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NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas

What happened?

Kyle Larson won the Pennzoil 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday (March 7) after leading a race-high 103 laps in just his fourth start for Hendrick Motorsports (fastest in team history).

Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top-five finishers.

Unofficial Pennzoil 400 Race Recap & Results

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Kevin Harvick couldn’t get through one lap before being overtaken by William Byron and Larson. Byron paced the field for 20 circuits until Chase Elliott, hard-charging from his eighth starting spot, passed his teammate to take the lead.

On the pit stops during the competition caution, Elliott’s jackman had trouble getting the jack in and damaged the car. Hamlin then took the lead on the restart as an intense battle for second broke out between Keselowski, Larson and Elliott.

Eventually, Larson prevailed and moved to the front, passing Hamlin and leading until a debris caution on lap 45. On the next restart, we saw an intense three-wide battle for the lead with Joey Logano getting ahead.

With 18 laps to go in the first stage, Elliott passed Logano for the lead with Keselowski closely following. The amount of lead changes in the eventful first stage was staggering.

The Nos. 9 and 2 battled it out over the last 10 laps for the stage win, with Keselowski pulling ahead right at the end.

Elliott stayed on pit road for an extended stop during the stage break to fix earlier damage from the jack. On the restart, Keselowski got in front as Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto both battled behind him. Team Penske flexed their muscle as Joey Logano briefly worked with way into the mix.

However, as was evident all day, Larson’s car showed its strength on the long run.

The second stage stayed green the rest of the way through a series of green flag pit stops. Larson remained out front and took home his first stage win of the season.

The final stage restarted with 100 laps remaining and Hamlin back out front, as his pit crew continued to deliver fast stops. Over the next 15 laps, there were two cautions. First, Elliott spun and miraculously saved it outside of minimal contact with Kurt Busch.

Then, Aric Almirola cut a tire and retired early to the garage.

There was a mixed bag of strategies on that second caution, with some cars pitting and most staying out. Larson was among those who pitted, but he stormed to the front and got by Hamlin for the lead with 61 laps to go.

Final green flag stops began 15 laps later, with Larson cycling back to the front after some teams attempted to stay out and catch a favorable caution. The end of the race played out a lot like last week’s final stage at Homestead-Miami Speedway, with a long green flag run ending the race.

That worked in Larson’s favor, as clean air and superior speed had him on cruise control over runner-up Keselowski. The win was Larson’s seventh of his career, his first since Dover International Speedway in the fall of 2019 and the first for the No. 5 of Hendrick Motorsports since Kasey Kahne in 2017 (Brickyard 400). Crew chief Cliff Daniels also got his first career victory in 55 races (50 with Jimmie Johnson, four with Larson, one with Justin Allgaier).

Who stood out?

Larson proved he will be a championship threat in his return to the Cup Series. After nine second-place finishes at 1.5-mile tracks in his career, Larson got his first win Sunday. We’ve always wondered how he’d perform in better equipment than what he had at Chip Ganassi Racing. Now, we have a clear answer. He was in contention at the Daytona International Speedway road course before wrecking out, then was in the mix at Homestead all day.

That No. 5 team should remain competitive at these 1.5-mile tracks all year long with the package remaining the same. It’ll be interesting to see what happens with the short track package at Phoenix Raceway next week, especially considering that’s the site of the playoff finale.

The Larson redemption story will be prevalent throughout the year. It’s obviously a tricky subject. What he did was clearly offensive and out of line. “Redemption” might not be the right word considering he did this to himself with his own harmful actions. Still, Larson seems to have learned from his mistakes, and it’s good to see him making the most of this second chance.

Keselowski had the workmanlike day we’ve become accustomed to seeing throughout his career. I mean, seriously. How many times have we seen BK go out there at a 1.5-mile track like Vegas, run up front all day, lead laps and finish inside the top five? He’s grinded out days like these so many times in his career, and it’s something that should be noted.

