Luck finally fell Kurt Busch’s way at his home track, where he pulled out an upset Sunday nightat Las Vegas Motor Speedway to sneak his way into the third round of the playoffs.
Busch ended an 0-for-21 losing streak at Las Vegas with good timing and then three tremendous restarts. He entered the race 12th in the standings and in danger of elimination from title contention, but the victory earned him an automatic berth into the next round.
His win, the first of the season for the 2004 Cup champion, was celebrated alongside younger brother, Kyle. The reigning NASCAR champion slammed doors with his big brother on the cool-down lap. Busch then took the checkered flag to the finish line and smacked it on each of the letters in Las Vegas.
“This is what kids grow up when they are racing,” Busch said. “They grow up dreaming of winning on their home track and for two decades it has kicked my butt.
It was the first win of the year for Chip Ganassi Racing and the first in the playoffs for a Chevrolet driver.
Busch happened to be the leader during a a round of green flag pit stops interrupted with 32 laps remaining by just the fifth caution of the race. It cycled him to the lead for the ensuing restart and he had an incredible jump to control the front.
Busch did it two more times, including a final restart in overtime, to deny the challengers any shot at catching him.
Matt DiBenedetto, eliminated from the playoffs last weekend, finished second in a Ford for Wood Brothers Racing in his best finish of the season. Denny Hamlin, who dominated the race until the cautions jumbled the finish, rallied to third in a Toyota for Joe Gibbs Racing.
Martin Truex Jr., another Gibbs driver, was fourth and followed by Alex Bowman and Kyle Busch, who is still seeking his first Cup win of the season.
Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Austin Dillon are all below the cutline with two races remaining in the second round. NASCAR races next weekend at Talladega Superspeedway and then closes this round at Charlotte Motor Speedway on the hybrid “roval” road course-oval.
Here are my main takeaways.
Lap 235 Caution Shakes Race Up, Allows Busch To Win Where Others Say He’s The Last That Needed To
Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin knew that their playoff points would all but assure that they’d be racing in the Round of 8 next month. Everyone else had one driver that they didn’t need to win – Kurt Busch.
Busch, was last in the playoff standings entering this round. He had one career Vegas top five finish prior to tonight. He was 20th or worse in 12 of his last 15 Vegas starts at that.
In the two stages, he was one of just three drivers to score no points. He was 16thand 17th respectively in the two stage and running in 13th heading to the final pit stop of the night. But, luck happened for him.
Busch, stayed out long hoping for a caution to fly. We only had four up to that point, two for stage breaks, one for a competition caution and the other for debris. The likelihood was low.
Just nine cars had yet to pit at that point. Would they hit the lottery in Vegas?
Up until this sequence, 92-percent of the laps run in the playoffs were under green. We only had two cautions in March 2018, four in the spring and just four last Fall too.
Lightning struck in the desert.
Debris came out on Lap 235. Busch, John Hunter Nemechek, Chris Buescher, Michael McDowell, Corey LaJoie, Ryan Newman, Matt DiBenedetto, Christopher Bell and Matt Kenseth were the only ones to have not pit at that point. They were the only ones on the led lap too.
Alex Bowman had just passed Denny Hamlin on track for 10th and got he free pass. Everyone else had to take the wave around while these nine got a free pit stop to come back out in the top nine now.
Busch and DiBenedetto would come out of the pits 1-2 and remain that way for the rest of the way. Busch, had to ensure two more cautions, but also knew that DiBenedetto had different gearing and pounced each time to win for the fourth time of his playoff career (16 years).
So, he essentially went from last to first in the playoff standings and took a spot from someone else.
DiBenedetto Narrowly Misses Out On A Vegas Win Again
Matt DiBenedetto will know his fate for the 2021 season this upcoming week. The Wood Brothers hold the option on whether he returns to the seat of the No. 21 Ford next year and the wording in his current contract states that a decision is to be known before the end of the month.
