Drivers to watch for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas

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For now, things are wide-open in the NASCAR Cup Series as everyone continues to unlock the secrets of the new Next Gen car.

Nineteen different drivers have posted a top-10 finish over the first two races of the season.

Next up is Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which has seen several drivers become familiar faces at the front. But with the new car comes the potential for newcomers to join them.

Our list of drivers to watch for Las Vegas includes perennial Vegas favorites and others who haven’t had much luck there, but do have momentum going into Sunday.

FRONT RUNNERS

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 10th
  • Finishes in first two races: Ninth – Daytona 500; 27th – Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: 12 finishes of seventh or better in last 13 Las Vegas races, including three wins (2014, 2016, Sept. 2018)

Multiple spins prevented Keselowski from getting a solid result last week, but the new driver/co-owner at RFK Racing has run well to start the year. That gives him confidence in maintaining his successful record in Las Vegas, which he achieved as a member of Team Penske.

“I know we didn’t have the finishing position to show for it in Fontana, but I felt good about where we unloaded in terms of speed,” Keselowski said this week. “We definitely have something to build from coming out of there, and Vegas for me is a place I feel confident at, and one I’ve had some great success at over the years.

“As I have said all along, this will be a slow grind to get to where we want to be, and this weekend is yet another opportunity to continue that.”

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: Eighth
  • Finishes in first two races: 32nd (DNF) – Daytona 500; WIN – Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: Seven top-10 finishes in last eight Las Vegas races (missed Sept. 2020 race – indefinite suspension), including March 2021 win

Coming off victory at Auto Club, Larson visits the track where he earned his first win with Hendrick Motorsports — an early but important piece of his epic 2021 season.

Larson has now claimed five of the last seven points-paying Cup races. He stands a good chance to make it six for eight at Las Vegas, which has been solid for him throughout much of his Cup career. His average finish there of 9.8 (11 starts) is eclipsed only by Joey Logano‘s 8.6 (17 starts) and Ryan Blaney‘s 8.8 (11 starts).

And lest we forget, 1.5-mile tracks like Las Vegas were Larson’s bread and butter in his 2021 title run. Over nine races last season on 1.5-mile tracks, Larson won four of them and led 1,317 laps (most all-time on that track type).

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: Third
  • Finishes in first two races: 13th – Daytona 500 and Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: Eight straight finishes of eighth or better in last nine Las Vegas races, including two wins (March 2017, Sept. 2019)

Among drivers without a top-10 finish so far in 2022, Truex is highest in the standings. That’s largely because of his overall performance at Daytona, which included 25 stage points (20 from his two Daytona 500 stage wins, five from his Duel qualifier).

Looking ahead to Las Vegas, Truex has been one of the most consistent drivers there. But the new Next Gen car presents a wild card.

“There’s usually not a ton that you can take from Fontana to Vegas because of the difference in the track surface and the banking,” Truex said this week. “Overall, we were pretty happy with our car to start the race last week and we were moving up through there until I got into the wall.

“After that, it wasn’t very good, but I was excited about the way we started and the moves I was able to make, so that gives me confidence going into this weekend.”

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Aric Almirola

  • Points position: Seventh
  • Finishes in first two races: Fifth – Daytona 500; Sixth – Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: Five straight finishes of 13th or worse … Career-best finish of sixth, Sept. 2018

A classic case of “something has to give.” Almirola has started his final full-time season as the lone driver to post top-10 finishes in both races, but now comes to one of his worst tracks.

He’s only had three top-10 finishes in 17 Cup starts at Las Vegas, the most recent top 10 coming in March 2019 (seventh). Maybe his luck will change with the new Next Gen car?

“I think this new car offers that opportunity,” Almirola said this week. “I’ve always struggled a bit at Vegas and moving around on the racetrack. It’s a very unique track so, for me, going there with new everything gives us plenty of opportunities to perform at a high level and keep this momentum going.

“We also have to be patient and understand that these cars are going to behave differently and we have to take every single data point we have to make it better and be there at the end.”

Tyler Reddick

  • Points position: 21st
  • Finishes in first two races: 35th (DNF) – Daytona 500; 24th – Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: Earned career-best finish at Las Vegas last September, finishing sixth … Had finished 18th or worse in his three prior Cup starts there

Reddick was hard done last week at Auto Club, leading a race-high 90 laps before a flat tire and run-in with William Byron ended his chances of winning. If he and the No. 8 Richard Childress Racing team carry over their performance on the track and pit road, could they threaten again?

For his part, Reddick believes Las Vegas is positioned to race much like Auto Club did.

“Same type of situation, I think,” Reddick said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Barely on in runs, you’re gonna see cars able to run all three lanes fairly early on and be able to make lanes work for their cars. You’re gonna have to be able to run all three lanes in a lot of different points in the run — early run, middle of the run, at the end of the run. I think it’ll be a lot like Fontana.”

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 30th
  • Finishes in first two races: 37th (DNF) – Daytona 500; 15th – Auto Club Speedway
  • Recent at Las Vegas: Three straight top-five finishes (including his Sept. 2021 win) and 305 laps led (38% of the total laps run) during that span

Hamlin should be a frontrunner considering his recent work in Las Vegas, and as the winner last time out at Las Vegas, he was always going to be one to watch.

But he returns in a big points hole after he was collected in a crash at the season-opening Daytona 500. Last week at Auto Club, overheating issues, a late-race speeding penalty and a final-lap brush of the wall marred his race.

Can he avoid a third straight subpar finish to open 2022?

“We definitely have room for improvement,” Hamlin said this week. “I felt like our (car) was good and the pit crew was incredible last weekend (at Auto Club), but we need to be better to get over that hump to run in the top five.

“It seemed like we could get up to around sixth and we kind of stalled out there. Overall, I think there were some positives that we can build on, and as a group, I feel like we learned a lot that will help us moving forward.”