LAS VEGAS, NV – Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway was met with high anticipation. See, this was the debut of the full extent of the new rules package in NASCAR’s premiere series.
In the end, familiar faces were found up front.
Joey Logano inherited the lead on Lap 244 of the 267 lap event and barely held off his Team Penske teammate of Brad Keselowski en route to the win in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400. Logano, crossed the 1.5-mile tracks’ finish line just 0.236-seconds ahead of Keselowski in what was the second closest finish on the track ever.
Joey Logano during the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil Oil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 3, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada.
The win was Logano’s 22nd of his Cup Series career which ties Terry Labonte for 35th on the all-time wins list. By taking his Pennzoil sponsored No. 22 Ford to victory lane on Sunday, it marked Penske’s 116th Cup Series win and second in three races in 2019. Last weekend, Keselowski won in Atlanta. This weekend, he finishes second in his No. 2 Ford.
For Logano, it was his first triumph in Vegas. He’s been close recently though as he has five top four finishes in his last seven tries. His worst finish since 2013 was 10th in 2014. He’s also led at least five laps in all seven tries too. On Sunday, he paced the field for 86 circuits.
Penske, has now won four times in the last seven Cup races in the Nevada desert.
Keselowski, has eight straight top seven finishes in Vegas including a win last fall. In that same time frame is five top three finishes as well.
Kyle Busch’s effort for a weekend sweep came up just short in his No. 18 Toyota. Busch’s third place finish was his fourth top four on his home track since 2013 including a runner-up in this very race just last March. His seventh top five finish is the most by any driver in Vegas as he now has finishes of second, sixth and third respectively to start the 2019 season off with.
Pole sitter Kevin Harvick finished fourth in his No. 4 Ford. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver won both stages last year and won the first stage in Sunday’s race. After leading 214 laps in 2018, Harvick led a race high 89 more on a sun filled afternoon. Sunday was his second straight fourth place finish on the season.
Kurt Busch rounded out the top five in his No. 1 Chevrolet. It was Busch’s first top five finish on his home track since 2005 and only third top 10 in the last decade. He too is off to a strong start with two top five’s in three tries.
Here are the main takeaways from Sunday’s race.
Last weekend in Atlanta, it was looking like Penske would go 1-2 again. After the final round of pit stops, Logano led Keselowski. But, with a little over 20 to go, Logano had to pit for an issue with a tire. He’d fall to a 23rd place run.
Prior to all of that though, Ryan Blaney was also up front as Penske had three of the top five cars.
On Sunday, if not for Blaney’s early race problem, they would have likely had three of the top cars once again.
Over the last 16 races, Penske drivers have combined to win seven of them. Keselowski, has won four times, Logano three and Blaney once. They’re 2-for-3 in 2019. This is the top team in NASCAR right now and it’s really not even all that close.
Blaney’s Bad Luck Cost Him Good Finishes
Last weekend, Blaney had a car to win. Unfortunately, a costly final pit stop and having to pit again in the closing laps for a tire going down relegated him to a 22nd place finish. On Sunday in Vegas, Blaney had to pit on Lap 51 for a left rear tire that went down. It cost him two laps as a result. He’d never make up for it and finish 22nd for a second straight week.
Counting being caught up in the “Big One” at Daytona, Blaney’s finishes in 2019 are 31st, 22nd and 22nd respectively.
His teammates meanwhile have each won a race already.
RCR Faded On Sunday
We had high hopes for Richard Childress Racing this weekend. In both practice sessions, they were 1-2 in each. They qualified 4-5 as well. Unfortunately, Daniel Hemric slid down the order pretty quickly and finished a disappointing 23rd. He was 34th in the season opening Daytona 500 and due to a bout with some bad luck in Atlanta, he finished 20th after being in the top five inside of 20 to go.
Austin Dillon started off strong but was caught with a pit road penalty after a questionable penalty. We will get to more on this later. But, Dillon went from the top 10 to 24th, one lap down after. He’d struggle to make up for that as well and would bring his No. 3 Chevrolet home 20th on Sunday.
Dillon’s finishes in 2019 are 16th, 21st and 20th respectively.
