Pennzoil 400 Preview: Intermediate Oval Barometer

Pennzoil 400 Preview: Intermediate Oval Barometer

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series will make its annual visit to Sin City this weekend for the race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The intermediate oval in the Nevada desert plays host to the Pennzoil 400 this Sunday afternoon. This is our second consecutive week of racing on a cookie cutter oval. This race combined with the previous week's race at Atlanta will set the expectations for the races to come on the intermediate tracks this season. With this being the third race of the season, we should begin to see some trends form, especially after racing on similar ovals two weeks in a row. This race will be a good example of what we can expect for many of the drivers.

Those who perform well at Las Vegas are set up to run well at upcoming facilities like Texas, Charlotte and Kansas. So what happens in Las Vegas doesn't necessarily stay in Las Vegas, at least in terms of racing. This style of track makes up a vast percentage (33 percent) of the ovals that the Monster Energy Cup Series races on, so this 400-mile event will be an early season barometer for what's to come. The drivers that succeed this week will be ones to watch in the coming weeks.

LVMS is just the second of our many intermediate ovals on the Monster Energy Cup Series schedule. While the banking and configuration varies a bit from the other intermediate ovals, Las Vegas should be a good indicator

The NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series will make its annual visit to Sin City this weekend for the race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The intermediate oval in the Nevada desert plays host to the Pennzoil 400 this Sunday afternoon. This is our second consecutive week of racing on a cookie cutter oval. This race combined with the previous week's race at Atlanta will set the expectations for the races to come on the intermediate tracks this season. With this being the third race of the season, we should begin to see some trends form, especially after racing on similar ovals two weeks in a row. This race will be a good example of what we can expect for many of the drivers.

Those who perform well at Las Vegas are set up to run well at upcoming facilities like Texas, Charlotte and Kansas. So what happens in Las Vegas doesn't necessarily stay in Las Vegas, at least in terms of racing. This style of track makes up a vast percentage (33 percent) of the ovals that the Monster Energy Cup Series races on, so this 400-mile event will be an early season barometer for what's to come. The drivers that succeed this week will be ones to watch in the coming weeks.

LVMS is just the second of our many intermediate ovals on the Monster Energy Cup Series schedule. While the banking and configuration varies a bit from the other intermediate ovals, Las Vegas should be a good indicator of what to expect for most of the drivers in 2018 on these style tracks. Since historical data is so valuable in developing our weekly driver list, we'll take a quick look at these track specific statistics. The loop stats in the table below span the last 13 years of competition at this 1.5-mile oval. Let's take a look at the loop stats for the last 13 races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson10.94964455822,666112.0
Kyle Busch11.94591432302,596102.9
Chase Elliott20.58817048599.3
Kevin Harvick14.24131911812,46196.8
Joey Logano10.02911121711,75896.3
Brad Keselowski15.42431631881,47891.2
Martin Truex Jr.13.2377891582,06490.9
Erik Jones15.0500025490.5
Ryan Blaney10.77817051189.0
Kasey Kahne14.24051161292,33688.3
Kyle Larson15.812216063586.3
Ryan Newman15.743149592,30283.0
Denny Hamlin12.337126141,60782.1
Kurt Busch22.525847731,41480.7
Austin Dillon17.4898251478.4
Jamie McMurray16.53512021,59775.2
Paul Menard16.73364091,32474.1
Clint Bowyer17.828725171,27171.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 23.810712144268.4
Trevor Bayne18.6744025566.6

Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a track of parity the last several seasons. We've seen different racing camps and different manufacturers dominate at the Nevada oval. Ford, Chevrolet and Toyota have each won in the last three years at LVMS, so no one really holds a grip on this race track. Last season the Monster Energy Cup Series returned to the Nevada desert and Martin Truex Jr. rolled into victory lane for the first time ever at the 1.5-mile tri-oval. With Truex picking up that victory our focus shifts to the possibility of a streak developing at this facility. However, before we cede the trophy to a Toyota camp we need to realize that contenders will come from several different stables this weekend. Toyota, Ford and Chevrolet drivers have each scored a win at Vegas in the last three seasons. Kevin Harvick, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson will be among some of the drivers knocking at the door. The dark horse candidates will be the Joe Gibbs Racing teams. Matt Kenseth and Kyle Busch have only won here one time each since 2009. That statistic makes this camp definite underdogs this weekend in Vegas. Here are our picks for fantasy racing success at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend.

