The first week of a three week span out west kicks off this weekend in the Nevada desert. All three divisions of NASCAR will take to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for a triple-header weekend which starts on Friday night with the Truck Series and ends on Sunday evening with the NASCAR Cup Series.
Following a big Daytona Speedweeks and the recent news that Ryan Newman was released from the hospital, can the momentum of Daytona carry over out west?
Aero Package Has Promoted Clean Racing
Vegas, was recently repaved and that mixed with the new aero package meant some clean racing. The track has more lanes to race on, but the horsepower is down from 750 to 550 still and the spoiler is also still raised. The aero ducts are in place as well again.
Last year’s race saw two caution flags fly — both for stage breaks. In the race in 2018, we saw only four cautions fly for just 29 laps. In the playoff race last year, we only saw four more yellows, half for stage breaks too, for 22 combined yellow flag laps.
That’s why I can see another clean race on Sunday.
Vegas Dominance Has Been Precursor For Future Season Success
Over the past three NASCAR Cup Series seasons, the spring race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a precursor to how the rest of the campaign will go. In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. led 150 of the 267 laps in the Cup race en route to a dominating victory. He’d go on to win seven more times that season including the championship as well.
In 2018, Kevin Harvick won his first of eight trips to victory lane in the March race in Vegas as he led 214 laps that day. No one won as many races in 2018 as Harvick.
Joey Logano won last Spring and would march to fifth in the final standings at the end of the year.
Martin Truex Jr. has won 12 races on 1.5-mile tracks since 2016, nearly two times as much as the next closest driver. Furthermore, four drivers have combined to win 24 of the 33 races on 1.5-mile tracks since 2017: Truex (10), Kevin Harvick (6), Kyle Busch (4) and Brad Keselowski (4).
Stage 2 Success
Here’s a strange but true stat, the second stage winner at Vegas has won all five races under the stage racing era.
Vegas Wins For The Grown Folks
Joey Logano’s spring win last year was the first time that a Cup winner was under the age of 30 in any of the last 12 races run at the track. The recent trend shows that the drivers over the age of 30 will be contending for the win on Sunday.
West Coast Swing With 3 Different Tracks
NASCAR wizened up a few years ago and paired Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana together. Why go west, east then west again. Also, with the second year of this aero package, we’re set to see three straight weeks of three different types of tracks.
Now, instead of waiting until race No. 3 to head west, the west coast swing moves up to the weekend after Daytona.
Sunday will be a somewhat recently paved 1.5-mile track in Vegas. Next Sunday will be a 1.015-mile short oval in the desert at Phoenix with a slight change from last year’s package. The following Sunday after that will be a wide 2-mile, D-shaped oval at Fontana with a ton of speed but on the second oldest surface in NASCAR.
No race will be the same on this west coast trip, meaning that we won’t get a full grasp on who will be strong this year or not until likely after the race at Homestead in mid March.
Penske Ones To Watch
Team Penske won the playoff race last year in Vegas. They went 1-2 in the return trip this past March. Can they earn a third win in the last four tries this weekend?
Brad Keselowski has three straight top three finishes in Vegas to go along with nine consecutive top seven finishes there overall.
Joey Logano is the defending race winner and has eight straight top 10 finishes in Vegas himself.
Ryan Blaney has five top seven finishes in his last six starts in Vegas.
Almirola A Sleeper
He hasn’t won since October 2018, but Almirola is always strong in Vegas. Since he joined SHR, the Florida native has three top 10 finishes in four tires with a worst result being 13th.
Ford’s Ones To Beat
Ford’s looked fast last weekend in Daytona and are heading to one of their better track in Vegas. They’ve won three of the last four spring races on the 1.5-mile track including four of the last five overall too.
The three Team Penske drivers as well as the entire SHR fleet should be the among the favorites.
Usual Suspects Should Win
Over the last eight Cup races in Vegas, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano have combined to win them all.
