LAS VEGAS — Not too many years ago, NASCAR was the biggest show on the Strip during its annual week in Las Vegas.
This week, the fast cars are competing for Sin City's sports fans with the NHL's first-place Vegas Golden Knights, the UFC 222 show and a major international rugby tournament. That's all leading into next week, when several college basketball tournaments invade town. Later in the year, soccer's Las Vegas Lights FC and the WNBA's Las Vegas Aces will take center stage — and it's all prelude to the Raiders' likely arrival in 2020.
This onetime sports desert has become a mecca, but the drivers who grew up in Vegas don't mind the competition. In fact, they're thrilled.
"It's definitely grown," Kyle Busch said Friday before qualifying. "When I was a kid here, I always kind of wondered why we didn't have a professional team of any kind, whether it would be hockey or basketball or baseball or football."
But Las Vegas didn't have a major pro sports team while the Busch brothers grew up here in the 1980s and 1990s. Sure, Jerry Tarkanian's UNLV Runnin' Rebels were beloved, but it wasn't the same as the world's best athletes rolling into the town where many top entertainers already made their home.
"It really kind of blows my mind," said Xfinity Series driver Spencer Gallagher, a Palo Verde High School grad who raced in the Legends series at Las Vegas Motor Speedway before moving into stock cars. "You grow up in this town for 20 years hoping and wishing for any kind of sports team, and the floodgates just opened. We went from going our whole lives having to pick other (cities') sports teams to cheer for, and now we've got a bevy of options to choose from."
Several sports pursuits are currently converging for what Vegas is calling the Ultimate Sports Weekend. Representatives from NASCAR, the UFC, the Golden Knights and the 2018 USA Sevens rugby tourney met for a pep rally earlier this week outside T-Mobile Arena, which will host the Pac-12 Tournament starting Wednesday.
"It's incredible," said Kurt Busch, a Durango High School graduate just like his younger brother.
"The sports dominance that we're experiencing here in Vegas is similar to the different trends we've seen with the hotels," Kurt Busch added. "It was a family atmosphere back in the '90s, and then it seemed like it turned into the nightclub atmosphere, and then it was the chefs from around the world who created a residency and they had their type of marquee restaurant introduced to the hotels and casinos. Now we're going through a sports phase, and I think it's huge."
The NASCAR season is still young, but the Busch brothers would love to get a win on their hometown track. Kurt has never won here, while Kyle has one Sprint Cup win in 2009 and an Xfinity Series win in 2016.
Kurt Busch is fairly certain he has a car capable of doing it after Stewart-Haas Racing got off to a stellar start to the season in its Ford Fusions. Teammate Kevin Harvick won at Atlanta last week, and Clint Bowyer finished third with Kurt Busch in seventh.
"It would be huge," Kurt Busch said of a Vegas win. "I've put too much pressure on myself every year I come back, and I keep trying to come back and be looser and just let the race come to us. I hope that we're able to find that raw speed in the car that we need in the second half of the race. A teammate won last week, so there should be no excuses on why the 41 car can't win here this weekend. It would mean the world to me."
Kyle Busch is giving himself even more chances at checkered flags by running in all three races this weekend. Busch said he doesn't compete in the lesser races to pad his stats, but instead to improve the performance of the team that he owns.
"You want to win any weekend," Kyle Busch said. "But especially when it's in your hometown, and you remember this track being built from the ground up, and the hole being dug in which we're sitting in right now. ... It would certainly be special to close it out and to win a triple in your hometown. That would be pretty awesome."