Glitz, glamour of Vegas follows Rockingham

By Jeff Birchfield
STAR STAFF
jbirchfield@starhq.com

   An early season break and a vacation-like trip to Las Vegas should have those who are a part of the NASCAR Nextel Cup Series refreshed and ready for action on Sunday.
   The tour has left the madness of Daytona Speedweeks and the hard racing associated with the North Carolina Speedway. Now it's off to Vegas, baby!
   While the competitors and media big-wigs all talk of how this may be their favorite trip of the season, the racing in years past has left something to be desired.
   None of the finishes at Las Vegas has been the down-to-the-wire side-by-side action like we saw at the last race at Rockingham.
   One car owner who has to be looking forward to going to Vegas is Jack Roush. His driver Matt Kenseth won his only race on his journey to capturing the Winston Cup championship there last season.
   Other Roush drivers have also tasted success with Mark Martin winning the inaugural Vegas race in 1998 and Jeff Burton winning in 1999 and 2000.
   A source of concern in the Ford camp could be engine troubles that have plagued some teams. Vegas last year was a tough place on the Blue Oval powerplants as Martin and Robert Yates Racing driver Elliott Sadler were the first two cars to exit the race with blown motors.
   Jeff Gordon, driving a Chevrolet, broke the Roush Ford victory stronghold at Vegas with his 2001 win, the first in his championship season. Sterling Marlin was the winner of the 2002 race, pedaling a Dodge to the winners circle.
   The racing action at Vegas should get better this season as it has so far been like most new race tracks, which tend to have strung-out racing. Atlanta when it was reconfigured in the mid-1990's didn't produce good racing, but now is considered one of the best tracks on the circuit with finishes often coming down to the last lap.
   Las Vegas Motor Speedway is one of the "cookie-cutter" race tracks associated with Speedway Motorsports. It is a 1.5-mile track with the banking in the turns 12 degrees and the frontstretch having 9 degrees with the backstretch virtually flat at 3 degrees.
   With the banking not as steep the speeds here are not in the same range as sister tracks Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas. The qualifying record is only 173.016 miles per hour set last season by Bobby Labonte.
   The track's layout has been more difficult to master than one might expect with last season,s race producing six cautions. Despite Kenseth pulling out to a victory over nine seconds at the end, there were 17 lead changes overall in the event.
   There is no denying there is a built-in excitement at this race, more than at several of the other stops on the NASCAR tour. The large speedway is just part of a larger overall complex which includes The Strip, one of the finest NHRA Drag Racing tracks on their tour and a dirt track, which hosts several series including the World of Outlaws.
   It's a safe bet to call Vegas a racing town, but betting and the allure of other vices are what made the city itself famous. The neon lights shine as brightly on the Vegas strip as the colors on the Nextel Cup cars shine in the Sunday afternoon sunlight.
   The UAW-Daimler Chrysler 400 in true Vegas style is also one of the biggest paying races on the NASCAR tour. Certainly all the racers would love to hit this jackpot with last year's winner Kenseth taking over $365,000 in prize money.
   It will also be the eighth trip to Vegas for the NASCAR Busch Series. Just like on the Cup side, Burton is the most success driver at the speedway with two wins and his Roush teammate Martin has one win.
   Other drivers to win at Vegas in America's number two motorsports series include Jeff Green, who was the victor in the first race here in 1997. Jimmy Spencer, Todd Bodine and last year's race champion Joe Nemechek all have collected Vegas Busch Series trophies.
   There was some concern after Daytona about having full lineups for the Vegas races, but this will probably be a non-issue with many West coast competitors willing to test their mettle against the best drivers from NASCAR's top two series.
   Hopefully, this Sunday the racing at Vegas will be as good as the hype and produce a winning battle as good as the championship fights the city is famous for hosting.