Column By: HOLLY CAIN / LAS VEGAS, NV – The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series begins its 10-race Playoff run with this Sunday’s South Point Hotel and Casino 400 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – the first time the 1.5-mile oval has hosted the Playoff opener.
All members of the Cup Series’ “Big 3” have strong resumes at the track. Kevin Harvick won here in March – part of a three-race winning streak. Martin Truex Jr. won here in 2017, the same year he also claimed the 2017 Playoff opener (then at Chicago). And Busch, who has led the standings for the last 21 weeks, won at his hometown track in 2009.
The threesome come to the first round – which also includes races at the 3/4-mile Richmond, Va. oval and the debut of the Charlotte Motor Speedway infield road course – ranked first through third in the standings.
Busch, who has six wins and 21 top-10 finishes through the season’s first 26 races won the regular season trophy on Monday following the rain-delayed race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.
Harvick, who has a series best seven wins, is tied in points with Busch heading into Vegas. And Truex, who crashed out at Indy, is third in the standings with four wins. It’s been a season-long three-race “winning drought” for those three drivers with Kurt Busch (Bristol, Tenn.) and Penske Racing’s Brad Keselowski (at Darlington, S.C. and Indy) claiming the wins on the eve of the Playoffs.
The final four members of the 16 drivers to advance to the playoffs include Denny Hamlin, Aric Almirola, seven-time Cup champion – and four-time Las Vegas winner – Jimmie Johnson and his Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman. All of them are looking for their first victory of the season. The bottom four drivers in the rankings following the Charlotte race will be eliminated from the playoffs.
Playoff Time Approaches for Xfinity
The DC Solar 300 on Saturday (5 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) marks the final regular season race for the Xfinity Series with three Playoff positions still to be firmed up, technically. Five-race winner Justin Allgaier leads the points by 49 over Cole Custer, who has 20 top-10 finishes but is still looking for his first 2018 victory.
Rookie Christopher Bell, 23, has four race wins and is third in the standings, trailing Allgaier by 52 points. After leading the standings for four weeks this summer, the Joe Gibbs Racing driver has finishes of 23rd or worse in two of the last three races. He won the pole position, however, and finished runner-up to Kyle Larson in the Vegas race in March.
Others to have already clinched a postseason berth include Daniel Hemric, Elliott Sadler, Brandon Jones, Matt Tifft and Ryan Truex. Saturday’s race will formalize the final three spots in the Playoff rankings, which are currently filled by Ryan Reed, Ross Chastain and Austin Cindric. A win by a championship-eligible driver outside of the 12 listed above would push one of those three out of contention.
Round Two for Trucks
The Camping World Truck Series returns to Playoff competition Friday night in the World of Westgate 200 (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). Justin Haley, 19, won the Playoff opener on the Canadian Tire Motorsports Park road course two weeks ago and has assured himself a position in the Round of 6.
Defending series champion Johnny Sauter (2009) and Ben Rhoades (2017) are the only two Playoff drivers with previous victories at the Vegas 1.5-miler. Sauter has seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts here.
Cup championship co-leader Kyle Busch won here in March but is not entered this weekend. Four drivers among the top-five in that race are current Playoff drivers – runner-up Sauter, Brett Moffitt, Grant Enfinger and Stewart Friesen.