NASCAR at Las Vegas 2016: Winners and Losers from the Kobalt 400

Brendan O'Meara@@BrendanOMearaFeatured ColumnistMarch 7, 2016

NASCAR at Las Vegas 2016: Winners and Losers from the Kobalt 400

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    Robert Laberge/Getty Images

    Wind, water and earth flung around Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Kobalt 400. It was a wild 400 miles in Sin City, a race won by the resurgent Brad Keselowski.

    It had been 33 races since Kez’s last win, and he took prime advantage of a late long run to put distance between him and the rest of the top five.

    It was the type of race where strong early cars faded and weaker cars rose up.

    Team Penske—take a bow—finished first and second in this race while giving Ford its first win of the year.

    No Vegas puns here. Read on for this week’s winners and losers.

Loser: 1st-Half-of-the-Race Austin Dillon

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    Terry Renna/Associated Press

    Austin Dillon qualified sixth at Las Vegas. Naturally, spirits were high.

    He also started the day 11th in the Chase standings, so things were trending in a good direction for Dillon, now in his third year in the Sprint Cup.

    Over the course of the first half of the Kobalt 400, he began sliding back through the field. Then a poor pit stop sent Dillon to 20th.

    This set him off on a tirade, the kind he hasn’t yet earned. He roasted his pit crew, which prompted his crew chief, Slugger Labbe, to throw ice water on the fire saying it’s a team sport. Basically, do your job; we’ll do ours.

    In a bout of karma, Dillon’s next trip through pit road was too fast, forcing him to serve a drive-through penalty.

    “You’ve got your responsibilities, and they’ve got theirs,” said NASCAR analyst Jeff Gordon on the Fox broadcast.

    “If you’re gonna give it, you better be able to take it,” added Darrell Waltrip.

    Dillon should have a career year, and maybe he’s feeling the pressure to perform. But if he doesn’t keep his cool, he’ll remain winless for a third straight year.

Winner: 2nd-Half-of-the-Race Austin Dillon

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    Chris Trotman/Getty Images

    Or will he…

    Dillon’s recovery in this race to finish fifth was a tremendous accomplishment. It took several gambles and a lot of luck, but this team stuck with it and notched a top-five finish.

    “Never giving up,” Dillon said after the race on the broadcast. “It takes a lot of effort. I did all I could to try and get us back on the lead lap. The cautions fell perfect for us. It was a gutsy call to take the wave around and get back on the lead lap and see if a caution would come out in our window.”

    Let’s not forget that speeding penalty put him two laps down. He piloted himself back on the lead lap and took that crucial wave around hoping that a caution would arrive.

    At one point, Dillon said he was clipping off faster lap times than the leaders in the middle of the race from the middle of the pack. So the car has speed.

    And now, for Dillon, maybe he’s got far more to look forward to than the previous slide would suggest.

    “I think you’ll see us in Victory Lane before the season’s over,” he said.

Loser: Chase Elliott

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Winning the pole at the Daytona 500 has been a curse for Chase Elliott.

    After a promising week in Atlanta, where he finished eighth, it appeared the No. 24 had recovered just fine.

    Even in Vegas, Elliott ran 191 laps inside the top 10. Then Kenseth’s brakes locked up, creating a smoke screen that blinded Elliott and ended his day.

    “I’m just disappointed,” he said during the broadcast. “I made a lot of gains this weekend. Pitiful, bad job on my end. Been in three races and finished one.”

    Technically, he finished Daytona running, though he did miss 40 laps.

    Elliott is eager to prove he’s worth all the hype. Inexperience got the best of him in Daytona, but Vegas was just plain bad luck.

    It’s a city that's sort of known for that.

Winner: Ryan Blaney

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Ryan Blaney finished 19th at Daytona and 25th at Atlanta. Not hot starts, but fitting for a rookie.

    Then came Vegas, where Blaney took sixth after a strong day.

    “We had a great car all day,” he said during the broadcast. “We were toward the front most of the day. We were so good at the end of long runs. We’d give up a little bit on short runs, but we were so fast at the end.”

    That give and take was frustrating for the No. 21, but the result speaks for itself. 

