Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – Highly-motivated drivers and the debut of the Next Gen car have certainly helped the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season off to a fast and furious start with no reason to believe that trend won’t continue this week in the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as the new cars make their 1.5-mile debut at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Last week’s Auto Club Speedway winner – and reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion – Kyle Larson shows up in Vegas as the defending race winner. It marked his first victory as driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and was the first of 10 victories on the 2021 season. He led a race best 103 of the 267-laps and his 3.156-second win over championship rival Denny Hamlin was substantial, however, not necessarily indicative of the racy-nature of the Spring 400-miler.
There were 27 lead changes in the race – second most all-time at the track – one shy of the high mark (28) set in 2007. And the new car – introduced for the 2022 season – has already given reason to believe that kind of highly competitive circumstance will take place again this Sunday. There were 104 green flag passes for the lead in the season-opening Daytona 500 (fifth-most all-time for the event) and 32 lead changes last week at Auto Club Speedway – the third most in that track’s history.
There are eight former winners in Sunday’s field, led by three-time Vegas champion Brad Keselowski, who arrives at the track ranked 10th in the championship standings in his first year driving the No. 6 Ford for Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing team.
Three other drivers – Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing), Martin Truex Jr. (Joe Gibbs Racing) and Joey Logano (Team Penske) – have won twice on the 1.5-mile high banks. Las Vegas natives Kyle and Kurt Busch each have a win as does Hamlin, who claimed last year’s Playoff victory.
Even before the introduction of the Next Gen car, Las Vegas featured tight racing. There have been at least 20 lead changes in six of the last seven races there. Although shut out of Victory Lane in 2021, Ford boasts five wins in the last 10 years at the track, while Toyota has three and Chevrolet has two.
Also an example of the series’ competitive parity, the top-10 drivers in the championship standings are now separated by a mere 21 points from the Sunoco Rookie of the Year candidate Austin Cindric – who won the Daytona 500 opener and holds an eight-point lead over Team Penske teammate Logano in the rankings – to 10th place Keselowski.
Of note, Las Vegas is statistically Logano’s best circuit on the schedule. He boasts an 8.8 average finish with 11 top-10 showings (including two wins) in 17 starts.
There are six Fords, three Toyotas and one Chevrolet driver (Erik Jones) currently in the top-10. This will be Cindric’s NASCAR Cup Series debut at Las Vegas.
Several racers find themselves among that driver standings top-10 for the first time this early in the season.
Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe – last year’s Sunoco Rookie of the Year and a two-time Xfinity Series winner at Vegas – is ranked fifth. Petty GMS Motorsports driver Erik Jones is ranked sixth, followed by another SHR driver, Aric Almirola, who is the only driver to earn top-10 finishes in both races so far this season. Daytona 500 runner-up Bubba Wallace is ranked ninth.
This week’s Next Gen debut on the 1.5-mile track will be important as that style of venue it is the bread-and-butter of the 36-race schedule. NASCAR has allowed additional time on track for the NASCAR Cup Series cars – a 35-minutes practice for all cars at once instead of splitting into groups in advance of Group Qualifying at 2:15 p.m. (ET) on Saturday.
“That win [at Las Vegas in 2021] was really special for us,” said Larson, who has won four of the last eight races on 1.5-milers dating back to last season.
“It was our first win as a team and meant a lot to a lot of people on this team – some visiting Victory Lane in the Cup Series for the first time. But I also know how much it meant to (team owners) Rick and Linda (Hendrick) because the paint scheme was similar to what [their late son] Ricky ran. It’s an honor to drive for them and to drive this car with this [paint] scheme that means so much to so many.”
XFINITY SERIES IS READY TO GAMBLE IN LAS VEGAS
Veteran A.J. Allmendinger not only leads the NASCAR Xfinity Series driver standings, but he returns to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Saturday afternoon’s Alsco Uniforms 300 (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) as defending race winner, taking a .978-second win over eventual 2021 champion Daniel Hemric in last year’s March race at the track.
