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Weekend Preview: Las Vegas Motor Speedway

The opening two rounds of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs are complete, with the eight advancing drivers and teams now poised to race for their position in the Championship 4. The opening race of the final three-race Round of 8 — Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) — could decide the first driver to earn his place among those four drivers who will race for the sport’s biggest crown Nov. 5 in Phoenix.

Will it be the season’s most successful racer — and current championship leader – six-race winner Hendrick Motorsports’ William Byron? Or perhaps one of the former series champs, Byron’s teammate Kyle Larson or Joe Gibbs Racing’s Martin Truex Jr.? Or will the veteran of the group, Truex’s teammate Denny Hamlin, at last hoist the big trophy for the first time in his career?

Four talented new generation competitors — RFK Racing’s Chris Buescher, JGR’s Christopher Bell, 23XI Racing’s Tyler Reddick and Team Penske’s Ryan Blaney — linger just below in points and have all well-earned their championship chances in 2023 as well.

The past two seasons, the winner of the seventh race of the Playoffs has gone on to claim the title — Larson in 2021 at Texas and Joey Logano in 2022 at Las Vegas. In addition, no non-Playoff driver has ever won the Playoff race at Las Vegas.

This round of competition will feature a pair of 1.5-mile ovals — Las Vegas Motor Speedway this Sunday and next week at Homestead-Miami Speedway — with the Martinsville (Va.) Speedway half-mile short track formally setting the four-driver championship-eligible field.

While last year’s Las Vegas winner Logano has been eliminated from 2023 championship contention, several of the remaining title-eligible drivers can make good cases for claiming “race favorite” status on the Vegas high banks.

The 25-year-old Byron is in the midst of a career year, already earning six trophies after never claiming more than two in a season previously. The driver of the No. 24 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet won at Vegas in the March regular-season event there and has four top-10s in 11 starts at the track. As importantly, the Charlotte native brings plenty of momentum to the weekend, scoring a victory (Texas) and two runner-up finishes in the previous round to move atop the championship standings and boast the top Driving Rating (98.1) in the sport. And he holds a 20-point advantage over the cutoff line to start this penultimate three-race Playoff round.

Byron can expect stiff competition from both former series champs this week. Truex — this year’s regular-season champion and the 2017 series champion — is particularly good at Las Vegas. His two wins there make him the only multi-time winner at the track among the Playoff competitors, and he’s earned 14 top-10 finishes in 23 starts, including a remarkable 11 of the last 12 races. A three-time winner this season in the No. 19 JGR Toyota, Truex is still racing for his first top-10 in this year’s Playoffs. He is second in points and holds a 15-point edge atop the cutoff line.

Hamlin, 42, driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota, shows up in Las Vegas with plenty to show. He’s got an 11-point cushion inside the Playoff top-4 and has the second-best driving rating (96.9) of the season. He’s a three-race winner in 2023, a former Las Vegas Playoff race winner (2021) and has an impressive 11 top-10s in 23 starts at the 1.5-mile track, including five of the past six races there.

“I’m looking forward to Vegas,” Hamlin said. “I don’t always practice well there and don’t always qualify well there, but I always race well. That’s my Kansas 2.0. I don’t know what it is about those tracks, but it seems like it takes me a day to get up to speed.

“I think we’ll be good though. The mile-and-a-halves have been great for us this year, so I feel good about this weekend and these next three races.”

Larson, driver of the No. 5 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet, is three-points up on the Championship 4 Round cutoff line and joins the other three top-ranked racers with a past win at Las Vegas. The three-race winner in 2023 has led a series’ best 898 laps this year, and his career average finish in Las Vegas is 10.5 for fourth best. He’s finished in the top 10 in six of the past seven races, including runner-up showings in the past two spring races at the track.

Buescher, driver of the No. 17 RFK Ford, is another driver enjoying a “career year,” becoming a multi-time race winner in a single season for the first time in his career. And it’s been good enough to advance to this all-important round, where he trails Larson by only three points. Las Vegas has been a challenge for him historically — he has only one top-10 finish (ninth in 2020) and is averaging a 17.7 finish. He finished 21st in March.