The Contenders - Drivers in the hunt for the win

Kevin Harvick -
The track in Las Vegas has produced a lot of repeat winners, and it could again with the 2015 LVMS winner, Harvick. The No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team is fresh off a dominant victory at Atlanta as this veteran driver is off to a great start to the season. The driver of the No. 4 Ford has strong career numbers at the Vegas oval, despite having just the one-career win there. Harvick owns an impressive 14.8 average finish over his 17 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and has four Top 5s and seven Top 10s over that span. Harvick led 142 laps en route to the dominant victory at this facility three years ago. The No. 4 SHR team has the momentum rolling heading into Vegas this weekend, and it's hard to bet against this driver and team.

Brad Keselowski -
The two-time Las Vegas winner looks to keep his good roll going in the Pennzoil 400. Keselowski challenged Kevin Harvick at Atlanta this past weekend to be his biggest threat at that intermediate oval. His resume at this Las Vegas facility has been dramatically improving in recent seasons. The Penske Racing star has really made headway at this cookie cutter track in his last few visits. He has two pole positions, 187 laps led, two victories and four Top-5 finishes in those last five efforts at the Vegas oval. It's for this reason alone that we think Keselowski will be strong this weekend, possibly stronger than he was at Atlanta. The driver of the No. 2 Ford has some momentum and history on his side as we head to Las Vegas.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing driver is carrying his strong 2017 season into the new campaign. After a strong fifth-place performance at Atlanta this past week, the No. 78 team comes to Las Vegas looking to get on a roll. Truex has really carved up these style tracks the last two seasons with multiple victories and Top-10 finishes. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has held some recent success for this veteran driver. He is the defending event champion, having won at Las Vegas last year. That was Truex's first victory at the Nevada oval, but not his first flirtation with victory there. Truex finished runner-up in the 2015 installment of the Pennzoil 400. Las Vegas is about as close at it comes to a "hometown track" for the Denver-based Furniture Row Racing team, so you know they'll bring their A game this weekend.

Joey Logano -
Logano has been one of the more consistent 1.5-mile oval performers of the last three seasons. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been no exception to that rule. He's going to continue carving out that reputation this Sunday afternoon. The driver of the No. 22 Ford has a strong 6.4 average finish at the oval, and he's led over 150 laps there in just his last four starts. He's started on the front row in three of those four races and rides a four-race Las Vegas Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. Logano had a bit of a struggle at Atlanta this past week, but still finished sixth. That was a race of tire-management and we won't see that in Sunday's race at Las Vegas.

Solid Plays - Drivers who are near locks for the top 10 with an outside shot at winning

Kurt Busch -
Considering how good he was at Atlanta last week, it's no stretch to slot the Stewart Haas Racing veteran in the solid plays list this week, but Vegas has been a work in progress for this veteran driver. Busch led 52 laps and peddled his way to a hard-fought eighth-place in last week's event. Vegas has been tough on this driver over the years. Busch's hometown track beat him up early in his NASCAR career, but of late it's started to yield some pole positions and Top 10s. In this event two years ago the driver of the No. 41 Ford had one of his better Vegas outings with a pole, 31 laps led and a respectable ninth-place finish. Given how good he looked at Atlanta this past weekend, you're safe to deploy Busch in your fantasy lineups for the Pennzoil 400.

Chase Elliott -
Based on what we observed this past week in Atlanta the Chevrolet teams still have some work to do to get the new Camaro up to speed. That said, the young Hendrick Motorsports driver still had the best run of the entire Chevy camp. He spent much of that event battling the handling of his No. 9 Chevrolet, but still managed a Top-10 finish at the end of the day at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He raced to a brilliant third-place finish one year ago at Las Vegas, so he certainly likes this facility. Elliott rides a string of seven-consecutive Top-10 finishes on the intermediate ovals dating back to last summer's Kentucky race. That is at the most elite level of performance right now among the Monster Energy Cup Series. Elliott should extend that streak after Sunday's 400-mile race.

