Alex Bowman overcame a pit penalty in the second stage for pit interference to score his seventh career NASCAR Cup Series victory in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The win was considered an upset despite him earning his first stage win since 2020 in the opening stage of the third race of the Cup Series season.
See, Bowman was 17th at the end of Stage 2 and didn’t honestly have the best car there in the end. But, a brilliant pit call by his crew chief Greg Ives paid off to net him his fifth win in the last 31 races. He had two wins in his previous 197 starts.
Ross Chastain was the one with arguably the best car in the second half of the race. He took over the lead on Lap 160 and would earn Trackhouse Racing’s first career stage win as a result. In fact, Chastain would lead the next 57 laps after before giving way to the top spot to hit pit road on Lap 218 for what he thought would be the final pit stop of the afternoon.
Unfortunately for him, Kyle Busch pit one lap sooner and would cycle ahead. In the meantime, Denny Hamlin spun his No. 11 Toyota out of pit lane on Lap 220 when he missed shifted and broke his transmission as a result. He’d finish a disappointing 32nd and further his rough start to the year with 2 finishes of 32nd or worse in 3 races.
That allowed Busch to cycle to the lead on Lap 224. Chastain, would lead on the ensuing restart (Lap 226) but Busch got him back and put some distance on the two. Meanwhile, Busch’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate of Martin Truex Jr. was charging hard and not only passed Chastain, he set his sights on Busch for the win.
Truex and Busch had an intense battle in the closing laps but Busch was holding Truex’s No. 19 Toyota off. Then, with three laps-to-go, Erik Jones smacked the wall exiting Turn 4 and spun at the start/finish line. Bubba Wallace went to maneuver to miss him but hit the inside wall himself and brought out the 12th caution of the day.
That put the strategy back in the hands of the pit box. To pit, or not to pit? Everyone pit. But where Ives won this race for Bowman is that he and two of his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates in Kyle Larson and William Byron each took two tires. The rest of the field took four.
See, we’ve had so many pit stops all day that only Chase Elliott had fresh tires left. Naturally, that’s why Elliott elected to take four tires while everyone else had to take scuffs. Larson, would lead Bowman, Byron, Busch and Chastain off pit road.
Would 2 tires work or would the top two cars for much of the final half of the race on four tires eat them up?
Well, with only the fourth overtime in Cup Series history at Vegas, it only allowed for two green flag laps until the checkered. It allowed Larson and Bowman to pull away and battle each other for the win.
Bowman, prevailed by just .178-seconds in what was the third closest finish in Vegas history over Larson who netted his third runner-up in 12 starts on the 1.5-mile track. That ties Dale Earnhardt Jr. for most ever there.
“This thing was so fast all day. Just never really had the track position we needed to show it,” Bowman said. “Man, what a call by (crew chief) Greg Ives and the guys to take two (tires) there. Obviously it paid off. Racing Kyle (Larson) is always fun. Got to race him for a couple wins. We’ve always raced each other super clean and super respectfully. Just can’t say enough about these guys. It’s been a pretty awful start to the year, so to come out here and get a win on a last restart deal is pretty special.”
Bowman says even he was shocked that the two tires worked.
“I was really surprised,” he said. “On the front row there, you have to run so much throttle. We had been free on the short run, pretty good on the long run. I mean, I kind of feel like I know. Obviously a lot has changed with this race car, but typically two tires tighten you up a ton.
“We were on old tires earlier in the day, like cold old tires. When we had the pit road issue, we came back and put old tires on. I was super tight the whole run. I was worried we were going to be super tight.
“On the front row, you got to drive it like it’s going to stick. Thankfully it stuck.”
After how last week went between Larson and Chase Elliott, was Bowman thinking in his mind that with how Rick Hendrick led a meeting this past week that he’d take it easy on him?
“Uhm, I don’t know. I don’t know that there was, like, really something Kyle could have done any differently, or even if he was trying to be dirty about anything,” Bowman said. “He was super tight on my door, side drafting me as hard as he could. He just ended up getting tight in three and four.
