- John Schwarb
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Las Vegas offers more than enough sensory overload in its famed casinos and along the mesmerizing Strip. Those thinking they could get away from it by spending a few hours at the racetrack were mistaken.
Saturday night's Smith's Las Vegas 350 was one of the more intriguing races of the Craftsman Truck Series season to date, with action all over the 1.5-mile oval at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and a finish that left more questions unanswered.
At one point some 60 laps into the 146-lap race, one could watch a battle for the lead, a pair of former open-wheel champions (Jacques Villeneuve and Buddy Lazier) trying to work their way up from the rear and, oh yeah, championship contenders Ron Hornaday and Mike Skinner racing each other for 10th place as if it were first place.
Coming into tonight, I didn't think we had much of a shot. A couple more nights like this and we're back into the mix.
The closing laps featured Travis Kvapil and Johnny Benson, winners of six of nine races going into Vegas, racing alongside Jon Wood, who led a race-high 49 laps -- all in the second half of the race -- and appeared for a while ready to pick up his first series win since 2003.
The track's year-old variable banking helped deliver great closing laps, as Kvapil worked the outside lane against Benson and Wood, who were dueling on the inside line. But while that battle continued up front, points leader Hornaday saw his night and his lead disintegrate with a blown tire on Lap 136.
Skinner limped home in 13th, regaining the championship lead by three points over the 22nd-finishing Hornaday, but the big winner was Kvapil, third in points. His outside-groove prowess drove him to Victory Lane ahead of second-finishing Benson and third-place Wood, and he soon found out the win brought him 90 points closer to the championship lead, from 271 to 181 out.
"Coming into tonight, I didn't think we had much of a shot," Kvapil said. "A couple more nights like this and we're back into the mix."
Especially if tire issues continue to surface over the remaining six races on the schedule.
Skinner surrendered the points lead Sept. 1 at Gateway (Ill.) when he blew a tire in his Bill Davis Racing Toyota and finished a season-worst 28th. At Las Vegas he felt a tire was going down right from the outset, which turned out not to be true. Other tire concerns were valid, and the team had to dial back a bit just to get the No. 5 around the entire race.
"We were horrible, we had some tire issues in practice and we knew we were going to have issues so we made the necessary adjustments so we didn't blow tires. Unfortunately, it hurt the performance by a couple, three-tenths [of a second per lap]," crew chief Jeff Hensley said. "We had the same issues at Gateway and it bit us, and we were not going to blow a right-front tire again."
Skinner brushed the wall with 30 laps remaining, bending the lower and upper control arms on the truck, yet still got it home in one piece and on the lead lap.
"We accomplished what we needed to do, but it wasn't pretty," Hensley said.
Hornaday's tire misfortune put him a lap down, making Vegas the first race of the season where he didn't run every lap. His incident got a rise out of the estimated crowd of 45,000, as did another Chevrolet blowup sustained by local favorite Brendan Gaughan on Lap 87.
"Goodyear has not had a very good tire for about three years now," Gaughan said after finishing 30th. "These tires are rock hard and you never know what's going on with them until it's too late."
Kvapil said his Ford was dialed back like Skinner's Toyota to prevent tire problems, and luckily for him the changed setups worked. He's still a long shot for the championship, but one wonders if he may have an edge given his recent success [or just good luck] in the tire discussion.
"In the long run we're still out there making laps," Kvapil said. "You just gotta pay attention to your settings and make sure you don't abuse that tire."
Vegas comes up aces for other drivers
Six-time winner Terry Cook had his best day of 2007 at Vegas, finishing fourth in the HT Motorsports Toyota, one of many notable efforts. Fellow Toyota driver Josh Wise posted a career-best eighth last time out at New Hampshire and beat that by two spots in finishing sixth.
"We didn't qualify well [23rd], but we've improved," said Wise, of Darrell Waltrip Motorsports. "These guys keep believing and working hard at the shop, and it's showing at the racetrack."
Dennis Setzer, driving for a third different owner in as many races, finished seventh in the Bobby Hamilton Racing Dodge normally run by Ken Schrader. It was Setzer's best finish since a win in May at Mansfield, Ohio, while driving for Spears Motorsports.
Chad McCumbee had his first top-10 of the season and the first such finish for MRD Motorsports in the No. 8 Chevrolet, finishing 10th.
Larry Pryor, crew chief of the No. 29 Dodge driven by Scott Lynch, was fined $5,000 for nonconforming parts found during prerace inspection at Las Vegas. Lynch finished 19th. Kvapil's win was the 48th in the truck series for Roush Fenway. Bill Davis Racing is the closest active team with 15. Defending champion Todd Bodine led 45 of the first 70 laps but went out after 110 laps following an accident, ending a streak of 54 races without a DNF. The Germain Racing driver last went out early in a race at Memphis in July 2005. Bobby Hamilton holds the record for consecutive races without a DNF, 65 from 2003 to '05.
John Schwarb is a freelance journalist covering motorsports and a contributor to ESPN.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Travis Kvapil is still a long shot to win the truck title, but at least he's within striking distance after a big victory in Vegas, writes John Schwarb.