Pennzoil 400 Preview: West Coast Swing Continues

Pennzoil 400 Preview: West Coast Swing Continues

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

With Auto Club Speedway now in our rearview mirror, we stay out west this week and continue with the west coast swing. The NASCAR Cup Series will make its early season 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. Last season we raced at Vegas for the fourth event of the schedule, but NASCAR has returned Las Vegas to its more traditional slot thanks to the return of Auto Club Speedway last weekend. With this being the first race on an intermediate oval for the campaign, we need to get our notebooks handy. This race, as well as the upcoming event at Atlanta, 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, Kansas, Charlotte 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 first 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

With Auto Club Speedway now in our rearview mirror, we stay out west this week and continue with the west coast swing. The NASCAR Cup Series will make its early season 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. Last season we raced at Vegas for the fourth event of the schedule, but NASCAR has returned Las Vegas to its more traditional slot thanks to the return of Auto Club Speedway last weekend. With this being the first race on an intermediate oval for the campaign, we need to get our notebooks handy. This race, as well as the upcoming event at Atlanta, 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, Kansas, Charlotte 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 first 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 2022 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 17 years of competition at this 1.5-mile oval. Let's take a look at the loop stats for the last 21 races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

DriverAvg. FinishQuality Passes# of Fastest LapsLaps LedLaps in Top 15Driver Rating
Kevin Harvick13.28003826364,240102.5
Joey Logano8.67222224953,592102.5
Kyle Busch10.18782522624,194101.1
Chase Elliott18.76122171782,273100.2
Kyle Larson9.85911782242,170100.1
Ryan Blaney8.8543122312,30798.7
Martin Truex Jr.10.49082813004,00998.3
Brad Keselowski10.67622883133,24796.0
Greg Biffle12.83111511151,86693.0
Denny Hamlin12.38141423233,28889.3
William Byron20.0458113711,31684.2
Kurt Busch21.2674791252,88683.0
Austin Dillon15.743631121,82379.0
Erik Jones19.93404301,27877.5
Alex Bowman19.95378161,61476.7
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 19.234335361,16072.3
Tyler Reddick21.0150291244069.3
Christopher Bell22.016512037568.3
Aric Almirola22.54012531,62066.2
Daniel Hemric20.0583017865.1

Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a track of parity for several years. However, we've seen the advantage shift somewhat to Chevrolet teams in the last couple seasons. Chevrolet drivers have won two of the last three events at the Las Vegas oval. Still, all three manufacturers have put a driver in victory lane at LVMS since 2020, so parity still exists.  In this event one year ago the Cup Series returned to the Nevada desert and Kyle Larson rolled into victory lane for the first time in his career at the 1.5-mile oval. With Larson picking up that dominant victory, as well as the Fall 2020 event going to Chevy driver Kurt Busch, the focus is squarely on Chevrolet drivers and Larson as we return this Sunday. 

However, before we cede the trophy to a Chevrolet camp we need to realize that contenders will come from several different stables this weekend. Toyota and Ford drivers will be looking to upset the current trend at LVMS. Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano 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 Hamlin 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

Kyle Larson – In this event one year ago, Larson served notice with his dominant performance that he was the guy to beat on intermediate ovals last season. The driver of the No. 5 Chevrolet led 103 laps that March afternoon and raced away to his first career Las Vegas victory. The Hendrick Motorsports star rides a four-race Las Vegas Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. Larson cracks the Top-5 at a 36-percent rate and the Top-10 at a 73-percent rate at this facility. With close to 200 laps led in his last two Las Vegas Motor Speedway starts, it's clear that Larson has this place zeroed-in. If Chevrolet hopes to continue their winning ways in Sin City, those hopes will largely ride with Larson and the No. 5 team.

Kyle Busch – The driver of the No. 18 Toyota has enjoyed a good bit of success at his home state track. Busch collected a pair of third-place finishes at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in 2021. The Joe Gibbs Racing star is a one-time winner at Las Vegas, and he owns nine Top-5 finishes in 21 starts for a strong 43-percent Top-5 rate. Busch rides a three-race Las Vegas Top-10 streak into Sunday's action. With 262-career laps led at LVMS, he's had his share of strong cars at the 1.5-mile Nevada oval. Busch was in the running to win both his starts at this facility last season, and we believe he'll be a major factor in the outcome once again in Sunday's Pennzoil 400.     