“I think the talk was a big wake-up call. Obviously when Mr. H calls a meeting like that, it gets your attention, it’s always going to. Anytime Mr. H talks, he’s got your attention, but especially in a situation like that.
“I think Kyle and I historically have always raced each other really clean. I think that this was no different.”
Chastain, who led a race-high 83 of 274 laps had to settle for third in his No.1 Chevrolet while Busch was fourth in his No. 18 Toyota. Byron, rounded out the top five in his No. 24 Chevrolet.
Breakout for Chastain
Las Vegas was the site that Ross Chastain broke out in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. See, Chastain knew he had a lot of talent and could make it in the sport, but if he continued on the path that he was going down, there’s no way anyone else would know of his talents. So, he bet on himself.
So, instead of returning to a full season ride in an underfunded Xfinity Series team in 2018, he decided to take his money to Chip Ganassi Racing for what initially started off as a three race deal. He’d run Darlington for them on Labor Day weekend, Vegas two weeks later then Richmond a week after that.
His career rode on those three races. If he looked pedestrian, then he’d likely never get a shot that it took in the big leagues with the top teams. At that time, Chastain was 25. He’d turn 26 in December. Most top teams have good drivers already in place, so they go with youth to groom them to replace the veterans when contracts lined up.
Chastain was stuck in the middle. Wait too much longer and he’d get passed over. So, he took his chance then. It paid off.
He won the pole in Darlington, swept both stages and led the most laps but had an incident towards the end with Kevin Harvick and finished 25th. That proved he had the speed that it took, but did he have the patience and know how to get it done in the end?
Vegas though, was the spot it came full circle. He’d win and stamp his name on the top teams’ radar. This was the site it happened. Just like Sunday was in the Pennzoil 400.
Chastain, would finish runner-up a week later in Richmond would earned him two more opportunities later in the year. He’d finish 10th in Kansas and second in Texas that season to earn him three top two’s in five tries. As a result, Ganassi signed him for a full season in 2019 to compete for them in this car in the Xfinity Series.
That’s where another fork in the road came. The main sponsor, DC Solar, was in deep trouble from a federal investigation and all that hardwork and betting on himself fell flat. Ganassi, lost their sponsor and in turn had to shut down the Xfinity program.
Luckily though, Ganassi likes winners and saw the value of Chastain. So, he honored his agreement and commitment to Chastain and kept him under contract while finding him a ride with Kaulig Racing. He’d win in Daytona that July and that would lead to a full-time opportunity with Kaulig in 2020. He’d make the playoffs that year and show exactly what he could do. With an open Cup car for Ganassi in 2021, he was brought up to the big show.
Unfortunately, it was a steep learning curve for Chastain as he struggled some. He had some highlights but finished 20th in the final standings. Mid summer, Ganassi sold his team to Trackhouse. Chastain had another fork in the road. What would his future be?
Trackhouse had one car already and would keep it intact. What would they do with this second car. Wouldn’t Kurt Busch, Chastain’s teammate at Ganassi get first dibs on this season?
Luckily for Chastain, Busch had his eyes elsewhere and landed with 23XI Racing’s second team. Trackhouse saw Chastain’s value and signed him to their second car for 2022. He rewarded them by a top five on Sunday.
“Dream come true,” Chastain said of his day in Vegas. “This is what all the work is for. This is why we train, done our whole lives and careers, once we realize we can race at this level is to have race cars like that. Couldn’t be more proud of Trackhouse.
“It took a lot of patience inside the car from our fast racing. It’s tough for me to not get too aggressive, a lot of neutral thinking, and Josh Wise, and a book by Trevor Moawad really helped me today. That’s progress.”
Chastain, in three races, has already led the most laps in a race (83 of 274) in Vegas, brought them their first stage win and finished third. All at the site of his Xfinity Series breakout – Las Vegas.
