Playoff chase in desert

The 30th race of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series schedule brings us back to Las Vegas for the second time this season, the third straight season that Las Vegas Motor Speedway has two dates on the schedule.

Sunday’s South Point 400 will also start the Round of 12 which will be followed by races at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval after which four more drivers will be chopped from playoff competition. It’s a tricky round and the teams will be using three different race packages.

The race package being used this week at Las Vegas is the 550 horsepower package used on the intermediate tracks. It’s been used 17 times this season, eight of them on 1.5-mile tracks similar to Las Vegas. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin have combined to win 11 of the 17 using the package, which is why they’re listed as the favorites to win Sunday.

Whoever wins will do so in front of an empty grandstand as coronavirus protocols in the state of Nevada prohibit large gatherings. The track offered a plan that would have limited spectator seating. However, it was rejected by state health officials and no fans will be allowed on the grounds.

As for the race itself, the 12 drivers still competing for the championship better make the most out of the Las Vegas race because Talladega and the Roval are going to make it tough for some well-known drivers to get through. Just like the Round of 16, eligible drivers advance to the next round by either winning one of the next three or accumulating the most points. The bottom four in this round will get chopped.

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It seems like the whole world has changed since the Cup Series last visited Las Vegas with the Pennzoil 400 on Feb. 23. It was the second race of the season, pre-shutdown, with Joey Logano bypassing a late pit stop and holding on to the lead for the last four laps with older tires. Those same durable tires were used at Kentucky and Texas and produced long shot winners Cole Custer and Austin Dillon at over 100-1 odds. The driver who gave up the Vegas lead to pit was Ryan Blaney, who would finish 11th and Harvick would lead the most laps (92).

Let’s take a look at the 12 drivers still alive in the Playoffs with odds to win Sunday’s race, courtesy of the South Point Hotel and Casino and current points situation heading into the Round of 12:

No. 4 Kevin Harvick 7-2 (3,067 points): The South Point has him as the +140 favorite to win the championship and it won’t get any lower for the driver who leads the series with nine wins. He’s a two-time winner at Las Vegas and his 679 laps led is the most among all drivers.

Happy Harvick has made Las Vegas his little special place. It’s been involved for his entire racing career at all levels such as winning a 1998 K&N Pro Series West race and two Xfinity Series wins. He also got married to his wife Delana in 2001 in Vegas before the March race.

No. 11 Denny Hamlin 7-1 (3,048): For the second straight season he has six wins, and he can pile up some more in the last seven races to break his record of eight wins, but he’s got to be feeling the pressure as he’s started the Playoffs with no top-10s. He’s got a nice head start in points because of his wins and stage wins, but he’s got to win one of these next three just for confidence.

How about Las Vegas, a place he’s never won at in any series? I think he can do it because I’ve seen him be so consistently good on 1.5-mile tracks this season, which includes a Kansas win on July 23, the last race ran on a 1.5-mile track.

No. 2 Brad Keselowski 7-1 (3,025): He’s been much more dominant or better than others with the 750 hp package, but he did win the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte using the 550 hp package. Las Vegas has been a great track for him and Team Penske. He’s won three times in 14 starts with seven top-fives. He’s always part of the Vegas betting mix.

No. 22 Joey Logano 7-1 (3,022): He’s won two of the last three at Vegas but he hasn’t won since the shutdown. It’s crazy. He won twice in the first four races, but his team hasn’t been able to dial in the 550 hp package. However, they were third at Darlington the last time using the package which could be a sign that they’ve found something. His eighth-place average finish in 14 starts is most among active drivers.

No. 9 Chase Elliott 8-1 (3,021): He’s got two top-fives in seven Vegas starts, but four others where he was 26th or worse which is why he averages only a 21st-place finish. His best finish with this week’s race package was at Charlotte in late May.

No. 19 Martin Truex Jr. 5-1 (3,016): He won this race last season and also won there in the spring of 2017, but he was 20th in February as he and new crew chief James Small were getting situated. They still haven’t figured out how to win with this week’s race package, but they’re looking real good over the past two months.

The Championship 4 race will be at Phoenix using the 750 hp package which is the one they got their Martinsville win with.

No. 88 Alex Bowman 30-1 (3,009): He was sixth in this race last year and 13th in February. His sixth-place at Darlington three weeks ago was a great sign that his team may have found some speed. Their last top-five using this week’s package was at Darlington in the first race after the shutdown.

No. 3 Austin Dillon 50-1 (3,005): He won a Truck Series race at LVMS in 2010 and also an Xfinity Series win in 2015. His best Cup finish was fourth in the spring and he was also fifth in 2016. During the Round of 16 he was runner-up at Darlington and fourth at Richmond. His only win in 2020 came with this week’s race package.

No. 14 Clint Bowyer 60-1 (3,004): He was runner-up at Vegas in 2009, and then that was it. No more top-fives for his career at Vegas since. But this is a good round for him to excel in because of Talladega and the road course. He needs to fight for a top-10 here.

No. 18 Kyle Busch 8-1 (3,004): In a crazy 2020, his story is the craziest with no wins in the season coming off his second Cup title. But still, he has 12 top-fives and only Harvick and Hamlin have more. His lone Vegas win came in 2009 and was followed by some late-night Vegas partying.

No. 1 Kurt Busch 30-1 (3,001): It’s his home track but he doesn’t have any wins on the 1.5-mile layout in any series. Just two top-fives in 21 starts for a 22nd-place average. It may be the worst home-field advantage in all of sports.

No. 10 Aric Almirola 25-1 (3,000): His six top-fives this season are a career-high and most of his success has come with the 750 hp package grabbing four top-fives. He has three top-10s in Las Vegas.

One last note regarding Jimmie Johnson, who will be making his final Vegas start. It was a pleasure and honor to watch him become a seven-time Cup champion and Las Vegas as part of his rise with his track best four wins. I was lucky enough to see all four of his wins in person (2005, 2006, 2007, 2010), as well as his first career Cup win at Fontana in 2002.

Think about the great dynasties in sports and I’ll argue Jimmie Johnson’s against any cases of the Yankees, Celtics or Patriots.