Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway
By Cody Smith
Kyle Larson picked up right where he left off in 2021 by earning a victory in just the second race of the season as he begins his championship title defense tour. Larson didn’t dominate the whole race, as a few guys who we haven’t seen race super well in the past also showed some strength. Tyler Reddick and Erik Jones battled for the lead quite a bit, while Daniel Suarez almost held Larson off late in the race. Austin Dillon also had a solid run, coming home second.
In what I personally find as an unbelievable stat, in two races this season, 19 drivers have recorded at least one top-ten finish. It’s a small sample size, but this new car certainly seems to have evened the playing field for some of the smaller teams, making this season even more unpredictable moving forward. As the stat above indicates, only one driver has finished in the top-ten in both races so far. That man is Aric Almirola. He’s been on my list of drivers to watch early in the season. He was a member of the perfect DraftKings' lineup for both races so far this season. Keep an eye on the veteran as the season progresses and see how long he can keep his T-10 streak going.
Another takeaway from this week involves the Toyotas of Joe Gibbs Racing and 23XI Racing. The new body style and the way the air flows over the race cars seem to be having a negative effect on the Toyota camp. At Auto Club, nearly all the Toyota drivers complained of overheating issues. This might be nothing, but with some warm-weather cities coming up on the schedule (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Atlanta) I’m at least keeping an eye on it. I’m going to be hesitant on picking Toyotas for now. At least until we see if these overheating issues can be resolved.
The series enters week two of the three-week west coast swing with a trip to Las Vegas which is track with plenty of recent history, as it has been run twice per season since 2018, once early in the regular season and once in the playoffs. This track also profiles similarly to last week and many drivers may even race the same cars they had last week, so look for the drivers that performed well last week to carry over some momentum.
This weekend’s race – The Pennzoil 400 – is a 400-mile (267 lap) race around the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway in Las Vegas, Nevada. Over the past three seasons, six races have been run at the track. Those six races have produced five different winners with Joey Logano being the lone driver with multiple wins at the track over the last three seasons. Other winners include Martin Truex Jr., Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin. One season ago Larson picked up the win, collecting his first victory in the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet. Last season in the playoffs it was Hamlin picking up the win for his first career Vegas win. To throw another wrench into things, none of the five drivers listed above is the career wins leader among active drivers. That honor goes to Brad Keselowski who has won three times in Las Vegas with wins coming in 2014, 2016 and 2018.
Drivers I Like
Joey Logano (DK price: $10,800)
Not only has Logano won two of the last six Las Vegas races, he also holds the third-highest average finishing position over that span (7.50) thanks to never recording a finish lower than 14th. In his career at Las Vegas, Logano sports an impressive average finish of 8.59 which is best among all active drivers. Logano has led 253 laps in the last six Las Vegas races, trailing just Denny Hamlin in that category (308.) Logano looked good last week. His team was able to fix his car following a minor scrape with the wall during qualifying. Logano led 14 laps, came home with a fifth-place finish and collected the third-most points in the race behind Kyle Larson and Erik Jones. I expect him to piece together another good run at one of his strongest tracks.
Martin Truex Jr. ($9,500)
One of the two drivers with a better average finish at Las Vegas over the past six races is Truex Jr. MTJ sports an average finish of 7.17 including one win in the past six. He also picked up a win back in 2017, giving him two career victories at Las Vegas. He has led 40 laps and hasn’t had a finish worse than 20th. The main issue holding me back from going all in on Truex this weekend is the cooling issues the Toyotas have had this season, but the Toyotas will be using a new screen over their grills this weekend to help maintain air flow to the engine. We’ll see if it actually helps.
Brad Keselowski ($8,400)
The leader in average finish over the past six races at Las Vegas is indeed Brad Keselowski. Keselowski sports a 5.67 average finish despite not picking up a win in any of the last six races. Despite the lack of recent victories, Keselowski holds the most career victories at Las Vegas among active drivers with three victories coming in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Keselowski didn’t have a spectacular week at Auto Club, where he was spun out and collected in an incident including Bubba Wallace and Harrison Burton late in the race, but he knows his way around Las Vegas. I’m looking for him to contend this weekend.
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. ($7,200)
Stenhouse has had a handful of impressive finishes over the years at Las Vegas despite never coming away with a victory. Back in the spring race in 2020 Stenhouse wheeled his way to a third-place result – his best career result at the track. Racing for RFK racing back in the spring of 2019, Stenhouse picked up a sixth-place finish as well. Stenhouse’s career average finish at Las Vegas is inside the top-20 and he’s led 35 laps at the track over the past six races. He’s coming of a solid 10th-place run at Auto Club last week. The Chevys have looked fast recently, so I’m expecting Stenhouse to keep it up this week.
Daniel Hemric ($5,800)
Hemric is heavily on my radar this week. In fact, my weekend hinges on a solid run from Hemric. The part-time Kaulig Racing driver came back from six laps down last weekend at Auto Club to post a top-ten finish and has been impressive at Las Vegas in his time in the Xfinity series. Over his past three Xfinity starts, Hemric has come home third, second and fifth. He has led 74 laps in those three races combined. The speed that he has shown in the Kaulig Racing car and his recent strong results in Vegas make him an intriguing choice this week.
Drivers I’m Avoiding
Kyle Busch ($10,200)
Maybe I’m just a little jaded from last week, but Busch’s hometown Las Vegas track hasn’t been too kind to him over the course of his career. In 21 career tries, Busch has only conquered his hometown venue one time. He sports a career average finish of 11.52 at the track and has led just 21 laps in the past six races combined. Busch has gotten off to a rocky start to the season and it’s a little hard to imagine him turning it around just yet, but he is a talented driver that wouldn’t surprise me if he flipped the switch and started dominating.