Kyle Busch -
The driver of the No. 18 Toyota had a bit of a par performance at Atlanta this past week, but it's no surprise given his up-and-down career at that facility. He still soldiered through and nabbed a seventh-place finish. We expect Busch to build on that effort this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a one-time winner at his hometown track, and he owns six Top-10 finishes in 13 starts. Two of his last four efforts have netted a pair of strong fourth-place finishes at this facility. Those last four starts have also yielded 117 laps led, so Busch has not only been finishing up front here, he's been leading laps as well. This championship contending driver needs to jump start his season after a poor Daytona and par Atlanta outing, so Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens should have their "A" game on for the Pennzoil 400.

Kyle Larson -
We're very high on the young Ganassi Racing driver after what we witnessed in the season finale at Homestead last season, and last weekend at Atlanta. Larson has aced the last two intermediate oval events and is looking for more as we travel to Las Vegas this week. His Homestead finish was third, and his Atlanta finish this past week was ninth. The team should adjust to the new Camaro pretty quickly. Larson has four-career starts at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. His 2015 performance netted a fifth-place qualifying effort and eighth-place finish. Last year Larson was dramatically improved. He finished runner-up to race winner Martin Truex Jr. We expect the No. 42 Chevrolet to be fast this weekend and for Larson to crack the Top 10.

Sleepers - Drivers with good history at Las Vegas who can provide a solid finish

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin is off to a great start this season. After Top-5 finishes at Daytona and Atlanta he comes to Vegas third in the driver standings. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran doesn't have the best career stats at Las Vegas. Despite a career 50-percent Top-10 rate at LVMS, most of his success came earlier in his career at this oval. However, that changed with his start in this event one year ago. Hamlin raced to a sixth-place finish in last season's Kobalt Tools 400. He now has two Top 10s in his last three starts at the Nevada oval. The driver of the No. 11 Toyota rides a huge eight-race Top-10 streak on intermediate ovals into this weekend's action. That bodes well most of all. Hamlin hasn't finished outside the Top 10 on an intermediate oval since last May's Kansas race.

Clint Bowyer -
Last week we advised to take a "wait and see" approach to Bowyer in Atlanta. Well, we waited and what we saw was a pretty good performance for a driver that has historically struggled at that oval. Bowyer peddled his way to a strong third-place finish, as he raced inside the Top 10 at times during that event. It seems that Stewart Haas Racing has gotten off to a great start with their Fords that struggled at times last year, and all four of their teams are seeing a benefit and a bump in performance. Go ahead and rack up this veteran driver for Las Vegas weekend. The driver of the No. 14 Ford only has four-career Top 10s in 12 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. However, one of those came in this event one year ago.

Ryan Blaney -
The new driver of the No. 12 Ford would like to have had a better showing at Atlanta last week, but labored to a 12th-place finish. That by no means degrades his value this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Blaney has three-career starts at this facility, and his last two attempts have netted Top-10 finishes. The Penske Racing rising star was one of the better performers last season in the intermediate oval circuit while competing for Wood Brothers Racing. Blaney nabbed a pair of Top-5 finishes at the similar oval in Kansas, and he collected a seventh-place finish as Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The change in racing from Atlanta's rough surface to Vegas' more grippable racing surface should be very agreeable for the young driver.

Aric Almirola -
After 11th- and 13th-place finishes to start the season, we imagine Almirola is really digging his new ride at Stewart Haas Racing. The veteran driver narrowly missed winning the Daytona 500, and he was one of only 13 drivers to finish on the lead lap this past week at Atlanta. Now the No. 10 team sets it sights on the oval just outside Las Vegas. In nine-career starts at LVMS, Almirola has never cracked the Top 10. However, he did come very close a year ago. He peddled his old ride, the No. 43 Ford, to a 14th-place finish at Las Vegas. That was his best-career effort at the track. Considering that two of his last four starts on intermediate ovals have been better finishes than that, we think Almirola has a very good shot at posting another career-best Vegas effort this weekend.

