Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Kyle Larson Clinches Championship 4 Berth

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Following last Sunday’s (Oct. 8) Round of 12 elimination race, the NASCAR Cup Series made its way out west to Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday (Oct. 15) for the South Point 400. The series’ second stop at the 1.5-mile track this season also marked the beginning of the Round of 8, with eight drivers fighting for four spots in the championship finale. 

Once again, Las Vegas put on a show, as has become expected from the Next Gen car at 1.5-mile tracks. In the end, it was Kyle Larson punching his ticket to the Championship 4, capping an almost perfect day with a win — but one that almost never was on multiple occasions.

See also
Kyle Larson Wins Las Vegas, Secures Championship 4 Spot

Larson rolled off from the front row as Christopher Bell started on the pole. However, it didn’t take long for Larson to make a move for the lead, as he put the No. 5 out front on lap 3 and managed to maintain around a half-second lead for quite some time.

As the run went on, Larson’s car began to build a loose condition and Bell ran down the No. 5, retaking the lead from Larson on lap 30. After Larson regained the lead on the first cycle of pit stops, a caution late in stage one brought the field back down pit road. Larson’s team elected for four tires, while Bell took two to regain the lead. However, Bell’s two tires proved to be no match for Larson’s four, and Larson cruised to a stage one win.

Larson restarted stage two in some traffic, as the No. 5 team once again took four tires during the stage break while multiple cars opted for two. Larson worked his way through the field methodically, eventually making his way up to third before another yellow on lap 111. The No. 5 team got Larson off of pit road in second, and Larson maintained that spot on the ensuing restart. It was on lap 141 that disaster almost struck for Larson. 

While still running in the second position, Larson had moved up the racetrack to try and gain ground to leader Brad Keselowski when the car suddenly snapped around exiting turn two. Larson smacked the right rear of the car against the outside wall and locked down all four tires, miraculously escaping with minimal damage.

A caution for teammate Alex Bowman just a few laps later gave the No. 5 team the break it needed to replace the flat spotted tires on the car, and Larson was the first car off of pit road with four tires. On the restart, the fresh tires propelled Larson around the cars with two tires, and Larson held off Ross Chastain to win stage two and sweep the stages.

As stage three began, Larson lost some of the track position he had gained on pit road, and the No. 5 hovered around the fourth position throughout the first run of the final stage. Larson struggled multiple times to get around Keselowski, getting to the inside of the No. 6 but never fully completing the pass. 

A caution on lap 210 provided the chance Larson needed to gain back some track position, just as green flag pit stops were approaching. With the race in the hands of the pit crew, the No. 5 team delivered once again, getting Larson out front following what ended up being the final pit stop of the race. Larson survived multiple restarts and began to drive away to what seemed like an easy win.

But as the laps wound down, the No. 5 began to build a loose condition, and Bell started to chip away at Larson’s lead. Bell cut the lead to basically nothing, getting right to Larson’s rear bumper exiting turn 4 on the white flag lap, but it wasn’t enough as Larson would hang on by .082 seconds. The win at Las Vegas is Larson’s fourth of the season, and it guarantees his spot in the Championship 4 at Phoenix in three weeks’ time.

And don’t forget about Brad Keselowski, as the RFK Racing owner/driver made his presence known on Sunday despite being eliminated from the playoffs last weekend at Charlotte. Keselowski had a miserable Saturday, clocking 19th in practice and 21st in qualifying, but that would all change on Sunday.

Keselowski quickly began picking up spots early in stage one, but it was pit strategy that propelled the No. 6 to the front. A two-tire stop late in stage one put the No. 6 up front, and that’s where he stayed for the rest of the afternoon. 

Keselowski ran up front during the early portion of stage two, and the team capitalized on pit road during a lap 111 yellow to get the No. 6 out front. Keselowski held the lead on the restart and led until the lap 146 caution for Bowman. Keselowski maintained the lead with a two-tire pit stop following the restart, but the cars on four tires ultimately overcame Keselowski’s two; he ended stage two in fifth. 

Early in stage three, Keselowski had the No. 6 up front again, running in third for quite some time before a mistake by Chastain allowed Keselowski to make it up to second before a caution on lap 210 bunched the field back up. The No. 6 team got Keselowski off of pit road in second, but that’s as high as Keselowski would get for the rest of the day, as he wound up falling to fourth in the closing laps of the race.

A top five isn’t exactly what Keselowski was hoping for, as he’s still looking for his first win with RFK Racing, but a strong day at a 1.5-mile track is one step closer to victory lane for the driver of the No. 6.

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

Is Larson the championship favorite? There is a very strong argument to be made that with his win today, Larson is odds on favorite to win his second title. Larson started the playoffs with an incredible Round of 16, as finishes of first, fourth and second gave him an average finish of 2.33 for the first round. 