Also, Penske, SHR and JGR/Furniture Row have won the last 10 Vegas races. The last non team of them to win? Roush/Fenway Racing (Carl Edwards) in 2011.
Watch Out For HMS
Chase Elliott had a quick car all weekend during the playoff race in Vegas and would bring his No. 9 Chevrolet home fourth. The Georgia native was in the top 10 in both single lap and 10 lap averages in both practice sessions too. He even qualified in the top 10 as well.
“It was a solid top five,” Elliott said after scoring his second career top five on the Vegas race track. “I feel like we finally got our car going pretty good the last two or three runs, which was good, and a good time to do it. We just got some damage on the restart and he had to come down to pit road and fix it. We just couldn’t take a chance on cutting a tire. I felt like we were closer today than we have been the past few weeks, so that was nice. Hopefully, we can have cars like that for the next nine weeks. … We finally got it going pretty good there at the end, I felt like.”
I’m actually more impressed with Alex Bowman and William Byron though. Bowman, finished sixth in his No. 88 Chevrolet for his best finish on the season last year since his win at the Chicagoland Speedway on June 30.
“We just didn’t fire off very good,” Bowman said. “As the race ran, we got our car much better. I think kind of the in between from day to night was the best we were. When it grouped up there at the end, it helped out some of the other cars. But, proud of my guys. I wish we would have gotten some more stage points, but we’ll take sixth. I think we ran about where we should have run. Avoiding some of the mess was definitely a good thing. I’m just proud of our guys and we didn’t have any issues.”
Despite a solid run, Bowman was frustrated to leave so many stage points on the table.
“Just not getting stage points, really,” Bowman continued. “That’s frustrating. The racing is tough. You just get blocked, guys changing lanes. It’s just super frustrating, but everybody has to do it. That’s just part of it. Overall, it wasn’t too bad of a day.”
For Byron, he overcame a midrace incident to still finish seventh in his No. 24 Chevrolet. For Byron, it was his third top eight finish in his last five starts on the year then.
“Getting back to seventh was great (after spinning earlier),” Byron said. “It’s really good. We got a chance to get up front, restarted fourth and had a good restart. Felt we had a lot of good starts and restarts. … Overall, not bad and we’ll move on to Richmond and move on from there.”
HMS went 4-6-7-11 and looked improved at Daytona.
Qualifying Setups Or Race Setups?
First off, this could be a completely moot point based off the weather forecast that is out for Saturday. If mother nature rears her ugly head Saturday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, then this whole story if for not and would be revisited on the next impound race.
But, if weather does cooperate and all 38 NASCAR Cup Series drivers do get to take to the 1.5-mile Nevada race track on Saturday afternoon for qualifying to set the field for Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 (3:30 p.m. ET/FOX/PRN), then this point is completely relevant — race setups vs. qualifying setups.
See, we found a big trend on impound races last year and that’s the drivers that elected for race speed over qualifying speed, may have gave up a good starting spot, but they were up front when it mattered the most – the end.
An impound race means, the drivers will have two practices, the only two practices of the weekend by the way, on a Friday. Then, they’ll qualify on Saturday and the cars will be impounded until the race on Sunday. That means, once they qualify, you can’t touch them. You essentially race what you qualified on.
Last year, we thought track position at most places would be a bigger key than faster race pace and at some venues it was. But, on 1.5-mile tracks and even some short tracks, qualifying with a good “race car” and not necessarily a fast short run car, was the equation for success.
Just look at the starting positions of the top five finishes in last year’s playoff race in Vegas. 24th, 3rd, 18th, 8th and 23rd respectively. What about sixth through 10th?
19th, 14th, 15th, 22nd and 17th respectively.
Eight of the top 10 finishers came from Row 7 on back. That’s saying something. Qualifying was a bit of fools gold.
