NASCAR Race Weekend Central
(Photo: Nigel Kinrade Photography)

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2020 South Point 400 at Las Vegas

What happened?

Kurt Busch won the 2020 South Point 400 at his hometown track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, late Sunday night (Sept. 27). Busch pulled away following an overtime restart, clinching a spot in NASCAR’s Round of 8. 

Matt DiBenedetto, Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

To kick off the Round of 12, Chase Elliott rocketed from third to first on the initial LVMS start and led until the competition caution at lap 25. Kyle Busch, who entered pit road in second, took the lead after a typical quick stop. On the restart, though, his teammate Hamlin blew by him.

Hamlin stretched out his advantage up front as others found it tough to pass deeper in the field. He cruised to the first stage win, his series-leading ninth of the season. Joey Logano threw a few blocks and held off all comers to finish second after the first stage ended at lap 80.

 

On the stage two restart, the battle got heated. Kyle Busch and Logano were side-by-side for the lead when Hamlin forced the issue to make it three-wide into turn 3. The No. 18 slid up the track, made contact with the No. 22 and forced Logano to pit under green with a tire rub.

Soon after, Elliott retook the lead from Hamlin before green flag pit stops began. It was a close battle at the end of stage two, but Elliott held off the No. 11 Toyota to grab his eighth stage win of the season (a total that’s second only to Hamlin).

On the restart for the final stage, Bowman briefly took the lead before Hamlin and Elliott got by, respectively. Hamlin led until there were 77 laps to go as a debris caution came out. Hamlin retained the lead after pit stops and a restart, as the race resumed just outside the expected fuel window. Long green-flag runs seemed to set up a Hamlin-Elliott duel for the finish.

However, with 31 laps to go, as the leaders were cycling through green-flag stops, Jimmie Johnson cut a tire and dropped debris on the track.

Nearly all of the leaders were caught a lap down and forced to take the wave-around. Suddenly, Kurt Busch was the only playoff driver left on the lead lap. DiBenedetto cycled through to the lead once everyone else pitted but Busch had crucial track position over his rivals.

On the restart with 26 to go, Busch charged into the lead over DiBenedetto and appeared to be rolling toward a win when John Hunter Nemechek spun with 17 laps to go. At that point, Hamlin and some others deeper in the field pitted while the leaders stayed out. Shortly after another restart, William Byron spun and set up an overtime restart, with Hamlin restarting on the outside of the third row.

Hamlin gave it his all, getting side-by-side with DiBenedetto for second, but no one could pull up to Busch.

The win was the 32nd of Busch’s career and first of the season. Busch has now won a race in seven straight years, with exactly one win in each of the last five.

Who stood out?

For most of Sunday’s race, I had Kurt Busch penciled in under the ‘Who fell flat’ category. A timely caution and strong restarts moved Kurt Busch to the ‘Who stood out’ category and into the Round of 8. He certainly didn’t have the best car all night – the No. 1 was hardly a top 15 car. That’s the benefit – or detriment – of this package. All Busch needed was track position, and he handled the rest from there.

In his later years, Busch has developed into a figure that his peers and followers respect immensely. His temper has cooled and it’s clear how much he appreciates the chances he’s been given. Winning at his hometown track after failing to do so in his first 21 starts there is something special. Playoffs aside, this win is one that Busch will cherish more than probably any other outside of his 2004 title and 2017 Daytona 500.

Even though he didn’t get back to victory lane, Denny Hamlin re-established himself after a disappointing opening round of the playoffs. He had the best car all night, leading a race-high 121 laps en route to a third-place finish. If he didn’t get trapped a lap down, he likely would’ve placed two spots better.

Overall, the No. 11 needed a bounce-back performance after that first round. Three finishes outside the top 10 didn’t eliminate Hamlin from the playoffs, but it was definitely eye-opening. Now, he’s well-positioned heading into Talladega and can start to look ahead to the all-important Round of 8.

