This weekend in Las Vegas, the NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series begins its first round of the playoffs. Going into this race, 16 drivers have a chance at the championship and a win here would advance them to the round of 12 and one step closer to a title. Las Vegas Motor Speedway is another one of NASCAR’s patented 1.5-mile race tracks. This will be the first time in the track's 20-year history that it will host two races in a season after NASCAR decided to revamp their schedule last season. This track’s x-factor is its location and its climate. Built in the desert, the track’s temperature is sweltering meaning the surface is more slick. Look for drivers to be searching for grip come Sunday afternoon.
Last week at Indianapolis, Brad Keselowski won his second race in a row after passing Denny Hamlin with two laps to go, This was his second “crown jewel” victory of 2018. The victory propels Keselowski to fourth place in the standings. Erik Jones was one of the surprises of the day as he came home second. The sophomore driver will race for a championship in the playoffs for the first time in his young career after his upset victory in Daytona. After being much of a non-factor throughout the day, Jones was able to sneak his way into a runner-up finish. While he is considered a long shot, Jones should be a challenger in the next 10 weeks leading up to the championship finale at Homestead
With the playoff field set, you would think the three obvious favorites are Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr but after the last few weeks, it hasn’t been all about the “big three” we have been accustomed to seeing all season. While yes, they have each had good results in the last few races before the end of the regular season, we haven’t seen either one win since August at Michigan. Each driver has accumulated a substantial amount of points so it is safe to say that at least two of the three will advance to the championship race at Homestead but, it wouldn’t surprise me if one doesn’t advance and at this point, Martin Truex Jr seems to be the odd man out. With his former team Furniture Row closing its doors next season it will be difficult for them to maintain the dominance they have shown over the past three seasons.
The driver that appears to be next in line to breakout is Brad Keselowski. As mentioned earlier, “Bad Brad” has won the last two consecutive races at Darlington and the Brickyard and this week he goes to a track where he has a great deal of success. He has two victories and the highest average finish here since 2016 and a win here would move him onward to the next round which is important because he will need all the help he can get going into the remaining races at Richmond and the new Charlotte Road course configuration. If Brad and his Miller Light Penske racing team can continue their run, they will be especially hard to beat going into these next ten races.
Of this field, there have been many surprises including Aric Almirola and his consistency to run around the top ten this season and Alex Bowman and Jones making their postseason debuts. Both of these both pale in comparison to the absolute dumpster fire it has been for the legendary Jimmie Johnson. Of the 26 races ran this season Johnson only has TWO TOP FIVES! A career low. While many have suggested Johnson ride off into the South Florida sunset and call it a career after 2018 after this season’s finale in Homestead-Miami, he has been adamant that he will continue to race on into the future. Johnson has been known to come out of a slump in the final 10 races as he did in 2016 when he won his record tying seventh title but this season has been much different as he has yet to win a race. Regardless of this season, his legacy as one of the the greatest NASCAR drivers of all time is all but certain but only time will tell if he will return to the glory days of old.
The driver that I predict will win this week is Ryan Blaney. In all of his four starts here, he has never finished outside of the top 10 and while he has only led one lap here, I think this week he has a great shot to put it together and claim his first win of 2018 and advance to the next round. This season has not been kind to one of NASCAR’s newest rising stars but he has proven that he can run up near the front and contend for wins and a victory could not come at a more important time for him. Look for this to be a popular victory if Blaney can finally close the deal and bring his No. 12 PPG Ford Fusion to victory lane come Sunday.