The only way he doesn’t return to this seat is if Team Penske needs it to house Austin Cindric there next season. They’re full with all three current drivers coming back next season. So, does Cindric go back to his seat in NXS next year or does he move up and take DiBenedetto’s seat in the way Ryan Blaney started off in Cup in the exact same ride?
DiBenedetto, made the decision tough on them on Sunday. He finished runner-up in the South Point 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his second straight second place result on the 1.5-mile track. He was runner-up back in February too.
It was a race that DiBenedetto says shows the pace is there to contend. He just had an unlucky first round to where too many unforced errors and bad luck took him out early.
Hamlin Finally Finds Vegas Speed, +58 In Standings Heading To Talladega
Denny Hamlin hasn’t always had much success in the past at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Heading into this weekend’s race, Hamlin had one top five finish in his last seven starts on the 1.5-mile track. His last five finishes were 17th, 32nd, 10th, 15th and 17th respectively.
This was the race that worried him the most for this round. That’s even with Talladega and the ROVAL looming. That’s because he didn’t want to waste his mulligan early.
Now, he knows that he doesn’t.
Hamlin, led a race-high 121 of 268 laps en route to a third place effort in his No. 11 Toyota on Sunday night. It was also his first top 10 finish of the playoffs too and he now sits very comfortable with two races left in the second round.
“If you would have asked me before the day I would have definitely been happy about it, but I just hate missing out on victories to be honest,” Hamlin said.“We’re so much better than the six victories that we’ve got.It’s just disturbing.
“I’ve never been this fast in so many races and just not finishing it like I feel like we should.But if we’re up front, that’s what counts and that’s what’s going to get you to Phoenix is to keep getting stage wins and keep battling for race wins, and you’ll get yourself to Phoenix and hopefully you’ll get a championship out of it.That’s what we’re all here for, and that’s what I’m trying to do.“
This was the momentum back that they needed, especially when people said he was distracted by the efforts of starting a new team.
“No, I mean, I’ve been working for like 10 weeks on stuff, so not just racing stuff but just stuff in general,” said Hamlin.“It doesn’t — we’ve had bad breaks — tonight was just another bad break like Darlington was to be honest with you or Bristol.We led laps tonight.We were obviously I thought the best car, but people look at the results instead of actually paying attention to the race.“
He’s right. In Darlington he was running third heading to his final stop. He got rear ended trying to get to pit lane. He dropped 10 spots as a result. A week later in Richmond, he won a stage but was but with a pit road penalty.
The speed has been there. The luck hasn’t. That’s why I’ve always maintained that we can’t sleep on Hamlin still.
Quiet Night For Truex With 10th Top 4 In His Last 12 Races
Martin Truex Jr. was quiet on Sunday in Vegas. He finished ninth in Stage 1 and fourth in Stage 2. He failed to lead a single lap. But, he came away with a top five still in bringing his No. 19 Toyota home fourth. It was his seventh top eight result in his last nine Vegas starts, six of which now in the top four.
“We were right there in the hunt coming down after the last pit stop there under green,” Truex said. “We were third and we were tracking them down just a little bit at a time. Felt like we were maybe going to have a three-way race for the win and then that caution came out and put us all the way to the back.”
Truex, was still able to battle back for a top five as he said the key was pitting again for fresher tires on that final stop.
“To be able to battle through that and ended up pitting again for tires because we weren’t going anywhere and restarted like 24th there on not the last caution, but the one before that,” Truex continued. “To be able to drive back up to fourth is really something. The Bass Pro Toyota was really strong tonight.”
Truex also noted that he was about a third place car all evening, so he finished near where he should have anyways.
“We needed just a little bit to be as good as the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and maybe the 88 (Alex Bowman), but we were a third-place car, no question. Just missed it a tiny little bit. Decent night. Just needed a little bit more, but happy with the team and the job they’re doing. See what we can do next week at Talladega.”
