- Terry Blount, ESPN Staff Writer
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LAS VEGAS -- A big race is coming Sunday -- an important race, the one all the Sprint Cup teams have been waiting for since the season started, not that anyone would know it.
For the second consecutive week, NASCAR managed to make off-the-track controversy far bigger news than anything happening on the track.
Can't we all just get along and race? Apparently not.
Last week, it was the suspension of little-known Nationwide Series driver Jeremy Clements for a racially insensitive remark.
This week started with the NRA sponsorship of the Texas Motor Speedway race in April (not a NASCAR decision but a move by TMS) that brought plenty of pro and con comments nationally.
And the coup de grace came Thursday when NASCAR fined Denny Hamlin $25,000 for making relatively mild critical comments about the new Gen-6 Cup car.
"I think we brought more light to the situation by the fine," Jeff Gordon said of NASCAR's decision. "I question that, but at the same time, we are all in this together to grow this sport."
You have to hand it to NASCAR. It has an uncanny knack for shooting itself in the headlight decals. The show on the racetrack just can't seem to top the continuing sideshow off of it.
Oh, I almost forgot. Danica Patrick got hit in the head with a rock Thursday while watching a dirt-track race. You can't make this stuff up, folks.
She's fine, but at this point, I'm looking for a possible asteroid to rain down on Las Vegas Motor Speedway at the green flag. Well, at least it wouldn't be controversial.
Despite all that craziness, this is a race you don't want to miss. It's the first time for the Gen-6 on a 1.5-mile oval, the kind that constitutes the heart of the Cup schedule. Eleven of 36 championship races take place on these speedways that many people call cookie-cutter tracks -- an untrue moniker, but as we've learned this week, perception is everything.
Nevertheless, this is a major test for the Gen-6.
"I expect to see some side-by-side racing here,'' Jimmie Johnson said. "We're still learning a lot on how the car wants to be set up. The air is really swirling around these cars, and they drive a lot different. There will be a lot of learning going on come Sunday."
It's only the third race in the new car, but it's these tracks more than any other where fans hope to see better racing.
Sunday (3 p.m. ET, Fox) marks the 16th time the Cup series will race in Sin City. No previous Vegas race had the intense scrutiny this one will bring.
People are watching and wondering: Can this car live up to its billing where it matters the most?
That question is blatantly unfair. It's way too soon to pass judgment, but the question will get asked, and many people will make assessments based on how things go in this event.
"The one thing you guys have to understand, when we built this new car, not one came with an instruction manual," Tony Stewart said. "It's literally a work in progress. I think it's off to a great start and has great potential. Everybody is going to keep learning."
Friday's practice sessions and qualifying were rained out, but that's no excuse for going into the event without knowing a few things about how the cars will perform here.
NASCAR gave the teams an extra day of practice on Thursday, more than six hours on the track. The Cup teams had two more hours of practice Saturday.
"I was kind of glad to see it rain," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Friday. "We practiced enough, like 12 hours [eight and a half hours, actually]. I'm ready to race."
Everyone is, especially here -- NASCAR's version of a debutante ball for the Gen-6.
However, no matter what the drivers say about it when the race ends, will you be able believe them?
NASCAR's draconian rule, shown once again with Hamlin's fine, has all the drivers fearful about what they can and cannot say. The message this week was clear: Comments critical of the Gen-6, true or untrue, will not be tolerated.
"It is a divisive topic, for sure," said Cup champion Brad Keselowski, who starts on the pole Sunday. "I think every driver is a little reluctant to spend a lot of time talking about it because there is no winner. I don't think that's the conversation the sport needs right now."
What the sport needs is a week when racing tops off-the-track controversy. If Las Vegas provides that Sunday, everyone goes home a winner.