Sunday’s South Point 400 (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC, PRN) race preview and how each playoff driver feels heading into the Round of 8 opener

The Round of 8 is upon us with 8 drivers still in a battle over the next 3 weeks to place themselves in the final round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs. The easiest path is to just win one of the next 3 races and you’re already there. The thing is, 3 of the last 5 years have seen a non championship eligible win in this round too, so with 4 of the opening 6 postseason races being won by drivers not in the fight for this year’s title too, we know there could be at least 2 wildcard spots into Phoenix as well.

Las Vegas however isn’t a track that typically produces unlikely winners. However, the pendulum is starting to swing to this track rewarding young drivers though.

Joey Logano’s spring win in 2020 was the first time that a Cup winner was under the age of 30 in any of the previous races run at the track. Kyle Larson then won last year and was 28 at the time. This past spring, Alex Bowman was 29 in his spring race win this past year giving us 3 of the last 5 being under the age of 30.

6 of the 8 drivers left in this round are under the age of 30…  Denny Hamlin (41), Joey Logano (32), Ross Chastain (29), Ryan Blaney (28), Chase Briscoe (27), Christopher Bell (27), Chase Elliott (26) and William Byron (24). Only Hamlin and Logano are older than 30.

However, Logano and his Team Penske teammate of Ryan Blaney are confident coming into this round despite some not-so-great finishes at Vegas lately. Blaney has eight Top-7 finishes in his last 11 starts in Vegas but outside the top 30 this past March. He was 12th and 9th respectively in Kansas (most similar track) this year. 

“I’m looking forward to getting to Vegas,” he said. “I think we’ve come a long way on our mile-and-a-half program. Between Vegas and Homestead and obviously Martinsville is a strong place for us in the spring, so I’m looking forward to it.  We’ve just got to put together good races with no mistakes and keep doing what we’ve been doing. I’d really like to win and not have to worry about the next two weeks, but I think this team has been doing a great job. They’re really focused right now.”

Logano has 10 Top-10 finishes in his last 13 Vegas starts but with only being 14th here in the spring and 17th in both races at Kansas this year makes me wary.

“I feel good. I like Vegas,” Logano said. “We had a pretty good test at Miami and Martinsville has been one of Penske’s best racetracks as of late, so I feel pretty good about it.”

Penske has had a driver represented in the Championship 4 in 5 of the 8 years under this format. However, 2 of the last 3 years also didn’t feature a single one of them either. With 2 drivers alive with 3 races ahead, it would be a massive disappointment if they don’t at least advance 1 of their 2 drivers still in it. Vegas will set the tone.

Chase Briscoe had no top 10’s in a 14 straight race span and just 1 top 10 over a 21 race stretch, but went 3-for-3 in top 10’s the last round.

“Super proud of this race team. Looking forward to the Round of 8. A lot of really, really good racetracks for me,” Briscoe said. “If we can get to Phoenix, we know we got a good car there, too. … Nobody believed we were gonna get past the Round of 16 and here we are in the Round of 8 and three really, really good racetracks for me coming up, so I’m looking forward to them.”

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – SEPTEMBER 26: Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 26, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Steph Chambers/Getty Images)

The Ford’s have had the most success in Vegas, but they may be chasing the Toyota’s.

In the spring race, Toyota led 107 of the 274 laps (39%) that day. In Kansas 1, they led 171 of 267 laps (64%) and took home finishing spots 1-3-4-5-6. In Kansas 2, they led 94 of the 267 laps (35%) but finished 1-2-3-5.

“All of (the tracks in the third round) are P1 for me and I like all of them,” said Denny Hamlin. “All of them are just perfect for what our strength is, especially with the Toyotas and myself. I’m excited. We had a good test at Martinsville and even though we finished bad there in the spring. We’re going to have to qualify well there and track position is going to be huge. We’re going to go to work and really excited about our prospects in this next round.”

Hamlin won this Vegas race last year and was 4th and 2nd respectively in the 2 Kansas races at that. He also has 3 top 4 finishes in his last 4 Vegas starts too. For Homestead, he swept both stages and the win in 2020 and was 11th last year. Hamlin also had a top 5 car in both Darlington races earlier this season too.

Martinsville ironically enough is going to be his worst track this round. 4 of his last 5 Martinsville finishes have seen him come home 11th or worse (28th in the spring). However, he was dominant prior to that though too.

The driver to finish third in the Championship 4 has made it to at least the Round of 8 in each of the last 5 years with 3 of the 5 being in the Championship 4. That’s good news for Hamlin.

What about for Christopher Bell. The driver to win the 6th round of the playoffs has gone on to win the championship that season 6 times including 2 straight. Bell is also good on these tracks too.

He had a top 10 car the last 2 times out in Vegas and a top 5 in both races at Kansas. He was in the top 10 last year at Homestead and a top 6 in both Darlington races this season too. While Martinsville wasn’t a strong suit for him, on like tracks, he had a pair of top 6’s at Richmond including a runner-up in August as well as a win at Loudon this past July.

“I mean, I feel extremely good about what we have going on here in the next three races,” he said. “Ever since the schedule laid out and we were looking at the Playoffs, the round of 16 all were really good racetracks for us, the Round of 8 were good racetracks for us. The round of 12 with Talladega and this racetrack in there, I was super concerned and nervous. I still felt like we were going to be able to make it through it because we’re really good at Texas and we should be able to get through Texas with a good points day.

