Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas

The Headline(s): Joey Logano weathered a lap 266 restart in the 2020 Pennzoil 400 was comfortably ahead when the caution flew on the white flag lap for John Hunter Nemechek’s spin. He claimed a second consecutive victory in the Las Vegas spring race, his 24th career Cup Series win and 55th career NASCAR national series victory.

A myriad of pit strategies jumbled the final running order, with Matt DiBenedetto, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson rounding out the top five.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: LAS VEGAS 

How It Happened

The race endured a false start of sorts with a lap 2 yellow flying when Daniel Suarez’s car didn’t fire coming to the green flag. Come lap 5, it was Logano that took the lead from Kevin Harvick, which he would hold until Harvick came back on lap 12. Harvick stayed out front until a lap 25 competition caution was thrown after heavy rains washed the rubber from the speedway surface overnight. 

Harvick maintained the lead on the lap 31 restart despite a strong challenge from Martin Truex Jr. On the long run, however, the strength of the Chevrolet camp began to show. Chase Elliott emphatically took the lead from Harvick on lap 67 using that speed. Elliott would proceed unmolested to win stage one for the second consecutive week.

Elliott’s time up front was quickly challenged at the beginning of stage two. Ford’s short-run speed carried both Harvick and Logano past the No. 9 on a lap 88 restart after Elliott tried to hold off Truex on the high side. The second stage would play out a lot like the first, however, with Elliott speeding up over the longer run as he retook the lead on lap 103. A long green-flag run continued, though not without incident, as on lap 110 Christopher Bell filed the first entry for “save of the year” after contact from Bubba Wallace.

Pit stops started with Ross Chastain under green on lap 118, then cycled through most of the leaders sans Stenhouse. He opted for a long-run strategy and stayed out as the leader from laps 128-145. Pitting on lap 145 handed the lead back to Elliott, who again kept Truex at bay until a lap 159 caution for Bell spinning in turn 2 ended the second stage.

Ryan Blaney’s No. 12 crew got their man off pit road ahead of Elliott for the lap 167 restart that also saw Truex fall from the front, forced to pit a second time to tighten lugnuts. After a quick caution on lap 168 for a Nemechek spin, both Logano and Harvick surged back to the front on a lap 172 restart. Logano held the lead until lap 176, when the yellow flew again after Truex, mired in traffic, had a tire rub that eventually put his Toyota into the turn 4 wall. Both William Byron and Brad Keselowski pit for four tires under this yellow flag, trying to get out of poor track position and a move that would pay off later in the stage.

Blaney would briefly lead after the lap 182 restart before Harvick’s short-run prowess put the No. 4 back in front on lap 184. Blaney’s team was sure their car would prevail on the longer run and it did, retaking the lead from the No. 4 on lap 201. However, Elliott got stronger as well, and made contact with Blaney immediately prior to taking the lead on lap 205. 

The story of the race, Elliott became a cautionary tale on lap 221 when he spun in turn 1 with an apparent flat tire.

Elliott’s incident came in the middle of a green-flag pit cycle, putting JTG Daugherty Racing teammates Stenhouse and Ryan Preece out front with the majority of the leaders trapped a lap down. Stenhouse’s tires, however, proved no match for the rest of the field, as both Logano and Harvick again surged to the point by lap 232. Though the two were not racing side-by-side, nothing could protect them from the run Blaney was on, and the No. 12 took the lead convincingly on lap 255. Meanwhile, Alex Bowman, who topped the 20-lap average chart in Friday practice, came out of nowhere, and was running down Blaney for the race lead. The duo appeared set to battle for the win one-on-one.

Any hopes for that epic finish went out the window on lap 262, when Chastain spun on the backstretch and brought out the yellow flag. Blaney and Bowman both opted to pit while Logano, thanks to a miscommunication with crew chief Paul Wolfe, was the first lead lap car to stay off pit road under this yellow flag. With the lead in hand on the final restart, Logano pulled away as both Byron and DiBenedetto made contact entering turn 1, then drove away from the pack until the final yellow flew for Nemechek’s spin into the frontstretch grass.

Drivers Who Accomplished Something

A week after proving the scourge of Daytona for aggressive drafting, Logano proved the strongest car of the day out front on restarts as well as a top-five fixture. Those two factors meant when the rest of the field got to bumping without the No. 22 involved on lap 266, Logano was able to ride into the sunset for another Vegas win. Joey’s still the Penske flagship.

DiBenedetto has finished second in a Cup car before, but doing so on an intermediate oval in the second race of the season will go a long way to validating the Wood Brothers decision to put him in the No. 21. Matty D fans have reason to be excited in 2020.

