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Wide-open NASCAR playoffs to begin again at South Point 400

Let’s get two.

That old baseball exhortation is one of the major themes of the NASCAR playoffs that begin Sunday with the second running of the South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Six of the 16 championship-eligible drivers — Las Vegan natives Kyle and Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski — has won a title. None has done it twice.

With seven-time Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson relegated to competing for race wins after being eliminated from playoff contention during the regular-season finale at Indianapolis, this year’s title chase seems even more unpredictable than usual.

“I don’t know who the favorite is,” NBC analyst and former driver Jeff Burton said after Clint Bowyer and Ryan Newman locked up the final two playoff spots at the venerable Brickyard last Sunday. “It has gotten completely mixed up. It’s as equal as I remember seeing it.”

Kyle Busch, by virtue of his four victories and an accumulation of playoff points, is the top seed, followed by fellow four-time 2019 race winners Denny Hamlin and Truex, and Kevin Harvick, the 2014 champion who has won three of the past seven races — including a dominating drive at Indianapolis.

Talkin’ playoffs?

While some drivers say you can out-think playoff strategy, most agree on at least one aspect of Sunday’s outing on the 1.5-mile tri-oval that will set the tone for the rest of the playoffs.

Getting off to a great start might not be critical to a championship run. But getting off to a poor start is to be avoided.

“You’ve got 10 races to get it done,” said Bowyer, who with two weeks to go in the regular season was on the outside of the cutoff line.

“You can’t have a bad race. And it certainly can’t be Las Vegas. That being said, you can’t win a championship by winning Las Vegas. But you can certainly lose it.”

As for momentum heading into the postseason, don’t put too much stock in it.

Last year Brad Keselowski won the last two regular-season races heading into the playoff opener at LVMS, which he also won.

But the Team Penske driver didn’t come close to winning the championship after being eliminated in the Round of 12 and settling for eighth in final points.

“I don’t know,” admitted Kyle Larson, seeded 11th, about a postseason strategy. “I’ve never made it into even the final eight, so that’s kind of when you need to know who you have to beat and what you have to do.

“The first round, I think you just really need to avoid trouble. You can’t have a DNF (did not finish) or anything like that, because then you sort of go into a must-win situation.”

Night game

One of the other major changes for this year’s South Point 400 is that it will finish at night. LVMS officials worked with NASCAR and NBC to switch the starting time after last year’s inaugural race was run in near 100-degree heat that was blamed for a sparse turnout estimated at 45,000 — an all-time low for a Las Vegas Cup Series race.

This year’s South Point 400 will get the green flag at 4:15 p.m. —- close to the hottest time of the day. But during most of the race, the sun will be below the rim of the grandstands, cloaking them in shade. The track probably won’t be as slippery as last year, which may reduce the number of spins and crashes.

It’s a trade most spectators would make.

“Lot better for the fans,” said Brendan Gaughan, the semi-retired NASCAR driver from Las Vegas who grew up in the desert heat and gave the command to start engines at the inaugural South Point 400. (The title sponsor is a Las Vegas hotel-casino owned by his family).

“What we (drivers) do for a living, we don’t care if it’s hot or cold. But this sport is about the fan — that’s what everybody knows about NASCAR, and why we love it. We take care of the fans.”

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

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