NASCAR Racing action at Las Vegas Motor Speedway     Source

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series returns to Las Vegas this Sunday with the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A total of 40 cars are scheduled to enter the event and the race will begin at 3:00 p.m. EST on the NBC Sports Network. The playoffs are here and the winner is guaranteed to move into the second round. Who will claim the checkered flag in the first race for The Chase For The Cup?

The Track

Las Vegas Motor Speedway is 1.5 mile asphalt track located in Las Vegas, Nevada. The track has an oval layout with moderate banking along the turns. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is known as a "cookie-cutter" track in NASCAR jargon because it features the most common length and layout on the NASCAR circuit. Eight of the twenty three tracks used during the season are cookie-cutters because of their similarities.

Starting in 1998, Las Vegas has hosted one spring race for the NASCAR schedule. 2018 marks the first time the track will host two races in one season. The drivers might wish this race was moved to later on the schedule since temperatures are expected to hit 100 degrees on Sunday.

The Chase For The Cup

The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs begin this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. 16 drivers will battle it out over the next ten races to determine the 2018 NASCAR Cup Series Champion. Every driver who qualified had his season long point total bumped up to 2,000 points and then bonus points accrued during the regular season were added to the total. The leader board entering the first playoff race looks like this:

Kyle Busch 2,050

Kevin Harvick 2,050

Martin Truex Jr. 2,035

Brad Keselowski 2,019

Clint Bowyer 2,015

Joey Logano 2,014

Kurt Busch 2,014

Chase Elliott 2,008

Ryan Blaney 2,007

Erik Jones 2,005

Austin Dillon 2,005

Kyle Larson 2,005

Denny Hamlin 2,003

Aric Almirola 2,001

Jimmie Johnson 2,000

Alex Bowman 2,000

The next three races, beginning this week in Las Vegas, will make up the first elimination round of the playoffs. 12 out of the 16 drivers will move on to the second round.

Favorites To Win

Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch     Source

The 2018 season marks the first time the NASCAR Cup Series is running two races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. I'm not sure the drivers are going to appreciate it with a forecast of 100 degree temperatures, but the results of the spring race combined with the track's popular "cookie-cutter" layout gives us a lot of hard data to determine who is going to run well this week. Not surprisingly, the numbers favor the two drivers sitting atop the initial playoff point standings: Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch.

Let's start with the spring race. Kevin Harvick dominated the race by leading 214 of 267 laps on his way to capturing the checkered flag. Who was on his tail as he crossed the finish line? Of course it was Kyle Busch coming home with a runner-up finish.

On to the cookie-cutters. So far seven races have been run on cookie-cutter tracks this season. Both Harvick and Busch won three of those races. It is crystal clear why these drivers are the co-favorites this week.

Harvick has had more recent success at Las Vegas by winning two of the last four races ran here. Busch hasn't won here since 2009, but has three top-five finishes in his last five starts. Busch also has a little extra motivation since he is a Las Vegas native.

"Yeah, Vegas always means a little bit more pressure – more pressure on myself – just because it’s the hometown and you want to win there," Busch said. "Thankfully, I have won there (2009) and I’ve knocked that one off the list, but certainly you want to win there every year. I love Vegas, the atmosphere and everything going on around that place. We’ve run up front there the last couple of years, so I would like to get our M&M’S Camry back in victory lane there. It’s always been a big race for us and the M&M’S team, so I’m hoping we can bring home the win in my hometown."

Other Drivers to Watch

Brad Keselowski   Source

Two weeks ago the NASCAR community was talking about Brad Keselowski's disappointing 2018 season. That talk sure ended in a hurry as Keselowski stormed into the championship picture with back-to-back wins at Darlington and Indianapolis to close out the regular season. Keselowski has two wins at Las Vegas in his career and has finished no worse than seventh in his last six starts here, including a sixth place finish in the spring. He's had some success on the cookie-cutters this season with a runner-up finish in Atlanta and a third place finish at Kentucky. Keselowski is peaking at the right time and a win this Sunday would not be surprising.

As mentioned earlier, Harvick and Busch have combined to win six of the seven cookie-cutter races this season. Who won the other one? Defending Cup Series champion Martin Truex Jr., who took home the checkered flag at the last cookie-cutter race in Kentucky. Truex won the race here last year and finished in fourth place in the spring. He has three top-five finishes in his last four starts here. Truex has been the third member of NASCAR's Big Three so far this year, but a win at Las Vegas could move him back to the front of the pack.

Kyle Larson has been the most consistent contender of the Chevy drivers this season, but he is still searching for his first victory in 2018. It would be a big boom to his championship hopes if it comes at Las Vegas this week. Larson finished runner-up last year and placed third in the spring race. The young driver has five second place finishes so far this season, sooner or later he has to step up to finish in first.

Ryan Blaney hasn't made a lot of noise this year, but was consistent enough to earn a spot in the Chase. He showed a lot of speed in the spring race by capturing the pole and crossing the finish line in fifth place. He has finished in the top-seven in his last three starts here.