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Much at stake for teams entering West Coast swing

Las Vegas is the first downforce race of the year and it comes at a point in the season when teams will try everything to reach victory lane.

Now comes the fun part for NASCAR teams. Or the part they’ll dread.

After a restrictor-plate race and one on a worn 1.5-mile surface, the West Coast swing will give teams a better evaluation of how they’ll compare to the field over the next three weekends at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, California.

Teams will race at a 1.5-mile track (Las Vegas) that is more on par with other such tracks, a 1-mile track (Phoenix) and a 2-mile track (Fontana) where aero and horsepower are king.

“If you can have a good three-week span, it really kicks off the rest of the season and kind of makes everything flow easier,’’ AJ Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve been where we’ve had a great three weeks and it feels like it just carries on for the next 15 weeks. I’ve also had it where we’ve had a horrible three weeks and it feels like you’re so far behind before you ever get back home that it just makes the rest of the season an uphill battle.

“So, the West Coast swing is three weeks that are very important to the rest of your season.’’

In the last three years, only four drivers who finished in the top five at either Las Vegas, ISM Raceway (Phoenix) and Auto Club Speedway during the West Coast swing failed to make the playoffs that year.

Also worth noting, eight of the 12 drivers who made it to the championship round in Miami the past three years scored at least a top-three finish at one of those races the year they made it to the title race. Jimmie Johnson, the 2016 champ, won at Auto Club that year. Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 champ, won at Las Vegas last year.

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A new wrinkle for teams this year is that Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the opening race of the playoffs in September. So how much will it make this weekend’s race more meaningful for teams?

“With Las Vegas not only being early in the season but also as the first race of the playoffs, I think lends itself to the belief that if you run well there in the spring that you will run well there in the fall,’’ Brad Keselowski told NBC Sports. “Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works.

“Generally speaking, there’s a number of rules changes and enforcement changes that happen throughout the season that effectively change the performance of the car so dramatically over the course of seven or eight months that it’s unrealistic to think that the same things will work for you that worked in the spring.’’

Another key factor will be the conditions. Early forecasts call for a high of 58 degrees for Sunday’s Cup race. The playoff race will be Sept. 16. Last year, the high was 88 degrees that day. In 2016, It was 90 degree that day.

But that’s not the only change teams will face on the West Coast swing.

ISM Raceway (Phoenix) will move the start/finish line to the just before the dogleg on the backstretch for the November race — the last race to set the four drivers for the championship race in Miami. The move is being done in conjunction with more seats being added to what was Turn 2.

“I don’t know what to expect,’’ Chris Buescher told NBC Sports. “I know how crazy it is now … but when you put it in a restart zone trying to go through the gears in a turn is not going to be easy, making sure it is clean when you try and get the throttle.’’

Kevin Harvick, who has won six of the last 11 Cup races at Phoenix, isn’t fretting the change.

“I’m all about change,’’ he told NBC Sports. “You know, if it’s the start/finish line at Phoenix, or the schedule changes that we have this year, we need more of them. We need to keep it interesting, we need to keep it fresh.’’

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