Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After Kyle Larson Dominates in Sin City

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

Winning at the NASCAR Cup Series level is incredibly hard. Less than 10% of drivers have done it throughout NASCAR history. But Kyle Larson can make it look easy, and he certainly did on Sunday (March 3).

Larson swept the stages at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading eight times for 181 total laps to win the Pennzoil 400 by .441 laps over a charging Tyler Reddick.

See also
Kyle Larson Dominates at Las Vegas

Reddick had a faster car, but Larson was able to counter his every move in the final laps. Clean air was also on Larson’s side, and he was able to run anywhere he wanted on the track, allowing him to work lapped traffic and hold off Reddick to take the checkers.

It’s Larson’s 24th career Cup victory, moving him into 36th on the all-time wins list behind Jim Paschal and Hall of Famer Joe Weatherly.

And don’t forget Noah Gragson. Gragson finished sixth, his second top 10 of 2024 and the second-best finish of his Cup career. Gragson earned a reputation for being overly aggressive in his Xfinity Series years and often overdrove the car in that series and in his Cup starts. But he hasn’t shown any of that so far in 2024.

If not for a point penalty for an infraction last week at Atlanta, Gragson would be inside the top 20 in driver points. If any driver could use a little redemption, it’s Gragson, and it seems as though he’s off to a good start.

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

Suddenly, we’re three weeks deep in the 2024 season. It’s still early, but are there already some trends to watch in 2024?

Definitely. While in general it’s the usual suspects atop the points tally already, there are a few different faces among them. After missing the playoffs last year and having a rough end to his day at Daytona International Speedway, Daniel Suarez sits eighth. Ty Gibbs is ninth, just behind Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11th, Erik Jones 15th and John Hunter Nemechek 16th. Corey Lajoie is a very respectable 17th even after a crash at Vegas.

On the flip side, Michael McDowell, Chris Buescher, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski are all 2023 playoff drivers finding themselves on the wrong side of 20th place.

There is more than enough time for the trends to change and we will see comers and goers in the standings all year, especially as more drivers begin to lock into playoff contention with wins. Still, it’s worth keeping an eye on these drivers in the next few weeks, because in the long run, consistency matters, and running in the top 15 consistently is key to playoff chances.

It’s too early to call a favorite, and it’s too early to count anyone out. But it’s time to make note of who can build and keep momentum through the spring.

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Where… did the other key players wind up? 

Pole Winner Logano struggled to find the same speed in race trim as he had in qualifying, quickly falling outside of the top 10. He was able to stop the bleeding and hang in between 10th and 12th or so for most of the day, and brought home an eighth-place result, But after three front-row starts in 2024, Logano has yet to post a top-5 finish.

Defending race winner William Byron looked like he might have the car to beat early on, when he was able to drive from eighth to the front in a single lap.

Fast forward to the next restart of the race, though, and Byron’s day took a down turn. After a piece of debris that looked to be a trash bag covered the entire nose of the No. 24 and sent his engine temperature “skyrocketing,” Byron was forced to pit to have it removed, dropping him to 35th spot.

Byron picked his way back through the field in the second stage, but never had the speed he’d shown earlier. He finished 10th, a very good day considering that the overheating caused by the giant piece of plastic could have caused an engine failure.

Last week’s winner Suarez and his team used the opportunity to try some things with eyes already on the playoffs. They had speed early, leading laps in the first stage. The No. 99 didn’t keep up with the track though, and ran mostly in the middle of the pack until the final green-flag run, where Suarez rebounded to a solid 11th.

Teammate Ross Chastain used a different strategy from Suarez, and was able to drive through the field despite starting in the back due to having to replace the wrap on the car’s hood and then losing a lap due to a penalty. Chastain got back on the lead lap thanks to a fortuitous caution late in stage two, and from there, he was able to move forward.

A two-tire gamble under caution with a little over 20 laps to go got him on the front row for the final restart but cost him a couple of positions on the final run. Chastain finished fourth.

Cup champ Ryan Blaney had a sneaky kind of day. Starting 15th, he worked his way into the top 10 and looked like he was good for around fifth. Had the final caution not flown, Blaney might have topped out there, but the final restart allowed him another run at it. Blaney was able to work through the chaos and finish third.

When… was the moment of truth?

In the closing laps, Reddick had the best car. He gained on Larson at a clip of up to a quarter-second a lap inside 10 to go, but clean air mattered more than speed. Reddick could close, getting to within a car length, but was unable to make the pass. 

To be fair to Larson, part of that was that Reddick got outdriven — Larson was able to read him and take his line away on both ends of the track. But even if Reddick had gotten beside Larson, could he have passed him? Maybe, and had that happened it would have been a great finish instead of a decent one.

