    So maybe they’ve got some work to do?