For the second consecutive year Denny Hamlin has started his NASCAR Cup Series season in championship form, becoming only the fourth person in history to earn back-to-back Daytona 500 victories and perhaps, more importantly, proving his Joe Gibbs Racing team is absolutely ready to continue a championship pace of a season ago.
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) trying to become the first driver to win the opening two races of a season since his former JGR teammate Matt Kenseth did it in 2009 – winning at Daytona and then California.
While the Daytona 500 was a photo finish between Hamlin and second place Ryan Blaney – a mere .014-second separated them as they crossed the finish line side-by-side. It was a stark reminder of Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 victory in 2016 – another photo finish and officially 0.010-second between him and Martin Truex Jr., who is now a JGR teammate.
This week’s Las Vegas race marks the beginning of competition on the 1.5-mile tracks that fill so much of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Hamlin has never won at Vegas -in fact only nine of his 38 career wins have been at 1.5-mile tracks – the bread-and-butter of the schedule. But he is certainly highly motivated to continue the Joe Gibbs Racing good vibe (the team has won 20 of the last 36 races now). But competition will be especially fierce this weekend with several drivers and their teams long established good bets in Vegas.
That starts with Truex, who has won twice at Las Vegas in the last five races – once for his former Furniture Row Racing team en route to the 2017 Cup championship and then again last year in the Playoff opener driving in his maiden season with Gibbs.
Team Penske driver Joey Logano is the defending winner of the Spring Las Vegas 400-miler. He and his teammate Brad Keselowski have four wins between them there – earning half the trophies in the last eight races. And Logano’s victory last March was a mere .236-seconds over Keselowski marking an especially productive Ford outing. Add in Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick’s dominating win in Spring, 2018 (he led a record 214 of 267 laps) and Ford has five wins in the series’ last eight visits to the track.
Harvick acknowledged this week’s race may be a better barometer than the 2.5-mile Daytona superspeedway of how teams may stack up competitively going forward. The series visits four 1.5-mile tracks in the next six weeks.
“It’s tough to know,” said Harvick, who drives the No. 4 SHR Ford.
“So you’ve kind of got what you’ve got going through the West Coast Swing,” he continued of the series races this week in Las Vegas, next week at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway and the following week at Phoenix Raceway’s mile before back-to-back-to-back events at the 1.5-mile tracks in Atlanta, Homestead, Fla. and Texas.
“You might be able to make some adjustments for Atlanta and Homestead, but really you’re going to need that Easter Break in order to get your stuff together make the changes. … As you look at it, it just depends on where you are and how hard you need to push things in order to make a change.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!