Joey Logano – Logano is a two-time Las Vegas winner (2019 and 2020) and he always seems to have a strong race car when the Cup Series visits the Nevada race track. With close to 500 laps led at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the Penske Racing star has had more than his fair share of racing up front here. Last season was a bit of down campaign at LVMS for the No. 22 Ford team, but with the new Next-Gen car there is ample hope of a Las Vegas revival for Logano. The veteran driver cracks the Top 5 at this facility at a strong 35-percent rate and Top 10 at an equally strong 65-percent. Among the many intermediate ovals on the NASCAR Cup Series circuit, Las Vegas is one of Logano's best.

Denny Hamlin – In last season's Chase for the Cup playoffs, Hamlin pulled an improbable win in the South Point 400 and collected his first-career Las Vegas victory last September. That effort capped what has been a recent power surge for the Joe Gibbs Racing star at this oval. Hamlin has led over 300-combined laps and collected finishes of third-, fourth- and first-place in his last three Las Vegas starts.  That's a break with Hamlin's career record at this Nevada race track, but a clear trend going forward. His career numbers at LVMS look pretty pedestrian, but his more recent numbers are off the charts with excellence. We believe this event could be the early-season highlight of Hamlin's 2022 season.

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

Brad Keselowski – The three-time Las Vegas winner looks to keep his strong resume at this oval going 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 stats at this Las Vegas facility has been incredibly strong the past few seasons. The Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing star has one win and two runner-up finishes in his last seven 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 Fontana last week. The driver of the No. 6 Ford led 27 laps and finished runner-up in this event one year ago. Keselowski is really dialed-in at this track right now, and he should have little trouble closing this week. 

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 seventh-place performance at Fontana, and looking to up the ante at Las Vegas. 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 13.8 average finish over his 25 starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and boasts 13-career Top 10's (52-percent) at LVMS. The SHR star has led 679-career laps at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, so he knows how to dominate at this track. The No. 4 Ford team has the strong Las Vegas reputation to defend this weekend. 

Ryan Blaney – While Blaney is not a major threat to win, he has to be appreciated for his marked consistency at Las Vegas. The Penske Racing star has eight Top-10 finishes in 11-career starts for a stellar 73-percent rate here. Blaney rides a three-race Las Vegas Top-10 streak into Sunday's battle, so his success has also been very recent. The driver of the No. 12 Ford hasn't led many laps (31) at this 1.5-mile oval and that is something to take note of for Sunday. It's not likely that we'll see this young driver upset the bigger contenders to take his first LVMS victory, but it is very likely that we'll see Blaney race among the leaders and forge another strong Top-5 or Top-10 finish in the Pennzoil 400.   

Martin Truex Jr. – The Joe Gibbs Racing star is looking forward to Las Vegas after his 13th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway. Truex and the No. 19 Toyota team have some things to work on, but Las Vegas could be the track that jump starts his season. He's won two races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway since the 2017 season and he's led close to 300 laps during that nine-race span. Truex's last start at the Nevada oval was a strong fourth-place finish in last September's South Point 400. That extended his current Las Vegas Top-10 streak to three races. We believe this driver and team will be one of the strong fantasy plays in the Pennzoil 400.

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

Chase Elliott – So Elliott was seemingly flirting with victory lane at Fontana last Sunday until Kyle Larson threw a challenging block at the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet and he would lose control and crash. The mishap cost Elliott the potential win and relegated him to a disappointing 26th-place finish in the WISE Power 400. The Hendrick Motorsports star should be poised to rebound in the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas. Elliott has four Top-10 finishes in 10-career starts at the track for a respectable 40-percent rate. His most recent outing at the oval netted an impressive runner-up finish in last September's South Point 400. Elliott has some things to prove this week, but won't be short on motivation. 

Austin Cindric – After a pole position and steady 12th-place finish at Auto Club Speedway last weekend, Cindric is off and rolling strong to start the 2022 season. The Penske Racing rookie has looked like anything but a rookie in the first two events of this campaign. This Sunday's Pennzoil 400 will be Cindric's Cup Series debut at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but that should be of little concern. The driver of the No. 2 Ford has eight-career Xfinity Series starts at the Vegas track with 126 laps led, three Top-5 and five Top-10 finishes. Cindric has a very good feel for the wide grooves of LVMS. Considering how well this driver and team have started this season, Cindric looks like a strong pole position threat and a good candidate to crack the Top 10 in Sunday's 400-mile battle in Nevada. 

Tyler Reddick – Reddick looked like a superhero in the first half of last week's Auto Club Speedway race. The Richard Childress Racing youngster led a career-best 90 laps and won the first two stages of last Sunday's WISE Power 400. Only a flat tire 43 laps short of the checkered flag would foil his chances to win at Auto Club Speedway. Reddick will hit the reset button and hopefully bring the same speed to Las Vegas Motor Speedway this weekend. The driver of the No. 8 Chevrolet has four-career starts at the Nevada oval and one Top-10 finish to his credit. It was his sixth-place finish in last September's South Point 400. That's a good last look for Reddick on this track, and a hopeful sign for Sunday.

