NASCAR Pre Race Media: Pennzoil 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN) Race Preview with favorites

TRACK: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (1.5 mile oval) DISTANCE: 267 Laps – STAGE 1: 80 Laps, Stage 2: 80 Laps, FINAL STAGE 107 LAPS, 400.5 Miles)

Starting Lineup

Favorites – Another Penske Show?

Kevin Harvick (+600)

Another good driver here. Harvick has three Top-4 finishes in his last six Vegas starts, including a win in this race in 2018 and a runner-up in the Fall of 2019. He was eighth and 10th respectively last year.

Martin Truex Jr. (+650)

Truex two of the last seven Cup races in Vegas. He also has eight Top-11 finishes in his last nine tries on the 1.5-mile track including six Top-4 efforts and two wins. He’s won 12 races on 1.5-mile tracks since 2016, nearly two times as much as the next closest driver.

Joey Logano (+800)

He’s the two-time defending race winner and has nine Top-10 finishes in his last 10 Vegas starts.

Brad Keselowski (+800)

He has a top 10 finish in all but one start at Vegas since Penske went to Ford’s in 2013. He won the Fall race in 2018. He was second and third respectively in 2019 and seventh and 13th in 2020.

Race Preview

It sounds odd, but it’s somehow not too early to start looking at points in the NASCAR Cup Series right now. We’re only three races in with 33 to go, but with 23 races left in the regular season at the moment and already having three different winners in as many races and looking at who won them, there’s going to be some nervous drivers/teams coming on soon.

Michael McDowell was 0-for-357 before his Daytona 500 triumph. Christopher Bell was 0-for-38 before winning on the road course a couple of weeks ago down in Daytona. William Byron was 1-for-110 before winning last Sunday at Homestead.

While Bell and Byron aren’t necessarily “fluke” winners, what they are were drivers that most expected to be towards the back of the playoff grid and maybe even wildcard drivers. Now, each have wins in their back pockets.

In the end, it absolutely takes away wins from the bigger named drivers at that. That’s three of the 16 spots now taken with none of them by past champions.

“Absolutely,” Denny Hamlin said at Daytona following the road course race on if the midpack teams should be getting nervous about the playoffs. “I think the 34 (Michael McDowell) certainly is a surprise. He’s going to be in the Playoffs. 90% of the people that know anything about the sport, 95% really would put the 20 car in the Playoffs one way, shape or form anyway. I don’t think that that’s really taking up a spot that wasn’t already probably pegged.”

Last year, we saw just how tight the bubble was. Cole Custer and Austin Dillon took two of the spots via wins which made it difficult for drivers like Erik Jones, Jimmie Johnson and Tyler Reddick to make it in.

This year, you’re more than likely going to see some more big teams not make it. I mean, numbers alone prove it. You have four JGR cars, four at Hendrick, four at Stewart-Haas and three at Penske. That’s 15 cars right there among those big four teams. That doesn’t even count the alliance from the Wood Brothers with Penske or 23XI Racing with Gibbs. What about the two Chip Ganassi Racing cars? That pushes that number to 19. Then throw in both cars at RCR and you get honestly 21 cars that are playoff caliber. So, with McDowell winning, it takes one spot away from them. Then, with Bell and Byron taking wins the last two weeks and not having to worry about a wildcard spot anymore, it essentially takes away another couple.

Byron, was 29th in points entering Sunday at that.

You still have Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick all likely to take 10 of those 13 wildcard spots. Then you have Kurt Busch, Ross Chastain, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Bubba Wallace, Matt DiBenedetto, Aric Almirola, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe all battling for three spots among nine drivers. The more drivers off this nine person list win, the more it’s going to force the bubble higher to make those 10 on the first list nervous.

“The dynamic has changed dramatically right now,” said Keselowski. “We’re very early in the season and it’s not turned into a points race for those last few spots. Hopefully it doesn’t matter for us. If you don’t win, you’re in a lot of trouble right now because it’s not looking like you’re gonna be able to get in the playoffs right now without a win.”

If this season plays out like its started, watch out. The thing is, what about this start to the season makes us think anything is going to change though?

Team Penske has won the last two Vegas spring races. Both were by Joey Logano. He’s had a top 10 finish in nine of his last 10 Vegas starts. His teammate Brad Keselowski has a top 10 finish in 10 of his last 11 Vegas races too. Throw in Ryan Blaney scoring six top seven finishes in his last eight Vegas tries and you can see why Sunday’s race may be Penske’s to lose.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. may be their top threats but the two have faded a bit now at this track. Harvick, won this race in 2018 and was fourth and second respectively during the two races in 2019, but just eighth and 10th a year ago.

