It took a while, but Sunday’s NASCAR race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway gave us the kind of finish we hoped for in what was mostly a calm day at the 1.5-mile track. Things got a little interesting at the end of each of the first two stages when Joey Logano, near the end of the first stage, and then Jimmie Johnson and Kurt Busch at the end of the second stage, decided to not pit, quickly finding out they were sitting ducks in the desert on the ensuing restarts. But the ending, if you made it that far, was well worth the wait.
One of the great things about NASCAR, that is different than other major sports, is there are still guys who just don’t like one another. One of the results of free agency in the other major team sports, is that because of so many players switching teams and becoming friends, the idea of true dislike is becoming more and more rare.
Well, in NASCAR there are some drivers who are friends and teammates, but what we saw after the race Sunday was that Kyle Busch doesn’t really like Joey Logano . . . not one bit. So, while some may say the sport looks bad when Busch marches into Logano’s pit after the race and throws the first punch without saying a word, I say it makes it look real. With Logano’s crew stepping in and then Busch ending up with a bloody face, well, it made for great TV. Hopefully NASCAR does nothing about this in terms of any kind of penalty. Just let the drama play itself out with the hope of future entertainment from those two.
Even with the post-race fun, unfortunately much of the race was typical for these cookie-cutter 1.5-mile tracks. There was not much passing for the lead. With the exception of eventual winner Martin Truex, Jr. or Brad Keselowski running up front, there was really no other driver who had a realistic chance to win this race. It’s true, you never know what can happen at the end of these races and that’s why they all have to keep going, but the clear favorites early on in this race were Truex and Keselowski.
It looked like for the second week in a row that the car which dominated much of the race was not going to win. And given that Martin Truex, Jr. has had his share of bad luck and bizarre end-race scenarios that have kept him out of Victory Lane in the last season plus, maybe the racing gods gave him one back this week. Truex won the first two stages, but it appeared his car was a little off in the final stage, as Keselowski caught and passed him with 24 laps to go. But then in the final laps, Keselowski had a problem, leaving the door open for Truex to earn the win. That also makes it three different winners in the first three races this season, a good thing for NASCAR as well.
Maybe this was one of those growing-pain days for Stewart-Haas Racing that we should expect when a team switches to a new manufacturer. With Kurt Busch winning Daytona, and Kevin Harvick dominating at Atlanta, only to lose on his own mistake, it looked like the switch from Chevy to Ford was going just fine for the team. But Harvick blew a tire and took a hard hit into the wall (thankfully a SAFER barrier wall), Busch had battery issues and Danica Patrick blew an engine to cause the final caution. That left Clint Bowyer holding the banner for Stewart-Haas with a 10th-place finish. Just not the kind of day a team that likes to challenge for wins each week really wanted here.
While the Logano-Busch flap will get a lot of attention this week, as well it should, a completely different situation that occurred on the final restart will likely receive little if any time in the spotlight. Ryan Blaney, who was in fifth, was lined up behind Chase Elliott and when the green flag flew Elliott spun his tires. While Blaney was all over Elliott’s bumper, he didn’t wreck the No. 24 car. In fact, the move, or maybe non-move here, probably cost Blaney two or three positions right at the outset there. While pushing Elliott forward to a third-place finish, Blaney still managed to take seventh on the day, not a bad showing. But in another sense, it was a really good showing, too, from a young driver who understands respect and the potential of a big crash wrecking half the field.
While it’s certainly way, way too early for Junior Nation to have any kind of panic, or really, any kind of worry here, the fact is that after three races, Dale Earnhardt, Jr. sits 25th in points. While Junior is sure to make that up, and more than likely to be in the top 16 to make the Chase, it’s not the kind of start he wants after missing the final 18 races last year due to concussion symptoms. Maybe he and his team is shaking off a little rust still. And while there’s 23 races left in this regular season, a couple of top-five finishes, not to mention a win of course, in the near future would do him and his team well.
With Phoenix next on this West Coast road trip, the one driver who is pretty much impossible not to pick here is Kevin Harvick. He has won two of the last four races there and has led an astounding 506 laps in those races alone. It seems Phoenix is an ace-in-the-hole for the No. 4 team. As for the deep-sleeper underdog who you might not think about picking, lets go with the aforementioned Ryan Blaney, who was eighth and 10th in his two races at Phoenix last year.
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