Photo: Chris Owens/ASP, Inc.

Lady Luck Doesn’t Shine Favorably on Playoff Contenders at Las Vegas

By David Morgan, NASCAR Editor

When looking at the 10 races that make up the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs, Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway would not have been the one many circled to give the drivers competing for the championship the most issues, but by the time the checkered flag flew, more than half of the 16 playoff drivers ran into problems of some sort.

Kyle Larson kicked things off with a blown tire early in Stage 1, but luckily for him, he was able to limp to pit road with the inner liner still intact and returned to the race to finish second.

Kyle Busch also found some good luck when he spun off of Turn 4 on lap 234 and plowed through the infield grass with minimal damage. He fell a lap down after repairs but powered his way back to seventh by the time the checkered flag flew.

“Our M&M’s Camry guys did a great job fighting through that and getting me some good repairs and stuff like that on pit road,” said Busch. “That’s what this time of year is all about is minimizing the bad days and being able to recover and come back. You don’t want to have the bad days, but when you do you have to turn them around and make chicken noodle soup out of something else. It’s all good I guess, but hopefully Richmond looks a lot better.”

While Lady Luck shined favorably on Larson and Kyle Busch, the other Playoff contenders that ran into trouble weren’t as fortunate.

Nearing the end of Stage 2, co-points leader Kevin Harvick and Erik Jones found themselves collected in a crash in Turn 1 after Harvick blew a tire and slammed the outside wall, blasting Goodyear for the tire problems in his post-crash interview. They would have to settle for 39th and 40th as a result.

After Harvick and Jones exited the race early, the hits just kept coming.

At lap 213, Jamie McMurray, a non-Playoff driver who had gotten into the wall a couple of laps earlier, stayed on track instead of pitting and that decision would cost Chase Elliott big time. Entering Turn 3, McMurray’s tire let go, sending him spinning up the track and into the path of Elliott, who had nowhere to go, making heavy contact and ending the day for both of them.

Elliott was heard yelling “My shoulder, my shoulder!” over his team radio after his car came to a rest, but after being evaluated and released from the Infield Care Center, he seemed to be none the worse for wear. The only damage done coming to his place in the point standings following the 35th place finish.

“I guess (my shoulder) just got caught in the wheel,” said Elliott. “But it popped really big and then I kind of got stopped and got to messing with it and it popped really big again. So, all good now and we’ll try to rebound next week. We had a really good car today and yeah, almost, just barely clipped him (Jamie McMurray).  I just hate it. So many guys fell out today. I feel like half the top 16 has crashed. So, we’ve just got to finish, I guess.”

Denny Hamlin was the next of the playoff drivers to run into trouble as he spun with 21 laps to go in much the same fashion as his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch. Hamlin’s No. 11 Toyota got sideways off of Turn 4 and slid right through the infield grass, but unlike Busch, the grass destroyed the front end of Hamlin’s car.

With the amount of damage, there was no way his team was going to be able to get him repaired under the crash clock, so he pulled into his pit box, parked his car and exited stage left. He would be credited with a 32nd place result.

“Trying to get more than the car was capable of,” said Hamlin. “We should have just finished 15th or 10th or wherever we were at the time, but trying to get more and the car won’t handle it. No grip and just a bad day overall.”

Following a restart on lap 257, all of the drivers were trying to get everything they could get and just ran out of enough real estate as several drivers wound up bouncing off of each other or the wall. Some of them were able to continue on as if nothing had happened, while Hendrick Motorsports drivers Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson, as well as Clint Bowyer sustained enough damage to warrant a visit to pit road.

All three were able to get repaired and returned to finish the race, but their prospects of a top-five or top-10 finish went up in smoke as they finished 19th, 22nd, and 23rd, respectively.

“It looked like they got jumbled up in front of us,” said Bowman.  “I got jumbled up the No. 31 kind of slid up in front of us.  I was loose off and cars kind of backed up into us at the same time.  So, hard racing happened to us at the end, but we should have been pretty far in front of that and not in that position to being with.”

“We could have closed with a top five finish that would have really helped and given us a cushion,” said Johnson. “Today was really a good day for the Lowe’s team. We had good speed in the car, good pit stops, everything was going well and unfortunately, cut a right-front tire when we touched the No. 41 off of Turn 2.

“I don’t know how next week is going to go, I really don’t and I sure as hell don’t know how the ROVAL is going to go.  So, sure, we finished higher than some guys, but any cushion we could have gotten today would have been nice.”

And last, but not least was Kurt Busch, who sustained minor damage in the same incident as Bowman, Johnson, and Bowyer, but saw things take a turn for the worse with two laps remaining in regulation as he got collected in a five-car crash in Turn 3, causing major damage to his Ford.

Busch would wind up with a 21st place finish on the day.

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoff Standings after Las Vegas

  1. Brad Keselowski (Locked into Round 2 – Vegas win)
  2. Martin Truex, Jr. (2085 points)
  3. Kyle Busch (+63 over cut-off)
  4. Kevin Harvick (+38)
  5. Joey Logano (+34)
  6. Kurt Busch (+24)
  7. Ryan Blaney (+20)
  8. Kyle Larson (+19)
  9. Aric Almirola (+12)
  10. Austin Dillon (+9)
  11. Clint Bowyer (+7)
  12. Alex Bowman (+6)
  13. Jimmie Johnson (-6)
  14. Chase Elliott (-9)
  15. Erik Jones (-19)
  16. Denny Hamlin (-20)

*Drivers in bold had issues Sunday

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David Morgan is the Associate Editor for Motorsports Tribune. A 2008 graduate from the University of Mississippi, David has followed NASCAR since the early 90’s and became hooked at an early age after attending his first race at Talladega Superspeedway in 1993. He has traveled across the country since 2012 to cover some of the most prestigious events both IndyCar and NASCAR have to offer, with an aim to only expand on that in the near future.