NASCAR Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: Las Vegas NASCAR Playoff Race

What happened?

Denny Hamlin won the South Point 400 at Las Vegas on Sunday night (Sept. 26) after leading a race-high 137 laps, including the final 39.

Chase Elliott, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Ryan Blaney rounded out the top-five finishers.

How did it happen?

Pole sitter Kyle Larson didn’t even lead the first lap as Blaney took the top spot on the inside line. He led for seven laps before Hamlin grabbed the lead. The No. 11 stayed out front until the competition caution just after lap 25.

Kyle Busch’s pit crew gave him the lead under caution, but Hamlin got it back on the restart after two intense laps of side-by-side racing with his teammate. Just a few laps later, Larson passed Hamlin to take control. The rest of the 80-lap first stage was relatively incident-free, save for some contact between Kevin Harvick and Matt DiBenedetto that cost both of them some speed.

Larson took the first stage for his 15th stage win of the season.

Hamlin won the race off pit road, though he could only hold off Larson for a few laps on the restart. They battled for a few laps before William Byron, coming from the rear, made it three-wide and took the lead.

A caution came out seconds later for Joey Gase, whose tire came off and forced him to slam into the outside wall. He was transported to the hospital after visiting the infield care center for further evaluation.

Seven cars stayed out under caution including the four Hendrick Motorsports cars and Blaney. The trio of Larson, Byron and Elliott fought for the lead early in the next run with the No. 5 leading most of the way. Byron and Elliott pitted with just under 30 to go in the stage, while Larson and Blaney waited under there were seven laps to go for their stops.

Hamlin got the lead after those guys pitted, and he held on for his 10th stage win of the season. Elliott unlapped himself late in the stage, Byron got the free pass and the rest had to take the wave around.

Stage three went green with 101 to go, with Truex briefly getting the lead before Hamlin took it back. Tyler Reddick challenged Hamlin throughout the run, but the No. 11 was able to stay out front.

Green flag stops began with just under 60 to go, with Kyle Busch in sixth leading the parade to pit lane. Reddick stayed out three laps longer than Hamlin, a strategy that cost him time and allowed Elliott to cycle up to second behind Hamlin.

See also
Denny Hamlin Dominates Las Vegas, Wins 1st Race in Sin City

Elliott slowly crept closer to Hamlin over the final 30 laps. He was within 1.6 seconds with 20 laps to go, then got it down to 1.2 seconds with 10 to go. The lead got down to around a half-second as they took the white flag, but he couldn’t close the gap any further and Hamlin ultimately won by 0.442 seconds.

The victory was Hamlin’s second of the season, the first of his career at Las Vegas and the 46th of his career (tied with Buck Baker for 17th all-time).

Who stood out?

Hamlin’s playoff hot streak continued and he’ll have another worry-free round. Winning the first race of a playoff round is the best possible outcome, and Hamlin’s done it twice in a row. It’s especially important in this round with Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte Motor Speedway ROVAL on deck. Hamlin also picked up another crucial six playoff points at Las Vegas and he’ll be in an even better position for the Round of 8.

Elliott was oh-so-close to stealing a win at Las Vegas, and he should be optimistic moving forward — if he can survive Talladega. The No. 9 has now shown top-five speed at three straight races on three completely different tracks (Richmond Raceway, Bristol Motor Speedway, Las Vegas). He’s now got a decent points cushion and an upcoming race at the ROVAL where he’s won the last two years. The Round of 8, should he get there, sets up nicely with two more 1.5-mile tracks and then Martinsville Speedway, where he won last year and finished second in the spring. It’s far too soon to count this team out — that is unless Harvick has something to say about it.

Reddick’s run at Vegas had to give him mixed emotions. He challenged Hamlin for the lead in the final stage and finished just outside the top-five in sixth. It would’ve been an awesome points day if he advanced to the Round of 12… but he missed it by two points last week. The Round of 12 set up great for Reddick, who runs well at 550-HP tracks, superspeedways (two top 10s in three starts this year) and road courses (three top 10s in six starts this year). It is encouraging to have that type of speed, but this team has to be kicking itself after being so close to advancing and then seeing how much speed it had at Vegas.

Who fell flat?

Byron might’ve had the car to beat at Las Vegas and he never really had a chance to show it. The No. 24 started at the rear after multiple inspection failures; Byron got to the top 10 before lap 20. Byron’s crew had a slow green flag stop after poor strategy and he had to race into free pass position by the end of stage two. He raced back into the top five after about 30 laps. On the final run of the race, he had to make an extra pit stop under green due to a flat tire. Vegas was a potential win, or top-five at worse, that turned into a disastrous 18th-place finish.

After fighting back to somehow advance through Bristol last week, Byron is already in another hole. It doesn’t get any easier on the schedule, and the competition is that much tougher in the Round of 12. This is baptism by fire for a driver and crew chief with limited postseason experience. We’ll see how they respond at two of the most unpredictable tracks imaginable.

Christopher Bell fell behind early and often on Sunday, forcing him into an unenviable position entering Talladega. He pitted twice on the first caution due to contact entering pit road, and his night only got worse from there. On the caution for stage one, Bell’s pit stop lasted so long that he didn’t beat the pace car off pit road and he lost a lap. The race was essentially over from there due to the limited number of cautions, as Bell limped home two laps down in 24th.

The bright side of being so far behind on points at Talladega is that Bell has nothing to lose. Racing conservatively won’t get him anywhere unless everyone ahead of him in the standings wrecks. He basically has free reign to go for broke at Talladega, and if it doesn’t work out he can bank on a road course to finish the round, which is the track type where he got his only win this year. It’s not a good position to be in, but that’s how the No. 20 has to approach these next two weeks if they hope to continue their title chase.

