DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. -- For the second consecutive year, Denny Hamlin has started his NASCAR Cup Series season in championship form, becoming only the fourth person in history to earn back-to-back Daytona 500 victories, and perhaps, more importantly, proving his Joe Gibbs Racing team is absolutely ready to continue a championship pace of a season ago.
Hamlin will show up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Sunday's Pennzoil 400 (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) trying to become the first driver to win the opening two races of a season since his former JGR teammate Matt Kenseth did it in 2009 with wins at Daytona and then California.
The Daytona 500 was a photo finish between Hamlin and Ryan Blaney, a mere .014-second separating them as they crossed the finish line side-by-side. It was a stark reminder of Hamlin's first Daytona 500 victory in 2016 - another photo finish and officially 0.010-second between him and Martin Truex Jr., who is now a JGR teammate.
This week's Las Vegas race marks the beginning of competition on the 1.5-mile tracks that fill so much of the NASCAR Cup Series schedule. Hamlin has never won at Vegas; only nine of his 38 career wins have been at 1.5-mile tracks -- the bread-and-butter of the schedule. But he must be motivated to continue the Joe Gibbs Racing good vibe as the team has won 20 of the past 36 races. But competition will be especially fierce this weekend with several drivers and their teams long established good bets in Vegas.
That starts with Truex, who has won twice at Las Vegas in the past five races -- once for his former Furniture Row Racing team en route to the 2017 Cup championship and then again last year in the playoff opener, driving in his maiden season with Gibbs.
Team Penske driver Joey Logano is the defending winner of the Spring Las Vegas 400-miler. He and his teammate Brad Keselowski have four wins between them there, earning half of the trophies in the past eight races. And Logano's victory last March was a mere .236-seconds over Keselowski, marking an especially productive Ford outing. Add in Stewart-Haas Racing driver Kevin Harvick's dominating win in Spring 2018, and Ford has five wins in the series' last eight visits to the track.
Harvick acknowledged this week's race may be a better barometer than the 2.5-mile Daytona superspeedway of how teams may stack up competitively going forward. The series visits four 1.5-mile tracks in the next six weeks.
"It's tough to know," said Harvick, who drives the No. 4 SHR Ford.
"So you've kind of got what you've got going through the West Coast swing," he continued of the series races this week in Las Vegas, next week at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Southern California and the following week at Phoenix Raceway's mile before back-to-back-to-back events at the 1.5-mile tracks in Atlanta, Homestead, Fla., and Texas.
"You might be able to make some adjustments for Atlanta and Homestead, but really you're going to need that Easter Break in order to get your stuff together make the changes. ... As you look at it, it just depends on where you are and how hard you need to push things in order to make a change."
LAS VEGAS NATIVE GRAGSON TOPS XFINITY POINTS
It's a big week for Las Vegas native Noah Gragson, who picked up his career first NASCAR Xfinity Series victory at Daytona last weekend and is looking to become only the fourth driver in history to win the first two races of the season when he lines up for Saturday's Boyd Gaming 300 (4 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
The 21-year old was emotional speaking with the media following his hard-earned Daytona win in a typically frantic checkered flag lap at the superspeedway. This week Gragson not only returns home, but to a venue that has been particularly positive in his young career.
He finished third in his Xfinity Series debut last year at Vegas and eighth in the Fall race. In 10 races on 1.5-mile facilities, Gragson earned seven top-10 and three top-five finishes. He has a NASCAR Gander RV Outdoors Truck Series win at the 1.5-mile Kansas Speedway.
And for the first time in his career, Gragson shows up for the home crowd as a NASCAR national series championship leader. His win earned him a three-point advantage over Justin Haley atop the Xfinity standings.
"I always look forward to coming back to Las Vegas because it allows me to visit with family and friends," Gragson said. "It adds a little pressure because I want to perform in front of my hometown crowd, but coming off the win in Daytona and our streak of runs here (at Las Vegas), I feel like the No. 9 Bass Pro Shops Camaro could be celebrating in Victory Lane for the second straight week."
Perhaps Gragson's greatest challenge this week will come from within the JR Motorsports team. His veteran teammate Justin Allgaier is the top-rated driver at Las Vegas with nine top-10 and five top-five finishes in 11 starts at the track. He boasts the top driving rating (105.3), and his 8.5 average finish at Las Vegas is his best mark anywhere on the schedule.
Allgaier was collected in a mid-race crash. His 23 laps led was second only to fellow JR Motorsports driver Jeb Burton's 26 laps out front on the day.
"Las Vegas is a track that has been good to me and this No. 7 team," Allgaier said. "We've led laps and I feel like we have come close to winning, so I'm really looking forward to getting there and seeing what we can do this weekend."
