Check out all the latest news and notes, including race times, for this weekend’s Pennzoil 400 from Las Vegas…
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, March 3
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio (Channel 90)
Distance: 400.5 miles (267 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 80),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 160), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 267)
2018 Winner: Kevin Harvick
Man of Steel: Keselowski’s winning ways might have only just begun
Brad Keselowski won last week’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Atlanta Motor Speedway even while fighting the flu. The Team Penske driver arrives at Las Vegas this week statistically fortified, at least – as the winner of three of the last six races there.
He returns to the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) having won the series’ last race at the track – September’s 2018 Playoff opener. He also won the March race in 2014 and 2016.
Not only has Keselowski proven himself specifically adept at the Vegas 1.5-mile oval, he may be a favorite this weekend for his propensity to go on winning streaks. Three times in his career he’s won back-to-back races (2014, 2016, 2018) and he won three consecutive – at Darlington, S.C., Indianapolis and Las Vegas last season. Two other times in his career he’s won two races in a three-race span –in 2012 he won Chicago and Dover, Del. and in 2016 he won at Kentucky and New Hampshire; both times with a race in the middle to split up the wins.
His work – and Team Penske’s work in particular – has been especially productive on the Vegas high banks. Keselowski has led laps in seven of the last eight races there and led 50 or more laps three times in that span. His Penske teammate, reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, holds a seven-race top-10 streak heading into the weekend, leading a total of 241 laps in that span.
Harvick returns to Vegas to defend last season’s win
The defending winner of Sunday’s Las Vegas race is Stewart-Haas Racing’s Kevin Harvick, who took the trophy last year in what ended up being part of a three-race win streak to kick off the season – with victories at Atlanta, Vegas and ISM Raceway. Harvick is currently second to leader Denny Hamlin in the points standings, trailing by eight points.
Harvick’s victory in this race last year marked the second consecutive race he essentially dominated. The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford led 181 of 325 laps en route to his Atlanta win and answered that by leading 214 of the 267 laps at Vegas, the most laps ever led by a driver at Vegas.
However, on either side of Harvick’s Vegas win last March, he had a DNF at the track, finishing 38th in the March 2017 race. In last September’s Playoff opener, Harvick’s Ford suffered a cut tire after leading 14 laps, ultimately finishing a very uncharacteristic 29th.
He has two wins (2015) and four top-10s in the last seven Vegas races – leading five of the last six races for a total of 394 laps out front.
Hometown love: Busch returns to Las Vegas
Kyle Busch returns to his hometown of Las Vegas, Nevada, fresh off a historical achievement in the sport – becoming the all-time winningest driver in the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series with his 52nd career win at Atlanta Motor Speedway last Saturday.
Busch is now the winningest driver in both the Truck Series (52 wins) and the Xfinity Series (92 wins) and would like to add to his Cup win column as well. He’ll be competing in all three series races at Vegas this weekend, a favorite to keep collecting trophies along the way to perhaps topping NASCAR’s overall win list (in all three series). He has previous wins at his home track in all three series – a Cup win in 2009, an Xfinity Series win in 2016 and a Truck Series win last year.
In all, the 34-year-old currently has 195 wins across all three of NASCAR’s series (51 in Cup, 92 in Xfinity and 52 in Truck). Only the legendary seven-time Cup champion and NASCAR Hall of Famer Richard Petty has more (200 wins).
Although Busch has only one Cup win at his Las Vegas Motor Speedway “home track,” he remembers it well.
“It was cool,’’ said Busch, who also won back-to-back pole positions at Vegas in 2008-09. “To go out there and run a smooth race and have a shot at winning at the end of the race, that’s what it’s all about. I watched Vegas being built from the ground up and I remember when it wasn’t anything but a gleam in the eye of (track founder) Richie Clyne – all those guys who made that place happen.”
Busch and his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Erik Jones are the only drivers to score top-10 finishes in the first two races this season. Following Atlanta, the 2015 Monster Energy Series champion Busch is ranked third in the standings, nine points behind series standings leader and JGR teammate Denny Hamlin.
Tried and True(x) at Las Vegas
Martin Truex Jr. climbed out of his No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota last week at Atlanta Motor Speedway frustrated and motivated. And that was after a second-place finish.
The 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion crashed out of the season-opening Daytona 500 and finished 35th so he has ground to make up. Although the positive showing at Atlanta moved him from 28th to 12th in the points standings, Truex felt for sure he had a car capable of winning.
He’ll get another chance this weekend at Las Vegas, where he led a race-best 150 laps en route to the 2017 victory and has finished fourth or better in four of the last five races. He was third in the September Playoff race despite leading the most laps (96) on the afternoon.