See, the Stewart-Haas Racing cars grabbed the top four starting spots last September. They elected for qualifying speed in hoping that the weekend’s race on the 1.5-mile track would reward clean air. The others went for true race pace.
You can tell which strategy worked.
That’s why Kevin Harvick’s runner-up result was eye opening. He and his team made the right amount of adjustments all night to be the only guy that started five to nab a top 10 at the end of the race.
“We always want to win, but these guys just did a great job,” Harvick said after scoring his third top four in the last four Vegas races last September. “We were way off when we got here this weekend and they just kept working. We qualified well, weren’t where we wanted to be when we started the race, got stage points and led there late and gave us an opportunity. I knew the Gibbs cars would be tough and Martin (Truex Jr.) was just so tough in the second half of the run. He had made up that ground and was able to stay close to us.”
Look at what race winner Martin Truex Jr. had to say.
“We took a gamble and qualified 24th and for a while there, it wasn’t looking too smart with the 4 (Kevin Harvick) out there in front,” said Truex. “But we got the right adjustments at the end, had a great car all day long.”
Clint Bowyer earned his first pole since 2007 and just the third of his career on Saturday but his race car was junk on Sunday. He’d come home 25th.
“We just weren’t very good tonight,” Bowyer said after his string of three straight top 10 finishes came to an end. “We were just off. Off in all areas.”
The third SHR driver in Aric Almirola was happy with stage points but admitted his car fell off like his teammates as the race went on.
“The car wasn’t 100% perfect and we still managed to go up there and lead the race and score stage points,” Almirola said. “I think we finished third in Stage 1 and scored a fair amount of stage points. After Stage 1 we kind of lost the handle on the car and lost some track position and it because even more of a handful. We dug deep and fought hard and got out of here with a decent finish. Our Smithfield Ford Mustang showed some signs of strength tonight and we just lost a little bit of the handle on it.”
The same can be said for what happened on the other impound races after that. The drivers that elected for qualifying speed struggled to contend in the race itself.
In Richmond, the very next week following Vegas last year, only two of the top six finishers even started inside of the top five.
In Kansas, another 1.5-mile track like Vegas that also was an impound race, the starting spots of the top 10 finishers were – 23rd, 14th, 18th, 15th, 25th, 11th, 20th, 21st, 40th and 12th.
11th through 18th? 16th, 28th, 26th, 5th, 27th, 19th, 29th and 22nd.
Just one car that started in the top 10 finished in the top 18.
This weekend is an impound race. They’ll practice twice on Friday, qualify on Saturday, race on Sunday.
Martin Truex Jr. (+500) – We will see how the transition from Cole Pearn to James Small works this weekend in Vegas. This, not Daytona, is their first true test together. Truex, won the last time we were in Vegas (September) and has eight straight top 11 finishes on the 1.5-mile track including five top four efforts and two wins.
Kyle Busch (+500) – Busch may have only finished 19th in the playoff race last September, but he did have three straight top seven finishes prior including two of those three being in the top three. While he hasn’t won at his home track in his last 11 starts, that could end on Sunday.
Kevin Harvick (+500) – Another good driver here. Harvick, has three top four finishes in his last four Vegas starts including a win in this race in 2018 and a runner-up last Fall.
Brad Keselowski (+600) – He has three straight top three finishes in Vegas to go along with nine consecutive top seven finishes there overall.
Joey Logano (+650) – is the defending race winner and has eight straight top 10 finishes in Vegas himself.
Denny Hamlin (+700) – It’s tough for a Daytona 500 champion to back up his title with a win a week later. Hamlin, won in dramatic fashion on Monday evening and is heading to not one of his better track in Vegas. He hasn’t scored a top five finish in each of his last six Vegas starts and even the fifth place run that he had in 2015, is his lone top five on the 1.5-mile track in his last 14 tries.
Erik Jones (+2500) – Great odds for a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota but Jones has one top 10 finish in six Vegas tries.
