Race Preview: Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube

To the northwest of the famous Las Vegas strip is where Las Vegas Motor Speedway resides, home to one of the few races on the west side of the United States in all three of NASCAR’s national touring divisions. The NASCAR Cup Series first visited Sin City in early 1998 and has been back every year since. In 2018, NASCAR added a second race at Las Vegas because of the exciting racing that had taken place at the track, as well. 

Like Homestead-Miami Speedway, which the Cup Series raced at last weekend, Las Vegas Motor Speedway is a 1.5-mile track with high backing, but there’s plenty more about the tracks that are different then there are similar. Las Vegas is shaped a little more like Daytona, with a tri-oval configuration. The fall-off of the tires is also vastly different from Miami and because the tires won’t wear as quickly or easily, it allows drivers and crew chiefs to strategize more aggressively. Last year, both the spring and the fall races at Las Vegas were won with strategic calls. Strategic calls at Vegas aren’t just limited to tire strategy though, as a handful of races have been won on fuel mileage strategies. In 2014, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. led at the white flag, but he ran out of gas, finishing second to Brad Keselowski. 

The track has 20-degree banking in the corners and 12-degree banking down the frontstretch. Typically, new tires will work best on the inside, but depending on the setup of the driver’s car, drivers may also utilize the outside lane by the wall. There are some large bumps at the bottom of the track’s turns, particularly in the first and second, that car easily upset the handling of cars and can give a driver a heart attack. As tires wear out, drivers will want to go to the outside, if they can, where the bumps aren’t nearly as prevalent.

While the race at Homestead-Miami was fun, this race should provide us with the more concrete picture of who we can expect up front at the 1.5-mile tracks throughout the year since Las Vegas has more similarities to other tracks of this length. This race also hold importance because its the very first track on the NASCAR Cup Series schedule that is not only part of the regular season, but also part of the playoffs later this year.

RACE AND TRACK STATS

Graphic by Joe Passero

Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway — Las Vegas, Nevada

Track Length: 1.5 miles

Race Length: 267 laps/400.5 miles

Pit Road Speed Limit: 45 mph

Defending Winner: Joey Logano

Package: 550 horsepower, high downforce

First Race: 1998

First Winner: Mark Martin

Most Wins: Jimmie Johnson (2005, 2006, 2007, 2010)

Stage 1: 80 laps (ends on lap 80) 

Stage 2: 80 laps (ends on lap 160)`

Final Stage: 107 laps (ends on lap 267)

FIVE TO KEEP YOUR EYES ON

Martin Truex, Jr.

HOMESTEAD, FLORIDA - FEBRUARY 28: Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #19 Bass Pro Toyota, drives during the NASCAR Cup Series Dixie Vodka 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on February 28, 2021 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images) | Getty Images
Photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

2020 was a substandard season for one of NASCAR’s most dominant drivers of the last five years. Truex only scored one win, the fewest in a single season of his since 2015, and failed to advance to the championship round of the playoffs for the first time since 2016. Truex didn’t even score that win at a 1.5-mile racetrack, where he’s been a consistent threat to win races for the last half-decade. Last week at Miami, Truex showed his strength that NASCAR fans have become accustomed to. He led 37 laps and, despite not leading more, had one of the fastest cars or the fastest car for much of the race. Truex has a pair of wins and a lot of momentum that he’ll ride into Las Vegas with, and that experience could lead team no. 19 back to victory lane this weekend.

Matt DiBenedetto

Photo credit: Chris Graythen/Getty Images

Matt DiBenedetto isn’t off to a hot start this year. In three races, he has finishes of 33rd, 37th and 28th. He failed to finish one race, has no stage points and sits 34th in points with just 14 points this season. Last season, DiBenedetto just barely made the playoffs on points, and with two teams locked into this year’s playoffs that weren’t in last year’s, there’s plenty of reason to panic for DiBenedetto and the Wood Brothers team. Luckily for DiBenedetto, Las Vegas presents an opportunity to put his season back on track. Last year, DiBenedetto finished second in both races at Las Vegas and was within just a few car-lengths of the leader at each finish. If he could win, he would score his first in the Cup Series, the Wood Brothers’ 100th and a ticket into NASCAR’s playoffs for a second straight year. Best of all, he’d increase his stock for next offseason when he’ll lose his ride with the Wood Brothers to make room for Austin Cindric, who is slated to take over the no. 21 car in 2022.

Joey Logano

Photo credit: Matt Sullivan/Getty Images

Lady Luck has favored Joey Logano’s Las Vegas campaign over the past few years. Logano has won the past two spring races in Sin city. In fact, in his 15 starts at the speedway, Logano has never failed to finish a race and has two finishes outside of the top 15. 

Unfortunately for Logano’s no. 22 team, this season hasn’t been off to a hot start. He was wrecked from the lead in the Daytona 500 and had a poor showing at Miami last week. He wasn’t running particularly well at the Daytona road course either, but strategized his way to a runner-up finish. Aside from that, nothing but some stage points are holding Logano afloat in these first few races. If Logano can tap into his previous successes at Las Vegas this weekend, not only could he start to turn his season around, but he could also come away with another trophy.

William Byron

Photo credit: Sean Gardner/Getty Images

It didn’t seem like William Byron was on anyone’s radar going into last weekend. He dominated the race.

Byron’s performance was impressive and it was the first time in his young Cup Series career that he had run so well at a 1.5-mile track. Add on the fact that Homestead-Miami is one of the toughest and slickest intermediate tracks and that should make many of the other mile-and-a-half tracks pretty easy for the no. 24 team, right?
That isn’t quite the case. While Las Vegas does share some characteristics with Homestead, there are significant differences. For one, Vegas won’t wear tires nearly as much as Miami, which opens the door for varying strategies, something we didn’t see last weekend. Byron’s 22.5 average finish at Las Vegas certainly doesn’t make him a favorite this weekend, but a good run to back up last week’s performance could signify that Byron won’t just be a contender at the intermediate races, but also a potential threat to go far in the playoffs.

Alex Bowman

Photo credit: Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images

Had it not been for the late-race caution that helped Joey Logano strategically set himself up for the win in this race one year ago, there’s a very good chance we would be calling Alex Bowman the defending race winner. He was still able to secure a top-five finish that day, but it certainly wasn’t the finish he was hoping for. Bowman continued to perform well on similar tracks throughout the year, and last week’s performance seemed to be indicative that Bowman could have similar strength at the 1.5-mile tracks this season.

Just for comparison sake, Bowman finished 18th at Miami in 2020 and ninth in 2021. If there’s any correlation between the improvements he made at that track to the improvement he could make this weekend, then Bowman’s got a good chance.

BROADCAST INFORMATION

The Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube will air live on Sunday, March 7 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX and Performance Racing Network (PRN).

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