Back in Vegas for NASCAR playoffs and South Point 400

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Let’s get this NASCAR Playoff party started, and let’s do it in a way like only Las Vegas can do with the glitz and pageantry an event like the opening race of the playoffs deserves. 

Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will mark the second straight season the NASCAR Cup Series has had two Cup dates in Vegas after running once a year in the spring since 1998. There has been a total of 23 Cup races run in Vegas and none of the winners have been long shots. Just about all of them have been drivers at the top of the betting board we all expected to win. 

In fact, 17 of the 23 winners have been past Cup Champions. The last non-champ to win was two-time Vegas winner Carl Edwards in 2011 and he was one of the favorites to win that race.

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Sunday’s race will also be the eighth of 11 races in 2019 on a 1.5-mile layout and so far there hasn’t been one driver to totally dominate on them like we’ve seen the past few years. Six of the seven races on 1.5-mile tracks have been won by six different drivers. 

The only multiple winner this year on them has been three-time Las Vegas winner Brad Keselowski, who won this race last season. But Keselowski’s wins at Atlanta and Kansas seem like ages ago. He won three of the first 12 races on the season, but the last one came at Kansas on May 11. He’s probably very hungry for some Vegas cooking again to regain his mojo.

Keselowski’s Penske teammate Joey Logano won the Cup title last season and joined the champs club by winning at Las Vegas in the March race. Denny Hamlin won at Texas in March, Martin Truex won at Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend, Alex Bowman grabbed his first career Cup win at Chicagoland June 30 and Las Vegan Kurt Busch grabbed his lone win of the season at Kentucky. 

A lot has happened in the series since that Kentucky race July 13, but none of it has been on a 1.5-mile track. That’s quite a gap for the type of track NASCAR has the most of on its schedule. 

The noticeable name missing from the 1.5-mile winners list this season is points leader Kyle Busch. He’s won on the 2-mile tracks of Fontana and Michigan, and also the Tricky 2.5-mile Triangle of Pocono using the race package with aero ducts and engines producing 550 horsepower like is used on the 1.5s. His best finish on 1.5s was a runner-up at Kentucky where he got outdueled by his brother after leading a race-high 76 laps.   

Busch has a series-leading four wins tied with Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Hamlin and Truex and his 13 top-fives are tied for the most with Hamlin, but his last win was June 2 at Pocono. Yes, 12 races have passed since he last won. Between not winning lately, a mini-slump by his high standards, not winning at Vegas since 2009, and not winning on a 1.5-mile track this season, why is he the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook’s 9-2 favorite to win?  

Because he’s due? Because he’s turning things up a notch during the playoffs? Because it’s go-time?

I root for Kyle and Kurt Busch to win every race. They are my professional sports home teams, but there’s a big difference between puling for them and actually placing money on them to win. That’s where the fan separation comes into play when it affects finances.

It’s important to note that a JGR driver has won half of the 26 races so far in 2019. This week Truex is 6-1, Hamlin is 8-1 and Erik Jones is 12-1. Jones won his first race of the season on Darlington’s 1.366-mile layout two weeks ago, which could be applied to handicapping here this week, as well as his Truck Series win at Las Vegas in 2014.

Another driver I really like this week is Kyle Larson at 12-1. I talk myself into betting drivers with double-digit odds only if I can make a convincing argument and finally sell myself. 

Larson is the top driver in that category this week because he’s been knocking on victory’s door the last six races using the 550 horsepower package being used this weekend. He’s got top-fives in five of the last six using it and surely would have had another Sunday at Indy before he wrecked. He’s been runner-up twice in his last four Las Vegas starts and he won an Xfinity Series race there last spring.     

I also wouldn’t mind seeing Hamlin win his first career Cup race in Las Vegas. He’s had only two top-fives in 13 starts, but this is his best season ever and he’s been competitive on every track. He was fifth at Kentucky, the last race on a 1.5-mile track.

I have also talked myself into one long shot at 25-1 even though that would be the highest price ever paid out in 23 Cup races at Las Vegas. It’s never happened before, nor has Kurt Busch ever won on his home track in any of the three major NASCAR series. But he did win on the last 1.5-mile track at Kentucky and he’s run as good as Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Larson with this 550 HP package. 

Yes, so I guess I’m a bit of a homer betting a local driver who has a 21st-place at average at his home track that he has never won on it and he’s been racing on it since the track was built when he was a teenager. But if he finally wins I want to be a part of that Vegas party cashing a ticket. And there certainly is logic to him finally winning.

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