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Windy LVMS another early test of NASCAR drivers’ mettle

When it comes to variety, the spice of life has nothing on the NASCAR drivers at Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (and wind tunnel).

LVMS’ spring race is the third in a stretch of four on tracks of varying lengths and configurations that often foretells how the 10-month grind for the season championship will play out.

The season opened two weeks ago at the 2½-mile Daytona superspeedway, followed by last week’s final race at Auto Club Speedway, a rough and wide 2-mile oval in California.

LVMS is a smoother and tighter 1½-mile oval. Next week’s stop is at mile-long Phoenix, which will host the NASCAR championship race in November.

Throw in go-rounds at Atlanta, a 1.54-mile superspeedway of sorts, and the Circuit of the Americas road course in Texas, and it’s conceivable the championship battle will begin taking shape before the end of March.

“It’s really fun to have that diversity, and it’s cool when you’re able to go to all of these places and show what you’ve got – that your team is good, and you’re ready to keep knocking wins down,” said Las Vegas’ Kyle Busch, who returned to victory lane in California last week in his second start for Richard Childress Racing.

Kyle Larson agreed that by the time the cars and teams leave the West Coast, they usually have a good idea of where strengths and weaknesses lie.

“It’s a good time of year,” said the 2021 Cup Series and Pennzoil 400 champion. “You get all the genres of track, and you get a good sense of where you stack up.”

Busch’s average finish of 5.7 over his past six LVMS starts is tops among active drivers. He’s followed by Martin Truex Jr. (8.2) and Joey Logano (8.3), who turned a lap of 186.053 mph in blustery conditions Saturday to earn the pole position for Sunday’s race.

Logano, the Team Penske driver and reigning Cup Series champion, will be seeking his fourth LVMS win. He said high winds that hampered qualifying and are expected to hang around for race day could prove to be a handful for even the fastest cars and drivers.

“If it’s a steady wind, at least you know it’s coming. But it’s the gusts that get you in trouble,” Logano said after knifing through them for his 27th Cup Series pole and his second in 20 races at LVMS.

“It’s like when you get a big gust of wind when you’re driving down the highway, and your car moves a little bit. But we’re going really, really fast, and it kind of moves us a little bit more.”

Logano will share the front row with William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports). Ryan Blaney (Penske), rookie Ty Gibbs (Joe Gibbs Racing) and the two Kyles, Busch and Larson (Hendrick), will start third through sixth.

Las Vegas’ Noah Gragson, a Cup Series rookie, will roll off 25th in a car owned by local businessman Maury Gallagher and will be attempting to move forward in front of the home folks.

For others, Sunday’s race offers another opportunity to mesh with a new team and manufacturer.

With finishes of 39th at Daytona and 34th at California, Tyler Reddick – the pole-sitter for the 2022 playoff race at LVMS – could use a decent result after failing to post a qualifying speed Saturday.

Reddick inherited the No. 45 seat at 23XI Racing, the second-year team headed by basketball legend Michael Jordan, after 2004 series champion Kurt Busch of Las Vegas suffered a head injury in a crash last summer and retired from full-time competition.

“Vegas is a great track for me, and I feel the Toyotas were stout when we were last here. So a lot of excitement on our end,” Reddick said before the wind began to howl.

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