The Cup Series returned to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the third race of the season, the Pennzoil 400. After less hectic practice and qualifying sessions when compared to last week at Fontana, only one driver suffered a damage-causing incident when Kyle Busch cut a left rear, spun, and hit the wall in practice.
Busch was forced to switch to a backup car for the race due to the incident. Interestingly, the car Busch had to switch to was not even a dedicated backup car, and was actually brought to the track as a dedicated “cannibal” car that JGR teams could take parts from if needed.
Christopher Bell picked up his first career pole, while Kyle Larson started on the outside row. Along with Kyle Busch, a small handful of other drivers also had to start in the rear – Tyler Reddick from seventh (steering rack), Daniel Hemric from 16th (cooling line replacement), and Cole Custer from 24th (unapproved adjustments).
From the drop of the green, Christopher Bell jumped out to a full two second lead over Kyle Larson by lap 10, with the field spreading out and trouble being largely avoided save for a few cars breaking loose as drivers continue to learn just what the new cars can handle.
By lap 15, Kyle Larson began to fade slightly from second as he fought a loose condition, being caught and passed by Joey Logano, Denny Hamlin, and Ryan Blaney. On lap 20, Hamlin took over second place from Logano, and separated from rest of the pack. By lap 25, Christopher Bell was maintaining a two second lead on Hamlin, with the rest of the top-five being Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, and Kyle Larson.
A competition caution flew on lap 31, as Christopher Bell was sitting on a 2.5 second lead over Denny Hamlin. Pit stops ensued, and Ryan Blaney and Denny Hamlin both managed to beat Bell off pit road, marking the first time all day that Bell was not in the lead. Greg Biffle received the free pass. The green flag flew again on lap 35 with Ryan Blaney jumping out to the lead, with Christopher Bell fading all the way back to sixth.
Lap 38 saw the first incident caution of the day when Cole Custer, who was running 25th, spun on his own in turn two. While he avoided contact with other drivers or the wall, Custer cut a tire as a result of the spin. While he was able to get back to pit road, the 41 car sustained slight right rear damage. Under the caution, Kyle Larson pitted again due to a vibration, moving him all the way back to 26th. Kyle Busch also had to pit under the caution to repair a transmission issue, falling back to 29th. Josh Bilicki got the free pass under yellow.
Almost immediately following the green flag, the caution flew again when Justin Haley spun after Austin Dillon slid up the track in turn one on the restart and made contact with the 31. The chain reaction caused Daniel Hemric to rear end Kyle Busch fairly hard, slightly damaging both Busch’s diffuser, and Hemric’s front end. Cole Custer got the free pass under the caution.
The green flag flew again on lap 48, at which point Alex Bowman managed to jump out to the lead, tailed by Blaney, Hamlin, and Truex. Two laps later, Hamlin, Blaney, and Bowman went three wide for the lead, with Hamlin jumping to the point, where he set sail on the field.
On lap 64 the caution flew again when Tyler Reddick went for a solo spin through the grass out of 15th, avoiding significant damage. Pit stops followed, with Aric Almirola winning the race off pit road thanks to a two-tire stop. Denny Hamlin, who had been leading, fell all the way to 9th. Kurt Busch, Corey LaJoie, and Cole Custer all stayed out, while BJ McLeod got the free pass. Martin Truex Jr. received an interference penalty for a loose tire and was sent to the rear.
When the green flag flew on lap 69, Custer fell like a rock through the field and almost caused a significant wreck. Kurt Busch lost the lead after one lap to William Byron, who was trailed by Hendrick teammates Alex Bowman and Chase Elliott. On lap 73, Denny Hamlin reported that his power steering was starting to fail.
With three to go in stage one, Alex Bowman caught and passed William Byron for the lead. The field managed to male it to the stage break incident free, with Bowman taking the win.
Stage One top-10:
1) Alex Bowman
2) William Byron
3) Ross Chastain
4) Denny Hamlin
5) Chase Elliott
6) Kyle Larson
7) Ryan Blaney
8) Chase Briscoe
9) Kyle Busch
10) Christopher Bell
Following stage break pit stops, Brad Keselowski won the race off pit road with a two tire stop, followed by Hamlin, Elliott, Bowman, and Chastain who all took four tires. Michael McDowell took the race lead as the only driver to stay out. Garrett Smithley got the free pass under the stage break, putting all cars back on the lead lap.
When the green flag flew, McDowell hung with the leaders for two laps before fading, while Keselowski held the lead for four laps before Denny Hamlin regained it. On lap 92, the slower car of Michael McDowell got loose and slid in front of Chase Briscoe who also got loose as a result. Briscoe cut down the track, and got into Daniel Suárez, who spun and made heavy contact with the outside wall, ending his day.
The green flag came back out on lap 97 with Denny Hamlin at the point, followed by Chastain, Byron Bowman, and Kyle Busch – who again, started all the way back in 37th in a backup car.
On lap 103, the caution flew again after Brad Keselowski spun on his own right in front of Ryan Blaney who could not avoid the 6 car. Both cars sustained heavy damage, with Ryan Blaney’s day being ended. Keselowski’s car was able to be repaired, but he was put three laps down as a result.
The green flag came back out on lap 109, with Kyle Busch on the lead after not pitting – a strategy shared by Austin Dillon who restarted second. Dillon faded fast, but Kyle Busch maintained the lead for three laps before being passed by Ross Chastain. Two laps later, Kyle Larson got loose while fighting for the lead and nearly took out both himself and Chastain, barely managing to save it before fading back to fifth.
