What matters in this playoff round and how will Las Vegas Motor Speedway stand out among a trio of “wild card” races? Let’s dive into the analytics and trends shaping tonight’s South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and the two weekends that follow.
Likelihood of success in the Round of 12 different for each organization
Following a one-note first round that catered exclusively to those best suited for 750-horsepower tracks, the second round requires more competitive range.
Tonight’s race in Las Vegas, a 550-horsepower track, is the first across an eclectic trio of venues. Talladega (a drafting track) and Charlotte’s Roval (a road course) complement the 1.5-mile Las Vegas in what’s perceived as a wild card round, though that’s a subjective description. In fact, one organization is primed for a superb three-week stretch.
Per its average median lap rankings, Hendrick Motorsports produced the fastest cars this season on 550-horsepower tracks (on behalf of Kyle Larson and the second fastest for William Byron), on drafting tracks (Alex Bowman) and road courses (Chase Elliott, with Larson ranked second). And while speed doesn’t guarantee wins or points, it does provide a cushion over other organizations. The gap, depending on the competitor, is sizable.
Kevin Harvick, Stewart-Haas Racing’s last man standing in championship contention, has turned in a winless season to date, albeit a productive one — he ranks third in Production in Equal Equipment Rating, a consideration of a driver’s race result that handicaps team and equipment strength in an attempt to isolate his contribution. But his team’s speed pales in comparison to the Hendrick cars, ranked 11th on 550-horsepower tracks, 14th on drafting tracks and 19th on road courses.
This round has the potential to reveal all of the team’s shortfalls, making an exit likely, barring an improvement that’d be difficult to manufacture in a year containing a freeze on parts development.
Team Penske, to a lesser degree, is smarting from the same inspection template change that affected the Fords of SHR. Because its three primary teams have taken varied approaches this season — and its drivers have three distinct styles — the spectrum of possible outcomes is wide for Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.
Blaney (ranked fifth in average median lap time) and Keselowski (ranked seventh) fare better on 550-horsepower tracks than Logano (ranked 13th), but Logano’s speed, second fastest on drafting tracks and sixth fastest on road courses, provides a bigger safety net. It also relies on strong performances at relatively unpredictable Talladega and the Roval, around which Hendrick’s Elliott has built a seemingly impenetrable firewall.
Logano also ranks as the second-least efficient passer in the Cup Series this season on 550-horsepower tracks, producing a pass differential 73 positions worse than his statistical expectation.
Joe Gibbs Racing, while pulling the closest to Hendrick in terms of an organization well rounded across all track types, lacks the unified approach of its primary title challenger. All five of the combined wins for Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. took place on 750-horsepower tracks; both of Kyle Busch’s victories, at Kansas and Pocono, utilized the 550-horsepower rules package.
The split in focus certainly makes all four JGR entries, Christopher Bell included, viable in this round. But viability comes in different forms. Today’s race in Las Vegas might not be as outwardly winnable for Hamlin (ranked fourth in 550-horsepower median lap average) or Truex (ranked ninth) but Busch (ranked third) is better suited in what he views as a must-perform scenario in advance of a Talladega race he doesn’t completely trust as a point-padding opportunity.
“I think everybody goes into Vegas putting the amount of pressure on themselves to make sure they do run good at that event because they know what those next two races have in store for them,” he said.
“In a perfect world, if you told me I could go to Talladega right now and come out of there with a 12th-place finish, I would take it and not even go. I think we can go to Vegas and finish top five. I think we can go to the Roval and probably finish fourth to seventh there. If we can get a 12th out of Talladega, I think all of that right there will make it through this round.”
Hamlin’s performance this season on 550-horsepower tracks and road courses has been good enough for the purposes of acquiring points but Talladega — where he won last year’s playoff race — is a track he’ll eye for a potential win. Truex, meanwhile, was never passed on the track under green — securing an adjusted pass efficiency of 100% — in last season’s race on the Roval. Bell’s continued road racing education could also manifest in tangible results in the cutoff race.
Restart dynamic makes Las Vegas a wild card on par with Talladega and the Roval
For a track that’s commonly lumped in with other 1.5-mile facilities, Las Vegas’ races offer a little of everything. This includes a restart dynamic so volatile that drivers believe this is a wild card race within the round, potentially more so than Charlotte’s Roval.
“There’s going to be four-wide restarts,” Logano said. “You see plenty of times in those four-wide moments, all it takes is a car to touch (another), knock a fender in, cut a tire. It can happen. It has happened there. Will happen again.
“This 550 package at racetracks like a Vegas and a Kansas is not much more tame than it is at a superspeedway. We all know what Talladega is. The Roval is a road course and we know what to expect there … I don’t feel like, at this point, it’s as wild and crazy as it used to be.”
Busch agrees with Logano’s assessment.
“You can look at late-race restarts and being three-wide, four-wide, whatever, at Vegas being kind of crazy, guys running into each other and causing flat left rear tires,” Busch said. “We’ve seen that over the last couple of years.”
The dynamic is an interesting one, to be sure. At first glance, it has an imbalance across its restarting grooves, much like most other racetracks. The outside groove is generally its preferred, its occupants retaining 67.6% of its positions within the top 14 over the last five races. The inside groove, meanwhile, retained position just 38.6% of the time.
But the individual gains and losses are massive, a direct result of the aggressive pursuits detailed by Logano and Busch. Leads have been secured by each of the first five restarting slots across the five races utilizing the 550-horsepower package. Positional drops of 10 positions or greater — typically an aberration when evaluating restart performance — is something of a norm. There were 11 such drops within the aforementioned window. Double-digit positional losses from front-running spots are expectations, not outliers.
This degree of volatility can alter a race, dooming those who restart poorly or magnifying the ability of good restarters. In the spring race, Keselowski gained 17 positions from restarts within the top 14, one of the three biggest single-race restarting nets of the last five years. That output helped lead to a second-place finish, his best result this season on a non-drafting oval.