5 burning questions for Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN)

How Much Is Sunday a Test For The Fall Race?

You never punt on a race in NASCAR these days, especially ones with so much parity. However, how much on Sunday do you take to learn for the Fall?

That’s a tricky proposition.

For starters, yes it’s the same track between the spring and the fall, however, typically temperatures are much higher for the October race than it is in the spring would as a result, could vastly change your setups.

The thing is, if you’re still around in the Round of 8 though, a Vegas win can go a long way towards a championship. Just ask Joey Logano. He won last year’s Vegas race and used that to their advantage of winning the championship a few weeks later.

Should Tracks We Visit Twice Differentiate Between The 2 Stops?

NASCAR is showing a trend and that’s when visiting tracks for a second time, you better differentiate between the two or they’re likely coming to get one of your dates in the process. Pocono, Michigan, Dover, Texas and Loudon have all found out the hard way. They didn’t adapt. They had two races each and both looked similar.

Same track. Same distances. Nothing really all that different between the two. They each lost one of their dates.

Now, we’re left with 12 tracks that we visit twice a year on the schedule. Among them, seven are owned by NASCAR (Daytona, Talladega, Phoenix, Martinsville, Richmond, Kansas and Darlington). The other four (Las Vegas, Atlanta, Bristol and Charlotte) are SMI run. But, when looking at this, it’s clear, SMI is the one thinking outside of the box here and likely doing so to keep butts in the seats and dates on the calendar as a result.

Among their four tracks they visit twice, three of them they changed it up. Bristol switched their first date to a dirt race. Charlotte altered their second race to a ROVAL. Atlanta altered their track and has a 500 miler in the spring and 400 miler that this year will be under the lights in the summer. Vegas is just a 400 mile races twice with not differential between the two weekends.

Should Vegas feel threatened?

I don’t see them taking a race away from the track for a while, but NASCAR is showing that they’re open to visiting other tracks that aren’t on the schedule now. They’ve added COTA, Road America, World Wide Technology Raceway, Nashville, North Wilkesboro, Chicago street course etc. Indianapolis moved to the road course.

I don’t see them changing around any of the Daytona or Talladega races and as long as Phoenix hosts the finale, they’re set. Martinsville switched it up with a night race in the spring while Darlington has a day race in the spring and the Southern 500 under the lights on Labor Day weekend. Their only three tracks in question is Vegas, Kansas and Richmond.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – MARCH 06: Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, leads the field to the green flag to start the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 06, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images)

Will Late Race Restart Alter The Race?

Las Vegas has had some good trends. 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.

In 2020, Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman each 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.

For the Fall race that year, 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.

Last spring, Alex Bowman used a late race pit call after a late caution to come out of the pits with the lead and he’d hold the field off. He led just the final 3 laps.

Last Fall, Joey Logano pit under a late race caution and used his fresh tires to chase down the leaders. He led the final three laps.

Cautions completely altered the entire race in 4 of the last 6 visits here. 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.

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)

Why Do Only The Best Win In Vegas and Does That Stop This Weekend?

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

Over the last 14 Cup races in Vegas, Denny Hamlin, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Kyle Larson have combined to win 12 of them.

Also, Penske, SHR, HMS, JGR/Furniture Row have won the 13 of the last 14 Vegas races. The last non team of them to win other than Kurt Busch’s triumph with Chip Ganassi Racing in the 2020 Fall race? Roush/Fenway Racing (Carl Edwards) in 2011.

However, maybe RCR, RFK Racing or Trackhouse will win outright on Sunday. These are arguably the top three teams in regards to performance right now and one could say that they upset the big teams when it’s all said and done this weekend.

In regards to Trackhouse, around this time last season, we wondered if they could sustain this early season success. Daniel Suarez finished fourth in Fontana. A week later, Ross Chastain led 83 laps and finished third in Vegas. Were they going to be a legitimate threat?

They ended up being so. Chastain won twice and marched all the way to the final round of the playoffs which ended with a runner-up finish in the final standings. Suarez won in Sonoma and was 10th when it was all said and done.

