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Blazing speed at Las Vegas, but rough bumps should make Sunday 400 a handling race

  Lightning fast: Kasey Kahne, winning his first pole with Rick Hendrick (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   By Mike Mulhern


   The smart money in town is on Jimmie Johnson and Carl Edwards to battle it out in Sunday's Las Vegas 400.
   But the men on the front row for the 3 p.m. ET start will be Kasey Kahne (190.456 mph) and Kyle Busch (190.040). 
   And Tony Stewart, winner last year, is in feisty form this weekend.

   If this race is usually a fight between the Rick Hendrick Chevy camp and the Jack Roush Ford camp, then Hendrick at the moment appears to have a leg up, with Kahne, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Johnson and Stewart all outqualifying Ford's fastest, Greg Biffle.
   Kahne's run was a track record, almost three-tenths of a second quicker than Matt Kenseth's record set only last year; 15 men broke the old mark.
   But with the surge in speed comes a downside – drivers all complained about the track feeling considerably more bumpy.
   Kurt Busch, back home for the weekend, said "When they reconfigured the track and put in that banking, it made the track more like an on-edge, razor-blade feel. 
   "You had to be fast, but if you went a little too fast you would slip and you would wreck.  The pace here is very quick. 
    "And the banking and the tires still do not quite matching up exactly right."
   All that appears to mean that Sunday's 400 could be filled with numerous crashes.

   Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   Quickly recall last year's 400: Stewart dominated, leading 169 of the 267 laps, and Edward won, leading 69 laps….and no one else led more than seven laps.
   Among the questions here this weekend:
   -- Did Dale Earnhardt Jr. leave his game in Daytona? Can he bounce back here?
   Phoenix last weekend wasn't a great outing for him. And he'll have to pick things up here this week.
   Let's look at it like this, rather bluntly:
   Over the 3,336 laps at NASCAR's 1-1/2-mile tracks last season, Earnhardt led only four.
   If he expects to start winning again, he needs to start leading laps. Period.
   Earnhardt did come close to winning last spring's Charlotte 600, and the Kansas 400, and the Chicagoland 400.
   But over the tour's 11 mid-size track events, he only averaged a finish of 11.7.
   "This is where we sort of put our best foot forward last year, and we feel pretty confident," Earnhardt says. That was an eighth place finish, after qualifying only 33rd. "We struggled all weekend last year, and, for whatever reason, hit on something for the race. 
   "So we won't panic if things aren't really going our way."


   Tony Stewart: Strong start to the new season, but not-so-good luck (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Tires. Not a safety issue, but will speeds fall off any? The right side tires are a little softer and more grippy.
   Drivers complained about hard tires at Phoenix last weekend, but Goodyear says it doesn't plan to change the tires for the fall 500, a chase event. But Goodyear indicated it would run another tire test at Phoenix this fall to decided what to do with tires for the 2013 opener.
   -- Teammate Johnson, though he's a good bet to win his fifth Vegas race Sunday, will be anxiously awaiting the outcome of Tuesday's appeal by crew chief Chad Knaus over that Daytona 500 C-post issue. Knaus is facing a six-week suspension.


   Danica Patrick, with crew chief Tony Eury Jr. Patrick appears to be getting frustrated with the hype, hoopla and pressure (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

   -- Danica Patrick. She's not in Sunday's 400 but she is in Saturday's 300, a race she finished fourth in a year ago. "I'm sure she'll be disappointed with anything less than a top-five finish," Earnhardt says.
   However Patrick says she may have underestimated this whole NASCAR thing. She's had a rough start to the season, crashing three times at Daytona, then getting lapped three times at Phoenix. And she says she's a bit worn out from the whole 'Danica hoopla' stuff.
   "I think I gave myself a little false expectation about running for the championship this year," Patrick said. "I need to remind myself where the expectation level should be…and not let the hype and hope and exposure that makes me feel I have to do well. I think that got to me.
   "I need to remember there are so many of these darned races and you just need to move.
   "All the demands, inside the car and outside, got to me. It was two weeks of physical and emotional drain. I feel I spread myself too thin. The whole thing got to me."
   Patrick, too, is still feeling emotional over the Indy-car crash here in November and Dan Wheldon's death, saying "There won't be a time I come to Las Vegas without thinking about Dan."
    Earnhardt stepped up for Patrick's poor performance at Phoenix: "I didn't run much better. 
   "She has to understand that sometimes there are just going to be off weekends…
    "Phoenix is a bit of an anomaly, because the tire we use there is not a short-track tire really, not a tire I would use there.  It made for a very difficult car to drive, and a very narrow window as far as how close you could hit the setup."



Carl Edwards: won here last year...but still looking for first tour win since....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)


   -- NASCAR on TV, you ask?
   After the sport's first prime time Daytona 500, the Phoenix 500 pulled a strong 5.0 rating on Fox Sunday afternoon, according to the early Nielsens.
   That's bit down from last season's Phoenix stop, which earned a 5.3. Still, anything over 5.0 is quite good.
   Phoenix peaked at 5.8 last weekend during the final miles, after 6 p.m.; that compares to the 2011 final miles, which peaked at 6.4.
   Reviewing the Daytona 500 on Fox, the network itself scored very big, compared to what it normally puts on the tube Monday evenings, with 14.2 million total viewers and a 4.5 rating. That's double what Fox has been drawing for its normal Monday night fare.
    Looking at some Fox-Daytona specifics: the Monday 500 pulled a 4.5 among adults 18-49 over the 8-till-11 p.m. slot. The top show Monday night was on NBC, with a 5.4 rating.
   The Monday 500 was actually run in two segments, separated by the Juan Pablo Montoya crash; the first from 7:15 p.m. ET till 10:30 p.m., the second from midnight till 1 a.m. Fox drew a 7.8 rating during the first segment, a 7.3 the second. Overall that's a 7.7, and that's down six percent from last year's 500, won by Trevor Bayne.
    There are two ways of looking at the 500:
    First, a total audience of  36.5 million watched at least six minutes of the race. That makes it 'the most-watched in Fox history.' For the week the Daytona 500 was seventh most-watched TV show. (Fox' American Idol pulled 18.5 million, as the top show.)
    Second, the ratings were the second lowest for the 500 since 1995.
    On average, 13.7 million were watching the race, down from last season's 15.6 million. (The 2010 Pothole 500 averaged only 13.3 million.)
    The highest rated 500 ever was NBC's 2006 broadcast, which averaged 19.4 million viewers.


     Perfect weather in Las Vegas. But this track is one tough cookie....(Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)

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