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Ranking the NASCAR races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway — VIDEOS

There have been 18 NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This isn’t a nice, round number such as 25 races, or 50, or in the case of this year’s Indianapolis 500, 100 races.

But because nobody has ever ranked the LVMS Cup races in terms of excitement, or significance, or both, this seemed like a good year to do it.

Which were the best races? The worst? And, much more difficult to determine, the ones that fell somewhere in-between?

A NASCAR Weekend panel consisting of LVMS president Chris Powell, vice president of public relations Jeff Motley, this reporter and a guy from the track’s sales and marketing marketing department who mostly came along for the free lunch at Memphis Championship Barbecue (actually, Kevin Kamper remembered some of the races better than we did) ranked the Las Vegas Cup races from No. 1 to 18.

This is the list. See if you agree.

The best races

1. 2006: Jimmie Johnson passes Matt Kenseth just before the finish line to win the closest Cup race in LVMS history. Johnson chases Kenseth down over the closing laps and takes him on the high side as the cars race to the checkered flag. Margin of victory: .045 of a second.

2. 2001: An emotional day at the speedway: Two weeks after the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon picks up his first — and only — LVMS win after starting 24th and weaving through the field. Teresa Earnhardt makes her first public comments about her husband’s passing on race day morning. Tears are shed.

3. 2014: Dale Earnhardt Jr. runs out of gas on the backstretch of the last lap, handing the win to Brad Keselowski. Almost as exciting: The Dos Equis beer guy, The Most Interesting Man in the World, gives the command to start engines.

4. 2009: Kyle Busch triumphs in his hometown event in the only 427-mile race in LVMS history — the race is lengthened to honor sponsor Shelby Automotive, which is promoting the release of its 427 Cobra sports car. Busch slips past Clint Bowyer, who is leading at the customary 400-mile juncture, 16 laps from the checkered flag.

5. 1998: Mark Martin dominates the inaugural Cup race at LVMS. It wasn’t the closest race, but it was the first, and 107,000 spectators — the biggest crowd to witness a single-day sporting event in Las Vegas — file into the massive grandstands, and then inch their way home out of the parking lots afterward.

6. 1999: Burton edges Burton. After engaging in a late-race, side-by-side battle that lasts 25 laps, it is Jeff Burton over Wade Burton at the finish. The brothers from Virginia lead 182 of 267 laps.

The in-between races

7. 2004: The Dale Earnhardt Terrace opens in Turn 4, significantly increasing seating capacity. Three Las Vegans — Kurt and Kyle Busch and Brendan Gaughan — are in the starting field. The trio receive keys to the city from Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. Robert Goulet sings the national anthem. Matt Kenseth wins before a record crowd of 148,000.

8. 2007: Jimmie Johnson makes it three in a row here by winning the first race on LVMS’ reconfigured, higher-banked oval. The banking was raised from 12 degrees to 20 degrees after the 2006 race, which does not make Tony Stewart (and a few other drivers) happy. Drivers are slow to adapt to the new layout, which contributes to nine crashes.

9. 2013: What’s the frequency, Kenseth? Matt Kenseth wins for the third time at LVMS, holding off Kasey Kahne in the closing laps. Kahne catches Kenseth with eight laps to go; Kenseth does not let him by.

10. 2008: Jeff Gordon plows into the backstretch wall in the closing laps after making contact with Matt Kenseth, bringing out the red flag and the backstretch wall repair crew. After the race is restarted, Carl Edwards drives away from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a green-white-checkered finish.

11. 2005: Siblings Kyle and Kurt Busch battle Jimmie Johnson for the win. Johnson gets it, because Johnson always wins in Las Vegas. Or so it seems. The three-way duel at the finish is overshadowed by 10 yellow-flag periods, an LVMS record.

12. 2012: Tony Stewart’s run of bad luck at LVMS finally ends, but it isn’t easy: After Kyle Busch spins, bunching the field, Stewart holds off a snarling pack of cars headed by Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie went high; Jimmie went low. Tony still won.

The worst races

13. 2011: Tony Stewart throws one away. Or at least his crew does. After leading for 166 of 267 laps, Stewart gets shuffled back on his final pit stop, handing the lead and win to Carl Edwards.

14. 2002: Sterling Marlin takes it, marking the second straight year the Las Vegas winner comes from 24th on the starting grid. That’s about the most you could say for this one.

15. 2003: A huge pileup takes out contenders Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch and others. Matt Kenseth is the class of the field. Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes in a distant second.

16. 2015: In his last race in Las Vegas, retiring Jeff Gordon sets the fastest qualifying time but starts from the rear after crashing in practice. Kevin Harvick dominates the race, leading the final 66 laps.

17. 2010: This race is best remembered for two caution periods caused by race officials turning on the yellow light by mistake. Jimmie Johnson wins again, because Jimmie Johnson always wins in Las Vegas. Or so it seems. Kim Kardashian serves as co-grand marshal (with Carroll Shelby), adding to race day ignominy.

18. 2000: Race day dawns cold, then it becomes wet. Jeff Burton is declared the winner after the red flag ends it with just 148 laps (many of them run under caution) of the 267 completed due to rain. Brrrr.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ron Kantowski can be reached at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow him on Twitter: @ronkantowski

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