Track Talk: Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Each weekend, our panel on The Podium Finish will provide their thoughts on the latest stories in the world of NASCAR as well as discussing their race pick to win the upcoming Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race of the weekend, the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

This weekend, our panel consisting of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull, Cody ShoppeKathleen CassidyKatie Copple, Kerstin LewisKyle MagdaSean Fesko, and Stephen Conley reflect on Kevin Harvick’s dominance in the stage format, Dale Earnhardt Jr’s struggles, Ford Racing’s successful start to 2017, and the news of Las Vegas Motor Speedway gaining two race weekends in 2018.

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Question 1
Harvick's figured out how to win the first two stages of a race. Can he win the third and most important one?

Harvick’s figured out how to win the first two stages of a race. Can he win the third and most important one?

Clearly, Kevin Harvick knows how to win stages in this new format.  However, a late race pit road speeding penalty cost him a shot to win his first race of 2017. How long will it take for Harvick and his No. 4 team to cash in on their first race victory of this season? 

Fesko :  This can really be summed up in one word: Phoenix.  He’s a master there, and while he’s performed well at LVMS in the past, I think we’ll see Harvick a lot happier come checkered flag in Arizona.

Copple :  Harvick seems to have this whole “switching to Ford” thing down pretty well.  The pit penalty blew my mind and I truly believe that if he would have come out of that unscathed, he would have won that race.  It won’t be long before he is in Victory Lane.  He has a few strong tracks coming up and with a strong team, he will be holding that checkered flag in no time.  With Phoenix and Richmond coming up in the coming weeks, I expect to see him be P1 at the end of at least one of those races.

Hobbs :  Not long because this is one stout team this year.  The past three years, we have seen Harvick go to Victory Lane (for the first time) in race four at Phoenix, race three at Las Vegas, and race two at Phoenix.  Looks like Phoenix is a great place for him to cash in.

Hull :  With the way they are running, I believe a win is in their horizon within the next race or two.  It’s all about avoiding bad luck for them.  Also, they need to avoid costly mistakes, such as speeding down pit road, in order to capitalize for a win.  I believe that he will win either Las Vegas or Phoenix.  He is very good at both of these tracks.

Cassidy :  I do not think a victory is far off for Harvick.  He has recently won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway two years ago and has shown determination with this new format already.  I would not be surprised if we see the No. 4 team in Victory Lane this weekend.

Magda :  It won’t take long for Harvick to win his first race.  Don’t be surprised if he takes the checkered flag this weekend at Las Vegas and the next week at Phoenix, a track where he’s completely dominated the last four years. Expect Harvick to win one of the races during the West Coast swing because that car at Atlanta was Freaky Fast.

Lewis :  Harvick is strong and has shown consistency.  I don’t think it will be long before that pays off for the No. 4 team.  They were seventh in Las Vegas last year, won the Phoenix race, and second at Auto Club Speedway on last year’s West Coast swing.  It’s highly likely we will see Harvick atop the podium in the next few weeks.

Shoppe :  It will not take Kevin Harvick long to get an overall win in a race.  This has been one of the best teams in the series for the last few years so it’s just a matter of time before the No. 4 team breaks through with a win. I wouldn’t be too worried if I were a Harvick fan.

Conley :  I’d have to say very soon, especially with another very fast mile and a half this week, followed by his personal playground at Phoenix.  If he doesn’t leave one of these with a win, I’d be shocked.

Question 2
Will Dale Earnhardt Jr find his groove again? (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson/The Racing Experts)

Will Dale Earnhardt Jr find his groove again? (Photo Credit: Jeremy Thompson/The Racing Experts)

Dale Earnhardt Jr. struggled mightily at Atlanta Motor Speedway, finishing 30th, five laps behind race winner Brad Keselowski.  Should the expectations ease up on Earnhardt’s return to racing action or is it fair for No. 88 fans to be a bit worried right now?

