The first round of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs are upon us. For the second straight year, but for last time too, the Las Vegas Motor Speedway will host the opening race of the 10 race postseason.
Here’s the main storylines.
Throw out everything before this weekend as it’s a brand new season now. The common theme of the drivers from this past weekend at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway was, the Championship 4 is wide open and that you can’t afford to have a bad race at any point in the playoffs. The hole will be too big to overcome.
That makes Sunday’s race so crucial. You don’t want to get off on the wrong footing.
Denny Hamlin has seven top six finishes in his last eight starts on the season. But, he hasn’t had a top five in Vegas since 2015. Four of his last five finishes have been 10th or worse.
Erik Jones has one top 10 finish in four tries on the 1.5-mile track but five top four finishes in his last eight tries on the season too.
Clint Bowyer has one top 10 finish in Vegas in his last eight tries. That was a 10th place run in 2017. He’d led 17 total laps there but none since 2012. He does have three straight top seven finishes on the season though.
Chase Elliott has crashed out in three of his five Vegas starts with all resulting in finishes of 34th or worse. He was ninth back in March and has four top 10 finishes in his last five starts on the season.
William Byron’s best finish is 16th in three tries. Alex Bowman’s is 11th. Ryan Newman has just one top 10 in his last five Vegas starts but does have five top 13’s in his last seven tries.
On the flip side to all of this, Kyle Busch has three straight top seven finishes on his hometrack. Kevin Harvick has four top seven’s in his last six tries. Martin Truex Jr. has five top eight’s in his last six there. Aric Almirola has finishes of 10th, sixth and seventh respectively in three tries at Vegas with Stewart-Haas. Brad Keselowski won this race last year and finished second in the spring race. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh in his last eight tries. Joey Logano won the spring race and has seven straight top 10’s. Ryan Blaney has four top seven finishes in his last six. Kyle Larson has three top three finishes in his last four.
See where this could go?
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 straight win this weekend?
Brad Keselowski has five top 10 finishes in his last seven starts on the season. He also has two straight top two finishes on this weekend’s 1.5-mile track and eight straight top seven finishes since Penske switched to Ford.
Joey Logano, is coming off of a runner-up last weekend in Indy and won the spring race in Vegas. He also has seven straight top 10 finishes on the track as well.
Ryan Blaney has five top 10 finishes in his last seven starts of the season and four top seven finishes in his last five starts in Vegas.
Almirola A Sleeper
While Aric Almirola hasn’t scored a top five finish since Phoenix (23 races ago) and a top 10 since Daytona (9 races ago), this could be the weekend that he ends both slumps. Almirola, has to get off to a great start to the playoffs and Vegas is just the place. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has earned a top 10 finish in literally all three tries since he joined the organization last year. Maybe he gets another on Sunday.
Ford’s Ones To Beat
Ford has won three of the last seven races on the season, all by Kevin Harvick. They’ve won three straight in Las Vegas. Can they win again on Sunday?
The three Team Penske drivers as well as the three Stewart-Haas Racing drivers in the playoffs have to be the favorites.
Usual Suspects Should Win
Over the last seven Cup races in Vegas, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano have combined to win them all. Between them, they’ve won 12 of the 26 races this regular season.
Also, Penske, SHR and JGR/Furniture Row have won the last nine Vegas races. The last non team of them to win? Roush/Fenway Racing (Carl Edwards) in 2011.
Combined on the season, this group has won 21 of the 26 races run too.
Will Cautions Play A Role
The drivers all said that these cars were too easy to drive back in March. We only saw two combined cautions all day, both for stage breaks. Even the spring race in 2018 saw only four cautions too.
But, the playoff race last year saw 12 cautions for 59 laps. So, what will it be on Sunday?
The temperatures will be near the 100 degree mark as the race time isn’t until 4 p.m. locally. While it should cool down as the race goes on, it’s still going to be extremely hot and slick. That played a large factor into last year’s race. Will it this year?
The cars are more steady and have less horsepower so I don’t see many getting out of hand. It’s just to what role will the heat play and how aggressive will drivers be?
Race Should Feature Plenty Of Passing
First off, the temperatures for Sunday’s race will be in the high 90s. A hot and slick track always brings a ton of passing. But, throw into the race that seven of the top 12 starters for the opening playoff race are non playoff drivers and you can get some fireworks.
Stewart-Haas Racing starts 1-2-3-4 but I don’t see them dominating. Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing have all seven combined cars coming from 13th on back including six of which 18th or worse.
The big surprise is Team Penske. They’ve won the last two Vegas Cup races including going 1-2 back in March. Instead, they’ll start 18th (Brad Keselowski), 22nd (Joey Logano) and 23rd (Ryan Blaney) respectively.
Joe Gibbs Racing will start 13th (Denny Hamlin), 20th (Kyle Busch), 24th (Martin Truex Jr.) and 26th (Erik Jones) respectively.
Kyle Larson has three top two finishes in his last four Vegas starts but he only qualified 17th.
See why we could see these playoff drivers come through the field and why that will create some fun action to witness?
2 Keselowski – I picked him last week and jinxed him, but I do think he rebounds and earns an opening round win in the playoffs for the second straight year. Since Penske switched to Ford’s, Keselowski has finished in the top seven in all eight years. He won last September and was second back in March. He was sixth and third respectively in practice on Friday including being seventh in both sessions on the 10 lap averages.
4 Harvick – Have to ride the hot hand here. Harvick, went 0-for-19 to start the season off in terms of wins. He’s 3-for-7 since. The SHR driver won in Vegas in the spring of 2018 and was fourth this past March. He was seventh quick in final practice and fifth on the 10 lap average chart too.
18 Busch – I believe he gets back rolling this weekend. Busch, has two top three finishes in his last four Vegas starts. He also has four top sevens in his last five. The JGR driver was sixth in final practice while also being fifth and first respectively on 10 lap averages this weekend.
9 Elliott- He finished ninth back in March but was 10th and fourth respectively on single lap runs and eighth and second on 10 lap averages.
22 Logano – He won in the spring. He has seven straight top 10 finishes in Vegas. He was second in final practice on single lap speed and third on 10 lap averages.