The 2020 NASCARCup Series heads west to Sin City for its second race of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Pennzoil 400. It’s a town where gambling is king and one roll of the dice can change your fortunes forever.
But entering this weekend, there’s no gambling needed for NASCAR. This sport already feels like they’ve won the lottery after a potentially tragic way to start the year.
Ryan Newman’s last-lap wreck and hospitalization sparked a roller-coaster week in which NASCAR led virtually every evening newscast in the United States. The nation watched and held its breath as the most devastating incident since Dale Earnhardt’s death in 2001 could have led to the sport’s first fatality since that horrifying day 19 years ago.
But Newman not only survived... he’s thriving by comparison to what people thought his short-term condition might be mere moments after the crash. Roush Fenway Racing tweeted a picture of Newman walking away from Halifax Hospital in Daytona Beach, Florida under his own power and with both his young daughters alongside.
Newman won’t race at Las Vegas this weekend, replaced by Ross Chastain, and there’s no timetable yet on when he’ll return to competition. But the fact we’re even talking about him getting back in a stock car is miraculous considering the seriousness of that crash.
Now, the focus turns to celebrating NASCAR’s safety advancements that almost certainly saved Newman’s life. And there’s an opportunity for millions of people, some of whom are looking at this sport for the first time ever, to be converted into longtime fans.
It was a razor’s edge between the potential for growth and a crushing loss, coming days after President Donald Trump gave the command for this year’s Daytona 500. But his presence was one factor that led to the race getting rain delayed, negating the opportunity to present the sport to a larger audience. Add in Newman’s wreck and it felt for a second like NASCAR’s 2020 ship had sunk before leaving port.
Not anymore. LVMS returns the sport to the low horsepower handling package from 2019 which observers hope will lead to better racing in its second season. A competitive event on the intermediate oval this weekend could spark the start of a NASCAR comeback to start the decade.
Most importantly, it’s the first chance to see who’s strong out of the gate this season; Daytona is typically an outlier compared to the rest of the schedule. Can Team Penske return to their early season form of 2019? Or will Joe Gibbs Racing pick up where they left off after winning half the races last season and the series championship with Kyle Busch?
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Denny Hamlin
Lost in the horror of Newman’s wreck was Hamlin leading 79 laps en route to back-to-back Daytona 500 victories. It’s his third win in the last five years in NASCAR’s Super Bowl, joining Richard Petty as the only drivers to do so.
Now, only Petty and Cale Yarborough have won more times in the Great American Race as Hamlin prepares for another assault on the lone item missing on his potential Hall of Fame resume: a NASCAR Cup championship. The win puts him in strong position to clinch a playoff bid early and spend much of the summer months tweaking his handling package for the fall.
Who’s at the Back: Brad Keselowski
It was a rough start for Team Penske’s veteran driver and the 2012 Cup Series champion. A wreck started by teammate Joey Logano left his car a mass of mangled sheet metal in the Busch Clash; one week later, Keselowski’s car was on the wrecker again after becoming an innocent victim in Monday’s Daytona 500.
Once looked at as the sport’s best superspeedway driver, Keselowski now has five finishes of 31st or worse in his last six Daytona races. Not only that, but a short-term feud with Logano, a driver who he personally brought into Penske, remains a topic of conversation heading into the sport’s West Coast swing.
NASCAR paramedics revealed they were at Ryan Newman’s side within 35 seconds of his devastating crash Monday night. In revealing a timeline of the rescue effort this weekend at Las Vegas, NASCAR Vice President Steve O’Donnell emphasized that despite the successful outcome, the sport still expects to learn from this incident.
“The training systems, the safety systems, all worked as were designed,” O’Donnell said. “But again, we’re never satisfied with what took place, and we’ll learn as much as possible and implement those changes, if there are any, as soon as we can.”
Newman’s health condition will not be released by NASCAR due to HIPAA privacy reasons. But the veteran is expected to return to driving and has been joking with friends, family, and others within the NASCAR community while continuing to heal.
Newman’s replacement in the No. 6 Ford will be NASCAR Xfinity Series full-timer Ross Chastain. Chastain, driving for Kaulig Racing in NXS, was 25th in this year’s Daytona 500 with Spire Motorsports. He’s driven for lower-tier teams in 72 Cup starts and this substitute role will easily be the best opportunity the 27-year-old underdog has had to prove himself on NASCAR’s top level.
The stakes have been raised for Kyle Busch in the NASCAR Truck Series by fellow Cup Series competitor Kevin Harvick. After Busch raced to his seventh straight victory in seven Truck Series starts Friday night, Harvick offered a $50,000 reward to any Cup Series driver who jumps into a truck and beats Busch in any 2020 event. Busch will run four more races as part of a part-time schedule he has with his own Truck team, Kyle Busch Motorsports.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Finishing position for David Ragan in this year’s Daytona 500, his best since winning his last NASCAR Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway in 2013.
Finishing position for Brendan Gaughan in this year’s Daytona 500, tied for his best finish at the NASCAR Cup Series level since the 2004 Homestead finale (sixth).
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kyle Busch becomes an intriguing fantasy play after being forced to the rear for failing pre-race inspection. Problems with the nose on his Toyota pushed him, Denny Hamlin, and Christopher Bell to the rear along with costing them 10 driver and owner points.
But that leads to plenty of position differential points for you, depending on whether your game recognizes Busch’s 36th to 38th place starting spot. Busch was third in this race last spring, leading 13 laps and is easily capable of racing his way up through the field.
And as for Hamlin? A 10th- and a 15th-place finish last year shouldn’t deter you. He’s a good, cheaper backup if you want to spread Busch’s money among other drivers in DraftKing and FanDuel leagues.
It’s weird to think of Jimmie Johnson in the middle tier of competitors. But that’s where Johnson sits after the seven-time Cup Series champ has gone winless for the past two-plus years in points-paying events. Las Vegas also hasn’t been kind to him as of late; the last win came way back in 2010.
But that also makes Johnson a cheap option entering a weekend where teams reveal their offseason cards. And the relationship between Johnson and crew chief Cliff Daniel is one many observer in the sport think is poised to take off. It’s worth a gamble on a price that’s likely to be cheaper than normal for a guy with Johnson’s pedigree.
Another cheaper-than-normal option? Ross Chastain racing for Newman in the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford. He’s got no better finish than 20th at LVMS but those runs were for teams with half the money and equipment that he’ll drive this weekend for RFR. Chastain senses the opportunity in front of him with a team that was two turns from potentially winning the 2020 Daytona 500. Expect him to make the most of it.
How about the Cup Series rookies? Cole Custer has won three straight poles in the NASCAR Xfinity Series at Las Vegas and starts 17th, the highest of any freshman driver. Christopher Bell might be a good position differential driver after starting in the rear with Leavine Family Racing. And Tyler Reddick has a win from the Xfinity Series regular-season finale last year on his resume, a solid boost for him in his new No. 8 ride with Richard Childress Racing.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick lead the way with 9/2 odds for this year’s race. Martin Truex Jr. is right behind at 5/1.
Looking for a longshot? How about second place Daytona 500 finisher Ryan Blaney. He’s sitting at 20/1.
What I Think
I think Team Penske continues their Vegas dominance with Joey Logano posting back-to-back victories. But expect others like Harvick, Keselowski, and Truex to make the race highly competitive while Kyle Buschcharges forward from the rear.
— 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.