SEGAL: MATTY D ECSTATIC OVER SECOND-PLACE FINISH

The Dillon brothers both scored top-10 finishes this Sunday (Austin in fifth, Ty in 10th), only the third time the brothers have done that in the same Cup race. For Ty, this marked his first top 10 in Cup off a superspeedway. And in particular, Austin’s run was an encouraging showing for the RCR flagship, as he remained in or around the top 15 for much of the afternoon. As with the rest of the Chevrolet camp, the No. 3 bunch showed real progress has been made over the course of 400 miles.

With as much contact as was seen throughout the front of the field during this race, for Stenhouse to finish third, without incident, was a real triumph for the No. 47 team. The Hendrick engines have proven a real asset for them, and the result? A top-five on an intermediate oval, which is only the third Stenhouse has ever scored in his career, as well as the first for the No. 47 team since they moved up to Cup racing in 2008. 

Seventh and 12th are not results that either Keselowski or Clint Bowyer are looking for. But on a day that saw track position at a premium, for the two drivers to recover from poor showings that saw neither score points in the first two stages to post respectable results is a notable effort. For Keselowski, it took over 150 laps to get back up front after he burned up his tires during the end run of the first stage. Just behind him, Bowyer was running 21st near the race’s midpoint, emphatically frustrated on the radio despite the strength Stewart-Haas Racing had showed in practice.

Off the track, Ryan Newman walking out of Halifax Hospital less than 48 hours after his horrific Daytona 500 crash was quite the accomplishment, especially given the role Newman himself has played in advocating for the safety improvements that allowed him to do so. Plus, though Roush Fenway Racing did disclose Sunday that Newman did suffer a head injury during the wreck, his personality also emerged intact.

TIMELINE RELEASED IN RYAN NEWMAN RESPONSE AFTER DAYTONA CRASH

Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing

While Stenhouse stole the show for the JTG team, it was a cruel ending for Preece. Running in the top 20 leading up to a strategy call that saw the Nos. 37 and 47 out front when the yellow flew on 221, Preece came down pit road only to have his team go under the hood… and then push his Camaro to the garage. Major missed opportunity race. 

Chastain certainly turned some heads with his performance as Newman’s relief driver Sunday, especially with this rare feat Matt Courson noted below.

However, it all went out the window during the final stage. Contact with Kurt Busch on lap 227 sent both the Nos. 1 and 6 to the pits under green with tire rubs, while lap 262 saw Chastain go around for a spin that ruined any shot of a decent finish for him. The raw speed is there, but Chastain proved a Cup rookie in better equipment when the day was done.

GABLE: ALL EYES ON ROSS CHASTAIN

Both the Busch brothers were not treated well by their hometown track. Kurt battled with a loose condition all day long (he reported around lap 46 that he was driving on “banana peels”) before contact with Chastain on lap 227. As for Kyle Busch, though he did make progress through the field after starting in the rear following “Bondogate” on Friday (more on that later), it wasn’t the ruthless charge the No. 18 has pulled off before. Busch ran from 10th-15th for much of the afternoon and finished 15th, part of a woeful day for Joe Gibbs Racing.

It was also a day to forget for Toyota as a whole. Busch and teammate Denny Hamlin were literal non-factors all afternoon long, with Hamlin also enduring a pit road incident with Jimmie Johnson on a green flag stop around lap 127 that saw both crews off their games. Erik Jones was mired outside the top 20 for much of the first two stages before the crew went under the hood for adjustments during the second stage… and stayed there even after those adjustments. Only Truex showed any race pace all day long, but that went out the window after having to make an additional pit stop under the second stage break that mired the No. 19 in traffic, resulting in multiple slaps with the wall during the ensuing restart. Coupled with Bell bringing out a yellow for a spin on lap 159 (and overshooting his pit box for the second time in two weeks), plus Suarez’s race ending before it started, mighty Toyota struck out in Vegas.

There’s a lot of potential, it seems, in the Hendrick camp for this season. Bowman, Byron and Elliott all showed a ton of long-run speed Sunday, which is a tremendous improvement for a Chevrolet camp entirely reliant on “trimmed-out” packages all last year on intermediate ovals. But, come race’s end, the only top 10 for the organization came from Johnson’s No. 48 team, which was the backmarker HMS car all afternoon long (also, Johnson slapped the wall on his own accord on lap 234). Bowman fell victim to pit strategy from a late yellow, Byron found himself roughed up during the dash to the checkers on lap 266, and Elliott’s two stage wins were nullified by his incident around lap 221. The speed is there, but HMS has to prove as an organization they still know how to close.

Insights, Opinions and Fake News

Looovvveeee me some tire wear. Vegas at times today felt like the Atlanta racing we’ve had as week two the past few seasons. Good stuff.

