Las Vegas takeaways: Denny Hamlin rolling through playoffs

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LAS VEGAS — When the Cup playoffs began, one of the key questions was if Denny Hamlin’s inability to win a race in the regular season would hurt his chances to advance because he had so few playoff points.

“We don’t have that buffer we wish we had,” Hamlin said before the playoff opener at Darlington Raceway. “But we feel good enough on performance. It doesn’t matter how many playoff points, if you beat yourself, you’re out. Or if you don’t perform well early in the playoffs.”

Hamlin and his team have limited those mistakes.

After going winless in the first 26 races, Hamlin has won two of the first four playoff races. His victory Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway makes him the first driver to advance to the Round of 8, putting him a step closer to a third consecutive championship race appearance.

He’s following a path he discussed before the playoffs. Asked about a way to make the title race without winning, Hamlin said: “We never say we’re going to consistently make it through. We go thinking how can we win and punch our ticket.”

Hamlin entered the postseason with 15 playoff points. He’s doubled that total in four races with two victories and five stage wins. Only Kyle Larson has more playoff points (60) than Hamlin.

“Certainly, our team’s been really capable all year long,” crew chief Chris Gabehart said. “Every metric other than the win column has been astounding for our team. It’s really been our best year together thus far. You stay up front as much as we have, the wins are going to finally come. They’re coming at the right time.”

Hamlin’s victory Sunday marked his first top-three finish this season in a race with the 550-horsepower package. Hendrick Motorsports has been the dominant team on those tracks. That was the case Sunday. Until a pit call derailed the HMS cars.

Hendrick cars led 103 of the first 152 laps. No Hendrick car led after that. Hamlin led 98 of the final 115 laps.

“It’s really hard to be great everywhere, but we try,” Hamlin said after his 46th career Cup victory tied him with Hall of Famer Buck Baker for 17th on the all-time wins list.

“We try the best we can to do that. But (Hendrick Motorsports) has just been really, really strong, obviously. They’re able to do great things with their cars, especially in traffic. That is very, very hard to replicate.

We’re still taking steps and strides forward, I believe, to try to match them. Again, it’s very, very close. I never thought that we’ve been worse than a third- to fourth-place car on these tracks all year long. It’s just (Sunday), we kind of finished the deal.”

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Kevin Harvick’s ninth-place finish Sunday might not seem impressive, but it was to him after the team’s struggles at Las Vegas back in March.

In that race, Harvick started on the pole and quickly faded. Contact damaged the car, but Harvick said the handling was poor before then. He finished 20th.

We knew this would be our biggest challenge,” Harvick said of Las Vegas. “As we came here the first time and were able to run better this time, it was definitely an improvement, so that is a good thing.”

Harvick’s performance moved him two spots to 10th in the standings. He’s seven points below the cutline heading into Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Harvick will be without crew chief Rodney Childers at Talladega. Childers will serve a one-race suspension because Harvick’s car had two lug nuts not secure after the Las Vegas race.

If there is a race that a team can afford to not have a crew chief, it could be Talladega. Pit strategy is done through the manufacturer, so groups of cars pit together. With the event a one-day show, there’s not as much need for a crew chief there.

Before Sunday’s race, Harvick had more to say about Chase Elliott. Harvick likened talking to Elliott after their on-track incidents at Bristol last week to speaking with son Keelan.

“It’s identical,” Harvick said. “It’s 100% the exact same scenario. They get hung up on one thing and you can’t speak to them about the broader picture about how the whole thing works. It was like speaking to a 9-year-old.”

Las Vegas winner Denny Hamlin was asked about Harvick’s mind games with Elliott. Hamlin said that’s not what he sees.

“Harvick’s kind of mind games was more so earlier in his career,” said Hamlin, who was the subject of Harvick’s ploys in the past. “I think he was just generally pissed off last week and this week. I just think he probably legitimately had a gripe. I can’t condone one way or another. He had a gripe and he voiced it.”

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Josh Berry’s win Saturday at Las Vegas continued a magical season for the Late Model driver who will have a full-time Xfinity Series ride with JR Motorsports next season.

It’s perhaps appropriate that Berry won on Saturday, the same day as the ValleyStar Credit Union 300 at Martinsville Speedway, one of the biggest Late Model races on the schedule and an event Berry won in 2019.

