Vegas is 2nd biggest race of playoffs, why Sunday’s South Point 400 is going to be so tricky

Las Vegas is what Brad Keselowski calls arguably the second biggest race of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The biggest obviously being the finale on Nov. 8 at the Phoenix Raceway. The reason so much emphasis is put on Sunday’s South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN) is just the unpredictable nature of the Round of 12. The thing is, the track is going to produce unpredictable racing too though.

The 12 drivers in the second round of the playoffs are no slouches. Add to the mix that the final two races of this round are big wildcards and you get the toughest round of the postseason. So, for a track like Vegas to kick things off, you want to go out and either win or score as many stage points as possible to leave this weekend’s race with a good enough cushion to not have to worry so much about the next two races.

“The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is the playoff bonus points and winning in Vegas,” Keselowski said on the media call on Thursday. “The best thing we can do to control our own destiny is to go win Vegas and then Talladega just becomes what it is. It’s the same thing with the Roval, so we’re hopeful to just kind of not have to worry about it that way by scoring a win. If we’re not able to do that, I’d like to get a few more playoff bonus points with stages for those races and that would help a bunch, but, certainly, this round presents a lot of challenges for us.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – SEPTEMBER 15: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Pennzoil Ford, races during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 15, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)

Keselowski knows just how important points and even a win is too. He won the penultimate race of the opening round at Richmond which automatically advanced him to this round. A week later, his power steering goes out at Bristol and he limped home 34th. With that win in his back pocket, it allowed him to breathe easier knowing that Bristol’s rough night didn’t matter.

Chase Elliott agrees. He says that his full focus is on Sunday’s race in Las Vegas right now because the way he looks at it is, he’s probably going to crash next Sunday at Talladega.

“I think that’s just the odds,” Elliott said of a potential wreck on the Alabama superspeedway.

He says stage points have kind of changed the game in the playoffs now and most notably, everyone has adapted to see just how important they are.

“So, I think everybody knows how important stages are and what they can mean, especially stage wins,” Elliott continued on his zoom call on Thursday. “Getting that extra bonus point is a huge thing, too. I think everybody knows that and that’s certainly a game that’s been played. I don’t know that it was as much played that very first year that we had playoff and stage points, but really ever since that first year, I think it has been known and everybody really gets that. And it’s just gotten more and more aggressive.”

Martin Truex Jr. feels the same pressure. He won this playoff race at Vegas last year. He’s hot entering this weekend with nine top four finishes in his last 11 starts. He’s also been strong on the road courses too with a top three finish in six of his last seven road course starts. It’s just that Talladega for him is the middle race and he’s had just one top five finish there since 2007. He’s finished 20th or worse in seven straight races on the 2.66-mile superspeedway. To only have 16 playoff points right now, if he doesn’t score many stage points this weekend and fails to win, Talladega could make for a tense time in the final race of the round for him in Charlotte.

That’s why playoff points are so crucial too. The points are reset after each round and then the playoff points accumulated up to that point are added on top for bonuses. Kurt Busch has one playoff point. He went from +34 in the standings leaving Bristol at the end of Round 1, to -4 heading to the Round of 12 because of that single playoff point he’s scored through 29 races this season. So for Busch, he has to score stage points early and often to erase that gap.

On top of all of this, Vegas is a 1.5-mile track and the intermediate tracks have shown great parity lately.

Out of the last 73 races on 1.5-mile tracks, 57 of them have been won by a handful of drivers. Martin Truex Jr. (12) leads them but Kevin Harvick (11), Brad Keselowski (11) Jimmie Johnson (10),  Kyle Busch (8) and Joey Logano (7) have been at their best on intermediate race tracks too.

With Sunday’s race the Las Vegas Motor Speedway being a 1.5-mile track, we’ve seen 12 different winners in the last 14 races on intermediates.

It all started well over a year ago, on June 30 at the Chicagoland Speedway to be exact, with Alex Bowman. Then, Kentucky Speedway (Kurt Busch), Las Vegas in the Fall (Martin Truex Jr), Kansas (Denny Hamlin), Texas (Kevin Harvick) and Homestead (Kyle Busch) to close out the season. This year, we’ve had Las Vegas (Joey Logano), Charlotte (Brad Keselowski/Chase Elliott), Atlanta (Harvick), Homestead (Denny Hamlin), Kentucky (Cole Custer), Texas (Austin Dillon) and Kansas (Brad Keselowski) following suit.

Now, it’s a playoff race again in Vegas. We’re running out of names to keep this going? All that’s left on the big teams are William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Clint Bowyer or Aric Almirola.

Truex, hasn’t won on a 1.5-mile track all season which is bizarre. He won this race last year. We’ve had seven different winners in eight races on these track this year and Truex could be No. 8. He says the reason for the parity now is all due to how these cars race these days.

“I think it’s mostly the cars and the situations to where it seems we always have a late restart,” Truex said. “You look at the way that these cars drive and the way on restarts, we don’t have a lot of horsepower. You can’t get away from each other. You’re kind of at the mercy of the drag and the horsepower and we all end up in a big wad for 2-3 laps. That’s kind of where we’ve seen the different winners come from and it’s come at a pretty consistent basis.”

Only Harvick, Hamlin and Keselowski have won multiple times on 1.5-mile tracks during this time frame. That’s why it’s not a surprise that these are the top three race winners in the series in 2020 anyways with the trio combining to win 18 of the 29 races run.

With the potential for that late race caution, it’s allowed drivers like Custer and Dillon to be victoroius on 1.5-mile tracks this season. I mean we saw it happen on this very track back in February when Ross Chastain brought out a late yellow. Alex Bowman was chasing down Ryan Blaney and those two were going to finish 1-2. But, with a caution, they were put in a situation that if they pit, like they did, no one else would. If they didn’t pit, then everyone else would and would have fresh Goodyear tires.

Instead of a Bowman-Blaney 1-2, like it should have been, it went Joey Logano-Matt DiBenedetto-Ricky Stenhouse Jr.-Austin Dillon-Jimmie Johnson-Bubba Wallace top six. Blaney was 11th and Bowman 13th.

That’s just how quickly things can change.

“A place like Vegas fits into a track like Texas, as well; where you can change just left side tires like we saw Austin Dillon do to win the Texas race earlier this year,” Kurt Busch said on Thursday. “So, there are all the different strategies and different things playing out.”

Busch said because of this, we may not necessarily get a playoff driver winning on Sunday as a result.

“There are two Hendrick cars now not in the playoffs, but they’re fast,” Busch continued. “Same thing with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). You’ve got the No. 20 car, Erik Jones, not in the playoffs but he’s fast. Those are points that those guys could take away from the contenders that are still left in the situations they’re in. So, you’ve just got to race hard and race smart. There are three ways to get points each and every weekend: Stage 1, Stage 2, and the finish of the race. And, that happens at all the race tracks.”

The final factor is the heat. The track is going to be hot and slick at the start but the race likely ends under the lights like it did last year. That means you’re constantly going to have to alter your car and adjust setups as the race goes on. The car you roll off with may not be close to what you finish with. But, you can’t also setup for the end of the race because you’d be giving up such valuable stage points in the process.

That’s what makes this race on Sunday so interesting due to so many factors.

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