Fesko :  We’re two races into the season so nobody needs to be worried yet.  Green flag runs and pit issues can doom anybody, so it was just Earnhardt’s turn in Hampton.  Give it another four or five races before pushing the panic button.

Copple :  Should they be worried?  No.  It’s the second race of the season.  Now, if we were in the May races and he was still struggling, then maybe I’d start to worry but come on, we are just getting to the third race of the season.

Hobbs :  If fans are worried about anyone two races into the season, they are crazy.  Sure, Earnhardt may be stumbling out of the blocks, but the NASCAR season is a marathon, not sprints.  Momentum is also important, and since he has been out of the car for a while, he has to find it, but once he does, all will be right with the world.

Hull :  I think that the expectations should ease up because these last two race finishes were out of his control.  He could have very easily won Daytona had he not wrecked.  He could have also done well at Atlanta had his tire not went down.  In other words, it’s only the third race.  I think we should continue to give him a chance to prove himself before we doubt him.

Cassidy :  Dale Earnhardt Jr has been out of racing for a fair bit of time.  As with any athlete, you need to allow them time to readjust.  I think the expectations have already been hard on Earnhardt due to his father’s presence in the sport.  Fans need to give him a few races to get back into things!

Magda :  We’re only two races into the season so there’s no panic for Earnhardt.  Daytona’s a different monster in itself and almost all drivers got caught speeding on pit road at Atlanta.  And keep in mind, he’s only been in the car a few times since the year began so there’s still more to learn.  He only raced the current down-force package twice last season before concussion-like symptoms sidelined him for the rest of the year.

Lewis :  It’s a little hard to tell if Earnhardt fans need to be worried or not.  Dale Earnhardt Jr is such a fan favorite that the spotlight will always be on him.  I’d say let him get a couple more races under his belt in this return and then see if there is reason to worry.

Shoppe :  Junior Nation shouldn’t be freaking out just yet.  The sport’s most popular driver wasn’t the only one experiencing tire issues that hurt his finish Sunday, that’s for sure.  Repeated tire issues more then likely did not stem from driving error, so let’s not jump all over Earnhardt’s ability to compete after his hiatus.  Once luck is on his side, Greg Ives and the Hendrick No. 88 team will put the pieces together to get Earnhardt back to Victory Lane once again!

Conley :  He could finish dead last every week and Junior Nation would still show the love for the sport’s most popular driver.  However, another run like Atlanta and they better open their eyes.  I don’t think it has anything to do with the concussion.  Remember how a champion of nearly the same age fared getting back in a car a year later in Jeff Gordon.  Not driving for a while is detrimental, no matter what you think you’re learning in the sidelines.

Question 3
Can Ford win three races in a row?

Can Ford win three races in a row?

On the other hand, Ford Racing is definitely looking stout, particularly Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske respectively winning the first two races of this year.  How much of this is a testament to SHR joining the Ford banner as it is with the ancillary elements like Roush Yates Engines and the existing Ford Racing teammates?

Fesko :  I think it speaks volumes on SHR’s part.  Making a manufacturing change is no small feat and to have performed so strongly in the first two races is a big boost and one that validates their move.  Nobody is second-guessing their divorce from Hendrick anymore.

Copple :  I have to admit, I was not a fan of SHR switching to Ford, but if their performance continues to be this promising, then I will take back everything I have said about Ford.  I am impressed that SHR has been as successful as they have been the first two weeks out of the gate with a new manufacturer.  I think we are going to see some great things from them this season!

Hobbs :  I think this is much more a testament to SHR joining the Ford camp than it is Roush Yates.  If Roush Yates was the reason, then we would see their cars performing at the same level of SHR and Penske.  But I also do not relate the awesomeness alone to Ford for SHR, as Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch are top notch drivers; put them in any manufacturer and they would do well.

