The heat is on: NASCAR play­off push kicks into gear in Ve­gas

Daily Local News (West Chester, PA) - - SPORTS - By Greg Beacham

Seven months into the NASCAR Cup se­ries season, Kyle Busch and Kevin Har­vick are dead­e­ven atop the stand­ings. De­fend­ing cham­pion Martin Truex Jr. is right be­hind them, and the other 13 driv­ers in the play­off field are des­per­ate just to keep up.

Even af­ter the oc­ca­sional pre­dictabil­ity of a reg­u­lar season dom­i­nated by the Big Three driv­ers, the stage is set for an in­trigu­ing play­off push. It all starts Sun­day in the 98-de­gree heat of Las Ve­gas, where ev­ery event just seems big­ger.

“You can feel the en­ergy from the teams and the driv­ers be­fore this play­off, even more so than you have in years past,” said Kurt Busch, a Las Ve­gas na­tive. “There’s so much en­ergy and so much at­ten­tion with it be­ing in Ve­gas for the first time. It just makes ev­ery­thing more ex­cit­ing.”

NASCAR’s play­off stretch is kick­ing off for the first time at Las Ve­gas Mo­tor Speed­way, which also got a sec­ond race for the first time this season af­ter years of strong pub­lic sup­port for the sport. While the tem­per­a­tures on the slick track will bear con­stant mon­i­tor­ing, most driv­ers aren’t as wor­ried about the heat as the stakes when this season hits the home stretch.

The play­offs add an­other el­e­ment to the season-long ri­valry among Har­vick, Truex and Kyle Busch. Those three driv­ers’ joint dom­i­nance — they’ve com­bined for 17 vic­to­ries and 51 top-five fin­ishes while lead­ing more than 42 per­cent of the laps over the en­tire season — has been the over­rid­ing theme of the season.

With 10 races still to go, the front-run­ners are eye­ing each other war­ily. Noth­ing will be de­cided in Ve­gas, but a ma­jor mis­take — par­tic­u­larly by Truex, whose play­off points cush­ion isn’t as big as his fel­low lead­ers — could change the cham­pi­onship chase.

“My fa­vorite part about where we’re at is that I feel we’ve been in cham­pi­onship form all year,” said Har­vick, who won on this track in March. “I don’t feel like there is a switch we have to go flip. We’ve been in the mid­dle of the head­lines and noise and all the things that come with the suc­cess we’ve had this year. The mo­ment is not go­ing to sur­prise any­body on my team. It should be busi­ness as usual as you start this week­end, and the goal is to win. Win the race in Las Ve­gas and go from there.”

Erik Jones was the sur­pris­ing win­ner of the pole Fri­day, with the 22-year-old start­ing off his first play­off run by scorch­ing the track. Since they can’t con­trol what hap­pens at the top of the stand­ings, Jones and the other play­off driv­ers out­side the Big Three all re­al­ize their tar­get should be the fourth spot head­ing into the season-end­ing race at Home­stead.

“I would say there’s a few dark horses,” Jones said af­ter edg­ing Joey Logano by a mi­nus­cule mar­gin for his sec­ond ca­reer pole. “I don’t think I am the only one. I would say the Big Three are def­i­nitely the fa­vorites to get to Home­stead, but that last spot needs to be filled. We’re all fight­ing for it.”

Vet­eran cham­pi­ons such as Jim­mie John­son and Brad Ke­selowski made the play­offs, but even Ke­selowski — who’s in fourth place in the stand­ings — is largely shoot­ing for that fourth spot at Home­stead. Ke­selowski sur­prised the field with two straight race wins head­ing into Ve­gas, but he re­al­izes how much still needs to be done this fall.

“Win­ning (last week) cer­tainly doesn’t hurt, but I think you try to tem­per that with the knowl­edge that other than the play­off bonus points, it is more or less a con­fi­dence thing,” Ke­selowski said. “It doesn’t count for much for the 10 weeks ahead of us.”

Kurt and Kyle Busch grew up rac­ing at this speed­way and the dirt tracks on the vast desert sur­round­ing Las Ve­gas, but they’ve com­bined to win just once in their 31 ca­reer Cup se­ries starts here. Kyle’s 2009 vic­tory was an aw­fully long time ago, too. Both vet­eran driv­ers ac­knowl­edge their frus­tra­tion at not be­ing able to cel­e­brate on their home track.

“It’s my home­town, and I put too much pres­sure on my­self,” Kurt said.

Ke­selowski’s vic­tory last week was the 499th in his­tory for Team Penske across all rac­ing com­pe­ti­tions. The suc­cess be­gan 52 years ago with the 1966 Rolex 24 Hours of Day­tona and ex­panded to in­clude 17 In­di­anapo­lis 500 wins, two Day­tona 500 vic­to­ries and more wins every­where from For­mula 1 to V8 Su­per­cars. Ke­selowski, Ryan Blaney and Joey Logano all would love to be the driver to de­liver the land­mark 500th win for owner Roger Penske — and they have a 3 ½-hour head start on Josef New­gar­den, Si­mon Pa­ge­naud and Will Power, who will try to win the IndyCar season fi­nale in Sonoma later Sun­day.

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