Gibbs racers don’t look like favorites for Kobalt 400

Las Vegas sports books had a lot to think about Saturday when the trio of Joe Gibbs Racing drivers looked extremely sluggish during the final two practice sessions before today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

And sluggish might be putting it mildly, because a JGR car hasn’t looked as slow on a 1.5-mile track since Bobby Labonte’s final season with the team in 2005.

During happy hour, Denny Hamlin had the fastest time among the three, but it was only the 16th-fastest overall. Matt Kenseth, the defending race champion, could only muster the 19th-fastest lap, and 2009 race winner Kyle Busch was 25th fastest. The JGR drivers were considered three of the favorites today because they won seven of the 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks last season.

So what changed so drastically from one year to the next when every team is still running the Gen-6 car that debuted last season? NASCAR made changes to the aero-package before the season, and it’s apparent those changes are having the most effect on the 1.5-mile tracks.

For NASCAR bettors, that means there is extreme value in betting against all three of the JGR cars. Because they were considered favorites, chances are the sports books didn’t move the numbers high enough in propositions and matchups against them.

Only a few books around town offer NASCAR driver matchups on weekly basis, but this week for the home race, everyone offered Super Bowl-style props, perhaps overextending their abilities.

More betting notes for today’s race:

■ CAN’T TRICK KNAUS — While the JGR cars are searching for answers, Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief, Chad Knaus, looks to be ahead of the curve again just like when the Car of Tomorrow was unveiled in 2007. Johnson, a four-time winner in Las Vegas, had the fastest 10-consecutive lap average during happy hour and is the driver to beat. The LVH dropped him from the 7-1 favorite to 4-1 after Saturday’s practices. The best bet might be laying minus-120 with Johnson to finish within the top six, as he has in seven of his 12 career starts at LVMS.

■ HOW ABOUT THE ROOKIES? — Eight rookies are starting today, and while the best strategy might be to stay clear of them, it’s hard because of the way they’ve been running. So when seeing Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson run fast in practice, it’s easy to be reminded of Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Johnson, Hamlin and Kyle Busch, all of whom made an immediate splash as rookies.

Are Dillon and Larson in that category? It’s too early to tell, but they have been good in practice at LVMS, and Larson appeared to have the second- or third-best car during practices at Phoenix last weekend. The car has to account for something, and obviously both rookies are fast. There is a trust issue with the Ganassi cars, but in Dillon’s case, he gets all the same equipment Harvick used to finish third in points last season, a car that won four times. Las Vegas is less complex than Phoenix, but it’s also less forgiving. If choosing to side with or against the rookies this week, the better bet would be against.

■ WILL MWR CAR WIN? — The Golden Nugget is offering 20-1 if a Michael Waltrip Racing car wins the race. It’s the bottom choice among the seven power car owners listed, but if liking any of their three cars to win, the more logical bet is wagering them individually, and more specifically, just the main two drivers of Brian Vickers (50-1) and Clint Bowyer (35-1). Nothing against two-time Las Vegas winner Jeff Burton, but if a MWR driver has a chance of winning, it will be Vickers or Bowyer. Both were outstanding in practice. The best value is taking them individually to win, so if the intention was to place $10 on the MWR prop, split it up with $5 each on Vickers and Bowyer.

■ FORD TO WIN? — Because of strong cars from the Hendrick, Childress and Stewart-Haas stables, Chevrolet is even money to win the race. Toyota, driven by Joe Gibbs and MWR drivers, are 9-5 to win, and Ford, Roush and Penske are all 7-2. It’s tough going against Chevy with Johnson, but with Ford having two cars with a legitimate shot behind Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski and another midshot possibility with Carl Edwards, 7-2 sounds decent. A Roush Fenway Ford has won seven of the 16 Las Vegas Cup races.

■ MY BEST BET — I liked Keselowski before testing and practices, and not much has changed to take me off him, other than Johnson flexing his Las Vegas muscles as the best car. In addition to playing Keselowski at 10-1 odds, I’ve taken a shot with him in several other matchups and props, such as finishing ninth or better (minus-135).

Laying minus-140 with winning car number 1-23 looks good with the upside being not only Keselowski’s No. 2 but also the No. 1 of Jamie McMurray, No. 5 of Kasey Kahne, No. 14 of Harvick and No. 22 of Logano.

Micah Roberts, a former race and sports book director in Las Vegas, has been setting NASCAR odds since 1995. For more post-practice analysis, visit the Linemakers on or follow MicahRoberts7 on Twitter.