Trackhouse is proving that they’re a formidable team this season with Suarez coming home fourth last week in Fontana.
But, it all comes back to Vegas as the spot that Chastain has now proven he belongs in two different series’.
Busch Overcomes Adversity Multiple Times To Score Top 5
24 hours before Sunday’s Pennzoil 400, Kyle Busch’s car wasn’t even fully put together. It was a car on the haulers for spare parts should they need it. Well, after Busch crashed minutes into practice on Saturday, not only did they need the parts, they needed the car. All the focus at Joe Gibbs Racing went to preparing this car for a race a day later.
Busch, took it to a fourth place result. It further proves how good of a race car driver he truly is. In fact, Busch came from the back to the front multiple times during the course of the race at that.
“True testament to everyone at Joe Gibbs Racing,” said Busch. “Really appreciate my guys on the 18, but also the 11, 19 and 20 – all of them for coming over and pitching in. Everybody had a hand in being able to make us go today. So really appreciate that.”
He had a shifter problem early on and while he cracked the top 20 before the competition caution, they’d have to spend time on pit road ensuring it was fixed. Then, as he was coming through again, he spun to avoid a crash ahead on Lap 42 and would have to pit again for new tires.
It just seemed like the homecoming weekend for the Las Vegas native wasn’t going to be a good one. Everything wrong kept occurring.
That’s when the luck changed though too. The silver lining is Busch’s spin helped him avoid any car damage and he’d continue on. In fact, he’d finish 9th in Stage 1. He was 5th at the Stage 2 break. Then, early on in the final stage, he got up to second behind Ross Chastain. He’d pit one lap sooner than Chastain and would cycle ahead as a result.
Busch’s JGR teammate of Denny Hamlin broke his transmission leaving pit road and spun on Lap 224 bringing out a yellow. Busch, would inherit the lead and would stay up front for 42 of the next 43 laps.
Chastain, faded and Busch’s other JGR teammate of Martin Truex Jr. was charging hard. He’d pass Chastain and get to Busch’s bumper and make a real fight between these two for the victory. Then came that Lap 264 caution for Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace which took the win away from Busch.
See, everyone pit under that caution for the overtime finish. Busch, took four tires. Three Hendrick cars took two tires and exited 1-2-3. Busch, was fourth. That’s exactly where he’d finish for his 10th career top five on his hometrack which is most all-time.
“I was fast at the end and trying just to do what I could to hold the lead there with (Martin) Truex (Jr.),” Busch continued. “Felt like I inched away finally and we were coming to the white or something, I don’t know what it was, but anyways, it wasn’t meant to be. Not our day. See you next week.”
He also led 49 laps to give him 311 for his career here which is ninth most. Busch, finished third in both races a year ago at that and now has two top sixes in three starts this season.
Larson Overcomes Speeding Penalty For A Runner-Up
Penalties were the story of the day on Sunday and Kyle Larson wasn’t immune to them. He was speeding on what was initially thought to be the final pit stop of the day. Still, at that time, he was a fifth place car. He didn’t have much for either Ross Chastain or Kyle Busch.
He’d charge from 18th back to the top 10 by the end but needed some help if he was going to get much further up. That help came via the Erik Jones and Bubba Wallace crash with three laps remaining in regulation.
That set up the fourth ever overtime finish in Vegas history. Larson, entered pit road seventh but only took two tires. He’d exit first.
So did two of his teammate as they came off pit road in tow. Busch and Chastain each took four tires and would restart fourth and fifth respectively. Could Larson have enough on two tires to hold them off?
He did. Unfortunately for him, he couldn’t hold off his teammate Alex Bowman as Larson crossed the finish line .178-seconds behind Bowman in the third closest finish in Vegas history. It was his fifth straight top 10 there including two of his last three being in the top two. Furthermore, he’s had five top three finishes in his last nine Vegas tries which his three career runner-ups tie him with Dale Earnhardt Jr. for most in track history.
