By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service
The second round of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begins with Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) and already the championship battle has proven to be both intense and unpredictable.
Regular Season Champion, Hendrick Motorsports driver Kyle Larson continues to hold on to the points lead and returns to Las Vegas as the most recent race winner there, taking the victory handily in the March race by more than 3-seconds over Brad Keselowski.
Larson is also the series most recent race winner, earning the trophy – his sixth of 2021 – last weekend in a highly competitive first round Playoff finale at Bristol Motor Speedway. It marked the fourth consecutive win for a Hendrick Motorsports driver in a NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs elimination race.
Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Martin Truex Jr., who won the Playoff race at Richmond Raceway and Denny Hamlin, who won the Darlington Raceway Playoff opener are ranked just behind Larson in the reseeded standings.
Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney and Joe Gibbs Racing’s Kyle Busch round out the top five in the Playoff points. Larson’s Hendrick Motorsports teammate and the reigning NASCAR Cup Series champion Chase Elliott is sixth in the reseeded standings, followed by two other teammates Alex Bowman and William Byron.
Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Keselowski, JGR’s Christopher Bell and Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick round out the Playoff 12.
Interestingly, the winner of the Las Vegas Playoff race has always been a Playoff driver. However, last year’s winner Kurt Busch was among the four drivers just eliminated from Playoff contention. The Vegas native beat fan favorite Matt DiBenedetto by a scant .148-seconds to take that victory last September.
Six of the current Playoff drivers have won previously at Las Vegas, led by Keselowski’s three victories (2014, 2016, 2018). Logano (2019, 2020), Harvick, (2015, 2018), and Truex (2017, 2019) each have a pair of wins at the 1.5-miler. Larson and Kyle Busch (2009) each have one.
Larson led a race best 103 of the 267 laps to take the Spring victory – marking the first time a Las Vegas race winner has also led the most laps since March, 2018 when Harvick led a dominating 214 of the 276 – six races ago.
The 29-year-old Larson is having the finest season statistically of his seven full-time NASCAR Cup Series years, with career bests in wins (six), top fives (16) and top 10s (21) already. His 1,905 laps led, to date, is also a career high and 676 laps more than anyone else this year. Should he break the 2,000-laps led mark, he would become only one of 20 to ever do so all-time and just the fourth active driver to accomplish the feat.
“It’s nice going back to a track we’ve won at before,” Larson said. “We were really good at Vegas earlier this year so definitely excited to go back and hoping we have similar speed. The temperature will be much warmer this weekend, so that changes things but our team has been really good at adapting to every situation this year.”
As has been the case all season, Larson knows that Hamlin and Truex will be tough this weekend. Hamlin is still looking for his first Vegas win and that motivation is powerful. The driver of the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota has posted top fives the last two races here, leading a race best 121 of the 268 laps in last year’s Playoff race only to finish third. Truex, driver of the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, was sixth this Spring and fourth in the 2020 Playoff race.
Although two of the Team Penske drivers – Logano and Keselowski – are ranked in the bottom four of this Playoff re-ranking, they both show up at Las Vegas as race favorites. They have combined to win three of the last six races between 2018-2020. Both scored top 10s this Spring. Logano’s 8.7 average finish in 16 starts is best among the Playoff 12.
Harvick and Blaney are also top drivers to watch at Las Vegas. The 2014 Cup Series champion Harvick’s 679 laps led is best on the weekend grid at Vegas. He has 12 top-10 finishes in 24 starts. Blaney has seven top-10 finishes in 10 starts and an average finish of 9.2 – one of only two drivers (also Larson, 9.8) with an average finish inside the top-10.
A victory would not only be an automatic ticket into the Playoffs’ Round of 8, but extend a 12-season winning streak for Harvick, the driver of the No. 4 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford. He has 19 top-10 finishes through the first 29 races and his runner-up effort last week at Bristol equals his season best – he had another second place at Kansas.
“We’ve gone about this a number of different ways throughout the years,” Harvick said of his Playoff challenge. “We’ve pointed our way through, and we’ve won our way through when our backs were against the wall. You’ve got to take what each race will give you and there’s no way you can force things. That’s where a lot of people get themselves in trouble – when they start trying to do things outside their comfort zone of where their car is that particular day.
“Some days you have what you have, and you need to get that finish with your car, and if you do that, usually you finish better than probably you would otherwise. Las Vegas is no different. We’ll just have to go out there and grind away and see where we end up.”