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The gambling capital of America, Las Vegas, plays host to the third race of the 2022 NASCAR Cup Series season on Sunday, March 6 with the Pennzoil 400. A city filled with roulette wheels and slot machines will pull the lever at its 1.5-mile oval and hope for the best at a track where we’ve seen a wide range of outcomes in recent years.
Last spring, you could argue Kyle Larson’s victory in this race was one of the most competitive in Las Vegas Motor Speedway history. Five different drivers led at least 20 laps, leaving the outcome in doubt until midway through the final stage. 27 lead changes were the most since 2007 as the leader struggled to pull away until late in a green-flag run.
Compare that to the race here last fall, arguably the reason NASCAR’s old 550-horsepower package was scrapped with the advent of the Next Gen chassis. Cars seemed stuck in place, unable to pass as Denny Hamlin outlasted Larson for a sleepy playoff win. There was only one caution outside of NASCAR-mandated ones (including the two stage breaks) and just 12 cars finished on the lead lap.
The racing here, much like the casinos, can be a bit of a toss-up. It’s a great early test for the Next Gen after a promising intermediate race at Auto Club Speedway last weekend, the new car proving difficult to drive as a track record 12 cautions combined with 32 lead changes and a highly competitive race up front.
For a while at ACS, fresh faces fought for the win before Larson emerged to steal the race late. Will we see drivers like Erik Jones, Tyler Reddick and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. challenge the big-money teams once again? Or will a week’s worth of learning and swapping notes help multi-car giants like Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske close the gap on their competition?
So far, the jury is still out. A JGR Toyota took the pole for Sunday, but it was Christopher Bell, who hasn’t won on an oval track in 74 previous Cup starts. Two-time Cup champ Kyle Busch crashed in practice, starting from the rear in a backup car with older brother Kurt just ahead of him (31st).
Another big-time organization, Hendrick Motorsports, is still reeling from contact between last week’s winner Larson and Chase Elliott. Owner Rick Hendrick held a midweek meeting to mend fences after Elliott’s No. 9 turned to mush following contact with Larson while fighting for the lead. Both drivers say they’ve put the past behind them, but what happens when they’re racing around each other this Sunday
Back up front, Reddick starts seventh after leading the most laps at ACS last weekend. Chase Briscoe starts a career-best fourth on an oval while last week’s runner-up finisher Austin Dillon cracked the top 10 (10th). Can one of them sneak their way to the front and have some early-season gambles on Next Gen handling lessons pay off?
We’ll see while awaiting what type of race Las Vegas can deliver. If the Next Gen can race competitively here? A second straight week? We’re starting to see a trend that matches strong TV ratings in a year where NASCAR seems to be reclaiming momentum.