Updated at: 03/09/2013 9:09 PM
By GREG BEACHAM
(AP) LAS VEGAS - 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 1.5-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.
"A fast, high-banked, 1.5-mile track with some real challenges _ that’s what competitors love," Jeff Gordon said. "They love a good challenge. The competition always seems to come out here."
The teams learned plenty from a lengthy practice session Thursday, and most expect to use that knowledge Sunday.
Kyle Busch also gathered valuable knowledge with a second-place finish in Saturday’s Nationwide Series race on the sprawling track on the north side of his desert hometown.
Busch has trepidation about the bumpy, sunbaked track, but he’s hoping for better results after his strong Nationwide effort.
"I think it helps, feeling like you have a good car versus struggling, being 30th or something like that, not looking forward to the day," Busch said. "We are, and we have, a good car. The guys worked hard Thursday here, and we made a lot of gains on some things then. ... I wish we could have qualified (for Sunday). I think we’d be starting a little bit further forward, but we’ll see what we have in store for us when the green flag drops."
(Copyright 2013 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)