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Hot/Not: Fresh tires? Not a hot commodity for NASCAR in 2013

Matt Kenseth won Sunday's race without the aid of fresh tires on a late pit stop

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At the risk of getting popped with a $25,000 fine, let's dive into NASCAR's weekend in Las Vegas where the cars were hard to handle and the gambling puns were used at every ... deal. Whoops! I meant the cars were as great as a heater on the Strip, the racing was like turning over a Royal Flush and Denny Hamlin made plans for a very nice charitable donation to the NASCAR Foundation. That Hamlin ... what a nice guy.

What's that, NASCAR? Oh, alright, I'll get that check in the mail to Daytona Beach as soon as possible.

Toward the end of the Sunday's Sprint Cup live race chat held here, your favorite source for all things NASCAR and airline baggage lost-and-found tips, one commenter made a humorous observation about how well Matt Kenseth's car was handling despite racing on old tires. Kenseth, with just a fuel-only stop late in the race, held off Kasey Kahne to win Sunday’s race.

"I think Kenseth has those specially treated tires that Gordon had in the mid-'90s," commenter FoDaddy proclaimed, at once being quasi-vintage NASCAR, jocular and cynically astute. As a co-moderator of the weekly, wildly shifting yet always entertaining live-race discussion (in our world, a guy named Flatline won Sunday's race) I had to push FoDaddy's point into the river of thoughtfulness and thoughtlessness.

The comment was reference to a controversy that erupted in 1998 after Jeff Gordon won his 36th career race, this won at New Hampshire, after making a late two-tire stop and beating teams – most notably Mark Martin – whom had stopped for four tires. Martin's team owner Jack Roush accused Gordon and crew chief Ray Evernham of soaking tires with a solution that gave them more grip. Evernham and Roush squabbled after the race in the garage and NASCAR ultimately took tires from both teams for tests.

Nothing was found, and the controversy soon passed.

In today's NASCAR, such a disagreement or accusation seems nearly unimaginable. Fresh tires just don't carry the same significance to a race's outcome at most tracks.

Sure, there's the occasional round of blowouts – Goodyear attributed the rash of problems at Phoenix last week to improper brake cooling and poor setup decisions on the new car at a flat track – but the small sample size of 2013 has shown (and much of the past few seasons, frankly) that teams are betting on track position rather than fresh tire grip much more often.

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Matt Kenseth (20) leads Kasey Kahne (5) during the final laps of the Kobalt Tools 400. (AP)

Tires haven't been an issue at Daytona since the pristine repave of NASCAR's Augusta National. Last week at Phoenix, Carl Edwards knew he had all but won the race when he beat Dale Earnhardt Jr. off pit road during the final pit stop. And Sunday at Las Vegas? Not even Kasey Kahne with the strongest car in the event could overcome Matt Kenseth once the No. 20 took gas only on the final pit stop and held the lead after a stressful late restart.

"Honestly, I was grinning inside as I was leaving pit road," Kenseth said.

Kahne had bolted two fresh right tires on the car during the same stop but never could get alongside Kenseth – a symptom of Kenseth's track position advantage, artful driving to keep Kahne out of his preferred line and the relative equality that NASCAR's Goodyears seem to have after a lap or two.

The tires used Sunday at Las Vegas were the same ones used a year ago at the track, a sign that tire supplier Goodyear was playing it cautious with the compound used under NASCAR's new car design. It's also indicative of Goodyear taking an informed guess to build the 3,250 tires needed in time for the race. By being cautious and aware of what NASCAR officials and teams are currently demanding, Goodyear makes the smart business play in the arena that they care about most: public relations.

It's also seemed to diminish the effect of one of NASCAR's best race-altering (and race-tightening) variables. Zero-, two- and four-tire pit stops should count for more in NASCAR – even at the risk of sounding the typically poor "like it used to be" lament. Bringing in the strategy and encouraging more gambling with tires should bring returns that are more noticeable. It may be the strongest and simplest step in curing what ills do exist with both the current and previous car.

Until then, expect many races to be decided where fans see it the least: pit road.

