Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2023 Pennzoil 400

Who … should you be talking about after the race?

After a dominant first half of the Pennzoil 400, it seemed as though William Byron might have to settle for finishing behind teammate Kyle Larson at Las Vegas Motor Speedway as Larson sailed away from the field in the final laps. However, Aric Almirola made contact with the wall with just five laps to go, bringing most of the field to pit road for fresh tires, and Larson saw his chances to win evaporate.

Byron beat Larson off pit road after the pair made two-tire stops, but Martin Truex Jr. stayed on track while the rest of the field pitted, lining up in front of Larson on the restart. Truex couldn’t hold off Byron on old tires but he did hold up both Larson and Alex Bowman long enough that neither had a chance to make a last-ditch run at Byron on overtime.

As a multi-car crash broke out behind him while AJ Allmendinger spun through the field, Byron crossed the line for his fifth career Cup Series win.

And don’t forget Justin Haley. Haley made the most of the final pit stop, pitting from midpack and taking four tires while the leaders took two. He restarted 16th, but in the final two laps, Haley climbed through the field and avoided the crash, finishing an impressive eighth. 

After toiling as a backmarker with Spire Motorsports, Haley joined Kaulig Racing in the Cup Series last year and has shown steady improvement. With the addition of Allmendinger full-time in 2023, the team looks like they’re ready to take the next step in their growth in NASCAR’s top series despite a rough start to the year.

See also
William Byron Holds On With Vegas Win

What … is the big question leaving this race in the rearview?

After news broke of a snowboarding accident and subsequent surgery for a broken tibia for 2020 Cup champion Chase Elliott, the questions began to rack up. Josh Berry answered the most immediate one of who would drive the No. 9 on Sunday. The biggest question now is when Elliott will be able to return to the driver’s seat.

There’s no timetable for that yet; Elliott will begin physical therapy this week and will do all he can to be ready as soon as possible, but it’s likely to be at least several weeks. It’s likely Elliott will get a playoff waiver no matter how many races he misses (Kyle Busch missed 11 races in 2015, but received a waiver and went on to win the title), but the pressure will be on him to deliver a win.

Where … did the other key players wind up? 

Pole winner Joey Logano, who also won the 2022 fall LVMS race, was able to lead laps early, but from there on, it was a struggle for the 2022 champ. Logano finished dead last after contact with the wall sent him spinning, but his mid-pack run for most of the day looked indicative of a larger struggle for the Ford camp. The highest finishing blue oval was Austin Cindric in sixth and there were only three Fords in the top 15.

Defending race winner Alex Bowman was fast from the start, running in or near the top five for much of the day, including the finish and the first two stages. The final restart saw Bowman in a good spot to make a run at the win, but Truex, who stayed out on old tires, held him up long enough to have to settle for third.

Last week’s winner Kyle Busch had a brush with the wall in stage one. He hit hard enough to knock the toe out of the car, but he soldiered on. Busch was able to hang in the top 10 for a while, but the damage made the No. 8 handle poorly and Busch eventually faded to mid-pack … until the final round of green-flag pit stops.

Busch retuned to the track in eighth and finished 14th — maybe not a silk purse from a sow’s ear but the kind of finish that the team can look at as a good, solid day.

Berry, subbing for the injured Elliott, made just his third Cup Series start and first in the Next Gen racecar. Berry struggled a bit in a car that’s very different from his Xfinity Series ride, but he stayed out of trouble and completed the race, finishing two laps down in 29th. He wasn’t competitive, but he was driving a car set up for another driver as well as one he wasn’t familiar with and a crew chief he hasn’t worked with. He avoided trouble, really the goal in this one.

When … was the moment of truth?

It was just a year ago when the first two intermediate-track races for the Next Gen racecar were a major success for NASCAR, producing some competitive racing at both Auto Club Speedway and LVMS. They were the harbinger of a year that showcased something sport had been sorely missing: unpredictability and some exciting races.

But what a difference a year makes. Both ACS and LVMS were lackluster shows and while a there were a couple of surprises in the top 10, neither race came close to replicating last year’s promising start.

What gives? Mainly teams having a full year to work on cars and a better inventory of parts and pieces. The inconsistency from week to week that teams felt last year seems to be balancing out, though we’ll know more in a few weeks if teams have a better handle on a weekly basis than last year. 

Why … should you be paying attention this week?

There are a couple of things to keep an eye on as the Cup Series heads to Phoenix Raceway this weekend. It’s a long season until the series returns in November for the title race, and nobody is guaranteed a spot among the four drivers who’ll be racing for NASCAR’s biggest prize, but it’s still worth noting who races well this time around, because it might just be worth a bigger prize come season’s end.

Nobody has done Phoenix better in Cup history than Kevin Harvick. With just two shots at making his Phoenix win total double digits, Harvick has not finished outside the top 10 at the track since 2013. But he also hasn’t won there since 2018, and a lot has changed in five years. Can the Closer finish the deal one more time?

How … much does early-season performance matter?

It’s easy to shrug off early struggles. After all, Bubba Wallace rebounded from finishes of 20th and 30th to open the season with a fourth-place finish in race three at LVMS. Tyler Reddick failed to finish the first two races as well and had a decent 15th-place finish after last-lap contact with Allmendinger.

If either of them wins a race, it all goes away with a playoff berth and the chance to forget all about early woes.

But if they don’t and narrowly miss the playoff field, those early races suddenly loom large. Every race pays the same points, and that means every race and every finish matters. 

It’s easier to make up for a couple of bad races early simply because time is still on the drivers’ side, but the reality is, points lost at any time of the year are just as costly. 

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.

Sign up for the Frontstretch Newsletter

A daily email update (Monday through Friday) providing racing news, commentary, features, and information from Frontstretch.com
We hate spam. Your email address will not be sold or shared with anyone else.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

What a lousy race stunk up by the hendrick crew. I guess the low fan turnout should have been a tip off that it would be a lousy race. There sure were a lot of empty seats.


I couldn’t agree more about the lousy race, on a scale of 1-10 I’d rate it a 5.

One question I didn’t have answered by Fox, (no surprise) was what happened to the 1 & 11 on the last restart, Both were solidly in the mix, then dropped way back at the finish.

Bill B

If your goal is to just make the playoffs, then yes, what you do in the early part of the season doesn’t matter, but if you want to go deep into the playoffs you need to start collecting playoff points NOW. You can still go far without them if you get hot at the end of the season, but it is much harder when a couple of guys have a points cushion.

I also agree with you about what we can expect now that the teams have had a year with the car. There were a lot of cars spinning out by themselves at the intermediate tracks last year that caused a lot of cautions and restarts (and we know what cautions breed). Now the teams have gotten the cars much more stable, and I think we will get back to the same aero dilemma,,,, whoever gets out in clean air is god.

Last edited 1 year ago by Bill B
Share via