ENFINGER LEADS THE GANDER TRUCKS TO VEGAS
Veteran Grant Enfinger earned his first win in two seasons in the Daytona International Speedway 2020 season-opener last week and shows up at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for Friday's NASCAR Gander RV Outdoors Truck Series race the STRAT 200 (9 p.m. ET on FS1, PRN and SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) looking to avenge a tough championship exit the last time he raced at Las Vegas's 1.5-mile course.
Enfinger's No. 98 ThorSport Racing Ford suffered an engine problem only six laps into the race, eliminating the regular-season champion from contending for the title. He comes to this week's 600th NASCAR Gander RV Outdoor Truck Series race feeling back on his game and up for the challenge, thanks to the victory boost last weekend.
He edged Jordan Anderson by .010-second in the closest truck series race in Daytona history to tee off what looks to be a thrilling 2020 season.
His teammates Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter certainly represent big threats to his Las Vegas chances. Crafton is coming off his third championship season and despite leading the most laps (132) among series regulars at Las Vegas, he has never won a race here. The 2016 series champion Sauter won here in 2009 and is third in the rankings after Daytona, only 14 behind Enfinger.
All of these veterans will be tested by a crop of young rookie talent including Christian Eckes and Raphael Lessard, who are driving for Kyle Busch Motorsports. Eckes won the pole position and finished third in his only start at Las Vegas last Fall.
Austin Hill, a 2020 championship contender who won the September playoff race at Las Vegas, is coming off a sixth-place finish in Daytona and is second in the championship, trailing Enfinger by only 11 points.
Natalie Decker became the highest-finishing female driver in series history at Daytona with a fifth-place finish and also is looking to make a title run for the same Niece Motorsports team that fielded a truck for Ross Chastain in 2019, when he won three races and finished runner-up in the championship.
NASCAR Cup Series
Next Race: Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Sunday, 3:30 p.m. ET
TV: FOX, 2:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 400.5 miles (267 laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 80), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 160), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 267)
2019 Race Winner: Joey Logano
What to Watch For: Kevin Harvick's dominating win in this race in 2017 set a record for Most Laps Led (214). ... Jimmie Johnson is the all-time winningest driver at Vegas with four victories. He won three consecutive races from 2005-07, answering a two-race sweep by Matt Kenseth immediately prior (2003-04). ... Jeff Burton is the only other driver to win back-to-back races (1999-2000). ... Seven drivers have won multiple times at Vegas: Johnson (4), Kenseth (3), Brad Keselowski (3), Kevin Harvick (2), Jeff Burton (2), Carl Edwards (2) and Martin Truex Jr. (2). That means 17 of the 22 Vegas races have been won by seven drivers. ... Harvick boasts the best driver rating at the track (104) followed by Joey Logano (103.3) and Jimmie Johnson (102.9). ... Only one time has this race been won from the pole position -- Kyle Busch in 2009. The Las Vegas native Busch brothers -- Kyle and older brother Kurt -- have won two pole positions each and are the only multi-time pole winners. ... The closest Margin of Victory is .045-seconds when Johnson beat Kenseth in 2006. The second-closest race happened last year when Logano edged his Team Penske teammate Keselowski by .236-seconds. ... Aric Almirola (March 2007) and Kyle Busch (March 2004) both made their Cup debuts at Las Vegas. ... Logano has the best average finish (8.5) in this weekend's field, followed by Ryan Blaney (9.9); they are the only drivers averaging better than 10th place. ... Kyle Busch, Keselowski and Harvick are tied for most top fives (seven). ... Harvick and Ryan Newman are tied for most top 10s (10). .... Newman has completed the most laps (5,400) all-time at Vegas. .... Johnson has never had a DNF in 20 starts. ... Ford is the winningest manufacturer with 12 wins, including three of the past four races and a 2018 sweep. ...The deepest in the field a race-winning driver has started 25th place -- Kenseth in 2004. ... Mark Martin is the only driver to win at Las Vegas in his first try. ... No driver has earned his first career Cup win at Vegas. ... Four times a driver has won the March Las Vegas race and gone on to win the Cup Series championship: Truex in 2017 and Johnson three times -- 2006, 2007 and 2010. ...Kyle Busch is the youngest Vegas winner (March 2009 at 23 years, nine months, 27 days). ... Sterling Marlin is the oldest winner (March 2002 at 44 years, seven months, 32 days).
