Following Kevin Harvick’s third win of the season, the NASCAR Cup Series heads back west to Nevada. The Monster Energy Playoffs begins in the late-Summer heat of Las Vegas with the South Point 400.
Why Are We Here Again?
This is the second year of the playoffs beginning in Las Vegas after years of starting in Chicago. Needless to say, Chicago in mid-September versus Vegas in mid-September are two different places. Furthermore, this second Vegas race was for years the second New Hampshire race. In Loudon, NH residents are rightfully preparing for Autumn. Meanwhile, Las Vegas is preparing for 100-degree temperatures on Sunday afternoon.
Last season NASCAR attempted to run a typical weekend schedule and got needed blowback. Change was needed and it’s what NASCAR did with scheduling the Cup and Xfinity races both in the late afternoon. 4 PM (Mountain Time) isn’t exactly a night race but it will shield the race crowd from peak sun time.
Something else this later start does is put NASCAR head to head against Sunday Night Football. NASCAR lost this fight for eyeballs at Indianapolis and are doomed to do it once again.
Regardless, my main gripe is why are we here in Vegas now? Yes, schedules get set early and NASCAR does its best to accommodate everyone. However, did no one in North Carolina have any foresight about doing this race in September? Vegas should be a single race a year venue.
Preparing For A “New” Track
As previously mentioned, this will be a first for Las Vegas. Vegas hasn’t been repaved or reconfigured but has a new start time. We only have one Summer race to judge expectations by for Las Vegas on Sunday. However, that race started locally around Noon. Now we move the starting time back four hours. So what happens when a track goes from hot and slick and transitions to slightly less hot yet shaded? Well, grip will necessarily increase. However, it’s not as if the race will transition to under the lights like the Truck race on Friday did. The sun will continue to bake this 1.5-mile oval and possibly produce another chaotic event like last year.
Vegas Under the Sun
I don’t want to give the decision-makers at NASCAR too much credit but perhaps they knew what they were doing. If their desire was to schedule Vegas when they did with the assumption the heat would cause a chaos-filled start to the playoffs then they were right. Last year’s September race saw 12 cautions for 59 yellow-flag filled laps. Las Vegas had failed to see those numbers in nearly ten years, doubling and even tripling the number of cautions we normally see in the early Spring. Fast forward to March of this year and only two caution flags waved. Both for stage breaks coincidentally.
So, what happens when you take the factors of heat, the first race of the playoffs, and the 550 HorsePower package and combine them all? You get what I project to be pandemonium. I foresee a race filled with cars slipping in the corners and what will set a record for yellow flags at Las Vegas. Last year saw 9 drivers DNF due to a wreck. This year could very well look like a plate race with double-digit DNFs. If you hate sweating lineups then waiting for the NASCAR app to notify you that the race is over may be preferred. You could miss every wreck, somehow, and then watch your lineup go down in flames during the green-white-checker like last year.
Vegas Loop Data
This is just me spitballing but it appears one of the keys to a high finish last year was attrition. It shouldn’t be that surprising that the top-15 was occupied by drivers we normally see do well in plate races. Besides obviously nailing dominators, the key to success this weekend may be nothing more than picking “safe” drivers.
|Driver||DRIVER RATING||Start||Finish||Avg. Pos.||Fastest Lap||Top 15 Laps||Laps Led||Total Laps|
|Martin Truex, Jr.||135.1||10||3||3||77||271||96||272|
|Ricky Stenhouse, Jr.||69.1||14||30||22||1||38||0||251|
What Happened In Qualifying?
The talk during qualifying on NBCSN was drivers choosing race versus qualifying trim. In typical RCR fashion, it appears Dillon and Hemric opted for Q trim. Front Row Motorsports may have done the same thing with both Ragan and McDowell posting top-11 speeds. However, it appears Penske is playing the long game. Or at least, that’s what I think they’re doing. All three of Blaney, Keselowski, and Logano found themselves starting 18th or worse.
In the same vein, none of the JGR drivers start any better than Denny Hamlin in 13th. And he’s the outlier! The rest of Busch, Truex, and Jones all start 20th or worse.
Meanwhile, SHR swept the first two rows placing Clint Bowyer on the pole. Did SHR really run all four cars in qualifying trim? I doubt it. They may just be that fast. Or someone has a really good set up the rest copied off of.
The point of rehashing qualifying is? To point out that we have lots of teams running on different strategies. Teams probably remember all too well how much of an sh*t show this race became last season. Thus, perhaps the idea is teams are attacking Vegas like a plate race. Put your teammates around you, march to the front, hope for the best.
I bring up the plate race scenario because building Daytonaesque lineups makes sense for tomorrow. Almost too much sense.
- The track is going to be hot and slick. One loose car in turn three could pile up a handful of drivers.
- Teams qualified as though they’re trying to stick together. Whether intentional or not.
- Fastest laps will be somewhat dispersed throughout the field. In the Spring, 27 drivers had at least one fastest lap.
That sounds like a race where I’m trying to avoid exposure to dominators. It sounds like a race where I want safety and that safety is wrapped up in place differential. Now unlike a normal plate race, I don’t recommend just randomly picking drivers beyond whatever position. I think you need to be tactical and use as much of your salary cap as you can. In March, the top-six fantasy scores were drivers who started 10th, 1st, 19th, 28th, 23rd, and 25th. However, they were all top-tier drivers.
In other words, don’t get cute.
That’s why in the Race Sheets I’ve highlighted drivers according to tiers. Drivers who deserve priority are in blue. These drivers not only can move through the field but lead a portion of the race. Drivers in green are your typical place differential drivers. Drivers in pink are the preferred punts, yeah just the duo of Tifft and Cassill. Finally, we have the drivers atop the grid in orange. If you’re convinced that you need a true to life dominator those three are who catch my eye.
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