Las Vegas storylines: Time to hit it big

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People from all over the world visit Las Vegas to take a chance.

But as the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs begin this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the 12 remaining playoff drivers don’t want to leave anything to … well, you know.

A good start to the round Sunday night (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN) is paramount. That’s because back-to-back wild cards come next: Talladega Superspeedway next weekend and an elimination race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval on Oct. 10.

The opening round saw Joe Gibbs Racing re-emerge as a championship threat with wins from Denny Hamlin (Darlington) and Martin Truex Jr. (Richmond). That was followed by the season’s most dominant driver and team, Kyle Larson and Hendrick Motorsports, responding in kind at Bristol.

So where does that leave the Blue Oval’s brigade?

NASCAR CUP SERIES

Ford’s big test

Entering the playoffs, Brad Keselowski said he didn’t believe the Fords could legitimately contend for wins with the 550-horsepower package during the playoffs.

“The combination of offseason rules enforcement changes and the parts freeze just kind of completely neutered us as a group and we just haven’t shown that speed all year long,” he said Aug. 31.

Keselowski’s Team Penske survived the first round with all three of its drivers still in the hunt. Kevin Harvick of Stewart-Haas Racing followed suit.

Now, the remaining Ford playoff drivers must start the second round with the 550 package at Las Vegas. But that doesn’t necessarily spell doom.

Las Vegas has been a strong track for Penske. Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined to win five of the past 11 Cup races at Las Vegas dating back to 2014.

This past March, Keselowski (second), Ryan Blaney (fifth) and Logano (ninth) all finished inside the top 10 there behind winner Kyle Larson.

The biggest question mark may be Harvick, the lone SHR driver in the playoffs after Aric Almirola‘s first-round cut.

Harvick and the No. 4 team will look to shake off an abysmal March performance at Las Vegas. Harvick started on pole, but struggled badly – as did his teammates – and finished 20th.

The entire first round was held on 750-package tracks, which suited the group nicely. Harvick responded with finishes of fifth, eighth and second. But will his momentum come to a halt Sunday?

Home cooking

Kurt Busch scored an upset win at Las Vegas in last year’s playoffs. But after his first-round elimination last weekend at Bristol, it’s up to younger brother Kyle Busch to carry hometown honors.

Following a rough opening round, Kyle Busch can re-assert himself as a proper contender for what would be his third Cup title.

That job starts at Las Vegas, where he got his hometown win back in 2009 and has been relatively solid in recent years. Since 2013, he’s finished seventh or better in seven of his last 11 Cup races there (including a third-place finish in March).

But perhaps even more important to consider is his season-long work with the 550 package.

Per Racing Insights, Kyle Busch has the best average finish of all drivers across the nine 550 races run so far. His mark of 3.78 tops Kyle Larson’s 6.56 and William Byron‘s 7.44.

Back to where it began

Speaking of Larson, he’s back at the place where his comeback truly began.

Larson rejoined the Cup Series this year after being indefinitely suspended for most of 2020 after using a racial slur while competing in an e-sports event. In March at Las Vegas, he led 103 laps to claim his first Cup win since his return.

That began what’s been an amazing year for Larson, both in NASCAR and in his beloved dirt racing. Along the way, he’s continued his true redemption arc – working to mature as a human being and making amends for the pain he caused.

Winning his first Cup title would be quite a denouement to that story. But Larson still has to take care of business in this second round, starting at Las Vegas.

The good news for Larson is that the 1.5-mile oval was already one of his better tracks before he joined Hendrick Motorsports this offseason.

Larson’s career average finish of 9.8 at Las Vegas is third-best among active drivers, only behind Joey Logano (8.4) and Ryan Blaney (9.2). Additionally, Larson’s win this March continued a run of six top-10 finishes in his last seven races there.

XFINITY SERIES

Eyes on the prize

Las Vegas also hosts Saturday’s playoff opener for the Xfinity Series (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN). Twelve drivers will start out in the opening round, including reigning series champion Austin Cindric, who enters as the No. 2 seed.

Following these playoffs, Cindric will make the full-time jump to the Cup Series as Brad Keselowski’s replacement in the No. 2 Team Penske Ford. In turn, Keselowski will go to Roush Fenway Racing and become a driver/owner.

The future, however, is not on Cindric’s mind right now.

“I haven’t even honestly thought about 2022 with the exception of kind of some Next Gen tests that are coming up, but, otherwise I’m pretty focused on this, whether it’s for me and myself and my own personal reasons … or for my team as well,” Cindric said Tuesday.

“I’ve been with the same group of guys throughout the majority of my Xfinity career and I wouldn’t be the driver I am without them, so I’m excited to try and finish this off on the highest note possible.”

The task begins at Las Vegas, where Cindric finished fourth in March behind winner AJ Allmendinger. It was Allmendinger who tracked down Cindric in late summer and beat him last week at Bristol to claim the regular season championship.

In that March Xfinity race at Las Vegas, the top-five finishers and eight of the top 10 were 2021 Xfinity playoff drivers. The top five included Allmendinger, Daniel Hemric in second, Brandon Jones in third, Cindric, and Las Vegas native Noah Gragson in fifth.

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Now it gets real

The Camping World Truck Series playoffs also continue Friday night at Las Vegas with the Round of 8 opener (9 p.m. ET, FS1).

For the eight remaining drivers, it’s their first opportunity to secure a spot in the Nov. 5 Championship race at Phoenix Raceway with a win.

Chandler Smith is among them thanks to his heroics last Thursday at Bristol, where he had to win the Round of 10 elimination race in order to advance and did.

One of two Kyle Busch Motorsports drivers in the Truck playoffs, Chandler Smith starts the next round three points below the cutline to advance to Phoenix.

The other KBM driver, John Hunter Nemechek, is at the top of the leaderboard with 50 playoff points and a 44-point cushion above the cutline.

In March at Las Vegas, Nemechek narrowly held off his new boss, Kyle Busch, to score his first win since returning to Trucks after running his rookie Cup season in 2020.

Two remaining Truck playoff drivers also finished inside the top five in that March race. Stewart Friesen and Matt Crafton finished fourth and fifth, respectively.