The MENCS travels out west this weekend as 16 drivers start their run for the 2019 championship. The cream usually rises to the top at this time of year since teams give their playoff drivers their best cars. I expect there has been some sandbagging by teams over the summer so now it is time for the teams to lay down their cards in Sin City and show us what they got. The South Point 400 can be seen Sunday night 7 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.
The cars will have the 550 HP engines with the 2” splitter, 8” spoiler and aero ducts. There have been 7 races on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. The results from those races can be used for the race at Las Vegas but I would not go too far back on the schedule. I am using the data from Kansas and later and especially the results from Darlington. The Lady in Black and Las Vegas are both high-banked tracks and it was only two weeks ago. The drivers who ran well at Darlington should be good this week.
Stats from 1.5-Mile Tracks in 2019
|Diver||Avg. Finish||Laps Led||
|1. Kyle Busch||
|2. Kevin Harvick||
|3. Kurt Busch||
|4. Joey Logano||
|5. Brad Keselowski||
|6. Martin Truex Jr.||
|7. Chase Elliott||
|8. Kyle Larson||
|9. Alex Bowman||
|10. Denny Hamlin||
|11. Erik Jones||
|12. Clint Bowyer||
|13. Ricky Stenhouse||
|14. Aric Almirola||
|15. Ryan Blaney||
|16. William Byron||
|17. Jimmie Johnson||
|18. Daniel Suarez||
|19. Austin Dillon||
|20. Chris Buescher||
|21. Paul Menard||
|22. Ryan Newman||
|23. Daniel Hemric||
|24. Matt DiBenedetto||
|25. Michael McDowell||
Chase Elliott: Elliott will have his work cut out for him as the playoff start. Las Vegas ranks as his 2nd-worst track. His average finishing position in the desert is 24th but he did finish 9th in March. Elliott has an 11.8 average finishing position on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. The No. 9 team has a new car for this race. Elliott liked his car. He said, “No real balance issue. It has a good balance of tight and loose but the bumps tend to swing it towards the tight side. Overall no issues.” At the end of practice Elliott told his team, “Every change makes it better.”
Jimmie Johnson: Johnson told MRN after the race last week, “My goal is still to win a race this season. It has been 86 races since we went to Victory Lane. I really want to end that streak before the end of the year.” It sounds like the No. 48 team is not giving up just because they are eliminated from the playoffs but I do expect them to practice different setups in practice for Johnson’s teammates who are running for the Championship. Johnson liked his car. He said, “Not bad… I really hugs the bottom well and helps me avoid the bumps. We could be a little tighter from the center and up (the track) but the overall drivability of the car is pretty solid.”
Alex Bowman: Bowman has been at best on the 1.5-mile tracks with a win at Chicago, 2nd-place finish at Kansas and 11th-place finish at Las Vegas. He had the 8th best average running position in the first race at Las Vegas so he knows how to get around this track. Bowman was complaining the car was too tight and it has no stability in it. The team made a lot of changes to the car.
William Byron: Byron has started to heat up over the summer. One of the reasons why is because of his ability to qualify up front. He has a 9.4 average starting position on the 1.5-mile tracks with a 14.4 average finishing position. Byron unloaded with a lot of speed. He made an 8 lap run to start practice and went to P1 on the speed chart.
Kyle Larson: It is hard to find a driver with more momentum heading into the playoffs than Larson. He has finished 5th, 8th, 3rd, 6th, 2nd and 33rd (crashed while running up front last week) in the last 6 races. Larson has been good at the 1.5-mile tracks this summer. He finished 2nd at Chicago, 4th at Kentucky and 2nd at Darlington. Larson was having a problem with the nose getting into the track in turns one and two. The team made changes to lift it up a bit.”
Kurt Busch: Busch has been one of the most consistent drivers this season. He has the best average finishing position on the 1.5-mile tracks this season and the 3rd-best Driver Rating. It is surprising that his home track ranks as his worst. He has a 21.5 average finishing position in his 19 races at home. He did finish 5th though in March. Busch was having problems with “spongy brakes” in the first practice. The team bled the brakes and the issue went away. Busch did not like his car in the first practice. He said, “The front end is completely junk. It drags the splitter, it bounces all of the place and it is very difficult to control… It is hard to explain had F**** up we actually are.” He was P24 at the time.
