Column: NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs Round Of 8 Starts This Weekend In Las Vegas

Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – Following yet another dramatic round of NASCAR Cup Series Playoff action – including a “walk-off” home run of sorts last Sunday at the Charlotte ROVAL by Joe Gibbs Racing’s Christopher Bell – the series begins the Round of 8 Playoff races that will ultimately set the Championship 4 Round lineup.

There is certainly no shortage of intrigue leading into this week’s South Point 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway – the first race in a competitive round that will feature two 1.5-mile tracks – at Las Vegas and next week at Homestead-Miami – followed by the Martinsville, Va. short track.

Bell, whose only top 10 in the last three races was his ROVAL win, now finds himself deep into the Playoffs after leading only the final two laps in Charlotte. He essentially rallied from longshot to title contender after the checkered flag in a race that also stunningly eliminated reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle Larson from further Playoff competition after his No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet endured a late race mechanical issue.

As the standings re-set for this important round, Hendrick Motorsports driver – and 2021 series champion – Chase Elliott retains his place atop the leader board. The Regular Season Champion is 20 points ahead of Team Penske driver Joey Logano heading into Sunday’s race.

Trackhouse Racing’s Ross Chastain – a two-time winner in 2022 – is next, 25 points back, followed by Bell, who is now 28 points behind Elliott.

Ryan Blaney, who is still looking for his first victory of the season in the No. 12 Team Penske Ford and Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron are fifth and sixth in the re-set standings, both 31 points behind Elliott.

Bell’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and perennial championship contender Denny Hamlin is ranked seventh, 33 points behind Elliott. Stewart-Haas Racing’s Chase Briscoe hold the final position, 37 points behind Elliott after posting a dramatic finish of his own at the ROVAL to claim that final spot from Larson.

There are seven former Las Vegas winners in Sunday’s field – Logano and Hamlin the only current Playoff drivers with a trophy hoist here. Alex Bowman won the most recent Vegas race this Spring, but announced this week he will be missing the next three events on the schedule while recovering from concussion-like symptoms.

Four current Playoff drivers were among the top-10 in March’s Next Gen car Vegas debut. Byron led laps and turned in a career best fifth-place finish at the track. Chastain – who scored his career first NASCAR national series win in the Xfinity Series at Vegas in 2018, led the most laps (83) in the Vegas Spring Cup race en route to a third-place finish. Elliott finished ninth and Bell, who started from pole position, claimed a 10th-place finish.

Las Vegas is one of Logano’s best tracks statistically – he is a two-time NASCAR Cup Series race winner there and has 11 top-10 finishes in 18 starts. He’s one of three two-time Vegas winners on Sunday’s grid – also including JGR’s Martin Truex Jr. and Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick. Larson won in Spring, 2021 and has four other runner-up showings.

RFK Racing owner/driver Brad Keselowski is the winningest active driver at the track with three victories.

Briscoe is the only back-to-back NASCAR Xfinity Series race winner in Vegas history, sweeping the two 2020 races. He’s coming off a clutch showing at the ROVAL to transfer into this Playoff round and should be considered a strong contender at Vegas as well.

Bell, 27, who obviously brings a lot of momentum out West, is turning in the best NASCAR Cup Series season of his young career, with 11 top-five finishes in the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, including two victories (at New Hampshire and the ROVAL).

“Vegas is one of my favorite tracks and Joe Gibbs Racing has been strong on the 1.5-mile tracks,” Bell said. “Vegas is one I’ve had circled for a while and one we can contend for a win, or at least escape there with a good amount of points.”

Bell’s JGR Toyota teammate, Hamlin is the defending Playoff race winner at Las Vegas, leading 137 of the 267 laps en route to what was his second Playoff win in 2021. Hamlin has top-10 finishes in five of the six Playoff races this season, including back-to-back runner-up showings in the opening two rounds – at Darlington, S.C. and Kansas. A 32nd-place finish (mechanical issue) in March snapped a three-race streak of top-five Vegas finishes.

Practice and Busch Light Pole Qualifying for the South Point 400 will be held Saturday morning and aired on USA Network at 12:30 p.m.

 

Xfinity Series Playoffs Roll The Dice In Vegas

The NASCAR Xfinity Series also begins the next round of the 2022 Playoffs this week with Saturday’s Alsco Uniforms 302 (3 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Four different drivers have won the last four series races on the 1.5-mile Vegas track. JR Motorsports driver Josh Berry is the defending winner of this Fall Playoff race – earning a convincing 4.3-second victory over teammate Justin Allgaier in 2021.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Ty Gibbs won at Las Vegas this March, edging Las Vegas native Noah Gragson. Berry finished fourth and Allgaier was fifth

All these drivers have advanced to the Round of 8 with Gragson atop the standings by 12-points over Kaulig Racing’s A.J. Allmendinger. Gibbs is ranked third, 18 points back and Allgaier is fourth, 23 points back.

Berry, Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Hill, JGR driver Brandon Jones and JR Motorsports’ Sam Mayer round out the Playoff Round of 8 competitors.

Although he is still winless in seven races at his “home track,” the Las Vegas native Gragson does have a pair of runner-up finishes (2020, 2022) in the No. 9 JR Motorsports Chevrolet and has never finished outside the top-10 in those seven starts.

Allmendinger, who won two of the three races in the last round of the Playoffs – back-to-back victories at Talladega (Ala.) and the Charlotte ROVAL – is also a former winner at Las Vegas taking the trophy in Spring, 2021. He’s finished top-10 in all three starts as well.

The 40-year-old is currently riding a string of 11 top-10 finishes – eight top-five finishes in the last eight races – with three of his five victories in the No. 16 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet in that span. His 26 top-10 finishes through 29 races this season is best in the series.

Although he celebrated a victory the last time he raced in Vegas, Gibbs, 20, would love to have a good showing this weekend to sort of course-correct his championship hopes. He has six top-10 finishes in the seven races coming to Las Vegas – including all three Playoff races – but suffered a disappointing 36th-place finish in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota at Bristol, Tenn. last month.

Practice and qualifying for the Alsco Uniforms 302 will take place Friday evening beginning at 8:35 p.m. ET and airing on USA Network.

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