Pennzoil 400 Preview: Schedule Shakeup

Pennzoil 400 Preview: Schedule Shakeup

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

As we leave behind in the rearview mirrors the carnage and beat up race cars that was the Daytona 500, the 2020 schedule has a new event for race No. 2 of the season.  The NASCAR Cup Series will make its early season visit to Sin City this weekend for the Pennzoil 400 on the intermediate oval of Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  

 In recent seasons this has been the third race in the schedule, typically following Atlanta.  However, NASCAR shook things up this year and now the Vegas race is second.

With this being the first race on an intermediate oval this season, we need to get our notebooks handy.  This race will be a good example of what we can expect 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, Homestead and Texas.  This style of track makes up a vast percentage (33 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 first of 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 2020 on these style

As we leave behind in the rearview mirrors the carnage and beat up race cars that was the Daytona 500, the 2020 schedule has a new event for race No. 2 of the season.  The NASCAR Cup Series will make its early season visit to Sin City this weekend for the Pennzoil 400 on the intermediate oval of Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  

 In recent seasons this has been the third race in the schedule, typically following Atlanta.  However, NASCAR shook things up this year and now the Vegas race is second.

With this being the first race on an intermediate oval this season, we need to get our notebooks handy.  This race will be a good example of what we can expect 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, Homestead and Texas.  This style of track makes up a vast percentage (33 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 first of 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 2020 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 15 years of competition at this 1.5-mile oval.  Let's look at the loop stats for the last 17 races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kevin Harvick13.65663405443,405104.0
Joey Logano8.55051954332,787103.3
Jimmie Johnson12.16814635823,227102.9
Kyle Busch10.96422072543,327101.8
Martin Truex Jr.10.96132432923,04397.6
Brad Keselowski11.64232412802,36895.5
Chase Elliott20.732572121,36795.5
Kyle Larson11.033073261,42693.7
Ryan Blaney9.92485921,27592.0
Denny Hamlin13.859946182,41983.0
Kurt Busch23.143066962,19583.0
Erik Jones22.419232090281.9
Ryan Newman15.257855592,82080.5
Austin Dillon15.92322041,09177.9
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.21.723531684573.0
William Byron21.8144162748872.4
Clint Bowyer18.343731181,91972.1
Daniel Suarez18.2130114146668.8
Aric Almirola22.22772231,20266.5
Alex Bowman22.020823170365.1

Las Vegas Motor Speedway had been a track of parity for several years.  However, we've seen the advantage shift 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 first time in his career at the 1.5-mile oval.  With Logano picking up that victory, and Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick taking the prior two at Vegas, the focus is squarely on Ford drivers and teams 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, Martin Truex Jr. 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 Truex Jr. walking away with the trophy that afternoon, he has to be considered the top contender from the Toyota stable.  The top suitors from Chevrolet appear to be Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson.  The duo were Top 10 drivers at Vegas that afternoon, and really the crème of the crop for the bowtie manufacturer.  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

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is looking forward to Las Vegas after his Daytona experience.  He's the winner of the last Las Vegas race, and two of the last five at the Nevada oval.  Truex has really carved up these style tracks in recent seasons with multiple victories and Top-10 finishes.  Las Vegas Motor Speedway has recently held tremendous success for this veteran driver.  He won this event in 2017, and won the fall event at the track last September.  The driver of the No. 19 Toyota rides a five-race Vegas Top-10 steak into this Sunday's action.  With close to 300 laps led at this facility since the 2015 season, Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a very fruitful oval for this driver and team.

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 performance at Daytona 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 14.2 average finish over his 21 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and has Top 5's in four of his last seven starts at the desert track.  The SHR star led 88 laps from the pole in this event one year ago to finish fourth-place.  Harvick returned in the fall and led 47 laps en route to an impressive runner-up finish.  The No. 4 Ford team has the strong Las Vegas reputation to defend this weekend. 

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 8.5 average finish at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and he's led over 400 laps there in his last eight starts.  Logano led 86 laps and won this event one year ago for his first-ever Las Vegas victory.  He returned to the track last September and earned a respectable ninth-place finish.  That effort extended the Penske Racing star's Top-10 streak at LVMS to eight races.  That's the longest active streak at the 1.5-mile Nevada speedway.  Logano seems to have figured something out about this track, and now that's he's on target he's shooting bullseyes.    

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 two pole positions, three victories, 279 laps led, and an eight-race Top-10 streak in his last eight 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 Daytona last week.  The driver of the No. 2 Ford has finished first-, second- and third-place in his last three LVMS starts.  Keselowski is really dialed-in at this track right now.