NASCAR Xfinity Series
Next Race: Boyd Gaming 300
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Saturday, 4 p.m. ET
TV: FS1, 3:30 p.m. ET
Radio: PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 300 miles (200 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 45), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 90), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 200)
2019 Race Winner: Kyle Busch
What to Watch For: Las Vegas native Kyle Busch won at his home track in this race last year. .... Following the Daytona season-opener, Las Vegas native Noah Gragson leads the championship standings by three points over Justin Haley and 11 points over rookie Harrison Burton. ... Veteran Justin Allgaier boasts the best driver rating (105.3) and is also tops in fastest laps (70) and laps run in the top 15 (2,087 -- 93.3 percent) ... Allgaier also has the most top 10s (nine). ... Kyle Busch, who is not competing in the race this weekend, has led the most laps at Vegas (619). ... NASCAR Hall of Famer Mark Martin has the most wins (four). ... The only two drivers to score their career first series win at Las Vegas are the track's very first Xfinity Series winner Jeff Green (1997) and the most recent, Ross Chastain (2018). ... Only three times has the race winner started from a grid position outside the top 10. Seven of the past eight race winners started fifth or better and include two pole winners. ... Leading laps had been a consistent sign for triumph at Vegas. Before last year, the past seven race winners have led at least 100 of the 200 laps, including a record 199 laps led by Kyle Busch in his 2016 win. In 2019, Busch led 98 laps en route to the victory in this Spring race but Tyler Reddick led only 30 in winning the Fall event. ... Chevrolet has won six of the past 12 races, Ford has won four and Toyota's has won twice -- with Busch in 2016 and 2019. ... The pole position is the winningest starting spot on the grid, producing five winners. Nine times the race winner has started on the front row. ...The most lead changes (25) in a race occurred in the 1997 inaugural. .... Last year's 138.284 mph average speed is a record for this race. ...Only one time -- this race last year -- has there been overtime in the past 10 races (since 2009). .... No driver ever has won consecutive races at Las Vegas. ... The farthest back on the grid a winner has started is 29th -- Joe Nemechek in 2003. ... There are two Las Vegas natives in the race -- last week's Daytona winner Gragson and Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Riley Herbst. ... Only three times has a driver won the first two races of the season. The last time it happened was 2008, when Tony Stewart won at Daytona and California. Gragson's win at Daytona was his first career Xfinity Series victory.
NASCAR Gander RV Outdoors Truck Series
Next Race: Strat 200
Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Friday, 9 p.m. ET
TV: FS1, 8:30 p.m. ET
Radio: MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio
Distance: 201 miles (134 Laps); Stage 1 (Ends on Lap 30), Stage 2 (Ends on Lap 60), Final Stage (Ends on Lap 134)
2019 Winner: Kyle Busch
What to Watch For: This will be the 600th NASCAR Gander RV Outdoors Truck Series race. ... As he did last season, Grant Enfinger arrives in Las Vegas as the championship leader after winning the Daytona season-opener. He holds an 11-point lead over 2019 Vegas winner Austin Hill in the standings. Former champion Johnny Sauter is third, 14 points behind his teammate Enfinger. ... Kyle Busch is the two-time defending winner of this race. ... There are six former Vegas winners entered this weekend (Enfinger, Busch, Hill, Ben Rhodes, Timothy Peters and Johnny Sauter). ... Only three drivers have won multiple races at Vegas -- Jack Sprague (who won the inaugural event in 1996 and then again in 1998), Mike Skinner (2006 and 2008), and Kyle Busch (2018 and 2019). ... No driver has ever won back-to-back races. ... Among the series regulars, rookie Christian Eckes boasts the best driver rating (106.8) at Vegas. The Kyle Busch Motorsports driver started on pole and finished third in his only Vegas start last year. ... Brett Moffitt's 106.2 driver rating is best among drivers with more than two starts at the track. ...Three-time and reigning series champion Matt Crafton has led the most laps (132) among the championship-eligible and has the most top five (eight) and top 10 (12) finishes. Crafton has never won at Vegas, however. ... Kyle Busch has won this race from pole position the past two seasons. ... The driver who leads the most laps has won three of the past four races (Busch, twice, and Enfinger). However in the past 10 races, only four times has the driver who led the most laps won the race. ... Twice in that time (in 2015 and 2013) Crafton led the most laps but did not win. ... John Wes Townley's win here in 2015 is the only victory of his NASCAR career. ... The pole position is the winningest starting spot on the grid, producing nine winners in the track's 25-race history (36 percent). ... Only one time in the past seven races has the winner started worse than seventh on the grid. ... The farthest back a winner has started is 21st -- Shane Hmiel won from there in 2004. ... There have been 11 first-time Vegas winners in the previous 10 races here. ... The record for lead changes is 21, which happened in both the 2018 and 2019 Fall races. ... Toyota has won four of the past six races and is tied with Chevrolet for most wins (nine) for a manufacturer all-time. Ford has five victories.
--Holly Cain, NASCAR Wire Service. Special to Field Level Media