A dominant Kyle Larson held off a late charge from Christopher Bell to win on Sunday, Oct. 15 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Larson’s margin of victory at the South Point 400 officially timed in at .082 seconds, the second-closest finish in track history.
While the win locked Larson into the championship race where points and bonus points are irrelevant, it must be noted that Larson earned maximum points on the day, winning both stages and the race.
But What Really Happened?
Before Larson’s pit crew earned him the lead on pit road on the final round of pit stops, the No. 5 car remained stuck behind Brad Keselowski. Before Bell made a late charge to nearly upset Larson’s outstanding run, Bell seemed rooted behind Keselowski — for 21 laps to be exact.
This isn’t a Keselowski issue, but it is an aerodynamics issue, showing an inability to pass. It’s one that reminds me of a cold race at Kansas Speedway in 2020, where Joey Logano aero blocked Kevin Harvick to take the victory.
This race had me wondering: Is the Next Gen car really better than what we’ve seen in the past on 1.5-mile tracks? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it’s worse, but is it that much better?
I did some digging, and here are the facts.
There have been four races at Las Vegas in the Next Gen era. The 2019 to 2021 550-horsepower package consisted of six races as this track. The three main statistics compared in this have to do with passes, lead changes and cautions.
It starts with passing. The most passes in the last six years came in the 2021 Pennzoil 400, when NASCAR loop data recorded 4,017 passes. The most passes in a Next Gen race happened in the spring of 2023, with 3,648 passes recorded.
The average number of total passes in a Next Gen race at Las Vegas is 3,457. Compare that to a close average of 3,320 passes for the six 550-horsepower races.
The same 2021 event held the most lead changes in the past six years, with 27. This goes against a high of 23 lead changes in the first Next Gen race at Las Vegas in 2022. The ’19-’21 cars averaged 22.6 lead changes, while the Next Gen lags behind at 18.5 lead swaps.
The Next Gen car averages 7.75 cautions per race, with its predecessor averaging 5.3 cautions.
While these statistics apply only to LVMS, it feels like the Next Gen car is following a similar trajectory to the high downforce, low horsepower racing created by the 550-hp engines.
In 2019, fans fell in love with the racing produced by the package on 1.5-mile tracks. Restarts looked insane. The cars raced closer together than ever. The leader couldn’t get away. Things reached a turning point in 2020 with that fateful Kansas race, when fans realized the wake of the car made it very difficult for the driver behind to pass the car in front.
Most of what we’ve seen with the Next Gen car on 1.5-mile tracks has been amazing. Crazy restarts, close racing and lots of lead changes because the leader couldn’t pull too far ahead.
As teams are figuring out this Next Gen car more and more, though, its aerodynamic issues seen on the short tracks are starting to translate more and more onto the bigger tracks, making it harder for guys to pass.
On restarts, or when cars get side-by-side, they can put on a good show for two to three laps, but the cars are too equal.
It seems like when the cars are on the same tires, they all run about three or four tenths apart, unable to make up much ground.
As NASCAR continues to work on this Next Gen car, we will see how, and if, the racing will change.
Who Stood Out?
The strength of Larson both today and this season cannot be ignored.
Despite a run of checkers or wreckers finishes, Larson led 133 laps today and became the first driver to lead more than 1,000 laps in a season with the Next Gen car.
While winning both stages, Larson’s path to victory also included a tremendous save.
However, one driver who did not just secure his Championship 4 spot stands out as well.
Out of the seven remaining playoff drivers, Bell was the only driver to gain ground on the cutline.
Heading into the Round of 8, everyone wanted to know who would challenge the top four to take one of their spots in the championship race. Bell made a fantastic case for the No. 20 team today.
After sitting on the pole for the fourth time in this season’s playoffs, Bell’s Saturday speed finally carried over to the race, and it seemed that Bell posed the only real challenge to the No. 5 team today.
Larson took the lead from Bell early, but Bell wrenched it back a few laps later until a strategy call gave the lead back to Larson.
Bell stayed inside of the top five for most of the day and found his long run speed once again after he finally passed Keselowski for second late in the race.
Bell said he “felt like that was our chance” after he climbed out from the car.
Once he cools down, maybe Bell will find solace in the fact that he closed the gap to just three points out of the cut, while also showing speed to compete with the No. 5 car.
Who Fell Flat?
The playoff battle as a whole felt a little different today. Not flat, just different.
Prior to Ryan Blaney’s disqualification, all eight drivers finished inside the top 11.
Of all the playoff drivers, only two did not earn any stage points during the race. Blaney, who was disqualified, and Chris Buescher. Though Buescher qualified fifth, the driver of the No. 17 disappeared from the top 10 early on.
Despite a third-place finish at Darlington and showing speed throughout the race at Texas, the overall speed of the RFK Racing Fords on 1.5-mile tracks coming into this round remained a concern for the team.
The No. 6 team utilized pit strategy and track position to lead laps and ultimately finish fourth, but Buescher’s crew did not follow suit.
In fact, Buescher finished 14th and 15th in the first two stages, nowhere near the points-paying positions.
While a 10th-place finish is not the worst way to salvage a mediocre day, the fact that Buescher finished second to last out of the playoff drivers has the three-time 2023 winner – who is 23 points below the cut line – in need of two near-perfect weeks if he wants to compete for a championship.
Blaney brings up the rear of the playoff field with 56-point deficit. He will need a win to advance.
Better Than Last Time?
The statistics for this year’s race nearly match that of last year’s playoff event.
This year featured 20 lead changes versus 18 lead changes last year. The 2022 event had seven cautions, while this race had six yellows. Overall, this year’s race saw 3,549 green flag passes against 3,361 per NASCAR loop data.
Both races had exciting finishes, with this year’s margin holding at .082 seconds.
However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and this year’s race felt like it lacked some of the playoff drama of the event in 2022.
Last year, Bubba Wallace’s retaliation took out Larson and Bell early in the race for major playoff implications. On top of that, most of the incidents that brought out a yellow involved drivers making mistakes while the incidents this year all included some sort of tire or part issue.
Though the 2022 finish did not come down to the final lap, the Logano versus Ross Chastain battle went on for longer, and we eventually did see a pass for the lead with just a few laps remaining.
This year’s race seemed about average, and don’t take that in a bad way. An average race is still a good one, but without Bell’s late charge, Larson would have stunk up the show.
Paint Scheme of the Race
The past two years, it has been fantastic to see the iconic Jordan Brand logo on the hood of the No. 45 race car. While each of the Jordan Brand schemes have been amazing, this one just might be the best of them all.
Previously, the Carolina Blue or the J Balvin collaboration went insanely hard when those colors were wrapped on the race car. This one, however, takes the cake for the weekend and the Jordan Brand season.
It’s been an absolute pleasure to see the famous Jordan Brand represented in NASCAR. Plus, who doesn’t love seeing Michael Jordan himself at the racetrack?
Palm trees will blow in the breeze when NASCAR makes its annual trip to Homestead-Miami Speedway next week.
The 4-EVER 400 Presented by Mobil 1 sits as the second race in the Round of 8. Practice and qualifying for the event will run at early on Saturday, Oct. 21 at 9:05 a.m. ET. The race, which is 267 laps long, will run on Sunday, Oct. 22 at 2:30 p.m. ET on NBC.
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