Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2022 Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas

What Happened?

Alex Bowman doubled down on two tires instead of four and hit the jackpot by winning the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday (March 6). Bowman’s seventh career NASCAR Cup Series win came in overtime, prevailing after a thrilling two-lap duel with Hendrick Motorsports teammate and runner-up finisher Kyle Larson. Ross Chastain, Kyle Busch and William Byron rounded out the top five.

How did it happen?

By doing what’s best in Las Vegas: gambling.

In this case, it was rolling the dice on taking two tires instead of four on a late-race pit stop.

The strategy put a kink in Busch and Martin Truex Jr.‘s show in the last few laps of the race approaching the checkered flag. The Joe Gibbs Racing teammates had the field covered, and Busch seemingly had the win in hand, inching away as Truex’s car started to become tighter and slower down the stretch.

With three laps to go, however, Erik Jones spun and collected Bubba Wallace on the frontstretch, bringing out the caution.

Naturally, after around 40 laps of tire wear, everyone came down pit road to get either fresh or scuffed Goodyear Eagles.

Just not everyone took four.

Larson, Bowman and Byron all took two tires to emerge 1-2-3 off pit road. It was a very risky move considering how fragile the rubber slicks had been all day. But with only two laps to go and three Hendrick Motorsports cars out front, at least one of them has to finish in the top spot, right?

That’s exactly what happened. On the overtime restart, it was Larson on the high side with Bowman on the bottom and they were side-by-side on the backstretch.

Coming to the white, they were still side-by-side.

With half a lap to go, they were still side-by-side.

It wasn’t until the checkered flag was in sight as they were racing off turn 4 when Bowman finally cleared Larson to secure his first win of 2022.

Who stood out?

Every once in a while, Chastain fools everyone by driving as if he’s been racing for Cup Series wins for years and has always outrun actual longtime racing veterans. In those times, you wouldn’t be able to guess he’s actually never won a Cup race.

Sunday in Las Vegas, the Florida watermelon farmer almost turned his longtime dream into reality.

Forget for a second Chastain finished third. That on its own is certainly impressive, but anybody can make a correct pit call late in the race and steal a win, like what actually did happen Sunday.

It’s Chastain’s journey to third that raised eyebrows. On the way to securing only his fourth Cup Series top-five result, Chastain not only won stage two but led a whopping 83 laps out of 267 in the event, the most out of anyone all day.

He did it by outpacing Joe Gibbs Racing driver Busch, whose top-five finish was also a big story on its own, but we’ll get to that.

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On the final restart, Chastain restarted inside the top five and was able to barely edge out Busch to the line for a top-three result. With two fresher tires and the two HMS cars in front of him, however, it’s hard to not think… what if there was just one more lap for the melon man?

The same question could be asked for Busch, whose team didn’t even have a car until late Saturday night.

Late on the eve of the Cup race, Busch’s Toyota was still a new engine-less black test car with teammate Denny Hamlin‘s name still on the rear window. The black vehicle was to replace Rowdy’s primary car which had crashed during practice after suffering a flat tire.

It was a brand-new car meant to be a backup but only under extreme circumstances. Due to the current parts shortage, all of Joe Gibbs Racing came together to work well into the night, prepping the vehicle to make it ready to race on Sunday.

Seven hours after rolling the collection of carbon fiber off the hauler, the team had finally made the car race-ready, work that included a brand new wrap.

As a result of the wreck, the team had to start in the back, which has never been the biggest issue for Rowdy. After all, his only Cup win at Las Vegas in 2009 came after starting at the rear of the field for an engine change.

Starting at the back might not hurt, but an early-race spin might.

Then, an on-track altercation with Chase Briscoe at the end of stage one might have made things a little more stressful.

In the end, the candy man did what he does best – shake it off and push on for a win.

Despite the spin and a frustrating start to the 400-miler, Busch was still able to climb to the top of the leaderboard by the beginning of the final stage and duke it out with Chastain and Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Martin Truex Jr.

In the closing laps of the event, Truex was all over his teammate in what was a thrilling dogfight to the end between those two Toyotas. But a caution waving with only three laps to go forced them to pit and they rejoined the racetrack behind all three HMS cars.

While Chastain and Busch both battled to the line on the last lap, it was Busch getting the shorter end of the deal as he finished fourth.

