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Auto racing notes: Drivers seek momentum in Vegas

| Saturday, March 9, 2013, 8:42 p.m.

Maybe Denny Hamlin can channel his fury over his $25,000 fine from NASCAR into a fast finish at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Hamlin got docked for his pessimistic comments about the new Gen-6 car, and his anger over the decision overshadowed the week leading up to NASCAR's third race in an already interesting season.

While Hamlin stewed and refused to pay the fine, most drivers think Sunday is their first real chance to test their new rides on the intermediate tracks they're built to race.

The Vegas race is a bit too early in the season for gambling, however. While most teams are still brimming with optimism after the first two races of the season at Daytona and Phoenix, some drivers think it's not too early to start worrying about the overall standings.

“It's so important to get that momentum and the points base established,” Clint Bowyer said. “We've already seen teams struggle the very first two races and get themselves behind.”

Brad Keselowski was awarded the Vegas pole after rain scrubbed Friday's qualifying session, putting him in prime position for his first top-10 finish in Vegas.

“The way our car has been running the last two weeks and off of what I saw in practice, I feel like we're in position to hopefully keep (first place) for a very long time in this race and hopefully close it out,” Keselowski said.

After coming in third in Phoenix, Hamlin clearly knows what he's doing in the new car despite his worries about the car's development. But so does Jimmie Johnson, the four-time Las Vegas champion who followed up his Daytona 500 victory with a second-place finish last week.

“One-one would be dominant,” said Johnson, the only active driver averaging a top-10 finish in Vegas. “One-two is competitive.”

There's no shortage of star power in Las Vegas. Defending champion Tony Stewart could use a strong effort after a slow start in the first two races, while Danica Patrick will start 37th.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will hope to continue two solid streaks: two top-five finishes already this season and 10 straight top-10 finishes on 1 12-mile tracks.

Last week's race in Phoenix got mixed reviews with many drivers and fans bored by the single-file racing and relative lack of passing action.

But several drivers found the race compelling and competitive, particularly since they're still figuring out what their new cars can do — and Vegas' bump-filled tri-oval should maximize the Gen-6 car's strengths.

The teams learned plenty from a lengthy practice session Thursday, and most expect to use that knowledge Sunday.

Hornish wins Nationwide

It wasn't Sam Hornish Jr.'s first NASCAR win. It may be his most important, though.

Hornish, a former IndyCar Series and Indianapolis 500 champion, has struggled during a good deal of his NASCAR career but early in the 2013 Nationwide Series season, he is clearly the class of the field.

Hornish led 114 of the 200 laps and held off a late charge from Kyle Busch to win Saturday's Sam's Town 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and cement his hold atop the series standings.

“When you have a car that's this good, you're always worried something bad is going to happen or you're going to get caught up in somebody else's problem. It was just an awesome day,” an emotional Hornish said from Victory Lane.

“It was tough to be patient but at the end of the day we knew that our car was really good and I feel like we could have taken some chances. The car could run anywhere on the race track.”

The win is Hornish's second in the series. His first came Nov. 12, 2011, at Phoenix. He finished a career-best fourth in the Nationwide standings last season but failed to win a race.

Brian Vickers finished third, Trevor Bayne was fourth and Elliott Sadler finished fifth. After three races, Hornish holds a 19-point lead over those in second place — Sadler, Justin Allgaier and Brian Scott.

Patrick hurting

Danica Patrick is sore this week but not just from her vicious wreck in last Sunday's Sprint Cup race at Phoenix.

Patrick said she was left with a headache and stiff neck following her wreck when her right-front tire blew and she slammed into the Turn 4 wall and then the car of driver David Ragan.

If that wasn't enough, Patrick said she also got hit in the head Thursday night by a rock while attending a race at a local dirt track.

“I feel like I got a concussion last night when I got hit with a rock at the dirt track,” Patrick said. “It's really sore. It hit me straight in the head, and I went to the ground.”

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