Ten races. Sixteen drivers. One Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series championship.
Stock car racing’s national playoff begins Sunday out in Las Vegas. An inaugural second race at the 1.5-mile speedway has already seen the cream rise to the top; all 16 title contenders qualified inside the top 18. (Jamie McMurray, 12th quickest, is the first non-playoff driver.)
But this postseason, more than ever will be about the dominance of a select few. The sport’s “Big Three” of Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. combined to win 65 percent of the regular season races and start with the equivalent of a 21-0 football advantage on the field. Bonus points from race victories and stage wins leave them a lock to be part of the quartet left standing in NASCAR’s winner-take-all season finale at Homestead.
The question, then is who will be the fourth from a plethora of quality candidates. Erik Jones, this weekend’s pole sitter, won his first race this summer at Daytona and has picked up speed from Toyota teammate Kyle Busch. Chase Elliott won his first race at Watkins Glen in August and appears to be the best positioned out of the Chevy camp. Stewart-Haas Racing has all four of its cars in the field with former champion Kurt Busch attempting to ride the coattails of Harvick.
Will any of them make an early gamble this weekend in an attempt to make a playoff splash? This race was dominated by the Big Three earlier this year (they ran 1-2-4, respectively) and all indications are they bring the same amount of quality speed. Beating them may require the type of pit road precision that earned Brad Keselowski surprising back-to-back wins at Darlington and Indianapolis the last two weeks even though his No. 2 Ford was never the fastest car.
Perhaps the most important roll of the dice, though is whether the Vegas race catapults NASCAR’s playoff into the national conversation. Ratings dips caused a reshuffling of the postseason schedule this year; this track joins the Charlotte road course and Richmond short track in making its playoff debut. NASCAR officials are hoping a more well-rounded slate of speedways ups the challenge for drivers while keeping fans entertained despite the NFL clamoring for their attention.
The 2018 title race is ready to roll. Let’s see if Sin City provides a temptation to watch.
South Point 400
Time: 3 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Las Vegas)
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Team Penske
Back-to-back wins by Brad Keselowski put momentum squarely in Team Penske’s corner. A Brickyard 400 trophy was an added bonus, the first for a car owner who’s won 17 Indianapolis 500s there in open wheel.
It’s not so much the speed that’s increased the last few weeks as the smarts. Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe are two of the best in the business in pulling out strategy to keep their car in position to win at the end. That’s important in a NASCAR playoff where the parity between the fourth and 16th-seeded drivers is razor thin. Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney may not have the multiple wins their Penske teammate has but they’re certainly consistent; neither one has run worse than 15th over the past month.
Who’s at the Back: Bubba Wallace
It seems like years ago this rookie dazzled with a second-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500. Wrecks in three of the last six races have this freshman taking his lumps, dropping hopelessly behind William Byron in their mano-e-mano battle for Sunoco Rookie of the Year. The last time he ran on the lead lap was at Daytona back in July; the last lead-lap finish came at Michigan in June. It’s not the results or growth single-car Richard Petty Motorsports is looking for.
Trevor Baynewill not return to Roush Fenway Racing next year.The announcement, revealed by owner Jack Roush this week, was hardly surprising. Bayne has been replaced for multiple races by veteran Matt Kenseth as Roush Fenway Racing looked to evaluate the performance of the No. 6 Ford. Bayne is without a top-10 finish in 16 starts this season, posting five DNFs while failing to lead a single lap. He’s rumored to take his Advocare sponsorship over to a full-time XFINITY Series ride while Kenseth and Richard Childress Racing’s Ryan Newman are among those on the short list to take his spot.
Kasey Kahne will miss at least the next three Cup Series races.Kahne, who has been suffering from dehydration symptoms, will be replaced by Regan Smith over at the No. 95 Leavine Family Racing Ford. While Kahne has already announced his retirement from Cup Series racing, effective the end of 2018 the veteran maintains he’ll return to the seat rather than call it quits early.
Lowe’s is rumored to return to Jimmie Johnson in a limited role next year. The seven-time NASCAR champion’s current full-time sponsor had previously announced they were leaving the sport altogether. But it looks like the home improvement company is having at least a partial change of heart. Public leads for the No. 48 team to replace them have been few and far between in what has been a challenging sponsorship climate for even the sport’s top teams.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Stewart-Haas Racing drivers to qualify for this year’s postseason: Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola. It’s the first time the entire team has qualified.
Winners in the first 26 Cup races this year. That’s the fewest since the sport went to its current playoff system in 2014.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
The Big Threeshould once again be the focus of your fantasy team. Not only did the trio all run inside the top four here back in March but Kevin Harvick, in particular, put on a clinic. Harvick led 214 of 267 laps in a dominating win where he looked capable of lapping the entire field.
Kyle Busch, the runner-up from that race seems to have success at Vegas in even-numbered years. It’s the type of gambling quirk (top 5s in 2014, '16, '18) that bodes well heading into Sunday’s event. And Martin Truex Jr., despite a last-place finish Monday at Indianapolis, has an outstanding track record here with Furniture Row Racing. He hasn’t run lower than 14th here since taking over the No. 78 car in 2014, scoring a win at this track last year.
Tired of this trio? Brad Keselowski’s your man. It’s not just the two straight wins; the No. 2 team is in a class all their own in Sin City. Six straight top-10 finishes here come packaged with two wins, the most recent of which came in 2016.
The only reason Austin Dillon made the playoffs is through his season-opening, last-lap Daytona 500 victory. He’s only earned just one top-5 finish since then. But Richard Childress Racing has had seven months to prepare for the playoffs and Las Vegas should be a good track for them. Dillon has two top-15 finishes in his last three starts out in Nevada and is likely to be severely undervalued in daily fantasy.
Aric Almirola was a quiet 10th here back in March but flashed top-5 speed at times during the race. It was his first ever top-10 result here but the No. 10 Ford enters the playoffs in position to build on that. We always see a postseason surprise each year and this team, currently playing on house money could emerge as that dark-horse contender.
Michael McDowell has six DNFs in nine career Las Vegas starts. But don’t be fooled. A start-and-park career tarnishes what’s otherwise been a promising set of results here. Keep in mind he led 11 laps in March with Front Row Motorsports before engine failure derailed a chance for a solid finish.
Paul Menard may not have made the playoffs this year with the Wood Brothers but he’s a sure bet out in Las Vegas. The veteran hasn’t run outside the top 20 here since 2009 and put up a respectable ninth-place effort back in the spring.
What Vegas Thinks
Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. own this part of the column for the last 10 weeks. This week, they’re 11/4, 11/4 and 4/1 favorites.
What I Think
I think it’s Harvick throwing the first punch among the Big Three. A dominating performance leads to a Las Vegas sweep and the first ticket punched into the Round of 12.
— 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 email@example.com or on Twitter @NASCARBowles.
(Top photo courtesy of NASCAR.com)