Larson let one get away at Las Vegas, though it might not matter in the grand scheme of things. The No. 5 was fast, leading 95 laps and winning the first stage. Strategy put Larson back in the field and he just never was quick enough to work through traffic like Byron was able to. He ended up 10th because that’s what good teams do on bad days, but it was a strange race for that team. They’ve been nearly unbeatable at most 550-HP races this year, regardless of track position. This result at least allows us to question how strong Larson may or may not be at Texas Motor Speedway and Kansas Speedway next round.

What did this race prove?

Is it time to call Hamlin the title favorite? I might be ready to go there. I just mentioned Larson’s odd Vegas race. Hamlin, on the other hand, has been money since the playoffs began with five stage wins and two race wins. He’s done it at every track with both the 550-HP and 750-HP rules package. And now he doesn’t have to worry about Talladega or the ROVAL, allowing crew chief Chris Gabehart to lock in on setups for Texas, Kansas and Martinsville. Hamlin is up to 30 playoff points, second only to Larson. The next two races won’t tell us much about the title favorites since they are the final superspeedway and road course of the year, so we’ll revisit this conversation during the Round of 8.

See also
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Strategy destroyed a likely victory at Las Vegas for Hendrick Motorsports. All four HMS cars stayed out during the caution in stage two, forcing them to make a green flag stop while everyone else who pitted during the caution made it to the end. They threw away stage points, giving them up to other playoff drivers, and then had to start near the back of the lead lap cars (Elliott), get the free pass (Byron) or take the wave around (Larson and Bowman). It was an odd decision unless they weren’t confident they could make it on fuel. Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels owned up to the strategy failure after the race.

Not winning at Vegas, the type of track where Hendrick has been so good in 2021, feels like a huge missed opportunity. They won’t be able to take advantage of the intermediate track strength in the Round of 8 if they can’t all get there. Larson and Elliott are in the best spot to advance right now, but it’ll be a battle for Byron and Bowman to get there.

Paint scheme of the race

Bringing a new sponsor to the sport is always a positive. When the new sponsor delivers a good paint scheme, it’s an added bonus. That’s what we saw with Violet Defense on Chris Buescher’s No. 17 Ford at Las Vegas. It was a simple design, but I’m a huge fan of purple cars. NASCAR needs more of them on a regular basis, and we’ll be getting one with Violet Defense on Roush-Fenway Racing cars through 2023.

Better than last time?

Last year, the Round of 12 began with a shocking result. Hamlin and Elliott led throughout much of the early going, each picking up a stage win as the first two stages were caution-free (outside of the competition yellow). The final stage had four cautions, which allowed for mixed strategies where some favored tires and others favored track position. Kurt Busch took the track position and led the final 26 laps in his home track victory, edging DiBenedetto on the overtime restart. It was an OK race, nothing special, and it reinforced many people’s belief that the 550-HP package doesn’t work.

This year, the race was largely uneventful with only one caution outside the stage breaks and competition yellow. There were a few different strategies but it was mostly a straightforward race. It’s easy to point to this race as another failed 550-HP race even though there have been some solid races at LVMS in recent years. The Round of 12 opener still left me wanting a lot more, so I’ll give 2020’s race the edge.

Playoff picture

For the second straight round, Hamlin is the first driver to advance. He’s locked into the Round of 8 by virtue of his win, but no one else is particularly safe with Talladega and the Charlotte ROVAL looming. There are still seven spots up for grabs among the 11 drivers.

Larson (+57) is in the best spot with nearly a full race cushion, though that can easily be erased at Talladega. Kyle Busch (+35), Truex (+31), Blaney (+24) and Elliott (+22) have decent margins over the bubble. Teammates Joey Logano (+6) and Brad Keselowski (+4) narrowly hold the final two spots, with Byron (-4), Harvick (-7), Bowman (-13) and Bell (-25) on the outside looking in.

Here’s the full standings and the playoff standings entering Talladega:

What’s next?

The Round of 12 continues next weekend at Talladega Superspeedway as the playoffs reach the halfway mark. This is the first day race of the playoffs and the only superspeedway represented in the 10-race stretch. The YellaWood 500 will go green on Sunday (Oct. 3) at 2 p.m. ET on NBC.

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Bill B

Boring ass race. Not complaining (it happens), just calling it like it was.

Yes, I’d say Hamlin might be the favorite. I’d almost bet he had the highest average finish during the regular season, just couldn’t get the W. The only hesitation that anyone could have is his past history of always choking down the stretch, but I wouldn’t bet against him the way he has been running this year. While it wouldn’t make me happy, it may just be his year.

DoninAjax

It was another Memorial Day Sunday. F1 RACE in the morning, Indycar RACE in the afternoon and NA$CAR’s example of Brian’s product at night. As usual, the F1 race was another boring follow the leader show where the winner was determined in the first corner on the start. (sarcasm) The Indycar race was almost as boring as the F1 race. (sarcasm) And Brian’s product was another heart-thumping, edge-of-yer-seat show. (sarcasm)

If the network wants to show the POINTS standings for the eligible drivers as much as they do, why don’t they show it on the right side of the screen so the viewers can see how it constantly changes for the whole event. It would work especially well at Talladega where the positions continually change during every lap.

Jeremy

I can’t speak to the F1 or NASCAR race, as I didn’t watch those, but the Indycar race wasn’t too bad. They even had Helio fired up in the pre-race dropping a bleeped-out F-bomb and a couple other swear words about Rossi! I’ve never seen him so mad!

Damn shame O’Ward got taken out early, or it would have been more entertaining with both he and Newgarden on the charge.

DoninAjax

The F1 race was one of the wildest I have ever seen. The rain at the end made a mess of the running order. If you get a chance watch the last ten laps. Norris had it won until the decision to stay on slick tires and the rain increased.

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