We knew it wouldn’t take long before Kyle Larson earned his first victory lane with Hendrick Motorsports. But, did we think it would only be four weeks?
Larson, led the final 30 laps of Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway en route to his seventh career NASCAR Cup Series victory. The last one came back in Oct. 2019 at Dover. Unfortunately, Larson’s 2020 season was short lived. He ran the first four races of a contract year with Chip Ganassi Racing, before making a costly mistake by using a racial slur on Easter Night during an online video game. That not only cost him his ride with CGR, but potentially his racing future.
Larson, lost all his sponsors. He lost his ride. He lost his future. The California native would move back to the dirt ranks while also trying to rebuild his image. He also took sensitivity classes to better understand what he did and how hurtful it was.
Now, 11 months later, he’s back in victory lane in NASCAR’s premiere series.
Rick Hendrick took a chance on Larson by signing the driver without any corporate backing. He signed him out of his own pocket on his own dime. He knew it would be a tough sell to sponsors to for a corporate boardroom to approve their colors on a NASCAR with Larson as a driver.
So, Larson donned a Hendrick car without any outside sponsor on Sunday afternoon and showed while he’s a changed man, he’s also a hell of a good race car driver too. Larson, led a race-high 103 of 267 laps in victory and stamped his name into the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series playoffs as a result.
It paid Hendrick’s faith and trust back too. The victory was HMS’ second of the season, both consecutively, as well as their 265th overall. That’s two shy of tying Petty Enterprises for most all-time.
How Larson Got The Win
The car was the best out there. He’d quickly jump to the top three in his No. 5 Chevrolet and remain there the rest of the way. Larson, took the lead during the competition caution and then played a wrong strategy by not pitting and fading to 12th at the end of Stage 2. They’d not make a mistake the rest of the way.
Larson, dominated the second stage in taking the stage win. In the final stage, we all thought it was a questionable pit call to send him and a few others down pit road during the caution for Aric Almirola’s crash on Lap 178. They’d give up track position with 16 cars not electing to hit pit lane.
But, that in turn was the winning move.
Larson, lacked short run speed. His bread-and-butter on Sunday was long run pace. So, why not get four fresh Goodyear tires to help alleviate the short run deficit and climb forward. He did so rather quickly too. By the end of the first lap on the restart, he was already in the top 10. A few laps later, he was in the top five. A few laps after that (Lap 206), he was in the lead.
Fresher tires than most behind, clean air and the fastest car. Barring a late race caution, this race was his.
He nearly gave it away by missing pit road on Lap 224. He’d have to pit again a lap later. That allowed Brad Keselowski to catch up to his bumper off pit road for what would be the top spot. Larson though, was just too good. He’d pass Daniel Suarez, who had not yet pit, for the lead on Lap 237 and never look back.
Win, Not A Shock
Some may say Larson’s win in Vegas as a shock. I say, not so fast. This was his six top 10 finish in his last seven tries including four of which in the top three.
More Of A Normal Race, With Usual Suspects Up Front Again
Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 may have been a different winner than we’re typically accustomed to seeing in Vegas, but the event looked more normal. This wasn’t the surprise guys running up front like we’ve seen over the opening three weeks to the season. This was Hendrick Motorsports, Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing dominated.
Hendrick put half of their fleet in the top 10. JGR added all four of their cars to the top 10 while Penske put all three in there as well. That’s nine of the top 10 finishing spots going to them.
For JGR, Denny Hamlin earned his second straight top five finish at Vegas. He only had two in his first 17 tries on the 1.5-mile track. Hamlin, now has a top five in three of the four races run in 2021.
Kyle Busch was third in his No. 18 Toyota for his fifth top seven in his last seven Vegas starts. He’s now had two straight top 10’s on the season.
Martin Truex Jr. finished sixth in his No. 19 Toyota for his eighth top eight over his last 10 Vegas starts including ix top sixes in his last eight overall there. He’s had a top five for two straight races on the season now.
Christopher Bell was seventh in his No. 20 Toyota.
In the case of Penske, both Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano earned their 11th top 10 finishes in the last 12 Vegas races. 8 of Keselowski’s 11 resulted in a top five effort. Four of his last six have seen him finish in the top three.
Logano’s two year streak of spring race Vegas wins come to an end with a ninth place result.
Ryan Blaney ended up fifth for his seventh top seven in his last nine Vegas tries. He’s finished fifth in four of his last seven starts on the Nevada oval too.
Stewart-Haas Racing Absent Again
Kevin Harvick started on the pole. He led zero laps and finished off the lead lap in Sunday’s race. In fact, none of the four Stewart-Haas Racing cars came home on the lead lap when it was all said and done. They went 16-18-25-26 in Stage 1, 16-23-25-27 in Stage 2 and 20-21-25-38 in the end.
SHR has in fact just missed the setups on the 1.5-mile track lately though. They’ve qualified really well but not excelled in race conditions for the recent impound races. Then throw in no qualifying for last Fall and you can see where the miss it for them.