Bell, driver of the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, is hoping to make it back-to-back Championship 4 appearances. He and Reddick are both eight points below the cutoff line. He has one win this year and a series-best five pole positions. He has three top-10 finishes in seven previous Vegas starts with his best work — fifth place — coming this past spring.

Reddick has NASCAR Xfinity and Craftsman Truck Series victories at the track but is racing for his first Cup win there in a strong maiden season driving the No. 45 23XI Racing Toyota. He’s won twice this year, including the Kansas Playoff win. He has top-10s in three of the past four Vegas races with a career-best finish of sixth in the past two Playoff races at the track.

Blaney, driver of the No. 12 Team Penske Ford, is a two-race winner this season, most recently earning a clutch victory at Talladega (Ala.) Superspeedway in this most recent Playoff round. He has eight top-10 finishes in 14 Las Vegas starts, however has not placed in the top 10 there since the 2021 Playoff race. He sits 10 points off the Playoff cutoff line but has an encouraging seventh-best driving eating (96.5) at Vegas. Plus, his teammate Logano is the defending race winner.

This Saturday, NASCAR Cup Series practice, followed by Busch Light Pole Qualifying, will begin at 12:30 p.m. ET on the USA Network.

–Xfinity Playoff contenders prepare for the Round of 8 opener at Las Vegas

The NASCAR Xfinity Series begins its all-important push to the 2023 championship, as well, with Saturday afternoon’s Alsco Uniforms 302 (3:30 p.m. ET on the USA Network, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) — the first race in this final three-race round to set the Championship 4.

JR Motorsports driver Sam Mayer closed out the last round with one of the most clutch performances of the season. The 20-year-old led 50 of 67 laps to claim victory in what was a “must-win” race for him at the Charlotte ROVAL and earned him a position in this vital next round of competition. Not only did it send him to the penultimate Playoff round, it vaulted him into that fourth place — the cutoff position — atop the championship standings. He is two points up on Stewart-Haas Racing driver Cole Custer in fifth.

Only two drivers in Saturday’s field have won an Xfinity Series race at Las Vegas: Richard Childress Racing’s Austin Hill, who is ranked second in the Playoff standings — 21 points above the cutoff line — and JR Motorsports’ Josh Berry, who was officially eliminated from the Playoffs last week at the ROVAL.

Hill won at Vegas this past spring, and a repeat performance would place the Georgia-native in the NASCAR Xfinity Series Championship 4 for the first time in his career. The driver of the No. 21 RCR Chevrolet also could become only the second driver in track history to win back-to-back races, matching a mark by Chase Briscoe, who swept the 2020 season races there.

As has been the case all season, Hill can expect stiff competition from Joe Gibbs Racing’s John Hunter Nemechek. The driver of the No. 20 JGR Toyota has a notable history in Round of 8 opening races wherever they may be, winning that race on the schedule twice — when he was not Playoff-eligible.

Nemechek shows up in Vegas with a series-best and single-season career-high seven victories and 22 top-10 finishes through the opening 29 races. His 956 laps led is nearly three times that of any other driver. He has three top-10s in five series starts at Las Vegas with a best showing in his first series race there, a runner-up in 2019.

JR Motorsports veteran Justin Allgaier is ranked third in the championship. He’s also a multi-time winner in 2023, claiming three victories and holding a reasonable 17-point cushion inside the top-4 standings. He has yet to win at Vegas, but has four runner-up showings, including this March.

Also, championship eligible this weekend are Stewart-Haas Racing’s Cole Custer, Kaulig Racing rookie Chandler Smith, RCR’s Sheldon Creed and JGR rookie Sammy Smith. Chandler Smith, in particular among those four, boasts a promising Vegas resume. He won the pole position and had a leading 118 of the 200 laps to claim a third-place finish in his March debut there.

Practice for the Alsco Uniforms 302 is slated for 7:05 p.m. ET on Friday, followed by qualifying at 7:35 p.m. ET — both televised on the USA Network.

–By Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media

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