Predictions for how Sunday’s Las Vegas race will look

If you asked someone to name the most unpredictable races of the season, they’d probably say Daytona and Talladega. And it makes sense, given the volatility of the Big One and the changing nature of the racing (single file vs. pack).

But from this view, today’s race at Las Vegas — the first with the full/extreme 2019 rules package on the cars — is way more hard to predict.

We don’t know who is going to be good (“You can’t look at the speed charts,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said). We don’t know what the racing is going to look like (the most laps ever run in this package was 25 laps at a test with a dozen cars). We don’t know how potential wrecks might play into the outcome of the race.

That said, here are a few guesses to what might happen today:

— Track position is going to be everything for the leader — and ultimately the winner. It will be very difficult to pass the leader once they get into clean air, although that car will never be able to pull away by more than a couple seconds.

— Given the emphasis on track position, restarts are going to be absolutely bonkers. The scramble is going to be crazy when the field is bunched up, and it will probably last for a solid 10 or 20 laps after the green — with the high chance of a big wreck or two.

— Even though the leader might not be touched, the racing from third to 15th is going to be way better than it was before at most intermediate tracks (in terms of close racing and passing and cars all over the place). So maybe that’s the biggest positive of this package.

— Some cars are going to absolutely kill it with their setup and car builds — and some are going to be painfully out to lunch. It all depends on how much they’re “trimmed out” — which is the balance between speed (getting the gigantic spoiler out of the air) and handling (having more downforce to provide stability in traffic but also more drag, which will slow the car). For example: The Richard Childress Racing cars of Austin Dillon and Daniel Hemric have been at the top of the speed charts all weekend — but the garage thinks that’s because they’re trimmed out more than everyone else. “I was behind the 3 a couple times and he had to lift pretty big from getting loose, so that’s a product of having your car trimmed out and trying to make speed out of it,” Stenhouse said.

— The best performers today will be the best drafters, not necessarily the ones with the fastest cars. Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said the entire key is “about who can stay in the gas the longest and navigate through traffic and get out front.” When a driver has to get out of the gas due to a sketchy moment or ill-handling car, they’re going to get left behind (since most of the competitors will be wide open). Said Dillon crew chief Danny Stockman: “There is a balance you’ve got to hit, and whoever hits that balance will be in victory lane on Sunday.”

— All that said, here are my top five drivers to watch today: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.

Bubba Wallace’s story, star power attracts Vegas sponsor

Bubba Wallace has quickly become one of NASCAR’s breakout stars, and his No. 43 car has another new sponsor this week: The Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas.

The trendy casino hotel in heart of the Strip initially had planned to skip sponsoring a car this year after appearing on Daniel Hemric’s Xfinity Series car last year. A different marketing strategy for 2018, which focused on its recent room remodeling, wasn’t going to include NASCAR.

But after being presented with a chance to sponsor Wallace and researching his story, the rookie driver’s appeal changed their minds, Cosmopolitan of Las Vegas chief marketing officer Tom Evans said via phone.

“We started seeing what Bubba was doing and the opportunity he had out there,” Evans said. “… We thought, ‘This is such a unique opportunity with such a unique person. How can we make this happen?’”

The Cosmopolitan views itself as somewhat of an underdog because it’s surrounded by mega casinos and is “the small kid fight that has to fight a little harder to get our share of the market,” Evans said.

“We thought, ‘If we were going to do this, his story and our story and how we align ourselves with being that underdog really makes a lot of sense,” he added.

Talks were started in late January and a commitment was made right before Wallace’s second-place finish in the Daytona 500 — timing Evans was obviously thrilled about.

“From a marketing standpoint, I couldn’t be any happier,” he said. “If I waited a day, I might have been in trouble.”

Aside from having the logo on the car and getting exposure for the resort that way, Evans said the Cosmopolitan was happy to “have access to Bubba and be able to meet him and talk to him.” In addition, it gives the resort’s 5,000 employees someone to root for.

“Whenever I’ve shown someone that logo painted with the 43 on the car, there’s such a pride that goes along with it,” he said.

Videos from Champions Week in Las Vegas

Here’s a recap of the videos I made from the recent trip to Las Vegas.

Short version of the ridealong with Denny Hamlin:

Long version of the ridealong with Denny Hamlin:

NASCAR tire carrier Paul Swan’s marriage proposal to Monster Energy girl Mariel Lane after the awards ceremony:

The Top Five: Breaking down the New Hampshire race

Five thoughts from Sunday’s playoff race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway…

1. The heavyweight contenders

Many of the races this season turned into a battle between Martin Truex Jr. — the dominant car of 2017 — and Kyle Busch, his Toyota teammate who has plenty of speed but perhaps not quite as much as the 78.