Despite all the public sentiment in favor of the melon man and wanting Newman’s No. 6 team to have a top-notch sub, it seems surprising that Chevrolet-backed Chastain was given the green light to drive a Ford Cup car. It’s more surprising given that Ford could have two primo seats at Penske available for free agents next year, and that Ford has proven very adept at poaching talent from other manufacturers. In fact, the each of the most recent Cup champions wheeling a Ford today has won came from drivers that were poached (Logano from Toyota-backed Gibbs, Harvick from Chevy-backed Childress and Keselowski from Chevy-backed Hendrick… yes, JR Motorsports = Hendrick). The fact that Chastain got the green light strongly suggests Chevrolet has firm plans for him next year. Or, to put it another way, that he has an “ally” with the Bowties… (Editor’s note: this reference has been corrected, as Keselowski’s 2012 title was won in a Dodge. Thank you to longtime commentariat contributor Carl D. for the catch).

Speaking of Ally, their tweet about Johnson’s slap with the wall on lap 234 was kind of laughable.

For one, FOX’s video was conclusive that there was contact, not “potential contact.” And two, trying to attribute it to the restart as opposed to the bright yellow wall reeks of protectionism. No matter how well-sponsored that car is, the No. 48 is the low man in the current Hendrick stable right now. Seven-time is simply hanging on.

SEGAL: JOHNSON READY TO ROLL AFTER TOP-FIVE FINISH

The Frontstretch staff chat melted down into asininity Friday night while watching Rowdy score his seventh consecutive Truck Series win, leading our own Matt McLaughlin to state, “7-second margin of victory. 13 seconds to fifth. 23 seconds to 10th. Best of luck to anyone who has to write something interesting about that farce.”

Much has been written about Busch’s domination in lower series. But consider this alternate reality. If the defending Cup Series champion could stop getting off from pitching shutouts in AA games, this rout of a race would have featured race winner Johnny Sauter, a 2020 Truck Series title contender, throwing down a gauntlet at the very track where engine issues derailed the title hopes of multiple ThorSport trucks last fall. Translation: it’d have been something interesting. Whatever sponsor dollars Kyle is bringing into KBM by running Truck races can’t be worth more than the fans that are tuning out or staying home on Friday nights, knowing that, barring a miracle, the Truck Series race is over before it starts. 

Leave it to “I’m not an owner anymore” Harvick to suggest that the solution to the Kyle Busch problem in the Truck Series is… more Cup drivers.

Rewind back to 2008, when ESPN turned the spring Xfinity Series race at Phoenix into a literal Kyle vs. Carl [Edwards] showdown for the entire broadcast. That proved to be such a lasting success those telecasts were abandoned and never repeated, crowds have significantly declined over the last decade, and ESPN pulled out of the sport entirely. Wonder how many tires $50,000 would buy last week’s (already forgotten) darling Jordan Anderson?

While on the note of forgotten darlings, first some credit where it’s due. It was a pleasant surprise to hear Mike Joy make a note of Michael McDowell’s troubles that sent the No. 34 team behind the wall around lap 34 with a stuck throttle. 

That surprise inclusiveness did not carry over to Timmy Hill’s burnt rear-end gear that saw his MBM No. 66 end up Brock Beard’s LASTCAR for the week. Amazing how quickly career-best Daytona finishes get forgotten, isn’t it? Same thing for Garrett Smithley, who was forced down pit road inside of 10 laps with an overheating issue (I’m considering Smithley a darling after his late-race issues with Rowdy at Vegas in the fall was a blessing for those covering the Cup playoffs).

The car count was down, the crowd was smaller (though the weather was colder), and the race wasn’t a classic either. Tell me again why the ARCA Menards Series West ditched a dirt race for the bullring? Dirt is what ARCA does.

Eagle-eyed viewers watching the West race on Thursday night should have noticed a backstretch billboard that’s advertising the Pennzoil 400 as being back in the spring of 2021. One less date for a potential change to the much ballyhooed Cup slate for next year…

Our commentariat had plenty to say about Wallace’s warthog-scheme trumping Byron’s flames after Daytona. While I get that the intent was cool, the proportions of a Cup car’s nose made Bubba’s Air Force special look downright ugly. Between Hailie Deegan’s Monster car in ARCA and Bubba’s Daytona 500 ride, well, to use a line I may or may not have used before in Vegas, “maybe use a little less teeth?”

And though Bubba’s Coke Energy scheme was a good looking car, Jones wins the paint scheme trophy for the second time this season. 

It’s not as good as Kurt Busch’s Star Nursery colors from last year, but it’s always good to see sponsor colors return to the sport.

