NASCAR PREVIEW: LAS VEGAS

By Brennen McCall, Racing Contributor

Viva Las Vegas! The surprisingly unpredictable NASCAR season continues from the beachy shores of Florida’s East Coast to the hot sun of America’s Western deserts. Three races have now seen three different winners. Young gun William Byron took only his second Cup Series victory last week at Homestead earning him a spot in playoffs. While Byron’s victory isn’t totally surprising, it wasn’t expected. Sure, he drives for one of the top organizations in NASCAR, but his previous seasons at the Cup level haven’t shown us that he is a true contender for a championship. However, this win was taken in dominating fashion. Byron’s #24 team showed consistent speed throughout the day and seemed to come alive when the sun finally set and the lights shined on in the final stages of the race. It was the type of win you would expect from Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex. But that seems to be the theme for young Cup drivers in recent years. Both Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson were in their third full-time seasons before snagging their first wins. Young drivers take time to develop and grow when moving to new cars.

Byron along with recent first-time winners in Christopher Bell and Michael McDowell seem to have broken the recent trend of domination by the likes of NASCAR’s biggest stars. Yes, it is still very early in the season to make bold predictions, but three playoff spots are locked up and none are filled with names like Hamlin, Harvick, Busch, or Logano. Consider this: Tyler Reddick showed tremendous speed at the end of Homestead and most likely would have passed Byron for the win if given maybe 10 more laps. Chris Buscher looked to have the car to beat in the sunlight by leading 57 laps. Daniel Suárez finished 15th gave the new Trackhouse Racing team a great run on their first 1.5-mile oval. Michael McDowell’s Daytona 500 win is proving not to be a fluke after backing it up with two strong top 10 finishes. The young crop of talent is tightening with the veterans and slower teams seem to be matching pace of the big teams. It will be interesting if this trend continues.

Now on to Las Vegas. The 1.5-mile oval features 20 degrees of banking and drives surprisingly well for the track that was last repaved in 2006. NASCAR will return with the same high downforce/low horsepower configuration they ran last week at Homestead. The higher grip of the track surface should assist drivers in making daring three and four-wide moves on restarts. Once the field begins to separate, passing may be difficult early on but should get better as the tires begin to deteriorate. With this package, the leader has a big advantage in clean air. Last season Kurt Busch made a strong push in overtime and capitalized on pit strategy to grab clean air and hold on for a win at his home track. I expect similar gambles for this Sunday. Teams may take two-tire stops to try and leapfrog their competition to gain track position. While the worn tires will be slower, the value of track position outweighs risk in some cases.

So, who will be fast on Sunday? Vegas is typically a track where the better cars shine. Cars from Hendrick Motorsports, Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and Stewart-Haas are going to be ones to watch. Martin Truex has two wins and five top-five finishes in his last seven races at Vegas. He showed a lot of raw speed at Homestead and that should carry over this weekend. Vegas is Joey Logano’s best 1.5-mile track. He holds two victories here including this same race a year ago. Look for his teammate Brad Keselowski to run well too. Last week’s surprise winner William Byron will probably show strong speed again along with his teammates of Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, and Kyle Larson. Kevin Harvick should remain consistent with another top-10 run, though he may show winning speed on Sunday. As far as dark horses go, I would count on Matt DiBenedetto to rebound after three races of poor luck. His #21 Ford has speed and it should eventually reveal itself.

With gambling synonymous with Las Vegas, the winner of this race could find themselves hit the jackpot at the finish line. Will NASCAR’s unpredictable season could become even more so? Or will the usual stars retake their place at the top? Let’s have ourselves a race!

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