March 1, 2019
By Micah Roberts
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The third race of the 2019 NASCAR Cup Series schedule rolls through Las Vegas for the 22nd straight year in what will be the first of two races this season. It also kicks off the West Coast swing with races at Phoenix and Fontana to follow.
There's lots of storylines to follow this week after two races, but the main story coming in this week will be in regards to the new tapered spacer package which dropped horsepower from 750 in last seasons pacakge down to 550 to produce better competition. I've heard mixed results from opinions I respect on both sides, but I saw plenty of signs in the Atlanta race that lead me to believe this package is going to offer competitive racing with a much larger pool of drivers havinga chance to win weekly..
It's only one race at Atlanta and while the speeds were about 6 mph slower than what the Cup cars ran in the same race last season, the racing was better. There was four wide at several points in Sunday's race and the cars were actually faster through the corners. It was harder for the leaders to get separation so the distance between first and 25th-place after 15 laps of green flag racing was much shorter.
The statistics between the two races don't tell the full story because they actually look similar. Last season at Atlanta there was five cautions and 24 lead changes among eight drivers. On Sunday there was five cautions and 26 lead changes among nine drivers.
The big difference between the two races is that last year I don't think there was any juncture where I believed Kevin Harvick wouldn't win as he led 181 of the 325 laps. But on Sunday we saw drama with about seven different drivers looking like they were taking control of the race and capable of winning. Brad Keselowski led just once, but it was for the final 33 laps with Martin Truex Jr. reeling him in. The margin of victory at only .218 of a second. Harvick won by 2.69 seconds last season and was followed by two other Fords. Sunday saw a Ford win, Toyota finish second, and a Chevy finish third.
It's hardly a large enough sample size to go all in with a strong opinion, but I'm all thumbs up so far and pumped for 2019 which looks to be a season of parity.
“It’s still early," Clint Bowyer said when asked for his thoughts on new package. "Trying to figure out the right scenario for this is going to be interesting. You have to remember, Atlanta is a one-off race. There is no track that we go to anymore that is as slick and is as hard on tires as Atlanta. It will be interesting to see what Las Vegas brings.”
There's likely to be fewer tire issues in Las Vegas and also aerodynamic ducts being used instead of the brake ducts NASCAR mandated for Atlanta. However, this week's package was used in the Las Vegas testing four weeks ago.
"I think you’ll see what we saw on the restarts at Atlanta for much longer in Vegas," said Aric Almirola who started on the pole last week at Atlanta. "I don’t think it will last the entire fuel run, but I think the crazy, wild restarts are going to last more like 10 or 12 laps. I think it’s going to be wild and we’re going to have more three- and four-wide racing for a lot longer.”
If Almirola is correct this could be the best race ever at Las Vegas. His 20-to-1 price at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook should be considered very attractive. He led 36 of the first 37 laps last week, but fell off when shuffled back.
“When we were out front in clean air, our car was really fast and drove really well,” Almirola said. “When we fell back to second and third, our car was really fast but our car didn’t drive as well. Then, when we got a speeding penalty and went to the back, the car was a handful. Getting clean air is going to be one of the biggest challenges. No matter what rules package you have, the clean air is always going to be important. Your car makes the most amount of downforce when it’s in clean air. Every car you get behind just makes conditions worse and you lose grip and handling.”
Bowyer did the Las Vegas testing four weeks ago and it was apparent that all three of his Stewart-Haas Racing teammates read the notes well as all four drivers finished in the top-10 at Atlanta. Bowyer was fastest in Atlanta's two practices and midway through the race Harvick radioed in that he'd figured the package out and what lines were best to run.
For handicapping purposes, we only have one full race of results to go off of and three test sessions on the Las Vegas 1.5-mile layout to review. We can also mix in a little bit of past history because the same cast of characters seems to routinely do well in Las Vegas.
Keselowski has won three of the past six Las Vegas races, including the first fall race last season. One more win and he'll tie Jimmie Johnson with four. Harvick won this race last season giving him two of the past five wins. There are only five active drivers that can claim a win in Las Vegas and they're all former Cup Series champions.
No driver sneaks up on a flukey win in Las Vegas. And the sports books rarely get fooled with odds paying out larger than 20-to-1. But if there were a year for a long shot to finally cash it would be 2019 with this new package where cases can be made for up to 20 drivers to win.
Las Vegas has always been an elitest track. No surprises, but the new package may inspire some of us to bet drivers like Almirola, Bowyer, Johnson, Erik Jones, Denny Hamlin, Austin Dillon, Daniel Suarez, Ryan Blaney, Ricky Stenhouse Jr, or Ryan Newman on a 1.5-mile track as opposed to last year when bettors were basically throwing their money away betting against the Big-3 who won nine of the 11 races on 1.5-mile tracks.
“We’re excited to get to Vegas this weekend to kick off the West Coast swing," said Newman who is 50-to-1 to win this week. "We showed some good speed last weekend in Atlanta and I’m ready to see how that carries over to another 1.5-mile track with the full aero package this weekend. We tested there back in January and learned a lot."
Joe Gibbs Racing looks dialed in so far with Kyle Busch and Erik Jones being the only two drivers with top-10s in each of the first two races. Martin Truex Jr. probably should have won last week, but lapped traffic got in the way, and then there's Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin who is still on flying high from his huge win two weeks ago.
“The FedEx No. 11 team is really clicking so far and I’m happy with our progress and achievements, but we still have a lot of work to do and a lot more challenges coming our way," said Hamlin who is 25-to-1 to win Sunday. "But, we’re still leading the points, and we’ll be ready to get back at it this weekend in Las Vegas and pad our lead a little more.”
Hamlin has averaged an 14th-place finish in 14 Las Vegas starts, but his car looked strong for most of the race at Atlanta before settling for 11th. By the way, his finish postion total for this week is 11.5. Both Truex (2017) and Busch (2009) are past winners in Las Vegas.
Now having said all that, I'm going with Keselowski to win again and it's not only because he's been the dominant driver lately in Las Vegas, or because he won last week on Vegas' sister-track, but rather it's more about what he did in the Las Vegas test running the same exact package we'll see Sunday. In the final two sessions, he ran the most laps in each and the No. 2 got better with each lap and some tinkering in the garages. In the final practice, he was fastest and I believe notes from those sessions produced his win last week at Atlanta, and maybe this Sunday as well.
Top-5 Finish Prediction:
1) #2 Brad Keselowski (6/1)
2) #4 Kevin Harvick (5/1)
3) #22 Joey Logano (8/1)
4) #18 Kyle Busch (5/1)
5) #19 Martin Truex Jr. (6/1)