I keep waiting for summer Alex Bowman to show up, but it seems like early season Alex Bowman might be here to stay. After a dismal summer stretch that included six finishes outside the top 20, Bowman has caught fire at the perfect time. He’s finished in the top 10 in five of the last six races and was probably a top-three car all night before the untimely caution.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver is not safe by any means heading into Talladega Superspeedway. Still, HMS has shown speed at those tracks and perhaps Lady Luck will shine on Bowman driving the No. 88, a car one of the sport’s best restrictor plate racers, Dale Earnhardt Jr., made famous. And if he slips up? Bowman finished fourth and second in the two races at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s ROVAL, so he’ll be confident heading into an elimination race there – regardless of what happens at Talladega.

Who fell flat?

What in the world happened to Elliott on that final restart? It looked like he got caught behind Ryan Newman and had nowhere to go. In a span of two laps, Elliott lost 20 points and now finds himself in a dangerous position. Dropping from 10th to finish 22nd is a crushing blow.

Luckily for Elliott, he has two things going for him right now. First, he amassed more stage points than anyone besides Hamlin at Vegas. He had more playoff points than most of his competitors and he’s still faster than most of them. Second, the ROVAL is lurking after Talladega, and Elliott’s road course prowess is well-known.

But, man, it seems like the No. 9 team has put on a clinic of how to lose races and waste points in 2020. Time after time, this team has one of the best cars in a race and comes away with a poor finish. If he can survive into the Round of 8, experiences like that can make a team stronger. If he can’t, there will be plenty of spots throughout the season that he can point to as missed opportunities.

Similar to Elliott, it seemed like Austin Dillon was going to have another strong playoff performance. That all changed when a belt broke and he lost power steering, relegating him to a 32nd-place finish.

Picking up 10 stage points salvaged something for Dillon, but he’s in a tough spot right now. Once a winner at Daytona, Dillion can clearly win on superspeedways. 20 years after Dale Earnhardt’s miracle win in the No. 3 at Talladega, Dillion might just have to do the same to keep his title hopes alive.

The Penske duo of Logano and Brad Keselowski had tough nights at one of their best tracks. Entering Sunday, those two had won three of the last four at LVMS, making them co-favorites to win. Logano looked strong early, but the contact with Kyle Busch put him down a lap and ended his shot at sweeping. Keselowski never really had it on Sunday, finishing in 13th with no stage points.

Logano and Keselowski have shown they can win on short tracks this year (Phoenix Raceway, Bristol Motor Speedway, New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Richmond Raceway). The championship is at Phoenix, but they’re going to have to perform on 1.5-mile tracks to get there. Round of 8 races at Kansas Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway could make or break Team Penske’s season.

What did this race prove?

With no easy way to pass the leader even if you have a better car, it’s becoming more and more clear that this intermediate track package doesn’t work. It’s all about momentum on restarts with this package, and that’s just not real racing. Though the restarts with this package are insane to watch, you just know it’s manufactured. It’s not about who has the best car, it’s about who gets the best run.

Sunday’s ending felt a lot like Texas earlier this season, when Dillion and Tyler Reddick held off faster cars on multiple late restarts. Just because Kurt Busch is a playoff driver and former champion, Sunday might not feel as gimmicky. Realistically, though, it is. He was outside the top 10 all night and had no business holding off guys like Hamlin and Bowman late.

NASCAR has to do something about this package for the NextGen car.

Las Vegas is a track that doesn’t need two races. I’ve harped on this one a lot in the past at tracks like New Hampshire and Auto Club Speedway. I think the races at those tracks have been exponentially better since they took a date away. I’m not sure if it’s because guys don’t have as much track time there or what.

Now, I understand why NASCAR wants two races in Vegas. It’s a great market for the sport and, pre-pandemic, seemed like an electric atmosphere and fun, fan-friendly experience.

But for racing purposes, Vegas is what it is. Most races are going to look like they did on Sunday, and does anybody really want that twice per year when you could be visiting a short track or road course?

At least one driver deserving to get to the Round of 8 is going to be eliminated early. Busch was one of the most consistent drivers of the regular season. He wasn’t one of the eight best, though. Ryan Blaney already got knocked out earlier than expected, while Keselowski, Truex, Logano, Elliott or Bowman could potentially join him if they wreck out at Talladega.

