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The Journal Gazette

Sunday, March 04, 2018 1:00 am

Added purpose for Vegas

Cup teams to return in fall for playoff race

GREG BEACHAM | Associated Press

LAS VEGAS – NASCAR's annual early-season trip to Las Vegas Motor Speedway is an understandable favorite for many teams and drivers. This year's event, however, is about getting much more than a few hands of blackjack and the checkered flag.

For the first time, everybody is coming back to Vegas in six months for the opening race of the playoffs.

Each turn in Sunday's Monster Energy Cup Series race should provide experience and data to the drivers hoping to dominate the postseason this fall.

“There is definitely some added importance to this race with (Las Vegas) being in the playoffs,” said Kyle Larson, who excelled in practice last week at the track where he finished second to eventual Cup champion Martin Truex Jr. last year.

“Hopefully we have a strong race, and if not, you know what you need to go back and work on to be better when you come back later in the year to benefit your playoff run,” Larson said. “Not that this race when it was just a stand-alone event wasn't important, but anytime you can race at a track that you are going to come back at in the final 10, it's got some added importance to it.”

Although other tracks have downsized their NASCAR ambitions when faced with smaller crowds in recent years, Las Vegas has been eager to host a second race for several years, confident in its local fan base and the visiting fans who plan a vacation weekend around the March race.

The track finally got a second date last year when New Hampshire's second race was given to Vegas, which was backed by sponsorship deals with the local Convention and Visitors Authority and with the South Point hotel-casino, owned by former race team owner Michael Gaughan.

Everybody already knows this track from NASCAR's annual visits, but teams are paying particularly close attention this weekend.

“This race has more importance around it than it ever has before, just because of the playoff atmosphere that will be around it in September,” said Kurt Busch, who was born in this city. “This is big for Las Vegas.”

The winter weather in Las Vegas isn't necessarily helping the teams to prepare for September, when temperatures are almost certain to be sizzling.

The speedway has been chilly all week, with occasional 40 mph winds buffeting cars and possibly changing drivers' tactics.

“It's definitely an important weekend to make sure you have a firm understanding of this track and what you're going to need when you come back for the playoffs,” said Kevin Harvick, who won last week in Atlanta.