On the big picture side, Vegas is a great sign the No. 2 isn’t suffering any sort of second-place slump following last season. He finished in the top 10 at all but one 1.5-mile track last season (11 starts), and he’s now one for two in 2021. 

A lot of the usual contenders ran out front Sunday but one surprise was Erik Jones, who came home in 10th. Jones had a rough start to 2021, to put it lightly. Finishes of 39th, 14th and 27th were a reality check for a driver used to running in top-notch equipment. To top it all off, he saw his replacement (Christopher Bell) win in his former ride right off the bat.

Las Vegas was a much-needed top 10 run for the Richard Petty Motorsports driver. He was competitive in that 10th-to-15th range all afternoon and brought the car home exactly where he should’ve.

GLOVER: A closer look at how underdogs fared in Vegas

Who fell flat?

Stewart-Haas Racing as a whole had a disastrous afternoon in Vegas. Harvick “led” the way in 20th, with Chase Briscoe (21st), Cole Custer (25th) and Almirola (38th) limping home outside the top 20. Harvick was off the pace from the jump despite leading the field to green. It was uncharacteristic for the No. 4 team to just miss it by that much. Last season, it took that crew 12 races until they finished 20th or worse.

The results of the other three SHR cars is becoming an alarming trend. Almirola wrecked out at Vegas, but he was nowhere near contention even before that. He has three finishes of 30th or worse this season. Custer was expected to build off a solid rookie year, and instead, he’s still searching for his first top 10. Many thought Briscoe would be better as a rookie, but I’m willing to let him off the hook. He’s run just four races at this level, so it’s bound to take some time. Still, this team as a whole has a ton of work to do.

Kurt Busch wasn’t able to back up his win at Vegas last fall and struggled to a 19th-place finish. I know his win at Vegas last fall was strategy-based. Still, it was surprising to see him run so poorly after how well he ran at Homestead last week. He was in that eighth-to-12th range early in the race, but contact on Elliott’s spin clearly hindered his day.

What did this race prove?

Hendrick Motorsports isn’t miles ahead of the other organizations, but that group is clearly atop the sport right now. It’s still close and winners will change weekly, as you saw a lot of Team Penske and Joe Gibbs Racing cars running up front. Still, two HMS wins in two races with two different drivers is impressive – especially considering neither winner was their defending series champion. It easily could’ve been three straight had the rain caution not been thrown at the Daytona road course.

Now, we head to the track where Elliott dominated last November (Phoenix). It’ll be a big test to see if HMS still has the speed that they showed late last season on smaller tracks. We’ll table these discussions and chat again next week.

If you accept this package for what it is, you’ll be able to see how much fun the racing is at some tracks. I’ll be the first to admit this aero package isn’t my favorite. But there’s no denying the entertainment that was the first stage of Sunday’s race. That was among the best 1.5-mile racing that I can remember. The leaders couldn’t stretch out their margin, and oftentimes drivers ran two- and three-wide throughout the first few rows for multiple laps.

So, complain all you want. “It’s not real racing.” “It’s a gimmick.” “It requires no skill.” It’s fun. That’s what it is. The package is what the sport is right now, and there’s no sense in being miserable while watching it. Just enjoy it for what it is and your Sundays will go a lot better.

Paint scheme of the race

A handful of new schemes debuted in Las Vegas, making my life rather difficult this week. Ryan Preece, Kyle Busch and Austin Dillon all put up a fight. But the distinct honor this week goes to Quin Houff. He ran the 8 Ball Chocolate Whiskey scheme for the second straight week and it looked just as good in Vegas as it did in Miami.

Better than last year?

Last year, there were long green flag runs in the first stage with similarly good battles for the lead. The second stage was more of the same: solid racing and minimal cautions. Elliott was in position to win until he cut a tire during the final green flag pit stop sequence. Blaney passed Logano for the lead in the final laps and was likely going to win until he and second-place Alex Bowman pitted on the final caution, which set up an overtime finish. Logano stayed out and track position prevailed with the race ending under caution.

