2018 Pennzoil 400 Preview

As Reese Bobby once famously remarked in Talladega Nights, “If you ain’t first, you’re last.” By that logic – and Bobby was admittedly high at the time – 35 teams were last at Atlanta Motor Speedway for 55.7% of the race, including the final and most important lap. As ominous weather threatened to shorten the race, Kevin Harvick independently kept the storm system at bay with his own bottom-hooking vortex of cyclonic low pressure; a phenomenon meteorologists are still scrambling to explain. Harvick and the 35 last-place drivers will migrate westward this week, as we begin the first of three races comprising NASCAR’s west coast swing (Vegas – Phoenix – LA).


Las Vegas Motor Speedway is another 1.5 mile intermediate track, but the differences between Vegas and Atlanta are considerable. For one, the race is 100 miles shorter, which means we’ll all have more time for chores! Additionally, Las Vegas has only been hosting races since the last time Atlanta was resurfaced, so racing here is relatively young compared to most places. LVMS was totally reconfigured in 2006, increasing the 12 degree banking to 20 degrees in all four turns. The front stretch was increased from 8 to 9 degrees, and the back stretch was increased from 3 to 9 degrees. Suffice it to say, this completely changed the way teams handled their car setups and corner-entry approaches. Unfortunately, the upgrades did nothing to hinder the onslaught of cheesy gambling jokes you’ll be forced to endure during race coverage.

The current style of driving on the new configuration most closely resembles Homestead-Miami Speedway, though Homestead is a true oval, while Vegas is a D-shaped oval. Like Homestead, drivers can run multiple grooves, whether hooking the bottom line, or running dangerously close to the wall. The bottom groove in turn 1 is extremely bumpy, so it will be interesting to see who, if anyone, can run down there well. As the sun wanders across the sky, and more and more rubber, dust, and dirt migrates its way around the track, conditions will be constantly changing on Sunday. Each stage will likely have a new set of contenders, and the teams who adapt best will be there at the end.


This section is less about prognostication, and more about highlighting drivers catching my eye at a given moment. We all play in different formats and have different strategies, but hopefully this adds some value to your results. Good luck!

THE DOWNFORCE (start ’em)

Brad Keselowski (Pit Stall Rating 356.18, 1st) – Brad leads all active drivers at Las Vegas in average finish (3.4) and loop average (121.1), which is also why he has an outlying Pit Stall Rating of 356.18. Based on his performances at Daytona and Atlanta, I have no reason to doubt the #2 team will be in contention once again this weekend. Brad had this race in the bag last year before he had a power issue in the final lap, which allowed several cars to improve their positions. While that was a fluke, Brad’s five straight top-10s here are not, nor are his wins in 2016 and 2014.

Martin Truex Jr. (Pit Stall Rating 153.89, 3rd) – Truex was in the catbird seat when the #2 experienced issues last year. Not only did Martin inherit the gifted win, but he also became the first driver to sweep all three stages of a race under the new scoring format for maximum points. The #78 is a threat to compete at every track this season, but especially shines on the intermediates.

Joey Logano (Pit Stall Rating 166.72, 2nd) – The current points leader also happens to be sponsored by Pennzoil, and drivers particularly care about delivering good results in front of the people with the checkbooks. Pennzoil takes over sponsorship of this weekend’s race from Kobalt for the first time, and expectations will be high for the #22 team. Joey has two consecutive top-5s and four consecutive top-10s at Las Vegas, including an average finish of 6.4 (2nd).

Kyle Busch (Pit Stall Rating 103.69, 4th) – Kyle Busch is an example of why it’s important to watch the entire race. You’ll find Kyle Busch listed as finishing 22nd last year, but he was running 4th on the final lap. Busch forced Logano to the bottom of the track to avoid hitting Keselowski in the back stretch. Logano slid back up the track slightly in turn 3 and made contact with the #18, which caused Kyle to spin down pit road. Kyle thought it was intentional, and later found the loving arms of Logano’s pit crew. Despite the drama, Kyle is a Las Vegas native and knows how to race well here.

Kyle Larson (Pit Stall Rating 54.62, 12th) – Flip a coin between Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott in this spot, who finished 2nd and 3rd respectively last season. Mind you, both preceded those performances with 34th and 38th egg lays in 2016. While I think both are frustrated with the start to their 2018 campaigns, Larson qualified better, performed better in the stages, and ultimately finished better than Chase last weekend.

THE DRAFT (dark horse)

Kasey Kahne (Pit Stall Rating 101.43, 5th) – For those of us who remember when Kasey Kahne flat-dominated some intermediate tracks back in the day, this may all be wishful thinking. Kahne has downgraded his circumstances in 2018, moving from one of the best motorsports organizations on the planet in Hendrick Motorsports, to single team owner Leavine Family Racing. I also think it will take some time for Chevrolet teams to figure out this new Camaro in the MENCS series. However, I still think Kasey has the talent to compete at a high level, and the numbers support consideration for him this weekend. Kasey ranks 4th in average finish, 7th in average loop rating, and 5th overall in Pit Stall Rating at Las Vegas.

THE DRAG (avoid ’em)

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Pit Stall Rating 28.54, 23rd) – In the last 5 races at Las Vegas, Ricky’s best showing has been 12th in 2016. He finished 33rd in last year’s race, and has an average finish of 23.8 (25th). Ricky has only finished 40% of his LVMS races on the lead lap, and his loop average of 68.4 suggests plenty of room to improve. Fords are king of the mountain to start 2018, but I have a big black line through the #17’s blue oval this weekend. As previously noted, Ricky is a better play at the plate-tracks.


3.4, #2 Brad Keselowski
6.4, #22 Joey Logano
7.2, #78 Martin Truex Jr.
9.8, #95 Kasey Kahne
10.3, #18 Kyle Busch


121.1, #2 Brad Keselowski
113.7, #48 Jimmie Johnson
110.8, #78 Martin Truex Jr.
106.8, #18 Kyle Busch
106.7, #22 Joey Logano

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