That’s the crux of this playoff system. While the drama can get wild as we get closer to the finale, it always seems unfair when a worthy driver gets knocked out because of a surprise winner. Personally, I enjoy the playoffs even if it isn’t a traditional racing points system. Sports are meant to be entertaining and the playoffs have certainly added entertaining moments in the past. The playoffs aren’t going away, so why not embrace it?

Paint scheme of the weekend

It might’ve been scorching hot in Las Vegas this weekend, but Austin Dillon’s No. 3 Dowfrost Chevy reminded us that other parts of the country are beginning to experience some cooler weather. It was a really cool and unique scheme, plus having it run in 100-degree desert heat was subtly hilarious.

Better than last year?

Last year, Vegas was the playoff opener. The race honestly looked eerily similar to Sunday night, just with a few more leaders taking turns up front. There were the typical wild restarts, though there were only two cautions besides stage breaks. Truex passed Harvick for the win with 20 to go and cruised to an easy victory.

Since the racing was so similar to last year, it’s hard to argue that 2020 was a better product based on purely racing. The results and finish, however, were much more entertaining for the viewer. Multiple late restarts produced some action and an untraditional, yet popular winner will likely leave many fans somewhat pleased. All things considered, it was a slightly better race than last year.

Playoff picture

Kurt Busch entered the Round of 12 last among playoff contenders with just one playoff point. Now, he’s got nothing to worry about at Talladega and the ROVAL, as he’s the first driver to clinch his spot in the Round of 8.

Entering Talladega, only Busch, Harvick and Hamlin should be secure. No one is in a must-win situation just yet, but Dillon, Aric Almirola and Clint Bowyer are nearing that territory after Busch’s win catapulted him up the standings.

What’s next?

The biggest wild card of the playoffs is here as the Cup Series heads to Talladega. A five-week stretch of night races is finally finished as the YellaWood 500 is set for Sunday (Oct. 4) at 2 p.m. ET. This race marks the second of three races in the Round of 12 and is a massive opportunity for some championship underdogs (Dillon, Bowyer, etc.) to steal a win and sneak into the Round of 8.

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About Logan Reardon

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15 comments

  1. Avatar

    There was actually an on-track pass for the lead well after a restart when Elliott passed Hamlin midway through stage 2. That’s like seeing a unicorn. Otherwise, boring race. Busch got lucky and that was the only way he could have won. At least he acknowledge the prominent role luck played during his post race interview.

  2. Avatar

    Caution 4 – Debris – 48 Free Pass

    Caution 5 – Debris – 88 Free Pass

    Caution 6 38 spin takes out 47 and 20

    Bubba 28th

    Winner 40 points, Hamlin 3rd 53 points, 19 4th 42 points, 88 5th 43 points, 12 7th 40 points. Why not give the winner enough points so that he gets the most points?

  3. Avatar

    We can go ahead and eliminate Keselowski and Logano. Brad’s inconsistency from week to week, and Logano’s uncontrolled urge to piss off the JGR drivers, will doom their championship dreams. They may make it to the round of eight, but I don’t think either will survive it if they do. As a fan of all the Penske drivers, that’s a disappointing realization.

  4. Avatar

    I was surprised that no one blamed Hamlin for diving inside turn 3 making it 3 wide and forcing Kyle up into Joey. Junior actually approved that racing move.

  5. Avatar

    DoninAjax already touched on it but Bubba Wallace 28th after all the fanfare and the “No more messing around” video. Great segue …

    • Avatar

      He’ll probably finish in the top 10 next week and everybody will think it’s a big deal and when one of us points out the fact that it’s only because it was a crapshoot restrictor plate race, we will be called a racist.

  6. Avatar

    Really miss the rating system from this column. It use to be fun for me to guess what I thought and the author.

  7. Avatar

    it would be ironic if Kurt’s win kept Kyle out of the Round of 8. I kinda hope that happens.