south point 400

Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.

Martin Truex Jr. wins South Point 400 at Las Vegas

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Martin Truex Jr. opened the Cup Series playoffs with a win in Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Truex passed Kevin Harvick with 20 laps to go and went unchallenged to the finish. He claimed his fifth victory of the year and his first since Sonoma Raceway in June. His five wins surpasses his total from last year and leads the series.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has now won the opening race of the playoffs in three of the last four years.

“We took a gamble and qualified 24th” Truex told NBCSN. “For a while there it wasn’t looking too smart, with (Harvick) out front. Got the right adjustments at the end. Had a great car all day long.”

The top five was completed by Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney.

Playoff drivers populated the entire top 10. Alex Bowman finished sixth and he was followed by William Byron, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.

Harvick finished second after leading 47 laps.

“We were way off after we got here this week,” Harvick told NBCSN. “(His team) kept working. We qualified well and it wasn’t where we wanted when we started the race. We got stage points and led there late and gave us an opportunity. … Martin was just so much better on the second half of the run.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Joey Logano. Started 22nd, took the lead on Lap 34 and led 31 laps before claiming the stage win.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Martin Truex Jr. Passed Logano coming to two laps to go after Logano got held up by lapped traffic.

More: Race results, points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: William Byron managed to finish seventh after he spun from a cut tire – a result of contact with Ryan Blaney – on Lap 181 … Joey Logano led 105 laps and finished ninth after multiple cases of contact on a restart damaged his car … Alex Bowman place sixth for his best result since he won at Chicagoland Speedway.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Kyle Busch, the regular-season champion, finished 19th. He had to pit on Lap 12 following contact with the wall in the opening laps and was two laps down at one point. Front-end damage late from contact with the lapped car of Garrett Smithley ended a comeback run that saw him run as high as fifth .… Erik Jones placed 36th after went to the garage to start Stage 2 following his transmission getting stuck in second gear … Kurt Busch cut his left-front tire from contact with Martin Truex Jr on a restart and crashed. He finished 39th … Pole-sitter Clint Bowyer‘s night went downhill fast after the green flag. He led the first lap, before falling back. He finished outside the top 10 in Stage 1 and went a lap down in Stage 1. He was forced to pit on Lap 198 for damage and finished 25th.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “Should of run fourth, probably. But instead 19th. We’re the top echelon of motorsports and we’ve got guys that have never won late model races running out here on the race track. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. So, what else do you do?” – Kyle Busch to NBCSN on his contact with Garrett Smithley that ended his comeback run.

WHAT’S NEXT: Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway at 7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 21 on NBCSN

 

Starting lineup for the South Point 400 at Las Vegas

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Clint Bowyer will lead the field to the green flag for the Cup Series’ playoff-opening race Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Stewart-Haas Racing locked down the first four positions, with Bowyer being followed by Daniel Suarez, Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola.

It’s the second time SHR has swept the first two rows (Talladega, Fall 2018).

Kurt Busch rounded out the top five.

Click here for the starting lineup.

Clint Bowyer wins pole for South Point 400

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Clint Bowyer will start from the pole for Sunday’s Cup Series playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Bowyer claimed just his third career Cup Series pole with a speed of 178.926 mph. His first two poles came in 2007 at Darlington and New Hampshire. This pole comes 12 years to the day after the New Hampshire pole. He went on to win that race.

The 431 starts between Bowyer’s poles is the second longest streak in Cup history behind 456 by Michael Waltrip.

Bowyer, a playoff driver, led a Stewart-Haas Racing sweep of the top four positions. Daniel Suarez qualified second, followed by Kevin Harvick (playoffs) and Aric Almirola (playoffs). The last time SHR started first through fourth was last fall’s Talladega playoff race.

The top five is completed by Kurt Busch (playoffs).

“I just asked the guys, ‘There’s something wrong here. What’s going on here?'” Bowyer told NBCSN. “The throttle stuck, that’s what it was. … We were here at the test earlier in the spring before the season got started. Kind of have an opportunity to figure out how to try to make the track a little bit smaller. It’s all about getting up through the gears, getting momentum built up, making the track as big as possible coming to the green.”

Added Bowyer: “I did not see this coming. This is a surprise.”

Only five playoff drivers qualified in the top 12.

Here’s where the rest of the playoff drivers will start Sunday:

Chase Elliott – eighth

Denny Hamlin – 11th

William Byron – 14th

Kyle Larson – 15th

Ryan Newman – 17th

Brad Keselowski – 18th (defending race winner)

Alex Bowman – 19th

Kyle Busch – 20th

Joey Logano – 22nd

Ryan Blaney – 23rd

Martin Truex Jr. – 24th

Erik Jones – 26th

Click here for the qualifying results.