This is a results business, not what you’ve done prior to a checkered flag. Unfortunately, RCR hasn’t had the final results to show for the speed.
Hendrick Motorsports Struggles Again
HMS had a strong second stage in putting all four cars in the top 11, but they just didn’t have anything in the end. Yes, Chase Elliott earned a seasons best finish of ninth, they rest were just mediocre.
Elliott, scored stage points in both stages (8th in Stage 1, 6th in Stage 2) and kind of hung around the top 10 all day, he just made no impact on the race. He did have three finishes outside the top 30 in his previous four Vegas starts and finishes of 17th and 19th to start 2019 off with. So, a solid top 10 will suffice.
Alex Bowman finished 11th for the second time in three races this year but his No. 88 Chevrolet never seriously contended.
William Byron led 21 laps but that was a gamble in the second stage to stretch his fuel. It nearly worked but he finished one spot out of points (11th) in that stage. He faded to a 16th place finish, his best of the year for him too. He was 27th in Daytona and 17th in Atlanta.
Jimmie Johnson is showing us that it doesn’t matter what package we race in, he’s just struggling. He finished 24th, two laps down last weekend in Atlanta and 19th, one lap down on Sunday in Vegas. He never truly was a contender either.
After three races, HMS has a lot of work to do.
Strong Start Of 2019 For Busch Brothers
Two of the top drivers in 2019 are actually brothers. Kyle Busch earned his third top six finishes in as many races to start the 2019 season off with as he came home third on Sunday. His brother Kurt Busch finished third last weekend in Atlanta and fifth now in Las Vegas. It’s a great start for the duo.
Kyle Busch said his speeding penalty in the second stage cost him the win. He had a very fast race car. When everyone struggled to move through the field, Busch went from 27th, one lap down, to 16th over the second half of the second stage. Then, he moved up 10 spots early in the final stage and drove to a top five run.
But, a few more penalties cost some drivers, a few of those questionable calls.
For the second straight race, Kyle Larson was penalized on pit road. After leading the most laps last week in Atlanta, he was caught speeding in the end and wound up 12th as a result. On Sunday, his pit crew cost him with having too many men over the wall on his first stop. He went from the top 10 to 23rd, one lap down. He’d only rebound to finish 12th again.
The most questionable call belonged to the one of Austin Dillon. It cost him a top 10 finish as he too had too many men over the wall. The only thing is, the “too many men” penalty was due to a crew member with a hand on the track while trying to retrieve a tire. NASCAR later said that the penalty is the rule because they see the hand no different than a foot. Both are part of the body.
A hand put Dillon down to 24th, one lap down, with him only making up four spots after (20th place finish).
It certainly seemed like a silly penalty to be called though.
This race was met with high expectations. Last week in Atlanta, everyone said to just wait one more week to see the full effect on the new rules package. See, in Atlanta, the track’s old surface is abrasive on the tires. Drivers would have to peddle loosely around the track which caused for racing to be more spread out.
Last weeks rules package had the tapered spacers and bigger spoiler but no aero ducts. That produced 26 lead changes. For comparisons sake, we had 24 lead changes in 2018 and 28 in 2016 and 2015. We also had just five cautions which was the same as the year prior.
Really, Atlanta didn’t look much different other than the 0.218-second winning margin which was fifth all-time on the 1.5-mile track.
Sunday’s race in Vegas was met with high regard. We had the full extent of the rules package mixed with a recently repaved race track. If the drafting package was going to work, this would be the place.
Instead, the first stage saw some spread out racing. Really, all day we didn’t see the “pack racing” like others thought we’d see. But, the finish was the second closest ever for Vegas (0.236-seconds) and the lead changes were more than last year (11) and well as 2017 (14). We also saw 3,345 green flag passes too. There were only 2,379 last March and 1,982 the year before. The 47 green flag passes for the lead were more than the last three years combined.
So, when comparing this year to the past, this one statistical wise was vastly better.
I just think that fans wanted side by side action packed racing all day, but as the drivers pointed out, with only two cautions, it’s hard to get that. We didn’t have the yellows to bunch the field back up.
We saw a 100 lap dash to the finish and still saw the second closest finish ever.
This wasn’t the best debut but a solid one.