RACE-FULL ENTRANCE: As NASCAR’s Pennzoil Weekend roars into town, take a joyride through its highlights and history
If your heart pumps gasoline and you take your morning coffee with a side of motor oil, you already know the joys of NASCAR’s Pennzoil 400. You may also want to see a doctor. None of that sounds remotely healthy.
If, instead, your last car purchase was a late-’90s Camry, you don’t know what you’re missing.
Since 1998, NASCAR has made a home on the northern edge of Las Vegas, debuting what was then known as the Las Vegas 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The race has gone through several name changes, settling on the Pennzoil 400 in 2018.
More than just a race, NASCAR’s Pennzoil weekend (Feb. 21-23) is a celebration of motorsports in the desert. The event is expected to draw more than 85,000 attendees to town, generating an economic impact of $166.6 million.
Originally, the festivities were scheduled to kick off with the annual hauler parade on Feb. 20, with competitors’ cars hauled up the Strip on their way to the speedway. Unfortunately, that has been cancelled.
“Due to the rain postponement of the Daytona 500, race-team haulers will not arrive in Las Vegas in time to participate in the parade on Las Vegas Boulevard,” said a statement from Speedway President Chris Powell.
“We did everything possible to facilitate having the parade. Unfortunately, getting 50 or so 18-wheelers from Daytona Beach to North Carolina to Las Vegas in time for the hauler parade simply became a logistical impossibility.”
However, fresh for 2020 is something new: Thursday night racing at the speedway’s Bullring track featuring Las Vegas’ own Kyle Busch in the 150 Arca Menards Series West, where late model cars can come out and play with the current king of the big league.
“It’s pretty cool to have the reigning NASCAR champion racing on your little short track with some of the local Saturday night racers,” said Jeff Motley, vice president of public relations for the speedway.
The Strat 200 Gander Trucks race goes off at 6 p.m. Feb. 21, with the Boyd Gaming 300 NXS the next day at 1 p.m., building to Feb. 23’s main event, with 75,000-80,000 people expected to be on hand for the Pennzoil.
Kicking off the race will be members of the 1980 Olympic men’s Miracle on Ice hockey team as they serve as the race’s grand marshals. Expected to attend are captain Mike Eruzione, Ken Morrow, Neal Broten and Dave Christian. And if they feel like lacing up, the speedway’s Turn 4 Turn Up party zone will supplement its Ferris wheel with an ice-skating rink. If you were hoping to find out what it might feel like to be a Lake Placid Soviet getting relentlessly outplayed by the U. S. of A., this could be your best chance.
Here’s a look at some of highlights in the 22-year history of the race:
Mark Martin Strikes First
Roush Racing (stock car) got on the board in the first-ever running of the Las Vegas 400, with driver Mark Martin piloting his Ford home in front of 120,000 in a race that would stand as the fastest entry in the series until 2014, with Martin finishing the 267 laps in two hours, 43 minutes and 54 seconds.
Rain in the Desert
Well, one race was run in a shorter time in that span — technically. The 2000 edition of the race was cut short at 148 laps thanks to rain. Jeff Burton still won his second straight, and Roush continued its early domination of the series, going three-for-three in the early years, and five-of-seven through 2004 to build its status as the top operation in race history with seven team wins.
Jeff Gordon Wins Amid Sport’s Raw Nerves
Just two weeks prior to the 2001 race, legendary driver Dale Earnhardt was killed in a crash at the Daytona 500. In Las Vegas, three jets from Nellis Air Force Base — not the traditional four — flew over the speedway before the start of the race. Dale Earnhardt Jr. held the lead for three laps in the middle of the race, but Jeff Gordon scored his only win in Las Vegas. When asked if he could step into Earnhadt’s place in racing’s firmament, Gordon told reporters: “I’m not looking to take anyone’s place. I’m just looking to go out there, do my job and hopefully win some races.”
Win One for Las Vegas
The Busch brothers, Kyle and Kurt, are the best twosome in the Vegas auto world since Elvis and Priscilla drove off from the wedding. In 2009, Carroll Shelby International was the race’s sponsor, and stretched the format out for the Shelby 427 (the Shelby Cobra 427 is made in town). Kyle Busch won the pole in qualifying and made good use of it. He took the lead in lap 267, navigating the field over its new duration of 285 laps and scoring one for the hometown.
Jimmie Johnson Sets the Mark
Hendrick Motorsports driver Jimmie Johnson was unstoppable in his Chevrolet from 2005-2007, winning three straight, including a 2006 win that saw Johnson nip Matt Kenseth in the last turn of the last lap. In 2010, he was at it again. After Kim Kardashian teamed up with Shelby to give drivers the start, Jeff Gordon led the race for 219 laps, but Johnson passed him in lap 251 and hung on. Johnson’s four wins still pace the field, with Kensenth in second at three wins. As of 2020, Kardashian has yet to qualify.
Fight One for Las Vegas
Martin Truex Jr. came away with the win in 2017, but he didn’t get the attention in the immediate aftermath of the race. On the last lap, Joey Logano made contact with Kyle Busch. Busch’s Toyota went spinning down pit road, and he was heated. As soon as the race ended, Busch hopped out of his car and came out swinging at Logano. The latter’s crew jumped in the fray and set up a short brawl. Busch was fired up after the melee settled down. “I got dumped,” he said. “He flat-out just drove straight in the corner and wrecked me. That’s how Joey races, so he’s going to get it.”
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