NASCAR’s best ready to roll the dice at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - OCTOBER 15: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, Christopher Bell, driver of the #20 Rheem/Smurfit Kappa Toyota, and Brad Keselowski, driver of the #6 Ford, race during the NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

It’s a return to normal for NASCAR drivers. After starting the season with two superspeedway-style races at Daytona and Atlanta, the sport is heading its first points-paying race at a more conventional track in the form of the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Pennzoil 400 Presented by Jiffy Lube at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, will be a real test for the field. Two Chevrolets won both the opening two races, but the draft is the great equalizer, and those results don’t say much about the speed of the new cars. The Chevrolets are the only cars roughly the same as last year’s model, though: Ford has its new Dark Horse Mustang and Toyota has a completely redesigned Camry.

Notably, the Camry was victorious at the Clash at the Coliseum, a non-points exhibition to start the season on a very short track.

Odds via BetMGM
+400 – Kyle Larson
+900 – William Byron
+900 – Christopher Bell
+1000 – Denny Hamlin
+1100 – Ryan Blaney
+1200 – Kyle Busch
+1200 – Tyler Reddick
+1200 – Martin Truex Jr.
+1300 – Ross Chastain
+1400 – Joey Logano

Even the Daytona 500 winner knows that his big win is no guarantee of speed all year.

“I’m curious to see who’s fast, who’s got the aero advantage or disadvantage, and where all that stacks up,” William Byron said.

Byron won at Las Vegas last year, so he knows what it takes to be fast at that track.

Justin Haley agrees, too. He’s moved to Rick Ware Racing this season, leaving Kaulig Racing behind. Las Vegas will give that group a real gauge of the speed, or lack thereof, to expect this year.

“The two tracks we’ve been at don’t really compare to what is coming next. Las Vegas and Phoenix will give us a good idea of what we’ve really got,” Haley said.

Haley has had strong performances to start the season, though not the finishes to match. That’s exceeded expectations for the Rick Ware Racing group. The team now has support from RFK Racing and is hoping for a big uptick in performance.

“Getting back from Daytona and seeing the shop guys – the ones who have really been the framework for RWR over the years – they were really excited. That was probably one of the coolest things that has happened so far and it just continues,” he said. “We go to Atlanta and run in the top-10 – it just shows all these guys that it’s worth it. All the work, the frustration, it’s all worth it. It takes time, but we’re getting there.”

One driver you just can’t count out when coming to Vegas is Team Penske’s Joey Logano. He’s won three times at the track, the most of all active drivers along with fellow Ford driver Brad Keselowski. Logano showed plenty of speed at Daytona and Atlanta but failed to finish at both.

That means one of the fastest cars to start the season enters Vegas 31st in points… deep in the hole. His average finish of 10.0 at Vegas, one of the best records in the field, should give him confidence in a reversal of fortune.

Last week’s winner at Atlanta is certainly happy with his superspeedway performance. The win locks Daniel Suarez into the Playoffs, which he missed last year.

“Atlanta will be the first of many victories,” Suarez promised. “This makes us want to keep working and win more. I have always said I don’t want to just get in the playoffs. We want to win and advance in the playoffs.”

With a new crew chief, Suarez thinks he can make good on that promise.

“I did a lot of work with my crew chief Matt Swiderski and the rest of the engineers in the simulator and analyzing myself what can I be better at. This is not just ‘we changed the crew chief’ that’s the solution. No, it has to be way more than that and I think we all need to change a few things here and there. Myself, crew chief, engineering department, pit crew department. With these changes, I believe we’ll be in a different place this year.”

Riley Herbst looks for an Xfinity Series redo at home

Las Vegas native Riley Herbst scored his breakthrough first Xfinity Series win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. He’s hoping to repeat it this year in The LiUNA! at 5 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“I’m pumped,” Herbst said. “Not only am I going home, but I’m also going to a track that means the world to me. That win last October meant everything. I had waited so long for it and, honestly, it just made it that much more meaningful to get it at my home track.”

The expectations are the same for his Stewart-Haas Racing team every week, though, and Vegas isn’t special in that regard.

“We put pressure on ourselves every week to go out and win, and to us this is just another race weekend to get to victory lane. With that said, I know people are going to be watching and seeing what we do this weekend just because of how fast we were last year.”

His Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer is the defending series champion, and he finished third to Herbst the last time the series visited Vegas. Custer is back in twelfth in the standings after two superspeedways to start the season, and he’s looking to Vegas to turn that all around.

“Vegas is definitely a track that both of the SHR Xfinity Series teams has had circled on their calendar after last year. We were just so strong there in October, and our cars were super fast. I’m really looking forward to heading back there this weekend and really getting the season going,” Custer said.

“I think overall at the intermediate tracks, we know as a team that we have a really good package. So it’s all about going over the details we had last year and being just a little, tiny bit better. Sure, you don’t want to overthink it. You’re always going to try and make things better and better every time you go,” he concluded.

However, Custer will have to beat out Austin Hill who has all the momentum in the world… and, crucially for Vegas, apparently all the luck as well.

Hill won the opening race of the season at Daytona International Speedway and followed that up with a win at Atlanta after saving just enough fuel while the cars around him sputtered to a halt.

The rest of the field has to be hoping that the luck will finally go their way.

Busch is back in the Truck Series

Kyle Busch added to his immense total of victories across all three NASCAR national series by winning in the Truck Series at Atlanta last week, and he’s prepared to add another to that list in the Victoria Voice Foundation 200 Presented by Westgate Resorts, 9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio, in his hometown of Las Vegas.

Busch is no longer driving for his own team, though. After switching from Toyota to Chevrolet when he moved to Richard Childress Racing in the Cup Series, he went on to sell Kyle Busch Motorsports to Spire Motorsports.

He’s limited to five starts, but the ever-confident Busch is prepared to pick up five wins this season.

“Obviously, my goal every year in the Truck Series is to go five-for-five with the races that I can run,” Busch said. “You can’t be perfect if you don’t win the first one, so we’ve got that one under our belts. Now it’s on to the next one.”

Ben Rhodes, Grant Enfinger, and Christian Eckes each know how to win at Vegas as well and are ready to give Busch a run for his money.

Another driver to watch is Christopher Bell. The Cup Series driver will also be making a Truck Series start this weekend, driving the No. 1 Toyota Tundra for TRICON Racing.

“It’s always really fun to compete in the NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series,” Bell said. “I’ve come close to the win at Vegas before in Trucks and would love to make it happen this time.”

Busch and Bell will be joined by Zane Smith. The 2022 Truck Series champion moved up to the Cup Series this year, driving for Spire Motorsports in an alliance with Trackhouse, but now he’s back in the series he won twice in last year driving the No. 91 McAnally-Hilgemann Racing Chevrolet.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA – OCTOBER 15: Kyle Larson, driver of the #5 Chevrolet, exits pit road during the NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 15, 2023 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Pennzoil 400 Presented by Jiffy Lube
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, March 3
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $9,386,054
TV: FOX, 3 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 165), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 267)

NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: The LiUNA!
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, March 2
The Time: 5 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,801,278
TV: FS1, 4 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), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)

Next Race: Victoria’s Voice Foundation 200 Presented by Westgate Resorts
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The Date: Friday, March 1
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
The Purse: $736,214
TV: FS1, 8 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 201 miles (134 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30)
Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 134)

Owen Johnson