Breaking down the Las Vegas starting lineup

Denny Hamlin intends to start the Playoffs strong at Las Vegas. Looking for his first win of the season, he starts Sunday’s race from 3rd. 

LAS VEGAS — Denny Hamlin has enjoyed winning poles and starting near the front, but it’s about time to win races.

Hamlin has earned his sixth top-four starting spot in the past eight races as he qualified third for the playoff-opening South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Things are trending in the right direction and they’re doing them in the right time,” Hamlin said. “And our [playoff] format like it or not, is about running well at the right time and now is the right time.”

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has a streak of winning in every year he has raced full time. But more than a win, he also sees himself as a possible championship contender despite a seeding of 13th among the 16-car playoff field.

“We’re not going to count on luck, we’re going to count on performance,” Hamlin said. “These race tracks, both in the first, second and third round, are race tracks I’ve won at multiple times. We’re too versatile at too many tracks to not be a factor.”

Who will be a factor among the playoff drivers at LVMS?

A look at the playoff drivers rank in average finish at Las Vegas: Ryan Blaney (9.3), Joey Logano (9.7), Jimmie Johnson (11.0), Erik Jones (11.5), Martin Truex Jr. (12.5), Denny Hamlin (12.6), Kyle Larson (13.2), Kyle Busch (13.3), Kevin Harvick (14.1), Brad Keselowski (14.5), Austin Dillon (16.7), Clint Bowyer (17.8), Kurt Busch (22.5), Chase Elliott (25.0), Aric Almirola (26.2) and Alex Bowman (32.0).

Playoff drivers with wins at Las Vegas: Harvick (2), Keselowski (2), Truex (1) and Kyle Busch (1).

Here’s how the starting lineup breaks down for the South Point 400:

1. Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 20 Toyota): Jones won a truck race at Vegas in September 2014. He also has a third in Xfinity and an eighth in Cup at the track. So he should have felt good going into his first playoffs race and now he should feel even better being on the pole.

2. Joey Logano (Team Penske No. 22 Ford): Logano opens the playoffs at a track that he runs well at, so he will look to get a good start. He has five consecutive top-10s at Vegas and has led 195 laps in those events. He also won the March 2017 Xfinity race at Vegas.

3. Denny Hamlin (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 11 Toyota): Hamlin is coming off a strong performance at Indianapolis but still seeks his first win of 2018. Vegas is a place where he has never won in any series. He has just 14 laps led in a Cup car at the track and struggled in March, starting 19th and finishing 17th.

4. Kyle Busch (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 18 Toyota): Busch has three top-5s in his past five starts at Vegas. He won Cup races in 2008 and 2009. And there might be a highlight out there of him throwing a punch at Vegas. Maybe he thought, since growing up here, what happens in Vegas would stay in Vegas.

5. Kevin Harvick (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 4 Ford): Harvick dominated the Vegas race in March as he led 214 laps and won the event (although his car was later found to have failed support rules for the rear window. Harvick also won at Vegas in March 2015 and has four top-10s in his past seven starts. He also has two Xfinity wins at the track.

6. Ryan Blaney (Team Penske No. 12 Ford): Blaney won the pole in March and finished fifth. He has three consecutive top-10s at Vegas. He also competed in the Xfinity race at Vegas in March and finished fourth.

7. Chase Elliott (Hendrick Motorsports No. 9 Chevrolet): Elliott has finished two of his three Vegas starts. But the one he did finish was as third-place run in March. He had three top-5s in three starts in Xfinity.

8. Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 41 Ford): Busch has never won at his hometown track and has led in just three of his past 12 Cup starts. He might just want a good finish as he has had finishes of 20th or worse in five of his past six Vegas races.

9. Alex Bowman (Hendrick Motorsports No. 88 Chevrolet): Want to see a sign of progress? Bowman started 20th (and finished 16th) in the March race at Vegas. If he can finish 11 spots better, he’d take that for his first playoff race.

10. Martin Truex Jr. (Furniture Row Racing No. 78 Toyota): Truex has three top-four finishes in his past four starts at Vegas, including the March 2017 race where he led 150 laps on the way to the win. Even if he struggled a little in qualifying, expect him to be a threat.

11. Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing No. 42 Chevrolet): Larson’s last three Xfinity starts at the track have included finishes of first, second and third. His past two Cup starts have been second and third. He could easily find himself in the top three, but a win? He’s never led a lap in a Cup race at Vegas.

12. Jamie McMurray (Chip Ganassi Racing No. 1 Chevrolet): McMurray has had great back-to-back races but now that he’s not in the playoffs and appears out of the ride, this could be a long 10 weeks.

13. Brad Keselowski (Team Penske No. 2 Ford): Keselowski has two wins in the past five Vegas races and has finishes of third, first, seventh, first, fifth and sixth dating back to 2013. Not only has he finished great, he has led plenty of laps — 188 in those past six starts.

14. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing No. 17 Ford): Stenhouse didn’t make the playoffs so now he looks for momentum for 2019. It probably won’t happen at Vegas, where his best career Cup finish is 12th. He did win an Xfinity race at the track in 2012.

15. Clint Bowyer (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 14 Ford): Bowyer has four top-10s in his career at Vegas, and one of those came in the March 2017 race. He has led just 17 laps — none since 2013 — at Las Vegas.

16. Aric Almirola (Stewart-Haas Racing No. 10 Ford): Almirola enjoyed a career-best at Vegas with a 10th in March. He has never led a lap in a Cup car at the track and never did in Xfinity as well.

17. Jimmie Johnson (Hendrick Motorsports No. 48 Chevrolet): Johnson won back-to-back-to-back Vegas races from 2005-2007 and he added another win in 2010. He was 11th in 2017 and 12th last March at the track. The way this team has struggled, a top-12 might not be considered too bad a day.

18. Austin Dillon (Richard Childress Racing No. 3 Chevrolet): Dillon has not had much success at Vegas in Cup as he has just one top-10 as he was fifth in 2016. But he has won at Vegas. He captured a truck win in September 2010 and an Xfinity race in March 2015.

19. Daniel Suarez (Joe Gibbs Racing No. 19 Toyota): Vegas hasn’t been kind to Suarez, who has finishes of 20th and 26th in his Cup races at the track. But he did have a second and third in Xfinity.

20. Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing No. 21 Ford): Menard has four top-10s in his past seven Cup starts at Vegas.

21. William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports No. 24 Chevrolet): Byron finished 27th in March in just his third career Cup race. And just 14th in his only Xfinity race. He might be wondering why the playoffs can’t start at a place like Richmond where he has run well?

22. Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing No. 31 Chevrolet): Newman has been good but not great at Vegas with finishes of 13th, 17th and 11th in his past three starts.

23. Trevor Bayne (Roush Fenway Racing No. 6 Ford): Bayne is back in this seat for the first time since Bristol. He has started just two of the past eight races. Vegas hasn’t treated him great with one top-10 in Cup. But he did have five top-eight finishes at the track in Xfinity. He could use a good run as he is looking for a 2019 ride.

24. Michael McDowell (Front Row Motorsports No. 34 Ford): McDowell was 18th at Vegas in 2017.

25. Regan Smith (Leavine Family Racing No. 95 Chevrolet): Smith will be in the car for Vegas, Richmond and Charlotte as Kasey Kahne tries to determine the cause of dehydration issues.

26. Matt DiBenedetto (Go Fas Racing No. 32 Ford): DiBenedetto had a decent day in March as he finished 22nd. This starting spot is his best in four career starts at Vegas.

27. David Ragan (Front Row Motorsports No. 38 Ford): Ragan started 23rd and finished 23rd in March. A mid-20s finish is likely.

28. Chris Buescher (JTG Daugherty Racing No. 37 Chevrolet): Buescher and teammate AJ Allmendinger swapped crew chief, two engineers and a shock specialist this week. So Ernie Cope, who typically had called the race for Allmendinger while crew chief Tristan Smith would head the work during the weekend, will call the race for Buescher.

29. AJ Allmendinger (JTG Daugherty Racing No. 47 Chevrolet): Allmendinger now has Trent Owens as his crew chief as part of the swap with Buescher.

30. Ty Dillon (Germain Racing No. 13 Chevrolet): He has finishes of 24th and 21st in a Cup car at Vegas.

31. Bubba Wallace (Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 Chevrolet): Wallace was 21st in March. As is often the case for teams looking for funding, the later in the season, the tougher good results get as other teams make more significant improvements in the development of their cars.

32. Corey LaJoie (TriStar Motorsports No. 72 Chevrolet): Cole Whitt was in the car for the first Vegas race so LaJoie hasn’t competed at the track since March 2017.

33. Kyle Weatherman (StarCom Racing No. 99 Chevrolet): This will be Weatherman’s first career Cup start at Vegas.

34. Ross Chastain (Premium Motorsports No. 15 Chevrolet): Chastain will likely make the Xfinity playoffs on Saturday afternoon, so he might be in the best mood of any driver Sunday.

35. Jeffrey Earnhardt (Gaunt Brothers Racing No. 96 Toyota): He was 33rd in 2016, 32nd in 2017 and 31st in March at Vegas. Anyone thinking he’ll have a 30th-place finish Sunday?

36. J.J. Yeley (BK Racing No. 23 Toyota): This is Yeley’s first Cup start at Vegas since March 2015.

37. Landon Cassill (StarCom Racing No. 00 Chevrolet): Cassill is doing double duty this week as he also is racing for JD Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.

38. B.J. McLeod (Rick Ware Racing No. 51 Chevrolet): McLeod doesn’t have a Cup start at Vegas.

39. Timmy Hill (Carl Long Motorsports No. 66 Toyota): Last time Hill started 39th at Vegas, he finished 37th.

40. Reed Sorenson (Premium Motorsports No. 7 Chevrolet): He has started between 37th and 40th in his last four Vegas starts.

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