Can NASCAR's big names reassert themselves at the front in Sin City?
Las Vegas is the town of Cinderella stories born at midnight, a place where one roll of the dice turns the moneyless into millionaires. It's the type of rags-to-riches story that's defined NASCAR's 2021 season, Michael McDowell's Daytona 500 triumph sparking three straight first-time winners heading into this year's Pennzoil 400.
But Sin City could play a very different role when the green flag falls Sunday (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX). For the sport's big names, this cookie-cutter 1.5-mile oval offers a likely return to favorites running up front. In 26 Cup races held at Las Vegas Motor Speedway since 1998, just seven organizations have won here. It's a Who's Who of NASCAR heavyweights on the list: Hendrick Motorsports (five wins), Team Penske (five), Stewart-Haas Racing (four), and Joe Gibbs Racing (two) have swapped around victory lane as of late.
The pattern changed slightly last fall, when Kurt Busch of Chip Ganassi Racing pulled out a minor upset at his hometown track. But CGR is hardly a lightweight; Busch wound up in last year's postseason Round of 8. We've yet to see a major underdog ever break through as even the lone single-car team to win, Furniture Row Racing with Martin Truex Jr., captured the Cup title that same year (2017).
Those heavyweights could use a healthy dose of time up front. The biggest surprise in the first three weeks has been the list of people who haven't led a single lap. Among them: Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch and Aric Almirola. Kevin Harvick, despite posting three top-10 finishes, has led only 17 circuits after winning nine races last year in a dominant performance.
Vegas offers them an opportunity to right the ship. It's a track conducive to long green-flag runs and track position, both trends that benefit the bigwigs with the best handling package under the 550-horsepower setup. Even Matt DiBenedetto, who has the worst start of the 2020 playoff drivers, could rebound quickly after a pair of second-place finishes at this track last year.
Of course, the man everyone is always keeping an eye on is the sport's Most Popular Driver, Chase Elliott. Runner-up at the Daytona 500, the reigning NASCAR champion saw a win slip away on that track's road course before a fairly invisible run at Homestead-Miami Speedway (14th). Is this where he plays a poker hand that showcases newfound strength for Hendrick on intermediates? William Byron, last week's winner, shows their speed at this track type is steadily improving.
We'll see who masters those hurdles and pulls the right slot machine in Sin City. Chances are, it's a driver who becomes a strong championship contender when the series comes back around here this fall.
Date: Sunday, March 7
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: MRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: William Byron
It took this 22-year-old nearly 60 races with seven-time Cup championship crew chief Chad Knaus at the helm to win.
With old NASCAR Camping World Truck Series head wrench Rudy Fugle taking over for 2021? It took just three weeks.
Byron took charge during the second half of the race at Homestead-Miami Speedway, leading a career-high 102 laps while nearly equaling his total for the entire 2020 season. The performance raised eyebrows and showed the importance of chemistry between a driver and his pit road head coach.
"We really think the same way," Byron said after Sunday's win, "and it helps us in a lot of ways to progress through races, communicate well and work through the offseason."
Who's at the Back: Kyle Busch
What in the world is going on with the two-time Cup Series champ? New crew chief Ben Beshore was supposed to stop the bleeding of a No. 18 Toyota team that struggled throughout 2020. Instead, Busch has just one top-10 finish, a big zero in the laps led column, and a position differential of -11. The only winner for Joe Gibbs Racing thus far is in the NASCAR Xfinity Series (18-year-old teenager Ty Gibbs).
The Nashville Fairgrounds track is one step closer to a potential return to the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. The Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County joined with Bristol Motor Speedway this week to issue a letter of intent to restore the iconic short track. If approved, Bristol will manage a restoration effort designed for NASCAR to bring its top-tier series back for competition. It’s been a while; the Cup Series last ran a race at the Fairgrounds during the 1984 season.
Chris Buescher claimed his first tenure at Roush Fenway Racing was defined by teamwork that "wasn’t as good" as it is now. The driver of the No. 17 Ford, who nearly pulled off an upset win last Sunday at Homestead, led a career-high 57 laps and is the "most relaxed [he's] been in a race car in a really long time."
Dale Earnhardt Jr. will hit memory lane this May at Darlington Raceway by piloting his father's old 1980s NASCAR Xfinity Series car. He'll pace the field with the No. 8 his father, Hall of Famer Dale Earnhardt, drove in the second-tier division as Darlington continues its recent trend of connecting with NASCAR's past.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Drivers to start the year with three straight top-10 finishes: Kevin Harvick and Michael McDowell.
Laps led by Denny Hamlin through three races, the most of any Cup driver despite failing to reach victory lane. Hamlin leads the early point standings by 20 over Harvick.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Joe Gibbs Racing appears well positioned to break their winless streak to start 2021. Martin Truex Jr. is a former Las Vegas winner, was fourth in the fall and has six top-10 finishes in his last seven starts. Denny Hamlin has never won here, lowering his salary a bit, but the point leader was third in the fall and led a race-high 121 laps. And hometown hero Kyle Busch has a little brotherly luck going on; after all, Kurt won the Vegas race here held last fall.
Not trusting JGR? How about Kevin Harvick? The 2018 March Vegas winner has 455 laps led her in his last six starts, five top-10 finishes and is itching to get back to his winning ways from 2020.
Matt DiBenedetto will likely be expensive due to his two runner-up finishes from 2020. But it's worth it in leagues with position differential considering he starts tomorrow in 30th place. A nice, solid run inside the top 10 will rebuild DiBenedetto's awful 2021 and hand your roster some extra bonus points to get you over the hump.
Austin Dillon has a mixed track record out in Vegas, running fourth last March before a 32nd-place finish in the fall. He's only led five laps at the track his entire career (11 starts). So what makes this weekend different? The 12th-place finisher at Homestead has quietly racked up three straight top-15 results on intermediates. Teammate Tyler Reddick was second last Sunday, too, making Richard Childress Racing a force to be reckoned with on this track type.
How long do you ride the hot hand of Michael McDowell? As long as you can during a dream season that shows no signs of slowing. He's never earned a top-15 finish at this track in 14 starts but don't let history stop you: his No. 34 Front Row Motorsports Ford is flashing some quality speed. McDowell's confidence alone, making the most of his moment, could create a new career best for him each week.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is typically an afterthought at this track type. But he's got a quirky streak going with the March race here: runs of third, sixth and 14th the past three years. Another top-15 finish would work wonders for your roster, even with a healthier-than-average 17th-place starting spot for JTG Daugherty Racing.
What Vegas Thinks
Martin Truex Jr. leads the way with 6/1 odds, followed by Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano at 13/2 according to vegasinsider.com. Denny Hamlin slots right behind them with 9/1 odds while Kyle Larson sits at 10/1.
Matt DiBenedetto, sitting at 30/1 odds, is a reasonable longshot considering his recent track record here.
What I Think
Kevin Harvick breaks through for his first win of 2021 over Martin Truex Jr. as the sport experiences a return of its big names up front.