Pennzoil 400

Bubba Wallace, Ty Dillon off to better 2020 starts than Cup champions

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We’re only two races into the the NASCAR Cup Series season and we’re already writing sentences that make us do a double take or spit takes depending on if we’re drinking liquids.

When the green flag dropped on the Daytona 500 last weekend, we were not expecting the following stat to be staring back at us after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:

Through two races, Bubba Wallace, Ty Dillon, Corey LaJoie, the retired David Ragan and part-time driver Brendan Gaughan each have more top-10 finishes than defending champion Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, former champion Martin Truex Jr., Erik Jones, Aric Almirola and William Byron.

Put simply, the second batch of drivers – which includes 3/4ths of Joe Gibbs Racing – has none, while a group of typically midpack cars and partially retired drivers have at least one apiece.

That’s due to a combination of DNFs, poor performances and wrecks among the latter group.

Busch hasn’t finished better than 15th. Elliott’s best finish was 17th in the Daytona 500. Truex’s best was 20th Sunday while Jones’ is 18th (Daytona) and Almirola’s is 21st (Las Vegas).

Not counting the 2015 season when he missed 11 races due to injury, Busch has failed to finish in the top 10 in the first two races five times in his full-time career (since 2005). The latest he’s earned a top 10 was in 2010 (Bristol, race No. 5).

Last year, Busch started the season with 11 straight top 10s.

He now heads to Auto Club Speedway, where he’s won three of the last six races – including last year – and he’s finished outside the top 10 just once in his last eight races there.

This is the sixth time Truex hasn’t earned a top 10 in the first two races of the season in his full-time career (since 2007). He goes to Auto Club Speedway having finished eighth or better in four of his last five starts at the 2-mile track (including one win).

After the chaos produced by the final round of pit stops and restart, Wallace placed sixth Sunday, earning his best finish on a 1.5-mile track and his fifth career top-10 finish. He was among the drivers who did not pit under the final caution.

“We had a shot at a good finish and we capitalized on that,” Wallace said. “All-in-all, it was a good day and a win for us. It was just a good gamble call. We were terrible on restarts. It would take us 10 or 15 laps just to get going and get the car underneath us. Then, we could start fighting our way up there.”

Wallace also credited new crew chief Jerry Baxter for the result. Baxter was Wallace’s crew chief in the Truck Series when he won multiple races.

“There were frustrating moments over the radio, just trying to make this Coke Energy Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE better,” Wallace said. “I know how I lose my cool a little bit, but one of the main reasons I brought Jerry Baxter in was to calm me down and show that light at the end of the tunnel. Every time I fired back, he said ‘I get it, you’re fine, we’re going to be fine’ and he was right. It was a good call by the team and everyone involved.”

Dillon pitted for four tires during the last caution and was able to snag a 10th-place finish after a “nuts” restart. It’s his first top 10 on a 1.5-mile track. Sunday was his 128th Cup Series start.

“I think I restarted 19th and went through the middle, and we ended up 10th,” Dillon said. “I don’t really know what happened, but we just started passing cars. You just had to find the lane, and you’re processing things at such a high rate of speed. You just had to be committed to where you were going.”

The result was Germain Racing’s first top 10 on a non-superspeedway oval.

“That’s what makes NASCAR fun,” Dillon added. “Nobody just dominates everything anymore. It was a really fun race and I hope the fans enjoyed it.”

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Chevy drivers positive about new Camaro body after Las Vegas

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Positive reviews are in from a few Chevrolet Cup drivers after their first race on an intermediate track with the updated Camaro ZL1 1LE body, which was introduced this year in an effort to improve the manufacturer’s performance after two lackluster seasons.

Those reviews are backed by the final results for Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After the chaos created by a last-lap crash, six Chevrolets finished in the top 10. They were led by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson placing in the top five.

That followed Chase Elliott leading 70 laps and winning both stages before his one-car incident in the middle of the final stage.

In last year’s spring race on the 1.5-mile track, only two Chevys – Kurt Busch (fifth) and Elliott (ninth) – finished in the top 10. Three Chevy drivers combined to lead 23 of the race’s 267 laps.

“We’re trying to just understand this new Camaro body and the setup that needs to go with it,” said Johnson. “We’re close, but there’s still a little bit more work for us to do on our car to get the balance between the clean air and the traffic closer. But for the first try on a downforce track, the guys did a really nice job.”

Johnson earned his first top five since last July’s race at Daytona. He placed 19th in this race last year.

“It’s really rewarding to see,” Johnson said. “Last year when we left here, we had quite the opposite feeling and were pretty worried about what the year was going to hold for us. So, it’s really nice to have that change of perspective now. There’s a lot of Chevys up front, one of our Hendrick cars led for a while. So, we’re going the right way.”

Johnson’s teammate, Alex Bowman, was running in second when the final caution came out inside 10 laps to go. After his team chose to pit, Bowman placed 13th.

“This new Camaro, for its first time on a downforce track, I’m just really pleased with it so far,” Bowman said. “I think it’s going to be really good for us. Obviously, I’m bummed out to finish 13th after staring at a second place or a win. But it’s part of it; it’s how racing goes. We win as a team and lose as a team. It just didn’t go our way there at the end.”

Last year, Chevrolet only earned seven wins, with two coming on 1.5-mile tracks. Bowman claimed one of those at Chicagoland Speedway.

Added Bowman: “Compared to how we started the last two seasons, I think we’ve got something for them this year.”

One Chevrolet driver said it was “still early” for assessing the new bodies.

