I was in Las Vegas just a couple of weeks ago to celebrate the official launch of ESPN.com's fantasy racing games. It was funny: While the Vegas-area residents I talked to were interested in Fantasy Stock Car and Stock Car Challenge to varying degrees (or at least they were doing a fine job of humoring me), most claimed not to be that into NASCAR. Inevitably, then, I'd say, "I guess that means you're not going to the race in March," and they'd respond, "Oh, no. I'm definitely going. It's a blast!"
I'm tempted to say that Sprint Cup racing is the new NHL: You have to attend a race to really get it. And in large part, that's probably true; you don't get a feel for how fast these suckers go until you see them cover a football field in less than a second. But these Vegas residents with whom I spoke had already been to races like this weekend's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and were psyched that they got to go again this year, yet they still proclaimed they "weren't really into" stock car racing. Hm. It may be that admitting you're a fan of this sport hasn't quite fallen into the "cool kids" lexicon yet. Or it may be that these races are just a heck of a lot of fun to attend even if you don't pay a lick of attention to the race.
Either way, the Diamond in the Desert will be packed to its gills for Sunday's show. LVMS was modified just over a year ago, so that its 1.5-mile surface is much higher banked than it used to be. Now instead of a flat track, this joint is kissing cousins to places like Atlanta, Charlotte and Texas: all high-banked, incredibly fast, unrestricted speedways. Though it has four fewer degrees of banking in its turns than the identical A-C-T triumvirate, it makes up for it by having four degrees more banking in the straightaways. It … is … fast.
Let's take a look at your best fantasy bets for Sin City's big race.
"Given To Fly" (Featured Elite Drivers)
(Last Week: Carl Edwards, 1st; Matt Kenseth, 5th)
I rode Carl Edwards to a win in Fontana, and I'm getting right back on the No. 99 horse again. Edwards obviously had a superior car Monday afternoon; his crew turned in mediocre pit stop after mediocre pit stop, burying King Carl in traffic for several late restarts, but Edwards never panicked and simply reeled in any Hendrick or Gibbs cars that happened to be in front of him. I think a lot of that speed will translate to Vegas, where Edwards also had a very nice two days of practice back in January. After the first test session, in which the No. 99 was just trying to get its feet wet, this car was fast; in the subsequent three sessions, Edwards posted the fourth-, first- and eighth-fastest laps. He'll be very strong again.
I'm also taking the hint, and buying a big stake in Kyle Busch this week; if you're looking to change drivers at the top of your Stock Car Challenge roster, the No. 18 is a great way to go. Busch leads the points and, with some luck (and maybe some better weather this past weekend), he might've won at both Daytona and Fontana this year. Horsepower is crucial at the unrestricted intermediates, and Toyota does seem to be winning the horsepower battle to date. Plus, Busch was the most consistently good driver at LVMS in testing: He was fifth, first, third and 12th fastest in the four sessions last month. Fool us once, shame on you. Fool us twice, shame on us. But fool us a third time, and we have to turn our fantasy teams over to our wives. In this third time around, the younger Busch should be good again, and I want a piece.
"Rearviewmirror" (Midrange Drivers of Note)
(Last Week: Mark Martin, 16th; Kasey Kahne, 9th)
I'm not sure how much longer Kasey Kahne is going to be a "midrange" driver. He finished seventh and ninth in the season's first two events, and if the Fontana race had gone off without weather problems on Sunday evening, he might've performed even better, because he looked a lot stronger with a cooler track. Kahne didn't test well in the first couple of Vegas sessions in January, but the No. 9 team adjusted like heck, and by the final session, Kahne was the fourth-fastest guy out there, and he improved by leaps and bounds each time he drove. That's a good sign, as is the fact that Kahne looks like the 2006 version of himself.
