For the first time in its history, the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series playoffs kicked off on Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway with the Pennzoil 400. Sixteen drivers entered Sin City hoping to begin their postseason hopes on a strong note. By the end, many drivers left Vegas hoping their woes stay in Vegas.
Multiple playoff contenders found their days ending in wrecks and other tire problems. Ultimately, Brad Keselowski survived the chaos to score the opening round win and his third win in a row.
Erik Jones started on the pole alongside Joey Logano. After a brief battle, Logano pulled in front in turns three and four to lead the first lap.
By lap 20, fourteen of the top fifteen positions were occupied by playoff drivers.
Green flag stops began on lap 37 as the leaders pitted, with those like Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin, and Regan Smith, spending some time in first before heading to pit road. During his stop, Trevor Bayne suffered a speeding penalty, while Corey LaJoie was caught speeding. Smith, along with the Front Row Motorsports duo of Michael McDowell and David Ragan, attempted an alternate pit strategy as they remained out.
Smith finally pitted on lap 51 to complete the pit cycle, shuffling Harvick to the lead. On lap 60, Martin Truex Jr. passed Harvick exiting turn four for first. Truex went on to score the stage win ahead of . The lowest-finishing playoff driver, Kyle Larson, was running twenty-fifth and a lap down due to tire problems, but regained a lap with the free pass and restarted twenty-second.
Truex won the race off pit road, while a strong stop pushed Alex Bowman up to second. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. received a speeding penalty.
Stage #2 began on lap 87 as Truex took off. Three laps later, a caution came out after Stenhouse hit the outside wall. Prior to the restart, Larson pitted.
The restart took place on lap 94 with Truex and Bowman battling for the lead before the former cleared him off turn four.
As the race entered the triple-digit mark, every playoff contender ran in the top twenty. On lap 111, Ty Dillon brushed the outside wall on the frontstretch to bring out the caution, with his right front tire coming off in the process.
During ensuing stops, Keselowski beat Truex in the race out of the pits to take over the lead. The green flag waved on lap 116. After ten laps with Keselowski leading, Truex passed him.
By the halfway point of the race, playoff drivers comprised the top ten with the exception of seventh-placed Jamie McMurray.
On lap 147, a pair of playoff drivers were involved in a wreck when Harvick cut a tire and hit the outside wall in turn two. Erik Jones could not avoid him and slammed into his rear.
The leaders pitted during the resulting yellow flag, with Keselowski assuming first. From the lap 155 restart to the end of the stage five laps later, Keselowski led all the way.
Ryan Blaney took just two tires to lead the field out of the pits, while Bowman suffered a tire violation.
After staying out, Chip Ganassi Racing team-mates Larson and McMurray led the field to the final stage on lap 167. Eleven laps later, Keselowski, operating on fresher tires, passed the duo for the lead.
William Byron brought out the next caution when he hit the wall. Keselowski remained in first after stops and led the field to the lap 188 green flag.
Truex overtook Keselowski for the lead on lap 203.
On lap 212, McMurray spun in turn three and collected Chase Elliott, sending the two into the outside wall and McMurray spinning down the track onto the apron; the two had been running fifth and sixth, respectively. Blaney, who was behind Elliott at the time, was able to escape contact. Shortly after the wreck, Elliott reported pain in his left shoulder.
“I guess it just got caught in the wheel,” he stated in an interview with NBCSN after being released from the infield care center. “It popped really big and then I kind of got stopped so I got to messing with it and it popped really big again. All good now and we’ll try to rebound next week.”
The restart took place with 45 laps remaining as Team Penske team-mates Logano and Keselowski led the way.
Yet another playoff driver was plagued by issues when Kyle Busch got loose on the frontstretch and slid through the infield on lap 232, getting his splitter caught in the grass and blowing a tire.
After stops, Truex was sandwiched between Penske teammates. The restart took place with 30 laps to go. A strong restart by Larson enabled him to fly to the lead on the outside line in a three-wide battle.
As Truex surrendered second and third to the Penske duo, Keselowski caught up to Larson as the two dueled for the lead. During the run, Larson received a tire rub after making contact with Keselowski.
With 21 laps remaining, Hamlin spun through the grass, eliminating another playoff contender from a strong race finish but placing his Joe Gibbs Racing ally Busch back on the lead lap.
The leaders stayed out as the race resumed with 17 laps to go and Keselowski pulled away. Green flag racing proved to be short lived as Stenhouse spun and slammed into the backstretch’s inside wall. The wreck was eerily similar to the one in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race involving fellow Roush Fenway Racing driver Chase Briscoe.
After Stenhouse’s wreck, Briscoe tweeted, “Dang @StenhouseJr, I feel your pain.”
Lap 257 saw the next restart as the front row consisted of Keselowski and Logano. A slow start by Logano allowed Keselowski too lead and Larson to take second before Blaney passed him.
More problems haunted the playoff drivers as Jimmie Johnson and Clint Bowyer hit the wall, followed by Johnson and Bowman pitting for tire issues. Logano also struggled to hold off Truex and Larson as the two sought to break the Penske stranglehold on the top three; Logano also brushed the wall.
As the race finish loomed with six laps to go, a debris caution came out.
Keselowski and Blaney comprised the front row for the two-lap sprint to the finish. A poor restart by Blaney dropped him down as Logano jumped to second and battled with Keselowski for the lead. Before Keselowski could take the white flag, Ragan spun in turn three and collected McDowell, Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto, and Kurt Busch, spilling oil and foam on the track that forced a red flag to clean up the track.
After a ten-minute delay, the red flag was lifted and overtime was initiated. Of the sixteen playoff contenders, only eight were on the lead lap.
A poor restart by Logano granted Keselowski the lead. Riding a two-race win streak, Keselowski drove off to his third consecutive win and granting a spot in the Round of 12. Larson finished second, followed by Truex, Logano, and Blaney. In the end, four playoff drivers did not finish (Hamlin, Elliott, Bowyer, Jones).
In addition to Keselowski’s first three-peat, it is Team Penske’s 500th win as an organisation across every racing series.
“500 wins today, huge day for the Captain, I know Mr. [Roger] Penske’s watching,” Keselowski stated in Victory Lane with NBCSN, “We did it, boss. To start off the playoffs with a win is really strong, let alone three in a row and all that great stuff.”
“It’s really a testament to this team here. They’ve been so strong on pit road and I couldn’t have done it without them. We weren’t as fast as the 78 car, but we nailed the pit stops and restarts when it counted, and that put us in position.”
Next week, the Cup Series heads to Richmond Raceway for the Federated Auto Parts 400. Larson is the defending winner.