Kevin Harvick: Harvick enters the playoffs with a lot of momentum after he won last week at Indianapolis. The No. 4 car was one of the best at Las Vegas in March. Harvick won the pole, lead a race-high 88 laps, won Stage 1, finished 2nd in Stage 2 and finished 4th in the race. He will be in a brand new Stewart-Haas Racing Ford this week. The No. 4 team used three setups for the first practice and then dialed in the best on for final practice. Rodney Childers told Harvick on the radio, “Just run it as long as you want and then let me know what direction it is going.” Harvick ran 18 laps and said, “I don’t know Rodney…. The last lap feels just as fast as the first. It is pretty good.”
Clint Bowyer: Maybe Bowyer can relax now that he is in the playoffs. All of the Stewart-Haas Racing cars are brand new so I expect them to unload with speed. Bowyer has been hit or miss on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. He finished 5th, 14th, 2nd, 5th, 24th, 37th, 6th and 6th on these tracks. So expect either a top 5 or a finish outside the top 20. Bowyer made some long runs and said, “Balance is neutral but it builds tight throughout the run.” He had the fastest car in the first practice.
Daniel Suarez: Suarez just missed the playoffs. He is the only Stewart-Haas Racing car to miss the playoffs. I expect the No. 41 team to receive the worst cars from the organization and probably test setups to help his teammates win the championship. Suarez was joking with his team on the radio. He said, “These hot conditions are perfect. I feel comfortable and the car feels comfortable too.”
Aric Almirola: Almirola has not been very good but the playoffs start at his best track. He has finished 7th, 6th and 10th in his 3 races at Las Vegas in a Stewart-Haas Racing car. Almirola has an 11.5 average finishing position on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. Almirola was not happy with his car. He said, “Way too loose…just way too loose. Whatever direction you are going…you are making it worse.”
Brad Keselowski: Keselowski won this race last year and he finished 2nd at Las Vegas in March. He has not finished outside the top 7 in Sin City since 2012. He really knows how to get around this track. Keselowski made a long run and said, “The ride quality is really good. I think we can make some time over the bumps. I do need to rotate the nose better in center though.” They made some changes and Keselowski went to P2 on the speed charts.
Joey Logano: Las Vegas is one of the best tracks for Team Penske. Logano told MRN after the race at Indianapolis, “I have a lot of confidence for the playoffs because we were able to finish 2nd today in an old car. We have brand new cars for Las Vegas. I am excited to see how much speed they have.” Logano won the March race at Las Vegas and he has not finished outside the top 10 in the desert since 2013. Logano liked his car. He said, “It starts out a little on the tight side…then builds loose. Not bad though. It is not like it is snappy loose… more like racing loose.” Logano was fastest in race trim in final practice
Ryan Blaney: While his teammates have torn up the 1.5-mile tracks this season, Blaney has not had the same success. He has a 19.8 average finishing position and only a 85.8 Driver Rating. He qualified 13th and finished 22nd in March at Las Vegas. Blaney was not happy with his car. He made a long run and said it was too tight. The team made some adjustments and he said, “That really did not help at all.” They put the No. 22 setup in the car for final practice and Blaney went P3 on the speed chart.
Paul Menard: I was surprised to see Menard announce his retirement from the sport this week. Maybe that will relieve some pressure from him and allow him to focus on racing. Las Vegas ranks as the 2nd-best track for Menard (behind Indianapolis). He has finished 9th, 10th and 15th in his 3 races with the Wood Brothers at Las Vegas. Menard enters the race after back-to-back top-10 finishes. His car did not have much speed in practice, but it never does. His crew chief spent a lot of time in the garage with the No. 22 team talking about adjustments.
Kyle Busch: It is hard to bet against Busch at his home track. He has been the best driver this season on the 1.5-mile tracks. He has a 9.9 average finishing position, led the 2nd-most laps (behind Kevin Harvick) and scored the most Stage points. Adam Stevens told Kyle on the radio, “The No. 22 is the best on the bottom. We are better than him at the top.” Busch said, “When I go to the bottom it bounces and gets tight. I have to run lower than I like to miss the bumps and it has no security down there.” Busch and Ryan Preece were the only drivers to make qualifying runs in final practice.
