After 26 races of hard-nosed determination and hard-knocks competition, the 16-driver field for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is set and the drivers begin their final trophy hunt in Sunday’s South Point Casino 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Kyle Busch wrapped up his second consecutive regular season championship two weeks ago at Darlington and the 2015 series champ begins pursuit of his second Monster Energy Series title this week at his hometown track. The 15-point bonus he received for winning the regular season turned out to be a well-timed boost for the four-time winner this season. His last of those four victories came all the way back on June 2 at Pocono, Pa.
After his worst showing of the season at Indy last week – a blown engine relegated him to 37th-place finish – Busch is hopeful the overwhelmingly good vibes of 2019 return for this 10-race Playoff stretch. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won races at ISM Raceway, Fontana, Bristol-1 and Pocono-1, he leads the series in top-10s (21) and he is tied with his JGR teammate – and fellow four-race winner – Denny Hamlin for top-five finishes (13).
He and the rest of the field fully anticipate having to beat reigning series champion Joey Logano and Logano’s Team Penske Ford teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney when it comes to competing at Vegas. Busch has a series best seven top-five finishes at the track, but it’s been primarily a Penske show in Vegas for the past few seasons.
Keselowski is the defending winner of this Playoff opener. Logano won at Vegas this March and the 25-year old Blaney boasts one of the best average finishes (10.7) in this Sunday’s field.
Among the Playoff drivers, Busch has had the longest span since his win at the track in 2009. Keselowski boasts the most wins (three) among the championship-eligible drivers with trophies in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Last week’s Indianapolis regular season finale winner Kevin Harvick – a three-race winner this year – is the only other Playoff driver in the field with multiple Las Vegas wins (2015 and 2018). And JGR’s Truex won at Vegas en route to his 2017 Monster Energy Series championship.
Also among those to watch out for is JGR driver Denny Hamlin, who begins the Playoffs ranked right below his teammate Busch and full of positive momentum. After winning his second Daytona 500 in the 2019 season-opener, Hamlin has been steady and successful all year – winning again at Texas and Pocono-2 and then again only three weeks ago at Bristol from the pole position. With 13 top-fives already he’s on good pace to eclipse his previous best mark of 15 (2009 and 2017) and his 17 top-10 finishes is also on pace to be a new personal record. In 2016 and 2017 he had 22 top-10s.
What Hamlin seeks most, however, is that championship trophy. The driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota was runner-up to seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in 2010 and third behind the champion Kevin Harvick in 2014.
Four times the winner of the Playoff opening race has gone on to celebrate a championship – Kurt Busch (2004), Tony Stewart (2011), Keselowski (2012) and Truex (2017).
XFINITY SERIES WRAPS UP REGULAR SEASON, SETS PLAYOFF FIELD
This Saturday’s Rhino Pro Truck Outfitters 300 (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) brings the regular season to a close and formalizes the 2019 Playoff lineup. And while three drivers – defending series champion Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Cole Custer – have absolutely dominated the win column, none of the three has won at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before in this series.
Reddick won the 2016 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Vegas, but has not hoisted an Xfinity Series trophy there. Yet. He’s highly motivated coming off his worst showing of the season last week (30th) following an accident with fellow title contender Christopher Bell in the final laps of the Indianapolis race. Bell finished 29th.
And still the Richard Childress Racing driver’s consistency this season – 19 top-five and 21 top-10 finishes through the opening 25 races – will likely land him the regular season championship (he needs to earn 11 points this weekend to clinch). Reddick holds a 50-point lead over Joe Gibbs Racing’s Bell and an insurmountable 113-point edge over Stewart-Haas Racing’s Custer heading into this week’s season finale.
Certainly the top of the standings is a known quantity with these three accounting for 16 victories already – Reddick (four), Bell (six) and Custer (six). But the Playoffs present a sort of reset.
The 12 drivers currently holding postseason spots are clinched on points, but this regular season finale could prove interesting if a driver outside that group of 12 wins the race and the automatic Playoff spot that accompanies. RSS Racing’s Ryan Sieg currently sits in that precarious 12th position.
The other drivers who have clinched a postseason bid are Team Penske’s Austin Cindric, Stewart-Haas Racing with Fred Biagi’s Chase Briscoe, JR Motorsports teammates Michael Annett, Justin Allgaier and Noah Gragson, and Kaulig Racing’s Justin Haley. In position to clinch this week are Brandon Jones, rookie John Hunter Nemechek and Sieg.