Kurt Busch (+2500) – The hometown driver finished fifth in this race last year but that’s his lone top five in his last 15 Vegas starts. In fact, seven of his last nine starts there have seen him finish 20th or worse.
Clint Bowyer (+4000) – He hasn’t led a lap in Vegas since 2012. The Kansas native has one top 10 in his last nine starts on the Nevada race track with six of those nine finishes coming 20th or worse.
Kyle Larson (+1200) – He’s been good at Vegas in the past with four top eight finishes in his last five tries including three of which being in the top three (2 runner-ups).
Chase Elliott (+1300) – Vegas didn’t used to be one of Elliott’s better tracks. In three of his first four starts there, he finished 34th or worse. Last year, he was ninth in this race and fourth in the fall.
Ryan Blaney (+2000) – has five top seven finishes in his last six starts in Vegas. He’s coming off of an emotional runner-up finish this past week in Daytona.
William Byron (+2500) – He’s poised for another breakout year and following a disappointing Daytona 500 on Monday, he’s ready to contend. Byron, finished seventh in the race last fall as HMS went 4-6-7-11.
Jimmie Johnson (+2500) – His last five finishes are 11th, 12th, 22nd, 19th and 11th respectively. He’s also riding a 96 race winless streak. But, HMS appears to be running better and at one point, Johnson was the king of Vegas.
Alex Bowman (+2500) – Why not put all four HMS drivers on this list? Bowman, won on a similar 1.5-mile track at Chicagoland last year. He finished 11th in this race last March and sixth last September.
Aric Almirola (+3300) – He had a fast car in Daytona and enters with scoring three top 10 finishes in four Vegas tries since he joined SHR in 2018.
Matt DiBenedetto (+6600) – We know the Penske’s are good here, why not their alliance car? Paul Menard drove this car to four straight top 15 finishes in as many tries in the No. 21 Ford. That should boost DiBenedetto who has never finished in the top 20 in Vegas in six tries.
Austin Dillon (+10000) – Worth a look here. Dillon, finished 12th last fall and has four top 13 finishes in his last six Vegas tries including a fifth place finish in this race in 2016.
Chris Buescher (+20000) – Long odds for a driver that is coming off of a third place run in Daytona and driving the car that finished sixth in last year’s race. Buescher’s last four Vegas finishes were 15th in both races in 2018 and 18th in 2019. With a better car, watch out.
Head to Head
All these involve Denny Hamlin who’s struggled in recent years at Vegas.
Kyle Busch (-125) vs. Denny Hamlin (-106)
Busch has three top seven finishes, two of which being in the top three, in his last four Vegas starts. Hamlin, hasn’t scored a top five finish in each of his last six Vegas starts and even the fifth place run that he had in 2015, is his lone top five on the 1.5-mile track in his last 14 tries. A Daytona 500 winner hasn’t won the second race of the season too since 2009.
Advantage: Busch (-125)
Kevin Harvick (-125) vs. Denny Hamlin (-106)
Harvick, has three top four finishes in his last four Vegas starts including a win in this race in 2018 and a runner-up last Fall. Hamlin meanwhile, has one top five in his last 14 Vegas starts.
Advantage: Harvick (-125)
Denny Hamlin (-115) vs. Joey Logano (-115)
Logano, is the defending race winner and has eight straight top 10 finishes in Vegas himself.
Advantage: Logano (-115)
Denny Hamlin (-115) vs. Brad Keselowski (-115)
Keselowski, has three straight top three finishes in Vegas to go along with nine consecutive top seven finishes there overall.
Advantage: Keselowski (-115)
Manufacturer Of Winning Car
Ford (+175) – Ford’s looked fast last weekend in Daytona and are heading to one of their better track in Vegas. They’ve won three of the last four spring races on the 1.5-mile track including four of the last five overall too. Chevy (+225) hasn’t won in Vegas since 2015 as that’s their lone win since 2013 there.