NASCAR has had this freaky set of numbers coincidences to start off its 2018 season reminding us of a lost legend. It’s the type of lotto-winning numbers game that has drivers happy they’re spending a weekend gambling in Las Vegas.
First you had Austin Dillon, winning the Daytona 500 in the No. 3 car. He did so 20 years after Dale Earnhardt won in the No. 3 there in Earnhardt’s 20th Daytona 500 start. Then, in Atlanta this past Sunday, Kevin Harvick won at the track for the first time since 2001. That win, years ago came in his third race driving the No. 3 car for Earnhardt. And now, what’s up next? The third race of the 2018 season, at Las Vegas, which 20 years later, has been guaranteed a second slot on the schedule.
It’s like Earnhardt is watching over us, laughing at how his name can’t ever seem to fade from NASCAR memory even after his son has retired from full-time NASCAR competition.
Now, the series heads to Sin City, the gambling mecca of the country where one roll of the dice could make you a millionaire. These teams? They’re just looking for a rhythm as the heart of its 36-race, nine-month season gets underway. This weekend starts the first of three straight races 3,000 miles away from most teams’ headquarters near Charlotte, North Carolina. After Vegas, they’ll head to Phoenix before finishing up this triumvirate an hour east of Los Angeles.
Who’s shown they’ve got the best hand of cards to start 2018? Surprisingly, it’s been the Ford contingent of Team Penske, Stewart-Haas Racing and more. Heck, even tiny Front Row Motorsports qualified 15th with Michael McDowell’s Ford for Sunday. It turns out old dogs can learn new tricks as the Fusion may be the oldest car but it’s putting up the fastest speeds on the tracks you need to master for the NASCAR playoffs — intermediates.
We’ll see if their group can continue this weird set of Earnhardt-like numbers to start 2018. In some ways, they already have: Penske’s new third team run by Ryan Blaney starts on the pole.
Pennzoil 400 Presented by Jiffy Lube
Time: 3:45 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kevin Harvick
Sure, his Daytona 500 race ended with the No. 4 car on a tow truck. But so did more than 35 percent of the starting field that day. But last weekend, on an unrestricted track, Harvick made the rest of the field look like they were running on seven cylinders. Dominating the race, he led 181 laps and might have lapped all but the top five cars if not for a late caution to bunch up the field.
It was his first Atlanta victory in 16 years but, more importantly, it likely clinched a spot in NASCAR’s 16-driver playoff. That means Harvick can play it fast and loose going forward, collecting additional bonus points while using the next six months as a glorified test to be ready for postseason races that matter.
Who’s at the Back: Chevrolet
Chevy’s top dog, Jimmie Johnson, has the least points of anyone who has run both races on the Cup Series this season. Could there have been a more awful start for the No. 48? Among the drivers who have more points: 66-year-old Mark Thompson, part-time Canadian DJ Kennington and Gray Gaulding, running for a team in BK Racing that’s in bankruptcy court.
But Johnson is just the tip of the iceberg. The new Chevy Camaro looked like it was out for a Sunday drive at Atlanta, doing no better than a ninth-place finish with Kyle Larson. Nine of the 17 Chevys (that’s the most of any manufacturer entered at Atlanta) ran 25th or worse. Sometimes quantity doesn’t always mean quality.
NASCAR XFINITY Series regular Cole Custer is making his Cup Series debut this weekend at Las Vegas. Sponsored by Haas Automation, the 20-year-old will run in conjunction with Rick Ware Racing, driving their underdog No. 51 Chevrolet. With Custer running well in XFINITY for Stewart-Haas Racing, questions are naturally arising as to whom, if anyone, he might replace on the Cup roster for 2019. Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer, both with potentially expiring contracts, are on the short list to get the pink slip if Custer moves up.
Crew chief Gene Nead has been replaced by Randy Cox at Go FAS Racing after just two events. Nead and driver Matt DiBenedetto had a great 2017 season together, earning two top-10 finishes with the underfunded No. 32 team owned by Archie St. Hilaire. This season to start off strong, too. The car was in contention for an unlikely Daytona 500 win before a late wreck ruined their chances. But a 31st-place result at Atlanta left this No. 32 team the lowest performing Ford still running at the finish.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Hendrick Motorsports drivers (think, New York Yankees of NASCAR) out of four that would make the 16-driver playoff if the NASCAR season ended today.
Laps led by Chevrolet this season out of 532 laps run. That’s the least of any manufacturer.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Brad Keselowski loves to make Vegas his personal playground. Two wins have come in his last five starts out in Sin City along with four top-five finishes. And while Harvick was top of the class at Atlanta, the No. 2 car was a strong second and the only one to stay within striking distance of the No. 4. It all adds up to a safe bet that Keselowski will be running up front again on Sunday.
Martin Truex Jr. won Las Vegas last year en route to a career-high seven victories on intermediate tracks. The No. 78 has seemed off its game to start 2018; spending half the year celebrating as the reigning champs will do that to you. But Vegas took on added importance this year with a second Cup date also serving as the first race of the NASCAR postseason. I’d expect Truex to come to play and his fourth-place qualifying effort reflects that.
Quietly sitting with a seventh-place qualifying run this weekend is the No. 17 of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Stenhouse doesn’t have the Vegas track record you might want (one top-15 finish in five career starts) but that performance (12th) came just two years ago. Add in the boost of momentum from Ford to start 2018 and Stenhouse could be that long shot Vegas pick no one is talking about.
Clint Bowyer is another driver I’m looking at to build on 2018 momentum. After a surprising third at Atlanta, his best run at a 1.5-mile oval in four-plus years, Bowyer heads to a track he ran 10th at in 2017. Again, not a great track record here historically but keep in mind most of those runs were with other organizations — not SHR. Will Bowyer feel the pressure of Custer’s Cup debut behind him and put together back-to-back top-five finishes?
Paul Menard has had a quiet but solid start driving the Wood Brothers No. 21 Ford. The driver’s specialty is the same type of cookie-cutter track that matches his personality: 1.5-mile ovals like Las Vegas. Keep in mind he has eight straight top-20 finishes here and the car he’s driving ran seventh in the 2017 edition of this race with Ryan Blaney. Expect Menard to be nearly as successful Sunday.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick was leading the Vegas board with 5/1 odds but don’t look now, Martin Truex Jr. is just behind him at 11/2. Kyle Busch sits third on the list with 6/1 odds at last check.
What I Think
Last week’s bridesmaid is this week’s king of Sin City. Expect Brad Keselowski to take the No. 2 car to Victory Lane and give Ford two victories in the first three races of 2018.
— 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.
(Top photo courtesy of ASP, Inc.)