“I think the Hendrick cars were really good,” said Chip Ganassi Racing’s Kyle Larson, who placed ninth. “I felt about the same as last year. So, we just have to continue to get better.”

 

Las Vegas Cup results, points

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Joey Logano won his first race of the season and first with new crew chief Paul Wolfe in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Logano was in the lead when a crash on the final lap brought out the yellow flag, leaving Logano to win under caution.

Matt DiBenedetto, in his second start for Wood Brothers Racing, finished second, while Ricky Stenhouse Jr., in his second start for JTG-Daughterty Racing, finished third.

Click here for results

POINTS:

Meanwhile, Ryan Blaney moved into the lead in the NASCAR Cup point standings. Logano is second [three points behind Blaney] and Kevin Harvick is third [four points behind Blaney].

Daytona 500 winner Denny Hamlin dropped from first to ninth place in the standings after finishing 17th in Sunday’s race at Las Vegas.

Click here for standings

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Matt DiBenedetto: Second-place finish in Las Vegas ‘surreal’

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In only his second race as driver of the Wood Brothers’ No. 21 Ford, Matt DiBenedetto had a shot at his first Cup Series win.

Instead, DiBenedetto settled for a second-place finish Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a result of a last-lap crash that froze the field and prevented him from taking a shot at race winner Joey Logano.

DiBenedetto, along with Logano, were among the drivers who stayed out of the pits before the final restart with two laps to go. They finished the race with 50-lap-old tires.

DiBenedetto matched his career-best finish in last year’s Bristol night race and earned the Wood Brothers’ best result since Paul Menard placed fifth at Michigan in 2018.

“This is all just too surreal,” DiBenedetto told Fox. “Tough to be that close, but, hey, this is only the second race of the season. So it was the strength of this team. It’s so cool to have the backing of all the people that allow me to drive this thing. It took so many people, Motorcraft, Quick Lane.

“To be driving this iconic car is so cool, Menards and Paul, I know you’re watching at home and proud and I can’t thank everyone in that whole family for this opportunity for it.”

Had DiBenedetto gotten a chance to battle Logano for the lead on the last lap and won, it would have been the Wood Brothers’ 100th Cup win.

“This team is phenomenal,” DiBenedetto said. “There’s no doubt about that. I was a little worried about our car, though. It wasn’t a picture-perfect day. We had to make huge adjustments and our communication was great from me screaming really loose and us being off to start and then dialing it in little by little every pit stop, and then getting it there at the end where I was comfortable staying out because I knew the car had great speed.

“It was best on the long runs and we just needed a little track position because we were a little stuck in the dirty air.”

Joey Logano wins Cup Series race at Las Vegas

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Joey Logano won Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway under caution, beating Matt DiBenedetto after a wreck unfolded right as the field took the white flag.

Logano came out on top in what was supposed to be a two-lap shootout after he stayed out of the pits under caution after not understanding his crew chief’s instructions to pit.

He assumed the lead from teammate Ryan Blaney, who was directed to pit by his new crew chief, Todd Gordon.

“I should have left you out. My gut told me to. I didn’t. My bad,” Gordon told Blaney over the radio after the race.

It is Logano’s second straight win in the race and it’s his first win with new crew chief Paul Wolfe. The race was their second together after an offseason crew chief swap by Team Penske. The win snapped a 22-race winless streak for Logano (Michigan, June 2019).

“I’m not really sure what I was supposed to do (under the final caution), but boy, we fought hard for this one today,” Logano told Fox. “Man, what a battle between Blaney and I and Chase Elliott and (Martin Turex Jr.) earlier in the race, and then to see this finish with Matt finishing second is great day for Wood Brothers and for Team Penske.

“Man, nothing like winning the Pennzoil 400 in front of this amazing crowd with this awesome yellow car right here in the front. Man, this is a huge win, and nice to kick off the season with a W.”

The top five was completed by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Austin Dillon and Jimmie Johnson.

Logano’s No. 22 Ford and DiBenedetto’s No. 21 Ford each were on 50-lap tires at the end of the race. Stenhouse was on 44-lap tires.

Brad Keselowski, who finished seventh, was the highest placing driver among those who took fresh tires on the pit stop before the final restart.

The final run to the checkered flag was caused by a Ross Chastain spin with six laps to go. Chastain, who finished 27th, was driving in substitution for the injured Ryan Newman.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Chase Elliott

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Elliott

More: Race results, point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Matt DiBenedetto matched his best Cup finish and earned his first top-10 finish on a 1.5-mile track … Ricky Stenhouse Jr. earned his best Las Vegas finish and JTG-Daugherty Racing’s first top five on a 1.5-mile track … Jimmie Johnson earned his first top five since last July’s Daytona race … Brad Keselowski earned his 10th straight top 10 at Las Vegas, the longest streak ever for the track … Ty Dillon placed 10th for his first top 10 on a 1.5-mile track.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Daniel Suarez finished four laps down in 30th after his car suffered a mechanical problem right as the field took the initial green flag. It continues an abysmal start to the year for Gaunt Bros Racing after Suarez failed to make the Daytona 500 … Rookie Christopher Bell placed 33rd after he spun and hit the backstretch wall with two laps left in the second stage … Chase Elliott won the first two stages, but finished 26th after his left-rear tire went down and he tagged the wall in Turn 1 in the middle of the final stage … Joe Gibbs Racing had an overall day to forget, with Kyle Busch its highest finishing driver in 15th. It’s the first time since the Charlotte Roval in 2018 that a Toyota didn’t finish in the top 10.

WHAT’S NEXT: Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway at 3:30 p.m. ET March 1 on Fox