Las Vegas Motor Speedway presented an opportunity to win the jackpot and a guaranteed spot in the Championship 4. Kyle Larson did just that, with the rest of the field trailing behind as they look to take advantage in the remaining races of the round.
Each driver’s performance at Vegas is scored on a 1-to-10 scale, with a score of 1 reserved for a terrible performance with no redeeming qualities and 10 reserved for a perfect and dominating performance. Performance over the entire weekend is factored in, since qualifying results make race days easier or more difficult.
Vegas was the first race of the Round of 8. It’s the first chance to secure what drivers have been fighting for all season: the chance to battle for a championship at Phoenix. The competition, then, is higher than it’s ever been all season and drivers and teams need to be at the top of their games. The round continues at Homestead-Miami Speedway in Florida and concludes at Martinsville Speedway in Virginia. This rating gives an indication of each driver’s relative performance throughout the Playoffs.
Of note, finishing positions have been updated to take Ryan Blaney’s disqualification rescindment into account, and the original version of this article has been updated.
10 – Kyle Larson (1st)
Kyle Larson dominated the weekend in Las Vegas. The only thing he missed out on to make it a clean sweep was the pole, but even then he still lined up on the front row. Winning both stages and the race capped off a perfect weekend for the team. And, even more impressively, he managed to save a massive slide in the middle of Stage 2 to avoid spinning, and still went on to win that stage. The No. 5 group looked incredibly impressive at Vegas, and now has two extra weeks to prepare their car for Phoenix: something that should certainly worry the rest of the Championship 4.
“It was a really good race for us and our team,” Larson said. “We were able to get the lead early. Kind of struggling with my balance out on the lead early in the race. I was really loose. Made some big adjustments, got our balance to a better spot. Still wasn’t quite perfect. Had some cautions work out in the first stage to get the first stage win. Then the second stage, I got really loose and about crashed off of two. Then the caution came out shortly after that. Kind of got to rerack ’em, put new tires on, go win that stage. Just a lot of cautions fell at the right time throughout the race.”
9.5 – Christopher Bell (2nd)
Christopher Bell was inches away from the win that would have earned him a trip back to the Championship 4 for the second year in a row. More than that, though, the win would have given him momentum at a critical time, something he’s looking for. Bell has only won once so far this season, at the Bristol dirt race in the spring, despite some good results. He had a run on Larson coming to the checkered flag after chasing him down, but Bell chose to race clean and settled for second.
His Vegas performance certainly can’t dent his confidence either. He started the race on pole – something Bell has become very familiar with this postseason – and earned points for second in Stage 1 and third in Stage 2. That, combined with a second-place finish, earned him a massive points haul for the day. However, having entered Vegas eight points below the cutline and with strong performances from his postseason rivals, Bell still leaves Vegas three points below the cutline with work to do in the next two races. He was inches away from avoiding all those worries.
7.5 – William Byron (7th)
It was a good day for William Byron at Vegas by most accounts. But for the driver with six wins this season – the most in the Cup Series this year – it wasn’t up to par. He finished seventh after starting third, picking up stage points for tenth and sixth respectively. That’s a solid performance and keeps Blaney above the cutline to make the next round by eleven points should he fail to win this round, but the No. 24 team now expects more than just a sixth-place car.
“We definitely need to just work on our build and how we build loose,” he said. “The points are a lot tighter than we would want them to be, so we just have to have two good weeks, and hopefully go to Homestead and have a little bit better long run speed. But overall, happy with our execution. We kind of made the most out of what we had. I think at the beginning of the race, we were hovering around sixth to eighth, and we were able to finish there. Wish we could have gotten a little more stage points, but we’ll take it.”
7 – Ryan Blaney (6th)
Ryan Blaney had a strong run at Las Vegas, bringing his car home sixth and picking up points for sixth in Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2. He felt like he had a little more pace than his finishing position, but scoring eight stage points and running in the top five was a strong performance for the team, especially considering some of Team Penske’s past struggles at the mile-and-half racetracks this season. But that definitely wasn’t the story of his weekend. Instead, it was the result being disqualified after the race and then later rescinded on Monday.