Of note, Haley will have a celebrated teammate at Kaulig Racing this week as longtime Xfinity Series championship challenger Elliott Sadler will make his final NASCAR national series start. Sadler – a three-time Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race winner and 13-time Xfinity Series winner – retired from fulltime competition last year and has announced his race Saturday will be his last in NASCAR’s highest tiers of competition. He has four top-fives in 13 Las Vegas Xfinity Series starts.
GANDER TRUCKS DRIVERS FACE PLAYOFF CUTOFF
The first elimination of the 2019 NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series Playoffs happens this week following Friday night’s World of Westgate 200 (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
2016 Gander Trucks champion Johnny Sauter is on the wrong side of the cutoff, however this is a tightly packed playoff field – only six points separating third-place Stewart Friesen and seventh-place Sauter with six drivers advancing to the second round of the Playoffs.
Brett Moffitt has reminded everyone why he’s the defending series champion, winning the first two Playoff races – at the Bristol half-miler and the Bowmanville, Ontario road course – and he’s technically the only racer with a sure bet spot in the next round. He has never won a truck race on this week’s 1.5-mile Las Vegas high banks, however. And regular season champion Grant Enfinger is actually the defending winner of this September race.
Ross Chastain, a three-time winner this season, won the NASCAR Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas last fall and is currently second to Moffitt in the championship standings by 22 points.
Freisen is third, 44 points behind Moffitt with two-time series champ Matt Crafton on his heels, just one point off Friesen. Austin Hill is fifth in the title run, only a point behind Crafton and Enfinger is only two points behind Hill. Sauter is two points behind Enfinger and Tyler Ankrum is 12 points behind Enfinger, who holds that sixth and final cut-off position.
Moffitt finished runner-up to Kyle Busch in the March truck race at Vegas with Crafton and Friesen in third and fourth place. Sauter was eighth, Chastain 10th and Hill 30th. At that point in the early season, the now 18-year-old Ankrum wasn’t old enough to compete on the 1.5-mile speedway.
Among the championship eight, only Enfinger (last year) and Sauter (in 2009) have celebrated in Las Vegas’ victory lane. Ben Rhodes joins the pair as the only other driver entered this weekend who has won at Vegas.
Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: South Point 400
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, Sept. 15
The Time: 7 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 80), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 160) and Final Stage (Ends on lap 267)
Defending race winner: Brad Keselowski
What to Watch For: This week’s event marks the first race of a 10-race Playoff to decide the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup championship. Joey Logano is the defending series champion and won at Las Vegas this March. …Logano’s Team Penske teammate Brad Keselowski is the defending race winner of this September Playoff opener. …Kevin Harvick’s dominating win in March, 2018, set a record for most laps led (214 of 267). … Jimmie Johnson is the all-time winningest driver at Vegas with four victories. He won three consecutive races from 2005-07, answering a two-race sweep by Matt Kenseth immediately prior (2003-04). Jeff Burton is the only other driver to win back-to-back (1999-2000). … Six drivers have won multiple times at Vegas –Johnson (4), Kenseth (3), Brad Keselowski (3), Kevin Harvick (2), Burton (2) and Carl Edwards (2). That means 16 of the 23 Vegas races have been won by six drivers. … Since 2005, Jimmie Johnson boasts the best driver rating (104.6) at the track …Only one time has a race at the Las Vegas track been won from the pole position – Kyle Busch in 2009. …The Las Vegas native Busch brothers – Kyle and older brother Kurt – have won two pole positions each and are the only active multi-time pole-winners. Kasey Kahne holds the record with three. …. Ford has earned the most pole positions (10), followed by Chevrolet and Dodge (four) and Toyota (three). …The closest Margin of Victory is .045-seconds when Johnson beat Kenseth in 2006. …Aric Almirola (March, 2007) and Kyle Busch (March, 2004) both made their Cup debuts at Las Vegas. …Joey Logano has the best average finish (8.5) in this weekend’s field, followed by Ryan Blaney (10.7). … Kyle Busch has the most top-fives (seven) and Kyle Busch, Harvick, Johnson and Ryan Newman are tied for most top-10s (nine). … Johnson has never had a DNF in 19 starts. … Ford has won four of the last five races and five of the last seven and is currently on a three-race winning streak. …No non-playoff driver has ever won the opening Playoff race. …The deepest seed a driver has started the Playoffs and gone on to win the title is seventh – Kevin Harvick won the 2014 title and Joey Logano won the 2018 title after being ranked seventh to start the Playoffs. …The first Cup race on the track was 1998 and won by NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin. …The youngest winner was Kyle Busch (23 years, nine months, 27 days) in 2009. The oldest Vegas winner was Sterling Marin (44 years, seven months, 32 days) in 2002. … Roush Fenway Racing has earned the most wins (seven) for an organization. …The second starting position has produced the most winners (four) of any starting spot. …The farthest back on the grid a winner has started is 25th (Matt Kenseth, 2004). …Ford has the most race victories at 12, followed by Chevrolet (seven) and Toyota (three).
