NASCAR Playoffs intensify after wild opener at Las Vegas

LAS VEGAS, NV - SEPTEMBER 16: Joey Logano, driver of the #22 Pennzoil Ford, and Erik Jones, driver of the #20 DeWalt Toyota, lead the field on a pace lap before the start of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series SouthPoint 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on September 16, 2018 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

All but a couple of the 16 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff contenders had to rally from “issues” in Sunday’s Playoff opener. There were spins, flat tires, pit road penalties, collisions and wall contact.

It was Las Vegas Motor Speedway after all – a 1.5-mile track to start the championship run in a city home to high-stakes and plenty of action. Sometimes more action than the NASCAR’s best even anticipated.

Yet Kyle Busch – who spun through the infield grass late in the race – still managed to rally to a top-10 finish (seventh) and stay two points off the championship pace set by Martin Truex Jr. who finished third on Sunday. They were a couple of the fortunate ones.

“There was a lot of racing going on there at the end and the restarts were very, very hectic with three-wide and everything kind of happening off of Turn 2 and guys banging into one another,” Busch said, shaking his head.

“If you would have taken the finish from 20 (laps) to go, it would have been a heck of a lot different finish than it is now – there was a lot of racing and a lot of chaos happening the last few restarts. Good for us, a couple of those cars having trouble and getting pushed to the back and things happening the way they were obviously helped us and got us farther up front. If it wasn’t for those, we probably would have been 16th or so.

“We’ll take what we can get and hope for better days ahead.”

That seemed to be a common theme.

Brad Keselowski won his third-straight Monster Energy Series race, earning Team Penske it’s 500th overall victory. His was one of the relatively smooth outings and it helped move him into third place in the Playoff standings.

Kevin Harvick, a seven-race winner this season heading into Las Vegas, had a tire problem and ended up in the wall. Unable to avoid Harvick who crashed between Turns 1 and 2, Sunday’s polesitter and fellow Playoff driver Erik Jones ran into Harvick’s car. The drivers finishing 39th (Harvick) and 40th  (Jones) in the 40-car field.

Throughout the race, one after another of the series’ championship eligible drivers had a rough day on pit road. Austin Dillon started the race from the back for an unapproved adjustment. Alex Bowman who ran among the top-three early was dinged for a pit road violation near the race midpoint and then was caught up in a collision in the race’s waning laps.

Playoff driver Chase Elliott was an innocent victim caught up in Jamie McMurray’s accident on Lap 234 of the 272-lap race. Denny Hamlin crashed out with about 20 laps remaining.

“We’ll try to rebound next week,” Elliott said. “I had a really good car today and just barely, just barely clipped him. So many cars fell out, I feel like half the top-16 fell out. Just gotta finish I guess.”

And Jimmie Johnson, who had run among the top-five for much of the afternoon, had his car make contact with fellow contender Kurt Busch on a late restart, sending Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet into the wall. They both finished the race despite multiple trips to pit road – but were scored 21st and 22nd, respectively.

Kyle Larson finished runner-up to Keselowski but had to overcome a flat tire early in the race that put him down a lap. Ryan Blaney hit the wall in tight racing with fellow Playoff driver Aric Almirola, although they rallied to finish fifth and sixth.

“Yeah, a lot of people had trouble,” said Blaney. “We had our own troubles and luckily our damage didn’t affect us to the point of taking us out of contention. We fought for 400 miles and it was a good job by the No. 12 group today.”

And the hot temperatures – in the high 90s at the drop of the green flag – created a tougher-then-typical race physically as well.

Nine Playoff drivers qualified among the top-10 and all 16 were among the top-18 on the grid. But the unpredictable and action-packed race, left seven in the top-10 by the checkered flag. Eight playoff drivers finished 19th or worse.

“I felt like our Ford was pretty good today,” Almirola said. “We got behind on qualifying, and that kind of set the tone. That was my fault. I was trying to get too much.

“I got in the fence and made another mistake today. We were able to come down on pit road and get all the damage fixed, and the car was back to being good again.

“I am proud of that effort. That was a really hard-fought sixth-place finish. Man, one of these races we will have it go smooth and we will be a contender.”

And that is a sentiment shared by most of the championship drivers.