Pennzoil 400 Preview: Heading West

Pennzoil 400 Preview: Heading West

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

As we leave Florida in the rear view mirror, the 2021 schedule takes us out West for the fourth race of the season.  The NASCAR Cup Series makes its early season visit to Sin City for the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.  Last season, the intermediate oval in the desert played host to the second event on the schedule, but NASCAR has returned Las Vegas to its more traditional slot in the schedule.  

With this being the second race on an intermediate oval for the season, we need to get our notebooks handy.  This race, as well as the one last week at Homestead, will be a good example of what we can expect going forward for many of the drivers on similar style ovals.  Those who perform well at Las Vegas are set up to run well at upcoming facilities like Atlanta, Kansas and Texas.  This style of track makes up a vast percentage (28 percent) of the ovals that the 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 the second of our many intermediate ovals on the Cup Series schedule.  While the banking and configuration varies a bit from the other cookie cutter tracks, Las Vegas should be a good indicator of what to expect for most of the drivers early in 2021 on these style ovals. 

As we leave Florida in the rear view mirror, the 2021 schedule takes us out West for the fourth race of the season.  The NASCAR Cup Series makes its early season visit to Sin City for the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday.  Last season, the intermediate oval in the desert played host to the second event on the schedule, but NASCAR has returned Las Vegas to its more traditional slot in the schedule.  

With this being the second race on an intermediate oval for the season, we need to get our notebooks handy.  This race, as well as the one last week at Homestead, will be a good example of what we can expect going forward for many of the drivers on similar style ovals.  Those who perform well at Las Vegas are set up to run well at upcoming facilities like Atlanta, Kansas and Texas.  This style of track makes up a vast percentage (28 percent) of the ovals that the 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 the second of our many intermediate ovals on the Cup Series schedule.  While the banking and configuration varies a bit from the other cookie cutter tracks, Las Vegas should be a good indicator of what to expect for most of the drivers early in 2021 on these style ovals.  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 16 years of competition at this 1.5-mile oval.  Let's look at the loop stats for the last 19 races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kevin Harvick13.16893786363,907104.8
Joey Logano8.45862204883,141104.6
Kyle Busch10.87392122603,734100.5
Chase Elliott21.54621701551,84999.2
Martin Truex Jr.11.07572722933,50898.0
Ryan Blaney9.740394221,80396.1
Brad Keselowski11.45902522822,73894.4
Kyle Larson10.840578261,67593.9
Denny Hamlin13.4695971392,76085.0
Kurt Busch22.0543761252,53983.2
Ryan Newman15.259855592,88279.5
Austin Dillon16.33332651,48579.1
Erik Jones20.42633501,06878.4
William Byron22.3290613987877.2
Alex Bowman18.83846161,22575.4
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 20.1280333697872.6
Aric Almirola21.73772531,55467.8
Matt DiBenedetto18.6156111744162.1
Chris Buescher17.315991127961.4
Daniel Suarez21.4130154146660.0

Las Vegas Motor Speedway had been a track of parity for several years.  However, we've seen the advantage shift mainly to Ford teams in the last few seasons.  Ford drivers have won four of the last six events at the Las Vegas oval.  In this event one year ago the Cup Series returned to the Nevada desert and Joey Logano rolled into victory lane for the second time in his career at the 1.5-mile oval.  With Logano picking up that victory, as well as the 2019 installment of this event, the focus is squarely on Ford drivers and Logano as we return this Sunday.  

However, before we cede the trophy to a Ford camp we need to realize that contenders will come from several different stables this weekend.  Toyota and Chevrolet drivers will be looking to upset the current trend at LVMS.  Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott will be among some of the drivers knocking at the door.  Given that the Cup Series last raced at LVMS last September, and it would be Kurt Busch walking away with the trophy that Sunday evening, we have to be prepared for surprises. Anyone can surge at the end with the right pit and race strategy and pull off the upset.  Late cautions and overtime finishes open the door to this type of anarchy.  The following drivers are our picks for fantasy racing success at Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend.

