Anger will be Denny Hamlin's edge in Las Vegas
The tweet was sent out on Thursday evening to Denny Hamlin's 219,558 followers, and quickly re-tweeted over 1,200 times to flood the social universe. Hamlin had been fined $25,000 for saying last Sunday at Phoenix what every driver was thinking: It is extremely difficult to pass in NASCAR's new "Gen-Six" car.
"Right now you just run single file and you cannot get around the guy in front of you," Hamlin said after he finished third at Phoenix. "You would have placed me in 20th with 30 [laps] to go, I would have stayed there -- I wouldn't have moved up."
NASCAR fined Hamlin for "disparaging remarks" that the sanctioning body deemed "detrimental" to stock car racing. After telling reporters that he wasn't going to pay NASCAR a nickel and he didn't care if he was suspended or not, Hamlin wrote over Twitter, "I was severely disrespected by NASCAR getting fined. I believe that the simple fact of us not even having a conversation about this issue before I was hit with a fine has something to say about our relationship."
Hamlin is appealing the fine, as he should. The truth, after all, is always the greatest defense.
So as the Cup series heads to Las Vegas on Sunday, Hamlin is mad -- "the most upset and angry I've been in a really, really long time about anything...anything that relates to NASCAR," he said.
What I've learned over the years of covering NASCAR is that an angry driver, one who's snorting fire, is usually a fast driver, which is one reason why I'm picking Hamlin to win in Sin City on Sunday.
Las Vegas is always the most telling race of the early season, far more significant in the context of winning a championship than the Daytona 500. Vegas is a 1.5-mile track that features many of the same characteristics of the five intermediate-length tracks in the 10-race Chase. So if a driver runs well at Vegas, it usually portends big things. Here is an eye-catching statistic: Six of the last eight winners of the Vegas event have gone on to finish either first or second in the final standings.
Before the season, I took an informal poll of the rank-and-file in the garage asking who was the favorite to win the 2013 Cup, and Hamlin received the most votes. In seven career starts at Las Vegas, he has four top-10 finishes. He'll do better than that on Sunday. Look for him to be ultra-aggressive in reaching the front of the pack. And once he's up there -- as he pointed out at Phoenix -- no one will be able to pass him.
Here are four other drivers to watch on Sunday:
1. Dale Earnhardt Jr.
In his last 10 starts on 1.5-mile tracks, Earnhardt has 10 top-10 finishes. For several years, he had struggled on the intermediates, but now he's one of the most consistent in the sport at these venues that play such a critical role in determining the championship.
In the first two races of 2013, Earnhardt has two top-five finishes (second at Daytona; fifth at Phoenix). The last time he began the season with consecutive top-fives was in 2004, when he won a career-high six races and briefly held the points lead at the midway point of the Chase. (He wound up fifth in the final standings.) My hunch is that Earnhardt is poised for another career year in 2013, and I'll have a story about this in next week's issue of SI.
2. Jimmie Johnson
On paper, Johnson looks like the driver to beat on Sunday. Not only has he started the season with a win at Daytona and a second-place run at Phoenix, he has also dominated in years past at Last Vegas. In his last eight starts here, he has four wins and a second place finish. In his 11 career starts at the track, he's led laps in nine of the races. He also owns the highest driver rating -- a statistic compiled by NASCAR that uses several metrics to determine a driver's success at a track -- at Las Vegas of anyone in the Cup series.
Barring an accident or a mechanical failure, Johnson should charge to a top-five finish on Sunday.
3. Carl Edwards
Edwards snapped a 70-race winless streak last weekend at Phoenix. Could this be the awakening of a sleeping giant? Perhaps, because before his slump, he was as fast as any driver in the series on intermediate tracks like Las Vegas. In the two years he's won at Vegas -- 2008 and '11 -- Edwards finished second in the final standings.
If Edwards can take another checkered flag on Sunday, it would send a powerful statement throughout the garage that, after a year in hibernation and a 15th-place finish in the final standings, he's once again a serious title contender.
4. Tony Stewart
He's off to a lethargic start in 2013, crashing early at Daytona and ccming in 41st, and winding up eighth at Phoenix. So after two races, he's 23rd in the standings.
Stewart won the Vegas event in 2012 and finished second here in '11. Over the last two years, he's led more laps at the 1.5-mile oval -- 290 -- than any other driver. Look for him to challenge Hamlin late, but no one will catch Hamlin's No. 11 Toyota. Hamlin will drive with an edge that ultimately will land him in Victory Lane.
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