You Heard It Here Before

During pre-race inspection, the cars of Dale Earnhardt Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Kenseth were found to have issues that the NASCAR inspectors didn’t like. The teams were told to fix the problem areas, and get back into the inspection line. Yeah, there’s that option; or they could have fined them a hundred grand, deducted 100 points, and suspended their crew chiefs for six weeks. Somehow, the officiating doesn’t seem very even-handed these days. – Matt McLaughlin, 2008

Two weeks into the Cup regular season, here’s two takeaways from the “Bondogate” story in the Toyota garages prior to Cup practice Friday. The FOX team reported three Gibbs and Leavine cars were found to have modified the body lines of their Camrys using Bondo (per Racin’ Boys Lee Spencer, in the nose area), and lost 10 points and practice time for it.

First, as much as Bob Leavine’s honest and engaged Twitter presence has been a positive example for the sport’s ownership, the fact that the No. 95 was caught with Gibbs cars for the exact same infraction makes his repeated offseason insistences of his race team’s independence ring awful hollow. Second, while I’ll admit I’m not an expert in stock car bodies, it looks bad to the untrained eye that three Cup teams lost 10 points for messing with their noses this week. Last week, Carl Long’s Xfinity team left Daytona in the red down 75 points (and $75,000) because they messed with their nose prior to qualifying. It’s a wonder Long has any teeth left the way the sanctioning body seems to enjoy curb-stomping him.

What’s the Point(s)? Come back after the West Coast swing.

Where It Rated (with one can a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) – A dry day in Vegas that warranted 4.5 Banger Brewing Blondies. Truthfully, that last caution cost it a fifth bottle, as both Blaney and Bowman got left on an island rather than in position to race it out.

Dust Off the VCR: The Cup Series moves from Sin City to just outside another city of sin, tackling the Auto Club Speedway in California. Coverage from Fontana begins at 3:30 p.m. ET Sunday, March 1 on FOX.

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15 comments

  1. Avatar

    When I know that KyBu us running either in Trucks or Xfinity races, I don’t even bother to watch. Sucks all the joy, watching him run away from every legit contender. That said, I found the Cup race Sunday very entertaining! Whether because of tire wear or pit strategy, something was happening almost every lap that was worth paying attention to. Maybe I won’t miss Atlanta quite as much if this keeps up.

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    I thought the race was pretty good and entertaining. Tire wear, guys fading and surging, bad luck for some of the fastest cars (Elliott and Truex), and some decent side by side racing. I definitely felt like I did not waste my time watching. It is also nice to see that NASCAR does not seem to be throwing the caution flag as quickly when a car has problems (we’ll see what happens as the season goes on with that one). I also thought the guys in the booth did a decent job because I don’t remember be pissed off by anything they did during the broadcast.

    I thought Elliott had the best long run car so I was pulling for him after he won the first two stages since it looked like he was deserving of the win. Once Elliott was out and Blaney took the lead, I was pulling for him to win with a strong challenge from Bowman for an exciting finish but a legitimate caution squelched that hope. Very happy for DiBenedetto to finish 2nd.

    For once the wave around rule worked like it should and was legitimate. Those cars were only a lap down by virtue of the caution coming during a round of green flag pit stops. Otherwise it would have been ridiculous as 25+ cars were waved around.

    Like I said, overall I give the race a B+. As 1.5 milers go it will probably be one of the best of the season (unfortunately) but I’d love to be proven wrong.

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      agree with all of this 100%

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      Give NA$CAR a chance to make more changes to improve the product and slow down the Fords. We’ve only just begun.

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      Well written Bill.

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      I agree with Bill B, but that was not a legitimate caution IMHO.

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        I thought the same thing that the 2nd to last caution was unnecessary since no wall contact spun off the racing surface and did not stall. If NASCAR is serious about the caution thing they just went backwards again and ruined a perfectly good race to the finish.

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        I don’t know. I had it recorded so I just watched it again. I can go either way on it. Sure, NASCAR could have held the flag but I’ve seen them throw it for a lot less. Chastain was turned around although not on the track. I will just say it fell within the tolerance levels of what I consider a justifiable caution worthy event (at least in NASCAR’s eyes). One thing is for sure, it really killed a few drivers’ day that were looking like they were going to finish well. I’ve never been a fan of late caution but IT happens.

  3. Avatar

    What impressed me most when I watched the event was the almost-total ignoring of Baby Busch. Maybe he’s not the favourite pet of one of the boys in the booth.

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    I believe Keselowski won the 2012 Cup Championship in a Dodge, not a Ford.

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    What Penske seat are open?

  6. Avatar

    Sorry you didn’t like the Warthog paint scheme. Again, I thought it was awesome, the teeth made it look like he was going to eat the cars in front of him.

    I too was hoping for Blaney to get another win.

  7. Avatar

    Thought wave around cars were suppose to start behind everyone else. Seems very unfair to allow to start right behind the “true” lead lap cars. Screwed over the 47 and 38