The Contenders – Drivers in the hunt for the win

Joey Logano – Logano was not so great early in his career at this oval, but he's come on strong in recent seasons.  The driver of the No. 22 Ford has an exceptional 8.4 average finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and he's led over 450 laps there since 2014.  Logano has won two of his last four starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and had a strong nine-race Top-10 streak at the facility until last September's 14th-place finish in the South Point 400.  The Penske Racing star really likes racing this intermediate oval and the loop stats in the table above bear this fact out.  Logano had a strong car early at Homestead last weekend, but faded later in the race.  That should be a good tune up for Las Vegas and will help the team to make better mid-race adjustments.

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is looking forward to Las Vegas after his strong Homestead outing.  Truex led 37 laps last Sunday and finished third at the South Florida oval.  That was a great tune up for this weekend.  He's won two races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway since the 2017 season and he's led close to 300 laps during that seven-race span.  Truex's last start at the Nevada oval was a strong fourth-place finish in last September's South Point 400.  The driver of the No. 19 Toyota has captured six Top-10 finishes in his last seven Las Vegas starts entering this weekend's action.  Considering how strong Truex and his team looked at Homestead-Miami this past week, we believe this driver and team will be one of the top contenders in the Pennzoil 400.

Kevin Harvick – The track in Las Vegas has produced a lot of repeat winners, and it could again this weekend with the 2015 & 2018 LVMS winner, Harvick.  The No. 4 Stewart Haas Racing team is fresh off a strong Top-5 performance at Homestead as this veteran driver is off to a good start to the season.  The driver of the No. 4 Ford has strong career numbers at the Vegas oval, to go along with his two-career victories.  Harvick owns an impressive 13.7 average finish over his 23 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and currently rides a four-race Top-10 streak at the desert track.  The SHR star led 92 laps in this event one year ago to finish eighth-place.  The No. 4 Ford team has the strong Las Vegas reputation to defend this weekend. 

Brad Keselowski – The three-time Las Vegas winner looks to keep his winning ways rolling in the Pennzoil 400.  Keselowski has been traditionally a strong early-season performer and this track has been a big part of that success.  His resume at this Las Vegas facility has been incredibly strong the past few seasons.  The Penske Racing star has one win, 94 laps led, and four Top 10's in his last five starts at the Vegas oval.  It's for this reason alone that we think Keselowski will be strong this weekend, and most likely stronger than he was at Homestead last week.  The driver of the No. 2 Ford led 47 laps at Homestead-Miami Speedway last Sunday before fading to a 16th-place finish.  Keselowski is really dialed-in at this track right now, and he should have little trouble closing this week. 

Solid Plays – Near locks for a Top 10 with an outside shot to win

Kyle Busch – The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has a bit of an up-and-down resume at his home state track.  This is the primary reason he's in the solid plays list this week and not the contenders list.  The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a one-time winner at his hometown track, and he owns 10 Top-10 finishes in 19 starts for a respectable 53-percent rate.  Four of his last six efforts have netted Top 10's at this facility.  With just 260-career laps led at LVMS, this isn't one his more dominant intermediate ovals.  Busch has lots of potential and upside in the Pennzoil 400, but we don't believe he's a major threat to win or a part of the A tier of drivers this week.     

