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NASCAR took to the track in Las Vegas Saturday for the first time since 1997.
Nicknamed “The Dixie Cup,” Las Vegas Motor Speedway hosts one of the highest-profile, biggest and most “must see” races in the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series each season.
This year’s race, scheduled for the Saturday afternoon in the classic “overnight racing” (older drivers don’t use the term), comes in the midst of arguably the toughest stretch of racing this season. Three of the six races on the Sprint Cup circuit have been won by second- or third-place finishers (Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson and Kevin Harvick), and it appears a number of others are also still in the hunt for the title, but have hit rough spots in the middle of the season.
The race will have at least two surprises — but one could come from an unexpected place. Brad Keselowski, who hasn’t won a race since last July, is sitting 11th and four spots behind the leader, defending series champion Martin Truex Jr. — and he’s not out of the race just yet.
Keselowski ended last weekend’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway sixth — eight spots ahead of his most recent win. Keselowski won the Las Vegas race in 2013.
The rest of the top 10 drivers are almost all locked into the Chase, with Bubba Wallace, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer, Matt Kenseth, and Truex Jr. all leading or battling for the lead.
After two weeks at short tracks — the last Cup race at Las Vegas was in 2005 — and the first of the 19-race Chase, the season has picked up steam heading into the stretch run.
NASCAR has a 10-race span of one, two or three weekends when the playoffs will begin, but it does have to find a way to find another way to protect Chase points after a particularly strong first round. In the first round, the top 20 drivers on points advanced into the semifinals — but lost points to any drivers who lost points for finishing outside the top 20 (26th through 30th) in the playoffs. All drivers who qualify for the Chase in Round 2 risk their first-round points loss if they don’t make the semifinals.
And, of course, there is the host-state angle — Vegas has two Cup races a year. The last Cup race at Las Vegas was as late as 1995.