It's a great bet that Sunday's winner at Las Vegas will be a title contender

From The Marbles
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nascar/sprint/drivers/380/" data-ylk="slk:Martin Truex Jr">Martin Truex Jr</a>. did the Vegas and championship double for the sixth time since the Cup Series started racing at the track in 1998. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
Martin Truex Jr. did the Vegas and championship double for the sixth time since the Cup Series started racing at the track in 1998. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

If you show up in victory lane at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, you’ve got a pretty good chance of being in title contention at the end of the season.

Martin Truex Jr. won at Las Vegas a season ago on his way to eight wins and a deserved championship. When Truex hoisted the championship trophy at the end of the season, it was the sixth instance of a championship driver winning at Vegas in the same season.

Yes, Jimmie Johnson is responsible for three of those six times, as Johnson won at LVMS in 2006, 2007 and 2010 while he was reeling off five-straight championships. But it’s a remarkable statistic when you consider that last season’s race at Las Vegas was just the 20th Cup race at the track. That’s a championship rate of 30 percent for Vegas-winning drivers.

It goes deeper than that too. Fifteen winners at Las Vegas — or 75 percent, if you prefer — have gone on to finish in the top five in the points standings that same season.

And just three times has a driver finished outside the top 10 after winning at Vegas. One of those years was in 2002, when Sterling Marlin was forced to miss the final seven races of the season after suffering a neck injury in a crash at Kansas. Marlin was fifth in the points standings at the time of his accident. If you assume Marlin was going to maintain his top-10 points position — he was more than a full race ahead of 11th in the standings — that’s a top-10 rate of 90 percent.

Why is this correlation so strong? Probably because of the track’s characteristics. When it was added to the schedule in 1998, the track was a relatively flat 1.5-mile track, similar to tracks like Chicago and Kansas that were added to the schedule a little later. In 2006, the track increased the banking in the corners and made it progressive, meaning it got slightly steeper as the track went towards the outside wall.

Similarly-sized tracks like Homestead (where the season-finale is held), Kansas, Kentucky, and Texas all now have progressive banking and have been repaved since Las Vegas was. Those tracks may scoff at the “cookie-cutter” label, but it’s impossible to ignore their similarities.

Pay attention on Sunday if you want a reliable indicator of who will be heavily involved in the latter stages of the playoffs. Only one driver in the elimination playoff era (Brad Keselowski) has failed to make the third round after winning at Las Vegas. With the track getting a second race for the first time and kicking off the 2018 playoffs, we’re interested to see if what’s become a very clear spring trend carries over into the fall.

Here’s a full list of Las Vegas winners and their finishing points positions:

1998: Mark Martin, 2nd in points
1999: Jeff Burton, 5th
2000: Jeff Burton, 5th
2001: Jeff Gordon, 1st
2002: Sterling Marlin, 18th (missed final seven races of season)
2003: Matt Kenseth, 1st
2004: Matt Kenseth, 8th
2005: Jimmie Johnson, 5th
2006: Jimmie Johnson, 1st
2007: Jimmie Johnson, 1st
2008: Carl Edwards, 2nd
2009: Kyle Busch, 13th
2010: Jimmie Johnson, 1st
2011: Carl Edwards, 2nd
2012: Tony Stewart, 9th
2013: Matt Kenseth, 2nd
2014: Brad Keselowski, 5th
2015: Kevin Harvick, 2nd
2016: Brad Keselowski, 12th
2017: Martin Truex Jr., 1st

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Nick Bromberg is a writer for Yahoo Sports.

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