Still, after racing with a car that didn’t even exist 24 hours prior, maybe a fourth-place result isn’t so bad.

I just doubt Rowdy would ever admit it.

Who fell flat?

Nobody wants to be the guy that ruins it for the rest of the team.

Unfortunately for defending Las Vegas winner Hamlin, he was that guy on Sunday.

On lap 218, Hamlin made what was meant to be his final pit stop of the race. It was a routine four-tire change paired with enough fuel to make it to the end. He was running near the front and likely had a chance to make a bid for the lead by the end of the race.

Upon exiting pit road, Hamlin shifted his gear shift upward from first gear into second, and then down over the H-pattern gate into third.

Except, in the Next Gen car, there is no H-pattern. It’s a sequential shift – meaning you only have to push the lever upwards to upshift. Instead, at full throttle, Hamlin downshifted.

For my non-manual driving friends out there, that’s very bad.

That’s when Hamlin’s entire drivetrain broke, meaning the team was done for the day.

It’s easy to call out drivers when they make mistakes such as this one. But for a veteran like Hamlin who has been using a traditional manual transmission his entire racing career, the sudden change must be extremely difficult to get used to.

It wouldn’t be surprising if he’s just the first of many big name drivers to encounter that problem.

What did this race prove?

It isn’t over until it’s over.

When you think of all the storylines, one can’t help but realize that despite all the adversity defining this race, plenty of drivers still found themselves climbing back into contention.

Out of the top 11 finishing drivers on Sunday, four of them were involved in on-track incidents that brought out yellow flags at one point: Busch, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell and Austin Dillon.

Despite that, all four of those drivers rallied back to come home with decent finishing positions.

Busch, who had spun on lap 44 in an incident that collected Dillon, was leading in the final five laps of the race and pulling away from teammate Truex.

On lap 65, Reddick spun off turn 4, but was still back in the top 10 not long after. He eventually rallied to a seventh-place finish.

On lap 143, Bell was battling Chastain for the second spot when his car got loose and he over-corrected, which sent him spinning into the inside wall on the backstretch. He eventually recovered and went home with a 10th-place result.

These cars are proving to be difficult to handle week after week. Gone are the days of the long green-flag run that spans over the entirety of the final stage. Gone are the 50-lap, lead-change-free runs to the checkered flag. When you think a race is truly over and the leader is about to run away from the field with 30 laps remaining, just remember this race. The sport has opened with back-to-back, 12-caution events at intermediate tracks that typically don’t have many accidents.

Paint scheme of the race

Normally, Busch’s Toyota is covered in a wrap of either M&M’s yellow or Interstate Batteries green.

This weekend at his home track in Las Vegas, however, the color landed somewhere in the middle, a one-off specialty scheme that came out looking fantastic.

Ethel M, which is a brand of chocolates started by Mars Inc. founder Forrest Mars Sr. in honor of his mother, joined Busch’s Toyota for the weekend and thus replaced his usual bright, vibrant sponsors with a more relaxed mint version. More, please.

Better than last time?

Well, the bar wasn’t very high to begin with at LVMS. It’s amazing how much a rules package can make a difference.

If Jeff Gluck’s “Was it a good race?” poll means anything, the last time the Cup Series raced at this 1.5-mile oval was abysmal. In fact, according to his poll, September’s visit to Sin City was the worst race of last year’s Cup season.

In September, there were 10 leaders and only one unscheduled caution flag waved. That meant long green-flag runs with the old 550-horsepower package. In addition, two of those 10 leaders were Larson and Hamlin, who led for a combined 232 laps out of 267. That certainly wasn’t the case Sunday.

Similar to last weekend at Auto Club Speedway, Sunday saw plenty of competition for the lead and unscheduled yellow flags.

Even Greg Biffle, who hasn’t led a Cup Series lap since 2016, held the lead at one point, albeit under a pit stop scenario.

By the end of stage two, there were seven on-track incidents that brought out the caution already and the wrecks were far from over.

It was a big change in rhythm from last year. If you’re still pondering whether this race was any better, well, it certainly couldn’t be worse.

The difference? The Next Gen car, quickly earning a reputation as being hard to drive. Get used to hearing that a lot this year.

What’s next?

The diamond in the desert.

