NASCAR Cup Series News & Notes – Las Vegas Motor Speedway

Next Race: Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, February 23
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 80),
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 160), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 267)
2019 Race Winner: Joey Logano

Chastain to pilot No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford in Newman’s absence

Roush Fenway Racing has tabbed popular NASCAR competitor Ross Chastain to drive the team’s No. 6 Ford Mustang while their fulltime driver Ryan Newman recovers after an accident Monday on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

Newman was released from Daytona Beach’s Halifax Medical Center on Wednesday.

Chastain is contending for the NASCAR Xfinity Series championship this year driving the No. 10 Chevrolet for Kaulig Racing. He is a three-time winner in the NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series and finished runner-up in the 2019 championship. He has a pair of Xfinity Series victories – his first coming at Las Vegas in the fall of 2018, driving for Chip Ganassi Racing. His second came last summer at Daytona in while driving a partial series schedule for Kaulig Racing.

The 27-year old Alva, Florida, native has made 72 Cup Series starts with a best showing of 10th-place in the 2019 Daytona 500. He raced in Monday’s rain-delayed Daytona 500, finishing 25th in a car prepared by Chip Ganassi Racing and Spire Motorsports.

In four previous Cup starts at Las Vegas, Chastain’s best finish is 20th coming in the 2018 fall race.

“No one could ever take the place of Ryan Newman on the track and I can’t wait to have him back,’’ Chastain said on Twitter Wednesday afternoon. “As we continue to pray for a full and speedy recovery, I’ll do my best to make him and everyone at Roush Fenway Racing proud.’’

Hamlin playing with a full house in Vegas

Denny Hamlin shows up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) understandably liking his odds for a first career victory at the 1.5-mile track.

The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is coming off a win in Monday’s rain-delayed Daytona 500, making him the first back-to-back winner in the race since Sterling Marlin accomplished the feat in 1994-95. It is Hamlin’s third Daytona 500 win in the last five years. Only one other driver has won that many Daytona 500s in that short of a time frame – NASCAR Hall of Famer and the sport’s winningest driver, Richard Petty, who won in 1971 and back-to-back in 1973-74.

Hamlin led a race-best 79 laps and won in a photo-finish – only 0.14-seconds ahead of Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney – the second closest finish in the history of the Great America Race.

In 16 starts at Las Vegas, Hamlin has earned only two top-five finishes – the best of those, a third-place effort, came in only his second Las Vegas start in 2007. The 39-year old Virginian has seven top-10 finishes, including a 10th-place showing in this spring race last year.

Toyota has won two of the last six races, the only manufacturer other than Ford to win during that time. Both of those victories (spring, 2017 and fall, 2019) were by Hamlin’s current Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr.

The last time a driver won the first two races of a season was 2009 when former JGR driver Matt Kenseth won at Daytona and then at Fontana, Calif.

“Our team is picking up where we left off last year and really clicking so far,’’ Hamlin said. “I’m very happy with our performance, but we still have a lot of work to do and a lot more challenges coming our way. We’ll be ready to get back at it this weekend in Las Vegas and hopefully take the checkered flag.’’

Team Penske playing the odds

Joey Logano has plenty of reason to like his chances this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He is the defending winner of the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube and his No. 22 Team Penske Ford will be donned in the Pennzoil yellow. He and teammate Brad Keselowski have won three of the past six races at the 1.5-mile track.

And Logano is statistically-speaking best in class at Las Vegas. The 2017 Cup champion boasts the best average starting position (8.9) and best average finishing position (8.5) in the field. And his average running position is also tops among the competition at 9.162.

Logano has five top-five and nine top-10 finishes – only Kevin Harvick (10 top 10s and seven top fives) has more.  And a very telling statistic, Logano has never suffered a DNF in 13 starts.

The 2018 Cup Series champion had a difficult Daytona 500 – starting third and finishing 26th after a late-race accident.

He’ll be buoyed, no doubt, by the past performance of his Team Penske team which shows up undoubtedly as a pre-race favorite. Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Team Penske Ford has three victories at Las Vegas – second all-time to Jimmie Johnson’s four wins. His seven top-five finishes tie Harvick and Kyle Busch for most all-time.  He is one of only five drivers to win from the front row, earning the 2014 Vegas trophy from second.

As with Logano, Keselowski was fast all day in Monday’s Daytona season-opener only to be collected in a multi-car accident. His 30 laps out front was second only to race winner Denny Hamlin. But his day ended early when he was caught in a 19-car accident with 16 laps remaining in regulation.

Vegas, however, should give him reason to believe in redemption. He was runner-up to his teammate Logano is this race last year and answered that with a third-place finish in the fall Playoff race. Keselowski has not finished worse than seventh in the last nine races, including three wins, a runner-up and a pair of third-place finishes in that time.

Certainly, feeling capable of running with his veteran Penske teammates will be 26-year old Ryan Blaney, whose finish in the Daytona 500 was his second runner-up showing in the sport’s biggest race in the last four years. He’s coming off a career 2019 season, when he scored a personal best 11 top-five and 18 top-10 finishes. His win at the Talladega Playoff race marked the third consecutive season he’s celebrated in Victory Lane and his seventh place in the Cup Series championship was an all-time high mark for him as well.

Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a productive venue for Blaney, who has an impressive three top-five and five top-10 finishes in seven starts.

Busch brothers are hometown Vegas heroes

Las Vegas natives Kurt and Kyle Busch are unquestionably the fan favorites this weekend. For the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Kyle, it’s about adding to his winnings. He’s already won a Cup Series race, two in the Xfinity Series and a pair of Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series races at the track.

Unfortunately for Kyle Busch, 34, he suffered another early exit from the Daytona 500 – making the two-time Cup champion 0-for-16 in the sport’s biggest race. He couldn’t be more motivated to get back on track at his hometown track, where in 2009 he won from the pole position to become its youngest Cup Series winner (23 years, nine months, 27 days). He remains the only driver to win from pole position at Vegas.

He’s finished seventh or better in four of the last six Cup races at Las Vegas, including third-place in this race last March. Twice he’s finished runner-up (in 2005 and 2018). His seven top-five finishes are tied for tops among those on the grid this week.

He’s entered in a Late Model race Thursday night at Las Vegas’s famed “Bullring” and will compete in the Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race on Friday night as well.

“Vegas always means a little bit more pressure – more pressure on myself – just because it’s the hometown and you want to win there,’’ Busch conceded. “Thankfully, I have won there, 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.’’

For older brother Kurt, 41, the 2004 NASCAR Cup Series champion, it’s about finally finding a way to Las Vegas Motor Speedway Victory Lane. He has won a pair of pole positions (2010, 2016), but his best finish in 20 starts is third-place in 2005. Busch scored his only other top-five in this race last year, finishing fifth and leading 23 laps in his Vegas debut for Chip Ganassi Racing.

After leaving the Daytona 500 last week in the 19-car crash on Lap 184 of the race, Kurt Busch comes to Las Vegas eager to turn his fortune around.

“Lady Luck was not on our side,’’ Kurt Busch said at Daytona.

“That’s a roulette wheel people. The roulette wheel spins, and it grabs your number and it grabbed my number. Maybe Vegas will be a little better.’’

Harvick happy to be heading to Vegas

Although “Happy” has long been Kevin Harvick’s nickname, it was very fitting for him Sunday in the Daytona 500 when after a busy day that included overcoming a damaged race car, he persevered to earn a fifth-place finish.

The driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford won at Las Vegas in March of 2018 and was the Busch pole winner in this race last year, finishing fourth. He scored his second career runner-up showing at Vegas in the Cup Series Playoff opener last September.

Harvick’s 10 top-10 finishes at Las Vegas puts him in a five-driver tie for most all-time. And his seven top-five finishes are also best – tying him with Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch. Ford has won four of the last six races on the 1.5-mile track.

In just the last seven trips to Las Vegas, Harvick has two wins (2015 and 2018), a runner-up finish (2019-2) and a pole position (2019-1).

Truex trying for trio of Vegas wins

Martin Truex Jr. is also among those NASCAR Cup Series drivers happy to move Westward this week after suffering another DNF in the Daytona 500 on Monday – his second consecutive DNF in NASCAR’s biggest race. He has only a pair of top fives and four top-10 showings in 30 race starts at Daytona International Speedway.

The 2017 Cup champion has a markedly different record at Las Vegas Motor Speedway; however, he is one of only four drivers on the grid with multiple wins at the track. He won in 2017 en route to his first Cup title and is the most recent winner as well – taking the trophy in last year’s September Playoff opener, one of a series-best seven wins in 2019.

He hasn’t finished worse than eighth in the last five races at Las Vegas, including the two victories and a third-place finish in the 2018 Fall race.

Truex has proven to be particularly adept at the 1.5-mile venues such as Vegas. Just going back three years, the driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has 10 wins, 22 top-fives and 29 top-10 finishes in 33 races on 1.5-mile tracks – an impressive 87.8 percent top-10 showing on 1.5-milers in that time frame.

“I think overall, as a company, we feel really good about where we ended last season with the 550 (horsepower) package,’’ Truex said of the engine package used at the 1.5-mile venues.

“With us winning Vegas in the fall, Denny (Hamlin) winning Kansas and then Kyle (Busch) at Homestead, all of our cars were really fast at those places at the end of the year, so that gives me a lot of confidence going back to Vegas this weekend.

“Everyone has had a few months to work on their stuff and get better so it will be a challenge to keep that advantage we felt like we had late in the season and continue that as we get going with the heart of our season now that Daytona is out of the way.’’

Sunoco Rookie class looking to rebound after Daytona

The NASCAR Cup Series Sunoco Rookie Class of 2020 is one of the most decorated groups of young new drivers in years, but after last week’s season-opening Daytona 500 several of these first-year Cup regulars are looking to right their road.

Only two of the six drivers were running at the end of the action-packed season-opener with John Hunter Nemechek earning the best finish among them at 11th. Brennan Poole was the next highest finishing rookie at 16th after starting 36th.

Christopher Bell was scored 21st after being collected in a crash during overtime. Two-time defending Xfinity Series champion Tyler Reddick was scored 28th after being involved in a multi-car accident on Lap 199. Cole Custer (37th) and Quin Houff (39th) departed early, as well.

