The NASCAR Cup Series begins Round of 12 of the 2020 Playoffs with Sunday night’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and the most recent track record of reference points to a certain foursome as a good bet.
Team Penske’s Joey Logano won at Las Vegas in March, just before the sport paused for the COVID-19 pandemic. Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr. is the defending winner of this week’s Playoff race on the 1.5-mile high banks and these two drivers join current championship leader and Logano’s teammate Brad Keselowski to make up the dominant quartet responsible for the last nine victories in Las Vegas.
They also currently make up four of the top six positions in the Playoff standings – reset for this round of Playoff competition at Las Vegas, Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway and the Charlotte ROVAL.
Sunday’s 400-miler is important beyond face value. A win automatically advances a Playoff driver to the Round of 8 – but this venue is far more predictable than the upcoming Talladega Superspeedway-style of racing and the nuance of the three-year old Charlotte Motor Speedway Road Course. Many drivers are setting their sights on a good run at Vegas instead of gambling on their fortunes at the more unpredictable venues like Talladega and Charlotte.
Harvick certainly has made it look easy in the Playoffs earning wins in two of the three Playoff-opening races (Darlington, S.C. and Bristol, Tenn.). His nine victories in 2020 – with seven races remaining in the season – is already a career-best mark for the 2014 series champ. And there is no reason to believe he slows down in Las Vegas, where he has two career wins, and has finished first (2018) or second (2019) in the last two Playoff races. He’s led 455 laps in the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford in just the last five Las Vegas races.
“I think for us you just want to keep doing what you’re doing,” said Harvick, who has three wins in the last six races this year and led more than 200 laps in two of those victories (at Dover, Del. and Bristol, Tenn.).
“You don’t want to get out of rhythm, you don’t want to start thinking about what could happen or what did happen. You just go and do what you do on a week-to-week basis, climb in the car, drive it as hard as you can. The guys are going to put what they think is the best setup in the car for that particular week, and everybody wants to achieve the same goal, so nobody is trying to have a bad night or a slow car.
“Everybody is coming to the racetrack trying to do everything that we can, but the thing I can tell you is when things aren’t going 100 percent correctly on a race weekend, we’ve got a great group of guys on pit road, we’ve got a great group of guys back at home helping us and on the pit box and doing all the things that it takes to try to climb back in the race or strategize our way back in the race.”
Harvick holds a 19-point advantage over Joe Gibbs Racing driver Denny Hamlin pulling into the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Hamlin, a six-time winner in 2020, is looking to find his footing again in the Playoffs after failing to earn a single top 10 in the opening three-race round – despite leading laps. He has never won at Las Vegas and has only a pair of top-five finishes in 17 starts. His best showing in the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota is a fifth place back in 2015.
Hamlin does bring a certain positive energy out West with him this week, however. He and his longtime friend, NBA legend Michael Jordan announced Wednesday that they are starting a NASCAR Cup Series team for the 2021 season. While many details are still forthcoming, they have already tabbed fan favorite Bubba Wallace to drive the car – news met with a lot of enthusiasm.
That feel-good vibe could certainly be put to good use this weekend as Hamlin continues to compete for his first series championship.
“It’s been a tough track for me in the past, but I enjoy the process of trying to get better at places where I haven’t necessarily run well,” Hamlin said of Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “I’m confident our team will bring a fast FedEx Camry and put us in a good position to win and advance. We didn’t have the best first round, but now our focus is all on the Round of 12 and to work toward a championship. We’ve had fast cars, but there are still areas of improvement that we are working on.”
TIL NEXT TIME, I AM STILL WORKING ON MY REDNECK!