NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Wins at Las Vegas

NASCAR Barometer: Hamlin Wins at Las Vegas

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

The round of 12 kicked off last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where Denny Hamlin eased away to victory to become the first driver to lock himself into the penultimate round of championship elimination races. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was quick all night and made the win possible by keeping on top of the changing track conditions while others dealt with more inconsistent machines through the race's 400 miles. Gibbs teammates filled three of the top four spots, which shows the organization has closed the gap to Hendrick Motorsports on the 1.5-mile ovals. That could be an indicator that Hamlin may soon become the championship favorite over Kyle Larson, who has carried that title most of the season.

Two unpredictable races remain for the remaining 11 championship competitors to join Hamlin in the next round. Perhaps the most unpredictable is up first this week at Talladega. The superspeedway is known for unexpected finishes and comes full of unknowns and concerns due to its tendency to produce multicar crashes, which could end playoff hopes in the blink of an eye. Hamlin is the defending race winner, but Brad Keselowski drove to Victory Lane there earlier this year.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin got out front early in Sunday's trip West to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver kept his car there all evening, too. He finished third in the opening stage, won the second segment and then continued on to lead 137 total laps to

The round of 12 kicked off last Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway where Denny Hamlin eased away to victory to become the first driver to lock himself into the penultimate round of championship elimination races. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver was quick all night and made the win possible by keeping on top of the changing track conditions while others dealt with more inconsistent machines through the race's 400 miles. Gibbs teammates filled three of the top four spots, which shows the organization has closed the gap to Hendrick Motorsports on the 1.5-mile ovals. That could be an indicator that Hamlin may soon become the championship favorite over Kyle Larson, who has carried that title most of the season.

Two unpredictable races remain for the remaining 11 championship competitors to join Hamlin in the next round. Perhaps the most unpredictable is up first this week at Talladega. The superspeedway is known for unexpected finishes and comes full of unknowns and concerns due to its tendency to produce multicar crashes, which could end playoff hopes in the blink of an eye. Hamlin is the defending race winner, but Brad Keselowski drove to Victory Lane there earlier this year.

UPGRADE

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin got out front early in Sunday's trip West to Las Vegas Motor Speedway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver kept his car there all evening, too. He finished third in the opening stage, won the second segment and then continued on to lead 137 total laps to grab his second win of the season. Last Sunday's win also comes with the added bonus of guaranteeing him a spot among the final eight championship contenders. He now can relax through Sunday's trip to Talladega and the following week's race on the Charlotte ROVAL. Talladega might mean more success for him, however. He has two prior wins at the track, including this race last year which he won from pole.

Kyle Larson – Larson reeled in and passed Hamlin on the bottom about halfway through the opening stage and then streaked away to win the segment. As the track cooled, the team elected not to pit under yellow, and other teams gained more pace Larson lost his advantage, though. Signs of him looking for better handling started early in the final stage and his momentum stalled. He ended the night in 10th with 95 laps led, second only to Hamlin. Larson has two Talladega top-10s but failed to finish four of the last five races at the track. He has a points total that should see him safely through to the next round of playoffs but a top-10 finish this week would give him some extra comfort before hitting the road course at Charlotte. 

Kyle Busch – After a bumpy first round of the playoffs, Kyle Busch needed to find some consistency at Las Vegas. That consistency is exactly what he delivered, too. While he didn't have the car that could compete for the win, he did have a top-five car throughout the entire race distance. He finished second in each of the opening stages and then went on to finish the race third. Those points put him third in the championship standings with two unpredictable races left in the round. Up first is Talladega where Busch won in 2008. He finished 18th at the track in the spring and has led at least one lap there in five of the last six races. Busch should feel more confident this round versus the last due to his good Las Vegas showing.

Martin Truex Jr. – Truex's start to the second round of championship eliminations didn't get off to the best start initially at Las Vegas. The team failed inspection twice, which meant Truex would have to relinquish his starting position of fourth and move to the rear of the field. The penalty exacted its price early as Truex stalled coming through the field early. The team made adjustments on pit road each opportunity they had, which enabled Truex to begin climbing forward again. By the end of the first stage, Truex was 10th, and he proceeded to finish fourth in the second segment, and then held station to grab a fourth-place finish to end the night. Those points will come in handy as Truex now heads into the final two races of the round of 12 sitting in fourth position in the standings.

