South Point 400 Preview: Let the Chase Begin

South Point 400 Preview: Let the Chase Begin

This article is part of our Weekly Preview series.

The first race in the 2018 Chase for the Cup is on tap this weekend. NASCAR has chosen to start the Chase at one of the many Monster Energy Cup Series' intermediate ovals on Sunday afternoon. The stars of NASCAR will head to Sin City and Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the South Point 400. The intermediate oval in the Nevada desert hosts the opening race of the Chase. NASCAR shook up the schedule this season, and moved the Chase opener from Chicago to Las Vegas, as well as some other noteworthy changes to spice up the competition. To this point in the track's history, LVMS has never hosted two events in the same season. This will be the first time ever that the top division of NASCAR will get a second look for the year at the Vegas oval. That produces a new wrinkle in not on the real competition, but the fantasy racing competition as well.

We need to look closely at several factors this weekend. First, we need to examine the current hot streaks, as the trending drivers should carry their streaks of success or struggle into Las Vegas. Second, we need to look at how the drivers have performed on similar ovals this season. The intermediate oval is the most widely used track on the circuit, so we have plenty of data to examine. Last, we'll take an in-depth look at the race earlier this season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That data will have some

The first race in the 2018 Chase for the Cup is on tap this weekend. NASCAR has chosen to start the Chase at one of the many Monster Energy Cup Series' intermediate ovals on Sunday afternoon. The stars of NASCAR will head to Sin City and Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the South Point 400. The intermediate oval in the Nevada desert hosts the opening race of the Chase. NASCAR shook up the schedule this season, and moved the Chase opener from Chicago to Las Vegas, as well as some other noteworthy changes to spice up the competition. To this point in the track's history, LVMS has never hosted two events in the same season. This will be the first time ever that the top division of NASCAR will get a second look for the year at the Vegas oval. That produces a new wrinkle in not on the real competition, but the fantasy racing competition as well.

We need to look closely at several factors this weekend. First, we need to examine the current hot streaks, as the trending drivers should carry their streaks of success or struggle into Las Vegas. Second, we need to look at how the drivers have performed on similar ovals this season. The intermediate oval is the most widely used track on the circuit, so we have plenty of data to examine. Last, we'll take an in-depth look at the race earlier this season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. That data will have some relevance for this weekend, even though that event was held way back in March. The crew chiefs' notes should be very helpful for the teams that finished well that weekend to repeat their success this weekend.

LVMS is one of many intermediate ovals on the circuit, so we have lots of data to fall back on at this point in the season. However, with this being the first time ever that NASCAR has raced twice at the Nevada oval in one season, we'll get the rare opportunity to look back on the race earlier this year with a discriminating eye. 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 14 races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for some background on the drivers.

DRIVERAVG FINISHQUALITY PASSESFASTEST LAPSLAPS LEDLAPS IN TOP 15RATING
Jimmie Johnson11.05154545822,753108.9
Kyle Busch11.25031652402,856103.4
Kevin Harvick13.34362553952,728100.6
Joey Logano9.73311191962,02297.3
Matt Kenseth13.94192193052,41996.3
Ryan Blaney9.310729177795.3
Martin Truex Jr.12.54221121642,33092.6
Kyle Larson13.217629090292.5
Brad Keselowski14.52891771881,73892.4
Chase Elliott25.011323066791.7
Erik Jones11.59213051090.6
Kasey Kahne14.64141211292,34285.6
Ryan Newman15.445250592,40682.5
Denny Hamlin12.641133141,77981.9
Kurt Busch23.528649731,59580.5
Austin Dillon16.71118265877.7
Paul Menard16.13844491,58275.4
Jamie McMurray17.93712021,72574.2
Clint Bowyer17.831626171,42171.6
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. 22.211812149869.6

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 four years at LVMS, so no one really holds a complete grip on this race track. This spring the Monster Energy Cup Series returned to the Nevada desert and Kevin Harvick rolled into victory lane for the second time in the last four years at the 1.5-mile tri-oval. With Harvick 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 Ford 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 four seasons. Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch 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. Only one Gibbs driver has pulled into victory lane at LVMS since 2010, and that was Matt Kenseth. Busch and Denny Hamlin appear to have the odds stacked against them, but certainly Busch has the homerun potential with so much on the line. 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 Harvick is among them. The Stewart Haas Racing star won here in 2015, and he returned to victory lane in Vegas this March in the Pennzoil 400. The driver of the No. 4 Ford has been one of the most dominant performers this season on the intermediate ovals. Harvick's three victories and six Top-5 finishes in the seven events to-date lead the series. With the veteran driver's two victories and 350+ laps led at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in the last four seasons, there's little doubt of Harvick's top contender status this weekend. The Chase for the Cup starts this weekend, and you can bet this driver and team will be well prepared for a strong performance in the South Point 400.

