Typically, NASCAR’s playoff opener, held at cookie-cutter oval Chicagoland, has been a bit of a snoozer. A switch to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, racing held in near 100-degree heat last Sunday, was looked at as a bit of a gamble. Moving to Sin City, a track Kevin Harvick dominated this March to the tune of a race-low 11 lead changes, was like drawing 18 and hitting against the dealer in blackjack.
Who would have thought the sport would somehow pull the three of clubs? While NASCAR’s Big Three of Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. had their struggles, the 1.5-mile oval delivered the most compelling opening race in the sport’s playoff history. 23 lead changes, the most in a decade, paired with slick track conditions that kept racing highly competitive throughout the afternoon. In the end, Brad Keselowski made history by winning a third straight race for the first time in his Cup Series career and delivering a 500th victory for owner Roger Penske.
It was a shocking start to a postseason that’s supposed to be a two-month coronation for the Busch-Truex-Harvick trio on their way to the Homestead finale. All three still have plenty of cushion; Truex, in particular, has 65 points on the cutline after his third-place finish. But a few surprising faces emerged near the front. Joey Logano ran fourth and sits fifth in the standings, in solid position to advance to NASCAR’s Round of 12. Alex Bowman, the last driver in, was having a career-best race until a late wreck left him 19th in the final rundown.
In all, nearly a dozen playoff drivers had some sort of in-race issue they had to overcome. Kyle Larson surged after falling behind from a flat tire to finish second. Kyle Busch survived a spin through the grass off turn 4 to run seventh.
All of a sudden, the sport has some postseason storylines heading to a place they expect to deliver great racing. Richmond Raceway, a short track that’s spent years as the regular-season finale, now has its constant side-by-side action smack in the middle of the playoffs. Drivers in trouble after Vegas, like Denny Hamlin start inside the top 5 and seek redemption along with an automatic trip to round two.
Oh, and did I mention the sport suddenly has a new president? Steve Phelps has moved from relative obscurity to take the role, replacing Brent Dewar October 1. With NASCAR CEO Brian France still taking a leave of absence, recovering from DWI and drug charges in August, the sport is on the verge of a major shakeup.
So much for NASCAR sleepwalking through the first two rounds of the postseason. As Chris Berman likes to say, “That’s why they play the games.”
Federated Auto Parts 400
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
Track: Richmond Raceway (Richmond, Va.)
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Team Penske
The organization earns this award a second straight week after all three of its cars, each a title contender finished inside the top five. Brad Keselowski now seeks to become the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win four Cup races in a row. Logano (fourth) and Ryan Blaney (fifth) delivered the best overall finish for the program since expanding back to three teams this year.
What’s crazy about this stretch is Keselowski keeps winning without the fastest car. It’s been the same late-race strategy every time: pit road brilliance combined with perfection on short-stint, double-file restarts. The No. 2 team overcame a dominating performance by Kyle Larson (who led 284 laps) and then capitalized when a late-race caution doomed Denny Hamlin (37 laps led) at Indianapolis. Overcoming the long-run speed of Martin Truex Jr. (a race-high 96 laps led) with a series of late caution flags changed the game Sunday at Vegas.
In fact, Keselowski hasn’t led the most laps in any race since August 2017 at Michigan. But sometimes it’s the smartest driver, not the fastest, who finds a way to claw toward the front.
Who’s at the Back: Denny Hamlin
Hamlin enters a must-win scenario at Richmond after a sluggish summer where he failed to capitalize on superior speed in qualifying. He’s got three poles in the last six races but has failed to turn any of them into a top-five finish. Overall, he’s got one such run since Memorial Day Weekend (a third at Indy) while watching Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch run circles around him on the racetrack. Even rookie Erik Jones, earning a win at Daytona over the summer seems to have surpassed Hamlin at JGR.
In jeopardy now is the No. 11 team’s streak of a win every year since Hamlin has run Cup full-time (2006). An emotional driver, sources close to the program worry about how the confidence killer of losing Indy could lead to playoff burnout. A Vegas wreck, destroying the car’s front splitter in the spin only compounded those fears going forward. Can Richmond be a game changer?
Ryan Newman is headed to Roush Fenway Racing in 2019. The three-year deal, first reported by Frontstretch.com, has him replacing 2011 Daytona 500 winner Trevor Bayne in the seat. Veteran Matt Kenseth came out of retirement this year to try and spark the struggling No. 6 ride, splitting the seat with Bayne but neither driver has yet to finish inside the top 10 this season. Newman will come over, then to fill the ride after a strong five-year stint with Richard Childress Racing that included a runner-up effort in the season championship.
Steve Phelps becomes just the fifth NASCAR president in history. He joins Brent Dewar, who has held the role since mid-2017, Mike Helton, Bill France Sr. and Bill France Jr. The 13-year veteran inside the sport once served as Chief Marketing Officer and will be handed the Herculean task of turning around some of the financial struggles inside the sport, from at-track attendance to ownership problems that include a flurry of sponsors running for the exits. Just this week, Lowe’s announced they’re leaving the No. 48 team of Jimmie Johnson for good (negotiations were reopened quietly midsummer) while Bristol Motor Speedway (once a 160,000-seat giant) is closing some sections of their grandstands in 2019 due to poor attendance.
NASCAR Whelen Euro Series champ Alon Day makes his 2018 Cup season debut this weekend for BK Racing. The Israeli driver, seeking a full-time ride in the sport, has 14 career wins in NASCAR overseas but has failed to gain traction in the states. He’s got one career start at the sport’s top level, running 32nd at Sonoma last season but hopes a better effort this weekend attracts sponsorship.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Top-5 finishes by Jimmie Johnson the last two seasons since winning the 2016 championship (his seventh).
The lowest number of top-5 finishes Johnson had in any season from 2002-16.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick becomes the focus within the Big Three this weekend at Richmond after crashing out with tire problems last Sunday at Vegas. Harvick, the pole sitter for Saturday night’s race has four top-5 finishes in his last five Richmond starts. His last win here came in 2013 but don’t discount the ability of the sport’s fastest driver this season to bounce back. He hasn’t run back-to-back races outside the top 10 in over a year, making him a fantasy lock.
Tired of Harvick? Fellow Big Three driver Kyle Busch won Richmond in the spring and remains a solid pick at this level.
If there’s one race Denny Hamlin moves to the top of your fantasy radar, this is it. A must-win situation for him occurs at arguably his best track on the circuit; the hometown boy has six straight top-10 finishes at Richmond along with a career average finish of 9.3. Find the No. 11 team a place on your roster.
Don’t be deceived after a poor qualifying effort this weekend by Hendrick Motorsports’ trio of playoff drivers: Chase Elliott, Jimmie Johnson and Alex Bowman. That group is nine-for-12 on top-10 finishes this year at short tracks and flashed consistent speed at Las Vegas. It wouldn’t surprise me to see all three jumping inside the top 10, earning bonus points along the way.
We’re digging deep for this one. Matt DiBenedetto earned a career-best 16th-place effort at Richmond this spring. The pending free agent drives the underfunded No. 32 Ford but showed top-20 speed at Las Vegas before a late wreck wiped out his chances. He’s a good bet to sneak up there again in a race that can allow underdogs to make their way up to midpack.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch leads the way with 5/2 odds to win Saturday night. Brad Keselowski is 8/1 on his bid to win four straight.
What I Think
I’m going to go outside the box and say Keselowski pulls an upset. It’s almost impossible to win four straight these days with the amount of NASCAR parity but Keselowski, the 2012 Cup champ, has the talent to pull it off.
— Written by Tom Bowles, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and the Majority Owner of NASCAR Web site Frontstretch.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.