Erik Jones: Jones signed an extension with Joe Gibbs Racing this week so now the pressure is off of him (for a year). Jones has been running well this summer. He finished 5 of the last 8 races in the top 4. Jones finished 13th at Ls Vegas in March but the No. 20 team has more mojo now than they had at the beginning of the season. Jones was fighting a loose racecar in the first practice. The team put the No. 18 car setup in it and Jones went to P7 on the speed chart.
Denny Hamlin: Hamlin is my pick to win the championship. No driver has been driving as well as Hamlin. He finished 5th, 2nd, 1st, 3rd, 2nd, 1st, 29th and 6th since the 4th of July weekend. His only hiccup was at Darlington when he was running in the top 5 and had problems. Hamlin qualified 2nd and finished 10th in March at Las Vegas. Hamlin said, “The splitter hits the track and then I have to chase it up the track. The exit is OK, but the entry F***** up the entire run.” After his final run Hamlin said, “We made a small gain on it but the front is still skating through the center of the corners.”
Martin Truex Jr.: What is going on with the No. 19 team? Truex enters the playoffs in a slump. He finished 27th, 15th and 13th in his last 3 races. I figure they were just testing and ready to pick up the pace now that the races mean a lot to them. Truex has led the most laps (252) in the last 4 races at Las Vegas and his average finishing position at the track since 2014 is 4.8. Not too bad. Ryan Newman said in the first practice, “Tell Truex that something fell off his car and I clobbered it. It definitely came off the No. 19 car.”
Matt DiBenedetto: How happy must DiBenedetto be now that he knows he has a good ride for the 2020 season? He has been overachieving all season and I expect that to continue in the playoffs. DiBenedetto has not been very good on the 1.5-mile tracks this season but he did finish 16th at Kentucky and 8th at Darlington so he should be fine this week. DiBenedetto said, “A lot better than what we had here in March. We still need to work on those bumps but entry and exit are not bad.”
Daniel Hemric: Richard Childress Racing knows they cannot compete with the top teams head-to-head so they have chosen to trim out their cars for qualifying and hope the good starting position can lead to a good finishing position. Hemric has a 10th-place average starting position and a 24.4 average finishing position on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. The No. 3 car unloaded in qualifying trim in first practice and went to P2 on the speed chart. The No. 8 car unloaded in qualifying trim in first practice and went to P4 on the speed chart.
Austin Dillon: The No 3 car is no different from the No. 8 car. Dillon will probably qualify well and race poor. Dillon has a 6.9 average starting position and a 20.1 average finishing position on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. Dillon started 4th and finished 20th in March at Las Vegas. The No. 3 car unloaded in qualifying trim in first practice and went to P2 on the speed chart.
Ty Dillon: Dillon has been a lot better on the short tracks than he has been on the large tracks. His average finishing position on the tracks 1-mile in length and under is 17.8. His average finishing position on the 1.5-mile tracks is 26.9. Dillon said, “The car is a little free but it is really consistent.” He was P21 at the time.
Chris Buescher: Buescher has been really good on the 1.5-mile tracks this season. His average finishing position on these tracks is 12.9. He qualified 27th and finished 18th in March at Las Vegas. The No. 37 team is running much better now than they were at the beginning of the season. Buescher made a long and said, “When I hit the bumps it sends me straight up the track.” The team made some adjustments and Buescher said, “That is a lot better. We are definitely headed in the right direction.”
Ricky Stenhouse Jr.: Stenhouse could be a sneaky good pick this week. He has been better on the 1.5-mile tracks than he has been on the other tracks. Stenhouse has a 13th-place average starting position and a 14th-place average finishing position. He qualified 8th and finished 6th at Las Vegas in March. After his run in the first practice, Stenhouse said, “This is the best we unloaded at one of these tracks this season.” He was P10 at the time.
Ryan Newman: The good news for Newman is that he is in the playoffs. The bad news is that he can no long point his way to the championship. The No. 6 team needs to compete for wins or they will be eliminated quickly. Newman said they plan to trim out their cars more so they can start closer to the front. Newman was fighting a tight race car. He said, “It is just hard to drive…. We need to try something different.” They put a new setup in the car and Newman went P7 on the speed chart.
Favorites to win Sunday: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott (The cream rises to the top in the playoffs)
Good Sleeper Picks: Ryan Blaney, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., William Byron, Jimmie Johnson, Paul Menard and Ty Dillon
MENCS Final Practice Speeds
Final Practice 10-Lap Average Speed
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