Who can beat the odds in Vegas?

The NASCAR Sprint Cup rumbles into Sin City for round three of the 2011 season.

While Daytona gets the plaudits as the most prestigious round of the year the honour. It is the race in Las Vegas that is regarded as the most relevant round for the outcome of the season thus far. This is because half of the tracks visited in the end of season Chase for the Championship are intermediate ovals just like Vegas so it is clear why a fast car in Vegas equates to a potential title winning car.

This weekend’s race should be action packed, just like the opening two races of the season, but after a slow start to his season it is crucial for Jimmie Johnson to do well at a circuit that he loves. Johnson, third last weekend, struggled at times in the opening two rounds but talk of his demise has been grossly exaggerated. The five times champion shrugged off a disappointing season opener with a measured drive in Phoenix but this weekend the four time Vegas winner could come up trumps once again.

To repeat his win from last season Johnson will have to stare down the Roush Racing effort. Roush dominated qualifying with former Sprint Cup champion Matt Kenseth setting a new lap record to take pole position ahead of the impressive Marcos Ambrose. Kenseth is a two time winner at Vegas, 2003 and 2004, but it would be a surprise if he can maintain his practice form throughout the weekend. As a result it is much more likely that Carl Edwards will lead the Roush charge once more.

Edwards was very fast in round two before coming unstuck in a clash with Kyle Busch. With a good track record at Vegas the 99 car should be to the fore once more. Edwards and crew chief, Bob Osborne, have consistently said that they feel they have found a great balance with their Ford and this weekend’s race should give them the opportunity to race at the front throughout. It will be a great challenge for Edwards to battle with Johnson but there is no reason why the Ohio native can’t challenge for a second Vegas win.

Last week’s winner, Jeff Gordon, should be a challenger for back to back wins. The Hendrick Racing star can finally put to bed any questions about his desire following his late battle with Kyle Busch in Phoenix but now he faces a much more enticing question: can he challenge for the title? There is no reason why Gordon should feel that winning a fifth Sprint Cup title is out of his reach. He has a fast car and surely has his confidence at a high level. This weekend’s race should give him even more reason to feel that he could end Johnson’s reign of the stock car world.

At this race last year Gordon dominated proceedings, leading 219 of the 267 laps but ultimately had to settle for a third place finish. It is unlikely that Gordon would falter if given such an opportunity this year. Vegas though has always been a fickle mistress to Gordon. He has won once at the circuit and has generally been a contender but his crash in the 2008 edition was surely the most frightening of his career. Gordon tangled with Kenseth coming out of turn two and lost control of the car before smashing into an unprotected barrier at 160mph.

Kevin Harvick, and the Richard Childress Racing team, needs to show that they have a car capable of racing with the Hendrick cars this weekend. Last season Harvick scored more points over the course of the 36 race season but finished third in the Chase. That came down to a lack of straightline speed at intermediate circuits such as Vegas, it is crucial that his car can compete with the likes of Johnson and Edwards this weekend or else he will face a long, hard season.

The home crowd will be cheering on both Busch brother but it is likely that championship leader Kyle will get the most attention. The Joe Gibbs Racing star will start the race in fifth, just ahead of teammate Joey Logano, and will be eager to add to his 2009 home victory. Busch has done well so far this season to curb his wild streak and collected top ten finishes at both races so far. This race should give him an opportunity to challenge for a first win of the year. The younger Busch brother always races well at this circuit and has finished in the top five on three occasions.

For 14 years Las Vegas has been seen as an important market for NASCAR and the race has quickly grown into one of the key dates of the Vegas sporting calendar. Both NASCAR and the city have seen the benefit of their association and the event has grown. It will never have the tradition or passion of racing in Carolina but it has been consistently used to offer a great opportunity to bring new fans to the sport.

This race has the potential to give new fans a terrific spectacle. While Roush Racing dominated the weekend thus far the Hendrick cars, Kyle Busch and Harvick should make the fight at the front hugely competitive. NASCAR has lost a lot of fans in recent years but the excitement of Trevor Bayne winning at Daytona and Jeff Gordon winning again has seen it regain a lot of lost interest. Today’s race should see interest ride once again.

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