3 things to watch at this weekend’s NASCAR races in Las Vegas

Updated February 28, 2018 - 8:00 pm

It’s only the third race of 36, but already there are storylines heading into Sunday’s NASCAR Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Here are three to keep an eye on:

1. Calling young lions

After 27-year-old Austin Dillon won the season-opening Daytona 500 and fellow young lions Bubba Wallace Jr. and Ryan Blaney finished second and seventh, the many youthful chargers upon whom NASCAR is building its 2018 marketing campaign went AWOL in the second race at Atlanta.

Kevin Harvick, 42, won, as Harvick often does in Atlanta. He was followed across the line by Brad Keselowski, Clint Bowyer, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano and Las Vegas brothers Kyle and Kurt Busch. Each of the first eight at Atlanta have a minimum of eight years’ experience in the Cup Series.

The highest-placing young lion was second generation driver Chase Elliott, who ran 10th.

While Daytona is a restrictor-place race that tends to level the playing field between young lions and grizzled veterans, the 1.54-mile Atlanta Speedway is definitively a grizzled veterans track. As is the 1½-mile LVMS oval, although not as much as Atlanta. Experience, like cream, tends to rise to the top at the intermediate tracks.

“There’s no coincidence,” Harvick said about the running order in Atlanta, adding that the first of two restrictor-plate races at Talladega, Alabama, is in April, and that will be the next time the bold young lions roar again.

2. NASCAR air guns

In an attempt to reduce costs, NASCAR instituted new pit stop rules this year, one of which prohibits teams from developing their own air guns. The sanctioning body is providing the race teams with air guns in 2018, and they didn’t work well at Atlanta.

That’s putting it mildly, said Cole Pearn, crew chief for reigning series champion Martin Truex Jr.

“They’re pieces of (expletive),” Pearn told NBC.

The misfiring guns probably cost Truex a top-3 finish. Winner Kevin Harvick had to pit twice when an air hose came off his crew’s gun. There were reports that Kyle Busch and Alex Bowman also had problems.

“We never want to see failures with any part or piece,” NASCAR senior vice president Steve O’Donnell told SiriusXM Radio. “We’ll have conversations and get it right. We want it to be in the hands of drivers and teams. We’ll head to Vegas and hopefully get that cleaned up.”

3. Where’s Jimmie?

Seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson finished 38th among 40 starters at the Daytona 500 and 27th among 36 at Atlanta last week. He is off to what one would call an uncharacteristic slow start.

“Even though the season is just starting, if I was Jimmie Johnson, I’d be worried,” TV’s Darrell Waltrip said. “They didn’t just fall into a slump. They’ve been there for a while and don’t seem to be working their way out of it. Once you’re in that situation, your confidence is shaken, despite how many races or championships you have.”

Johnson is 42, so perhaps a little slippage was inevitable. But it was only two years ago that he won his seventh series title, tying immortals Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt. Johnson is a four-time Las Vegas winner, with his last victory here in 2010.

Contact Ron Kantowski at rkantowski@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0352. Follow @ronkantowski on Twitter.

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