Berry was asked after his Vegas win if his success this season – he also won the Xfinity race at Martinsville in a part-time ride with JRM before Sam Mayer turned 18 and took over that car – can provide hope to those drivers who competed at Martinsville this past weekend.

“I really hope that I’m giving hope to some of these guys,” said Berry, who was in the No. 1 at Las Vegas in place of an ailing Michael Annett. “I hope it opens up more opportunities for them, not just in Late Models or Late Model stocks. There’s tons of great racers in modifieds and dirt and everything across the country.

“I think the biggest thing … is just how much had to line up to get me here. The insane amount of success of our Late Model team. Dale (Earnhardt Jr.) and L.W. (Miller) just giving me an opportunity, all the partners that supported that got me there.

“Then this magical win at Martinsville that snowballs. All this stuff had to line up. Sam coming into our program. If he’s born a couple of months earlier, there’s no place for Josh, or Josh’s opportunity might be three or four races instead of 12. It’s just so hard to get here. I tell people that all the time.

“For a long time, I carried frustration feeling that I was capable at this level. I carried that frustration for a long time. I just never let it affect anything that I did. I just worked hard, raced, tried to win, enjoy myself. I just can’t believe how much my life has changed in the last year.

“After I won at Martinsville, a great friend and manager at JRM, L.W. Miller, who has been a part of my career for a long time, he said: ‘You did that. Now go drive your stake into the ground. Prove yourself. Make sure there is no way you are not in this series going forward. That’s what we did.’”

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Lost in the results of Friday night’s Camping World Truck Series race at Las Vegas was the performance of 20-year-old Howie DiSavino III.

Racing just days after his mother Dawn passed away after a five-year battle with cancer, he finished 26th. His mother’s name was above the door on his truck.

“My mom was one of the most compassionate people you would ever meet,” DiSavino told NBC Sports. “She dedicated herself to raising myself and my older two sisters.  … I would always, after a race, call her and she would always tell me how great I did even if I had bad races.

“She would always be there for me. It’s definitely a big adjustment, but we all knew that this day was going to come eventually. Did we want it to come this fast? Of course not. She told me just two weeks ago, ‘Have fun at Bristol and Las Vegas and pass them all.’ It means a lot to me to race in her honor.”

Las Vegas was DiSavino’s fifth career Truck start. All have come this year for Jordan Anderson Racing. DiSavino’s best finish is 22nd at Pocono. He does not have any other Truck starts scheduled at this time.

“I knew it was going to be extremely hard,” he said of racing in the Truck Series. “We picked up the pace pretty good at each race track that we showed up to. … I’m appreciative of every opportunity I get to run races.”

Dr. Diandra: Strategies in making Clash picks

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Crew chiefs must develop their approach to today’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum using only last year’s data, plus this year’s practice and qualifying.

Fans wagering (for fun and/or profit) must contend with the same lack of data as they make their Clash picks.

The shortest regular-season track is a half mile. A quarter-mile track is a different beast, even with a year’s worth of Next Gen experience.

“Last year everything was brand-new – the track, the format and the car,” Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, said in a team release. “We’ll have a little bit better of an idea of what we’re going for this time around, but the track is so unique that even with going there last year, we’re still learning.”

As are the fans.

There are a few changes to keep in mind as you make your Clash picks.

NASCAR increased the field from 23 cars to 27. With 36 drivers entered, only nine will miss the Clash. Even without points on the line, no one wants to head home before the main event’s green flag.

Last year, equipment failures caused four out of five DNFs in the main race. Expect fewer mechanical issues this year.

But perhaps more aggression.

Don’t pay too much attention to practice

Last year’s practice times showed no correlation with Clash performance. Eventual winner Joey Logano finished practice last year with the 26th fastest lap — also known as the 11th-slowest lap. But he qualified fourth.

This year, despite losing about 40 hp to mufflers, Martin Truex Jr. set a fastest lap of 13.361 seconds. Truex’s lap beats last year’s best practice lap time of 13.455 seconds, set by Chase Elliott.

Although only seven-tenths of a second separate the fastest practice lap and the slowest, the change is far from linear.

A graph showing practice times for the Busch Light Clash field

  • The top 11 drivers are separated by just 0.048 seconds out of a 13- to 14-second lap
  • Brad Keselowski, who didn’t make the race last year, had the third slowest practice time.
  • Tyler Reddick ran the most total practice laps with 117. He was followed by Kevin Harvick (116), and Noah Gragson and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., both of whom made 115 laps.
  • Most drivers ran their best times in their first or second session. Austin Dillon, however, ran his best time on lap 109 of 112.
  • The top three in practice also had the three best 10-lap averages.

