NASCAR Pre-Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN, PRN)

Is This The 2nd Biggest Playoff Race?

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. 7 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. It’s a who’s who among who’s left. All four Hendrick Motorsports cars are here. So are all four with Joe Gibbs Racing and all three with Team Penske. Kevin Harvick with Stewart-Haas Racing is the only driver to have advanced past the first round without a teammate. 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. “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)

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. “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.”

Denny Hamlin also notes that Vegas is the last place to really have self control in this round. The other two races you’re more likely to get tangled in someone else’s mess.

That is the track where you can control your own destiny the most, so that is the one you have to put the most emphasis on,” he said. “If you do a good job as a driver and your car is fast and the team does their job, that is where you can get your best result. The other two tracks you are more likely to be caught up in someone else’s issues. I’m sure that race will be the most nervous the entire 12-car playoff field is going to be, hoping that they perform well, because there are just no givens after that.”

Hamlin also notes that this round for many years terrified him because Vegas was as he says his worst 1.5-mile track by far.

“So, we found a set-up that really works for me there, and we’ve been really good,” he continued. “We’ve had good internal meetings about what I need to do to be the best car. I’ve been the second- or third-best car on the mile-and-a-halfs this year – (Kyle) Larson obviously being the stand-out best. As a team, we’ve got a plan, and I’ve got a plan, to take the next step to be a dominant car every week.”

Twice a non-Playoff driver has won the fourth race in the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs:

  • Joe Nemechek won the Kansas Speedway Playoff race in 2004, he was ranked 21st in the point standings at the time.
  • Brian Vickers won the Talladega Superspeedway Playoff race in 2006, he was ranked 16th in points at the time.

No non-Playoff driver has ever won the Playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Will Late Race Restart Alter The Race?

Las Vegas has had some good trends. 19 of the last 21 races have seen a past champion win. The only time it didn’t was with Carl Edwards twice. Penske, SHR or JGR have won 12 of the last 13 races there too. Just once time has the winner over the last 13 races also been under the age of 30.

You’d think this is a recipe for a predictable winner, right?

Well Vegas has been anything but lately and that’s because of late race cautions.

Last year, Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman were well on their ways to battling for the win in the end. Blaney was leading and Bowman was chasing him down. Unfortunately for both, a caution came out in the closing laps. The pit gamble was on. They were in the lame duck position.

If they pit, others would stay out. If they didn’t pit, others behind would for fresh tires. So, they took the conservative route and hit pit lane. As predicted, several other cars stayed out and they punted away a shot at victory.

Joey Logano benefitted from staying out and won.

Last Fall, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto and others ran their second to last stint long. They were hoping for a caution. See, the leaders had already pitted for their final time and if Busch and DiBenedetto wanted to make something happen and get inside of the top 10, their only hope was to run this sequence long and hope and pray for a yellow.

They got it.

They’d pit and be able to cycle still to 1-2 and hold off everyone else with clean air and less than 30 laps of racing.

Cautions completely altered the entire race in both instances last year in Vegas. Will we see it happen on Sunday? That’s why you can’t just assume that the cars dominating all day will win in the end. All it takes is one fluke caution towards the end of the race and you get mayhem.

Why Do Only The Best Win In Vegas?

Las Vegas is your typical 1.5-mile track. So, why do only the best win here?

Over the last 11 Cup races in Vegas, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kyle Larson have combined to win 10 of them.

Also, Penske, SHR and JGR/Furniture Row have won the 11 of the last 13 Vegas races. The last non team of them to win other than Kurt Busch’s triumph with Chip Ganassi Racing last Fall? Roush/Fenway Racing (Carl Edwards) in 2011 and Hendrick Motorsports with Kyle Larson in March.

21 of the last 23 Cup races in Vegas have also resulted in a past champion winning. The only non title winner to have won at Vegas?

Carl Edwards (twice) and Larson again.

Also, in saying that, Logano’s spring win in 2019 and Larson’s this spring were the only times that a Cup winner was under the age of 30 in any of the last 15 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.

So is this a grown folks race?

Can SHR Improve In Vegas?

Stewart-Haas Racing used to be among the best teams at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick won twice in a four race span a few years ago. Since? He’s had just two top five results in six tries. While he’s not been terrible, he’s just not been great either with finishes of eighth and 10th respectively a year ago and 20th back in the spring.

