The second round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs complete, the series moves West to the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s penultimate round opener, the South Point 400 (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio). A win in this round is a ticket to race for the 2023 championship.
A pair of former champions – Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. – a highly-motivated veteran in Denny Hamlin and five fast next-generation stars in six-race winner William Byron, Chris Buescher, Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Ryan Blaney bring in this next three-race round of competition to determine which four drivers will vie for the title Nov. 5 at Phoenix Raceway.
The Las Vegas oval has played host to five previous Playoff races with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin (2021) and Truex (2019) the only two current Playoff contenders to hoist a trophy. Truex’s two Vegas wins (also Spring, 2017) makes him the only multi-race winner among the Playoff 8.
Byron, driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet and the current championship leader, won at Las Vegas this Spring – leading a dominating 176 of the 271 laps but having to beat his teammate Larson in a wild overtime thriller. Larson (2021) is the only other Playoff driver with a NASCAR Cup Series win at the track.
Reddick (2019) and Larson (2018) both have Xfinity Series Vegas victories. And Reddick won the 2016 NASCAR CRAFTSMAN Truck Series race there too.
It all certainly sets up a compelling start to this Playoff round. With the points reset, Byron goes into this stretch – which also includes races at the 1.5-mile Homestead-Miami Speedway and the half-mile Martinsville (Va.) Speedway – with a five-point edge on the Regular Season Champion Truex.
The 40-year old Hamlin is only nine-points behind the 23-year-old Byron and Larson is 17-points back in what would be the fourth and final cut-off position for the Championship Race in Phoenix.
Chasing them are RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, the three-race winner is only three-points below Larson at the cutoff line. JGR’s Bell and 23XI Racing’s Reddick are tied, eight points back and Team Penske’s Blaney is only 10 points below the transfer line making this an extremely tight competition in this all-important Playoff round.
Certainly the 25-year old Byron’s work this season – including those series-best, career-high six wins - has to make him a favorite this weekend. He rallied to runner-up finish at the Charlotte ROVAL in last week’s second round elimination race despite being under the weather – wrapping up an amazing three-race round that included a win and a pair of second places. He heads West with a lot of well-deserved optimism with a pair of top-five finishes in the last three Las Vegas races.
“We’ve got to keep it rolling," Byron said. “I’d like to do one-two two in the next round. That would be ideal but keep performing where we want to be."
The two-time Vegas winner Truex has 14 top-10 finishes in 23 races – 11 of those top-10s have come in the last 12 races making him a strong trophy pick this weekend. Hamlin has a similar record with top-10 finishes in nearly half (11) his 23 starts and has only finished worse than 11th place once in the last six races at Las Vegas.
Larson is another good bet in Vegas with an amazing 10 top-10 finishes in 14 starts – a 71 percent showing – placing outside the top-10 only twice since 2017; the last time came in the 2022 Playoff race.
Four times in the last 10 races, overtime has been necessary to decide the Las Vegas trophy; twice in the Playoff race (2020 and 2018). Only three times in that 10-race span has the driver who led the most laps gone on to celebrate the win.
A victory this weekend is more than a really cool trophy, it’s a ticket to race for the NASCAR Cup Series Championship and a crucial head-start on preparation for that. In just the last two seasons, Kyle Larson and Joey Logano won Las Vegas Playoff races and then went on to win the championship.
“It’s huge," said Blaney, who has eight top-10 finishes there in 14 starts. “Just having that prep time for two weeks with nothing else on your mind. …. It’s a huge advantage.
“Obviously, everyone is gunning to do it and try to win that one and move on, but it was massive for our group (Team Penske) last year and it would be the same big advantage for any group if a Playoff car was to win next week at Vegas.
“I think Vegas has been a good place for us in the past," Blaney added. “I feel like it’s been one of our best tracks as an organization. It’s something that whatever we do in general as a group kind of works for that place and hopefully that applies this year."