LAS VEGAS — The Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (TV: FOX, Radio: PRN; 3:30 PM EST) will be race two of the 2020 NASCAR Cup season, but it will be the first test of who’s going to be strong this season.
Three of the last five winter Las Vegas winners qualified for the Championship Four later that season and with the exception of 2014, every first Vegas race since the inception of the Championship Four has had at least one Championship Four contender finish in the top 5.
In the wake of the Daytona 500 and this being the first test of performance for all teams, especially for Chevrolet and their new nose expected to improve their performance, the Pennzoil 400 will be an important race to watch.
Ross Chastain: A prime up-and-comer filling in to get his first big Cup opportunity
Prior to the Daytona 500 finish, Ross Chastain was set to race in the Las Vegas Truck and Xfinity races. Following Ryan Newman’s last lap crash and a blessing given to Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark from Chip Ganassi and Chevrolet’s Jim Campbell, Chastain was given the call to drive the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford.
Chastain has driven in 72 Cup starts, with a best finish of 10th in the 2019 Daytona 500. His best finish at Las Vegas is 20th in the fall 2018 race but the statistics don’t quite tell the whole picture.
All but one of his starts has come with Jay Robinson Racing and now Chastain will get the chance to race with Roush Fenway, a higher-budget team that has had at least one car qualify for the Playoffs in 13 of the 16 seasons in which the Playoffs have been instituted.
Chastain has shown he can do well with good equipment, especially in the Xfinity Series.
He scored a win at Las Vegas in September 2018 with 180 of 200 laps led, a second at Richmond and a 25th at Darlington with 90 of 147 laps led and four top tens in six Xfinity races with Kaulig Racing in 2019.
Chastain will have to get over the hump of racing for RFR in a sudden fill-in stint but his performances may be a small preview into what we could see from him.
Chevrolet: New year, new nose = Return to old form?
The Pennzoil 400 is the first intermediate track race in the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season and will be a test to one of the league’s most formidable manufacturers. Chevrolet has struggled the last two seasons with the Camaro. 2015 was the last time Chevrolet won the Cup manufacturer’s championship which ended a streak of 13 consecutive manufacturer championships.
The new nose is expected to help Chevrolet be more competitive with the nose more up front in a similar design as the SS with a smoother, more up front nose which did better in Vegas races than what the Camaro could do.
In the two spring Vegas races run with the Camaro, the best Chevrolet could do was only two Chevrolets placed in the top 10 of the 2019 race. This paled in comparison to Chevrolet putting three cars in the top 10 in the 2017 race and six in the 2016 race, both with the SS.
If Chevrolet is to step up to the plate and perform well, one prime contender could be Kyle Larson who has posted three top 10s in the four Vegas races run with the Camaro.
Seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson could also be a contender as he was fastest in final practice for the Pennzoil 400.
In first practice, five Chevrolets spilt the top ten with with five other Fords, as well.
If the race mirrors what practice showed, we can expect to see Johnson and other Chevrolets to be up front contending for the manufacturer’s first win at the track since Kevin Harvick won the 2015 spring race.
Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr or Denny Hamlin: Who will make it two in a row?
Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr and Denny Hamlin each have the opportunity to go two in a row with a win on Sunday but for different reasons.
Hamlin claimed his third Daytona 500 win in a photo finish with Ryan Blaney and is looking to be the first driver since Matt Kenseth in 2009 to win the first two races of the Cup season.
Based on past Vegas performance, Hamlin will have some ground to gain if he wants to accomplish such a feat. He finished 15th in the fall race and tenth in the spring race and will be starting from the rear after an L1 penalty stemming from inspection issues. With Hamlin’s momentum, however, he’s sure to be a prime contender to overcome any struggles.
Joey Logano nearly went 2-0 last season at Vegas. With 86 laps led and a close fight with teammate Brad Keselowski, Logano won the spring race. He looked destined to do the same, having led 105 laps, but faded as day turned to night and ended up ninth.
Logano is a prime contender to go two in a row Sunday. Las Vegas is his strongest track, with a career average finish of 8.6 and 433 laps led in 13 races.
Logano has finished every Vegas race he’s run and only finished off the lead lap once which makes him an obvious threat to win his second Pennzoil 400 in a row.
Looking for two in a row in Vegas races is Martin Truex Jr. who made the winning pass on Kevin Harvick with 20 laps to go in the fall race.
Truex led 32 laps and improved his career average finish at Las Vegas to a 10.9. He’s also finished every Vegas race he’s run and only finished off the lead lap once, so a Truex-Logano battle would not be out of the cards Sunday.