Two races into the 2022 season, Allmendinger, 40, currently holds a slim 1-point lead over Vegas-native Noah Gragson in the championship standings. And although Gragson, 23, has yet to win on his “home track,” last year’s championship finalist has finished top-10 in all six career starts on the 1.5-mile speedway. His best showing is a runner-up finish in 2020 and he’s got a pair of third-place finishes too, including last year’s Playoff race.
Gragson is the only driver with top-five finishes in both 2022 races with a third place at Daytona and a runner-up effort at California last week in the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet. His 37 laps led on the season in second-most to Hemric’s 48 laps out front.
The Las Vegas native can expect to be challenged mightily by his JR Motorsports teammates this weekend, including Josh Berry, who won the Fall race at Las Vegas last year and joins Allmendinger as the only two fulltime series drivers with victories at Vegas this weekend.
“We’re coming back to Vegas with the same team that I won with last year at this place, so the confidence is high going into the weekend,” said Berry, who drives the No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.
“We made big strides last weekend finding the balance and we were in contention at the end, so I know this Tire Pros Camaro has speed. Taking everything we learned from last weekend in Fontana (Calif.) and last year from Vegas, there’s no reason we can’t put this car back in Victory Lane.”
Another JR Motorsports teammate, Justin Allgaier, comes to Las Vegas ranked third in the driver standings, a mere three-points behind Allmendinger. He also is looking for his first victory at Vegas but has three runner-up finishes – the most recent coming in this race, last March.
Reigning series champion Hemric will also be trying to earn his first victory of the season. Now driving for Kaulig Motorsports, he is Allmendinger’s new teammate. Although he’s led the most laps of 2022 and earned two stage wins, Hemric is still looking for his first top 10 of the year. He’s ranked ninth in the standings.
Austin Hill, a perennial title contender in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, scored his first Xfinity Series win in the Daytona opener as he contends for the title for Richard Childress Racing. He’s ranked 11th heading into Vegas, where he won back-to-back Truck Series races in 2019-2020.
CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES ROLLS THE DICE IN VEGAS
The NASCAR Camping World Truck Series returns to competition after a week off in the Victoria’s Voice Foundation 200 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway Friday night (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
John Hunter Nemechek is the defending race winner and shows up in Vegas ready to get his 2022 season back on track. Last season’s winningest driver started his five-win tally off with a victory on the Las Vegas 1.5-miler, leading a race best 94 of the 134 laps to take the trophy over his team owner Kyle Busch by a mere .686-seconds. The win was only his second top five in eight Vegas starts.
Nemechek is, however, one of seven former winners competing on Friday night, including former two-time series champion Todd Bodine who won at Las Vegas back in 2005 and will be making his first start in the series since August, 2013 (at Pocono, Pa.). The FOX Sports analyst will drive the No. 62 Halmar Friesen Racing Toyota Tundra – one of six races he’s set to enter in 2022, which will bring his career total NASCAR national series starts to a nice even 800.
Three-time series champion Matt Crafton, 45, is also making a milestone start this weekend. The driver of the No. 88 ThorSport Racing Toyota will be making his 500th Camping World Truck Series start at Las Vegas. The veteran has 300 top-10 finishes and 15 wins in his storied career but is still racing for his first Las Vegas trophy in what will be his 26th start at the track. His best previous finish is runner-up – three times (2009, 2011, 2012).
Crafton could use a good finish this weekend to get back in the thick of competition again. He’s currently 21st in the championship standings after a tough Daytona season-opener two weeks ago.
Zane Smith, who won at Daytona, leads the standings by two-points over 2021 series champion Ben Rhodes, who earned his first career victory in the series on the Las Vegas high banks in 2017. Both drivers boast impressive Vegas resumes. Smith, 22, has three top-10 finishes in four starts, but is still looking for his first win. Rhodes has seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts, including that victory and a runner-up showing in the Playoff race last Fall.