Kurt Busch – Vegas was a tough oval for Busch earlier in his career, but he's turned it spectacular in recent seasons. In this event in 2019, the 23XI Racing veteran grabbed an impressive fifth-place finish and signaled he was ready for more at this 1.5-mile Nevada track. In the Fall of 2020, Busch broke through for his first-career victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. In his last three starts alone, Busch has one win and two Top-10 finishes at the Vegas oval. Racing well in front of family and friends is important, and you can bet Busch will be sharp again this Sunday. Coming off a strong eighth-place finish at Auto Club Speedway this past week, Busch is poised for more success in the Pennzoil 400. 

Daniel Hemric – So it seems that Hemric has a pretty good handle on the new Next-Gen race car. After finishes of 12th- (Daytona) and ninth-place (Fontana) to start the season, the young driver is on fire coming to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Surprisingly, this is not Hemric's Cup Series debut at the Vegas oval. He made two starts for Richard Childress Racing at the track in 2019. While those were prestigious efforts (23rd- and 17th-place) they did serve as valuable experience for the Kaulig Racing youngster. So it sets up pretty well that the driver of the No. 16 Chevrolet visits LVMS this weekend. He's off to a good start this season, and he does have the experience racing at this track to help bolster his effort. He's a stealth candidate to challenge the Top 10, and most likely post a Top-15 finish.             

Erik Jones – The Petty GMS Motorsports veteran had quite a good outing at Auto Club Speedway last Sunday. Jones led 18 laps and collected his first Top-5 finish (third-place) since the 2020 season. It was quite a performance for the driver of the No. 43 Chevrolet. Now Jones will turn his attention to a follow-up performance at the Las Vegas oval. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a pretty good oval for the veteran driver. He has three Top 10's at the Nevada race track, with two of those coming in the last three trips to Vegas. Jones has led laps in the first two events of this season, and he's shown good speed. He should be up to the task of challenging the Top 10 Sunday in the Pennzoil 400. 

Slow Down – Drivers to avoid this week 

Alex Bowman – The driver of the No. 48 Chevrolet has had more of a hate than love relationship with the Las Vegas race track. Bowman's two top-10 finishes in 10-career starts ranks at a lowly 20-percent Top-10 rate and elevated 19.9 average finish. He collected disappointing 27th- and 22nd-place finishes at LVMS in 2021. Coming off 24th- and 25th-place finishes in the first two events of 2022, it's clear that Bowman and his Hendrick Motorsports team have some things to sort out in terms of the new Next-Gen car. Given his history at this oval and his current trend line, we can't recommend deploying Bowman this weekend.

Harrison Burton – The rookie Wood Brothers Racing driver has had a steep learning curve in the first two events of this new season, learning the ins-and-outs of the Next-Gen car. Crashes and finishes outside the Top 30 in the first two events have us taking a very reserved approach to the driver of the No. 21 Ford. Burton will be making his Cup Series debut at Vegas this Sunday as well as just his fourth start in NASCAR's top division. The lessons appear to be plenty and all ahead of the young driver in the immediate future. While Burton doubtless has talent and the ability to be a quick study behind the wheel, he's got a long way to go to become a dependable, week-in-and-out performer in NASCAR's top touring series.

William Byron – Byron has suffered some of the same struggles at Las Vegas that his teammate, Alex Bowman has dealt with in recent years. The driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet has two Top 10's in eight-career starts at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The 25-percent Top-10 rate and 20.0 average finish is less than ideal. While Byron has had fast cars in the first two events of this season, he's had trouble finishing in the first two races. The young star has crashed and finished outside the Top 30 at both Daytona and Auto Club Speedway. He's got to clean this up and get on top of this situation before we can trust him for fantasy racing deployment. Byron has the upside to potentially crack the Top 10 in the Pennzoil 400, but carries the risk that discourages any expectations at Las Vegas.  

Bubba Wallace – Wallace came back to Earth at Fontana after his runner-up finish at Daytona, pretty much as expected last week. He ran into some trouble late and faded to a 19th-place finish in the WISE Power 400. Up next is Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and the driver of the No. 23 Toyota hasn't exactly had a lot of success at this track either. Wallace has just one Top-10 finish in eight-career starts at this facility (13-percent) and his 23.3 average finish leaves a lot to be desired. Superspeedway racing is still Wallace's niche until he can gain some more experience in the 23XI Racing Toyota. This will likely be another on-the-job training race for the young driver.

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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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