Truex, won the race in 2017 but was only 20th and fourth last year. Can they improve?

Chase Elliott swept both stages a year ago in this very race but blew a tire and crashed. But, will these guys absolutely be the ones to beat?

“I think the rules have been the same for a while, and everybody has had all off-season to kind of work on our stuff and understand where they were last year and a lot of people obviously made some good decisions on how to get better,” said Truex Jr. “Yeah, definitely seeing a lot of guys running up front that we don’t normally see, but I think it’s just the box that we work in is so small and the longer we have the same rules package the closer everybody is going to get.”

McDowell, has three straight top 10 finishes to start the year. He said he’s done nothing differently this year compared to last.

See, McDowell says that he’s not done anything differently this year in comparison to last. He’s with an underfunded team in comparison to those listed above and here he sits fourth in points after three races on the heels of three top 10 results on three different types of race tracks.

“I think that it’s been kind of a steady progress,” McDowell said. “Homestead last year for us was a big step forward. We ran in the top 15 most of the night. I think we ended up finishing 15th. But we felt like we were pretty close to being in that top-10 speed. When you get to 15th those next few spots are pretty hard, but we felt like we were pretty close on it.

“I didn’t do anything different as far as me. I didn’t come with a different approach of how I was going to drive it. I just did what I normally did do, and we were fast. Really thankful we had a strong car tonight.”

Part of why this is happening is that a new car is coming out in 2022. Maybe most teams decided to forego some big money upgrades for this year and chose to refine what they previously had since the cars and setups wouldn’t change much between this year and last. The 2021 package is the same as 2020 and 2020 was the same as 2019.

“I mean, you know, the rules are the rules, and they haven’t changed in a while, and everybody is really just trying to work on the same things here each and every week,” said Truex. “So it gives you time to work on your stuff and not have to really develop a lot of things. The smaller teams definitely get to catch up.”

McDowell said that’s absolutely what’s helping them so far.

“I think one of the biggest things for us is there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of development, not new chassis, new parts, new pieces,” said the Front Row Motorsports driver. “We used to fall so far behind, but now I feel like we’re able to build on what we had in the past and make our cars a little bit better each time we come to the racetrack without changing all the fundamental pieces and kind of starting over and having to re-engineer everything.

“It’s kind of simplified the process for us a little bit just to keep building on what we have and try to make it better. But what an incredible run for our Front Row team. It’s so exciting to be a part of this organization. We’re really doing it, and it’s fun to be a part of it right now, and I’m so thankful that I get to drive it.”

Truex, doesn’t necessarily expect this to continue for all season though.

“I still think the strong teams will end up being the teams to beat when all is said and done, and I feel like for us in particular on the 19 we’ve been really strong all year,” he continued.” We’ve been really fast. We had some tough breaks in Daytona and then we were in the hunt today (Sunday at Homestead). We’re feeling good about things and hopefully we can just continue to find some stuff to get better and keep running up front.”

McDowell agrees.

“It definitely has closed the gap, but the best teams and the top teams will always be the top teams,” he said. “They just consistently do it just a tad better. Pit road, execution, lighter, faster, more downforce. We’ll just take it as it goes.”

The other factor to this is a late race yellow. It happened in both races in 2020. Alex Bowman and Ryan Blaney were well on their ways to a 1-2 result last March until Ross Chastain brought out the ninth and final caution and put Bowman and Blaney in a losing situation. If they’d pit, no one behind would. If they didn’t, then everyone else would hit pit lane for fresh tires.

They ended up pitting and Logano took the win.

Similar situation in the playoff race last Fall. Kurt Busch and others ran their second to last stint long hoping for a caution. They got one and pinned a lot of good cars a lap down. It allowed Busch to pit but maintain his lead. He’d win the race as a result.

Is an end of the race pit call going to decide this year’s winner?

Of Note

Joey Logano’s spring win last year was the first time that a Cup winner was under the age of 30 in any of the last 42 races run at the track. The recent trend shows that the drivers over the age of 30 will be contending for the win on Sunday.

Key Stat

21 of the last 22 Cup races in Vegas resulted in a past champion winning. The only non title winner to have won at Vegas?

Carl Edwards (twice).

They Said It

You know, the rules are the rules, and they haven’t changed in a while, and everybody is really just trying to work on the same things here each and every week,” said Martin Truex Jr. “So it gives you time to work on your stuff and not have to really develop a lot of things. The smaller teams definitely get to catch up.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s