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 nine Top-10 finishes in 17 starts for a respectable 53-percent rate.  Three of his last four efforts have netted second-, seventh- and third-place finishes at this facility.  With just 254-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.     

Chase Elliott – Elliott made up for some early-career woes at Las Vegas with his twin outings at this facility last season.  The Hendrick Motorsports star racked up three finishes outside the Top 30 in his first four starts at this track.  However, he rallied strongly in 2019 with ninth- and fourth-place finishes at Vegas.  The fourth-place came in his last start at the desert track last September.  It was Elliott's career-best effort at LVMS.  Those twin performances were a part of his larger picture on the intermediate ovals last season.  Elliott brought home four Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes on the cookie cutter tracks last season.  With 139 total laps led, he wasn't playing follow the leader either.  He was leading substantial laps in these races.  We really like Elliott's potential to follow up that fourth-place finish he registered at this facility last September.        

Kyle Larson – The Chip Ganassi Racing star comes to a track this weekend where he's been zeroed-in the last three seasons.  Larson has three Top-5 and four Top-10 finishes in his last five attempts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  Larson's start here last fall during the Chase netted 2 laps led and a respectable eighth-place finish.  After that strong performance he saw his average finish at LVMS drop to an eye-catching 11.0 across eight-career starts.  That low average finish mark places the driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet among the lead leaders in that statistic at Las Vegas.  This race offers Larson a lot of upside and a very high performance ceiling.  It brings added value to Larson in weekly lineup leagues and DFS this weekend.

Ryan Blaney – Blaney's strong 2019 season was just a preview of things to come for this driver and team.  He's going to be one of the stars of the future as more veteran drivers step aside in the coming years.  Now we come to the first intermediate oval event of the 2020 season, and an opportunity for Blaney to impress.  His seven-career Las Vegas starts have netted one pole position, three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes.  Those 43- and 71-percent rates are pretty impressive even if they are across a small sample size.  Blaney nabbed a strong fifth-place finish in his last Las Vegas start which was the South Point 400 last September.  These intermediate ovals were tracks that the Penske Racing youngster noticeably improved on in the closing stages of last season.

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

Aric Almirola – The driver of the No. 10 Stewart Haas Racing Ford has just three-career Top-10 finishes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but all three have come in his last four starts.  Since moving to SHR in 2018, Almirola has taken quite a liking to this intermediate oval in Nevada. His average finish over his last five starts alone at LVMS checks in at an impressive 10.2 over the span.  This veteran driver has really figured out Vegas since moving to Stewart Haas Racing. Almirola showed us good speed in last weekend's Daytona 500 before getting rolled up in the big one.  This Pennzoil 400 could be just what the doctor ordered to get his season back on track.

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin captured his second-consecutive Daytona 500 victory last weekend.  He'll look to make another deep playoff run this season if he can peg the cookie cutter ovals.  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.  He has Top-10 finishes in two of his last five Las Vegas starts, so that's hovering around that career Top-10 rate.  Hamlin and the No. 11 JGR team get a bit of a fantasy racing downgrade this week, but for good reason.  They'll be slugging it out with a handful of teams in the backend of the Top 10 if things play out as they have recently for this driver and team at Vegas.     

Erik Jones – The young driver didn't get the finish he deserved in the Daytona 500, but Jones will get a chance to hit the reset button this weekend in the Pennzoil 400.  He was one of the more consistent drivers down the stretch run last season on the 1.5-mile ovals.  Jones earned four Top-10 finishes in his last five starts of 2019 on these style tracks.  That ranked him among the Top 5 drivers in the Cup Series in terms of late-season performance on the cookie cutter ovals.  The Joe Gibbs Racing youngster has just one Top 10 in five-career starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but we're willing to bet Jones changes that up in this Sunday's start.  He's a surging young driver, and just getting comfortable with some of these tracks in his third season at NASCAR's top level.

Clint Bowyer – Last week Bowyer earned a Top-10 finish in the Great American Race at Daytona.  That was a great way to start the season if you're this veteran driver.  He'll look to keep it rolling Sunday in the Pennzoil 400 at this very wide groove intermediate oval.  Bowyer finished last season strong on the cookie cutter tracks.  He piloted the No. 14 Ford to three Top-10 finishes in those final five events on the 1.5-mile tracks.  That's good momentum to carry into 2020 even if it is with a new crew chief.  Bowyer finished inside the Top 15 in this event one year ago, we're willing to bet he'll be even better in this 400-mile battle in Las Vegas.