The Cup Series returns to Phoenix Raceway for its first visit of the 2022 season.

Cup Series practice at the one-mile dogleg oval starts on Saturday, March 12 at 1:30 p.m. ET and will be followed by qualifying at 2:05 p.m. ET with TV coverage being provided by FOX Sports 1. The Ruoff Mortgage 400 will follow on Sunday, March 13 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: LAS VEGAS

About the author

Dalton Hopkins began writing for Frontstretch in April 2021. A race fan since he was three years old, he began freelance writing in 2018 and wrote for IMSA in 2020 after graduating with a B.S. in Communications from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in 2019. Simultaneously, he also serves as a First Lieutenant in the US Army.

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Bill B

Actually a decent race overall. Still a lot of sloppy performances attributable to the new car. I would be fine if things stayed this way over the long run but I still believe by mid-season the races will start to look more like they have in the past. It’s just a matter of time before they figure out how not to spin out for no reason. Good to see that cars were able to roll back to the pits with flat tires without the need for a tow or push. Bowyer kept insinuating that something had changed but I wonder if that’s the case or if the drivers have just figured out how to keep the cars rolling.

I was really hoping Chastain could stay out front. It’s seems like it’s a race between Chastain and Reddick to see which one will win their first race.

I thought Suarez had the best paint scheme yesterday.
https://www.jayski.com/paint-schemes/cup-series-paint-schemes/2022-99-track-racing-paint-schemes/

Echo

Back to Ty Gibbs cup starts this year. Your right in everything you said. Is it possible Gibbs could build a car for Ty and run it in some races through/with the Hamlin Jordan team !!! I’m sure he could out qualify some of the weaker teams. I’m asking cause I have no clue if it could be done. I’m sure Toyota would go along with JGR.

Bill B

I believe that’s the only way it could be done. 23XI is already a satellite team of Gibbs (right?). They can run two more cars (without a charter of course) anytime they want.

Carl D.

Denny Hamlin looked dejected and embarrassed after tanking his transmission. Not a Hamlin fan, but it’s gotta be tough to ruin you team’s day with a careless mistake.

Tom B

Like a little kid, Hamlin would not admit on TV what he had done. Where’s the follow up question Jamie after the ‘muscle memory’ lead in comment to Hamlin.
Forgetting the shift pattern at this stage of the game is inexcusable at that pay grade.

Patty coy

If spins or cautions keep growing,going to need more tires for the races.Good race but dont care for Ty Gibbs.

Kevin in SoCal

At least he’s actually winning with Grandpa’s money, unlike some other grandchildren in the sport….

TiminPayson

agreed!

JER

Speaking of grandpa’s money, ever notice the skill level of Tyler Reddick as compared to the Dillon Brothers. Tyler is really a wheel man. #8’s first win coming soon. I was never a Earnhardt Sr. fan. But Childress #3 red wine is pretty good. (produced in Davidson County North Carolina.) I stay away from and try to avoid all things California particularly wine

when possible

Echo

We always wondered what wines you prefer.

Jeremy

From what I’ve read about Childress Vineyards, the grapes are grown and the wine made in North Carolina.

A.J. Foyt uses California grapes in his wine, and it’s quite good.

There are at least 2 good things about California: the wine and the weather.

Kicks

I believe you have Hamlin’s shifting backwards. In a traditional H pattern. 1st is up, pill back for 2nd, up and over for 3rd and down for 4th. That’s the way the Hurst linkage controls the rockcrusher in my old Vette and the way the trans worked in the Cup Experience car I drove at Chicagoland a while back. The new sequential 5 speeds get pulled back to go from 1 to 2 to 3 to 4 to 5. That can be seen on in car cameras in NASCAR, IndyCar and IMSA. Hamlin went brain dead leaving pit road and pushed forward to go from 2 to 3.

WJW Motorsports

Thank you! I noticed that too – and yep, that’s the shift pattern in just about every manual ever made in this country… Denny definitely won’t be the last on this mistake – i’m thinking late restarts in particular.

t foster

Explain why all 23 lead lap cars pitted with 2 laps to go at Las Vegas. Why don’t the last 10 or 15 lead lap cars stay out? The leaders could not pass all 10 or 15 in 2 laps so someone unexpected might win. I don’t get it. They had enough fuel and certainly the tires would last 2 more laps.

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