South Point 400

When Las Vegas first got a NASCAR Cup Series race in 1998, it was a source of pride because it was really our first major sports franchise. We had UNLV and a Triple-A baseball club, but NASCAR was on the rise and was like a home court or home team. It was ours. Then we got an NHL team that went to the Stanley Cup Finals in its inaugural season, the Raiders are moving here in 2020, and we even have a WNBA team. We're big time now. A large city that proved it can support a pro franchise so we can darn well handle another NASCAR date.

Sunday's South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway kicks off the 2018 Playoffs, and it's a second date that's been long deserved, but reflecting back it's amazing how much this city has just gone out and grown itself up into a mjor sports town.

“I think it’s definitely grown into that more and more over the years," said native Las Vegan Kyle Busch. "When I was a kid there, I always kind of wondered why we didn’t have a professional team of any kind. You know, whether it would be hockey or basketball or baseball or football, but it’s becoming more and more, which is good.

"There are a lot of stars in all kinds of sports who come from our town with (Bryce) Harper, myself and Kurt (Busch), some other, younger, up-and-coming drivers, as well, like Noah (Gragson) and such. It’s nice to have an opportunity to have that place to be able to go play if you can make it to the hometown team and be a star in that series, that league.”

Hey Kyle, let's not sell Andre Agassi, Greg Maddux or Kris Bryant short, either. And the entire city of Las Vegas is also proud of our Busch brothers who each brought the city it's first real pro championship with Kurt's title in 2004 and Kyle's in 2015. Kyle comes in as the regular season champion and now has to start the Playoffs with a little pressure brought on by his home track.

“Yeah, Vegas always means a little bit more pressure – more pressure on myself – just because it’s the hometown and you want to win there," he said. "Thankfully, I have won there (2009) and I’ve knocked that one off the list, but certainly you want to win there every year. I love Vegas, the atmosphere and everything going on around that place. We’ve run up front there the last couple of years, so I would like to get our M&M’S Camry back in victory lane there. It’s always been a big race for us and the M&M’S team, so I’m hoping we can bring home the win in my hometown.”

In the March Las Vegas race, Busch finished second behind Kevin Harvick who led 214 of the 267 laps. Harvick had won the week before at Atlanta and then won the week after Vegas in Phoenix. Three straight wins, something Busch would match later beginning with an April win at Texas. These two have been the entire story of the regular season, especially on the tracks there are the most of. Each has three wins on 1.5-mile tracks with Martin Truex Jr. winning the last one at Kentucky.

Obviously, those three are the drivers to beat in the Playoffs and also Sunday's race, but the other drivers competing aren't conceding anything.

“They’ll be strong," said Kurt Busch of the Big-3. "You can never count them out. There’s a group of us that’s from fourth to I’d say 16th. I mean, everybody that’s in the playoffs has a chance, but those big three have bonus points that will help them advance.”

The Big-3 has won 17 of the 26 races this season, but we have seen a change of pace lately with several different drivers getting trophies. Four of the past five winners on the schedule have been other drivers. In fact, since Daytona in July we've seen Erik Jones, Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, and Brad Keselowski win. And Keselowski, a two-time Las Vegas winner, comes in winning the Southern 500 and Brickyard 400 on back-to-back weekends, his first two wins of the season.

Things are getting a little more equal and the Big-3 doesn't have such an edge anymore. The question when handicapping this week is how much stock do you put into what happened in three previous seven races on 1.5-mile tracks. Also, how much does past Las Vegas history get accounted for, especially the March race.

I like to think the July 14 Kentucky race is more relevant to the betting equation than what happened at Las Vegas March 4 just because it happened last. By the time Kentucky came around, three other drivers finished better than Busch and Harvick, two of which were the Team Penske Fords of Ryan Blaney and Keselowski.

Chevrolet is getting faster with Hendrick Motorsports and Chip Ganassi all looking improved. Joe Gibbs Racing's Jones is running near the top-five in his last 11 starts and Denny Hamlin almost won the Brickyard 400 last week with his best car of the year. It hasn't been all Kyle Busch dominating like early in the season. His brother Kurt Busch is the last Busch to win in the series -- Bristol four weeks ago.

Now we've got Keselowski looking to match three straight wins like Harvick and Busch. The thing that stands out with Keselowski winning Sunday, besides getting wins in the last two, is how he ran at Kentucky. He finished third, leading 38 laps and he was almost an equal to the Big-3. Seeing how everything has come together for him lately he offers some value if sports books put the squeeze on the Big-3 prices.

And before I forget to remind, shop around for the best prices. Most sports books offer vastly different odds. Some books put the squeeze on their theoretic hold, but there are still nuggets out there.

Jimmie Johnson is a four-time winner at Las Vegas and it would be nice to see him win this season in what is his longest drought to start a season. He's never went through a season without a win. He's showing some speed, but he'll probably be offered at 60/1 odds to win, which is his highest ever in a Las Vegas race where he was usually 4/1 or lower.

Hamlin has also never gone winless in a season and he's also never won at Las Vegas, but he has kicked off the playoffs with a win, doing so at Chicagoland in 2015. He's had top-fives in three of the seven races on 1.5s this season, but the speed last week was impressive. This is a good spot for his first win of the season.

Another driver looking for his first win of 2018 is Kyle Larson, who finished third at Las Vegas in March. Chevrolet has only two wins on the season, the first with Austin Dillon at Daytona in February and then a few weeks ago at Watkins Glen. Larson has been the best of the bunch collectively on the downforce tracks.

Top-5 Finish Prediction:

1) #2 Brad Keselowski (12/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (4/1)
3) #18 Kyle Busch (4/1)
4) #78 Martin Truex Jr. (9/2)
5) #11 Denny Hamlin (20/1)