That was the case again on Sunday at New Hampshire. Truex and Busch combined to lead all but one lap (!!!) of a 300-lap event (Kyle Larson led the other one during pit stops in the break between Stages 1 and 2).

And although it looked like Truex might end up dominating had he not been caught up in the Lap 150 pileup, Busch happily said his team made gains on its chief rival for the championship.

“Today was a good catch‑up moment for us,” Busch said. “Obviously they’ve been so fast all year long. … But it was going to come down to that again and who was going to be in the lead, who was going to have the opportunity on restarts and whatnot to control the field.”

Many fans insist they are sick of Toyotas, which is bad news for them, because this domination doesn’t seem to be ending anytime soon. The four Toyota drivers in the playoffs are all in the top six in points, and only Kyle Larson has shown he can consistently challenge them.

So Busch vs. Truex is the battle to watch for now, and it’s actually pretty interesting. For example: Busch gained five playoff points on Truex during Sunday’s race, which puts Truex at 59 and Busch at 36.

That’s only a 23-point difference. So if the third round comes around and it has three different winners with one spot available on points to advance to Homestead, that could be determined by a Truex vs. Busch battle. And 23 points between them isn’t even a half-race.

Everyone seems to treat Truex in the finale as a given — and it’s highly likely — but it’s not going to be a cakewalk if he has to deal with Busch in a points race.

2. Finally, some points drama!

It’s been awhile since anyone had to worry about the points picture going into an elimination race — after all, points were not a factor at Richmond this year — which means Dover next week will be a welcome sight.

Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. are tied for the last spot (the tiebreaker is best finish in the round) after Stenhouse and his team had a gutsy comeback after struggling all day.

Stenhouse, one of many drivers looking completely wiped after an unseasonably hot and humid day, said he “felt like we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week.”

“We just couldn’t find speed, couldn’t find the handle on the car,” he said.

But after making up a few spots late in the race — thanks to consecutive cautions that put him back on the lead lap — Stenhouse gained valuable points that could put him in a showdown with Dillon and Ryan Newman (who is one point behind both drivers).

“It makes you feel good,” Stenhouse said. “We needed to make up a little bit and made up a little bit at a track that I didn’t think we were great at all weekend.”

As for Dillon, he was also optimistic about Dover after surviving Sunday with a 19th-place finish.

“Just have a good run like we did last year,” he said. “Go run in the top five and we’ll probably make it.”

Dillon also avoided what could have been a playoff-ending incident for himself when he made contact with Kevin Harvick to trigger a multi-car wreck at lap 150.

“He kept coming left, and I was in the gas,” Dillon told me after the race. “He bobbled and I hit him, and it was over. When he got loose, I connected and it hit him. I barely tapped him. I lifted after, but nothing I can do at that point. Hate it for him and hate it for (Kurt Busch).”

Busch, collected in the wreck when he rammed Harvick, is 15th in points — but too far back (-17) to hope anything but a win will get him in. Same with Kasey Kahne (-21), who said he hadn’t seen the points but wasn’t surprised to hear he was in 16th after a broken track bar.

“It’d be pretty tough” to make it now, Kahne said.

3. Hands off!

Thanks a lot, 24 team.

That’s probably what the rest of the playoff crews were thinking after NASCAR made them stand away from the cars for at least five minutes after the race — a new policy in reaction to Chase Elliott’s crewmen being caught on video removing tape from the spoiler last week.

Inspectors appeared to take a much closer initial look at some of the playoff cars than typically happens immediately after the race. At most races the last couple years — since NASCAR began stopping all cars on pit road instead of having them go back to the garage — crewmen go over the wall and approach the cars as soon as they pull to a stop.

But NASCAR obviously felt that might be an opportunity to mess with something before post-race inspection — the 24 team proved that — so now that won’t be happening for the near future.

If it was annoying for the pit crews, though, it was also irritating for the media. The cars were parked against the pit wall and no one —reporters, crewmen or public relations representatives — could go past the halfway point of pit road. Many drivers simply got out of their cars, saw no one was waiting to talk to them, and walked away.

Hopefully, NASCAR can figure out a solution to wrangle the playoff drivers for at least a moment before they disappear into the crowd. Otherwise, the sport might miss out on some much-needed emotion after one of these upcoming races; if there was a confrontation between drivers on Sunday, we likely would have missed it.

4. Goodbye, Loudon

The final New Hampshire fall race was fairly typical of most other New Hampshire races in memory. And that’s not really a compliment.

This is a great area with wonderful people who are true, passionate race fans, and they have a fantastic track for some cars.

But those cars don’t include the Cup Series, which has long struggled to put on a decent show here.

“It always lends to exciting moments; we had one today,” Kyle Busch said. “Sometimes the racing, though, is a little strung out with this place being so hard to pass.”