Ryan Blaney was first disqualified after the race “because the left-front shock didn’t meet the overall specified length outlined in NASCAR Rule Book number 18.104.22.168,” according to NASCAR’s announcement. That left Blaney with a 36th-place finish – last – and just one point for the entire weekend, putting him in a massive 56-point hole for the next two races, and already in must-win territory after just the first race. However, rescinding the disqualification makes Blaney’s situation much more manageable: he sits 17 points below the cutline.
As for the reinstatement, “After further review of the inspection process throughout this weekend’s events at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, NASCAR has rescinded the No. 12 disqualification penalty,” a statement from the sanctioning body read. Monday morning during its race weekend debrief, NASCAR discovered an issue with the damper template used for inspection. NASCAR then conducted a detailed investigation, and has restored the No. 12’s stage and race finishing positions from Sunday. NASCAR has taken internal steps to remedy this issue moving forward.”
7 – Tyler Reddick (8th)
Reddick leaves Vegas in slightly worse position than he entered. He came in with an eight-point deficit to the cutline and leaves fifteen points below it. That’s after starting eighth, finishing fourth and ninth respectively in the stages, and taking the checkered flag in seventh: not a bad day by any means, but not up to the standard at this late stage in the Playoffs. It was certainly not a bad day considering how poorly Reddick described his car’s handling.
“To get that finish is good for us. You look at it – yeah, we lost ground on the cutline, but how our car drove today, it should have been a lot worse than it was. We got something out of it and kind of minimized the bleeding,” Reddick acknowledged.
7 – Denny Hamlin (10th)
Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin actually owns the 23XI Racing team that fields Tyler Reddick in the Playoffs, so he’s got his hands full in the postseason. Hamlin is in better position than his driver, but both slipped against the cutline at Vegas. Hamlin leaves with a worryingly small four-point gap after entering with eleven points in hand. It just didn’t work out for Hamlin as the race concluded, despite finishing sixth and fourth respectively in the stages, as he finished tenth on the track.
“Yeah, I didn’t have a very good restart the second to the last and got split three wide and lost two spots,” Hamlin explained. “We pitted, and the adjustment just didn’t work with the car and add the track position to it. I was just way too tight at the end and couldn’t do much. I tried to do the best we could with it, but 10th was all we had in the end and wasn’t what we had all day for sure.”
5.5 – Chris Buescher (11th)
Chris Buescher had a fine day at Las Vegas. But when his competitors had very good day, ‘fine’ ended up not being enough. When the checkered flag waved, Buescher was the only Playoff driver not in the top ten. He also failed to secure any stage points despite starting fifth, despite his teammate Brad Keselowski moving up the field.
That all means that Buescher leaves Vegas 23 points below the cutline, a big margin to have to make up. With two races remaining in the round, he’s not in must-win territory just yet, but as the competition tightens up in this late stage of the Playoffs, Buescher admitted that he needs to run up front too. “We just needed to outrun a lot of cars that we didn’t and that’s going to make the next two weeks that much more difficult,” he said.
5 – Martin Truex Jr. (9th)
Martin Truex Jr. had a recovery race, but it just wasn’t necessary. Crew chief James Small elected to stay out in the Stage 1 break that followed a caution, after finishing fifth in the stage, which ended up being the wrong call when the rest of the field pitted behind him. The decision led to a testy exchange between Truex and Small on the radio and it left him mired back outside the top twenty for the stage end, scoring no points. Truex managed to make a big climb up to eighth by the end, though, to salvage some points. It keeps him above the cutline and in the top four leaving Vegas, but his 15-point gap has been reduced to just three.
It was just trying to figure out how to minimize the damage and hope that we could get a longer run. We did at the end, which was really helpful,” Truex said. “It was an uphill battle, but luckily at the end, we were able to have a couple of better restarts and at least maintain, and then work our way forward from there. All-in-all, it was okay. The pit call obviously killed us in stage two.”
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