The NASCAR Cup Series Round of 12 has arrived with the running of the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Sunday’s night race out in Sin City starts the next phase of the sport’s championship chase. But don’t look for any longshots to take center stage in this gambling mecca.
Instead, it’s time for the sport’s heavyweight fighters to go punch-for-punch.
Eleven of the 12 drivers left fighting for the title are from just three organizations: Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, and Joe Gibbs Racing. Those have been the top-performing teams from Ford, Chevy, and Toyota, respectively as each manufacturer fights for supremacy. The 12th driver, Kevin Harvick, is from the Ford team of Stewart-Haas Racing, giving each manufacturer four drivers apiece.
That type of parity makes it tough to pick a favorite… with one clear exception. Kyle Larson’s 59 playoff bonus points give him a 46-point lead on the cutline and a 30-point edge over second-place Martin Truex Jr. The Las Vegas winner back in March is seeking a season sweep that puts him on a glide path to this year’s Championship 4.
When it comes to everyone else? Pick a number on the Vegas roulette wheel and hope for the best. You could make a case for anyone from Truex, the 2017 Cup champion who won at Darlington earlier this month, to William Byron, who needed a 20-point swing at Bristol in order to advance. Any one of these 12 drivers could visit victory lane and absolutely no one would be surprised. They’re that even.
If I had to pick, though it feels the pressure is on the Blue Oval crowd. Penske’s trio of Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney emerged unscathed from the Round of 16 but also failed to score a top-3 finish among them. Harvick, meanwhile, left Bristol ready to “rip someone’s head off” after Chase Elliott prevented his first win of the season. Contact between them led to a heated pit road argument, frustration that’s sure to work its way back onto the racetrack at some point.
Larson leads the Chevy title contingent with reigning champion Chase Elliott in tow. Elliott has the Charlotte ROVAL in this round, a track he’s won at the last two seasons, so he can afford a Vegas stumble. But don’t count out Byron or even Alex Bowman, fifth last fall at this track.
Then, there’s the four-car JGR Toyota team, led by Truex and Denny Hamlin who were both victorious in the Round of 16. Kyle Busch and Christopher Bell stumbled a bit, each suffering flat tires late in last week’s Bristol night race but are plenty capable of a Vegas victory. Busch was third at his hometown track back in March while Bell came home a strong seventh.
This track has a history of long green-flag runs, limiting opportunities teams have to fix their cars. You need to hit the setup right in this shorter race where clean air and track position are king.
As we saw from Darlington a few weeks back, you never know when a playoff race becomes a wild card. Which driver will pull an ace out of the deck and deliver the winning strategy Sunday night?
South Point 400
Date: Sunday, Sept. 26
Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Larson
Larson avoided the Elliott-Harvick mess to take the first Bristol Night Race of his Cup career. He’s now officially doubled his career win total, from six to 12, in less than a season driving for Hendrick. And those 1,905 laps led? It’s more than he’s had in his last two full-time seasons combined.
Who’s at the Back: James Davison
The 35-year-old Australian shifted his focus from open-wheel to NASCAR this season in hopes of building a career in stock car racing. So far, it’s been tough sledding, marked by a Bristol finish last week in which he wound up 26 laps off the pace.
In 19 starts this year, Davison has only five lead-lap finishes, failing to crack the top 20 in any event. Bristol snapped a four-race DNF streak for his Rick Ware Racing team that has struggled to gain traction across the board with its four-car program.
Chip Ganassi Racing has sold his NASCAR property… to rival Rick Hendrick. Even though CGR was purchased by Trackhouse Racing Team, prepping to take over their building in November, TRT will be doing it as a renter with Hendrick as the landlord. The asking price for the 214,000-square foot shop was a reported $10.2 million.
Violet Defense announced this week they’ll be the primary sponsor at Roush Fenway Racing for a handful of 2021 events. The germ-killing company is one of several new sponsors in position to join RFR next season when Keselowski takes over the team’s No. 6.
Only in Vegas would a driver skydive into his NASCAR ride. Matt Jaskol, a professional skydiver, will perform the act before sliding into his No. 66 MBM Motorsports ride for Saturday’s NASCAR Xfinity Series race. Jaskol, looking to run stock cars full-time, will be making his sixth career NXS start from 34th position.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Teams, Joe Gibbs Racing and Hendrick Motorsports, still in the running to put their entire four-car organizations into the Championship 4. (That’s never happened since the current playoff format came into existence in 2014).
Cup races since Harvick last won, at the Bristol Night Race back in September 2020.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Of all the championship drivers mentioned, Larson enters this race in the best position. Starting from the pole, he’s already won here and was dominant in the 550-horsepower package earlier this season. Laps led early could mean valuable bonus points for an expensive daily fantasy purchase worth the money.
Brad Keselowski has won three Las Vegas races since 2014 to lead all active drivers. After an uninspiring start to the playoffs, this track and Talladega next week give the 2012 Cup champ an opportunity to make his move. A lame-duck at Team Penske, he has nothing to lose and that’s when this veteran could be at his most dangerous.
Kurt Busch is surely frustrated after getting knocked out of the playoffs last week at Bristol. But last year’s Vegas winner starts 20th and could provide you some precious position differential points. The caveat is he has just one other top-5 finish to pair with that victory here since 2017. Can this Chip Ganassi Racing team get it together and remember that 550-horsepower speed from their July Atlanta win?
Austin Dillon sits all alone in 17th, the first driver on the outside looking in on the playoffs. It leaves the No. 3 team with little to lose, simply trying to go for wins down the stretch while becoming the forgotten man in daily fantasy. An intermediate specialist, Dillon ran fourth at this track in early 2020 and has two career top-5 finishes here in 12 starts.
Erik Jones two weeks in a row in this space? You bet. He’s got back-to-back top 10s at this racetrack, including a 10th in March running this underfunded No. 43 Richard Petty Motorsports ride. Add in a 16th-place starting spot and there’s room to grow here for an organization feeling good about the foundation it’s building for 2022.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has had little to crow about lately with JTG Daugherty Racing. Will Sin City be a place he can rebuild some confidence? Three top-11 runs in his last five races provide some reason for optimism.
What Vegas Thinks
Kyle Larson is a clear favorite, posting +330 odds according to vegasinsider.com. Kyle Busch is next up at +600 followed by Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin (+700).
It’s a bit surprising Brad Keselowski is sitting at +1500 with his Vegas track record. That’s probably the best longshot you’re going to get.
What I Think
Kyle Larson pulls off the season sweep, giving the No. 5 team a sigh of relief heading to the unpredictable pack race of Talladega next week.
— 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.