Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – The second round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begins with Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and already the championship battle has proven to be both intense and unpredictable.
Regular Season Champion, Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson continues to hold on to the points lead and returns to Las Vegas as the most recent race winner there, taking the victory handily in the March race by more than 3-seconds over Brad Keselowski.
Larson is also the series most recent race winner, earning the trophy – his sixth of 2021 – last weekend in a highly competitive first round Playoff finale at Bristol Motor Speedway. It marked the fourth consecutive win for a Hendrick Motorsports driver in a NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs elimination race.
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr., who won the Playoff race at Richmond Raceway and Denny Hamlin, who won the Darlington Raceway Playoff opener are ranked just behind Larson in the reseeded standings.
Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch round out the top five in the Playoff points. Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate and the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott is sixth in the reseeded standings, followed by two other teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron.
Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Keselowski, JGR’s Christopher Bell and Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick round out the Playoff 12.
Interestingly, the winner of the Las Vegas Playoff race has always been a Playoff driver. However, last year’s winner Kurt Busch was among the four drivers just eliminated from Playoff contention. The Vegas native beat fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto by a scant .148-seconds to take that victory last September.
Six of the current Playoff drivers have won previously at Las Vegas, led by Keselowski’s three victories (2014, 2016, 2018). Logano (2019, 2020), Harvick, (2015, 2018), and Truex (2017, 2019) each have a pair of wins at the 1.5-miler. Larson and Kyle Busch (2009) each have one.
Larson led a race best 103 of the 267 laps to take the Spring victory – marking the first time a Las Vegas race winner has also led the most laps since March, 2018 when Harvick led a dominating 214 of the 276 – six races ago.
The 29-year-old Larson is having the finest season statistically of his seven full-time NASCAR Cup Series years, with career bests in wins (six), top fives (16) and top 10s (21) already. His 1,905 laps led, to date, is also a career high and 676 laps more than anyone else this year. Should he break the 2,000-laps led mark, he would become only one of 20 to ever do so all-time and just the fourth active driver to accomplish the feat.
“It’s nice going back to a track we’ve won at before,” Larson said. “We were really good at Vegas earlier this year so definitely excited to go back and hoping we have similar speed. The temperature will be much warmer this weekend, so that changes things but our team has been really good at adapting to every situation this year.”
As has been the case all season, Larson knows that Hamlin and Truex will be tough this weekend. Hamlin is still looking for his first Vegas win and that motivation is powerful. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has posted top fives the last two races here, leading a race best 121 of the 268 laps in last year’s Playoff race only to finish third. Truex, driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, was sixth this Spring and fourth in the 2020 Playoff race.
Although two of the Team Penske drivers – Logano and Keselowski – are ranked in the bottom four of this Playoff re-ranking, they both show up at Las Vegas as race favorites. They have combined to win three of the last six races between 2018-2020. Both scored top 10s this Spring. Logano’s 8.7 average finish in 16 starts is best among the Playoff 12.
Harvick and Blaney are also top drivers to watch at Las Vegas. The 2014 Cup Series champion Harvick’s 679 laps led is best on the weekend grid at Vegas. He has 12 top-10 finishes in 24 starts. Blaney has seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts and an average finish of 9.2 – one of only two drivers (also Larson, 9.8) with an average finish inside the top-10.
A victory would not only be an automatic ticket into the Playoffs’ Round of 8, but extend a 12-season winning streak for Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. He has 19 top-10 finishes through the first 29 races and his runner-up effort last week at Bristol equals his season best – he had another second place at Kansas.
“We’ve gone about this a number of different ways throughout the years,” Harvick said of his Playoff challenge. “We’ve pointed our way through, and we’ve won our way through when our backs were against the wall. You’ve got to take what each race will give you and there’s no way you can force things. That’s where a lot of people get themselves in trouble – when they start trying to do things outside their comfort zone of where their car is that particular day.
“Some days you have what you have, and you need to get that finish with your car, and if you do that, usually you finish better than probably you would otherwise. Las Vegas is no different. We’ll just have to go out there and grind away and see where we end up.”
NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoffs take the green flag in Las Vegas
After 26 weeks of thrilling racing action capped off by a side-by-side photo finish for the Regular Season Championship – the 12-driver NASCAR Xfinity Series Playoff field has been set and the title run begins this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
A.J. Allmendinger took the Bristol, Tenn. victory sideways last week over defending series champion Austin Cindric to earn the regular season title and a 15-point bonus. However, the two drivers enter Saturday night’s Playoff opener at Las Vegas tied in points but Cindric owns the tie breaker because of his five wins compared to Allmendinger’s four in the reseeded Playoff standings.
It all sets up for a dramatic Alsco Uniforms 302 this Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) to begin the seven-race Playoff run.
Justin Allgaier (two wins), Noah Gragson (two wins), Justin Haley (one win), Daniel Hemric, Jeb Burton (one win), Harrison Burton, Myatt Snider (one win), Brandon Jones, Riley Herbst and Jeremy Clements round out the Xfinity Series Playoff field.
Allmendinger won the March race at Las Vegas by a .987-second margin over Hemric, who finished third in the Vegas Playoff race last Fall. Allmendinger is the only previous Las Vegas winner in the field. The track has had 20 different winners in 28 races, making it one of the more unpredictable venues of this important stretch of the season.
The victory in the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet for Allmendinger this Spring came in his first Xfinity Series start at the track. It is indicative of the 39-year old’s recent run in the schedule. He has finished first or second in five of the last seven races, including wins at Bristol and Michigan.