Kyle Larson – The Chip Ganassi Racing star comes to a track this weekend where he's been zeroed-in the last four seasons.  Larson has three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes in his last six attempts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  Larson's start in this event one year ago netted a solid ninth-place finish.  After that strong performance he saw his average finish at LVMS drop to an eye-catching 10.8 across nine-career starts.  That low average finish mark places the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet among the statistical leaders in that category at Las Vegas.  This race offers Larson a lot of upside and a very high performance ceiling.  After his strong performance at Homestead this past Sunday, we're very optimistic about his chances in this 400-mile battle.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin started on the pole last weekend, but faded to 11th at Homestead after some mistakes.  He should rebound nicely this Sunday in Nevada.  The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran doesn't have the best career stats at Las Vegas.  Despite a career 44-percent Top-10 rate at LVMS, most of his success came earlier in his career at this oval.  However, Hamlin served notice he could pound the pavement with a stellar performance at this oval last September.  He peddled the No. 11 Toyota to 121 laps led and a strong third-place finish in the South Point 400.  That was this driver and team's "last look" at this oval, and it left a pretty good impression. 

William Byron – Last week's big winner gets an upgrade to the solid plays list this week.  Byron and new crew chief Rudy Fugle put on an impressive performance at Homestead and Byron walked away from South Florida with his second-career Cup Series victory.  For an encore performance the No. 24 Chevrolet team will tackle Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  This hasn't been Byron's best oval in his prior three seasons of racing.  However, his momentum coming into this event can't be ignored.  Byron's last three starts on intermediate ovals dating back to last season have yielded finishes of eighth-, 13th- and 1st-place.  Byron is a star in the making and 2021 could likely be his coming out party. 

Sleepers – Drivers with good history at Las Vegas & solid upside

Kurt Busch – Vegas has been tough on this driver over the years.  Busch's hometown track beat him up early in his NASCAR career, but he finally slayed that dragon last September.  Busch led 29 laps and captured the victory in the South Point 400 for his first Cup Series win at his hometown oval.  There had been indicators things were about to turn for the driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet.  Busch led 23 laps and hauled-in a fifth-place finish at Las Vegas in this event in 2019.  Racing well in front of family and friends is important, and you can bet Busch will be sharp again this Sunday.  His eighth-place finish this past Sunday at Homestead is a good barometer for what to expect. 

Alex Bowman – The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has shown incremental improvement with each start at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  It culminated in Bowman's fifth-place finish in last September's South Point 400, which is a career-best mark for him at this oval.  He now has 11th-, sixth-, 13th- and fifth-place finishes in his last four starts at LVMS.  Bowman will look to hold the line if not improve in this Sunday's Pennzoil 400.  The Hendrick Motorsports youngster finished last season strong on these style ovals with finishes of third- and fifth-place at Kansas and Fort Worth.  Bowman picked up where he left off with his steady ninth-place finish at Homestead last week.  We believe this driver and team will stay on a roll in the Pennzoil 400.  

Michael McDowell – McDowell silenced his critics and put to rest any thoughts that the No. 34 team isn't greatly improved over last season with his strong sixth-place finish at Homestead last week.  This driver and team's hot start to the 2021 season is no fluke and hard work is finally paying off for this small race team and driver.  McDowell will look to keep his hot hand in Sunday's Pennzoil 400.  Las Vegas Motor Speedway has yielded little to no success for this veteran driver in 14 starts.  However, cast that idea aside this weekend.  Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer has this team running like a precision instrument right now, and there's no doubting McDowell's driving abilities.  We believe a Top-15 finish is definitely in the cards, and the potential for a first-career Top 10 at this oval is not out of the realm of possibility for McDowell. 

Tyler Reddick – Reddick looked like a superhero in those last 30 laps at Homestead last week.  The Richard Childress Racing youngster plowed through the field like a hot knife through butter over the final laps in the Dixie Vodka 400.  He'd fail to run down William Byron for the win, but he'd make a huge impression finishing a brilliant second-place.  For his next act Reddick will take on the intermediate oval in Las Vegas.  He was a bit underwhelming in his two starts at this facility last season, but it is a new year.  The No. 8 Chevrolet team will have learned a lot from those two starts and carry the momentum of Homestead into Sunday's race.  Reddick won in his last Xfinity Series start at this oval at the end of 2019.  He'll have that confidence in tow for Sunday's 400-mile battle.