Busch called it “frustrating to race here sometimes” and explained in detail why that’s the case, if you want to dive in:

“It’s just not lending itself to being able to be right on top of or right close to the guy in front of you, because you just get so tight when you’re behind that guy. And you build air pressure in the front tires and you slow down and that guy drives away from you, and then you kind of accordion back to the next guy, he’s catching you thinking he’s going to pass you and then he gets tight, and it kind of goes back to the next guy.”

Look, it’s not like the Las Vegas race — New Hampshire’s replacement — is going to be that much more compelling. But it gives NASCAR a chance to open the playoffs in a high-profile market and then keep a short track (Richmond) as the second race, all while keeping an event at Loudon in July. So with apologies to the locals who love this place, that’s not the worst development.

5. Common sense solutions

Let’s talk about the NASCAR dunce cap penalty for a second.

Until the race — and until Richard Petty and Richard Childress got a bunch of national attention for saying they’d fire employees who kneeled for the anthem (just the publicity NASCAR needs!) — the biggest story of the weekend was Joey Logano serving a penalty on pit road for the entire final practice session.

It’s silly that it got so much attention, but it’s what fans were most interested in (I can see the numbers). So the media reported it and Dale Earnhardt Jr. reacted to it and it became a thing.

Yes, other drivers have served longer penalties under this policy (up to 60 minutes, where Logano’s penalty was 50), but those were in practices where they eventually got on the track for some laps.

That’s why Logano’s punishment seemed so wacky: He sat in the car on pit road for the entire practice session and never got on track.

When odd things happen in this sport, it often seems to catch NASCAR by surprise. After all, they are tasked with enforcing the rules and put in a very difficult position by teams trying to push the limit in every little area — and so officials are viewing it as doing their jobs.

So I feel bad for NASCAR in that sense, because what should be justice ends up ricocheting back at them and turns into a pie in the face. But the penalties they come up with could use a little work in the public eye.

If NASCAR wants to have a team miss practice, just make the team park the car in the garage and put a cover on it so crew members can’t work on it. But don’t make the driver sit in there — that comes across like they’re shaming a troublemaking child.

Or maybe NASCAR can increase the punishment by doing things like making a team serve its penalty at the end of Stage 1 — which would impact the race itself.

NASCAR’s heart is in the right place, because it has to keep teams in line. But maybe there’s a better way to do that.

USFantasy Sports offers new way to bet on NASCAR

Starting with the Daytona 500, there’s a new way to bet on NASCAR — at least if you find yourself in Las Vegas.

Typically, NASCAR wagering at a sportsbook involves picking a winner and hoping that driver beats 39 others. Your odds in those situations aren’t very good, because — let’s face it — it’s pretty hard to call the winner of a NASCAR race (at least it is for me).

But a company called USFantasy Sports is remaking the model.

If you’re familiar with horse racing wagers, this is somewhat similar (although the company shies away from comparisons because it can sound complex to amateur bettors). Basically, USF’s system will allow NASCAR win, place and show bets (for as little as $2) — and also offer exactas (picking first and second) and trifectas (picking first, second and third).

What’s particularly attractive is USF has separated drivers into groups. For the Daytona 500, for example, there are two groups of 10 drivers. So you only have to pick the winner (or second, if you choose a “place” bet) among 10 drivers instead of 40. Obviously, that also makes exactas and trifectas more realistic as well.

“You can just bet Dale Earnhardt Jr. and not worry about anything else except for his finish — and he doesn’t have to win the event, he just to beat those other guys,” said Robert Walker, USF Vice President of Strategic Planning, via phone last week. “Or you could have Kyle Larson, and he just has to beat the other nine individuals.”

The betting is pari-mutuel, which means the odds aren’t set by the sports book — they change based on the number of money being wagered by players.

Walked said USF believes NASCAR lends itself to this type of gambling, it’s just that the technology hasn’t been there to put it into place until now. Bettors will be able to play at nearly every sports book in Las Vegas (the odds sheets will be set out along with the standard wager information) and bets can be placed at any window.

As the season gets started, USF will offer wagers on things like the pole winners and Xfinity races and also have different driver group sizes (as little as four and as many as 12). The company could also expand to states outside of Nevada, which could really take the concept to a national level.

“All we want to do is put something out that’s fun and exciting for the player,” Walker said. “We’re all excited about NASCAR specifically because it lends itself to these exotics (like exactas, trifectas and daily doubles).”

Walker believes there’s also an appeal for daily fantasy players because the players are already selected and there’s no salary cap involved.

As an example, here’s one of the groups for the Daytona 500:

— Kyle Larson

— Kurt Busch

— Kasey Kahne

— Austin Dillon

— Clint Bowyer

— Jamie McMurray

— Greg Biffle for some reason

— Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

— Daniel Suarez

— Danica Patrick