Everything somewhat fell apart during the second round as Larson advanced in a nail-biter at Charlotte, but he picked up right where he left off in the Round of 8 on Sunday. Looking at the past five seasons, the winner of the first race of the Round of 8 has gone on to win the championship three times, albeit at different racetracks.

In 2018, Joey Logano won the Round of 8 opener at Martinsville Speedway and went on to win his first title. Oddly enough, Logano repeated the same fate just a year ago, winning the Round of 8 opener at Las Vegas and going on to win his second title in 2022. The other example? In 2021, it was Larson, who won the Round of 8 opener at Texas and went on to win his first title at season’s end.

That being said, the reason that this gives a competitive advantage is because it allows the team to focus solely on the championship car for Phoenix rather than worry about the other two races and not getting eliminated. Add in the fact that Larson led 201 laps at Phoenix in the spring, and the No. 5 team could be a force to be reckoned with when the title fight rolls around. 

Where… did the other key players wind up?

Polesitter Bell came into Sunday’s race at Las Vegas hoping to punch his ticket to the Championship 4, and there’s no better place to start than out front. Bell led the first two laps on the day before losing the lead to Larson on lap three. Bell would regain the lead on lap 30, before losing the lead once again during the pit cycle. When the caution flew late in stage one, crew chief Adam Stevens chose to take two tires instead of four, gambling for a stage win and max stage points.

Bell was ultimately beaten on the restart by Larson and would bring home a second-place finish in stage one, earning nine points. Bell had a quiet stage two, staying inside the top five throughout the stage before another late-stage caution brought the field down pit road again. This time, Bell used four fresh tires to drive all the way back to third at the end of stage two, picking up another eight points.

As stage three began, it appeared that Bell had the best car, leading for just about the entirety of the first fuel run. On the final pit stop of the day, Bell lost two spots on pit road, costing him the lead, and Bell would never get it back. Larson drove away at the beginning of the final run, but Bell never gave up.

As the run progressed, Bell began to flex his muscle, running down Larson on the high side of the racetrack in the closing laps. Bell rode the high side all the way to Larson’s rear bumper on the white flag lap and attempted to make a move for the win off of turn 4 to no avail. One more lap and Bell would have most likely been in victory lane, but he instead had to settle for second.   

Martin Truex Jr. was another driver looking for a strong run to start the Round of 8, especially with the No. 19 team’s struggles as of late. To this point, the regular season champion Truex had scraped by in the playoffs, and you’d have to go all the way back to Watkins Glen in August to find the last time Truex even finished in the top 15. 

Truex began the day from the fourth starting spot, a solid qualifying effort despite the team’s recent struggles. Early in stage one, Truex looked to be back in form, running in the top three for a majority of the stage before the late caution brought the field down pit road. Truex brought home a solid fifth-place result in stage one, but it was then that things began to go downhill. 

Following the completion of stage one, the field came back down pit road without Truex to join them. Crew chief James Small made the call to leave the No. 19 on the racetrack to gain track position, and was left on an island when none of the cars behind them joined Truex by staying on the racetrack. This left Truex in a less than ideal position, as he held the lead for just a few laps before being engulfed by the field of fresh tires behind him.

As stage two progressed, Truex continued to lose spots even after a caution allowed the team to come down and take tires. With the loss of track position, Truex was mired back in traffic, finishing well outside of the points-paying top 10 at the end of stage two. Stage three was no different for Truex, as the No. 19 struggled in traffic and Truex was down in the 20s at one point.

Following the final restart, Truex seemed to find something, and for the first time since before the playoffs started, was one of the fastest cars on the racetrack. Truex made a great late race comeback to wind up eighth and perform a bit of damage control to what was otherwise another disappointing day for the No. 19 team. The late-race surge should give the team a bit of confidence, however, especially heading into Homestead where Truex had one of the fastest cars last season. 

When… was the moment of truth?

A caution on lap 210 for the spinning Chase Briscoe proved to be the turning point of Sunday’s 400-mile race at Las Vegas, and was ultimately the difference between Larson and Bell.

Throughout the day, Bell and Larson had the two best cars in the field, with Larson having the strongest car on the short runs and Bell having the best car on the long runs. Track position was king on Sunday at Las Vegas, and when the yellow flew just before green flag stops were set to begin, the field was bunched up and Bell’s lead was gone.

On pit road, Larson’s team put together a blazing stop to get the No. 5 off of pit road first, while Bell dropped from first to third. This flip in track position for the two drivers allowed Larson to grab the lead on the two ensuing restarts and ultimately drive away when the second of the two led to a 45-lap run to the end

Without clean air, Bell’s car never came alive until midway through the line, and he ultimately came up about a lap short in his late race charge. Without the yellow, Bell likely holds the lead through the pit stops, and the No. 20 is on his way to Phoenix instead of the No. 5. 

See also
Christopher Bell After Close Vegas Runner-Up: 'That Was Our Chance'

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

The stars of the NASCAR Cup Series head down to South Beach this week for its annual stop at Homestead-Miami Speedway as the title fight is in full swing.

