The 2020 South Point 400 serves as Las Vegas Motor Speedway's second NASCAR Cup Series race of the season. But boy, have things changed since the last time the sport visited this 1.5-mile oval in February.
The obvious answer, of course, is COVID-19 and the way it turned this year upside down. But back then, consider that the point leader was Ryan Blaney while the top 5 in the Cup standings included names like Kyle Larson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Ty Dillon earned a 10th-place finish that race, the first of his career outside the big pack racing superspeedways of Daytona and Talladega. That boosted the hopes of small-time Germain Racing, hoping they could somehow spark a Cinderella playoff run. Joey Logano cruised to victory up front, leading 54 laps over a surprise runner-up finisher: Matt DiBenedetto.
Of all those names I just mentioned, only Logano remains in title contention. It was announced this week Dillon's team will be sold; Larson doesn't even have a Cup ride. Stenhouse missed the playoffs by a country mile while Blaney and DiBenedetto found themselves bounced after the first round.
It's an example of how unpredictable one of the sport's more competitive intermediate tracks can be. And keep in mind this oval is supposed to be the least wacky of any place NASCAR visits inside the Round of 12. The slot machine-style finish expected at Talladega Superspeedway next weekend, plus the mystery surrounding the new-ish ROVAL event at Charlotte Motor Speedway, make a solid finish here incredibly important for championship contenders.
That group was whittled by four last week as Blaney, William Byron, Cole Custer, and DiBenedetto were sent packing after Bristol Motor Speedway. The points reset has left Kevin Harvick with a comfortable 62-point lead over the cutline; he and Denny Hamlin (+43) should cruise into the next round barring catastrophe. Keselowski (+30) could also secure a spot by repeating a trip to Victory Lane Sunday night (he's won at LVMS three times).
The postseason, though has taken a back seat most of the week by perhaps the biggest NASCAR news of the year: NBA legend and current Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan's decision to start a new Cup team in 2021 with Hamlin. Bubba Wallace will drive for the organization, moving over from Richard Petty Motorsports, as one of the country's most prominent African-American athletes teams up with the sport’s only full-time African-American driver.
It's an earthquake-size tremor with ramifications that will last for years. Hamlin, whose contract reportedly expires with Joe Gibbs Racing next season, will logically be driving for a team he co-owns sooner rather than later. Toyota, after many failed partnerships with JGR, finally has a satellite team with deep financial pockets capable of competing for titles. And Wallace, whose popularity rose this year with his commitment to social justice, now has the equipment needed to win races at this level.
Once the green flag drops Sunday night, though all eyes will return to racing at the gambling capital of America. Can Team Penske push back to the front with Keselowski or Logano at a track they've had success at in recent years? Will a red-hot Harvick become the first double-digit Cup winner since Jimmie Johnson cruised to his second title back in 2007? Or will a non-playoff driver play their cards right and pull a royal flush that gets them to Victory Lane?
South Point 400
Date: Sunday, Sept. 27
Time: 7 p.m. ET
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who's at the Front: Kyle Busch
Sure, it's easy to write about Kevin Harvick in this space; he outdueled Busch at Bristol for his career-high ninth win of the season. But to dismiss Busch out of hand despite frustration over his second-place finish would be premature.
"I'm going to be eliminated in the next round," Busch said in his post-race presser. The stats might say... not so fast. Busch led 159 laps at Bristol, the highest total for him since Richmond in September 2019. He won the pole at Las Vegas, his hometown track, back in February and starts on the front row Sunday night. And he has three straight top-10 finishes for the first time in a topsy-turvy 2020 season.
Don't count the reigning Cup champion out until the fat lady sings.
Who's at the Back: Ryan Newman
It's a miracle Newman is with us after that terrifying crash in February's Daytona 500. That alone gives him a pass with Roush Fenway Racing. But that ninth-place finish remains the lone top 10 he's earned during what's by far the worst season of his career. Even in a seven-race, pre-rookie year of 2001 Newman had two top-10 finishes.
He's also earned just 14 lead-lap finishes in 26 starts, led just 34 laps, and produced an average finish of 20.2. It's all part of a big step back for RFR as Newman's teammate, Chris Buescher, hasn't done much better: he sits 20th in the season standings.
Michael Jordan says it took an innocent joke and 10 days to turn him into a Cup Series team owner. Denny Hamlin said, "Looks like we're owners together, ha ha," after a false report recently linked them to another Cup operation. Jordan's response included, "If you want to make it real news, let me know." The alignment with Toyota and JGR hasn't been officially announced but appears a mere formality. Bubba Wallace, meanwhile, moves to the new organization after a career-high five top-10 finishes for Richard Petty Motorsports and their No. 43 Chevrolet.
Jordan's new team will have an automatic spot on the Cup grid after purchasing a charter from Germain Racing. Bob Germain, after over a decade running at NASCAR's top level, has chosen to close his No. 13 team after the 2020 Cup season after losing primary sponsor GEICO. Driver Ty Dillonwill be a free agent but claims "his best racing is yet to come" as he aggressively pursues a full-time NASCAR ride for 2021.
Ross Chastain will be Kyle Larson's permanent replacement behind the wheel of the No. 42 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet. The move brings the 27-year-old full circle with an organization he was going to compete with full-time at the NASCAR Xfinity Series level back in 2019. However, a Ponzi scheme from primary sponsor DC Solar ended in an FBI raid that cost him the opportunity. Chastain then worked his way back up the ranks and is currently competing in the NXS playoffs for an independent team, Kaulig Racing. The news also means the team's interim driver, 2003 Cup champion Matt Kenseth, will go back into retirement after the season.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Cars on the lead lap at Bristol last weekend, the fewest for any Cup race held there since 2003.
Finishing position for Ryan Preece at Bristol. He's the last fully-funded, full-time driver to earn a top-10 finish in Cup this year.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
History shows us Las Vegas comes up aces for the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. They've combined for three of the last four race wins at this track; the last time either driver finished outside the top 10 was seven years ago!
That'’s the type of track record that locks people in your roster. Build a winning team around them and ignore the high-priced championship favorites of Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin.
Jimmie Johnson's four Las Vegas wins are the most of any driver on the Cup circuit. He's had limited success there lately, failing to lead a lap since 2017, but was a surprising fifth in the race here this February. Doesn't it feel like at some point the seven-time champion has to go out on a high note?
Matt DiBenedetto tied the best finish of his career with a second-place run at this track in February. This weekend is also his last, best chance to impress Ford before his contract is up for renewal on Sept. 30. With Austin Cindric waiting in the wings, what better way to fend him off than with an upset victory?
Bubba Wallace should be riding high from his new Cup ride in 2021. Use him in a No. 43 car he drove to sixth in February, still one of his best runs this season.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has been an afterthought much of the summer while suffering through horrible luck with JTG Daugherty Racing. However, LVMS is a great longshot pull of the slot machine. He's got 35 laps led and two top-six finishes in his last three starts at the track, giving his No. 47 Chevrolet team a chance to play spoiler.
What Vegas Thinks
Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, and last year's winner Martin Truex Jr. are tied with 5/1 odds on top of the vegasinsider.com board. Kevin Harvick is at 6/1 while Denny Hamlin sits at 8/1.
Matt DiBenedetto is easily the best longshot pick at 40/1 after February's runner-up result.
What I Think
Hometown boy Kyle Busch pops up, out of nowhere, and reminds everyone he's still a title contender by earning 2020 victory No. 1 at Las Vegas.
— 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 graphic courtesy of @NASCAR)