Roger Diez: NASCAR playoffs start in Las Vegas this weekend
Kevin Harvick spoiled Joe Gibbs Racing’s chance to capture all four of NASCAR’s crown jewels last Sunday. Harvick qualified on the pole and dominated the Brickyard 400, capturing his second win at the track. It was also the end of the regular season, which went to Kyle Busch. Busch had amassed the most regular season points, and even his early departure from the race with a blown engine wasn’t enough for him to lose that lead. So, the field is set for the playoffs, and for the first time in 16 years seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson won’t be in it. Johnson’s hopes for a chance at title number eight were dashed when he was caught up in an accident that finished his day. Ryan Newman nosed out Daniel Suarez for the final playoff spot. And a big shout out to Bubba Wallace, who came home third on Sunday, the first Chevy to cross the line behind the Fords of Harvick and Joey Logano. Unfortunately, shots of sparsely populated or empty grandstands took some of the shine off of the jewel. The lackluster crowd emphasized the decline of interest in this race, compared to the packed grandstands at the first Brickyard 400 in 1994.
The other big NASCAR news is the retirement announcement of Paul Menard, with Matt DiBenedetto taking over his seat in the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford. DiBenedetto proved his talent this season, only to lose his Leavine Family Racing ride to Christopher Bell for 2020. With no really competitive seats available until Menard’s retirement, Matt was probably looking at a ride in the Xfinity series for next year. He’s thrilled to land the seat with the legendary Wood Brothers.
The first race of the playoffs with be right here in the Silver State, as Las Vegas now has two races a year for the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup series. In fact, all three of NASCAR’s touring series are at Vegas this weekend. Kyle Busch will start the Cup playoffs with 2,045 points due to amassing playoff points throughout the season. That’s enough points to keep him in a transfer spot to the second round even if he has a totally disastrous race in the first round. Teammate Denny Hamlin is second seed with 2,030 points, and Martin Truex Jr. makes it a JGR team sweep of the first three spots with 2,029. Brickyard winner Harvick is fourth with 2,028, and Brad Keselowski has 2,024 for fifth. Newman in 16th and Clint Bowyer in 15th have only 2,000 each with no bonus points in the first 26 races.
In other racing action, the Italian Grand Prix at Monza had Ferrari fans in a frenzy as Charles Leclerc won his second race in a row for the Scuderia. As in Spa last week, the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas finished second and third, but this time with Bottas ahead of Hamilton. So, has Ferrari finally reached a par with Mercedes? Given Sebastian Vettel’s results in the second Ferrari, along with Ferrari’s speed advantage at two high-speed tracks, perhaps not. Coming up next week is the tight, twisty Singapore street circuit, where Mercedes’ cornering advantage will favor them.
Las Vegas isn’t the only relatively nearby venue this weekend. The IMSA Weathertech Sportscar Championship series is at Laguna Seca in Monterey, just a five-hour drive away. If you can’t make the trip, it will be broadcast on NBC. There are 12 prototypes and 20 GT cars in the field, which should make for an interesting race given the speed differentials involved. And the following weekend Laguna hosts the finale for the 2019 IndyCar season. It’s one of my favorite tracks, and I’ve had some fun times racing and announcing races there.