LAS VEGAS—After 26 races of hard-nosed determination and hard-knocks competition, the 16-driver field for the 2019 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs is set and the drivers begin their final trophy hunt in Sunday’s South Point Casino 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio).
Kyle Busch wrapped up his second consecutive regular season championship two weeks ago at Darlington and the 2015 series champ begins pursuit of his second Monster Energy Series title this week at his hometown track. The 15-point bonus he received for winning the regular season turned out to be a well-timed boost for the four-time winner this season. His last of those four victories came all the way back on June 2 at Pocono, Pa.
After his worst showing of the season at Indy last week – a blown engine relegated him to 37th-place finish – Busch is hopeful the overwhelmingly good vibes of 2019 return for this 10-race Playoff stretch. The driver of the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota won races at ISM Raceway, Fontana, Bristol-1 and Pocono-1, he leads the series in top-10s (21) and he is tied with his JGR teammate — and fellow four-race winner – Denny Hamlin for top-five finishes (13).
He and the rest of the field fully anticipate having to beat reigning series champion Joey Logano and Logano’s Team Penske Ford teammates Brad Keselowski and Ryan Blaney when it comes to competing at Vegas. Busch has a series best seven top-five finishes at the track, but it’s been primarily a Penske show in Vegas for the past few seasons.
Keselowski is the defending winner of this Playoff opener. Logano won at Vegas this March and the 25-year old Blaney boasts one of the best average finishes (10.7) in this Sunday’s field.
Among the Playoff drivers, Busch has had the longest span since his win at the track in 2009. Keselowski boasts the most wins (three) among the championship-eligible drivers with trophies in 2014, 2016 and 2018. Last week’s Indianapolis regular season finale winner Kevin Harvick – a three-race winner this year – is the only other Playoff driver in the field with multiple Las Vegas wins (2015 and 2018). And JGR’s Truex won at Vegas en route to his 2017 Monster Energy Series championship.
Also among those to watch out for is JGR driver Denny Hamlin, who begins the Playoffs ranked right below his teammate Busch and full of positive momentum. After winning his second Daytona 500 in the 2019 season-opener, Hamlin has been steady and successful all year – winning again at Texas and Pocono-2 and then again only three weeks ago at Bristol from the pole position. With 13 top-fives already he’s on good pace to eclipse his previous best mark of 15 (2009 and 2017) and his 17 top-10 finishes is also on pace to be a new personal record. In 2016 and 2017 he had 22 top-10s.
What Hamlin seeks most, however, is that championship trophy. The driver of the No. 11 JGR Toyota was runner-up to seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson in 2010 and third behind the champion Kevin Harvick in 2014.
Four times the winner of the Playoff opening race has gone on to celebrate a championship — Kurt Busch (2004), Tony Stewart (2011), Keselowski (2012) and Truex (2017).