Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – The NASCAR Cup Series begins Round of 12 of the 2020 Playoffs with Sunday night’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and the most recent track record of reference points to a certain foursome as a good bet.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano won at Las Vegas in March, just before the sport paused for the COVID-19 pandemic. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. is the defending winner of this week’s Playoff race on the 1.5-mile high banks and these two drivers join current championship leader Kevin Harvick and Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski to make up the dominant quartet responsible for the last nine victories in Las Vegas.
They also currently make up four of the top six positions in the Playoff standings – reset for this round of Playoff competition at Las Vegas, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and the Charlotte ROVAL.
Sunday’s 400-miler is important beyond face value. A win automatically advances a Playoff driver to the Round of 8 – but this venue is far more predictable than the upcoming Talladega Superspeedway-style of racing and the nuance of the three-year old Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course. Many drivers are setting their sights on a good run at Vegas instead of gambling on their fortunes at the more unpredictable venues like Talladega and Charlotte.
Harvick certainly has made it look easy in the Playoffs earning wins in two of the three Playoff-opening races (Darlington, S.C. and Bristol, Tenn.). His nine victories in 2020 – with seven races remaining in the season – is already a career-best mark for the 2014 series champ. And there is no reason to believe he slows down in Las Vegas, where he has two career wins, and has finished first (2018) or second (2019) in the last two Playoff races. He’s led 455 laps in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in just the last five Las Vegas races.
“I think for us you just want to keep doing what you’re doing,” said Harvick, who has three wins in the last six races this year and led more than 200 laps in two of those victories (at Dover, Del. and Bristol, Tenn.).
“You don’t want to get out of rhythm, you don’t want to start thinking about what could happen or what did happen. You just go and do what you do on a week-to-week basis, climb in the car, drive it as hard as you can. The guys are going to put what they think is the best setup in the car for that particular week, and everybody wants to achieve the same goal, so nobody is trying to have a bad night or a slow car.
“Everybody is coming to the racetrack trying to do everything that we can, but the thing I can tell you is when things aren’t going 100 percent correctly on a race weekend, we’ve got a great group of guys on pit road, we’ve got a great group of guys back at home helping us and on the pit box and doing all the things that it takes to try to climb back in the race or strategize our way back in the race.”
Harvick holds a 19-point advantage over Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin pulling into the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Hamlin, a six-time winner in 2020, is looking to find his footing again in the Playoffs after failing to earn a single top 10 in the opening three-race round – despite leading laps. He has never won at Las Vegas and has only a pair of top-five finishes in 17 starts. His best showing in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is a fifth place back in 2015.
Hamlin does bring a certain positive energy out West with him this week, however. He and his longtime friend, NBA legend Michael Jordan announced Wednesday that they are starting a NASCAR Cup Series team for the 2021 season. While many details are still forthcoming, they have already tabbed fan favorite Bubba Wallace to drive the car – news met with a lot of enthusiasm.
That feel-good vibe could certainly be put to good use this weekend as Hamlin continues to compete for his first series championship.
“It’s been a tough track for me in the past, but I enjoy the process of trying to get better at places where I haven’t necessarily run well,” Hamlin said of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “I’m confident our team will bring a fast FedEx Camry and put us in a good position to win and advance. We didn’t have the best first round, but now our focus is all on the Round of 12 and to work toward a championship. We’ve had fast cars, but there are still areas of improvement that we are working on.”
XFINITY PLAYOFFS BEGIN AT LAS VEGAS
One of the most thrilling seasons in NASCAR Xfinity Series history officially begins its Playoff push in Saturday’s Alsco 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) with a field of 12 title-eligible drivers all looking to hoist the Xfinity championship trophy for the first time.
And despite the fact that Chase Briscoe (seven wins) and Austin Cindric (five wins) have combined for 12 wins – nearly half the 26-race total to date – these two competitors still insist the 2020 championship feels completely up-for-grabs.
The only fulltime Ford drivers, Briscoe and Cindric start the Playoff run tied in points. Cindric won the regular season title and 15-point bonus for doing so. Briscoe equals him in the standings thanks to the two extra race wins. And one of those wins includes a 2.8-second victory over Cindric at Las Vegas in March before the sport shuttered for COVID-19 precautions.
Briscoe led a race best 89 of the 200 laps. Cindric led 39 laps and Justin Allgaier, who is third in the championship – only 17 points behind the points-leading pair, led 63 laps in March. These three championship frontrunners led all but nine laps in that race and that’s a strong statement as cars grid on Saturday.
“I would love to say ‘yes,’ but I don’t know if you can really pick a favorite right now,” said Briscoe, driver of the No. 98 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. “I think this year has been so, everybody hits their moment and at different times. It’s been really streaky.
“You look at us, we won five out of the first 12 and then Cindric won five out of six. Allgaier wins three, so I feel confident that we can make it to the final four, but I don’t know if there’s really one guy that sticks out over any of the others.
