The playoffs are upon us as the opening round of the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series postseason will take place on Sunday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That in itself is a big storyline, but there are plenty surrounding this weekend’s South Point 400 (3 p.m. ET/NBCSN/PRN/SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Here are the top five.
New Race, Completely New 1st Round
For the first time ever, Las Vegas will host a second Cup race weekend. Normally, the series had visited the 1.5-mile track just once a year. That always fell in March. But now, the series is back for a second trip to Nevada, one that is arguably much more important than any of the other races that you’ve seen on the Vegas race track.
Also, this is a completely new first round in general. Last year and for several years prior, we always opened up the playoffs on a similar 1.5-mile track at the Chicagoland Speedway. Now, it’s shifted west to Vegas. After Vegas, we go to Richmond for a short track race. Normally, that slot was filled by New Hampshire. Then, the cutoff race for the first round is to the Charlotte ROVAL. The last few years, it’s been Dover.
As you can see, this is a completely overhauled round.
Can’t Afford A Bad Start
You never want to get off to a bad start in the first race of the playoffs in general. This year though, you really don’t want to. With a short track next week and the what is sure to be a crazy race on the ROVAL a week after, you don’t want to be playing catch up over the final two weeks of the first round. If you’re in a hole leaving Vegas, you’re going to have a difficult time coming out of it.
That’s why we shouldn’t be surprised to see the top 10 filled with playoff drivers on Sunday.
Will Playoff Drivers Shine?
I have no doubt in my mind that a playoff driver will win on Sunday, but the bigger storyline will be which ones finish well. Out of the 16 drivers in this field, a majority of them have struggled in the past at Vegas. Denny Hamlin has just one top five finish in his last 11 Vegas starts. He’s led a total of 14 combined laps there. Clint Bowyer has led 17 laps in Las Vegas but has just one top 10 finish over his last six Vegas starts. His last top five came all the way back in 2009. His teammate Aric Almirola finished 10th in March but that was his lone top 10 in 10 Vegas tries. Another SHR driver in Kurt Busch may be hot on the season but he’s been cold at Vegas. He’s finished 30th or worse in each of his last two starts and has a best finish of ninth over his last 12 starts at his home track in general.
Alex Bowman has never finished on the lead lap in Vegas in three starts. Chase Elliott has two finishes of 34th or worse in three tries. Jimmie Johnson’s last four finishes are 41st, 3rd, 11th and 12th respectively. Austin Dillon has led two total laps with four of his six starts seeing him finish 16th or worse.
So, who can improve upon those stats and finish well will have a leg up in the playoff standings.
Will We See A Similar Race As The Spring?
The race day temperatures for the spring race were unseasonably cool. Could that lead to a similar race to what we’re going to see this weekend? The races on 1.5-mile tracks like Vegas have been surprisingly good this year. With the intensity level surely to pick up even more on Sunday, expect to see a crazy race.
They’ve since cooled off, but maybe that’s because we haven’t had a 1.5-mile track on the schedule in two months. The last time we raced on a 1.5-mile track, Martin Truex Jr. dominated the show on July 14 at the Kentucky Speedway. That was the 13th straight win on a 1.5-mile track for one of the “Big 3” members. In fact, they’ve won 15 of the last 18 races on 1.5-mile tracks dating back to the start of last season.
The only time since the Kansas race in May of 2017 that Truex, Kevin Harvick or Kyle Busch didn’t win was the 2017 Coca Cola 600 which Austin Dillon won on fuel mileage.
Truex, has finishes this year on 1.5-mile tracks of fifth (Atlanta), fourth (Las Vegas), 37th (Texas), second (Kansas), second (Charlotte), fourth (Chicagoland) and first (Kentucky). If you want to go back to the end of the 2017 season, he won at Homestead, Kansas, Charlotte and Kentucky finished second at Texas too. That’s six wins and four runner-ups in his last 13 starts on intermediate tracks. He won at Vegas in 2017 too.
Harvick, has three wins (Atlanta, Vegas, Kansas) on these tracks in 2018 and a runner-up (Texas) to his credit. He also finished third at Chicagoland and fifth in Kentucky. If you go back to 2017 for him too, Harvick, finished fourth at Homestead, first at Texas, eighth at Kansas, third at Charlotte and third at Charlotte and Chicagoland. Back in the spring, Harvick led 214 of 267 laps in a dominating victory.
Busch, has been equally as strong. His finishes on these tracks in 2018 are seventh, second, first, 10th, first, first and fourth respectively.
To me, these are the ones to beat again this weekend.
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