For the first race of NASCAR’s self-proclaimed ‘West Coast Swing’, here is what was surprising and not surprising from the 18th annual Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Surprising: In just the third race of the season, there were a plethora of firsts and lasts, from Jeff Gordon running his last ever race at Vegas to Brian Vickers starting his first race since open heart surgery and Kevin Harvick standing in Victory Lane for the first time ever at LVMS.
Gordon himself was a contrast in firsts and lasts, having scored the pole position for the race and then having to start dead last due to a final practice crash with Danica Patrick. Gordon cut through the field but then had issues with contact and tires, relegating him to an 18th place finish in his No. 24 3M Chevrolet.
“Man, we were coming,” Gordon said. “We drove up there right at the beginning and the car was amazing on rails. The next set of tires, the thing was just terrible loose. So we made an adjustment and then the car went back to being tight. I don’t know what happened there, but it was a great effort. I just can’t believe the way these days are going.”
While Gordon completed his last race at Vegas, Brian Vickers was amazed to finally get his season started, back for the first time in the No. 55 Aaron’s 60th Anniversary Dream Machine Toyota after major heart surgery.
“A top-15 considering where we were at three months ago – I’ll take it,” Vickers said. “You always want to win, but I think for us this was a victory in a lot of ways.”
“It’s incredible. It feels so good to be back in a race car – so happy, so thankful and I wasn’t sure if I’d ever be here again.”
And the final first went to Kevin Harvick, with his first win of the season and his first ever win at Vegas. This was Harvick’s sixth consecutive race to finish either first or second, tying for that honor with Jeff Gordon who accomplished the same feat in 1996.
“It’s so cool to win here in Las Vegas and start this West Coast swing off this way is pretty awesome,” the driver of the victorious No. 4 Jimmy Johns/Budweiser Chevrolet said. “Just to be in front of all these fans I’ve raced in front of since about the mid-‘90’s. It’s pretty special to win here.”
Not Surprising: Well, the setting was after all Las Vegas so there had to be at least one driver to take a gamble. This race it was driver Dale Earnhardt Jr., who rolled the dice on tires at the end of the race to finish fourth.
“We didn’t put lefts (tires) on it; made it a gamble,” the driver of the No. 88 Nationwide Chevrolet said. “I like to gamble. I liked the call. I love being aggressive. We were going to drive up there and pass that No. 4 (Kevin Harvick). So, we had to take a chance.”
Surprising: The two small teams with the big alliance with Richard Childress Racing again had great runs, with Martin Truex Jr. scoring the runner up spot and AJ Allmendinger coming in sixth.
“I can’t put it into words, honestly. I’m just really proud of everyone,” Truex, driver of the No. 78 Furniture Row Chevrolet, said. “I feel like we can keep chipping away at it, getting a little better each week and hopefully by the end of the year, we will have some wins under our belt.”
“A lot of credit to having an RCR (Richard Childress Racing) alliance because the No. 78 and No. 31 were really fast all weekend,” Allmendinger, behind the wheel of the No. 47 Clorox Chevrolet, said after the race. “We kind of stole from them a little bit going into the final practice. That helped us and really helped up today.”
“Honestly, probably one of the best races we have ever had. Something hopefully we can keep building off of.”
Not Surprising: Even with battling penalties on pit road, including speeding and an uncontrolled tire, the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano were the highest finishing Fords, in seventh and tenth respectively.
“It was an up and down day,” Keselowski, driver of the No. 2 Miller Lite Ford, said. “Good job by the team to rally there and get what we were able to out of it.”
“The speeding on pit road – I found that. I put us in a hole,” Logano, driver of the No. 22 Pennzoil Platinum Ford, said. “Not that we were going to win the race either way because we weren’t fast enough but I maybe cost us two or three positions with what I did.”
“We have some work to do.”
Surprising: He may be ineligible for points in the Cup Series, but Brian Scott was on a roll, finishing top-15 in his No. 33 Whitetail Chevrolet. This was the best career finish in the Cup Series for the driver, who is competing for the championship in the Xfinity Series.
Not Surprising: Ryan Newman may be taking a page from the Jimmie Johnson sponsorship book and his ability to keep improving scored the No. 31 Caterpillar Chevrolet team a third place finish.
“This was a great team effort with the Caterpillar Chevrolet,” Newman said. “It was an improvement over last year.”
“We improved throughout the entire race and I’m satisfied only because we’re improving.”
Surprising: Prior to the race, six-time champ Jimmie Johnson built the frame of a house for Habitat for Humanity. Unfortunately, the driver of the No. 48 Kobalt Tools experienced destruction on the track, including several blown tires that caused him to finish 41st.
“That’s kind of a freak deal,” Johnson said. “I’m disappointed. We certainly had an awesome race car. I wish we could have won this KOBALT race in this KOBALT car, but we’ll come back next week.”
Not Surprising: When a great car competing up front ends up finishing 17th, it is not surprising that frustration abounds. That was the name of the game for Kasey Kahne, who not only was frustrated after contact with Carl Edwards but also with the new rules package and his inability to pass.
“We had a second place car the first 30 laps of a run and a winning car the last 15-20 laps of a run,” the driver of the No. 5 Time Warner Cable Chevrolet, said. “Carl (Edwards) just came down and just apologized and said he feels like he hasn’t done that before to anyone. He just never lifted and run me just right into the wall and ruined his day as well.”
“It’s like we run two Xfinity series,” Kahne continued. “It’s like we have two of those series now we don’t even have a Cup series anymore. It’s weird to do that, but you just run really hard. You don’t pass a good car until 15 or 20 laps to go in a run when tires start falling off a little bit.”
“Until then you don’t even think about passing. You just run in line and it’s boring as can be, but that is what NASCAR wants.”
Surprising: Landon Cassill finally broke his short streak of two consecutive last place finishes due to engine failure. The driver of the No. 40 Carsforsale.com Chevrolet actually finished the race in the 35th spot.
Not Surprising: Denny Hamlin and Matt Kenseth definitely proved that they are the ones carrying the Toyota banner. Hamlin finished fifth and was the highest finishing Toyota and Kenseth came in ninth, actually leading one lap in the race.
Both Hamlin and Kenseth are flying the Toyota flag in the point’s standings as well, in eighth and tenth respectively.
“This FedEx Office team did a great job,” Hamlin said. “We got better. We’ve just got to get a little bit more speed and we’ll be able to race these guys, but right now we just need to optimize our weekends, finish where we’re supposed to and execute.”
“I think next week will be a big tell for our race team,” Hamlin continued. “Even though we finished fifth at Phoenix in the Chase race last year, we got lapped twice under green and were able to battle back and I think that is a track we really need to perform well at if we’re going to be a part of this Chase.”