“I feel like anybody on any given day can be the guy to beat and this series has really been competitive all year long, so I would love to say, ‘Yeah, you’ve got to beat us to win the championship,’ but truthfully there are a lot of really good race car drivers, a lot of really good race teams in this series and it’s gonna be hard to beat any of them on any given day, so you just have to hit it right that day.”
During Playoff media availabilities this week, driver after driver spoke about the importance of doing well at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas track considering the next two stops in this opening round are on the Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway high banks and the Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course – a couple venues considered “wild cards” by most standards.
“I feel like we have some really good momentum heading into the Playoffs and I’m glad we’re kicking things off at Vegas,” said Allgaier, driver of the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet, who has won two of the last three races entering the Playoff stretch.
The remainder of the Playoff field following this talented trio, includes Allgaier’s JR Motorsports teammate Noah Gragson, a two-race winner, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Brandon Jones, who has three trophies and Justin Haley and rookie Harrison Burton, who each have two wins. All the series winners have won multiple times.
Next up is Ross Chastain, who has five runner-up finishes including three in the last six weeks in the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet. In addition to challenging for the Xfinity Series championship now, Chastain announced this week that he will move into the NASCAR Cup Series ranks fulltime next year in one of the most high-profile rides on the circuit, the Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet.
He finished 10th at Las Vegas in March but is very fond of this venue considering he scored a very dramatic, dominating first-ever major win in this race in 2018 driving a Ganassi Xfinity Series car.
Ryan Sieg, who drives his family-owned No. 39 Chevrolet, heads to the Playoff as a career best ninth-place seed, followed by JR Motorsports veteran Michael Annett, a third Joe Gibbs Racing driver, rookie – and Las Vegas native – Riley Herbst and another independent Brandon Brown, who is making his Playoff debut in the No. 68 family-owned Brandonbilt Motorsports Chevrolet.
As Chastain so succinctly put it, “I can’t wait to get out there (Las Vegas).”
GANDER TRUCKS ROLL THE DICE IN VEGAS
The second race of the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series 2020 Playoffs is set for Friday night’s World of Westgate 200 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) – and it still represents the first opportunity for a Playoff driver to score a Playoff victory and that all-important automatic pass into the Round of 8 in the Playoffs.
Sam Mayer, a 17-year old phenom, beat former series champion Brett Moffitt to the checkered flag by a healthy 4.413-seconds in last Thursday’s Playoff opener. It was a great sign for the future of young NASCAR drivers, but the Bristol race was not the way many of the 10 Playoff drivers had envisioned starting their run to the big trophy.
Eight of the 10 Playoff drivers will advance to the next round following races at Las Vegas this week and Talladega, Ala. on Oct. 3.
Only four Playoff drivers – Moffitt, Grant Enfinger, Tyler Ankrum and defending series champion Matt Crafton – finished among the top-10 at Bristol last weekend. And regular season champion Austin Hill finished 25th – only the third time all season he’s finished worse than 12th. He arrives in Las Vegas teetering on the cutoff line – ranked eighth of the 10 drivers with a two-point edge on ninth place Christian Eckes and an eight-point gap on 10th place Todd Gilliland.
Moffitt’s runner-up effort (he led a race best 117 of the 200 laps) was enough to move him atop the Playoff standings by eight points head of Sheldon Creed. Moffitt still has not won a race this season and Creed has a series-best three wins (as does Grant Enfinger).
Three Playoff drivers – Hill, Enfinger and Ben Rhodes – have wins at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and all three are Playoff race wins. Rhodes won the first Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race of his career at Las Vegas in 2017. Enfinger won the 2018 race and Hill is the defending race winner of last season’s event.
Kyle Busch won at the track in March – before the COVID-19 pause in schedule. Hill finished third – best among those currently Playoff eligible. Among those contending for the 2020 title, Crafton was fourth in the first Vegas race, Rhodes fifth, Zane Smith was sixth, followed by Gilliland in seventh and Creed in 10th.
Moffitt’s best work at Las Vegas is runner-up in Spring, 2019. The 2018 series champ has three top-10 finishes in five starts – his worst outcome (16th) came this March.
Creed has three top-10 finishes in three Las Vegas starts, a fourth place in last year’s Playoff race is best for the driver of the No. 2 GMS Racing Chevrolet.
Enfinger boasts that previous win at Vegas, but the driver of the No. 98 ThorSport Ford has finished 31st in the last two races at the track.
Rhodes, the driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Ford, has an impressive Vegas resume. He earned his first win there in 2017 and has five top-10 showings in seven starts – including five of the last six races. He goes into Friday’s race ranked seventh, however, after a subpar showing at Bristol – four points up on eighth place Hill in the final transfer position and only six points up on ninth place Christian Eckes.
Gilliland, who is eight points behind Hill, has an encouraging record at Las Vegas. His seventh-place finish in March marked his third top 10 in four starts. His best showing there is fifth in last year’s Playoff race.