The question for 2023 was, could they build even further off that 2022 success or was that a flash in the pan with this being a new car?

I’d say after the early start to this season, they may be the leaders in the clubhouse for a championship run.

Chastain has won 3 of the 4 stages this season including leading the most laps (91) on Sunday in Fontana. While he didn’t necessarily win the race outright, he did sweep both stages and finished third.

If you go back to the end of last season, Chastain has six top four finishes in the last eight races including 5 of which in the last 6 at that.

“To start off this year the way we have is a total 180 from last year when it was not like this, so as much as it stings, as much as it does hurt, hats off to Chevrolet for top four there, and pumped to be in this position with Trackhouse, and for our first crack at the big tracks here, it’s all we can ask for, and we will regroup and study and be back next week,” said Chastain.

Suarez was one spot behind Chastain on Sunday in fourth place.

Trackhouse had dual top 10’s in Daytona (Suarez 7th, Chastain 9th) and now dual top 5’s in Fontana (Chastain 3rd, Suarez 4th).

Watch out.

For RCR and RFK, once upon a time, Richard Childress Racing and Roush Racing were two of the premiere teams in NASCAR. Those old Dale Earnhardt vs. Mark Martin battles were a sight to behold. Now, history is seemingly repeating itself. Well, not quite yet, but it could soon be if the ascension of these two organizations continues through the 2023 season.

At the Busch Light Clash, RFK Racing (formerly Roush Racing) struggled. However, they vowed for it not to ruin their end of season momentum from 2022. They didn’t either.

With 5 laps remaining of the Daytona 500, Brad Keselowski was 1st. Chris Buescher was 2nd. While end of race carnage halted that momentum, it was still Buescher in fourth and Keselowski in 22nd. However, Keselowski led the most laps in that race (42) while Buescher led the second most (32).

Last Sunday in Fontana, they finished seventh (Keselowski) and 13th (Buescher). For Keselowski, it was a rebound for an early race spin. For the team, it was a massive improvement from a year ago to where Keselowski finished 27th and Buescher in 33rd.

The same sort of improvement is on the horizon for RCR. While they looked good here last year with Tyler Reddick sweeping both stages and leading 90 laps in the process and teammate Austin Dillon finishing runner-up, this season, Busch won this time around and Dillon in ninth for Dual Top 10’s.

However, look at how this season has gone for them overall. They finished 2-3 in the Clash, they were running 1-2 at Lap 200 of the Daytona 500 and now 1-9 in Fontana.

2022 was the most wins (4) in a single season for RCR since Kevin Harvick won 4 times for them in 2013. It’s a long way from being winless in 2021 and having 1 win in 2020. In fact, from 2014 through 2021, they were winless in 6 of those 8 seasons. They had 1 win in the other 2 years each. This time, they had 4 trips to victory lane and 3 of the 4 were at iconic tracks in Indianapolis, Daytona and Talladega.

While all 4 wins were also on “wild card” type tracks with a pair of road course wins and a two more on a superspeedway, it still was signaling that RCR is trending up.

Busch gave them a win on a 2-mile track on Sunday.

Busch should have a great chance of winning on Sunday. Tyler Reddick was strong in this car a year ago. Ross Chastain won an Xfinity race for Ganassi here and was 3rd last spring after leading 83 laps and runner-up last Fall after leading 68 more. On top of that, Chastain finished 7th in both Kansas races last season as well. One could say he should be the favorite on Sunday. Suarez actually finished each stage in the second race in third.

Keselowski has a Top-10 finish in all but three starts 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, with a runner-up and seventh in 2021. Now he’s with his own team at RFK Racing and picking up speed including a Top-10 result last weekend in Fontana.

Can SHR/23XI Racing Get Going This Weekend In Vegas?

As we spend the 2023 season and look back and celebrate a great career that Kevin Harvick has had, one thing being overshadowed now is, where does Stewart-Haas Racing turn to replace him?

That’s ever more evident in the fact that as we sit here after two races run this season, Harvick is carrying the weight of SHR on his shoulders again. He backed his 12th place finish in last week’s Daytona 500 with a fifth place result on Sunday in Fontana. The other three drivers finished 20th (Chase Briscoe), 33rd (Ryan Preece) and 35th (Aric Almirola).

