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South Point 400 (Las Vegas) NASCAR Preview and Fantasy Predictions

South Point 400 (Las Vegas) NASCAR Preview and Fantasy Predictions

South Point 400 (Las Vegas) NASCAR Preview and Fantasy Predictions

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

TV: NBCSN

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.

News Briefs

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.