For the seven playoff drivers still looking to punch their ticket to the Championship 4, Homestead is the next chance for them to do so, but they’re going to have to stop the guy who already punched his ticket to do so. Larson has been incredibly fast at Homestead throughout his career, and he finally put it all together for his first win at the track last season. 

Larson has led over 100 laps at Homestead three times since 2016, including his win last year. In 2016, Larson led 132 laps before having to settle for second at night’s end. The next year was more of the same for Larson, leading 145 laps on the day before falling to third by the end.

Finally, Larson led 199 of 267 laps last season, holding well over a 10-second lead for portions of the race before capping off the day with a win. Larson seemed to figure out the South Florida track quicker than anyone in the Next Gen car, and the rest of the playoff field will certainly have to deal with him again next Sunday. 

Another driver to watch will be Truex. The struggles the No. 19 team has had throughout the playoffs have been well documented, with a best playoff finish all the way down in 17th at Texas Motor Speedway before the ninth-place result at Las Vegas. Heading into Homestead, the No. 19 team should have some kind of confidence.

Truex led 28 laps at the track a year ago and was the only car to have anything for Larson throughout the day, even taking the lead from Larson late in the race. He was in position to upset Larson’s dominant day before it all unraveled with a late-race caution. For a team that’s been struggling as of late, having one of the best cars last season at a track the series only visits once a year should be a sign of hope for Truex. 

How… is the playoff picture looking following Las Vegas?

Following the Round of 8 opener at Las Vegas, the championship picture is anything but clear. One thing is for certain, and that’s that Larson will be competing for a championship in three weeks.

From there, William Byron sits in the best position, as a solid run for has him +11 to the cutline following Las Vegas. Byron came into the Round of 8 as the points leader and maintains that outside of Larson.

The three Joe Gibbs Racing drivers of Bell, Truex and Denny Hamlin are locked in a battle at the bubble heading into Homestead. Hamlin exits Vegas +4, while a recovery drive from Truex has him +3. As for Bell, he was oh-so-close to punching his ticket with a win, but he will enter Homestead -3 to the cutline.

Tyler Reddick had a quiet day at Las Vegas, leaving Sin City -15 to the cutline. Reddick has a great track record at Homestead, and will need to repeat that success to climb back into the points battle.

Chris Buescher had a disappointing day, starting well inside the top 10 but never being able to recover from a loss of track position during stage one pit sequence. Buescher failed to score points in either stage, bringing the No. 17 home in 10th after running in the mid teens much of the day. Now -23 to the cutline, Buescher is threatening must-win territory going into Homestead.

Speaking of must-win, that is exactly where Ryan Blaney finds himself after a disastrous day at Las Vegas for the second year in a row. Blaney was solid all day, and crossed the line in sixth when the checkered flag flew. However, the No. 12 failed to pass post-race inspection, relegating Blaney to a last place result. The DQ now has Blaney -56 to the cutline, meaning that he basically has to win to make it to Phoenix with a shot at a championship.

About the author

Chase began working with Frontstretch in the spring of 2023 as a news writer, while also helping fill in for other columns as needed. Chase is now the main writer and reporter for Frontstretch.com's CARS Tour coverage, a role which began late in 2023.  Aside from racing, some of Chase's other hobbies include time in the outdoors hunting and fishing, and keeping up with all things Philadelphia sports related.

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Bill B

Regarding, “Is Larson the championship favorite?”

I understand why he would be considered the favorite, but let’s be honest, the championship race is a crapshoot. Whoever gets off pit road first on the final pit stop will most likely win. So handicappers should be looking at pit crews/stops rather than drivers.

DoninAjax

WHY did the event get the green flag at 11:52 AM local time and the East Coast is 2:52? Why are they screwing with the East Coast fans?

Shayne

‘Cause NBC said so. BZF 3:16

Bill B

The key is that they want a TV start time in the 2:30 to 3:30 east coast window. Nobody gives a flying duck about what’s good for the fans or the track or what makes common sense, it’s all about television.

Last edited 7 months ago by Bill B
janice

i’m really surprised nbc is carrying these races. i guess there’s no major golf or other sport on these next few weeks.

so if larson wins the championship, does that mean that hendrick/chevy wins the manufacturer thing, even though chase isn’t the winner?

all i know is after larson took the lead, i found something else to do.

is next, 2024, when they have the new broadcast partners?

DoninAjax

NBC has Sunday Night Football. One would think that they would get any programming before the football to start as early as possible so it is over by then.

I believe Larson makes Mr. H eligible for the owners title. Elliott still makes Mr. H eligible for the owners title and he could be the only driver not in the farcesome foursome that NA$CAR will allow to win the final example of Brian’s product.

wildcats2016

It makes no sense at all – once football is on, that takes precedence for anyone who isn’t a NASCAR fan. I believe they think starting the races middle of the afternoon works but it doesn’t.

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