Ross Chastain leads the points as the Cup Series gets a gauge at Vegas

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - OCTOBER 16: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Shell Pennzoil Ford, and Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 Tootsies Orchid Lounge Chevrolet, race during the NASCAR Cup Series South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on October 16, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

It’s an unfamiliar points leader as NASCAR’s best head to Las Vegas, but not someone who’s a stranger to running up front. Ross Chastain leads the standings coming into the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

“Well, I’m certainly not used to it,” Chastain said, laughing. “It feels good to me but I think it also tells the story of a bigger picture with Trackhouse being fairly young and all the people there working together to help us get to this point.”

“I certainly didn’t get here on my own,” he stressed. “Everyone is pulling in the same direction and it’s showing. I don’t want to get ahead of myself though. This is a long season and there are so many variables, so we’ll just keep doing what we are doing and we’ll see how the season shakes out.”

He finished ninth at Daytona and swept both stages at Auto Club en route to a fourth-place finish at Auto Club last weekend to earn his position ahead of Joey Logano.

Vegas will be a real test for his Trackhouse team to preserve the lead. It’s a real test of both car and driver.

“I expect it to be a great race out in Vegas, I love going out there and it’s a great racetrack,” said Martin Truex. It’s “wide and you can run all over. We saw a lot of guys run high there last year just with the bumps. I feel like the car has evolved and we’ve gotten better at being able to get through the bumps and move around,” he added.

It’s also going to be a good guage of the performance to expect throughout the season, according to Chris Buescher.

“Vegas will be very important to look at because it does have a lot of similarities to a lot of the other mile-and-a-halves that we’ll be going to,” he said. “This will be a good test this weekend to see where we stack up, what we need to work on and what we’ve done right through the offseason.”

In terms of past performance at the track, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski have three wins each at the track, while Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex have a pair of wins each. However, the past five Vegas races have all produced a different winner, so while a fast car will matter, experience doesn’t necessarily.

One driver who has another kind of momentum is Kyle Busch, who comes off a win last week at Auto Club for his new Richard Childress Racing team. He’s already won once at the track in the Cup Series, and he’ll have practice come Sunday: Busch plans to run the Truck Series on Friday and the Xfinity Series on Saturday to get a feel for the challenge of the track.

Kevin Harvick detailed that challenge: “Vegas has a lot of tire fall off,” he said, “so it’s important to have a good-handling racecar. It’s also a track where you’re constantly moving around trying to find the right grip.”

The Xfinity Series king is back

Kyle Busch won all five of his allocated races in the Xfinity Series in 2021 before retiring with the most wins in the series. But, after moving away from Joe Gibbs Racing, he’s back in the support series to get some practice before the big race – and maybe an extra trophy.

He’ll actually be driving a Kaulig Racing car, though, and not one for Richard Childress in Saturday’s Alsco Uniforms 300 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

“Just running the Xfinity Series again and being able to get back in the Xfinity Series with Kaulig Racing is going to be fun, and I look forward to that,” Busch said. “Being with a new team and a new group of guys, [it’s great to have] the chance to go out there and help their program and develop them a little bit and give them some of my expertise.”

However, John Hunter Nemechek is strong. He finished second by inches in the season-opener at Daytona and won last week’s race at Auto Club. He’ll actually face Busch twice this weekend, since he’s also racing in the Truck Series against his old employer.

“It’s going to be interesting racing,” Nemechek said. “It seems like it’s going to be way cooler temperatures than what we’re used to. The track will definitely be gripped up. I’m excited to get there and keep racing.”

“I have a lot of confidence in myself right now, and I’m ready to go get after it. I feel like I’ll be able to learn some things from the truck race Friday night that hopefully we can apply to the Xfinity race on Saturday to try to go get two wins this weekend.”

Truck Series champ Zane Smith has unfinished business

Reigning NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith started the 2023 season with a victory at Daytona.

After a week off, he’ll try for a second straight victory in Friday night’s Victoria’s Voice Foundation 200 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (9 p.m. ET on FS1, MRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).

Smith has something to prove at the track. In last year’s race, he ran second to Chandler Smith but was disqualified and demoted to 36th for a lug nut violation.

“It’s a long season, but we’re off to a great start,” Smith said. “Just like last season, it feels good. The team worked hard during the offseason, and it was rewarded at Daytona.”

“But Vegas,” he emphasized, “we have some unfinished business there. It was frustrating leaving there with a penalty last year. Everyone on the team wants to get this win. We were fast last year, and I hope we can make up for last year.”

Standing between Smith and victory, however, are two formidable ‘ringers:’ Kyle Busch and John Hunter Nemechek. Busch has two wins at his hometown track, and Nemechek claimed his lone victory there in 2021.

NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The Date: Sunday, March 5
The Time: 3:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $8,960,174
TV: FOX, 3 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400 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: Alsco Uniforms 300
The Place: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
The Date: Saturday, March 4
The Time: 4:30 p.m. ET
The Purse: $1,716,356
TV: FS1, 3:30 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), 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 3
The Time: 9 p.m. ET
The Purse: $703,062
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