Hull :  I think that Ford hasn’t really provided much for Stewart-Haas.  I believe with or without Ford, Stewart-Haas is a powerhouse team.  Look at the talent they have.  Same also goes for Team Penske.  That’s not saying that Ford hasn’t helped.  I think that since joining Ford, Stewart-Haas is stronger.  I think that they might be the team to look out for this year.

Cassidy :  Roush Yates Engines has proved to be successful year after year, winning races.  The organization Ford has built has shown that they are worthy to be in the sport and by joining them, Stewart-Haas Racing will only get more competitive.

Magda :  SHR hasn’t slowed down at all since joining the Ford camp.  In fact, they were ready for this season with fast race cars.  Kevin Harvick goes out at Atlanta and puts a clinic on the field until the late speeding penalty and Keselowski had the second-best car behind the No. 4 Jimmy John’s Ford.  I wasn’t surprised by all the speed they showed at AMS because SHR was prepared for 2017 and Penske looks to be getting stronger every week.  Another Penske positive is also having Greg Erwin back on the pit box for the No. 22 XFINITY team.  He’s been back as crew chief of the car since last August but they’re slowly getting back to where they were speed-wise in that series in 2015.

Lewis :  Stewart Haas brings some strong drivers to the table.  Harvick and Busch are the strongest on that team and we will probably see that all season long.  Penske is tough to beat in any form of racing so I think it is a combination of factors, where the engines may be strong but you’ve got to have good drivers and teams as well, and I think that is what we’re seeing here.

Shoppe :  Stewart-Haas Racing has added lots of strength to the Ford fold in 2017.  I didn’t expect it to show so early on in the year but it sure has.  Ford is now equipped with a powerhouse team, marquis drivers across more than one organization, numbers to compete against the Chevy and Toyota teams.  I see all Ford teams benefiting as the year plays out.

Conley :  I think it’s just a great organization that didn’t miss a beat, did their homework, and are coming to the track prepared.  The Roush Yates horsepower factor sure isn’t hurting either.

Question 4
One for the money, two for the show?

One for the money, two for the show?

Las Vegas Motor Speedway had been in the rumor mill recently for wanting a second Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race, particularly during September and October for a playoff event.  Is LVMS a potent track for a playoff race or might this turn into a case of having too much of a consistent product with NASCAR?

Fesko :  I like Vegas, and wouldn’t mind seeing them have a playoff race. The main issue is which track it replaces. There needs to be a variety of track types in the playoffs, so as long as another 1.5-miler is replaced, then the competition should be fine.

Copple :  I am still a firm believer that the playoff races should be switched up every season to give the teams more of a challenge and to give the fans a better racing product.  I would love to see a fall race at LVMS!  I think they put on a fantastic race and although I haven’t been to a race at the track myself, I have heard great things about on-track amenities.  There are a few tracks on the schedule that I think would benefit from having two races on the schedule and Las Vegas is at the top of that list.

Hobbs :  Let me say this – NASCAR needs more diversity in their tracks, not more cookie cutter intermediate tracks. If LVMS wants to add another race, who gets taken off the list?  So help me if a short track gets taken off.  Fans are tired of the 1.5 mile tracks dominating the schedule.  If LVMS wants to add their date to the playoffs, I’d hope they just move it there and put a short track or road course onto the schedule.  If LVMS replaces another existing intermediate track, then okay, but I really wish NASCAR would take more time to examine their schedule and the lack of (truly) competitive tracks.

Hull :  I think that it’s more of the same product for NASCAR.  There are already enough of these cookie cutter 1.5 mile tracks on the schedule.  Las Vegas in the Spring is also not one of the more exciting races either.  I think that it would keep things the same and bore people.  I think that instead, they should add a road course, but I don’t think it will happen.

Cassidy :  I am interested to find out the reasoning behind why Las Vegas will get another race.  Aside from the tourist attractions, still miles away from the track, I have never heard or experienced many good things about the racing style at Vegas.  When I went to the track two years ago, both races were dominated in a follow-the-leader fashion.  Even with the stage format, I do not see how this track could produce fan-thrilling racing action.