“I was happy we made that call,” said Larson. “It’s kind of what I wanted to do and when I heard them say we were taking two tires, I was pleased by it. The grip was surprising. I had good grip there on two tires. I just got a little too focused on side-drafting him into (turn) three. Maybe if I could play it back again, I would try and just get a better arc and angle into three because when I got in there next to him, I just got really tight and had to lift out of the throttle.”
Larson though has a pair of top twos in-a-row and what’s scary about that is, he’s not looking as dominant now as he did last year but the results are better. He led 27 laps on Sunday and only 28 in his win last week. Imagine when the speed comes and it will.
Parity Still Here
We may have only had five different teams represented in the top 10 on Sunday, but there’s been 25 different drivers scoring top 10’s in three races this season. That’s the most since 1973. Oddly enough, one of those drivers isn’t Denny Hamlin. He broke his transmission when he shifted wrong exiting pit lane on Lap 220. That resulted in a 32nd place finish. He was 37th in Daytona and 15th last week on Fontana. By comparison, Hamlin had 25 top 10’s last season. He had 21 in 2020 and 24 in 2019. He’s 0-for-3 this season.
Aric Almirola though is the only driver that’s 3-for-3 as he was sixth in Sunday’s race. He was fifth in the Daytona 500 and sixth last week too.
Part of this parity is Trackhouse Racing had a top five finisher two weeks in-a-row. Richard Childress Racing had last week’s runner up but then brought out two cautions in Stage 1 on Sunday. They’d rebound to finish 7-11. Even Petty GMS Racing looked legit. Erik Jones was in the top 10 in the closing laps before his crash with three laps-to-go. He’s been in the top 10 in all three races inside of 10 to go.
Much Needed Finishes
Alex Bowman, William Byron and Christopher Bell needed these results on Sunday. Each scored their first top 10’s of the season. Bowman’s previous two finishes were 24th and 25th respectively. Byron’s was 38th and 34th. He’d come home fifth on Sunday.
“You know we needed a good run. We’ve had a rough couple weeks,” Byron said. “We’ve had speed everywhere, but just not the finishes. … Great to get a top five, obviously we want a win and I felt like there were times in this race that we had potential, but we just have to clean up some of the little things. We’ve got to clean up some of those things on pit road and get a little better and I think we will have a shot to win.”
Bell, was 38th and 34th in the first two races but earned the pole for today’s race on Saturday and despite a spin while running third in the second stage, he’d rebound to finish 10th.
The Ford’s were no where near the top of the field on Sunday. In fact, they put only one car in the top 11 in the Pennzoil 400 and that was Aric Almirola who earned his third top 10 in as many starts this season. He’s the only one to do that. But, his teammates were only 12th (Kevin Harvick), 33rd (Cole Custer) and 35th (Chase Briscoe).
“(Crew chief Drew Blickensderfer) has been doing a great job of making good adjustments throughout the race and just getting the car better and better,” Almirola said. “We take the first half of the race and it’s really about learning. We make adjustments. If they’re no good, we go back on them and just keep fine-tuning on the car to get it to where we need to get it and, usually, the last few weeks we’ve gotten the car where we needed to have it at the end of the race. … We’ve got to continue to do our homework, but, nonetheless, this is a great start to our season and a lot of fun.”
Penske struggled too. Joey Logano was an afterthought in 14th. Austin Cindric was 19th. Ryan Blaney crashed and was 36th.
Sunday Good News for Top 5 Finishers?
Over the past five 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 next two 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.
Kyle Larson won last year and won the title too later. The entire top six of the finishing order last spring took up six of the eight spots into the Round of 8 last postseason.
On Sunday, Ross Chastain led 83 laps and finished third. Kyle Busch led 49 and was fourth. Alex Bowman won Stage 1 and took home the win while Kyle Larson was quickest in practice on Saturday, qualified second and finished second. How many of them end up vying for the title later this Fall?