SHR has in fact just missed the setups on the 1.5-mile track lately. They’ve qualified really well but not excelled in race conditions for the recent impound races. Then throw in no qualifying for last Fall as well as in the spring and you can see where the miss it for them.

Aric Almirola’s last three finishes are 13th, 21st, 17th and 38th respectively. Cole Custer was only 19th and 16th as a rookie a year ago. Chase Briscoe is a rookie but was 21st in the spring race.

Can they close the gap this weekend? We’re not practicing or qualifying again this weekend, so if they look at Sunday based off the years past, they know which direction to not go.

Who Are The Favorites To Advance To The Round of 8 Now?

12 enter and only eight can make it on past the Round of 12. Which eight advance and which four will see their championship hopes dashed in Charlotte in a couple of weeks? First off, the race winners this round will automatically advance on and with how things should shape out, I’d say Kyle Larson wins Las Vegas, Ryan Blaney triumphs in Talladega and Chase Elliott gets the win on the ROVAL in Charlotte. That leaves five spots for the taking among the other nine drivers.

Brad Keselowski noted that the 550 tracks aren’t good for the Ford’s and luckily for them, Vegas is the only one in the round. Keselowski did win Talladega back in the spring and was runner-up in Vegas, but he has just 1 top five finish in the last 10 races on the season and just two in the last 18 in general. For Talladega, 5 of his last 7 finishes there have been 18th or worse. He’s had 1 top 10 in 3 tries on the ROVAL with road courses being among their worst tracks this season. So, while this is a good round in terms of tracks for him, I don’t like his chances if he doesn’t win.

Same for Kevin Harvick. Yes, he’s fired up. Yes, he had a pair of top five finishes in the three races last round. But, he’s only had two finishes better than fourth all season and in Vegas has three straight finishes of 8th, 10th and 20th respectively. In Talladega, he was fourth in the spring but has had just two top fives in his last 19 there. He does have three top 11’s in as many tries on the Charlotte ROVAL, but road courses aren’t his bread and butter. With being -12 entering, if no one else takes themselves out, I don’t like his chances of moving on without a win or a consistent dose of stage points and top fives.

Christopher Bell may also be in danger. He’s -9 and ranks 11th of the 12 entering. He was seventh in Vegas this past spring but has no top 15’s in Talladega and 24th on the ROVAL. But, on road courses this year, he did win at Daytona, was runner-up in Road America, had a top three going in Watkins Glen and a top five in Indy before late race bad luck. The thing is, are his Round of 8 chances riding on a win on the ROVAL? Hendrick Motorsports has won four of the last five on road courses this season including eight of the last 10 overall. I don’t know if he can beat Elliott or Larson if need be to close out this round.

I’m basically saying the bottom three won’t get back in. Who’s going to the fourth driver eliminated?

I think it’s down to Kyle Busch (+8), Alex Bowman (+1), William Byron (+0) and Joey Logano (-1).

Logano, has one top five in his last 13 starts on the season and four in the last 20 overall. He does have 10 top 10’s in his last 11 in Vegas, four top fives including a pair of wins in his last six Fall race starts at Talladega and three top 10’s in as many tries on the ROVAL including a runner-up last year. He’s backing his way into the round but these are good tracks for him.

Byron, was third last week, was eighth in the spring in Vegas, second in the spring in Talladega and a pair of sixth place finishes in his last two ROVAL starts.

Bowman, has just two top fives in his last 12 on the season but was fifth in the Vegas playoff race last year and sixth the year prior. He was fourth, second and eighth respectively in the three ROVAL starts but has struggled in his three playoff races at Talladega.

KANSAS CITY, KANSAS – MAY 02: Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 M&M’s Mix Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Buschy McBusch Race 400 at Kansas Speedway on May 02, 2021 in Kansas City, Kansas. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

It could come down to if Busch beats himself. He crashed in the Southern 500. He was caught speeding on pit road for his final stop in Richmond and had a late race unscheduled stop in Bristol. That’s not going to cut it. Neither is no top 10’s in his last seven starts in the Talladega playoff race. Nor is three finishes of 32nd, 37th and 30th respectively on the ROVAL. Vegas is his best shot at a win with five top sevens in his last seven.

With these stats though, I think Bowman narrowly gets left out with Busch by a point or two moving on. It’s going to come down to stage points.

Advancing: Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano. 3 Hendrick cars, 3 JGR cars and 2 Penske’s.

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