On the season, Truex, has 10 top four finishes in his last 12 races run too. That has him +15 in the playoff standings heading to a track to where he’s only scored one top five at since 2007 and seven straight finishes of 20th or worse there too.
Kyle Busch Rebounds To 6th
Leaving last Saturday night’s Bristol night race, Kyle Busch was left fuming at Joey Logano. He was upset with how Logano, who was a lap down, didn’t get out of the way in the end.
That drama carried over to Sunday’s opening race of the second round. Busch and Logano had contact on Lap 87 in Turn 3. Busch, had right side damage while Logano developed a left rear tire rub and had to pit a few laps later.
“I don’t know if (Logano) knew that was coming and didn’t adjust for it and didn’t plan for it,” Busch said. “It kind of seemed like he expected me to go to the bottom and run the bottom and he was gonna run my door.”
Busch, would salvage eight stage points with coming home third in Stage 1. The aero was hurt on his No. 18 Toyota and they elected to fix it following a 11th place finish in Stage 2. He’d restart the final stage in 21st.
“We worked on it and I thought we were making some gains on it and then we got that damage and got way back in traffic,” Busch said. “Then there towards the end, was just able to get lucky on a couple of the last restarts in order to pick off a few spots with the M&M’s Camry and get ourselves in a better position for the finish. It was a pretty dismal day I guess.”
He didn’t rebound until the final few laps. Busch, went from outside the top 10 on the final restart to in it with a sixth place result in his No. 18 Toyota.
“Started a little up, went a little down and finished just kind of mediocre there,” Busch said. “We brought an okay M&M’s Camry. Just didn’t seem to have the overall speed that it needed, especially on the long runs early in the race. Then there late, just no overall speed. Nothing to go blitz anybody and try to make moves and get to the front. We just salvaged along and got what we got. We got lucky to get what we got for sure. It was looking like it was going to be a 12th- or 14th-place day, but came home sixth.”
It was his fourth straight top seven finish in as many playoff starts and seventh top 10 in his last 10 starts overall this season. Despite that, with his brother winning, he’s now -9 heading to Talladega next weekend.
Busch’s last six Fall starts on the Alabama Superspeedway is 40th, 11th, 30th, 27th, 26th and 19th respectively. Then, it’s to the ROVAL to where he was 32nd and 37th in the two starts on it. He was also only 37th on the Daytona road course last month too.
Bowman Salvages Top 5, Didn’t Need Kurt Busch To Win
Alex Bowman would be in really good shape had Kurt Busch not won Sunday’s South Point 400. The Hendrick Motorsports driver scored 11 stage points on Sunday night and was in contention for the win if not for that Lap 235 caution. He was the first car a lap down, so he restarted 10th.
He’d made up ground to finish fifth, but he’s now on the playoff bubble to the Round of 8 at +9.
Still, he’s in a good spot to finish this round off with a berth to the third round. This was his fifth top 10 in his last six starts on the season. He had four in the previous 19 starts.
“I guess it is good to be disappointed in a fifth-place finish,” Bowman said. “We did not need that caution to come out in the middle of the pit cycle like that. I thought it was going to be ok for us, but we just couldn’t get through traffic as well as we needed to.
“Our program is continuing to improve and I just feel like this is another Vegas race that go away from us. At least it was a good points day, which is what we need.”
In this race last year, Bowman finished sixth. In the spring race at Vegas, he had a top two finish coming until a late race caution. He was in the damned if you do and damned if you don’t situation. He and Ryan Blaney had to make the call to pit or not. Everyone else would do the opposite. It cost him a potential win.
He made up for it with a ton of speed on Sunday to keep the momentum going.
Penske Cars Unexpectedly Struggle In Vegas
Tema Penske was supposed to be the favorites for Sunday’s South Point 400. They had won three of the last four overall on the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway and had the speed back in their Ford’s again. Unfortunately, they were non factors all race long.
They combined to lead four laps and finished 7-13-14.