Cindric has a similarly solid resume at Las Vegas earning top-10 finishes in four of his seven starts, although he is still vying for his first victory in the No. 22 Team Penske Ford on the 1.5-mile high banks.
He comes into the Playoff opener looking to reclaim the consistency that has made him one of the sport’s most promising young drivers. His 723 laps led is easily the most in the series this year. In the past five races, he’s had three top-five finishes, but two others 30th or worse.
At the other tracks in this Playoff round, he has three top-five finishes – including a runner-up showing this Spring – at Talladega, Ala. and a pair of top-five finishes at the Charlotte ROVAL – this round’s elimination race.
“Any competitor, especially when you’re racing at the highest level trying to win races, trying to win championships, any competitor you want those guys to push you and I certainly feel like those two groups (Allmendinger and also rookie Ty Gibbs) in particular, have pushed us,” Cindric said.
One of the hottest drivers heading into the Playoffs is Las Vegas native Noah Gragson, who has won two of the last three races and has six top-10 finishes in the last seven races on the schedule.
Although the driver of the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet has never won at his “home” track, he finished runner-up to Chase Briscoe in last year’s Playoff race and boasts a perfect 5-for-5 in top-10 finishes. Four times Gragson’s finished inside the top-five at Vegas.
Veterans Justin Allgaier and Daniel Hemric also bring solid Vegas resumes to the weekend.
Allgaier has 11 top-10 finishes in 14 starts at the track with a pair of runner-up finishes in the Fall race (2011 and 2018). He’s finished top-10 in eight of the last nine races heading into the Playoffs – including three top-five efforts in the last four races.
Hemric, driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, was runner-up to Allmendinger in March and led a race high 74 laps. He was third in last year’s Playoff race at Las Vegas. He comes into town looking to regain some consistency. with three top-10 efforts in the last five races, but also two finishes or 20th or worse.
Among those five Playoff drivers still looking for a first trip to Victory Lane in 2021, Harrison Burton has to feel optimistic in Las Vegas, where the driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has three top-10 finishes in three starts. He has been solid in the last two months with top-10 finishes in the last eight races, including a best of runner-up at Darlington, S.C. three races ago.
NASCAR Camping World Truck Series rolls the dice in Las Vegas
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series wasn’t without drama for the opening elimination race in the 2021 Playoffs last weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway. Kyle Busch Motorsports’ rookie Chandler Smith, 19, won his first career race taking the lead on a final re-start with only five laps remaining to advance to the Round of 8 in the Playoffs in an amazing clutch performance.
Smith’s KBM teammate John Hunter Nemechek – a five-race winner and the Regular Season Champion – will start Friday night’s Victoria’s Voice Foundation 200 presented by Westgate Resorts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as the Playoffs’ points leader – with a 24-point edge over GMS Racing driver Sheldon Creed, who won the opening two races of the Playoffs (Gateway and Darlington).
ThorSport Racing driver Ben Rhodes, a two-race winner in 2021, is ranked third in the reseeded Playoff standings. Zane Smith, Chandler Smith, three-time series champion Matt Crafton, rookie Carson Hocevar and Stewart Friesen all remain championship eligible, advancing to this three-race round with races at Las Vegas, Talladega, Ala. and the Charlotte ROVAL.
Todd Gilliland and two-race winner Austin Hill were eliminated from Playoff contention last week at Bristol. Hill, driver of the No. 16 Hattori Racing Enterprises Toyota, is the defending winner of this Fall Las Vegas race and the only multi-time race winner in the field – taking the Playoff victories here in 2019 and 2020.
Nemechek, driver of the No. 4 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota, won at Las Vegas in March leading a dominating 94 of the race’s 134 laps and scoring the trophy by only .686-seconds over his team owner and the track’s winningest driver, Kyle Busch. Hill was third, followed by current Playoff drivers Friesen and Crafton.
There are five former race winners in the Friday’s field, including Hill, Nemechek, Rhodes (2017), Johnny Sauter (2007) and Grant Enfinger (2018).
Not only is Nemechek, 24, a favorite as a past winner. This year’s Regular Season Champion has three wins, a pair of runner-up finishes and that third place at Bristol in the last nine races. He has only one other top-five finish at Las Vegas, however, in addition to his win this March and has led laps in only two of his previous seven starts at the 1.5-mile track.
Creed, 24, looks to maintain his Playoff momentum. The defending series champion led 189 of the 200 laps at Bristol last week – a race that took place only days after Richard Childress Racing announced the young Californian would driver fulltime for the championship organization in the NASCAR Xfinity Series in 2022.
Rhodes, driver of the No. 99 ThorSport Toyota, is another easy favorite at Vegas. He won in his second start at the track (2017) and has six top-10 runs in nine races. The 24-year-old is hoping to revitalize his work this season. After scoring back-to-back wins at Daytona’s speedway and road courses in February, he has led only 11 laps total in the last 10 races – none in the five races immediately prior to Las Vegas.
Friesen, driver of the No. 52 Halmar Friesen Racing Toyota, is currently on a three-race top-five run – marking the first time he’s put together three consecutive top fives in two years. He brings a solid resume to the Vegas high banks as well, with three top-10 finishes in three series starts there.
“I think everybody’s confidence is really high now for sure,” the series’ most recent winner Chandler Smith said. “I definitely think we’re going to be pretty good going into the next round.”