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Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2019 South Point 400 at Las Vegas

The Headline(s): Surviving two mid-race scrapes on a night that multiple playoff drivers found trouble with tire rubs, Martin Truex, Jr. blew past Kevin Harvick with 18 laps to go on a green flag run to score the South Point 400 win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It’s his fifth victory of 2019, 24th career Cup Series win and 37th career NASCAR national series victory.

Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top-five finishers.

How It Happened: Winning his first Cup pole since 2007, Clint Bowyer’s time up front lasted only one lap before teammate Daniel Suarez took the lead, making contact with Bowyer’s No. 14 on a side draft and angering his teammate. The first impactful drama of the playoffs struck on lap 12, when Kyle Busch was forced to pit road under green after slapping the turn 2 wall. Harvick also rubbed the wall around lap 20, but the damage was minimal.

Come lap 30, Aric Almirola took the lead from teammate Suarez, but his lead was short-lived. Joey Logano, who rocketed through the field in the opening laps from a 22nd-place start, took the lead on lap 34 despite having issues with a vibration throughout the first run. Green flag stops commenced on lap 40 and saw Logano hand the lead to Jimmie Johnson and then Michael McDowell, who stayed out until lap 59. Logano then reclaimed the lead and cruised to the stage one win.

Harvick bested Logano on pit road under the ensuing caution, but it would be William Byron that would lead the first lap back to green on lap 87 before Logano went back to the point. Playoff disaster struck on lap 88 for Erik Jones, who was forced to go behind the wall with a transmission that was stuck in second gear. Truex nearly found trouble around lap 108, when he was forced into contact with Joe Nemechek in turn 1 after Blaney got loose under him.

Green flag stops began again on lap 122, with Logano holding the lead through the cycle. However, Truex’s car came to life during the second half of the stage and got close enough to pounce on lap 158 when Logano got pinned behind two lap cars and brushed the turn 4 wall, allowing Truex to make the pass and steal the stage two win. 

Truex held serve during the stage break pit stops, which were highlighted by Keselowski’s crew going under the hood to make adjustments after the No. 2 car failed to crack the top 10 in either of the first two stages. When the race went back to green on lap 168, Logano briefly led before Truex took the point back. Come lap 171, Elliott made his presence known, battling Truex for the race lead.

The first caution flag for an incident to occur in either race at Las Vegas this year struck on lap 181, when Byron went for a spin a lap after contact with Blaney caused a tire rub on his No. 24 which cut Byron’s left-rear tire. The ensuing caution brought the leaders back to pit road, with a shuffle up front as Denny Hamlin, Blaney, Ryan Newman and Suarez took two tires to gain track position. The race went back green on lap 186, but it wasn’t two laps later before the caution flew again, this time with Kurt Busch falling victim to a cut left front tire.

The same restart melee that collected Kurt Busch also caused heavy damage to Logano, who made contact with Suarez and was none too happy about it, making several obscene gestures to the No. 41 under yellow. 

Stewart-Haas Racing took the race lead on lap 196 when Harvick rocketed away on the restart, but it came at a cost; polesitter Bowyer was forced to pit road under green on lap 197 with a cut left rear tire. Harvick kept Truex at bay until green flag pit stops started at lap 227.  By lap 240, the lead had recycled and Harvick was ahead of Truex. Four laps later, Truex caught up to Harvick after lapped traffic on the frontstretch pinned the No. 4, and come lap 248 the No. 19 made the final pass for the lead.

One final note that occurred in the last 15 laps involved Kyle Busch, who had battled back into the top 10 after trailing by two laps due to his earlier wall contact. Knocking on the door of the top five, Busch made heavy contact trying to pass the lapped car of Garrett Smithley, severely damaging his front end and dropping the No. 18 Toyota to 19th in the final running order.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

Truex was the class of the Joe Gibbs Racing stable, got faster on the long run and proved all but untouchable out front. The magic of Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn on intermediate ovals was back in force at Las Vegas, and that’s bad news for the competition both at JGR and through the playoff field. The only potential Achilles’ heel for the team? Truex avoided trouble despite making contact twice on turn 1 entry that had the potential to cause tire rubs. Truex has had no shortage of issues with lapped cars this season, and the lappers again had an impact on Sunday’s race. 

While the rest of the Stewart-Haas fleet faded later in the race (more on that later), Harvick looked like he was in title-contention form all night Sunday. Harvick had complete control of his car in the heat of the early portion of the race despite being “trimmed out” aerodynamically, and that gamble paid off once the track cooled off. Harvick likely wouldn’t have held off Truex with or without his issues with lapped traffic, but the No. 4 team is a contender leaving Las Vegas.