But watching Reddick close, I’m not convinced he could have made the pass even if Larson had left him room. For some reason, Las Vegas is still more aero-dependent than the other intermediates, even as the Next Gen has improved the racing on the mile-and-a-halfs.

See also
4 Burning Questions: Is NASCAR Becoming Mainstream?

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

The Cup Series winds up a two-week West Coast trip with a visit to Phoenix Raceway this coming weekend. It’s a long time until November, but that doesn’t mean teams won’t have November on their minds.

With the season finale also at Phoenix, which decides the sport’s champion, they’ll be taking notes this week.

It’s worth keeping an eye on the field at Phoenix to see who can carry spring speed into the fall. While the playoff field isn’t even close to being set, everyone with a chance is looking at Phoenix as an opportunity to be ready for the finale.

How… many lug nuts are enough?

The Next Gen car’s single wheel nut has drastically reduced pit stop times, and it looks nice. But the nature of the locking mechanism leaves a lot of room for failure. The mechanism has moving parts, which open the door further.

Teams are penalized heavily if a wheel falls off the car, as happened to Chris Buescher on Sunday, but it’s not necessarily a crew error 100% of the time.

Cars losing wheels is a safety issue. Buescher slammed the SAFER barrier hard enough to necessitate a red flag to repair the wall. Buescher was OK because he hit at a shallow angle, but there are no guarantees that that will always happen.

Not to mention that a wheel, especially coupled with a race tire, is heavy, and it’s a danger to others. That includes fans, should it bounce into the stands or an infield area where fans have access.

The five-lug wheel assembly was, perhaps, a little boring to look at, but it worked (and, if you’re into keeping score, it’s stock on most street cars). If one nut wasn’t tight, regardless of fault, it would cause problems for the driver and force him to the pits, but it didn’t end a driver’s day. Wheels did occasionally break and come off, but there was generally room for error where the current setup offers none.

Maybe it’s time to retire the current wheel setup.

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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13 Comments
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mike

IndyCar, IMSA, and F1 can figure out how to use and secure a 1 lug wheel.

I’m pretty sure NASCAR can figure it out.

DoninAjax

Everyone else knows they won’t unless they can make money from it!

Brian

It would be interesting to see a comparison of how the wheels are “on” for each of the series. I have seen wheels come off in other series but it is quite rare. I believe it has to do with the pin set. Maybe look at hole options on the wheel where it can only go on one way (6 pins-6 holes) versus having a lot of holes in the wheel itself. Keeps the new one lug system but behaves more like the 5 stud configuration.
Saw one front tire changer actually notice the locking being not locked and went back to correct it. So maybe that is a solution, observation from the guy doing the tightening. Graphics of how it works seem to support this option.

gbvette

It’s 2024, why is it that so many NASCAR fans and writers want to hang on to the 20th Century way of doing things? Personally I’m happy that NASCAR has finally adapted to the modern world and gone with independent suspensions, transaxles, fuel injection and center lock wheels. Five lug wheels were great for the 50 years NASCAR was using 64 Ford frames and truck arms, but they’re in the past now and need to be left there.

Fred

Because they totally don’t have 5-lug wheels on most cars anymore…

DoninAjax

But the steel wheels with the five nuts aren’t as purrrty as the aluminum wheels, and Lord knows NA$CAR needs fewer nuts.

Joshua Farmer

This is NASCAR, not Indy, Imsa or F1. Bring back the five lugs and that little piece of “STOCK.”

GymS

Ryan B won the Atlanta race. It was “given” to suarez.

Joshua Farmer

I bet you’re from Texas complaining about Hispanics even though half of your family is related or descended from them.

Tom

I felt Reddick had better speed than Larson but the clean air mattered more. There’s something about the Camaros that makes them faster in clean air. It has to do with the front end design. The new Ford & Toyota bodies might have a disadvantage trailing a Camaro on non-drafting tracks. Something to watch for as the season progresses.

WJW Motorsports

It’s almost if Ford and Toyo designed their new cars to be slower. Not sure why though as they should have had plenty of experience trailing Camaros to learn from.

DoninAjax

NA$CAR owns IMSA and their influence was evident at the Rolex last lap fiasco and the penalties announced three weeks after the race.

https://www.autoweek.com/racing/more-racing/a46975340/imsa-hands-out-fines-penalties-rolex-24/

You can’t make this up!

Last edited 1 month ago by DoninAjax
Echo

Your right. $$$ is all that matters to Brian and his mouthpiece this week whoever he is.

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