For the second consecutive year Denny Hamlin has started his NASCAR Cup Series season in championship form, becoming only the fourth person in history to earn back-to-back Daytona 500 victories and perhaps, more importantly, proving his Joe Gibbs Racing team is absolutely ready to continue a championship pace of a season ago.
Hamlin shows up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) trying to become the first driver to win the opening two races of a season since his former JGR teammate Matt Kenseth did it in 2009 – winning at Daytona and then California.
While the Daytona 500 was a photo finish between Hamlin and second place Ryan Blaney – a mere .014-second separated them as they crossed the finish line side-by-side. It was a stark reminder of Hamlin’s first Daytona 500 victory in 2016 – another photo finish and officially 0.010-second between him and Martin Truex Jr., who is now a JGR teammate.
This week’s Las Vegas race marks the beginning of competition on the 1.5-mile tracks that fill so much of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Hamlin has never won at Vegas -in fact only nine of his 38 career wins have been at 1.5-mile tracks — the bread-and-butter of the schedule. But he is certainly highly motivated to continue the Joe Gibbs Racing good vibe (the team has won 20 of the last 36 races now). But competition will be especially fierce this weekend with several drivers and their teams long established good bets in Vegas.
That starts with Truex, who has won twice at Las Vegas in the last five races – once for his former Furniture Row Racing team en route to the 2017 Cup championship and then again last year in the Playoff opener driving in his maiden season with Gibbs.
Team Penske driver Joey Logano is the defending winner of the Spring Las Vegas 400-miler. He and his teammate Brad Keselowski have four wins between them there – earning half the trophies in the last eight races. And Logano’s victory last March was a mere .236-seconds over Keselowski marking an especially productive Ford outing. Add in Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick’s dominating win in Spring, 2018 (he led a record 214 of 267 laps) and Ford has five wins in the series’ last eight visits to the track.
Harvick acknowledged this week’s race may be a better barometer than the 2.5-mile Daytona superspeedway of how teams may stack up competitively going forward. The series visits four 1.5-mile tracks in the next six weeks.
“It’s tough to know,” said Harvick, who drives the No. 4 SHR Ford.
“So you’ve kind of got what you’ve got going through the West Coast Swing,” he continued of the series races this week in Las Vegas, next week at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway and the following week at Phoenix Raceway’s mile before back-to-back-to-back events at the 1.5-mile tracks in Atlanta, Homestead, Fla. and Texas.
“You might be able to make some adjustments for Atlanta and Homestead, but really you’re going to need that Easter Break in order to get your stuff together make the changes. … As you look at it, it just depends on where you are and how hard you need to push things in order to make a change.”
LAS VEGAS NATIVE NOAH GRAGSON TOPS XFINITY POINTS
It’s a big week for Las Vegas native Noah Gragson, who picked up his career first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory at Daytona last weekend and is looking to become only the fourth driver in history to win the first two races of the season when he lines up for Saturday’s Boyd Gaming 300 (4 p.m. on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The 21-year old was emotional speaking with the media following his hard-earned Daytona win in a typically, frantic checkered flag lap at the superspeedway. This week Gragson not only returns home, but to a venue that has been particularly positive in his young career.
He finished third in his Xfinity Series debut last year at Vegas and eighth in the Fall race. In 10 races on 1.5-mile facilities, Gragson earned seven top-10 and three top-five finishes. He has a NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway.
And for the first time in his career, Gragson shows up for the home crowd as a NASCAR national series championship leader. His win earned him a three-point advantage over Justin Haley atop the Xfinity standings.
“I always look forward to coming back to Las Vegas because it allows me to visit with family and friends,” Gragson said. “It adds a little pressure because I want to perform in front of my hometown crowd, but coming off the win in Daytona and our streak of runs here [at Las Vegas], I feel like the No. 9 Bass Pro Shops Camaro could be celebrating in Victory Lane for the second straight week.”
Perhaps Gragson’s greatest challenge this week will come from within the JR Motorsports team. His veteran teammate Justin Allgaier is the top-rated driver at Las Vegas with nine top-10 and five top-five finishes in 11 starts at the track. He boasts the top Driving Rating (105.3) and his 8.5 Average Finish at Las Vegas is his best mark anywhere on the schedule.
Allgaier was collected in a mid-race crash. His 23 laps led was second only to fellow JR Motorsports driver Jeb Burton’s 26 laps out front on the day.
“We may not have had the finish we wanted last weekend in Daytona, but we had a fast BRANDT Professional Chevy and that makes me excited for the rest of the season,” Allgaier said. “Las Vegas is a track that has been good to me and this No. 7 team. We’ve led laps and I feel like we have come close to winning, so I’m really looking forward to getting there and seeing what we can do this weekend.”
ENFINGER LEADS THE GANDER TRUCKS TO VEGAS
Veteran Grant Enfinger earned his first win in two seasons in the Daytona International Speedway 2020 season-opener last week and shows up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Friday’s NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race the STRAT 200 (9 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) looking to avenge a tough championship exit the last time he raced at Las Vegas’s 1.5-miler.
Enfinger’s No. 98 ThorSport Racing Ford suffered an engine problem only six laps into the race eliminating the regular season champion from contending for the title. He comes to this week’s 600th NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoor Truck Series race feeling back on his game and up for the challenge thanks to the victory boost last weekend.
He edged Jordan Anderson by .010-second in the closest truck series race in Daytona history teeing off what looks to be a thrilling 2020 season.
“It’s pretty special, the hundredth win for Ford in the Truck Series, 25th anniversary for Duke and Rhonda Thorson, special day for my wife here and I, so just all around just a special race,” Enfinger said after his win at Daytona. “Almost meant to be, I guess. It almost has to be at these speedways for them to work out, and just thankful.”
His teammates Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter certainly represent big threats to his Las Vegas chances. Crafton is coming off his third championship season and despite leading the most laps (132) among series regulars at Las Vegas, he has never won a race here. The 2016 series champion Sauter won here in 2009 and is third in the rankings after Daytona, only 14 behind Enfinger.
All of these veterans will be tested by a crop of young rookie talent including Christian Eckes and Raphael Lessard, who are driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Eckes won the pole position and finished third in his only start at Las Vegas last Fall.
Austin Hill, a 2020 championship contender who won the September Playoff race at Las Vegas, is coming off a sixth-place finish in Daytona and is second in the championship, trailing Enfinger by only 11 points.
Natalie Decker became the highest-finishing female driver in series history at Daytona with a fifth-place finish and is also looking to make a title run for the same Niece Motorsports team that fielded a truck for Ross Chastain in 2019, when he won three races and finished runner-up in the championship.