Now it gets real. There is no argument as to whom the contenders are, and who are the pretenders. Say what you will, but even though there might be forty cars on the track, only 16 matter.
It was the playoff opener in Las Vegas and now the race winner and the boys in the hunt for the championship are all we need focus on. The rest are merely hamburger helper, the garnish around the good stuff. Martin Truex Jr. showed early he was pure sirloin by taking the opening stage. All the contenders, in fact, were in the forward half of the field.
Kevin Harvick was among them. However, he could still use a pit crew that matches his driving talents. Some gain ground when they turn in for service. Harvick does the opposite. On Sunday his car got tighter and tighter during that middle stage, not turning worth a damn. Finally, his tire gave up, he clipped the wall, and pole sitter Erik Jones had no place to go but into him. Two contenders were done for the day.
If you ask Harvick, the tires sucked. There were issues with the rubber but it is not clear what those issues were other than the results. Jamie McMurray was our best outsider on the day, a solid Top Ten run going for him, when a rear tire gave up, he spun into the wall, collecting Chase Elliott. He became our third contender to be booted from the event with 55 laps remaining.
Truex allowed Brad Keselowski some time up front but had gone back in front prior to the caution. Things changed in the pits when Keselowski and his Penske compadre Joey Logano emerged just ahead of the defending champ. Logano took the point position, but Truex had just gotten by Keselowski for second when Kyle Busch broke loose to bring out the yellow once again. While Rowdy was now buried in 26th, Keselowski, Truex, and Logano came out of the pits in that order for the final run to the line.
Or so we thought. Up front, Kyle Larson joined the party riding the high side. He got past Keselowski, while behind them Truex managed to get by Logano for third. Just when we started to wonder how things would shake out, another contender in Denny Hamlin went through the grass to tear up his splitter to bring out the caution yet again. The old Etch A Sketch of how this one might turn out got turned upside down and shaken with 20 to go. It was a Las Vegas gambler’s dream, as it was time to lay down your bets as to whether this one was going to go to Keselowski, Larson, Truex, Logano, or might we have yet another surprise coming our way?
If more contenders getting beat to a pulp over the final dozen laps was a surprise, we got a few, along with enough cautions to force overtime. Among the stricken were Jimmie Johnson, when he tagged the wall. Alex Bowman had a tire go down. Kurt Busch and Clint Bowyer both had contact…twice.
There was no surprise when Keselowski once again cleared the field and was off to the races in the extra laps needed to jump into an automatic berth into the second round. It was his third straight victory, coming off the Southern 500 and the Brickyard 400. It marked the 500th for Roger Penske in all forms of racing his cars are involved in. Four drivers find themselves needing to fight to get in, heading to Richmond anywhere from six to 20 points on the outside. They include Johnson (22nd at Las Vegas), Elliott (36th), Hamlin (32nd), and Jones (40th). Both Truex (3rd) and Rowdy Busch (7th) are just a handful of points away from being locked into the next round as well.
Things just got real and by the time they leave Richmond Saturday night, things will become very clear for most of the others.