Hendrick Motorsports had an effort worth noting for a team that’s been a step behind the Fords and Toyotas for most of the season. Elliott led laps and scored a top-five finish, proving capable of racing with the leaders, but more notable were the team’s greenhorns. Alex Bowman’s sixth-place finish was his best since his win at Chicagoland in June, and gave the team needed points as they head to their weakest track at Richmond. Lastly, hats off to Byron for recovering from his lap 181 spin to finish seventh. 

The Team Penske brigade will be disappointed to have its string of consecutive wins at Las Vegas snapped, but given the way the night started the team has a lot to be proud of. Keselowski was a complete non-factor in the first two stages of Sunday’s race, but aggressive adjustments that saw the team under the hood got the No. 2 up to speed during the final race run, scoring a third-place finish that marked his ninth consecutive top 10 at Vegas. Blaney had several close calls that saw him make contact with both Truex and Byron while racing for position, but the No. 12 Ford navigated those to score his first top five on an oval since Loudon in July. Lastly, Logano put the field on notice that he will be defending his title, rebounding to finish ninth despite incurring heavy damage during the lap 186 restart melee.

Newman scored a top 10 that was yet another step forward for the Roush Fenway camp. Austin Dillon’s 12th place finish was tops among drivers not in the playoffs and was the third consecutive top 15 for the No. 3 team, the first time they’ve accomplished that since Talladega in April. Chris Buescher finished 18th to score his 16th consecutive top 20 finish after starting at the rear of the field.

Lastly, horrible news broke during Sunday’s race that legendary Modified racer Mike Stefanik was killed in a plane crash. Stefanik, who won nine championships across both the Whelen Modified and K&N Pro Series East tours, was among the most accomplished short trackers of the modern era and sadly died as the racing world nears the two-year anniversary of the death of Ted Christopher. Stefanik was a six-time nominee for the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

Jones suffering from a transmission failure meant the No. 20 car finished 36th, the second consecutive week Jones has finished outside the top 35. With any momentum the team had from its Southern 500 win sapped, Jones likely will have to win at either Richmond or the Charlotte ROVAL to stay in the playoff hunt.

While Harvick made the trimmed-out SHR Ford package work, Bowyer’s pole-winning run proved to be a fluke. He was unable to keep Suarez from taking the lead at the start, continually dropped through the field during the first two stages and fell from contention for good after getting a tire rub on lap 197. Bowyer finished one lap down in 25th, snapping a streak of three consecutive top 10s.

Las Vegas proved to be unkind to its native sons this Sunday. Kurt Busch saw a sure-fire top 10 go up in smoke on lap 188, when he cut a tire trying to get through turn 3 back to pit road, incurring a 39th-place finish that was his first DNF of 2019 and his worst finish since the fall Kansas race of 2014. In 14th place and 14 points beyond the playoff cutline, it’s win or go home for the No. 1 team the next two weeks. As for Kyle Busch, his early race contact with the wall was reminiscent of the No. 18 team’s awful race at Loudon to open the 2008 postseason that derailed a season that saw Rowdy win eight regular season races. Kyle stormed through the field and did an admirable job to get back into the top 10, only to have an incident with a lapped car late cost the team a top-five finish. To his credit, his post-race interview with Parker Kligerman was harsh but fair.

Lastly, outside the playoff field, finishing 20th wasn’t disastrous for Suarez, but it was the way he did it. Making contact with Bowyer, his teammate and a playoff contender on lap 1 irked Bowyer, who was concerned (and rightfully so) about a tire rub. Come lap 186, Suarez angered Logano to the point that the Logano drove alongside the No. 41 under yellow to gesture his displeasure. This all comes after an early season skirmish at Phoenix that saw Suarez get into a literal fight with McDowell over blocking during qualifying. The theme here? All of these drivers he’s ticked off drive Fords. Ticking off nearly the entirety of his OEM teammates is far from constructive for a driver whose seat is in high demand for next season.

Insights, Opinions and Fake News – In the Playoffs

It was surprising to hear that Stewart-Haas Racing took a page from Richard Childress Racing of all organizations in gambling by bringing “trimmed out” high-downforce cars to Las Vegas, as all season long, “trimmed out” has meant “qualify well and fade late.” At race’s end, the results spoke for themselves – Harvick and the No. 4 are lightyears ahead of the rest of the organization, no matter the package.

There seemed to be an awful, clear rule violation during Kyle Busch’s green flag stop to repair crash damage during the first stage that saw the fuel man remove a tool from the rear decklid of the car while still holding his fuel can. The ever-knowledgeable Bob Pockrass provided the relevant rule citation.

The rub here? NASCAR saw it important enough to spell out that the fuelers could only use their feet to move tires, but NOTHING else. Yet somehow, removing tools is suddenly OK? I guess we shouldn’t be surprised to see the rules change come playoff time. After all, NBC is the home of the NHL.

