Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: New Bodies, Same Result for Ford, Toyota

What Happened?

Kyle Larson held off a hard-charging Tyler Reddick to take home his first victory of the season at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on Sunday (March 3). While defending champion Ryan Blaney finished third, Larson and Reddick claimed class of the field all day, finishing one-two in the first two stages as a precursor to the finish.

See also
Kyle Larson Dominates at Las Vegas

As the laps wound down, Larson found himself in a familiar position. After dominating another mile-and-a-half, another Toyota grew larger in the rearview mirror of the No. 5.

When the race ticked under two laps to go, Reddick seemed poised to make a move on Larson until Reddick chose the bottom lane, placing his Toyota directly in the wake of Larson’s Chevrolet. Larson motored off the corner and away from Reddick, who saw the chance to snatch the win slip away.

Larson’s 24th career victory marks two straight wins for him and three straight wins for Hendrick Motorsports at Las Vegas. Since 2020, Chevrolet has won at least one Vegas event each season, and team Chevy remains undefeated in the NASCAR Cup Series this year. 

What Really Happened?

After two drafting tracks kicked off the season in exciting fashion, drivers, teams and fans alike anticipated the first non-superspeedway race to really see where teams stacked up at the start of this new year.

Both Toyota and Ford made changes to the car bodies to try and close the gap to Chevrolet. In the Next Gen era, Chevrolet claimed victory in 37 of the 72 races, versus 18 wins for Toyota and 17 for Ford. 

Toyota stood out in the NASCAR preseason, winning the Clash and both Daytona 500 duels, while Ford showed speed in qualifying, breaking the Chevrolet stranglehold on the Daytona 500 front row.

Despite all the speculation and anticipation to see how the new Mustang Dark Horse and Camry XSE compared to the old Camaro body, the Las Vegas race looked familiar to a number of other mile-and-a-half races we’ve seen with the Next Gen.

In both 2022 and 2023, Kansas Speedway put on a race where Larson led a lot of laps and faced a challenge from a Toyota at the end of the race. While Kurt Busch and Denny Hamlin bested Larson in those finishes, Larson learned enough to hold off the late-charging Toyota of Christopher Bell last fall at Las Vegas.

Larson versus Toyota added another chapter in its book this weekend.

While the top six split evenly with two cars from each manufacturer at the finish, the overall story of the race also felt familiar.

The Fords qualified fast but dropped early, much like they did in Vegas last spring. Larson and William Byron looked quickest at the start in their Chevrolets, with Larson standing atop the pylon. As the run went on, however, the rest of the top five filled with Toyotas, just like it did much of last year.

In the middle of the race, the hierarchy appeared to show a Hendrick car or two at the front, followed by a cluster of Toyotas. Then, a few more Chevrolets ran inside the top 10, with just one or two Fords trying to hang out in ninth or 10th. 

Much remains in this season. After all, we only finished race three of 36. While Ford and Toyota feel they made upgrades to their cars, Chevrolet has remained on top to start the season, proving it will take more than a body change to defeat them.

Who Stood Out?

Through the opening two stages, Spire Motorsports showed some serious speed, as Corey LaJoie and Carson Hocevar ran legitimately inside the top 10. At one point, LaJoie sat second.

In the final stage, however, slower pit stops caused those drivers to slide down the running order, and LaJoie’s competitive day ended when he spun to bring out the final caution on lap 235.

In the final run, Noah Gragson also made waves well inside the top 10. Gragson restarted 13th and drove forward, engaging in a fierce battle with a handful of Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas and Ross Chastain.

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Hometown Top 10 Shows Noah Gragson Is Back

Before the final caution, the Las Vegas native held solidly in the top 15, but his final push to the front at the end definitely opened some eyes in his hometown.

Stewart-Haas Racing showed speed in practice Saturday (March 2) following a week where rumors of a split from Ford swirled around. Perhaps SHR might have something to show in the coming weeks.

Who Fell Flat?

As a rookie, the season is still too young for Zane Smith to be too harshly judged. However, after the speed his Spire teammates showed throughout the race, Smith’s early wall contact feels even more disappointing. 

Smith suffered damage early in Atlanta Motor Speedway, and wall contact and a broken toe link at the start of the Las Vegas race means that we still haven’t seen what Smith truly has to offer Spire, and to an extent, Trackhouse Racing.

A flat tire for Bell in the opening dozen laps marked the beginning of a miserable day. Bell did a nice job limping the car back to pit road, keeping the tire from ripping the car apart. The No. 20 still had speed, and Bell drove back into contention until another spin sent him to the back for good.

A runner-up last fall, Bell finished two laps down in 33rd. With the speed his teammates showed, maybe he could have had a shot to avenge his narrow loss last fall.

Better Than Last Time?

This race almost exactly mirrored the fall Las Vegas race from last season. But to compare this race to the spring event last year, this event takes the cake. The spring race last year featured decent racing on restarts and an overtime finish, but the longer green flag run to the finish in this weekend’s race felt much more natural. 

Additionally, we witnessed numerous great battles throughout the race and in the middle of the runs without being hampered by cautions. Really, all three races this weekend flourished with green flag racing after two crash-filled prior weekends.

Paint Scheme of the Race

The wind blew some beautiful blue paint schemes around the track this weekend. For whatever reason, some of the sharpest paint schemes in Las Vegas featured some sort of a blue-based gradient.

Typically, most Hendrick Motorsports paint scheme releases meet much criticism, as their renders rarely do the actual livery any justice. This week, however, Byron’s new Z by HP look impressed in the render, and its metallic shine in real life made it even better.

Meanwhile, LaJoie introduced USANA to the Cup Series with his No. 7 Chevrolet by running near the front in the opening stage. The paint scheme consisted of a beautiful gradient, making use of royal blue, teal, and pink. Some extra dots, lines, and … clouds only added to the beauty of this scheme.

What’s Next?

The NASCAR Cup Series travels back to Phoenix Raceway, the site of the championship race, for its fourth event of the season. Coverage for the Shriners Children’s 500 begins Sunday, March 10 at 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX.

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DoninAjax

NA$CAR will take away any advantage over the Mr. H cars.

Jeremy

Well, until it’s time to throw a bone to the Gibbs cars to keep Toyota happy.

Bill B

Not a great race thanks to Larsen dominating (again) but better than watching another pack race, crap shoot.
Hopefully there will be more action up front at Phoenix.

Jeremy

Sometimes a guy just has one of them days and puts a whoopin’ on everyone else. Happens in all sports. Now, if it starts to happen week in and week out then it’s a trend and all griping is not only warranted, but required! :-)

JD Brewski

If it happens week in and week out then it is called F1 :)

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