HOT: Kenseth may have used a crafty call taking no tires late in the race, but he also drove remarkably in the final stint to hold Kahne. Kahne's strongest move of the day was to cut down the track at mid-corner, enabling him a blazing run off the corner. Kenseth smartly kept his car in position to fend off such a move.

NEUTRAL: Crashing isn't the point of racing, but for all the talk of high speeds and on-the-edge racing, it seemed unusual that just two cars lost control in Sunday's race and only one actually spun.

HOT: With Sunday's seventh-place finish, you've now watched the strongest three-race start to a season for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

NEUTRAL: Green-flag racing often means seemingly endless commercials in NASCAR TV land, and Sunday was no exception. The sequence in the middle of the race where a commercial break led to the always-awful AT&T mid-race report and then again to nearly back-to-back commercial breaks nearly made me switch the channel. How many people without a devout interest in the race actually did?

NOT: A key stat used by both NASCAR and those critical of the Gen-6 as a racing vehicle in the past two weeks has been NASCAR's loop data creation known as "Green Flag Passes." The stat illustrates every time a car passes another car in between the 10-plus scoring loops embedded around each track. At Phoenix, it was used to demonstrate how the 2013 race was apparently much worse than 2012 because there were more than 700 fewer passes. At Las Vegas, it was used to demonstrate how much better the racing was because there were more than 1,000 more green-flag passes.

The problem is that these numbers can be skewed heavily by both rounds of green-flag pit stops and restarts. The metric is nice, but it's not the end-all, be-all of the quality of a race. NASCAR's "quality passes" statistic measures the number of green-flag passes in the top 15 of an event. It's not perfect, but it's a start.

Sunday's Las Vegas race featured 14 more passes in the top 15 than 2012. At Phoenix? This year's Phoenix race had some 491 fewer passes in the top 15.

HOT: Kasey Kahne was the strongest Hendrick Motorsports car for most of the day Sunday. I'd put him in my top five once the season reaches Homestead, I think.

NOT: Last year's Las Vegas winner Tony Stewart shared a common frame of view with another former Las Vegas winner in Jeff Gordon on Sunday: Both just never had a fast car. Stewart rallied to an 11th-place finish despite an average running position of 20th while Gordon wandered home 25th after a late pit gamble soured.

HOT: Sam Hornish Jr. looked awfully strong in Sunday's Nationwide race, didn't he? There aren't many drivers who hold off Kyle Busch when the checkered flag is near.

HOT: Speaking of Kyle Busch, what's not to love about his three-wide move to grab the lead on a restart Sunday? What's it going to take for more drivers to have the capability to make such thrilling moves?

NOT: That Darrell Waltrip opened Sunday's telecast agreeing with NASCAR's decision to penalize Denny Hamlin wasn't surprising. Waltrip, whether you agree or disagree with his approach, has long been on NASCAR's side since joining the television booth. It was remarkable, though, to hear the driver formerly known as "Jaws" for his witty banter and non-stop candor to say that a driver today should "work your hands and not your mouth."

Pot, this is Kettle.

NOT: Denny Hamlin's fine from NASCAR for apparently denigrating the racing product after Phoenix was ill-advised and short-sighted. I doubt he'll win the appeal, but his effort in trying is noble. That said, it's sure interesting how his fine shifted the attention from another high-profile and mainstream controversy in the sport last week.

Stenica Showdown Cup

We're keeping track each week of how NASCAR's most important (only?) competitive couple does against one another. This is a best-of-36 race, with the highest-finishing Sprint Cup result between Danica Patrick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. each week earning a point. Other points may be earned for various and completely inane reasons along the way (suggestions accepted), and the game ends if the couple uncouples.

Current standings:

1st – Ricky Stenhouse Jr., 2 points (18th at Las Vegas)

2nd – Danica Patrick., 1 point (33rd at Las Vegas)

Another point at Bristol for Stenhouse and he's officially on a streak.

Next up: Bristol. Join us on the Yahoo! Sports NASCAR Live Chat at 1 p.m. ET on Sunday.

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