The rule that had NASCAR Twitter ablaze though was the uncontrolled tire rule, which is proving to be a hole that NASCAR can’t dig itself out of. Despite having (correctly) revised the rule earlier this summer to be more common sense about tires in pit boxes, there was no shortage of race fans irate that Logano’s crew committed what would have been a penalty in March.

Fixing this rule was the right decision by NASCAR, but it still goes to show that working with a rulebook written in pencil has consequences.

After seeing Kyle Larson’s team get penalized for a safety violation after a tire catcher fell over pit wall, I can’t help but wonder if playoff teams this fall need to take a page from Clemson’s playbook and give a couple grad assistants hot passes to hold the tire carriers back the same way defensive coordinator Brent Venables is restrained on the sidelines.

Between Matt DiBenedetto playing blocker as Truex passed Logano to win stage two, and Elliott slowing his pace under yellow to allow Byron to stay on the lead lap after his lap 181 spin, team orders were very visible in Sunday’s race. I thought Formula 1 was off this week?

Insights, Opinions and Fake News – Outside the Playoffs

One thing that F1 is getting right, however, that NASCAR needs to adapt/steal is the graphics for scoring. The F1 scoring pylon shows penalties incurred, steward investigations, pit road status, etc. That was sorely needed for a race broadcast that omitted complete coverage of numerous race incidents including tire rubs that forced both Smithley and Joey Gase to pit road under green, as well as Ryan Preece being forced to pit road with contact.

At the risk of incurring the literal wrath that my colleague Clayton Caldwell got for taking the stance that the Wood Brothers could have done better than signing DiBenedetto to replace the retiring Paul Menard, I’ve got to say that Saturday’s Xfinity Series race all but validated his take, courtesy of one Tyler Reddick.

That Reddick stretched a tank of gas more than 100 miles while being pursued by a dominant Christopher Bell was impressive enough. But look at the bigger picture. Reddick has proven himself as a points racer, clinching the regular season title before going on his banzai fuel run. He’s the defending series champion, and now sits primed to defend that title come Homestead. And lost in all the shuffle of that is that Reddick has won more races on his own in the No. 2 car than the entire RCR organization won in 2017-2018 combined. Reddick has RCR’s Xfinity Series operation competing at a level it hasn’t seen since Harvick was running full schedules over a decade ago.

DiBenedetto’s summer has been magical, and it is a good thing to see the old-fashioned driver development ladder of toiling in lesser rides to earn a good car prove viable even in 2019. The heart says yes. The head says Reddick is younger, more accomplished, every bit the showman on the race track, and a signing that would have been even more of a coup for Ford than signing DiBenedetto was. As much as I believe that Richard Childress knows a good driver when he sees one, there’s a reason he’s literally comparing Reddick to the all-time greats already. He knows how lucky his organization is to have a driver that talented given the state it’s in. I’m with you on this one, Clayton.

One final note on this story … the signing of the 22nd place driver to replace the 19th place driver for the 2020 season was the dominant headline entering the playoff weekend. I don’t mind the playoff model, but 10 weeks of playoffs is too damn much.

Let Jesse Iwuji’s crash during Truck Series qualifying on Friday be a lesson to anyone fortunate enough to land a hot pass for a NASCAR race – pay attention. This column has made the point on more than one occasion in 2019 that personal safety at the track is the responsibility of each race fan, and that goes for being behind pit wall. Had this happened during a Cup qualifying session, I could easily have seen someone with their nose in their phone miss a vehicle barreling towards the wall at 170 mph.

While I fully side with Kyle Busch’s remarks that it is absurd to have drivers that have never won at any grassroots racing level running in the Cup Series, the reality is funded drivers are an absolute necessity right now, given than the Cup Series can’t get a full field with any reliability outside of Daytona. Which begged an interesting question that came up during this race, which was chock-full of crushed steel bodies cutting down tires: Should a composite body come to Cup racing?

https://twitter.com/IronRacer41_/status/1173410124528066560?s=20

While I’m not sold that making Cup cars even more durable when the Kyle Busches of the world can still run top five even after slapping the wall as hard as he did early on Sunday, especially given the current slot car package, there is something to be said about the cost savings that come with a composite body. That body style has yielded real cost savings for both Xfinity Series and ARCA Racing Series teams. Maybe that could translate into more entries for a Cup Series that needs them?

Participation Trophies:

Best Paint Scheme: Bowman. If this is the paint scheme Nationwide Insurance is going to leave NASCAR with, at least they’re going out with a bang.

Though it’d look a hell of a lot better without that Monster green all over the edges.

