Who … should you be talking about after the race?
Las Vegas was built on gambling, and it was a two-tire bet late in the race that gave Alex Bowman the win in Sunday’s (March 6) Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. A two-tire stop as the race went into NASCAR Overtime gave Bowman a front-row start, and from there, he was able to get around teammate Kyle Larson to take the win.
It’s Bowman’s seventh career Cup Series victory, his first in 2022 after a four-win breakout in 2021. After terrible luck at both Daytona International Speedway and Auto Club Speedway, Bowman showed patience throughout the day at Las Vegas, letting the race come to him and capitalizing on the late caution to turn a solid day into a great one. Bowman’s just coming into his own as a driver, and he’s exceeding expectations.
And don’t forget… Aric Almirola. He started a forgettable 20th Sunday and didn’t really look like a contender all day. Yet while he wasn’t racing for the win, Almirola put together his third top-10 finish of the young season, the only driver to score a top 10 in every race this year. With only five top 10s all year in 2021, it’s clear Almirola’s starting his final season in fine form.
What … is the buzz about?
Inevitably, the talk after last week’s race at Auto Club was about tires. Moving forward, many wondered if they would hold up better on a newer, smoother surface in Sin City?
Thankfully, they did. There were some spins and brushes with the wall, causing another 12 caution flags in this race. However, they came from a variety of factors. Drivers are still learning to handle the cars in traffic and some mishaps are to be expected.
Will mid-race tire strategy become a thing of the past? That’s another question altogether. While some tracks are harder on tires than others, the teams that tried to play the strategy game by taking two or even none didn’t fare well on Sunday.
Sure, it worked on the final caution, carrying Bowman to the win, but the call only worked on that very short overtime run with two laps remaining. On long runs, the cars who tried to gamble got eaten for lunch. That’s a trend that could change at different tracks and as teams get a better handle on things. But will we see a vital part of race strategy taken away?
Where … did the other key players wind up?
Pole sitter Christopher Bell had a fast car and looked like he’d be running up front early. He finished 10th in stage one and was looking for more until a spin on lap 141. That brought out the third caution of the day and derailed Bell’s afternoon. He bounced back to finish 10th but wasn’t a factor for the win.
Defending race winner Kyle Larson almost pulled it off again but didn’t have quite enough for Bowman on the final restart. Larson finished sixth and third in the first two stages and looked like that was exactly the range he’d wind up in. But his late pit call gave him a few spots and a shot at the win, even if he had to settle for the runner-up result.
Hometown heroes Kurt and Kyle Busch had different days. Kurt started in the back but had a solid effort, exactly the kind his new team needed to have. He moved forward all day, led a few laps, and cracked the top 10 late in the game. While finishing 13th, his team is still learning to gel and days like these go a long way for new ones as they grow.
Kyle Busch hasn’t looked comfortable in the new racecar until Sunday. He had a moment early, getting sideways when Austin Dillon checked up in front of him. While all turned out well, it happened because he was running in a pack instead of up front. But Busch did get to the front eventually, leading three times for 49 total laps. As clouds cooled the track, he had the car to beat for a while and was in position until that final caution. In the end, that winning look hasn’t quite come together yet even though it looked like it was close.
Active Vegas win leader Brad Keselowski is doing an admirable job of bringing his team back to relevance after a few years of decline. He led three laps Sunday and has the No. 6 looking racier than it has in recent years so far in 2022. He spun on his own on lap 103, collecting Ryan Blaney, but was able to stay in the race and finished 24th.
When … was the moment of truth?
The varying tire decisions on the final caution of the day changed the complexion of the race about as late as it can be changed. Before the Erik Jones spin that also indirectly collected Bubba Wallace, it was probably going to be a 1-2 finish for Joe Gibbs Racing, with Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. settling it between themselves. Instead, that caution allowed for some Las Vegas gambling and it came down to tires and lane choice. Larson, who was leading the race after stops, took the high side, betting on momentum to carry him, while Bowman took the bottom. He was able to make the low line work long enough to clear Larson.
Why … should you be paying attention this week?
It’s yet another test for the new car as the series heads to flat one-mile Phoenix Raceway. There was testing at Phoenix, but this will be the first time teams are really racing the car at the track, and it’s completely different from anywhere they’ve visited so far this year.
It’s also the place where the title race will roll off in November, so look for some teams to already have one eye forward as they work to win on Sunday. There will be far fewer questions when they return in the fall, but this is a track with a lot at stake, so any answers they can find will be a bonus.
How … many drivers could score their first Cup wins this year?
Theoretically, it could be anybody without a win, but realistically? Look for three or four drivers with a shot to join Austin Cindric in the first-timers’ club. Tyler Reddick dominated at Fontana before a tire issue ended his quest for victory lane. A week later, he had a quietly respectable day at Vegas, finishing seventh after starting at the back and going for a wild spin through the infield grass.
Ross Chastain looked like he might take the Vegas win, scoring Trackhouse Racing Team’s first-ever stage win in stage two and leading a race-high 83 laps before working over William Byron and Kyle Busch to finish a very strong third.
Luck hasn’t been on his side, crashing at Vegas, but Chase Briscoe has shown steady improvement over his first year in the seat and is doing a lot of things right. Finally, Daniel Suarez has had some moments where he has shone for Trackhouse. If that shine comes at the right time, he could be a winner, too.
About the author
Amy is an 20-year veteran NASCAR writer and a six-time National Motorsports Press Association (NMPA) writing award winner, including first place awards for both columns and race coverage. As well as serving as Photo Editor, Amy writes The Big 6 (Mondays) after every NASCAR Cup Series race. She can also be found working on her bi-weekly columns Holding A Pretty Wheel (Tuesdays) and Only Yesterday (Wednesdays). A New Hampshire native whose heart is in North Carolina, Amy’s work credits have extended everywhere from driver Kenny Wallace’s website to Athlon Sports. She can also be heard weekly as a panelist on the Hard Left Turn podcast that can be found on AccessWDUN.com's Around the Track page.
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