Qualifying is the key to good Clash picks

Last year, qualifying position correlated well with driver finish in the Clash. If your driver qualified on the front two rows for his heat race, last year’s results suggest that the only thing keeping him from making tonight’s Clash is an accident or mechanical failure.

That’s bad news for Ty Gibbs, who wasn’t allowed to qualify and will start in the back of the field. It’s also a negative for Ryan Blaney, who posted a 40-second lap, however, Blaney has a shot at the provisional and Gibbs doesn’t.

The heat races are only 25 laps, which doesn’t leave much time for passing. Heat race starting position is highly correlated to heat race finishing position.

  • Last year, the pole-sitter for each of the four heat races held the lead for the entire race.
  • Of the 12 drivers starting in the top three for each heat race, nine drivers — 75% — finished in the top three.
  • Only the top-four finishers of each heat race advanced last year. This year, the top five move on. Last year, 16 of the 25 drivers (64%) starting in positions one through five finished in the top five of their heat races.
  • No driver who started a heat race from ninth finished better than sixth. That’s not encouraging news for Blaney and Gibbs, among others.

That means Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron are pretty much guaranteed locks for a good starting spot in the Clash.

The 20 drivers who qualified in the top five for their heat race have a very high probability of making it through to the main — and of finishing well there.

As was the case last year, practice showed little correlation with qualifying. Martin Truex Jr. qualified 22nd despite posting the best practice time.

The Last Chance Qualifiers

Three drivers from each of the two last chance qualifiers fill out the final rows of the Clash starting grid. Last year, drivers were more aggressive in these 50-lap races than the first four heats.

Again, the closer to the front a driver starts, the better his chance of making the race. Last year, both pole-sitters finished in the top three and advanced.

The last chance qualifiers are long enough for a driver starting in the rear to make it to the front. Last year, Ty Dillon came from 10th place to win the second race. He was subsequently disqualified for jumping the final restart and Harrison Burton, who had started seventh, advanced. If you’re looking for long-shot Clash picks, don’t count the back of the field entirely out.

The Big Show

Last year, the 150-lap main had five lead changes and five cautions.

  • Of last year’s four heat-race winners, two finished in positions one and two, while the other two didn’t finish the race.
  • Of the six drivers who advanced from the last chance qualifiers, none finished higher than A.J. Allmendinger in ninth.
  • Allmendinger tied with Erik Jones for most spots gained. Jones started 16th and finished fourth.
  • Excluding drivers who failed to finish the race, Danial Suárez had the biggest position loss, starting fifth and finishing 14th.

If you want to avoid the frontrunners, you might want to keep an eye on Aric Almirola, who qualified fifth, and had the seventh best 10-lap average run during practice. Austin Dillon didn’t put together a strong 10-lap run, but his team found something in the last minutes of practice that allowed him to go from finishing practice in 22nd to qualifying sixth.

And although Bubba Wallace qualified 16th, he ranked first in runs of 10, 15, 20, 25 and 30 laps. He was second in five-lap speed.

Good luck with your Clash picks!

NASCAR Sunday schedule at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

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It’s race day for the NASCAR Cup Series.

The Clash at the Coliseum will open the 2023 season for NASCAR on Sunday with the featured 150-lap race scheduled for 8 p.m. ET at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

The field for the non-points race will be set by a series of heat and last chance races Sunday afternoon. The top five finishers in each of four 25-lap heat races will advance to the feature, and the top three finishers in two 50-lap last chance races will join the grid.

Joey Logano won last year’s Clash as it moved from its long-time home at Daytona International Speedway to the Coliseum.

The Cup Series regular season is scheduled to begin Feb. 19 with the Daytona 500.

Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum

Weather

Sunday: Partly cloudy with a high of 64 degrees in the afternoon and no chance of rain. It is expected to be sunny with a high of 62 degrees and a 1% chance of rain at the start of the Clash.

Sunday, Feb. 5

(All times Eastern)

Garage open

  • 11 a.m. Sunday – 12:30 a.m. Monday — Cup Series

Track activity

  • 5 – 5:45 p.m. — Four heat races (25 laps; Fox, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 6:10 – 6:35 p.m. — Two last chance qualifying races (50 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 8 p.m. — Feature race (150 laps; Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.