The gambling capital of America, Las Vegas, plays host to the third race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season on Sunday, March 6 with the Pennzoil 400. A city filled with roulette wheels and slot machines will pull the lever at its 1.5-mile oval and hope for the best at a track where we’ve seen a wide range of outcomes in recent years.
Last spring, you could argue Kyle Larson's victory in this race was one of the most competitive in Las Vegas Motor Speedway history. Five different drivers led at least 20 laps, leaving the outcome in doubt until midway through the final stage. 27 lead changes were the most since 2007 as the leader struggled to pull away until late in a green-flag run.
Compare that to the race here last fall, arguably the reason NASCAR's old 550-horsepower package was scrapped with the advent of the Next Gen chassis. Cars seemed stuck in place, unable to pass as Denny Hamlin outlasted Larson for a sleepy playoff win. There was only one caution outside of NASCAR-mandated ones (including the two stage breaks) and just 12 cars finished on the lead lap.
The racing here, much like the casinos, can be a bit of a toss-up. It's a great early test for the Next Gen after a promising intermediate race at Auto Club Speedway last weekend, the new car proving difficult to drive as a track record 12 cautions combined with 32 lead changes and a highly competitive race up front.
For a while at ACS, fresh faces fought for the win before Larson emerged to steal the race late. Will we see drivers like Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. challenge the big-money teams once again? Or will a week’s worth of learning and swapping notes help multi-car giants like Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske close the gap on their competition?
So far, the jury is still out. A JGR Toyota took the pole for Sunday, but it was Christopher Bell, who hasn’t won on an oval track in 74 previous Cup starts. Two-time Cup champ Kyle Busch crashed in practice, starting from the rear in a backup car with older brother Kurt just ahead of him (31st).
Another big-time organization, Hendrick Motorsports, is still reeling from contact between last week’s winner Larson and Chase Elliott. Owner Rick Hendrick held a midweek meeting to mend fences after Elliott’s No. 9 turned to mush following contact with Larson while fighting for the lead. Both drivers say they’ve put the past behind them, but what happens when they’re racing around each other this Sunday?
Back up front, Reddick starts seventh after leading the most laps at ACS last weekend. Chase Briscoe starts a career-best fourth on an oval while last week’s runner-up finisher Austin Dillon cracked the top 10 (10th). Can one of them sneak their way to the front and have some early-season gambles on Next Gen handling lessons pay off?
We’ll see while awaiting what type of race Las Vegas can deliver. If the Next Gen can race competitively here? A second straight week? We’re starting to see a trend that matches strong TV ratings in a year where NASCAR seems to be reclaiming momentum.
Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube
Date: Sunday, March 6
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Richard Childress Racing
Kyle Larson was the ACS winner but got a chance only when RCR’s Tyler Reddick lost a tire while leading on lap 152. The third-year driver never recovered, limping home 24th, one lap off the pace but still had the most impressive race of his Cup career.
Other RCR-aligned teams shined at ACS, too, including Reddick’s teammate Austin Dillon (second), Erik Jones (third), and Daniel Suarez (fourth). It’s easily the best this team has looked since a surprising 1-2 Texas Motor Speedway finish on strategy in the summer of 2020.
Who's at the Back: William Byron
Yes, it’s still early. But drivers like Garrett Smithley and Jacques Villeneuve have more points than Byron’s 14 with one fewer start under their belt this season. Byron has crashed hard twice already, including an awkward slam into Reddick after getting loose when the No. 8 slowed with that tire problem in front of him.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Victories in the last 38 Cup starts for reigning NASCAR Cup champion Kyle Larson.
Position differential for Aric Almirola through two starts this season. Almirola’s the only driver to score top-10 finishes in both Cup races.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Is Kyle Larson set to heat up again? Did he ever really cool down? An outside pole qualifying effort will limit position differential points for the defending race winner. But it’ll also give him an early window to sneak up front and lead a lot of laps. A career average finish of 9.8 at this track includes eight top-10 finishes in 11 starts.
Will Sunday be Ryan Blaney's turn for a breakthrough? The Team Penske driver has a strong track record here, matching Larson’s eight top-10 finishes in 11 appearances. Runs of seventh, fifth and fifth the last three times out lead to hopes the No. 12 Ford will get over the hump. You could also trust his teammate, Joey Logano, who had a strong top-5 effort at Auto Club last weekend and owns two career wins at LVMS.
Kevin Harvick is on the edge between the top and middle tiers as his winless streak has stretched into a second season. But the 2014 Cup champion could rack up major position differential points with a charge into the top 10 at Las Vegas. He led 92 laps at this track as recently as two years ago and charged to seventh from a 32nd-place starting position last weekend at ACS. Did I mention that was in a backup car?
Another driver with nowhere to go but up: Kurt Busch. While the 2004 Cup champion starts a distant 31st, I don’t expect that to hinder a march to the front. Runs of first and eighth in his last three starts at the hometown track should lead to another promising performance as 23XI Racing continues to improve their two-car effort.
Cole Custer will be forgotten about after a surprising NASCAR Xfinity Series win at Auto Club Speedway last weekend. Don’t do it. A 24th-place starting spot leads to dramatic room for improvement and we know the Stewart-Haas Racing speed is there with teammate Briscoe. Remember, during his rookie season Custer was at his best at this track type and is available for your roster dirt cheap.
I’d continue riding the Ricky Stenhouse Jr. train after another top-10 qualifying effort. Just two years ago, he led 30 laps and came home in third driving just his second race at the time for JTG Daugherty and their No. 47 Chevrolet.
What Vegas Thinks
Looks like the oddsmakers favor Kyle Larson to stay hot following his win at ACS. Vegasinsider.com has Larson as the Vegas favorite, sitting at +500 with Joey Logano and Chase Elliott at +750. Ryan Blaney is the only other driver sitting at +1000 or better.
Looking for a Cinderella story? Fourth-place starter Chase Briscoe, seeking his first Cup victory, remains a longshot at +5000.
What I Think
I see Kyle Larson winning two in a row as the No. 5 team lays down the gauntlet early with this Next Gen car. But keep an eye on the RCR-aligned cars as it’s clear they’ve figured something out early on with this new chassis.
— 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.