Chase Elliott – Las Vegas has been a questionable track for Elliott. It was his second worst track in terms of average finish, but his car has been quick there often. The good results finally came at the South Point 400 with a runner-up finish to get his round of 12 off to a good start. Elliott lurked among the top 10 early in the race, picked up stage points in the first segment and then stalked Hamlin for the final miles to land his second top-five and third top-10 finish in the last five races. Elliott should feel confident of advancing in the playoffs with a road-course visit finishing this round, but he will have to navigate Talladega's unknowns first. He enters this week's race sixth in the standings and won at Talladega in 2019. 

DOWNGRADE

Christopher Bell – Things started getting difficult early for Bell in Las Vegas. While coming to pit road under the competition caution, he ran into the back of Kurt Busch and suffered front-end damage. The team was forced to spend extra time on pit road to make repairs. Bell spent the rest of the race distance trying to get back on pace but couldn't get the job done. He finished the night two laps down and 12 points behind Alex Bowman, last among the 12 playoff drivers. Bell needs to make something happen this week at Talladega in order to  have a chance to advance to the final eight. His average finish from three Talladega starts is 28.3, however. His best finish there was earlier this season when he finished 17th.

William Byron – Like Truex, Byron's team was forced to give up its third-place starting spot at Las Vegas after failing prerace inspection twice. Byron was able to make up ground early, however, and finished fourth in the first stage. The second stage didn't play to his strengths, and by the end, he was able to get back on the lead lap by securing the lucky-dog bonus at the stage finish. That was about the last piece of good luck the team got, though. After working their way back into the top five, Byron suffered a flat tire and ended the night a lap down in 18th. That finish leaves Byron out of the top eight with two races remaining in the round of 12. He will have to avoid a bad finish at Talladega, where he finished second earlier this year.

Alex Bowman – Like his teammate, Bowman also suffered his share of bad luck at Las Vegas. The team was never among the fastest in the field, and an extra visit to pit road after not pitting under caution was enough to ruin his night. He finished 22nd, ahead of just one other playoff competitor. The trouble stunted his start to this round of the playoffs and now he needs to regain the ground he lost in the next two relatively unpredictable races. Bowman will head to Talladega this week 11th in the standings – second to last in the playoff field. He retired from the spring Talladega race earlier this season after suffering damage, but he does have a runner-up finish from 2019. He finished 14th at the track last fall but needs something more this week to help his championship hopes. 

Joey Gase – It isn't frequent that Gase makes his way into the fantasy NASCAR news, but his heavy crash Sunday did it. Early in the second stage, he lost a rear wheel from his car, which sent him spinning at top speed into the outside wall. The heavy impact lifted the car off the ground and then the car slid down the banking, which made further contact with the inside wall. He didn't drop the window net to indicate he was okay but was moving as the safety team arrived on scene. Later news indicated that he was treated at the infield care center before being taken to the hospital for further observation. That news could have implications regarding his fitness for Talladega where he has a best finish of 17th, which came in the fall race last season.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Tyler Reddick – Reddick narrowly missed making the cut to compete in the round of 12 two weeks ago, but his pace Sunday at Las Vegas suggested he still has something for the championship competitors. Richard Childress Racing worked to improve their race package at tracks like Las Vegas, and the effort showed Sunday. Reddick spent much of the night running inside the top five and scored stage points in both opening segments. That speed carried right through the final stage to finish giving him a sixth-place finish, his 14th top-10 of the season and second in the last five races. Talladega should be another good track for his RCR machine, too. Reddick has two top-10s from three series starts there.

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR
C.J. Radune
Radune covers NASCAR, Formula 1 and soccer for RotoWire. He was named the Racing Writer of the Year by the Fantasy Sports Writers Association in 2012 and 2015.
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