Brad Keselowski was off from the drop of the green flag. He was just one of three drivers to score no stage points, but one of the other two ended up winning. Keselowski, was 21st and 13th at the end of the two stages and brought his No. 2 Ford home 13th. That end a streak of 10 straight top 10 finishes on the track for him.
“It just wasn’t the night we wanted,” Keselowski said. “It’s a good thing we had a little bit of a points cushion to lean on and we’ll run our best the next two weeks. It could have been a lot worse. It is frustrating but we are certainly not out of it. We still have a pretty good points cushion so we will try to get through these next two weeks and put up a good race and build ourselves a cushion.”
Joey Logano’s nine race streak of top 10’s in Vegas ended too. He only finished 14th. That’s because of that contact with Kyle Busch on Lap 87 which left his No. 22 Ford with a left rear tire rub. They’d have to pit for repairs on Lap 89 and would fall from third to 32nd, -1. It took him until the Lap 249 caution to finally get back on the lead lap. He’d end up going from 24th to 14th though to make up 10 points in the end. That took him from -1 to +11 heading to Talladega next Sunday.
“Unfortunately, we got a little damage there and had to pit for the left-rear tire,” Logano said. “You can’t afford to blow a left-rear tire in the playoffs and back the thing in the fence and shoot yourself in the foot. We had to pit and then just no cautions, and then the one time I had a shot at it the 48 just got me, so that was a little unfortunate. Eventually, we got the lucky dog and went around with our Pennzoil Mustang and drove back to 14th. I felt like that second stage, not scoring any stage points there hurts, but we’re still above the cutline and we’ll head on to Talladega and see how that one goes.”
Ryan Blaney finally got going again with a seventh place result, but he’s not playoff eligible anymore.
Belt Coming Loose Costs Austin Dillon a Strong Run
Austin Dillon was a solid sleeper on Sunday night. He finished 12th in this race last year and fourth back in February. From the drop of the green flag, his No. 3 Chevrolet was showing its strength. He quickly moved up and was sixth at the end of both stages. That was a much needed 10 extra points in the two stages.
Unfortunately, a belt broke on his car in the final stage and that plus a “safety violation” penalty on his second to last stop cost him a top 10. He’s now 32 points out heading to Talladega, a place Dillon says is now a must win for him.
Elliott Struggles In Final Stage
Chase Elliott won three of the four stages in Vegas this year. He swept both of them back in February and won the second stage on Sunday night. Elliott, w sfourth in Stage 1 to give him 17 stage points overall in the opening race of the second round.
But, the late caution to shake up the field and a bad final restart took Elliott to a disappointing 22nd place finish. He’s now only +10 heading to Talladega next weekend, which is a place to which Elliott says that the odds say that he will crash in.
SHR Misses Vegas Setups Again
Last year, Stewart-Haas Racing elected for short run, qualifying pace throughout the Vegas playoff weekend. They’d qualify 1-2-3-4 as a result. But, the clean air didn’t help as three of the four would finish 13th or worse.
This past spring weekend, SHR went for good all around speed. Harvick, was quickest on the 10 lap average report in final practice. Aric Almirola was third and second on five lap speeds, first and 10th on 10 lap averages and sixth on 15 laps. Clint Bowyer was also sixth and fifth on five lap runs and sixth on 10 laps.
Unfortunately, the long run pace to go with the short run speed didn’t help. Harvick, despite leading a race-high 92 of 267 laps was their top finisher in eighth. While he led all of those laps, his car faded as a run went on, which was surprising. He was third in Stage 1 and sixth in Stage 2.
Almirola, was only 21st in the spring race while Bowyer was 12th. Rookie Cole Custer was only 19th.
8-12-19-21. Not a good day for SHR.
Same could be said for the playoff race. Harvick was tops again in 10th as he said his car was on the splitter all night. He expected to be a bit off anyways as they have struggled on this track as of late so they brought a new car to it.