As teams in the NASCAR garage have gotten younger, SHR is in transition. Almirola almost retired at the end of last season. He’s back for another year in 2023. However, his days are numbered as this could be his final year too. If not 2023, I don’t see him going much past 2024.

Now that we for sure know that 2023 will be Harvick’s last, there’s a very real threat that none of the drivers that were with this organization as soon as 2019, will be racing for them in 2024.

However, as SHR has taken a step back in performance, who’s going to take the baton and carry SHR into the future?

“I know you don’t like to hear these things,” Tony Stewart said in a video tribute to Harvick back in January, “but you’re the flagship at SHR. Single-handedly, without a doubt, the greatest racer we ever had.”

When SHR was formed for their debut season in 2009, they immediately won. However, this was Tony Stewart’s team then despite them also having Ryan Newman as a part of it.

Stewart won 13 of the first 15 races for SHR. Newman had 3 total wins from 2009 through 2013.

2014 it transitioned really over to Kevin Harvick. SHR doubled their fleet that year going from a 2 car team to a 4 car operation as they added Harvick, Kurt Busch and Danica Patrick while letting Newman go.

Harvick won the championship that year. He and Busch were the veteran presence that SHR needed as Stewart’s shelf life was waning.

Over their next 23 trips to victory lane, Busch and Harvick combined for 22 of them. Stewart had one.

Clint Bowyer won for them twice in 2018 but this was largely in the midst of Harvick’s reign.

SHR has won 69 total races entering the 2023 season, Harvick has won 37 of them. In fact, from 2019 on, Harvick has 16 of SHR’s 19 wins with only Cole Custer (once), Aric Almirola (once) and Chase Briscoe (once) having won in that span.

So when Harvick walks, out goes 37 wins and counting with him. Almirola has two trips to victory lane at SHR, Briscoe has one and Ryan Preece has never won a Cup race yet. I would sense that Custer would be the easiest replacement for Harvick to move him back up, but he has that lone win in 2020 too.

In theory, if Almirola returns in 2024, SHR would boast a lineup with 5 career wins (that’s if they don’t win at all in 2023). If Almirola walks too, out goes his 3 career wins.

Which is why the most intriguing aspect to Harvick announcing his retirement is where does SHR turn? Who’s going to be their new on track leader?

They sit 4th (Harvick), 25th (Almirola), 33rd (Briscoe) and 34th (Preece) in points after the first two weeks.

23XI Racing is in a similar boat. Not necessarily as their future, but their 2023 stats. They had high promise entering the season but both Tyler Reddick (38th in points) and Bubba Wallace (26th in points) are back with the SHR trio that sits way behind the pack right now.

Between three SHR drivers and the pair at 23XI Racing, they make up 5 of the bottom 14 spots in points. JJ Yeley, Jimmie Johnson and Travis Pastrana are three drivers in that mix and they have raced just once this year.

Wallace was 20th and 30th in the two races this season.

Reddick struggled in the Clash, was 39th in the Daytona 500 and 34th in Fontana. If you go back to the end of last season, he’s had four DNF’s in the last 5 races including being the second to worst finisher in Daytona and third to worst in Fontana.

Luckily for 23XI Racing, the Toyota camp was strong at both Vegas and Kansas last year. Both are like tracks. The 45 car swept the Kansas races.

Reddick personally, has three consecutive Top-10 finishes here including 7th in last year’s spring race and sixth in the Fall. He led 32 laps in last October’s race. Reddick also had 2 finishes outside the top 30 last year at Kansas but both were due to crashes while leading when a tire went down too…This car, won both Kansas races however with Kurt Busch in the spring and Bubba Wallace in the Fall. On top of that, this car won the opening stage here last Fall as well.

Wallace has the capability to shine here as well.

For SHR, Briscoe was 4th the last time out here and 8th in Stage 1 of the spring race before a crash. Almirola (6th last spring) and Preece (4th in Truck race last year) can also show what they’ve got as well.

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