Tyler Reddick ($9,300)
I believe Reddick is priced a bit high this week following his domination of the first half of last week’s race. Though he did lead the most laps at Auto Club – as well as both stages in the race – Reddick was taken out when William Byron lost control and crashed into him while he was limping slowly around the track with a flat tire. Though Reddick has had speed this season, Vegas doesn’t quite fit his profile. Reddick races best on worn surfaces and at tracks where it is mandatory to run up high by the wall to make time. Vegas isn’t one of those places, so I’m willing to fade him and his hefty price tag this week.
Christopher Bell ($8,200)
Bell has had a tough go of things to start the season as he currently finds himself 36th in the points standings – dead last for all eligible drivers. He was involved in a crash that took out multiple cars in Daytona and at Auto Club, engine issues forced him out less than halfway through the race. With Toyota’s lingering overheating issues, I have confidence in fading Bell in Vegas. In his brief career at Las Vegas, Bell has run four races but carded on one top-ten finish. His average finishing position at the track is 22.00 and he has yet to lead a single lap.
Ross Chastain ($7,500)
Chastain has had his struggles at Las Vegas over the course of his career. In seven Cup Series starts in his career, Chastain has finished in the top-20 just one time. That one time came in a 20th-place finish back in 2018 while driving for Premium Motorsports. His average finish over the past five Las Vegas races is 27.40 and he has never finished on the lead lap. Despite Trackhouse Racing looking awfully strong to start the season, I need to see Chastain succeed at Las Vegas before hitching my wagon to him.
Michael McDowell ($5,300)
McDowell’s price tag continues to fall, but he’s still not worth the cash this week. Over the past six races at Las Vegas, McDowell hasn’t finished higher than 17th. That 17th-place performance is his best in 16 career attempts at Las Vegas. He was a full fade for me last week and he finished 31st after suffering some electrical issues. Fade him again with confidence.
($50,000 budget, 6 driver lineup)
What a disappointing turn of events on Sunday. Our lineup was in the money all race long, but Justin Haley – who was running near the top-10 at the time – spun and slammed the inside wall just past the start-finish line on the final lap. Haley dropped from 11th all the way to a 23rd-place finish. Ryan Blaney also had final lap troubles, getting loose and almost spinning out of turn two. Blaney dropped from 10th to 18th on the last lap of the race. The lineup missed finishing in the money by 11.9 points. An absolutely brutal outcome in a contest that cost me three units.
Last week: 230.10 pts.
1. Ryan Blaney ($10,000): 16.85 pts.
2. Kevin Harvick ($9,200): 62.25 pts.
3. Kurt Busch ($8,800): 64.00 pts.
4. Ross Chastain ($8,200): 17.00 pts.
5. Bubba Wallace ($7,000): 39.00 pts.
6. Justin Haley ($6,700): 31.00 pts.
Remaining Budget: $100
Last week’s perfect lineup: 367.20 pts.
1. Kyle Larson ($11,600): 71.20 pts.
2. Kurt Busch ($8,800): 64.00 pts.
3. Aric Almirola ($7,400): 63.45 pts.
4. Kevin Harvick ($9,200): 62.25 pts.
5. Erik Jones ($6,400): 55.30 pts.
6. Daniel Suarez ($6,100): 51.00 pts.
Remaining Budget: $500
We hit some hard luck in some of our bets as well this week. Just like in the DK lineup, Blaney’s last-lap misfortunes dropped him behind Austin Cindric who he had been outrunning all day. Chase Elliott also had his top-ten hopes dashed with 21 laps to go when contact with eventual race winner Kyle Larson caused a flat tire. On the plus side we did get some minor wins on Alex Bowman over William Byron and Kurt Busch’s top-ten helped him win group D. We still dropped 5.98 units thanks to our five unit bet of Blaney over Cindric going from a winner to a loser on the last lap. Let’s try to get lucky in Vegas this week.
Joey Logano to win (+800, 1.5 units)
Kevin Harvick to win (+2000, 1 unit)
Daniel Hemric to win (+15000, 0.5 unit)
Brad Keselowski Top-10 (-105, 1.5 units)
Martin Truex Jr. Top Toyota (+330, 1 unit)
Kyle Larson Top Chevy (+190, 1 unit)
Daniel Hemric over Bubba Wallace (-115, 3.5 units)
One and Done
*Rules for One and Done: Each driver can only be picked one time over the course of the season, unless you pick the race winner, then that driver can be picked again. Driver’s finishing position is the number of “points” you score each week. Goal: Finish with as few points as possible. Feel free to play along!
I was incredibly worried early on at Auto Club Speedway. Kyle Busch ended up qualifying quite well but faded early to just barely hanging onto a top-ten. He then got a flat tire and spun out before struggling with overheating issues. At one point Busch found himself four laps down and in last place, but the No. 18 Toyota team never quit, and Busch eventually fought his way back onto the lead lap and even picked up a top-15 finish coming home 14th. Its not exactly what I was hoping for from Busch, but given the circumstances he faced in the race, 14th isn’t half bad.
This week: Daniel Hemric
Hemric also had an eventful week at Auto Club Speedway. Issues with his shifter put him a whopping six laps down, but just like Busch, Hemric rallied for a top-10 finish. There is raw speed in that No. 16 car as Hemric has shown in both races already this season. Hemric qualified top-5 last week and ended up with a ninth-place finish. Hemric is running a limited schedule this season, competing in just eight total races this season. With this being his third already, now seems like a better time than ever to use him.
Race Driver Finish
Daytona 500 Greg Biffle 36th
Auto Club Kyle Busch 14th