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Three things to watch in NASCAR’s return to Las Vegas

Cup teams head to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the first time this season after superspeedway races at Daytona and Atlanta. This is the first “traditional” race of the season, one that will provide a benchmark for teams throughout the garage.

Here are the three things to watch in today’s race:

MORE: Las Vegas starting lineup

MORE: Details for Sunday’s race

1. The Dark Horse

Ford Performance debuted its new Dark Horse Mustang this season as the manufacturer sought improved consistency. The new Mustang excelled in qualifying at Daytona and Atlanta as Joey Logano and Michael McDowell secured spots on the front row in both races. Logano lost his starting spot at Atlanta due to a penalty for an altered glove.

Drivers such as Justin Haley, Brad Keselowski, Noah Gragson, Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric all raced inside the top 10 at Daytona. Cindric was in contention for the win in the Daytona 500 before a crash collected him and Ross Chastain.

Ford drivers continued to shine at Atlanta as seven led laps and four finished inside the top 10.

Michael McDowell started from pole, led 27 laps and won the first stage. Cindric won stage 2, led 32 laps and finished fourth. Ryan Blaney finished second by a mere three-thousandths of a second. Todd Gilliland led a race-high 58 laps. Logano led 27 laps. Brad Keselowski led two laps. Chris Buescher finished ninth after leading one lap.

Qualifying at Las Vegas followed this trend. Logano won the pole while Chris Buescher, Austin Cindric and Chase Briscoe all made the final round.

The early returns were promising for the Ford drivers, yet they aren’t ready to declare the Dark Horse a smashing success.

“Last year, we had a really good race, solid execution, great pit stops, great strategy, good restarts, but we just didn’t have the raw speed to win the race,” Keselowski said about expectations for the Dark Horse Mustang at Las Vegas.

“We did everything you need to do, but were just lacking the raw speed. We’re looking for the Ford body to give us the raw speed to go with the execution that we showed here last fall. If we can do that, we can win.”

The winningest Cup driver over the last year has no idea what to expect this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Logano made similar comments prior to the race at Atlanta. He indicated that the Ford teams would not know what they have until Las Vegas. Ryan Preece agreed while expressing excitement about how the car will perform.

“The gains, it’s hard to see right now, but I feel really optimistic going into Vegas,” Preece said at Atlanta. “I think there’s a lot a lot of great things to be looking forward to about that.”

Las Vegas is such a point of emphasis because it is an intermediate track. It doesn’t use the superspeedway package or the new short track package that will debut at Phoenix.

Las Vegas is the test that will help teams determine how they will perform at similar tracks like Texas, Kansas, Darlington, Charlotte, Nashville and Homestead. Darlington is the regular-season finale while Kansas, Las Vegas and Homestead are all in the playoffs.

The Ford drivers already have a benchmark for performance based on the two trips to Las Vegas last season. Only two Fords finished in the top 10 in the spring and only two finished in the top 10 in the fall. Chevrolet drivers won both races.

2. Past Toyota success

Like Ford Performance, Toyota Racing will test its new body at Las Vegas. The Toyota Camry XSE will take on an intermediate track and serve as a gauge for whether Toyota drivers will lock up more wins.

The intermediate tracks were a strength for Toyota drivers in the first two seasons of the Next Gen era.

Bubba Wallace, Kurt Busch, Tyler Reddick and Denny Hamlin won the four Kansas races. Hamlin won the Charlotte race in 2022. Wallace started from the pole at Texas last season and led 111 laps before finishing third.

Christopher Bell finished second at Las Vegas in last season’s playoff race before winning the following week at Homestead.

Will intermediate tracks continue to be a strength for the new Toyota Camry XSE? Las Vegas should provide a strong indication as Wallace, Truex, Bell and Ty Gibbs all start inside the top 10.

International calls of the Cup finish at Atlanta
Relive Daniel Suarez victory at Atlanta Motor Speedway by a razor-thin margin as heard on the international broadcasts.

3. Tying a seven-time champion

Las Vegas has been on the NASCAR Cup schedule since 1998 when Mark Martin won the inaugural race. Eighteen drivers have celebrated wins at the intermediate track.

Jimmie Johnson leads the list with four Las Vegas wins (2005, 2006, 2007 and 2010). Logano (2019, 2020 and 2022) and Keselowski (2014, 2016 and 2018) lead full-time drivers with three wins each.

Logano and Keselowski will each have an opportunity to tie Johnson for the all-time wins lead Sunday at Las Vegas. Though the seven-time Cup champion will be back in the lineup for the October Las Vegas race as he pursues his fifth win at the track.

There is a hurdle for each driver. Keselowski is on a 100-race winless streak dating back to his final season at Team Penske. He finished 33rd in the first two races of the season.

Logano is on a 33-race winless streak dating back to Atlanta last March. He finished 32nd and 28th in the first two races of the season.