Kyle Busch -
The driver of the No. 18 Toyota had a subpar performance at Indianapolis this past week, so it's a bit concerning heading to Las Vegas. He still soldiered through and nabbed an eighth-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 seven Top-10 finishes in 14 starts. Two of his last three efforts have netted a runner-up and fourth-place finish at this facility. Those last three starts have also yielded 48 laps led, so Busch has not only been finishing up front here, he's been leading laps as well. With three victories and five Top-5 finishes on intermediate ovals this season, Busch has been every bit as impressive as Kevin Harvick on these style tracks.

Brad Keselowski -
The two-time Las Vegas winner looks to keep his current hot streak going in the South Point 400. Keselowski has won the last two races, and he's surging at the right time of the year coming into the Chase for the Cup. 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 several visits. He has two pole positions, 187 laps led, two victories and four Top-5 finishes in those last six efforts at the Vegas oval. Keselowski rides a six-race Las Vegas Top-10 streak into this weekend, and that's a great statistic. The driver of the No. 2 Ford has some major momentum and history on his side as we head to Las Vegas.

Martin Truex Jr. -
The Furniture Row Racing driver is wobbling a bit as we visit Las Vegas and kickoff the Chase. Still, we have to give him contender respect with his accomplishments at this oval, and the playoffs starting. Truex has really carved up these style tracks the last three seasons with multiple victories and Top-10 finishes. Las Vegas Motor Speedway has held some recent success for this veteran driver. He won at the Nevada speedway two seasons ago, and has three Top-5 finishes in his last four starts there. The driver of the No. 78 Toyota hasn't been quite as dominant this season on the cookie cutter ovals, but Truex still boasts one victory (Kentucky) and two runner-up finishes (Kansas and Charlotte). Truex is not the top contender this weekend, but he has the skill and potential to jump up and surprise.

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

Kurt Busch - Considering how good he's been the last two months, 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 rides a mammoth eight-race Top-10 streak into this weekend's action, and that makes him one of the most consistent performers of the last several weeks. 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 better performances. The driver of the No. 41 Ford has been solid on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. Busch has five Top-10 finishes in seven starts, and he finished sixth his last time in action on an intermediate oval in Kentucky.

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 9.7 average finish at the oval, and he's led close to 200 laps there in just his last five starts. He's rides a five-race Las Vegas Top-10 streak into this weekend's action. Logano has managed six Top-10 finishes in the seven intermediate oval races to-date, so his program for these style tracks has been razor sharp. The Penske Racing veteran is not a major threat to win the South Point 400, but he should be among the faces inside the Top 10 this Sunday afternoon.

Erik Jones -
The second-year Joe Gibbs Racing driver has taken major steps this season. He's won his first-career victory, and rides a three-race Top-10 streak into the Chase for the Cup. Jones now sets his sights on Las Vegas Motor Speedway. This will be his third-career Cup start at the oval. In March, he qualified ninth and finished eighth in the Pennzoil 400. That was just one of five Top-10 finishes this season on the intermediate ovals for the No. 20 Toyota team. We're watching Jones rapidly ascend from one of the young guns in the Monster Energy Cup Series and into one of the polished new stars in NASCAR. Sunday's first race of the Chase will be just another Top-10 finish in what has been an impressive season for Jones and his Joe Gibbs Racing team.

Kyle Larson -
Somehow the Chip Ganassi Racing star got through the regular season without winning a single race. We're still scratching our heads on that one, but with five runner-up finishes to this point, Larson was certainly in the running to nab a few wins this season. The driver of the No. 42 Chevrolet will use the playoffs as a reset button on his 2018 campaign. Now the wins and good performances really matter. Fortunately, his Las Vegas stats of late have been very good. Larson has second- and third-place finishes in his last two Las Vegas outings. Intermediate ovals this year have generally been good for the CGR driver. Larson has six Top-10 finishes in the seven intermediate oval events to-date. His odds of winning the South Point 400 are fairly poor, but he should have no trouble forging a Top-10 finish in this opening race of the Chase.

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

Chase Elliott - Based on the improvement this driver and team have had over the season, we believe Elliott will be better prepared for this Las Vegas race. He qualified sixth on the grid here in March, but crashed out of that race just past half-way. Elliott did register a third-place Vegas finish two seasons ago, so good performances here are no stranger to the driver of the No. 9 Chevrolet. Elliott has also been strong the last two months leading up to the Chase. The Hendrick Motorsports youngster has one victory and six Top-10 finishes in the last seven races coming into Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Elliott should challenge the Top 10 in this 400-mile opening battle of the Chase for the Cup.

Denny Hamlin -
Hamlin has been pretty sharp the last few weeks. Three pole positions, and three Top-10 finishes have been his body of work the last five races. The Joe Gibbs Racing veteran doesn't have the best career stats at Las Vegas. Despite a career 46-percent Top-10 rate at LVMS, most of his success came earlier in his career at this oval. However, this being a new event, and the first race of the Chase, we expect Hamlin to respond accordingly. He narrowly lost at Indianapolis this past week, so that shows the speed and focus of the No. 11 Toyota team right now. Hamlin's four Top 10s in seven starts on the intermediate ovals this season doesn't hurt either. He has what it takes to be a reliable performer at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Ryan Blaney -
The driver of the No. 12 Penske Racing Ford comes to the Nevada desert fresh off an 11th-place finish at the Brickyard. He will look to up his level of performance in the first race of the Chase. Blaney has four-career starts at this facility, and his last three attempts have netted Top-10 finishes. When we last saw the No. 12 team in action on a cookie cutter oval, Blaney peddled the team's Ford to a runner-up finish at Kentucky this summer. That was his third Top-5 finish of the season on intermediate ovals. Blaney's good record at this particular oval even elevates his value even more than his record on these style tracks this season. We really like Blaney to impress in Sunday's South Point 400.