The “Poorly Phrased” New York Times Bestseller: Whoever gave the command to start the Xfinity Series race on Saturday.

Most Likely to Star in a Sammy Hagar Music Video: Jones. First, the hair. Second, “I can’t get my car out of second gear!”

OCD Title Sponsor Award: South Point. For replying to every damn tweet that didn’t put a checkered flag next to the hashtag #southpoint400.

Where It Rated: It wasn’t a flush, but a full house is a hand worth playing more often than not. The crowd was solid given the hot weather, the package allowed for passing throughout the field, there were plenty of comers and goers in the playoff field, and the lack of yellows kept the race ending at a semi-reasonable hour for those us going to work Monday. Between the show, the crowd and the pre-race activities on the Strip this week, NASCAR ought to swap Phoenix and Vegas for next year’s playoffs.

What’s the Points? Leaving Las Vegas, Newman, Kurt Busch, Bowyer and Jones find themselves on the wrong side of the cut line. Newman currently trails Almirola by six points for the final spot in the top 12. After winning, Truex has locked himself into the round of 12.

Up Next: The Cup Series heads back to the East Coast for some always-welcomed short-track action in Richmond. Coverage from the capital of the South starts at 7:30 p.m. ET on NBC Sports Network.

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iceman202290

Ouch sounds like Kyle had a rough day. How do you run into the back of a lap car at such a wide track tho? I haven’t been able to see a replay of the incident yet.

Composite bodies? If it saves money for everyone then why not? NASCAR needs to bring the cost down as sponsorship money slows

Jeremy

If I recall from the replay, Kyle thought the lapped car was going to go low, so he set up to run high lane… but the lapped car went high. Kyle either tried to turn down lower to avoid or got off the gas and his car lost grip. He was still chasing the car up the hill trying to catch it when he poked the lapped car in the backside.

Apparently the spotters didn’t communicate well, or they misunderstood each other.

iceman202290

Thanks, car must have been going extremely slow in the corner.

Jeremy

I’m not sure exactly how much slower, but the closing rate was significant. I think Kyle just got caught off-guard by it, and by the time he realized what was going on it was too late.

iceman202290

Finally saw a replay, yea looks like exactly that. Focused on the corner entry then oh crap! Interesting that such little contact killed it tho?

Bill B

I don’t know why these guys act so stupidly when the chase starts. It’s like they all need to beat their chests and prove that they are “the man”. They get into these pissing contests and have problems as a result when most of them don’t have to. It’s like they forget that they only have to be better than the bottom four. I’m not saying they should ride around at the back or anything, it’s just year after year I see them push the limit and end up causing themselves issues. With all the playoff points, the top half of the chasers only need to finish in the top ten in the first 3 races and they are a shoe-in for the next round. It’s just unbelievable how they can push the car so hard that they hit the wall. Kyle Busch is prime example this week. He has over a race worth of points on the bottom 4. How can he not be wise enough to make it past the 6th lap of the first race before pushing it to the point where he damages his car? That’s something you don’t do until the closing laps of the race and even then it may be wiser to just finish second if you can’t do it cleanly. And I am not singling him out, half the chasers did something that was equally stupid and caused themselves problems. What happened to common sense?

And Bryan, I have to point out the snetence “It wasn’t a flush, but a full house is a hand worth playing more often than not”. Not much of a poker player are you Bryan? Last time I checked a full house beats a flush. If you are ever in the Baltimore area and are looking for a poker game you have a standing invitation at mine.

Glen H.

Kyle Busch, “We’ve got guys that have never won late model races running out here. It’s pathetic.”

But not as pathetic as a former MENCS champ center punching the rear end of a lapped car in the corner. Kyle had three tools to avoid the collision, a windshield, a steering wheel and a brake pedal. He didn’t use any of them.

Ricardo

And… he never has a problem with those same late model guys when he beats the in the Infinity. Shrub is such a tool.

DoninAjax

And they can’t win Late Model races because he cheats to win them too.

Carl D.

Honestly, I’d rather try to hold back tire carriers than Brent Venables. The man is like a pit bull with ‘roid rage.

JDinNC

I vote no on the composite bodies. It may be a cost savings, but the cup cars are already too indestructible as it is. There’s a risk/reward equation for running close to the wall. Using the tupperware bodies like the Xfinity guys takes a lot of the risk (entertainment value for fans) away.

DoninAjax

I think Baby Busch should use the same philosophy I use when I’m out on the road with the lunatics with a driver’s license now…What’s the dumbest move they can make? I’m never disappointed. And the faster the speed the dumber the moves.

Bill B

LOL,, probably because they are looking at their smart phone instead of the road and what’s in front of them.

You why they call them smart phones? Because compared to the person using them the phone looks pretty damn smart.

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