Austin Dillon – We're going with steady and dependable in this slot of the sleepers list.  Sure, Dillon hasn't been a super-dazzling play at Las Vegas or many intermediate ovals for that matter.  However, it's his steady results dating back to last season that has our full attention this week.  Dillon is coming off a strong 12th-place finish at Homestead last Sunday, and that after racing among the Top 10 much of that 400-mile event.  Going back to the end of last season Dillon has finishes of 11th-, 11th- and 12th-place in this last three intermediate oval events.  The track at Las Vegas yielded a fourth-place finish to the No. 3 Chevrolet team in this event one year ago.  Dillon may not hit that mark this Sunday, but he should keep the string of steady finishes rolling.            

Matt DiBenedetto The Wood Brothers Racing veteran will look to hit the reset button after his subpar Homestead outing this past Sunday.  This is the perfect oval to visit for the No. 21 Ford team to rebound.  DiBenedetto forged a brilliant pair of runner-up finishes at this facility last season.  The wide racing lanes and progressive banking seem to be to his liking based on the results.  The notes that crew chief Greg Erwin took here last season will be an invaluable tool to prepare since there will be no qualifying or practice again this weekend.  DiBenedetto's 2020 experience at this track will be a big advantage over most of the drivers in the field. 

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week 

Chase Elliott – We're moving the defending champion to the slow down list this week after his "whiff and miss" at Homestead last week.  Granted, there should be some improvement after the first race of the season on an intermediate oval and that data is examined by the teams.  However, Elliott carries a high price tag in weekly lineup and salary cap leagues.  He's a definite "underperform" candidate for Las Vegas.  Elliott's eight-career starts at this desert oval have only netted three Top-10 finishes (38-percent).  He went 0-for-2 here last season with 26th- and 22nd-place finishes.  Those performances were even more discouraging when you consider Elliott led 143-combined laps in those two races.  It's best to err towards caution this week and keep Elliott and the No. 9 team on the bench.          

Aric Almirola – The driver of the No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing Ford has just three-career Top-10 finishes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 15 starts.  Couple that with his three-race Top-10 drought at the track and you get a 20-percent Top-10 rate at Vegas.  Not the numbers that normally endorse fantasy racing deployment.  Almirola is struggling on the mid-sized ovals of late with finishes of 13th-, 23rd- and 30th-place dating back to last season.  His 30th-place finish at Homestead this past week is a real harbinger of where this driver and team are right now in this style of racing.  The driver of the No. 10 Ford is in an intermediate oval slump right now, and we're visiting one of his stingier ovals this Sunday afternoon.

Ryan Blaney – To say that Blaney has started the 2021 campaign cold would be a big understatement.  The Penske Racing talent has finishes of 30th-, 15th- and 29th-place to start the season and not much is going right at the moment.  Blaney will look to shake off that stigma in Sunday's Pennzoil 400.  However, this driver and team have been traditionally slow starters at the beginning of the season.  A quick look at the past two seasons shows that Blaney doesn't typically hit his stride until the sixth or seventh race of the season.  Despite his 67-percent Top-10 rate at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, we're recommending to bench Blaney and the No. 12 team this week.  At least until the young driver can figure things out and starting reeling off Top 10's again. 

Bubba Wallace – The 2021 season for 23XI Racing has not gotten off to the best of starts.  Wallace has labored to 17th-, 26th- and 22nd-place finishes to start the season.  New race teams can take a while to get traction, and this may be the case for the No. 23 Toyota team.  Wallace's career at Las Vegas Motor Speedway shows one Top-10 and five finishes outside the Top 20 for an average finish of 23.7.  That's not an encouraging sign heading into Sunday's Pennzoil 400.  Wallace's last start at this oval last September was a labored 28th-place finish in the South Point 400.  Given his struggles to start the new season and his track specific history, we can't recommend using this driver and team in fantasy lineups this weekend. 

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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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