Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – After 26 races of hard-nosed determination and hard-knocks competition, the 16-driver field for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is set and the drivers begin their final trophy hunt in Sunday’s South Point Casino 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Kyle Busch wrapped up his second consecutive regular season championship two weeks ago at Darlington and the 2015 series champ begins pursuit of his second Monster Energy Series title this week at his hometown track. The 15-point bonus he received for winning the regular season turned out to be a well-timed boost for the four-time winner this season. His last of those four victories came all the way back on June 2 at Pocono, Pa.
After his worst showing of the season at Indy last week – a blown engine relegated him to 37th-place finish – Busch is hopeful the overwhelmingly good vibes of 2019 return for this 10-race Playoff stretch. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won races at ISM Raceway, Fontana, Bristol-1 and Pocono-1, he leads the series in top-10s (21) and he is tied with his JGR teammate – and fellow four-race winner – Denny Hamlin for top-five finishes (13).
He and the rest of the field fully anticipate having to beat reigning series champion Joey Logano and Logano’s Team Penske Ford teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney when it comes to competing at Vegas. Busch has a series best seven top-five finishes at the track, but it’s been primarily a Penske show in Vegas for the past few seasons.
Keselowski is the defending winner of this Playoff opener. Logano won at Vegas this March and the 25-year old Blaney boasts one of the best average finishes (10.7) in this Sunday’s field.
Among the Playoff drivers, Busch has had the longest span since his win at the track in 2009. Keselowski boasts the most wins (three) among the championship-eligible drivers with trophies in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Last week’s Indianapolis regular season finale winner Kevin Harvick – a three-race winner this year – is the only other Playoff driver in the field with multiple Las Vegas wins (2015 and 2018). And JGR’s Truex won at Vegas en route to his 2017 Monster Energy Series championship.
Also among those to watch out for is JGR driver Denny Hamlin, who begins the Playoffs ranked right below his teammate Busch and full of positive momentum. After winning his second Daytona 500 in the 2019 season-opener, Hamlin has been steady and successful all year – winning again at Texas and Pocono-2 and then again only three weeks ago at Bristol from the pole position. With 13 top-fives already he’s on good pace to eclipse his previous best mark of 15 (2009 and 2017) and his 17 top-10 finishes is also on pace to be a new personal record. In 2016 and 2017 he had 22 top-10s.
What Hamlin seeks most, however, is that championship trophy. The driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota was runner-up to seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in 2010 and third behind the champion Kevin Harvick in 2014.
Four times the winner of the Playoff opening race has gone on to celebrate a championship – Kurt Busch (2004), Tony Stewart (2011), Keselowski (2012) and Truex (2017).
XFINITY SERIES WRAPS UP REGULAR SEASON, SETS PLAYOFF FIELD
This Saturday’s Rhino Pro Truck Outfitters 300 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) brings the regular season to a close and formalizes the 2019 Playoff lineup. And while three drivers – defending series champion Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer – have absolutely dominated the win column, none of the three has won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before in this series.
Reddick won the 2016 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Vegas, but has not hoisted an Xfinity Series trophy there. Yet. He’s highly motivated coming off his worst showing of the season last week (30th) following an accident with fellow title contender Christopher Bell in the final laps of the Indianapolis race. Bell finished 29th.
And still the Richard Childress Racing driver’s consistency this season – 19 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes through the opening 25 races – will likely land him the regular season championship (he needs to earn 11 points this weekend to clinch). Reddick holds a 50-point lead over Joe Gibbs Racing’s Bell and an insurmountable 113-point edge over Stewart-Haas Racing’s Custer heading into this week’s season finale.
Certainly the top of the standings is a known quantity with these three accounting for 16 victories already – Reddick (four), Bell (six) and Custer (six). But the Playoffs present a sort of reset.
The 12 drivers currently holding postseason spots are clinched on points, but this regular season finale could prove interesting if a driver outside that group of 12 wins the race and the automatic Playoff spot that accompanies. RSS Racing’s Ryan Sieg currently sits in that precarious 12th position.
The other drivers who have clinched a postseason bid are Team Penske’s Austin Cindric, Stewart-Haas Racing with Fred Biagi’s Chase Briscoe, JR Motorsports teammates Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson, and Kaulig Racing’s Justin Haley. In position to clinch this week are Brandon Jones, rookie John Hunter Nemechek and Sieg.
Of note, Haley will have a celebrated teammate at Kaulig Racing this week as longtime Xfinity Series championship challenger Elliott Sadler will make his final NASCAR national series start. Sadler – a three-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race winner and 13-time Xfinity Series winner – retired from fulltime competition last year and has announced his race Saturday will be his last in NASCAR’s highest tiers of competition. He has four top-fives in 13 Las Vegas Xfinity Series starts.
GANDER TRUCKS DRIVERS FACE PLAYOFF CUTOFF
The first elimination of the 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoffs happens this week following Friday night’s World of Westgate 200 (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
2016 Gander Trucks champion Johnny Sauter is on the wrong side of the cutoff, however this is a tightly packed playoff field – only six points separating third-place Stewart Friesen and seventh-place Sauter with six drivers advancing to the second round of the Playoffs.
Brett Moffitt has reminded everyone why he’s the defending series champion, winning the first two Playoff races – at the Bristol half-miler and the Bowmanville, Ontario road course – and he’s technically the only racer with a sure bet spot in the next round. He has never won a truck race on this week’s 1.5-mile Las Vegas high banks, however. And regular season champion Grant Enfinger is actually the defending winner of this September race.
Ross Chastain, a three-time winner this season, won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas last fall and is currently second to Moffitt in the championship standings by 22 points.
Freisen is third, 44 points behind Moffitt with two-time series champ Matt Crafton on his heels, just one point off Friesen. Austin Hill is fifth in the title run, only a point behind Crafton and Enfinger is only two points behind Hill. Sauter is two points behind Enfinger and Tyler Ankrum is 12 points behind Enfinger, who holds that sixth and final cut-off position.
Moffitt finished runner-up to Kyle Busch in the March truck race at Vegas with Crafton and Friesen in third and fourth place. Sauter was eighth, Chastain 10th and Hill 30th. At that point in the early season, the now 18-year-old Ankrum wasn’t old enough to compete on the 1.5-mile speedway.
Among the championship eight, only Enfinger (last year) and Sauter (in 2009) have celebrated in Las Vegas’ victory lane. Ben Rhodes joins the pair as the only other driver entered this weekend who has won at Vegas.