    The way he’s driving, he could be the surprise Rookie of the Year over Elliott, but that’s far too early to tell.

    Said Gordon, "He’s the one really making marks as a rookie."

Loser: Matt Kenseth's Bad Luck

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    John Locher/Associated Press

    Sure, only three races are gone, and there are 23 more to qualify for the Chase, but this season is not shaping up well for Matt Kenseth.

    Each race from Daytona, to Atlanta, to Las Vegas has seen Kenseth turn a winning car into scrap metal.

    Sunday in Las Vegas was no different.

    With 42 laps to go, Blaney took the air out of Kenseth’s quarter panel, and Kenseth’s back end shimmied. He locked up his brakes, and then Elliott plowed into him.

    “I really don’t know,” said Kenseth during the broadcast. “I was going off into Turn 1. I turned in there and spun out before I knew what happened. Just got hit hard from behind. It’s hard for those guys behind to slow down.”

    Few people will sit around and question Kenseth’s capacity to win, but at some point, some of this bad luck could seep into his psyche. Maybe he starts driving like he’s expecting something to go bad.

    Kenseth is experienced and a measured personality, but you never know. In the meantime, we watch.

Winner: Kurt Busch's Climb Back to the Top 10

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Kurt Busch won the pole for the Kobalt 400 and led all the laps through the competition caution. He was strong and fast, an early favorite to win the race.

    Then he was speeding entering pit road, and that sent him all the way to the back.

    USA Today’s Jeff Gluck relayed this salty quote from over Busch’s radio waves, “Whenever NASCAR f-----g grows up and goes to a pit road speed limiter button, we'll all have a safer pit road."

    Fox’s Waltrip agreed, but the penalty had to be dealt with nonetheless.

    Busch started 35th on the ensuing restart, and it took him the entire race to crack back into the top 10. He finished ninth, and it goes to show that Busch is one hell of a Robin to Kevin Harvick’s Batman in that Stewart-Haas Racing garage.

Loser: The Homecoming King

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    With around 50 laps to go, Kyle Busch restarted sixth in Row 3. Within 10 seconds, Busch swept up the high line and swung down through the inside, making a five-car pass.

    The Las Vegas home crowd let out a roar normally reserved for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

    It was the most impressive move of the entire race, but unfortunately for Busch, he couldn’t sustain that momentum through the end.

    With time running out and a wheel badly shaking, all Busch could do was await Team Penske in his rearview. Adding salt to the wound was Jimmie Johnson clipping Busch for third at the end.

    “Huge vibration,” Busch said after the race on the broadcast. “I had a vibration when we put the rights on. It just kept getting worse and worse. Toward the end, I didn’t know if the tire was coming apart or what the deal was. I was trying to give it everything I had, and it just would not turn.”

    Busch sits atop the driver standings in points with 16, so he’s been the most consistent driver through the first three races. He’s been a winning driver, but the win has eluded him to date.

    “It’s not a win, but we’re top-five-ing it,” Busch said. “The wins will come.”

Winner: Effort Equaling Results

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    Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    About the only thing Keselowski dropped all day was the American flag after his burnout. Once he retrieved Old Glory, he made his trip back to Victory Lane for the first time in nearly a year.

    His No. 2 Ford was a rocket on the late runs, and that’s how the race ended: on a late run.

    “This rules package,” Keselowski said on the broadcast. “I love it. It’s awesome. You can be really fast at the start of the run and really fast at the end of a run. We had awesome speed at the end of every run. It seemed like we could never put it together the way the cautions kept falling. At the end, we got that big, long run.”

    It appeared his teammate would be Keselowski’s biggest hurdle. The No. 22 wouldn’t let Kez pass even though it was obvious who had the most speed.

    Kez remained cool, and once he zipped past Joey Logano, it was only a matter of time before he buried Busch.

    “I didn’t figure there was any way we would make it [on fuel],” said Kez. “We kept getting those yellows. There was a couple of wrecks. We were able to save plenty of fuel under those. What a day. I’m beat. I put whatever I had into this car.”

    The wind tested these drivers this day, and Keselowski was still out of breath after the race. But as he said, it was worth it.

    “As my boss would say, effort equals results,” he said.”


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