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Rhino Pro Truck Outfitters 300
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, Sept. 14
The Time: 7:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (200 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 45), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 90) and Final Stage (Ends on lap 200).
Defending race winner: Ross Chastain
What to Watch For: Ross Chastain is defending winner of this race and Kyle Busch won the spring race at Las Vegas. … This is the regular season finale for the series. Tyler Reddick currently holds a 50-point advantage over Christopher Bell and a 113-point advantage over Cole Custer. None of these points leaders have won an Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas, although Reddick won the 2016 Gander Outdoors Truck Series race there. … The best showing by one of those three is Bell’s runner-up effort to Kyle Larson in March, 2018. …Justin Allgaier, who is still looking for his first win of 2019, has the most top 10s (eight). …Kyle Busch, who will not be competing in the series this weekend, has led the most Xfinity Series race laps at Vegas (619). … NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin has the most wins (four). … The only two drivers to score their career first series win at Las Vegas are the track’s very first Xfinity Series winner Jeff Green (1997) and the most recent, Chastain (2018). …Only four times has the race winner started from a grid position outside the top-10. Six of the last seven race winners started fifth or better. … Leading laps has been a consistent sign of triumph at Vegas. Six of the last seven race winners have led at least 100 of the 200 laps, including a record 199 laps led by Kyle Busch in his 2016 win. … There has never been a back-to-back race winner. … Chevrolet leads all manufacturers in wins (12). Ford has nine and Toyota has two. …The most lead changes in a race is 25, occurring in the 1997 inaugural. …In the last 10 races, only once has the winner not led the most laps. Mark Martin led one lap in 2011 en route to the trophy. Kyle Busch had led the most laps on the day (84) but was involved in an accident and finished 30th. …The smallest Margin of Victory is .101-seconds when Jeff Burton beat Kyle Busch in 2007. …The largest Margin of Victory is 8.428-seconds when Jeff Burton beat Michael Waltrip in 2002. …The farthest back on the starting grid a driver has won from is 29th – Joe Nemechek in 2003. … Perennial Xfinity Series championship challenger Elliott Sadler, who retired from fulltime competition at the end of 2018, will be making his last NASCAR start this weekend driving the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet. He has four top-five finishes in 13 Vegas starts in the series.
NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series
Next Race: World of Westgate 200
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The Date: Friday, Sept. 14
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 201 miles (134 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on lap 30), Stage 2 (Ends on lap 60) and Final Stage (Ends on lap 134).
Defending race winner: Grant Enfinger
What to Watch For: The 2019 regular season champion Grant Enfinger is the defending winner of this September race. It’s one of only two venues where he’s scored a victory. … This race is the first elimination event of the 2019 Playoffs. Six of the eight championship eligible drivers will advance. Currently, veteran Johnny Sauter and young driver Tyler Ankrum are ranked seventh and eighth. Sauter, the 2009 Vegas race winner, trails sixth-place Enfinger by only two points. Ankrum is 14 points behind Enfinger. … Defending series champion Brett Moffitt leads the championship and has won the first two Playoff races coming to Vegas. … There are only three former Vegas winners entered this weekend (Enfinger, Sauter, Ben Rhodes). …Only three drivers have ever won multiple races at Vegas – Jack Sprague (who won the inaugural event in 1996 and then again in 1998), Mike Skinner (2006 and 08) and Vegas native Kyle Busch (2018 and 2019). … Former two-time series champion Matt Crafton has led the most laps (140) of anyone in Friday’s field and has the most top-five (eight) and top-10 (12) finishes. Crafton has never won at Vegas, however. …. The driver who leads the most laps has won only four of the last 10 races. … Twice in that time (in 2015 and 2013) Crafton led the most laps but did not win. …Todd Bodine and Mike Skinner hold the record for most laps led in a race (114 laps) and they did it in back-to-back years – Bodine in 2005 and Skinner in 2006. …John Wes Townley’s win here in 2015 was the only victory of his NASCAR career. …Nine times the polewinner has won the race – the most victories of any starting position on the grid. …The farthest spot on the starting grid a winner has started is 21st – Shane Hmiel in 2004. …The most lead changes in this race is 21 (Sept., 2018). …The closest Margin of Victory is .020-seconds when Mike Skinner beat Erik Darnell in 2008. … The largest Margin of Victory is 5.588-seconds when Austin Dillon beat Johnny Sauter in 2010.