Las Vegas marks the second straight week for Truex to show his 1.5-mile expertise. Since the start of his 2017 championship season – a span of 23 races on 1.5-mile tracks – Truex has eight wins, 19 top fives, 22 top 10s and led 1,446 laps.
Like the rest of the field, Truex is eager to see how the new competition rules package will play out. Cup teams tested at Las Vegas in the offseason.
Hamlin’s early season success continues
Denny Hamlin’s 11th-place finish at Atlanta Motor Speedway last weekend was good enough to compliment his season-opening Daytona 500 victory and keep him atop the points standings by eight points over Kevin Harvick heading to Las Vegas this week.
The good vibes will be especially helpful at Vegas, a track where Hamlin is winless. In fact, his 15 laps led in 14 starts at Las Vegas is the lowest total laps led for him at any venue where he’s made that many starts. Last year, his 17th-place finish in this race was the only non-top-six finish in the opening five races for the driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.
The upside is that the last time Hamlin won the Daytona 500 in 2016, he also led the most laps (10) of his career at Vegas. The “West Coast Swing” – races at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, Calif. – has been a point on his resume Hamlin would love to improve. The only venue of that trio where he’s won is Phoenix, where he’s led a healthy 671 laps, including a race-best 193 laps in the 2017 Playoff race in which he crashed out late in the event.
“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,’’ Hamlin said. “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.”
Chip Ganassi Racing is on a roll
Chip Ganassi Racing is having the best start of its two-car history, statistically speaking. Although the team is still looking for its first win of 2019, for the first time in history, both team cars are ranked among the top-10 after the season’s opening two races.
Kyle Larson, driver of Ganassi’s No. 42 Chevrolet, is ranked fourth in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series points standings – the highest he’s been ranked in his career at this point in the season and the highest a Ganassi driver has been ranked at this point since 2010, when Daytona 500 winner Jamie McMurray was ranked fourth. Larson’s new teammate Kurt Busch, driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet, is ranked eighth.
Larson holds the distinction of being the season’s lap leader – 142 laps combined at Daytona and Atlanta. And he arrives at Las Vegas with good reason to feel optimistic about earning his first Monster Energy Series victory in more than a year.
In the last three Cup races at Vegas, Larson has two runner-up finishes and a third-place result. He has three top-five finishes in six career races at the track. He led 24 laps in his runner-up showing in last year’s Playoff race, the first time he’s led laps there despite his top-of-the-field finishes.
Mr. Jones has 2019 by the horns
Joe Gibbs Racing driver Erik Jones is ranked seventh heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the highest he’s been in the standings – ever – at this point in his three-year Cup career. Jones has top-10s in both races to start the season – third at Daytona and seventh at Atlanta last week.
He and JGR teammate Kyle Busch are the only drivers in the series to finish top-10 in both races. Jones has completed every lap run and is averaging an impressive fifth-place finish heading out West.
Last year the 23-year-old had a top-10 sweep of the three West Coast races – finishing eighth at Vegas, ninth at ISM Raceway and seventh at Auto Club Speedway in California. Plus, he won the Busch Pole position for the September race at Vegas.
He’s finished in the top-10 in four of his last eight races dating back to 2018 – a career year for the young Michigan driver who scored his first-ever Monster Energy Series victory in the Daytona summer race and qualified for the Playoffs for the first time.
Sunoco Rookies: Blank slate in Vegas
This will be the first Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series start at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for all four of the Sunoco Rookie of the Year contenders.
Richard Childress Racing’s 2019 rookie, Daniel Hemric, has the best previous finish at Las Vegas – he finished second in the 2016 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race. The best finish out of the group in an Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas is sixth by both Ryan Preece (fall) and Hemric (spring) in 2018.
For the second straight week, Preece leads the Rookie of the Year standings. The driver of the No. 47 JTG Daugherty Chevrolet is ranked 25th in the series driver points standings as well – with a top 10 in the Daytona 500.
RCR’s driver Daniel Hemric is currently second in the Sunoco Rookie of the Year standings, 12 points behind Preece. Hemric is also ranked 29th in the series driver points standings.
Front Row Motorsport’s Matt Tifft, who drives the No. 36 Front Row Motorsports Ford, is ranked third in the rookie standings (22-points behind Preece) and 33rd in the series driver points standings.
Cody Ware, driver of the No. 51 Rick Ware Motorsports Chevrolet, is ranked fourth in rookie standings (27 points behind Preece) and 34th in the driver championship standings.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series, Etc.:
Extra Seat Time – Four drivers not competing for Monster Energy Series points will be competing in the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube this weekend – Parker Kligerman, Joey Gase, BJ McLeod and Ross Chastain.