22 of the last 24 Cup races in Vegas resulted in a past champion winning. The only non title winner to have won at Vegas? Carl Edwards (twice) and Denny Hamlin (September 2021).
Larson didn’t have a title in his win here last spring. He’d take home the championship hardware later that Fall. Will Bowman have similar fate?
Kyle Busch/Martin Truex Jr. Seem Back, Harvick Still Not
2020 saw the string of dominance between Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick end. Neither of the three made the Championship 4. In the six years prior, they won half the championships and annually made it to the final race each year with a shot at the title.
Busch, had 5 straight Championship 4 appearances. Harvick had 5 in 6 years. Truex Jr. had 4 in 5 years including 3 straight top two finishes.
They were done at that point.
Only Truex (last year) has made it back. Truex, won four times in 2021. He swept both stages at Daytona and was eighth on Sunday in Vegas. That eighth isn’t indicative on how good he was as he was second before that final caution with three to go. He’s currently second in points right now.
Busch, is fifth in points after having scored two top sixes in three starts this year. If you go back to this track last Fall, he has 7 top 10’s in his last 10 starts. His problem is, he’s not winning. He has just three wins in his last 75 races. He had 18 in the previous 88 starts.
]Similar thing for Harvick but he’s not even getting close to wins where Busch at least is. Harvick won nine times in 2020 but all came in the first 29 races. In fact, if you go back to the end of the 2019 season, he had 10 wins in 32 starts. But, over his last 46 starts, he’s been shutout. He was only 30th, 7th and 12th so far this year and looking a lot now like he did in 2021.
“We struggled with traffic on the restarts, but we worked through it and everyone on the crew did a good job,” Harvick said.
He currently sits 16th in points. In house, that’s third out of four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers. Aric Almirola leads the way with three top sixes in as many starts this season and sits sixth in points. Chase Briscoe is 14th.
For Harvick, it just doesn’t look much better for him yet but the season is still early too. Can he regain his 2020 magic?
Much Better Vegas Race
When NASCAR adopted the 550 package, I think they hoped to see a Vegas race like we saw on Sunday. Instead, the high downforce, low horsepower package created too much dirty air to do anything with it. When everyone is going the same speed and your car has so much downforce it basically saves itself, you get ho-hum races.
We saw 6 cautions for 30 laps in this race last year. There was 9 for 37 laps in 2020 but three were for stage breaks or the comp caution. The others were for single car incidents. That equates out to last year seeing 89% of the race run under green flag conditions. The 2019 race saw two caution flags fly — both for stage breaks. In the race in 2018, we saw only four cautions fly for just 29 laps. The spring race has been tame in nature lately.
We had 12 cautions for 60 laps. That comes after being 12 cautions for 59 laps a week prior. There were 7 cautions for 37 laps in the Daytona 500. That’s 31 cautions for 156 laps in three races run this season. With 675 total laps turned, that’s 23% of the season run under caution.
In saying that, all these incidents are due to this new car being so much harder to drive which in my opinion is a very good thing. We’ve seen the third closest finish ever in 2 of the 3 races and the 2nd closest in the other.
We have 25 drivers having had a top 10 this season which is the most after three races to start a season since 1973.
Parity is high. The cars are tough. The finishes are closer. Other than the tires, there’s no complaints to start this season off with.
The margin of victory in the season opening Daytona 500 was .036-seconds. That was the third closest in the 64 year history of the race. Last week, Kyle Larson topped Austin Dill by just .195-seconds in Fontana. That was the second closest finish in 31 tries at the Auto Club Speedway. On Sunday, Alex Bowman beat Larson by .178-seconds for the third closest finish in 29 races on the 1.5-mile Nevada race track.
We saw close finishes last year in Phoenix, so get the cameras ready next weekend.
Since the start of last season, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman have the most wins. Larson has won 11 times and Bowman now five. They finished 1-2 on Sunday.