“We just missed everything tonight,” Harvick said. “The car just didn’t drive good. We were slow on pit road and that was pretty much it. We just got buried in the field there.”
Almirola, was the opposite. He was confident. He was a non factor all night and finished just 17th.
“Our mile-and-a-half stuff has been really good lately,” said Almirola. “We ran really good at Kentucky, Texas and we’ve just been solid, so I came in here with a lot of confidence. I thought we would come here and run good. The guys have been working really hard on the cars back at the shop and we just missed it tonight. We were off in speed, off in handling, we were not very good at all on pit road. We didn’t do a lot of things right myself included, so it was just a bad night. Nothing went the way it was supposed to go. We’ve got to be better than that. You can’t transfer through these rounds running that poorly, so we’ll go to Talladega and see if we can’t pull one out of our hat.”
Clint Bowyer was 12th with Cole Custer coming home in 16th.
“I was more worried about this race than I am the next two,” said Bowyer. “We didn’t get out of here as good as I wanted to. Obviously, the 1 car was not a car that we needed to win a race. It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse as far as points-wise. Him winning changes that landscape quite a bit, but we’re only 20 points out. It wasn’t near as bad as it could have been. The car was nuclear meltdown and I was lucky to finish, so 20 points is pretty easy to overcome at a track like Talladega that’s for sure.”
Top 3 Looking Good Now, Will Anyone New Bump Their Ways Back In Over Final 2 Races Of 2nd Round?
Kurt Busch knows that he’s advancing onto the Round of 8 by virtue of his Vegas win. Kevin Harvick (+61) and Denny Hamlin (+58) now look to be joining him. They have a mulligan left in them, but if they just play it safe at Talladega next Sunday, they’ll be good to have an easy race on the ROVAL in two weeks.
Everyone else is nervous. Brad Keselowski went from +30 to +16. Martin Truex Jr. gained four points from +11 to just +15 though. Joey Logano went from +17 to +11 while Chase Elliott dropped from +16 to +10.
I think all four of them expected to be further up from the bubble leaving Vegas. Instead, they head to Talladega to where they could easily drop out of the top eight of the standings too.
Alex Bowman holds the final spot at +9 over Kyle Busch. This is now really a fight among those nine with Clint Bowyer (-20), Aric Almirola (-27) and Austin Dillon (-32) all likely having to dominate the final four stages and maybe even steal a win.
Busch, hasn’t won since last year’s season finale. Bowyer, hasn’t won in his last 87 starts now (6/10/2018). Almirola, hasn’t won since Talladega in 2018 (71 starts) either. Dillon, won at Texas back in June, so he’s the only one in the bottom five to have won recently.
The question is, can anyone of those four out get back in?
Busch, is the best bet with seven top seven finishes in his last 10 starts including a top seven in all four playoff races. But, Bowman has five top 10’s in his last six starts on the year too. Plus, Bowman was seventh this past spring in Talladega and has three top eight’s in his last five ‘Dega starts overall. On top of that, he was fourth and second in his two ROVAL tries.
Busch meanwhile, has just two top fives as both are his only top 10’s since 2014 at Talladega. His two ROVAL starts saw him finish 32nd and 37th respectively.
Then you have Bowyer who has one top five since 2014 at Talladega himself. He does have six top six finishes in his last nine road course starts though. By that point, is it win or go home?
Almirola, is at his best at Talladega and not so much on road courses. Same for Dillon. Next week may be must wins for them.
Elliott and Truex are the opposite. They’re so good on road courses, not so much on superspeedway’s. But, their gaps may be enough due to how everyone else behind them runs on these tracks.
Vegas Wins For The Grown Folks
Joey Logano’s spring win last year was the first time that a Cup winner was under the age of 30 in any of the last 13 races run at the track.
Champions win in Vegas
19 of the 21 Cup races in Vegas resulted in a past champion winning. The only non title winner to have won at Vegas?
Carl Edwards (twice).