Aric Almirola’s last four finishes are 13th, 21st, 17th and 38th respectively. Cole Custer was only 19th and 16th as a rookie a year ago and 25th on Sunday. Chase Briscoe is a rookie but came home 21st. Harvick, has no led a single lap in each of his last two Vegas tries.
Sunday Was What Blaney/DiBenedetto Needed, Not What Almirola Or Wallace Wanted
Matt DiBenedetto had some terrible luck in the end. He had a great car but his air gun broke on the last time and they only got three tires on. They had to run on the old left front the entire last stage and faded to finish 16th. But, he was eighth and 12th respectively in the first couple of stages to score some much needed points. He only had 14 entering the day.
Ryan Blaney was only 30th, 15th and 29th respectively over the first three races run. Now, he gets a much needed top five.
On the flip side, Aric Almirola’s dreaded start to the season continued. He finished last (38th) after crashing on Lap 178. He wasn’t anywhere near the front prior to that in finishing 16th and 25th respectively in the first two stages. He’s now finished 30th or worse in three of his four starts this year.
Bubba Wallace also has had a rough starts. He had a mechanical failure early and lost five laps as a result. He was last (38th) in Stage 1, 34th in Stage 2 and just 28th in the end. He’s now finished 17th, 26th, 22nd and 28th respectively to start the year out.
Logano and Elliott Surprisingly Needing To Show Me More
I could have made a solid case that Joey Logano and Chase Elliott could have each won the first two races of the 2021 season. Logano, was leading at the time of the last lap crash in the Daytona 500. Elliott, was a millisecond from the win as a result as he was side-by-side with Michael McDowell when the yellow light was triggered.
In the road course race at Daytona, Elliott dominated by far led the most laps. That “weather” caution cost him a shot at a win and a mistake while trying to come back through the field cost him the finish that he deserved. Logano, benefitted and took over the lead by not pitting during that fluke caution. He was passed for the top spot by Christopher Bell coming to the white flag and would finish second.
Now, after two races away from Daytona, I feel like both need to show me a little more.
Logano, admitted that he doesn’t have a good car on long run pace. It showed in Homestead. He’d fade to outside the top 10 and finish 25th. In Vegas, he did the same. He slid back and was ninth by the end of the first stage. He was 14th in Stage 2. He’d only finish ninth ending his two year Vegas win streak for the spring race.
Elliott, was second in Stage 1, received some damage in the second stage and after having a lengthy stop for repairs during the caution, he only came up to finish 10th. He’d then spin on Lap 169 and finish 13th as a result.
Logano has one top five finish all year and that was a lucky strategy call.
Elliott, has three straight finishes of 13th or worse.
They will eventually improve, but the finishes aren’t where either thought they’d be by now.
Vegas Was A Great 1.5-Mile Race, 2 Cautions in Stage 1 Helped Aesthetics
Part of the reason as to why we’re getting more road courses and short tracks is due to the lack of 1.5-mile tracks moving forward. Fans were growing fatigued of the “cookie cutter” tracks dominating the schedule. One gripe was NASCAR’s 550 horsepower package not being ideal for 1.5-mile circuits. Well, Sunday’s race showed otherwise.
We saw 27 lead changes among 12 drivers in 267 laps of action. That’s far more than recent years on what typically became a one-groove race track since the repave.
Part of the help was that we saw a Competition Caution on Lap 25 and a debris yellow on Lap 45. With cars not being able to break the draft early, it created mayhem. 12 of the 27 lead changes took place in the opening stage.
The second stage started off crazy but tamed down due to no cautions flying during it. That turned into a green flag pit sequence which broke the draft and led us to more single file racing.
The final stage saw two yellows to tighten things back up again, but without a caution over a longer final fuel run and the need for a green flag pit stop, it spread things out again.
Still, from start to finish, this was a great race. Much improved from last year.
More 1.5 Mile Parity
We’ve seen 13 different winners in the last 19 races on intermediates including eight straight and 11 in the last 12.
It all started nearly two years ago, on June 30, 2019 at the Chicagoland Speedway to be exact, with Alex Bowman. Then, Kentucky Speedway (Kurt Busch), Las Vegas in the Fall (Martin Truex Jr), Kansas (Denny Hamlin), Texas (Kevin Harvick) and Homestead (Kyle Busch) to close out the season. Last year, we had Las Vegas (Joey Logano), Charlotte (Brad Keselowski/Chase Elliott), Atlanta (Harvick), Homestead (Denny Hamlin), Kentucky (Cole Custer), Texas (Austin Dillon), Kansas (Brad Keselowski), Vegas (Kurt Busch), Kansas (Joey Logano) and Texas (Kyle Busch) following suit. So far, we’ve had two 1.5-mile tracks in 2021. One occurred last week in Homestead. William Byron won. The other this weekend with Kyle Larson.
We’re running out of names to keep this going? All that’s left on the big teams are Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe, or Aric Almirola.
Also, 14 of the last 16 Cup races run have seen a different winner too.