Casey Mears isn't doing himself any favors to date. He got wrecked out of the Daytona 500 and finished 35th. He then did himself one better at Fontana -- he skidded on some water that had seeped through the asphalt, wrecked again, and finished 42nd. Not a great way for my surprise Chase contender candidate to start the year. At this rate, he's not going to be in the top 35 in owner points after the season's fifth race, and will have to qualify on time for a precious few openings each week. I think Mears will turn it around with a solid outing Sunday. Like Kahne, Mears got better as the LVMS testing sessions progressed, and by the afternoon of the second day he posted the third-quickest lap. That doesn't mean he's definitely going to go out and run in the top 5, but at least we know the No. 5 will be capable of speed. Stay clean, Casey.
"Not For You" (Beware Of These Drivers)
(Last Week: Kevin Harvick, 8th)
Last week, I fretted about the DEI/RCR engine program, and whether it was far enough along to stand up to 500 miles of continuous pounding. Well, it rained so much at Fontana, we never really got to see the engines take an enormous beating, but I have to be fair: None of the Childress or DEI cars blew up (as Jeff Gordon did on the race's final lap), so you'd at least have to consider that part of their day a success. But while Martin Truex Jr. finished sixth, Kevin Harvick finished eighth and Jeff Burton finished 12th, Clint Bowyer took what had been a very good car Sunday night and turned it into a very mediocre 19th. We all know any of the superstar drivers -- and Bowyer now qualifies as one of those, as finishing third in points will do that to you -- can be good on any given Sunday. But before the season began, I worried that Bowyer was due for some buzzard's luck, after his incredible cleanliness in 2007. Maybe this is the beginning of that. Anyway, though I'm not going to be shocked if Bowyer is good Sunday, I think there are better fantasy bets out there.
"Nothing As It Seems" (Weekly Sleepers)
(Last Week: Reed Sorenson, 37th; David Ragan, 14th)
Brian Vickers is 40 percent of the way to his early-season goal, a goal he could never quite reach throughout 2007: make the top 35 and take the pressure off on a week-by-week basis. Vickers has finished 13th and 11th through two events and deserves to be owned in more than 59 percent of Fantasy Stock Car leagues. His Hendrick pedigree and Toyota horsepower is shining, and Vickers was sixth- and 14th-quickest in the two final-day testing sessions in Vegas a few weeks ago.
I went with David Ragan in Fontana, and he rewarded me with a 14th-place finish, so I'm trying him again in Vegas. Ragan was a crummy 37th after finishing just 236 laps in this race last year, but I'm looking beyond that third-race-of-his-Cup-career mess and remembering his 10th-place finish at Homestead in the final event of '07. That race was at a track that doesn't have the straightaway banking Vegas does, but it has very similar 20-degree turns. Ragan looked strong and pretty confident Monday, and another top-20 could be in the offing.
"Off He Goes" (Deep-League Hail Mary)
(Last Week: Jeremy Mayfield, 39th)
David Reutimann is just a few races away from assuming Dale Jarrett's ride in the No. 44 car (the UPS ride), which will be a big step up in profile. Through two events, Reutimann has posted an 18th and a 23rd; while he wouldn't say that's a successful way to start the season, we can. That's pretty good. And there's a chance it gets even better on Sunday. Reutimann was a surprising stud in Vegas testing back in January. He was 16th-, 13th-, second- and 11th-fastest in the four sessions, which put him in speed territory with the big boys. The fact that he's driving a Toyota is no longer an instant black mark against him (in fact, the horsepower in those puppies is starting to look pretty good), and Reutimann really can drive. He's owned in only 13.9 percent of ESPN.com Fantasy Stock Car leagues, so if you're looking for a free-agent pickup, Reutimann is tempting. The one cautionary note: Because he finished 2007 outside the top 35 in points, Reutimann needs to qualify for this race on time, on Friday. So be sure he's in this race before you start him.
Christopher Harris is a fantasy baseball, football and racing analyst for ESPN.com. He is a six-time Fantasy Sports Writing Association award winner across all three of those sports.
You can e-mail him here.