Erik Jones -
The second-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver staged an incredible comeback last week at Atlanta. For much of the race he was mired in the high teens to low 20s, but he'd rally in stage 3 and race toward the front. After 500 miles Jones would cross the finish line an impressive 11th at Atlanta. It was one of the better performances of the day, but didn't get as much attention because he finished outside the Top 10. Jones now sets his sights on Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This will be his second-career Cup start at the oval. Last season he qualified an impressive eighth and finished 15th as a rookie in the No. 77 Toyota. Jones has some experience racing at this speedway. In four combined starts between the Camping World Truck and Xfinity Series, he's racked up one victory and three Top-10 finishes in four starts. He clearly likes this track in the Nevada desert.

Austin Dillon -
The Richard Childress Racing driver hustled hard to get a Top-15 finish last week at Atlanta. If the No. 3 Chevrolet team brings that type of speed to Las Vegas this week, and their luck holds up, more good things could happen. Dillon has five-career starts at this facility, but easily his best performance came in this event two years ago. The young driver qualified fifth on the grid and finished fifth after 267 laps of action. That was Dillon's first-career Top 5 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but we're willing to bet not his last. With Chevrolet drivers having some catch up to do in terms of speed, it will be a tall order for the No. 3 Chevrolet to crack the Top 5. We believe another Top-15 finish though, will be in order.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jimmie Johnson -
Johnson slides all the way into the slow down list this week. The Hendrick Motorsports star's slump of 2017 has somehow migrated into 2018. He crashed at Daytona, and had to drive an ill-handling car at Atlanta. The results have been disappointing to say the least. Now he heads to an oval that has provided lots of good performances over the years. Johnson has four-career victories and nine Top-10 finishes at LVMS. Although, much of that success came earlier in his career. He finished 11th in this event one year ago, and that's been more demonstrative of his recent outings in Vegas. Johnson hasn't cracked the Top 10 on an intermediate oval in the last four attempts, so there are plenty of caution flags waving for the No. 48 team heading into the Pennzoil 400.

Kasey Kahne -
Atlanta was a real test of the abilities of the No. 95 team and how veteran Kahne would handle the team's car. Sadly, it wasn't a passing grade for either after the checkered flag at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Kahne would fall back and finish 21st after racing with better track position earlier in the race. The result was pretty good for Leavine Family Racing's past history, but better marks are expected for a capable driver such as Kahne. The pressure will be on again this week as the series pulls into Vegas. This veteran driver has had tons of success at this oval over the years. Kahne owns seven Top 10s in 14-career starts at this facility. That's a pretty good mark at 50-percent. However, we still recommend a wait and see approach with the No. 95 Chevy team this week.

Ryan Newman -
Last weekend started off great for veteran Newman. He narrowly missed capturing the pole at Atlanta last Friday, but he'd still roll off on the outside of row 1 for Sunday's race. From that point on it was all downhill. The driver of the No. 31 Chevrolet would lead 17 laps early, but persistent tire issues on the right front would plague the team and put them off the lead lap early. It would lead to a disappointing 22nd-place finish. Newman's Vegas stats are reasonably good. He sports a 47 percent Top-10 rate at this oval, but hasn't visited the Top 10 there since 2015. Another stat to consider has been his recent cookie cutter oval performance. Newman has only visited the Top 10 once in his last seven starts on 1.5-mile ovals. There are plenty of caution flags associated with this driver and team at Las Vegas.

Alex Bowman -
The new driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet was a little worse than expected last weekend at Atlanta. He labored and labored, but just could seem to get out of the mid-pack portion of the running order. Bowman will hope to change that this Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. However, the data doesn't support it. His two-career starts at this facility were woeful 37th- and 43rd-place finishes. But we have to acknowledge those starts came with two ill-equipped teams. His last Xfinity Series start at this oval came way back in 2013. Between the lack of data and his sub-par performance at Atlanta this past week, we can't recommend giving a start to the No. 88 Chevy team this week.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Mark Taylor
Taylor is RotoWire's senior NASCAR writer. A nine-time FSWA finalist, Taylor was named the Racing Writer of the Year in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2016 and 2017. He is also a military historian, focused specifically on World War II and the U.S. Navy's efforts in the Pacific.
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