Clint Bowyer -
Last week we advised to take a "wait and see" approach to Bowyer in Indianapolis. 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 37 laps led and a strong fifth-place finish, as he raced inside the Top 10 most of that event. It seems that the Stewart Haas Racing veteran has turned things around in the last three races. With fifth- and sixth-place finishes at Indy and Bristol, Bowyer looks ready for the Chase. The veteran driver has just a 31-percent Top-10 rate at this oval, but his 10.6 average finish on these size ovals in 2018 speaks volumes of his potential for this weekend.

Aric Almirola -
Almirola posted his first-career Top-10 finish at Las Vegas earlier this season in the Pennzoil 400. That was his first Top 10 in 10 tries at the Nevada speedway. That's been the story of Almirola's season. He's really taken to his new No. 10 SHR team, and put up career-best results all over the map. Although he has cooled in recent races, he's still been a lurker just outside the Top 10 most weekends. With three Top-10 finishes and five Top-15 finishes on the intermediate oval circuit this season, Almirola comes to Vegas a steady performer on these ovals. The veteran driver should certainly be a face among the Top 15 this weekend, and could be a surprise finisher inside the Top 10 if the breaks go his way.

Paul Menard -
The Wood Brothers Racing veteran has been a surprise performer on intermediate ovals this season. Menard won a surprise pole position at Chicago several weeks ago, and he patched together two Top-10 and five Top-15 finishes in the seven 1.5-mile oval races to-date. So Menard checks in at a respectable 14.3 average finish on the intermediate oval circuit in 2018. Las Vegas has also held some success for Menard over his long career. With four Top-10 finishes in 12-career starts, he sports a decent 33-percent Top-10 rate at this facility. Those stats also include his impressive ninth-place finish in March's Pennzoil 400. The notes from that outing should still be fresh.

Slow Down - Drivers to avoid this week

Jamie McMurray - Despite Top-10 finishes each of the last two races, we have to cool our expectations for McMurray this weekend. In all likelihood he's going to get shoved aside by Chase drivers this week at Las Vegas. This particular oval hasn't been the best for the Chip Ganassi Racing veteran. McMurray has just five Top-10 finishes in 16 starts at this facility (31-percent). His start here in March led to a mid-race crash and DNF. When we last saw the No. 1 Chevrolet team in action on an intermediate oval, McMurray finished a subpar 17th at Kentucky during the summer. That's likely the high water mark for this driver and team this weekend. The floor could be much, much lower.

A.J. Allmendinger -
As we enter the Chase for the Cup, Allmendinger is finishing out what has been a very tough season in the No. 47 Chevrolet. He crashed and finished 37th this past weekend at Indianapolis, and that gave him six DNF's on the season and dropped Allmendinger to 24th overall in the driver points. Unfortunately, the intermediate oval circuit has not been kind to this driver and team either. Allmendinger's seven starts on 1.5-mile ovals this season have netted only one Top-20 finish and an average of 25.1. His last outing on a cookie cutter oval was a disappointing 30th-place finish at Kentucky Speedway several weeks ago. His March Las Vegas outing was an equally disappointing 30th-place effort.

William Byron -
Last weekend started off pretty good for Byron. He quickly raced his way forward, and even got to the lead at one point during the Brickyard 400. However, he would fade late and finish 19th at Indianapolis. The intermediate ovals have been a real challenge for this rookie driver in 2018. Byron's seven starts have netted only one Top-10 finish and a lowly 23.9 average. These tracks have been a real puzzle to the driver of the No. 24 Chevrolet. Byron finished 27th in his Las Vegas debut earlier this season, and quite frankly we can't see him improving much from that mark. He might push into the 20-to-25 range this Sunday, but that's not really good enough for fantasy racing consideration.

Daniel Suarez -
The Joe Gibbs Racing driver got the bad news this past week that he's likely out of the No. 19 Toyota next season in favor of Martin Truex Jr. who's coming over from the closing Furniture Row Racing. It's really an unfortunate development for the young Mexican. He's shown well since taking over this ride for the retired Carl Edwards, and Suarez has shown real progress. However, he's a lame-duck driver now and finishing out his final 10 races in the Gibbs' Toyota. He hasn't cracked the Top 15 in the last three races, and looks a bit lost in the shuffle of late. Las Vegas has not been one of his better ovals with 20th- and 26th-place finishes there the last two seasons. Cookie cutter ovals have not been that great either this season with no Top 10s and a 19.9 average finish.

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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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