NASCAR Barometer: Busch Hits Jackpot in Las Vegas

NASCAR Barometer: Busch Hits Jackpot in Las Vegas

This article is part of our NASCAR Barometer series.

Kurt Busch's decision to delay his final pit stop won him the jackpot Sunday night in Las Vegas.  That late stop meant he was the only playoff contender not to have already visited pit road when Jimmie Johnson's rear tire gave up and brought out a caution. That sequence put Busch on the front row for the restart. He then battled with Matt DiBenedetto when the green flag came out to take the lead, survive two more restarts, and drive into Victory Lane for his first hometown race win in 21 tries. If that wasn't sweet enough, the victory also makes Busch the first driver locked into the final eight championship contenders as he looks to become one of the final four contenders to transfer into the finale at Phoenix later this fall.

Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott were the cars to beat Sunday, but the untimely caution took away their track position and left them playing chase on fresher tires as Busch sailed away in the lead. Now the remaining championship contenders must weather two unpredictable races at Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte road course. Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, and Austin Dillon are all currently below the cutline looking for a way to move forward or capitalize on other contenders' trouble to advance to the penultimate round of championship eliminations. 

UPGRADE

Kurt Busch – Busch finally got a hometown win after 21 starts at Las Vegas, and this victory comes with an

Kurt Busch's decision to delay his final pit stop won him the jackpot Sunday night in Las Vegas.  That late stop meant he was the only playoff contender not to have already visited pit road when Jimmie Johnson's rear tire gave up and brought out a caution. That sequence put Busch on the front row for the restart. He then battled with Matt DiBenedetto when the green flag came out to take the lead, survive two more restarts, and drive into Victory Lane for his first hometown race win in 21 tries. If that wasn't sweet enough, the victory also makes Busch the first driver locked into the final eight championship contenders as he looks to become one of the final four contenders to transfer into the finale at Phoenix later this fall.

Denny Hamlin and Chase Elliott were the cars to beat Sunday, but the untimely caution took away their track position and left them playing chase on fresher tires as Busch sailed away in the lead. Now the remaining championship contenders must weather two unpredictable races at Talladega Superspeedway and the Charlotte road course. Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola, and Austin Dillon are all currently below the cutline looking for a way to move forward or capitalize on other contenders' trouble to advance to the penultimate round of championship eliminations. 

UPGRADE

Kurt Busch – Busch finally got a hometown win after 21 starts at Las Vegas, and this victory comes with an automatic entry to the next round of playoff eliminations. He entered the weekend last among the 12 remaining playoff contenders and used a well-timed caution and perfect restarts to lead 29 laps on his way to his first victory at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and his first of the season. Busch was largely expected to face elimination this round but will now have the luxury of relaxing the next two races in preparation for the penultimate round of the playoffs. That round kicks off at Kansas Speedway and at stake is a spot among the final four championship contenders.

Matt DiBenedetto – DiBenedetto's second-place finish Sunday night in Las Vegas was his third top-five finish this season and his second consecutive runner-up at the track. It was DiBenedetto's first top-10 finish since Michigan last month, but it came too late to help his championship fight after he was eliminated last week in the round of 16. The result may have come at the perfect time to convince Wood Brothers Racing to exercise his contract option to keep him in their car for 2021, though. At the moment, DiBenedetto is uncertain where he will be driving next season with the team having to decide whether to take up that option this week. Looking ahead to this weekend, DiBenedetto has not finished better than 18th in his 11 Talladega starts. 

Denny Hamlin – Hamlin dominated early at Las Vegas to win the opening segment. He finished second in the second stage to Chase Elliott and went on to lead the most laps (121 of 268) in the race. Hamlin said after the race that the team gave him one of the best cars he has ever had at Las Vegas and maybe one of the best he has had at a 1.5-mile oval in a long time. It was the fourth time this season Hamlin led more than 100 laps in a race this season and the second time he failed to win while doing so. Hamlin is now third in the standings behind Busch and Kevin Harvick, with a visit to Talladega and the Charlotte road course yet to come in the round of 12. Hamlin won at Talladega in 2014 and led 18 laps there earlier this season in a fourth-place run.

