NASCAR Cup Series teams have an idea of what to expect this week at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. But with a new car, whatever idea they have is still only a guess.
The premier series hits Sin City for the first of two races this season at the 1.5-mile, D-shaped oval (3:30 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox). Following a tumultuous 2020, Kyle Larson began his remarkable return to glory with a win in this race a year ago, marking the first of a 10-win championship season. In the playoffs, Denny Hamlin was the one celebrating in victory lane for the second and final time in 2021.
Of course, that was with an old car — the Gen 6 — and if last week’s race at Auto Club Speedway taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. The Next Gen car makes its mile-and-a-half debut at Las Vegas, three months after organizational tests at Charlotte, another 1.5-miler.
The pavement in Vegas isn’t nearly as worn out and abrasive as the one competitors tackled last week in Fontana. Still, the tighter confines and limited knowledge might make for unpredictable racing — and unpredictable frontrunners.
Parity out of the gate
One of the major themes echoing throughout the NASCAR garage entering 2022 was that the Next Gen car would bring more parity throughout the field.
Two races make for a small sample size, but the results so far prove that to be true. Following events at Daytona and Auto Club, 19 different drivers have top-10 finishes. The only driver with two top 10s is Aric Almirola, who currently sits sixth in points.
Underscoring the point – nine teams made up the top 10 of last week’s finishing order and 17 different drivers have led at least one lap already.
Whether that trend continues remains to be seen. However, even recent events at Las Vegas have offered their share of open opportunity. The last five Vegas races have been won by five different drivers, with the last four winners each coming from different organizations.
Perhaps Sunday’s race will begin a new trend of repeat winners and the unpredictability will slow down a bit. But that’s a big maybe.
Setting the stage
Stage 2 winners at Las Vegas, meanwhile, have won seven of the last nine races there, including both Larson and Hamlin a year ago. In that span, Truex (2017) and Kevin Harvick (March 2018) won both stages and the event.
Of course, each Stage 1 winner had also won the race at Auto Club up until Reddick’s flat tire cost him last weekend.
Toyota’s not-so-winning streak
The last time we saw a Toyota go to Victory Lane was way back in October 2021, when Bubba Wallace broke through to score his first career Cup win at Talladega Superspeedway. The last time before that was his 23XI Racing team owner, Denny Hamlin, who won at Las Vegas one week prior.
It’s been a long time since Toyota won a race, and overheating issues for three of the four Joe Gibbs Racing cars at Auto Club didn’t help the manufacturer’s cause. Toyota has won two of the last five in Vegas, though, so perhaps this is the week JGR or 23XI right the ship. Kurt Busch, the hometown driver and 23XI’s newest addition, won here in September 2020 too, so there should be hope within the Toyota camp.
Tough sledding so far
All three drivers have two DNFs in two races this season, the best finish among them a 33rd-place effort from Burton in California.
Surely, they’ll find their way and start knocking out more reasonable finishes. But no question JGR, Hendrick Motorsports and Wood Brothers Racing are wondering how Jacques Villeneuve, who ran only the Daytona 500, sits higher in points (32nd) than any of their cars through two races.
Thirteen of the last 14 Las Vegas winners have won championships. The lone exception is Hamlin, who earned his first career win in Vegas last year. That list includes Larson, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Truex, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Tony Stewart and Matt Kenseth.
There are 37 cars on the Cup Series entry list for Sunday, including Greg Biffle in the No. 44 Chevrolet for NY Racing Team.
Meanwhile, 42 cars dot the Xfinity list for Saturday’s event, meaning four cars will fail to qualify.
On the Camping World Truck Series entry list are 37 trucks for 36 spots. One truck will fail to qualify.
In a change from its previously announced practice procedures, all Cup teams will have 35 minutes to practice ahead of qualifying on Saturday. NASCAR announced the change Wednesday in an effort to provide teams more practice time. The series debuted its two-group, 15-minute practice sessions last weekend at Auto Club but was delayed by multiple on-track incidents.
After practice, teams will then be parted into two groups — Group A and Group B — for single-car, single-lap qualifying. The top five drivers from each group will then advance to the next round for another single-car, single-lap qualifying effort to determine the top 10 starting positions.
The Xfinity and Truck series will each hold single-car, single-lap qualifying for all entries following its 20-minute practice sessions.
This weekend’s schedule and forecast
(All times Eastern)
Friday, March 4
Forecast: Partly cloudy, high of 63 degrees, low of 47 degrees.
- 4:30 p.m. — Truck practice/qualifying (FS1)
- 6:30 p.m. — Xfinity practice/qualifying (FS1)
- 9 p.m. — Truck race (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
Saturday, March 5
Forecast: Mostly cloudy, high of 56 degrees, low of 40 degress.
- 1:30 p.m. — Cup practice (FS2)
- 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (FS1, PRN)
- 4:30 p.m. — Xfinity race (FS1, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
Sunday, March 6
Forecast: Partly cloudy, high of 62 degrees, low of 41 degrees.
- 3:30 p.m. — Cup race (267 laps, 400 miles; FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)