By Cole Cusumano, Staff Writer
LAS VEGAS – Saturday afternoon, NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs drivers lucky enough to still be in contention were reminded of what’s at stake – and quickly approaching – in the sport’s final stop to the west coast before the championship in Phoenix.
Following a perplexing previous three-race set, the Round of 8 should be much more routine and provide clarity as to who will be in the hunt for the Bill France Cup right out the gates at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Beginning with the South Point 400, NASCAR is going back to its bread-and-butter for the semifinal round with two 1.5-mile tracks (Vegas and Homestead-Miami Speedway) and Martinsville Speedway.
While it would be easiest to wait and see who performs in Sin City to get a better idea for what the championship picture will look like, there’s enough relevant data to potentially forecast which drivers will be in the best position entering the cutoff race at Martinsville.
Among the 32 races completed in 2023, five have been at 1.5-mile tracks. For all intents and purposes, analysis will be reflected by these numbers.
If you were to ask anyone who’s making the Championship 4, a unanimous answer would likely be William Byron. And why shouldn’t he be a heavy favorite with a series-leading six wins and 18 top-10 finishes?
The impressive thing with Byron’s 2023 campaign has been his sustained success. Whereas regular-season champion Martin Truex Jr. has yet to place above 17th in the Playoffs, Byron has shifted into overdrive.
In the Round of 12, Byron posted a 1.7 average after winning at Texas Motor Speedway and placing runner-up at Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL. No other Playoffs driver posted an average finish inside the top-10 besides him.
But the scariest thing for the remaining postseason drivers should be Byron’s 1.5-mile supremacy – which ironically began in Vegas.
Byron’s first of six wins came in Sin City, where he led the most laps and swept both stages. From there, he didn’t let up.
The driver of the No. 24 sits in a league of his own at 1.5-mile tracks with an astonishing 4.4 average finish, backed by four top-fives (including two wins) and most laps led with 283.
As for the reason behind Byron’s success on 1.5-mile tracks this year, that goes back to humble beginnings of simulation work with Chevrolet before the season even began.
“I feel like our simulation is good for (1.5-mile) tracks,” Byron said. “We’ve been able to lean pretty heavily on Chevy for advice and information, and I think that’s helped us. We just started to develop a consistent package for all these tracks.
“I’d say we lost our way a little bit in the summer on some of the faster tracks, but I feel like after that we … improved it slightly and here we are. You never know what to expect. With this car, luckily, you’re never too far off. You just [have] to fine tune those little details to get better.”
You can certainly make the case Byron’s teammate Kyle Larson is the next-best bet to win at Vegas. In fact, he’s the favorite going into the South Point 400 at +400 per BetMGM.
The 2021 champion has had a bizarre season. The speed has been there all year, but luck has not – which has more often than not been of benefit to Byron on numerous occasions.
At any rate, Larson has kicked it into Playoffs gear and looked much sportier on a consistent basis. However, he’s statistically playing second fiddle to his teammate Byron on 1.5-mile tracks.
Earlier this year at Vegas, Larson finished runner-up to Byron after placing second in both stages and leading the second-most laps. Similarly, he has the second-most laps led on 1.5-mile tracks this season with two second-place finishes and three top-fives total.
Although he said extracurricular racing doesn’t help inside the Cup car, it’s hard to ignore the fact Larson won the High Limit Sprint Car Series Championship and completed his IndyCar orientation at Indianapolis Motor Speedway all within the same week of advancing into and competing in the Round of 8.
There’s no science behind it, but when we’ve seen Larson excel off the track, it usually translates to Sunday. And that’s proven true on Saturday as well.
Larson qualified second for the South Point 400 and posted the best 10-lap average in practice.
“Vegas is a good track for our team,” Larson said. “I felt really good in practice. To qualify on the front row is great as well. Off to a good start, (we) just need to piece it together.
If Byron and Larson are the top-two drivers on 1.5-mile tracks, Hamlin would have to be considered the third-best.
It’s been an interesting year for Hamlin, because, like Larson, he didn’t have the greatest regular season. But he’s turned it on significantly in the Playoffs, contending for a majority of the wins.
Hamlin may have finished 11th in the spring at Vegas, but he’s led laps in his last six starts there and has the third-most laps led among active drivers with 369. Keeping with the threes, Hamlin also has the third-most laps led on 1.5-mile tracks this year and third-best average at 10.8.
Oh, and he’s third in the Playoffs standings 11 points above the cutoff.
“Our 1.5-mile program has been great,” Hamlin said. “It is frustrating on days like today, where I try really hard but I can’t get the result out of the car that I’m wanting.”
Hamlin posted the 26th-fastest time in practice and wound up being the lowest-qualifying Playoffs driver in 15th. But don’t get too caught up in those numbers.
He and Chris Gabehart expect the track temperature to be much different than it was in practice. The important thing is that he has a feel for the car … which he does.
“It’s going to be so much hotter,” Hamlin said. “The way that you drive is going to be so much different than it was in practice, that I’m not going to get too caught up in speed and all that stuff. As long as I got the feel I need, we’re going to be fine.”
Tyler Reddick & Bubba Wallace
We can’t talk about 1.5-mile tracks without bringing up 23XI Racing. If not Hendrick Motorsports, it wouldn’t be a stretch to say the three-year Toyota team has been the best on the traditional ovals.
Tyler Reddick may be the only representation for 23XI in the Round of 8, but this could very well be the year the two-time NASCAR Xfinity Series Champion advances to the final four at Phoenix with the way the schedule lines up.
In what’s been a near identical (but still successful) season to the one prior, the driver of the No. 45 has been able to adapt better than year’s past and maximize his days on a more consistent basis.
However, the one constant throughout his NASCAR career has been prowess on 1.5-mile tracks, which he attributes to his dirt racing upbringing.
This year, Reddick notably won at Kansas Speedway in the Playoffs. While that and his 11th-place average are impressive, they aren’t the most telling things about his 2023 campaign on these style tracks.
He’s also the only driver to lead laps in all five 1.5-mile starts.
At Vegas, Reddick has finished a career-best sixth twice. He should figure to have a strong run in the South Point 400, but all eyes will be on him at Homestead the following week.
“Last year, I had good speed on (1.5-mile) tracks and could contend,” Reddick said. “That’s continued into this year with this team. When we come to these tracks, I’m always very excited because you have lots of lanes to choose from.
“When you get up in the top-five especially, it’s kind of a guessing game – a chess match if you will – trying to predict where the car ahead of you is going to go and chasing that clean air so you can keep your momentum up. You have to be versatile and I feel like that’s something our team does really well.”
Lastly, it would be criminal not to bring up Bubba Wallace’s name as a legitimate contender for the win. Although failed to make the Round of 8, don’t count him out to play spoiler for a second-straight week like A.J. Allmendinger at Charlotte.
Outside of Byron, Wallace is the only driver with top-fives in four 1.5-mile starts this year and has the second-best average finish at 9.4. Ironically, both drivers’ only race they didn’t place top-10 was at Kansas in the Playoffs.
Not to mention, Wallace finished a career-best fourth at Vegas in the spring and had a ridiculously fast Toyota last fall before taking himself out early. Playoffs or not, the driver of the No. 23 should be on everyone’s radar for the South Point 400.