Brad Keselowski put it best after the conclusion of Sunday’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
“That’s why you gotta watch to the end,” Keselowski said.
Keselowski appeared to have sealed the envelope on his second consecutive win during the closing laps at Las Vegas. Yet in the span of a few minutes, he was standing on pit road, lamenting a missed opportunity at a win as Martin Truex Jr. was doing doughnuts on the frontstretch and Kyle Busch was scrapping with Joey Logano’s pit crew.
Keselowski’s disappointment, Truex’s joy and Busch’s fury marked a shocking end to what had been a predictable, and forgettable, race in Sin City.
It seems odd that such a unique city could have such an unoriginal track, but that has been the knock on Las Vegas for nearly 20 years. The speedway was first constructed in the late 1990s, when NASCAR’s popularity was skyrocketing. The sanctioning body was boldly venturing into new markets, and Speedway Motorsports Inc.’s new facility in Sin City quickly became a showplace of the sport. Just like many late ’90s tracks, Las Vegas Motor Speedway consisted of a 1.5-mile tri-oval layout. The idea was that such a track could support stock car and open-wheel racing, as well as offer good sight lines and seating areas for the fans.
The trouble was that Las Vegas and similarly designed tracks struggled to find was their own identity. The derisively-named “cookie cutter” tracks could not match the fast pace of the superspeedways or the close-quarters action of the short tracks.
Las Vegas’ most distinctive feature was that it was flatter than most of the intermediate tracks, but the course was reconfigured prior to 2007 to add a little more banking. The reconfiguration made LVMS very hard to distinguish from Chicagoland Speedway, Kansas Speedway and Kentucky Speedway.
It is one of the great ironies of the NASCAR schedule. A city that thrives on exciting and memorable experiences is home to a track that has produced few memorable moments in its existence.
All of these concerns about Las Vegas bubbled to the surface of the NASCAR world this week. SMI announced that the track would host two MENCS races in 2018, moving the playoff race from New Hampshire Motor Speedway. The reasons for the schedule change had everything to do with the city around LVMS and little to do with the actual racing on the track.
Fans who were displeased with the announcement bemoaned the addition of yet another intermediate track race to the MENCS schedule. The stipulation that Las Vegas’ new race will be in the playoffs, which currently consists of five races at 1.5-mile tracks, was hardly welcome news either.
For 265 of 267 laps, Sunday’s race did not inspire much confidence in the racing at Las Vegas. Long green-flag runs and domination by one driver felt like a sequel to last weekend’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway. It looked like Keselowski would, again, snatch victory away in the closing laps. It looked like Truex would, again, miss out on a victory after having the best car.
That’s why you gotta watch to the end.
With two laps to go, Truex was suddenly on Keselowski’s back bumper. The No. 2 car was struggling to keep pace, and Truex made the winning pass. One lap later, Busch tried to dodge Keselowski’s hobbled car and slammed into the side of Logano. Seconds later, the No. 18 Toyota went spinning off the bumper of the No. 22 car as Truex took the checkered flag. The surprising turn of events culminated with an irate Busch going after Logano in the pits and engaging in fisticuffs with the No. 22 crew.
It was a messy, chaotic finish. It was also memorable.
In 20 premier series races at Las Vegas, what moments really stand out? Jimmie Johnson’s and Matt Kenseth’s battle and close finish in 2006 comes to mind. Jeff Gordon’s nasty wreck on the backstretch in 2008 is something else that a lot of fans will recall. Keselowski passing Dale Earnhardt Jr. when the No. 88 car ran out of fuel on the final lap in 2014 made for an exciting finish. And now, LVMS has a crazy last two laps that will save the 2017 race from complete oblivion in the minds of fans.
Does a good finish make up for a bad race? In this case, no.
The late battle between Truex and Keselowski happened because of a mechanical problem, not because of two drivers with evenly-matched cars. The melee between Busch and Logano’s crew puts more focus on competitor drama than actual racing.
Yet there is no doubt that Sunday’s race produced a memorable finish. Truex’s late-race pass and especially the pit road scuffle will become highlight reel material, something that the folks in Las Vegas can hopefully use to drum up good crowds for their two race weekends in the coming years.
NASCAR is making an investment in Las Vegas because of what happens there off the track. Yet if only for today, the track put on a finish that was shocking enough to ease the frustration of a forgettable race.
That’s why you gotta watch to the end.