Of these six rookies, Reddick, who drives the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet, is the only one who has celebrated in Las Vegas’s glitzy Victory Lane. He won the Xfinity Series race there last September and a 2016 NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race there.

Reddick insisted, however, that his positive experiences in those two series won’t necessarily make a huge difference in his Cup debut Sunday.

“Unfortunately, there isn’t much of a crossover between the two cars,’’ Reddick said. “That’s what makes the Cup cars so challenging. We’ve got less horsepower and a lot more downforce, as well as a lot more competition.

“I do have some confidence entering the weekend though. I remember what my comfort level was when I won in the Truck Series there a few years ago and while Cup cars aren’t quite the same as the truck, there is a little more crossover between the handling of those two.’’

Cole Custer, who drives the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford, is the only driver in this rookie class with a previous Cup Series start at Las Vegas. He started 30th and finished 25th in his first career Cup race last March.

Suarez looking for redemption

Perhaps no one will be happier to see the bright lights of the Las Vegas strip than 2016 Xfinity Series champion Daniel Suarez, who was involved in an accident during the Daytona 500 Bluegreen Vacation Duel qualifying race and missed the big show.

He and his No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota team will give it another shot this week in Las Vegas, where he has had some success in the past. His best finish in the Cup Series – eighth place – came in the 2018 Vegas race when he was driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. He was 17th in this race last year and led 12 laps driving the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford.

He was runner-up in the 2016 Xfinity Series race at the track and third place in the 2017 Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas as well.

Parade Laps: Insights ahead of this week’s driver media rotations

Six drivers from the NASCAR Cup Series – Richard Childress Racing’s Tyler Reddick,  StarCom Racing’s Quin Houff, Gaunt Brothers Racing’s Daniel Suarez, Front Row Motorsports’ John Hunter Nemechek, Joe Gibbs Racing’s Erik Jones and Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kurt Busch will be participating in this week’s media rotations at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in advance of Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series’ Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube  (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Tyler Reddick, 24, Corning, California, will be making his NASCAR Cup Series debut in Las Vegas, but he brings a solid track record having won in both the Xfinity Series (Sept. 2019) and the Gander Trucks (2016) at Vegas. Reddick is coming off a 22nd-place finish in his second Daytona 500 after his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet was collected in a late-race accident. He is a two-time Xfinity Series champion, having earned the last two titles with two different teams – 2018 with JR Motorsports and again in 2019 with Richard Childress Racing.

Quin Houff, 22, of Weyers Cave, Virginia, is another member of the 2020 Sunoco Rookie of the Year class who will be making his first Las Vegas start this weekend. He has 18 previous career Cup starts with a best career showing of 29th at the first Pocono race last year. The driver of the No. 00 StarCom Racing Chevrolet finished 39th in the season-opening Daytona 500, retiring only 89 laps into the race after being in a crash.

Daniel Suarez, 28, of Monterrey, Mexico, is attempting to make his first race of the season this week after failing to qualify for the Daytona 500 field. His No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota was running first among those needing to race their way into the field in last Thursday’s Duel, but he was in a collision midway through the event that ended his day. He and the team are eager to push the reset button and Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a solid entry on Suarez’ resume. He finished a career best eighth in 2018 while driving for Joe Gibbs Racing. His track highlights include a runner-up finish in the 2016 Xfinity Series race and third place in the 2017 Xfinity event.

John Hunter Nemechek, 22, of Mooresville, N.C., arrives in Las Vegas as the top-finishing rookie in Monday’s Daytona 500. He finished 11th after starting 23rd in the No. 38 Front Row Motorsports Ford. Sunday will mark his Vegas Cup track debut; however, he has solid experience at the track. He finished runner-up in the March 2019, Xfinity Series race and eighth in the fall event en route to a career-best seventh place effort in the championship standings. He had a fourth-place finish in the 2015 Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race and an eighth place in the 2017 truck race there.

Erik Jones, 23, of Byron, Michigan, finished 18th in Monday’s season-opening Daytona 500 but was a front-runner for much of the afternoon in his No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota. The two-time Cup Series winner has had a hit-or-miss record at Las Vegas. He won the pole position for the 2018 fall Playoff race but has three finishes of 15th or better and two finishes of 36th or worse in five Vegas starts and has yet to lead a lap. His best showing is eighth in the 2018 spring race. Jones is coming off another promising year. He picked up his second career win in the historic Southern 500 at Darlington (S.C.) Raceway and qualified for the Playoffs for the second consecutive year with a career-best 10 top-five finishes in 2019.

Kurt Busch, 41, of Las Vegas, would love nothing more than to raise a trophy at his hometown race track. The venue has historically been challenging for the 2004 Cup Series champion. He has only two top-five and five top-10 finishes in 20 starts. His best showing is a third place in spring, 2005. However, he finished fifth in his first race in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet last year. He is a two-time polesitter (2010, 2016) at Vegas. Busch finished a frustrating 33rd in Monday’s Daytona 500, after being collected in a multicar accident on lap 184.

(NASCAR Media PR)

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