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The best Las Vegas NASCAR Cup Series races

It was hot on and off the track at the inaugural South Point 400 last fall.

Temperatures approaching 100 degrees made watching from the aluminum grandstands miserable. But spectators who could find shady spots were thoroughly entertained when a sun-slicked track produced an exciting race with lots of action and twisted sheet metal.

After the cars were done banging off the walls and sliding through the infield grass, Brad Keselowski emerged as the winner, providing vaunted Team Penske with its 500th victory across all auto racing disciplines.

We ranked it among the top third of Las Vegas Motor Speedway NASCAR Cup Series races, slotting it behind Keselowski’s last-lap victory over Dale Earnhardt Jr. in 2014 with the Dos Equis beer guy on hand.

Here’s our list:

1. 2006: Jimmie Johnson passes Matt Kenseth just before the finish line to win the closest Cup race in LVMS history. Johnson chases Kenseth down over the closing laps and takes him on the high side as the cars race to the checkered flag. Margin of victory: .045 of a second.

2. 2017: Martin Truex Jr. wins all three race stages under NASCAR’s new points system, but didn’t take his last lead until two laps to go when front-runner Brad Keselowski’s car slowed on the backstretch. Kyle Busch and Joey Logano tangled on the final lap, and when the race was over, Busch and Logano’s crew tangled on pit road, leaving the Las Vegas driver with a bloody forehead.

3. 2001: An emotional day at the speedway: Two weeks after the death of NASCAR legend Dale Earnhardt, Jeff Gordon picks up his first — and only — LVMS win after starting 24th and weaving through the field. Teresa Earnhardt makes her first public comments about her husband’s death on race day morning. Tears are shed.

4. 2014: Dale Earnhardt Jr. runs out of gas on the backstretch of the final lap, handing the win to Brad Keselowski. Almost as exciting: The Dos Equis beer guy, “The Most Interesting Man in the World,” gives the command to start engines.

5. 2018 (fall): Brad Keselowski didn’t have the fastest car when a blistering sun turned the 1.5-mile oval into an oil slick. But he had the fastest team, and it put him in front of Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr. on late pit stops in a race that featured crashes and spins and plenty of passing.

6. 2009: Kyle Busch triumphs in his hometown event in the only 427-mile race in LVMS history — the race is lengthened to honor sponsor Shelby Automotive, which is promoting the release of its 427 Cobra sports car. Busch slips past Clint Bowyer, who is leading at the customary 400-mile juncture, 16 laps from the checkered flag.

7. 1998: Mark Martin dominates the inaugural Cup race at LVMS. It wasn’t the closest race, but it was the first, and 107,000 spectators — the largest crowd to witness a single-day sporting event in Las Vegas — file into the massive grandstands, then inch their way home out of the parking lots afterward.

8. 2019 (spring): Aerodynamic rule changes designed to make the cars run closer together on the intermediate-sized track produce a race that is visually more interesting than most at LVMS. Joey Logano finishes .236 of a second ahead of Brad Keselowski for the win.

9. 1999: Burton edges Burton. After engaging in a late-race, side-by-side battle that lasts 25 laps, it is Jeff Burton over Wade Burton at the finish. The brothers from Virginia lead 182 of 267 laps.

10. 2016: Gone with the Wind: After being caught for speeding on pit road and being sent to the back of the field, Brad Keselowski roars to his second victory in three years on a blustery day for stock car racing.

11. 2004: The Dale Earnhardt Terrace opens in Turn 4, significantly increasing seating capacity. Three Las Vegans — Kurt and Kyle Busch and Brendan Gaughan — are in the starting field. The three receive keys to the city from Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman. Robert Goulet sings the national anthem. Matt Kenseth wins before a record crowd of 148,000.

12. 2007: Jimmie Johnson makes it three in a row in Las Vegas by winning the first race on LVMS’ reconfigured, higher-banked oval. The banking was raised from 12 to 20 degrees after the 2006 race, which does not make Tony Stewart (and a few other drivers) happy. Drivers are slow to adapt to the new layout, which contributes to nine crashes.

13. 2013: What’s the frequency, Kenseth? Matt Kenseth wins for the third time at LVMS, holding off Kasey Kahne in the closing laps. Kahne catches Kenseth with eight laps to go; Kenseth does not let him by.

14. 2008: Jeff Gordon plows into the backstretch wall in the closing laps after making contact with Matt Kenseth, bringing out the red flag and the backstretch wall repair crew. After the race is restarted, Carl Edwards drives away from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a green-white-checkered finish.

15. 2005: Siblings Kyle and Kurt Busch battle Jimmie Johnson for the win. Johnson gets it because Johnson always wins in Las Vegas. Or so it seems. The three-way duel at the finish is overshadowed by 10 yellow-flag periods, an LVMS record.

16. 2012: Tony Stewart’s run of bad luck at LVMS finally ends, but it isn’t easy: After Kyle Busch spins, bunching the field, Stewart holds off a snarling pack of cars headed by Jimmie Johnson. Jimmie went high; Jimmie went low. Tony still won.

17. 2011: Tony Stewart throws one away. Or at least his crew does. After leading for 166 of 267 laps, Stewart gets shuffled back on his final pit stop, handing the lead and win to Carl Edwards.

18. 2002: Sterling Marlin takes it, marking the second straight year the Las Vegas winner comes from 24th on the starting grid. That’s about the most you could say for this one.

19. 2003: A huge pileup takes out contenders Jeff Gordon, Rusty Wallace, Kurt Busch and others. Matt Kenseth is the class of the field. Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes in a distant second.

20. 2015: In his final race in Las Vegas, retiring Jeff Gordon sets the fastest qualifying time but starts from the rear after crashing in practice. Kevin Harvick dominates the race, leading the final 66 laps.

21. 2010: This race is best remembered for two caution periods caused by race officials turning on the yellow light by mistake. Jimmie Johnson wins again because Jimmie Johnson always wins in Las Vegas. Or so it seems. Kim Kardashian serves as co-grand marshal (with Carroll Shelby), adding to race day ignominy.

22. 2018 (spring): The decal on the side of Kevin Harvick’s car tells the story: Freaky fast. Harvick leads a track record 214 laps en route to a convincing victory in which he sweeps all three race stages.

23. 2000: Race day dawns cold, then it becomes wet. Jeff Burton is declared the winner after the red flag ends it with 148 laps (many of them run under caution) of the 267 completed because of rain. Brrr.

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

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