Chase Elliott – Elliott took command of the lead and went on to win the second stage after leading the opening laps of Sunday night's race. The Hendrick Motorsports driver went on to lead a total of 79 laps throughout the race distance but was shuffled backward after a late caution left him trapped in traffic until the conclusion. The untimely yellow flag extinguished his chances to contend for the win and left him with a 22nd-place finish, which was not representative of how fast he was throughout the race. Elliott is now seventh in the playoff standings with just a 10-point cushion to see him through the next two races. First up is Talladega where Elliott won in 2019. He crashed out there earlier this season after leading three laps.

Alex Bowman - Alex Bowman had never led a lap at Las Vegas until Sunday night. The Hendrick Motorsports driver spent five circuits out front and leveraged that speed to drive to a fifth-place finish, overcoming the poorly timed caution to grab his fourth top-five finish of the season. Sunday's effort leaves him in the final transfer position in this playoff round, just one point behind teammate Chase Elliott in seventh and nine points ahead of Kyle Busch in ninth. Bowman has two more tricky races to navigate in the round of 12 with Talladega up first. He finished seventh there earlier this season and led 12 laps. He was the runner-up there in the spring race last year and scored all three of his top-10 finishes at the track in the last five visits. 

DOWNGRADE

Austin Dillon – Dillon was not able to get off to the same start in the round of 12 as he did in the previous elimination round after a late pit penalty and mechanical trouble. His 32nd-place finish Sunday night in Las Vegas left him last in the championship standings and tied with Aric Almirola on points. He now has a 27-point deficit to the final transfer spot with two wild-card races to turn things around. Dillon crashed out at Talladega earlier this season and has a best finish of 12th on the superspeedways so far this year. He's a previous winner at Daytona, has a best finish of third at Talladega and finished sixth in this race last season after starting 20th. Fantasy players are right to question if Dillon will be able to replicate his results from the round of 16 this time.

Aric Almirola – Almirola is another playoff contender unable to get the start he wanted to the round of 12. The Stewart-Haas Racing driver spent most of the night in Las Vegas running in the middle of the field and unable to climb into the top 10. He failed to earn any stage points and now looks to the final two races of this playoff round to make something happen. Like Dillon, he has a 27-point gap to eighth in the standings to erase. This week's race at Talladega might be his best opportunity to do that. He won at the track in 2018 and finished fourth and third in the two most recent races there. In fact, he has eight consecutive top-10 finishes at the track but may have more pressure on his shoulders this week as he battles to keep his playoff hopes alive.

Joey Logano – Much was expected of Penske Racing and Logano in Las Vegas after winning at the track in the spring. While Logano started the race running with the leaders, he wound up making contact with Kyle Busch. That incident left him with a tire rub that he opted to pit to repair, dropping him from the lead lap. He earned stage points by finishing second in the first stage but spent the remainder of the race working back from the contact with Busch. He then finished the race 14th after battling back from a lap down in a rough start to this round of championship eliminations. Logano now heads to the next race with just 11 points separating him from Busch in 11th place in the standings. Logano has won three times at Talladega, however. He led 33 laps and finished 17th there earlier this year.

Jimmie Johnson - Johnson's perpetual bad luck reared its head again Sunday in Las Vegas. The former champion in his final full-time season in the series suffered a rear tire failure, bringing out a late caution that jumbled the running order and served to shape the race results. The team made quick repairs to the car and salvaged an 11th-place finish, but problems continue to keep Johnson from battling for a win. Chances for him to score one final win are running out before he turns his attention to a part-time schedule in IndyCar next season. Fantasy players need to consider how much bad luck has plagued Johnson at Talladega, too. He has one top-10, three top-15 finishes and two DNFs at the track in the last six races.

BIGGEST SURPRISE

Chris Buescher – Buescher's ninth-place finish Sunday night was his eighth top-10 of the season and his third in the last five races. The 10 laps he led in Las Vegas were his first laps leading the field since Pocono all the way back in June. Buescher's finishes have improved in the second half of the season and he has begun delivering top-10 finishes on a much more frequent basis than the first half of the year. Three of his eight top-10s this season have come on superspeedways, too. That statistic makes Buescher a driver fantasy players should have on their radars this week at Talladega. He finished sixth there in June and led four laps in his best finish at the track since coming home 11th in 2018.

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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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