NASCAR Cup drivers will go all out today in qualifying, even though no pole sitter in the series’ first 10 visits to Las Vegas Motor Speedway has won the race.
But the bigger drama on opening day of the UAW-Dodge 400 will be which of the 13 drivers without guaranteed spots can crack the 43-car field.
Among those 13 who will fight for six or seven openings are Dale Jarrett, Las Vegan Patrick Carpentier and Toyota drivers Brian Vickers, David Reutimann and Michael Waltrip. This will be Jarrett’s last Las Vegas stop before he retires.
The top 35 drivers in car owners points are locked into starting spots for Sprint Cup races, but in the first five races of the year — Las Vegas is the third — the 35 guaranteed spots are determined by last year’s final owners standings.
“Every week for us, being outside the top 35, is like starting over,” said John Andretti, whose No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Chevrolet is not ensured a starting spot.
“Racing’s always been a matter of what you can do for me today, not yesterday. From that standpoint, being outside the top 35, it makes it real easy to go from the penthouse to the outhouse and back again. We’re just hoping to stay out of the outhouse.”
Las Vegas native Kurt Busch, fourth in this year’s points, finished seventh in owners points last season. But to ensure Penske Racing teammate Sam Hornish Jr., a rookie, would start in this year’s first five races, the team switched points from Busch’s car to Hornish’s No. 77 Dodge. That left Busch with Hornish’s 62nd ranking.
As the 2004 Cup series champion, Busch is ensured a provisional spot in the race. But that’s not how he wants to get in. Qualifying results determine the order in which teams may pick the location of their pit road stall.
Busch started near the back of the field when qualifying was rained out last weekend in Fontana, Calif.
“I’m just curious to see what we can do if we can ever get qualifying in and maybe have a chance to start up front for a change,” said Busch’s crew chief, Pat Tryson.
“When you consider that we started dead last at Daytona and only 36th at California, it’ll be a nice change to see how strong we can be without starting the race in a hole.”
Busch finished second in Daytona and 13th in California.
No one hated to see qualifying rained out in Fontana more than Carpentier.
The former open-wheel star has taken over driving the No. 10 Dodge full time for Gillett Evernham Motorsports this year. But the car finished last season outside the top 35.
A tire problem kept Carpentier out of the Daytona 500, and his car never got onto the track last weekend.
That left Carpentier high and dry, or, more appropriately, low and wet.
“That was disappointing,” he said. “It’s like the season hasn’t even started.”
While the rain-delayed Cup race was being completed Monday in California, Carpentier was in Rockingham, N.C., logging about 100 laps testing his car.
“We just need to get laps in the car,” the Cup series rookie said.
Busch is the only driver without a guaranteed spot who knows he will be racing Sunday. That leaves 12 drivers contending for seven spots. And if Busch qualifies based on his lap time, Jarrett, the 1999 champion, would have a provisional spot at his disposal.
In past years, all drivers drew randomly to determine the order in which they would try to qualify. That often created a disparity as racing conditions can vary throughout a two-hour session.
This year, the “go or go-homers” will be the last cars to make their two-lap runs.
Contact reporter Jeff Wolf at email@example.com or (702) 383-0247.ON THE WEB:
Special NASCAR section
HOW LAS VEGAS CUP POLE WINNERS FARED
2007 Kasey Kahne, 35th
2006 Greg Biffle, eighth
2005 Ryan Newman, ninth
2004 Kasey Kahne, second
2003 Bobby Labonte, fourth
2002 Todd Bodine, 29th
2001 Dale Jarrett, second
2000 Ricky Rudd, 12th
1999 Bobby Labonte, fifth
1998 Dale Jarrett, 40th