“Whenever we left there with a whopping three points, I was just really down, down in the dumps, sad. Then we went to Talladega, and we needed a home run. We needed lot of points, and we didn’t score a lot of points. This whole last two weeks, I had been extremely deflated, just kind of down in the dumps.

“Now I can promise you I’m as excited as ever heading into these next three races.”

What about the Chevy camp?

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 ACM Awards Chevrolet, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Ethel M Chocolates Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Chase Elliott has finished outside the top 10 in 5 of the last 7 races now on the season. 

Prior to a runner-up in last year’s playoff race in Vegas, Elliott had just two career top fives on this track with his last three finishes being 26th, 22nd,13th and 9th respectively. He has five finishes of 22nd or worse there too and was only 29th and 11th at Kansas. For Homestead, he has 3 top 7’s in his last 5 starts there, but he’s winless overall and also at Darlington too. He was 5th and 36th this past year at Darlington and 21st the last time out at Homestead.

Martinsville is his best shot. Elliott won the pole and dominated the first 2 stages back in the spring before a pit road penalty relegated him to a top 10 instead of a top 5. Elliott won the 2020 Fall race en route to a Championship 4 appearance here. He also has four top fives in his last 7 Martinsville starts, three of them being in the top two.

“I think it’s going to be a really tough round,” Elliott admitted after a 20th place finish in Charlotte. “Vegas was a struggle for us in the spring. Homestead, we’ve just been really hit-or-miss there. We did have a test there a couple weeks ago, so hopefully we’ve learned from that. Martinsville, it’s just going to be about how you qualify because I don’t see anybody passing there. We’ll see how it goes. Try to bring our A-game. It would have been nice to have some more points from today, but we didn’t and we’ll try again out in Las Vegas.”

William Byron may be the sleeper. He’s won the last time out in 2 of these 3 tracks. Vegas however isn’t one of them.

“We did what we needed to do, which was to get some stage points and finish the race. We’ll move on and get ready for Las Vegas,” he said.

That leaves Ross Chastain who won an Xfinity race for Ganassi at Vegas and was 3rd this past spring. On top of that, Chastain finished 7th in both Kansas races this season as well. For Homestead, he’s never been particularly great there but that was with underfunded teams. He was 17th last year as his best Cup finish. He was 3rd however in the 2020 Xfinity Series race and 4th for Niece in 2019 in the Truck Series. With Chastain being quick at Darlington this season, he’s worth a risk. Then at Martinsville, he was 5th in the spring. The 3rd seed has made the Championship 4 every year since 2017.

“I’m human, so it hurts to make the mistakes that I made today and yesterday,” Chastain said who also got into the wall in qualifying on Saturday too. “I’ll take some time here with my guys and when I drive out of this parking lot, I’m going to make a big effort to leave the Roval here. Normally, it’s Monday morning when I’m done with it and look through everything, but we’re onto another round. It’s a testament to our season and our finish in points today. The strategy by (crew chief) Phil Surgen and our strategy with Trackhouse and Team Chevy to get the stage win in Stage Two is ultimately the difference that gave me the buffer when I needed it the most.

“I will drive off the property here in Concord and leave this here. It’s the No. 1 priority. I hit the wall really hard, so hats off to this car and what NASCAR and the France family has rolled out. I don’t think a year ago I’m able to continue as hard as I hit the wall. I couldn’t believe it when I made the mistake. I’m still in a bit of a disbelief, but when I walk out of here tonight, it’s full speed ahead to Vegas. I have to move on.”

5 times has the winner of the 7th playoff race gone on to win the title later that season – 2007 Jimmie Johnson (Atlanta), 2011 Tony Stewart (Martinsville), 2016 – Jimmie Johnson (Martinsville), 2018 – Joey Logano (Martinsville), 2021 – Kyle Larson (Texas).

The thing is, we could also see a non-playoff winner, remember?

Kyle Larson won last spring, was 2nd this spring and had a fast car there last Fall too. On like tracks this season he’s finished 2nd (Kansas 1), 8th (Kansas 2) and 9th (Coke 600). His only question is, what’s the motivation behind him now that he’s been eliminated from championship contention.

What about Kyle Busch?

He has 7 top 7’s in his last 9 Vegas starts including 4 straight top 6’s. He was 4th here in the spring and 3rd at Kansas’ spring race. He also enters off of a top 5 scored last week too.

You can’t discredit Busch’s JGR teammate of Martin Truex Jr. either. He has 9 top eight’s in his last 10 there overall. He was 6th and 5th respectively at Kansas this season as a like track. Quite possible he could steal a win on Sunday.

I like Tyler Reddick as well. He just won on a 1.5-mile track in the Round of 12 opener at Texas and has a pair of top 10 finishes here in-a-row including a 7th place run in the spring. Reddick also has 2 finishes outside the top 30 this year at Kansas but both were due to crashes while leading when a tire went down too…

Even Kevin Harvick could have a say. He has had three Top-4 finishes in a 5 race span before being eighth, 10th, 20th and ninth in his last four.

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