Alex Bowman – The driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet has showed incremental improvement with each start at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.  It culminated in Bowman's 11th- and sixth-place finishes at the track last season.  Those have been his best two performances to-date in the Nevada desert.  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 sixth-, 11th-, fifth- and ninth-place at Vegas, Kansas, Fort Worth and Homestead.  There's no reason to believe Bowman won't hit the ground running in his first start of 2020 on an intermediate oval.    

Christopher Bell – Bell is our rookie of choice this week in the deep rookie field at Las Vegas.  Obviously this will be his first-career Cup Series start at the Nevada oval, but it's what he's done in recent seasons in the Xfinity Series at this track that catches our eye.  Bell has four-career starts in that division at Vegas and those efforts have netted one pole position, 163 laps led, two runner-up finishes and three Top-5 finishes.  Those total out to a sterling 5.2 average finish across the four-race span.  While we don't expect Bell to race with the leaders, he could challenge the Top 10 and make some waves in the process.  We expect the driver of the No. 95 Toyota to turn some heads this weekend and pay some fantasy racing dividends as well.

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week 

Kurt Busch – Vegas has been tough on this driver over the years.  Busch's hometown track beat him up early in his NASCAR career, and it's jumped again in recent seasons to be a real puzzle for the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran.  Most fantasy racing players will bench Busch due to his career 25-percent Top-10 rate at the Vegas oval, and for good reason.  In his start in this event one year ago he peddled the No. 1 Chevrolet to a fifth-place finish.  Busch would return last fall and struggle leading to a crash and DNF.  His 20-career starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway have netted an inflated 22.4 average finish.  The numbers don't tend to lie, this driver and team struggles at the Nevada speedway. 

Ryan Preece – The JTG Daugherty Racing youngster had it tough last season on the intermediate ovals.  Preece registered just one Top-20 finishes in the last five events of 2019 on cookie cutter ovals.  Those struggles were apparent in his 25th-place finish in last season's finale at Homestead.  It's a new season for the young driver, and some renewed hope of improvement.  Las Vegas stands as a tall task for the No. 37 team.  Preece's first two career starts at the oval came in 2019.  He slogged to 25th- and 27th-place finishes in those starts.  There are better drivers in the lower tier of the field with more upside at the Vegas than Preece and his JTG Daugherty Racing team.

Daniel Suarez – The incident in the Daytona Duel that saw Suarez crash and fail to finish led to his not qualifying for the Daytona 500.  That was not the way to start the season for this young driver with a new race team.  With just 38 teams entered this weekend, Suarez is assured of making the field, but can he shake the stigma that Daytona left with him and his new No. 96 Toyota team?  We believe it will be an uphill battle.  Suarez has five-career starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with just one Top-10 finish (20-percent) and an average finish of 18.2 which is a modest but pedestrian mark.  The No. 96 Gaunt Brothers team started the last three intermediate oval races of last season and earned 29th-, 22nd- and 29th-place finishes with Parker Kligerman and Drew Herring.  It will be difficult to imagine Suarez pulling this team up much higher than those marks.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – Stenhouse was a hero and a goat by the end of the Daytona 500.  He would win the pole in his lightning fast No. 47 Chevrolet.  The veteran driver would roll off first and lead the first 23 laps before the rain came.  On lap 60 he would push William Byron's Camaro too aggressively and lead to the young driver spinning and crashing on the back stretch.  Later on, Stenhouse would invoke the wrath of NASCAR by passing below the double yellow line and fetching a penalty.  He would take a potential race-winning car to a very subpar 20th-place finish.  He'll hope to rebound at Las Vegas this weekend, but this form of oval has not been his best the last year.  Stenhouse posted a 22.6 average finish in last season's final five events on intermediate ovals.  Vegas itself has been a puzzle for this driver and team.  With just one Top-10 finish in nine-career starts and a 21.7 average finish prospects look shaky for Stenhouse this Sunday afternoon.

Want to Read More?
Subscribe to RotoWire to see the full article.

We reserve some of our best content for our paid subscribers. Plus, if you choose to subscribe you can discuss this article with the author and the rest of the RotoWire community.

Get Instant Access To This Article Get Access To This Article
RotoWire Community
Join Our Subscriber-Only NASCAR Chat
Chat with our writers and other RotoWire NASCAR fans for all the pre-game info and in-game banter.
Join The Discussion
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.
NASCAR DFS: PrizePicks Selections for the Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS: PrizePicks Selections for the Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS:  Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS: Ambetter Health 400
NASCAR DFS Trucks: Fr8 208
NASCAR DFS Trucks: Fr8 208
Ambetter Health 400 Preview: New Slot for Atlanta
Ambetter Health 400 Preview: New Slot for Atlanta