The finish of last year’s race was more compelling just because of the mystery of who would win. Overall, though, 2021 was a better race. The racing in the first stage was incredible, and even though the rest of the way didn’t quite match it, there was still plenty to like. Give me 2021 over 2020 by a very slim margin. 

Playoff picture

Four races, four different winners. Larson, Byron, Bell and Michael McDowell are “locked” into the playoffs, but we’ve already got 25% of the playoff field filled. So, more than 16 race winners remains entirely plausible. Until we start seeing guys like Hamlin, Harvick and Keselowski start racking up victories, I still think 17 winners is possible. 

The current playoff field is starting to take shape, but here’s some remaining oddball things happening in the standings after four weeks.

Currently in the playoffs: Preece (13th), Chris Buescher (16th)

Currently out of the playoffs: Bowman (18th), Almirola (28th), DiBenedetto (30th)

What’s next?

The brief two-race west coast swing concludes next Sunday (March 14) at Phoenix Raceway. With Phoenix again hosting the season finale this season, next weekend will be a huge opportunity to handicap who might be the favorites in November. The Instacart 500 will go green at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: LAS VEGAS

About the author

Frontstretch columnist | Website

Logan Reardon, 23, has followed NASCAR since before he could talk. He's taken his passion for the sport and turned it into a budding writing career. Logan also works for NBC Sports as an editor and the Seattle Seahawks as a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter at @LoganReardon20.

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9 thoughts on “Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2021 Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas”

  1. So glad to see Larson win. Everyone deserves a second chance. I agree that he‘s definitely a strong championship contender. HMS is on a roll.

  2. Losing his Gannasi ride last year may have been the best thing that happened to Larson, it resulted in him going from second tier equipment to top tier equipment. For the first time we will see just what Larson can do.

    I agree that this was a pretty good race for a 1.5 mile track. Not quite as good as last week’s at Homestead but still entertaining and worth watching. If all 1.5 mile tracks could produce a race like that there would be a lot less complaining about boring races at intermediate tracks. Perhaps the cloudy conditions helped some.

    If there is one team that seems to be in trouble it’s SHR, however the only weekly contender on that team has been Harvick so perhaps he is just having a bad start and magnifying how off the entire organization is. We will know next week. If Harvick isn’t a contender at Phoenix then I would sound the warning alarm for SHR.

    Nice to see Dibenedetto and Blaney have good runs after such a dismal start to the season.

  3. race was ok. i have problem with these late starting race and my attention span waning, just my age.

    wonder if ford will be screaming for engineering help. i wonder how much stewart is involved with the organization since he’s doing the dirt racing, owns eldora and now the new pseudo-iroc series.

    i saw something where larson was amazed at the difference between the ganassi chevys and the hendrick chevys.

    and of course fox/na$car had to play the sympathy card by letting everyone know that the 5 and the color scheme is the one that ricky hendrick ran.

    hopefully now sponsors will start knocking on the door for the 5 car. larson just has to remember that a race ends when the black/white checker flag waves. he did good yesterday.

  4. Maybe it’s me but the VL shoutouts to Jeff Gordon are a bit eyebrow raising. I always wonder how much “inside baseball” information is revealed in discussions with race teams as part of the weekly broadcast preparation.

    • I am guessing that Gordon must have led the charge on getting Larson in a Hendrick car, but I get your point.

  5. Well put. If anything, Larson is a major upgrade over the shell of Jimmie Johnson that was out there the last 2-3 years.
    I wonder how much getting the past their prime guys out of HMS (add Dale Jr to that) is part of the resurgence.

  6. Jimmie Johnson earned the right to go out on his own terms. Ditto for Gordon. And Junior was the sport’s most popular driver rand a familiar link to one of NASCAR’s biggest historical figures. But you are right… HMS is benefitting from having four talented and hungry young drivers. The bad news for the rest of the teams is that these guys haven’t reached their full potential yet.

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