We’ve had four races and four different winners now in 2021. What’s weird is, no one really expected any of these four to win yet. It sounds odd, but it’s somehow not too early to start looking at points in the NASCAR Cup Series right now either. We’re only four races in with 32 to go, but with 22 races left in the regular season at the moment and already having three different winners in as many races and looking at who won them, there’s going to be some nervous drivers/teams coming on soon.
Michael McDowell was 0-for-357 before his Daytona 500 triumph. Christopher Bell was 0-for-38 before winning on the road course a couple of weeks ago down in Daytona. William Byron was 1-for-110 before winning last Sunday at Homestead. Kyle Larson earned his first win since 2019.
While Bell, Byron and Larson aren’t necessarily “fluke” winners, what they are were drivers that most expected to be towards the back of the playoff grid and maybe even wildcard drivers. Now, each have wins in their back pockets.
In the end, it absolutely takes away wins from the bigger named drivers at that. That’s four of the 16 spots now taken with none of them by past champions. In fact, three of these four winners weren’t even in the playoffs last year.
“Absolutely,” Denny Hamlin said at Daytona following the road course race on if the midpack teams should be getting nervous about the playoffs. “I think the 34 (Michael McDowell) certainly is a surprise. He’s going to be in the Playoffs. 90% of the people that know anything about the sport, 95% really would put the 20 car in the Playoffs one way, shape or form anyway. I don’t think that that’s really taking up a spot that wasn’t already probably pegged.”
Last year, we saw just how tight the bubble was. Cole Custer and Austin Dillon took two of the spots via wins which made it difficult for drivers like Erik Jones, Jimmie Johnson and Tyler Reddick to make it in.
This year, you’re more than likely going to see some more big teams not make it. I mean, numbers alone prove it. You have four JGR cars, four at Hendrick, four at Stewart-Haas and three at Penske. That’s 15 cars right there among those big four teams. That doesn’t even count the alliance from the Wood Brothers with Penske or 23XI Racing with Gibbs. What about the two Chip Ganassi Racing cars? That pushes that number to 19. Then throw in both cars at RCR and you get honestly 21 cars that are playoff caliber. So, with McDowell winning, it takes one spot away from them. Then, with Bell, Byron and Larson taking wins the last two weeks and not having to worry about a wildcard spot anymore, it essentially takes away another couple.
Byron, was 29th in points entering last Sunday at that.
You still have Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney and Kevin Harvick all likely to take 10 of those 12 wildcard spots. Then you have Kurt Busch, Ross Chastain, Austin Dillon, Tyler Reddick, Bubba Wallace, Matt DiBenedetto, Aric Almirola, Cole Custer and Chase Briscoe all battling for two spots among nine drivers. The more drivers off this nine person list win, the more it’s going to force the bubble higher to make those 10 on the first list nervous.
“The dynamic has changed dramatically right now,” said Keselowski. “We’re very early in the season and it’s not turned into a points race for those last few spots. Hopefully it doesn’t matter for us. If you don’t win, you’re in a lot of trouble right now because it’s not looking like you’re gonna be able to get in the playoffs right now without a win.”
If this season plays out like its started, watch out. The thing is, what about this start to the season makes us think anything is going to change though?
Stage 2 Success
Here’s a strange but true stat, the second stage winner at Vegas has won six times now in eight tries. The only two times that it didn’t happen was when Kurt Busch snuck up and stole a win last Fall and then Chase Elliott sweeping both stages last year before cutting a tire in this race in the closing laps.
Vegas Wins For The Grown Folks…Until This Year
Joey Logano’s spring win in 2019 was the first time that a Cup winner was under the age of 30 in any of the last 14 races run at the track…until Sunday. Kyle Larson is just 28 years ago and is only the second driver under te age of 30 to win in the last 15 tries in Vegas.
Champions win in Vegas…Until Sunday?
Entering Sunday’s race, 21 of the last 22 Cup races en Vegas resulted in a past champion winning. The only non title winner to have won at Vegas?
Carl Edwards (twice).
Will Kyle Larson win the championship this year to keep this trend going?
Over the past four NASCAR Cup Series seasons, the spring race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway has been a precursor to how the rest of the campaign will go.
In 2017, Martin Truex Jr. led 150 of the 267 laps in the Cup race en route to a dominating victory. He’d go on to win seven more times that season including the championship as well.
In 2018, Kevin Harvick won his first of eight trips to Victory Lane in the March race in Vegas as he led 214 laps that day. No one won as many races in 2018 as Harvick.
Joey Logano won the last spring races and would march to fifth in the final standings at the end of the year in 2019 and the Championship 4 in 2020.
Larson, is showing after what could be a top 10 finish in all four races run this season that he could be a force to be reckoned with.
Usual Suspects Didn’t Win
Over the last 11 Cup races in Vegas, Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Joey Logano have combined to win nine of them. Kyle Larson ended their 10-for-11 streak on Sunday.
Also, Penske, SHR and JGR/Furniture Row have won the 11 of the last 13 Vegas races. The last non team of them to win other than Kurt Busch’s triumph with Chip Ganassi Racing last Fall? Roush/Fenway Racing (Carl Edwards) in 2011 and Hendrick Motorsports (2010, 2021).