Las Vegas leaves many title contenders in major trouble

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LAS VEGAS — The debut of Las Vegas Motor Speedway as the Cup Series playoff opener came up snake eyes for several championship hopefuls Sunday.

More than half of the 16-driver playoff field were involved in incidents Sunday during the South Point 400 with Kevin Harvick (39th), Erik Jones (40th), Chase Elliott (36th) and Denny Hamlin (32nd) all finishing outside the top 30.

Finishing outside the top 20 were: Kurt Busch (21st), Jimmie Johnson (22nd) and Clint Bowyer (23rd), all of whom slapped the wall in the final 20 laps.

Kyle Busch (seventh) and Alex Bowman (19th) also hit the wall during the closing laps of the race, which was extended five laps beyond its scheduled 267-lap distance into overtime because of several late cautions.

Kyle Larson (second) also rebounded from an early tire problem that left him a lap down early in the race.

There are two races remaining — Richmond and the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course — before the first round ends, and the bottom four contenders are eliminated.

Those slots are occupied now by Johnson, Elliott, Jones and Hamlin, who brought out the caution when he spun off Turn 4 and through the grass on Lap 247.

“Trying to get more than the car was capable of,” said Hamlin, who is ranked last in the standings and 20 points behind Alex Bowman in the 12th-place transfer spot. “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.”

Harvick and Jones were involved in the first major incident on Lap 148. Harvick’s No. 4 Ford suffered a right-front tire problem and slammed into the outside SAFER barrier, collecting Jones’ No. 20 Toyota.

“Well, there was something wrong from the time we put the tires on,” said Harvick, who fell to fourth in the points standings but still is 38 points above the cutoff with two races remaining in the first round. “It was like Russian roulette every time you put these piece of crap tires on and try to drive around the racetrack.”

Jones fell to 15th in the points standings and 21 points behind the current transfer spot entering Saturday’s race at Richmond Raceway.

“Not the situation we needed to be in,” he said. “We didn’t have any bonus points, and we’ve got some work to do now. I don’t think we have to win, but we definitely need to run really well here at Richmond and the Roval (regular-season finale), so we’ll keep at it, but it’s just unfortunate that had to happen.”

Elliott was caught in a crash with just more than 50 laps to go when Jamie McMurray had a tire go flat and slammed the outside barrier with his No. 1 Chevrolet.

Elliott’s No. 9 Chevy nearly missed the crash but had significant contact with the left side of McMurray’s car. Though he complained of shoulder pain immediately after the wreck, Elliott later told NBCSN’s Marty Snider that he was fine.

“I guess it just got caught in the wheel,” said the Hendrick Motorsports driver who fell to 14th in the standings, nine points behind teammate Bowman. “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 (McMurray).  I just hate it. So many guys fell out today. I feel like half the top 16 has crashed.”

For the playoff drivers who swept the top seven spots, it was a little dizzying to keep track of the dizzying turns of events from inside the cockpit.

“You see the big screen (in the field),” third-place finisher Martin Truex Jr. said. “You see (Harvick) parked on the backstretch. I saw (Jones) in that wreck with him. They told me (Hamlin) spun. I saw (Elliott) against the wall, parked. It was like, ‘Man that’s not a good way to start.’

“We were happy to be up front in a somewhat safe spot all day.”