By David Morgan, Associate Editor
When the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs get underway each year, the intensity among the drivers chasing after the championship always gets cranked up and Sunday’s kickoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was no exception.
By the end of the night, frustration ran rampant through the garage area for the Playoff drivers who didn’t have things go their way in the South Point 400.
Chief among them was regular season champion Kyle Busch, who got into the wall early in the race and had to make an unscheduled visit to pit road to get the damage repaired, falling laps down to the leaders in the process.
Busch was able to overcome the early setback, eventually getting his laps back and climbing back into the top-10 in the late stages of the race. Then disaster struck with 15 laps to go when Busch slammed into the back end of Garrett Smithley, who was running well off the pace, numerous laps down.
The impact was hard enough to cause significant damage to the front end of Busch’s Toyota, bending the splitter out of shape and causing major handling issues for Busch to have to deal with for the remainder of the race. Ultimately, Busch would drop from the top-10 to 19th by the time the checkered flag flew.
“I was told he was going to go high, thought he was going to go high, but he went middle,” Busch said of the run-in with the No. 52 car. “Killed our day. Should have run fourth probably, but instead 19th.
“We’re the top echelon of motorsports and we’ve got guys that have never won late model races running out here on the race track. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go.”
Despite the issue, Busch still remains 36 points to the good over the cut-off line with two races to go in the first round of the Playoffs, but even that bit of good news couldn’t lift the spirits of the 2015 Cup Series champion.
“It’s pathetic to have to lean on insurance. My premiums are going to go up,” Busch quipped as he walked away from his post-race interview.
Along with Busch, Joey Logano, who looked to have the car to beat at certain points in the race, also had issues of his own during the 267-lap event.
After leading six times for 105 laps, Logano’s chances at a season sweep at Las Vegas came crashing down on a restart late in the race when he and Chris Buescher made contact, followed by a run-in with Daniel Suarez that put Logano into the outside wall, scraping up the entire right side of his Ford.
Though the damage was enough to slow him down and keep him from the race win, Logano was able to minimize the possible points hit with a ninth-place finish, leaving Sin City with a 48-point buffer over the cut-off line.
“We got shuffled to the back and then got to the outside of the 41 and he didn’t know I was there and he crashed our car,” Logano said. “We just didn’t have a chance to fix it as good as it needed to be and as good as it was before that. I don’t think we could because aero means so much here. They fixed it as good as they could to recover with a top-10. Our car was so fast and I feel like we had a chance of winning it but we just kind of got shuffled into everything.
“If we didn’t have a wrecked car, we would have had a shot at winning. We were really good at the beginning of the race. We drove all the way to the lead and led a bunch of laps. We can be proud of that. We won’t let our heads get down on this. It is still a strong day.”
While Busch and Logano leave Las Vegas with a decent points cushion to lean on, some of the other playoff contenders weren’t so lucky.
Pole sitter Clint Bowyer suffered with handling woes all night and only managed a 25th place finish, while mechanical issues left Erik Jones with a 26th place result.
“We just weren’t very good tonight. We were just off. Off in all areas,” Bowyer said of his night as he heads to next week’s race at Richmond with a 21-point deficit to overcome.
Jones now sits at the bottom of the playoff standings, with a 26-point gap to have to make up over the next two weeks.
“We were dealing with a stuck throttle there the run before,” Jones said. “I thought I was going to be OK and I could manage, but when I went to shift to third on that restart, the throttle got hung and it jammed the rails on the transmission.
“It’s unfortunate. I think the Craftsman Camry was a good car. I definitely think we could have run top-five. I don’t know. We didn’t race a whole lot of the race past that. It’s unfortunate that we’ve got a hole to dig out of. 26 points (back) is not where we want to be after the first race. I think we could have been in a pretty good spot had we had an average night.
“We’ll go to Richmond and go to work.”
Then there was the elder Busch brother, Kurt, who certainly didn’t get the hometown welcome he had hoped for after contact with eventual race winner Martin Truex, Jr. cut down his tire and sent him into the outside wall on lap 189. Busch would finish 39th after starting the day full of optimism.
The crash dropped him to 14th in the standings, 14 points below the cut-off line.
“We were trying to go for the same spot, in the middle,” Busch said of the contact that ultimately ended his night early. “We ended up four-wide, got a fender rub and the day is done. It just happens that fast.
“Everyone wants to try to get in the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots. Martin Truex Jr. and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”