The field finally spread out a bit, and Chastain continued to lead until lap 135 when Chase Briscoe spun, causing Austin Cindric to spin behind him as well. Both cars made moderate contact with the wall, with Briscoe eventually retiring to the garage. Pit stops would follow, with Kyle Larson winning the race off pit road over Ross Chastain, while Denny Hamlin had an air hose problem on pit road and lost several spots, while Alex Bowman suffered an interference penalty and had to restart at the tail end of the field.
The green flag came back out on lap 140 with Larson in front, but just two laps later the caution would fly again after Christopher Bell went for a spin while battling for second, as did Harrison Burton trying to avoid the incident. Neither car made contact, and both were able to make it back to pit road.
Lap 148 saw the green flag back out with Kyle Larson leading, followed by Chastain, Elliott, Busch, and Byron. A green flag run ensued, and as the stage end approached, Ross Chastain managed to run down Kyle Larson for the lead on lap 160, and would go on to win stage two.
Stage Two top-10:
1) Ross Chastain
2) Chase Elliott
3) Kyle Larson
4) William Byron
5) Martin Truex Jr.
6) Kyle Busch
7) Joey Logano
8) Kevin Harvick
9) Denny Hamlin
10) Bubba Wallace
Stage break pit stops saw Ross Chastain maintain the lead, followed by Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, and Martin Truex Jr. Under yellow, Cole Custer’s car died on the front straight, and his day was ended. Polesitter Christopher Bell got the free pass under yellow, getting back on the lead lap.
The final stage went green on lap 174 out of 267, with Ross Chastain and Kyle Busch running neck and neck for three laps before Chastain managed to clear Busch for the lead. The field began to spread out, and one of the few extended green flag runs of the day ensued.
With 70 laps to go, Chastain had worked out to a three quarter second lead over Kyle Busch. Those two had managed to gap Martin Truex Jr, followed by the four Hendrick cars by more than four seconds.
With 62 to go, William Byron – who was on the fringe of the top-five – got into the wall and possibly suffered suspension damage. He continued onward however, as the damage was not severe. Two other Hendrick cars also had issues, as Kyle Larson brushed the wall, and Chase Elliott began to fade significantly, falling out of the top-10 with 57 to go
Green flag stops began with around 55 laps to go, with Ross Chastain holding a 1.2 second lead over Kyle Busch, who was soon after passed by Martin Truex Jr. Chastain pitted from the lead with 50 to go, along with Truex and a host of others.
Denny Hamlin spun coming off of pit road after missing a shift, which broke the transaxle and caused his car to stall on track, prompting a caution with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in the lead, who had not pitted. Kyle Larson had gotten a speeding penalty on pit road, but the caution saved him from having to do a full pass through penalty and he instead was simply moved to the back of the field.
Kyle Busch inherited the lead following the pit cycle, and the race restarted with 41 to go. The odd pit cycle also mixed up the field quite a lot, placing several slower cars in the top-10 creating a hectic restart that effectively allowed the first 8 or so cars to break out in a lead pack. Kyle Busch would eventually pull into the lead, followed closely by Chastain and Truex. With 33 to go, Truex would catch and pass Chastain for second, which allowed Busch to jump out to a full second lead.
With 20 laps to go, Truex managed to catch up to Kyle Busch and began challenging for the lead. Truex almost certainly had the faster car, but Busch would not allow him to take the high line, rather forcing Truex to try and make the pass on the low side, which had proven to be difficult all day. Busch held off the charge from Truex, and began to ride away from him.
With three laps to go however, Erik Jones spun into the outside wall by himself, sustaining heavy right front damage. Jones then continued down the front stretch despite having no control over his car, spinning back up on to the track nearly causing a horrible wreck between himself and Bubba Wallace – who narrowly avoided Jones by cutting hard left, eventually hitting the inside wall. Wallace’s team was able to patch the car up and get him back on track, though not before going a lap down.
Late race pit stops followed. Three Hendrick cars of Kyle Larson, Alex Bowman, and William Byron all took two tires and won the race off pit road in an attempt to steal the win from Busch on the green white checkered, who took four tires along with the rest of the field.
The green white checker saw Larson and Bowman battling side by side for the lead for the final two laps, with Larson on the top, and Bowman on the bottom. In turn four, Larson got a bit loose on the high side which allowed Bowman to clear him exiting the corner, and stealing the win from the JGR camp that seemed to have it locked up. Despite having four new tires, Kyle Busch just couldn’t break free from William Byron in time to challenge for the lead.
The win marks Bowman’s seventh career victory, and makes him the third driver locked into the playoffs, joining Kyle Larson and Austin Cindric. Despite not getting the win, Kyle Busch managing to secure a top-five in a patchwork backup car is certainly impressive. Also of note, with his sixth place finish Aric Almirola remains the only driver to secure a top-10 in each race this season.
Final Running Order:
1) Alex Bowman
2) Kyle Larson
3) Ross Chastain
4) Kyle Busch
5) William Byron
6) Aric Almirola
7) Tyler Reddick
8) Martin Truex Jr.
9) Chase Elliott
10) Christopher Bell
11) Austin Dillon
12) Kevin Harvick
13) Kurt Busch
14) Joey Logano
15) Corey LaJoie
16) Harrison Burton
17) Justin Haley
18) Chris Buescher
19) Austin Cindric
20) Ty Dillon
21) Ricky Stenhouse Jr.
22) Daniel Hemric
23) Todd Gilliland
24) Brad Keselowski
25) Bubba Wallace
26) Cody Ware
27) Michael McDowell
28) B.J. McLeod
29) Josh Bilicki
30) Garrett Smithley
31) Erik Jones (DNF)
32) Denny Hamlin (DNF)
33) Cole Custer (DNF)
34) Greg Biffle (DNF)
35) Chase Briscoe (DNF)
36) Ryan Blaney (DNF)
37) Daniel Suarez (DNF)
Featured photo from Pat Vallely