Magda :  With Wednesday’s announcement, Bruton Smith always wanted a second Cup race at LVMS. The racing isn’t bad there, actually, it’s been better since the repave/reconfiguration.  It seemed cars can pass better and not a typical, flat 1.5-mile track like Homestead used to be as well.  I do believe there’s too many 1.5-milers on the schedule but the five-year agreements with tracks won’t mean any new facilities until 2021.  I wouldn’t be surprised if somewhere down the road Vegas is the Cup finale and NASCAR holds the banquet a few days after the race.

The series doesn’t need a whole week for that as other series such as IndyCar and NHRA have their banquets within a few days after of their respective finales.  Homestead is a better place to end the year but Vegas is more realistic looking at it from a championship perspective.

Lewis :  I have always wondered why Las Vegas doesn’t have a second race.  I may be a little biased having lived there, but I am 100 percent for it.  I think it is a great track, venue, and city that has the ability to attract a lot of fans if done right, which is what NASCAR is in need of.

Shoppe :  Well, like it or not, LVMS is taking over Loudon’s playoff race date.  Personally I am very upset to see my home track lose out in this deal, but looking at it in an unbiased way, I still don’t see this being much of an improvement to the playoff schedule.  Yet another mile and a half will not diversify the playoffs one bit.

Most of us have been hoping that a road course would be added to the playoffs for years now and now that track changes are finally made, it is another typical track where even the purists of old school race fans will be thankful to see the stages end with competition cautions to wake them up.  In a perfect world, a short track or road course would be added but as we all know, money talks and Sin City sure has a lot of it.  That is really all that matters.

Conley :  Now that they have decided to make this two triple header weekends at Vegas, it’s certainly too much, and it will show after the first year or two, especially if the competition doesn’t pick up on track.  You can only draw race fans to the track so much with glitz and glamour and fan amenities.  Just like many other doubleheader or triple-header weekends, it’s going to show in the stands, especially when they are covering seats up with banners.

That’s four laps on the board around Las Vegas Motor Speedway!  Before we take a chance and make it happen, let’s see how we all fared last Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway!

 

Yours truly went alongside a Peachtree State native again...

Yours truly went alongside a Peach State native again…

...with a points lead to enjoy, but the margin is close!

…with a points lead to enjoy, but the margin is close!

Lucky seven for Las Vegas?

Lucky seven for Las Vegas?

In the words of NESN’s Jack Edwards, it’s winning time now on The Podium Finish!  Let’s reveal our picks to win today’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway!

Tiongson :  Why not?  Three in a row is one step closer to being a Milton Bradley game and of the current field, only one driver will probably get this joke.  Joey Logano, I choose you!  

Hobbs :  The tides shall turn for Joey Logano, from an average finish of 6 to 4.3, by grabbing victory on the day in which our clocks move ahead by one hour. Small PSA there folks!

TPF Stats :  Joey Logano looks poised to capitalize on his excellent season thus far with a win out West.

Fesko :  Brad Keselowski repeats at Vegas and wins his second of 2017.

Hull :  My pick for Vegas is Brad Keselowski. Let’s see if he can go two in a row!

Cassidy :  Kevin Harvick gets the win today.

Shoppe :  Going with Kevin Harvick!

Copple :  It’s Matt Kenseth time.

Magda :  I’m picking Martin Truex Jr to win the race.

Lewis :  Austin Dillon is my pick to win today.

Conley :  Cashing in at Vegas for Chevy’s first win of the season will be Kyle Larson.

That wraps it up, race fans! Thanks for joining us for another edition of Track Talk!   We’re about ready for some racing.  How about you? What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?  Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now!

Thanks as always to the TPF team!  The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it’s about anything with an engine and four wheels, you’ll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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