Pennzoil 400 Preview
February 28, 2018
By Micah Roberts
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We're having our 21st straight season of NASCAR Cup Series racing at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but it's the first time the city can say Sunday's Pennzoil 400 is the first of two Cup races on the season. The second race, The South Point 400, will kick off the Playoffs on Sept. 16.
Last year's Vegas Cup weekend had $191 million worth of economic impact to the city, and it's been as high as $240 million in the past, so getting two races is going to be a huge boost for entire town.
Las Vegas doesn't need much help in getting folks to town, but the typical NASCAR fan has a larger worth to the casino than the average visitor. They've come to Las Vegas to see NASCAR as an excuse to let loose, party and gamble a little and they come flush with cash, too. It reflects in the ledgers every time they leave. They also tip well, which the bartenders, waiters, bellman and dealers very much appreciate.
Sunday's race will also be the largest bet NASCAR race of the season for Las Vegas sports books, and the second-most bet -- The Daytona 500 -- isn't even close. It's about four-times more action for the Vegas race, which has only been open for wagering the week of compared to the long shelf life of Daytona odds that was first posted in December. The second Vegas race, during football season, will now likely be the second most bet race of the season.
Before you go wagering, let me offer some advice. You want to bet a few drivers to win and you want to bet a few match-ups, but do some homework first. Don't simply bet your favorite driver. That's your money. Buy a hat as a fan, but wager your hard earned cash with the intent on winning rather than hoping to cash a lottery ticket.
There's only 22 of the 36 drivers that have a legitimate chance of winning so don't be that guy that bets Cole Whitt at 1,500/1 odds because "anything can happen". This isn't Daytona where maybe 35 drivers could win and all cars were equal. The 1.5-mile Las Vegas layout is conquered by the elite teams every year.
Check out the results from last week at Atlanta, the 1.5-mile sister track of LVMS. For the second straight year Kevin Harvick dominated. He led more laps last season, but Sunday's run was an epic performance. He was using chassis that won at Texas in November and was unmatched. On one fuel run he had to start from the rear of the lead lap cars, about 18 ahead of him, and within 40 laps had retaken the lead.
You come in with knowledge that Harvick won at Las Vegas in 2015, but that was Chevy. Last season in his first driving a Ford he was involved in an accident and finished 38th at Las Vegas, a week after leading 292 of 325 laps at Atlanta. Who knows how good Harvick would have been in that race. In 17 career LVMS starts he has a 14.8 average finish and has led 224 laps.
What's more important with Harvick for this race is how he finished the playoffs on 1.5-mile tracks. He had top-fives in four of the five races on 1.5s. Not much changed on the cars from last season and then he goes and does what he did Sunday at Atlanta.
It wasn't only Harvick that was good, it was the entire Stewart Haas Racing team with Clint Bowyer (3rd), Kurt Busch (8th) and Aric Almiorla (13th) all showing speed over the weekend. Busch, the Las Vegas native, should have a edge, but he's never won in any series on the 1.5-mile layout.
“It never translated to a home-field advantage,' Busch said. "I’ve always struggled at Las Vegas. I’ve qualified well but just haven’t raced that well. I’m looking to turn that around. There’s no sense in having the fast laps at the beginning if you can’t back them up at the end. And to get the second weekend, that’s huge for Las Vegas. To kick off the NASCAR playoffs in Las Vegas, it will be hot – be forewarned – and it will be a new, exciting feel for our sport. I’m really happy for the track and the town to have two dates.”
Busch is definitely a driver to consider this week at 30/1 odds. Bowyer too.
Then there was everyone else. Two-time Vegas winner Brad Keselowski had his Penske Ford dialed in and finished second and his teammates fared well too. Joey Logano was sixth and Ryan Blaney was 12th.
The Joe Gibbs Toyota was strong at Atlanta as well with Denny Hamlin (4th), Kyle Busch (7th), Eric Jones (11th) and Daniel Suarez (15th) looking just as good as they did in the playoffs on these tracks. Kyle Busch is going to run the Truck race Friday night, the Xfinity race Saturday and the Cup race Sunday. It's the first time Las Vegas has ran all three series in a weekend and they'll do it again in September.
Gibbs affiliate driver Martin Truex Jr. won at Las Vegas last season. He won on seven of the 11 1.5-mile tracks last season on his way to the season championship. Yes, that's an all-time NASCAR record. He was fifth Sunday at Atlanta.
“No question we had some special moments in Las Vegas last year,” Truex said. “The victory was a confidence booster to our team. It not only took the pressure off for making the playoffs but it also showed that we had some strength at the mile-and-a-half tracks.
“But the win and everything that happened during Champion’s Week in Las Vegas was last year and we don’t dwell, focus or gloat on past accomplishments. Right now we are 100 percent committed to getting back to Victory Lane. The focus is as high as it has ever been.”
Those are the guys you should key on this week. They all have a chance. You'll notice I didn't mention a single Chevy driver. They were all junk at Atlanta. The new Camaro body design looks sweet, but it's certainly a downgrade on these tracks compared to the SS Chevy used last season. Kyle Larson was the best Chevy finisher at Atlanta with ninth-place followed by Chase Elliott in 10th.
“Vegas is kind of interesting," said Elliott who finished third in Vegas last year. "The track has become a little bit temperature sensitive and sunshine sensitive. It has a lot of speed when it’s cool and it has a lot of speed when it can be warm, but the fall-off is pretty massive. I think that was kind of a topic of conversation I heard from the test is how quickly the tires were falling off and so on. I’m curious to see where all that stacks up weather-wise next weekend.”
Elliott was horrendous during practices and qualifying, but as Sunday's race went on his team worked hard on the car each pit stop to get a top-10 finish.
The positive for the Chevy drivers this week is that four weeks ago they were fastest in all four sessions during two days of testing at LVMS. Larson was fastest in three of them and rookie William Byron was fastest in the other.
Still, I'll have to see something drastically change in Saturday's practice to bet a Chevy in anything this week. Four-time Vegas winner Jimmie Johnson isn't even attractive to me this week.
“This Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 is a brand new car to us," said Johnson. "I am very proud of my team for all their efforts last weekend in Atlanta, they worked really hard. We all know it was not even close to the result we were looking for. The pit crew got some reps with plenty of four tire stops and we learned a lot. We have a lot of smart people on our team, so I’m not hitting the panic button. I posted this on Twitter: fear has two meanings – “Forget Everything And Run” or “Face Everything And Rise.” I’m ready to rise.”
I'm sticking with Kevin Harvick. He's one of the eldest drivers in the circuit now at 42, which I like. He's also from Bakersfield, CA just like Buck Owens and Merle Haggard, which I like. It seems like yesterday I saw him win a Winston West Series Vegas race and Championship in 1998. Two weeks after making his Cup debut in 2001, he got married in Las Vegas during race week. Wednesday is Kevin and Delana Harvick's 18th anniversary. He's in a great state of mind this week from all angles. But most of all, his car is expected to be freaky fast, again.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/1)
2) #41 Kurt Busch (30/1)
3) #2 Brad Keselowski (8/1)
4) #11 Denny Hamlin (15/1)
5) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (9/2)