Who… gets my shoutout of the race?
Brad Keselowski won his third Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series win in as many weeks after holding off his Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Ryan Blaney late to take the 2018 South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was his 27th career MENCS victory and Team Penske’s 500th triumph. More importantly, in the short term, the No. 2 Ford Fusion is locked into the second round of the playoffs with that win.
“It’s really a testament to this team, they’ve been so strong on pit road and I couldn’t have done it without ’em,” Keselowski told NBC Sports during his Victory Lane interview. “We weren’t as fast as the No. 78, but we nailed the pit stops and restarts when it counted.”
The No. 2 crew gained him several positions on what seemed like every pit stop, which led to the win. But Keselowski was fast in his own right, leading 75 laps and winning a stage.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
In a nutshell, no lead is safe. No less than 13 of the 16 playoff contenders ran into adversity throughout the afternoon. Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones got the worst of it, leading to finishes of 39th and 40th, respectively, after they crashed out together late in the second stage. Joe Gibbs Racing teammates Kyle Busch (seventh) and Denny Hamlin (32nd) both took detours through the infield grass, which ended Hamlin’s day early.
Hendrick Motorsports’ playoff trio were also all involved in accidents after running in the top 10 for much of the race. Alex Bowman (19th) and Jimmie Johnson (22nd) both slammed the wall after flat tires on the same lap, and Chase Elliott was collected by the spinning car of Jamie McMurray, relegating the team’s best title threat to a 36th-place result.
Another takeaway is the reminder that hot, slick pavement makes for really good racing. In al, there were 23 lead changes among nine different drivers throughout the race. But the folks at Goodyear will probably have a busy week trying to diagnose why there were so many tire failures during the 400-mile event.
Where… did Ryan Newman come from?
Newman isn’t flashy, but he is consistent. The Richard Childress Racing (for now) driver has slowly snuck into the top 10 eight times in 2018 despite what he’s labeled a “horrible season.” Despite qualifying 22nd after topping the speed charts in practice, Newman finished ninth to complete back-to-back top-10 races. Another part of it, however, was the attrition taking out a ton of playoff drivers, including Harvick and Elliott.
Newman avoided getting into any trouble, and survival turned out to be a smart wager in Sin City.
When…was the moment of truth?
In the spring race at Las Vegas earlier this year, Harvick galloped away from the rest of the field and never looked back. It seemed nearly inevitable that something similar was going to happen on Sunday (Sept. 16). But 12 laps before the end of the second stage, one of his tires went down, shooting the No. 4 Ford into the outside wall for his fourth DNF of the season.
“It’s like Russian Roulette every time you put these piece of crap tires on,” Harvick told NBC Sports during his post-crash interview at the infield care center. “I’m not happy about anything right now.”
After winning the pole for the race and running near the front, Erik Jones had no chance to swerve away and totaled his car by rear-ending Harvick. Once that happened, given Kyle Busch’s sluggish start and a myriad of issues throughout the race, the field was pretty much wide open for anyone to take advantage. It was only the start of tire issues throughout the day.
Why… didn’t Martin Truex Jr. pull it off?
The Furniture Row Racing No. 78 had good long-run speed and captured the stage one victory while leading 96 laps. But the car took about 10 laps to warm up to its full potential, and with the flurry of late cautions and restarts, Truex ultimately had to settle for third in this race, his 16th top-five result of the 2018 season.
Truex’s pit crew lost several positions each time down pit road, which was a determining factor in the win. Combined with the delay before the car started to click again, it proved too much of a deficit to overcome.
How… does this affect the playoff standings?
Coming into the race, Kyle Busch and Harvick each had 2,050 points, with almost a full race of cushion ahead of anyone not named Truex. They are all still fairly safe for now with two races to go in the first round. Keselowski is advancing because of his first-round win, but the gap from first to fourth is now 27 points. From ninth-place Aric Almirola to 16th-place Hamlin is only 26 points, which is next to nothing when stage bonuses are added in.
Almirola, Austin Dillon, Clint Bowyer, Alex Bowman, Johnson, Elliott, Jones and Hamlin are all walking on very thin ice right now. No one has any idea what the Charlotte ROVAL will race like, though expectations are that it will be messy. If you’re extremely lucky, you get one mulligan per round in the playoffs, and these drivers have all pretty much used theirs already.
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