By: Ashley McCubbin
As the excitement for the new season continues, the question remains when it will begin to fizzle out. For the record, Las Vegas Motor Speedway was not the sight of that.
Instead, Sin City produced another exciting event, keeping the perfect score for 2021 still in tact despite two intermediates, a superspeedway, and a road course to kick us off.
The 550-package did as it was intended, with complete chaos on every single restart. Drivers darted three, four-wide as they tried to build the runs on each other for positions, with some coming faster than initially realized and a couple questionable moves. Though putting the best drivers against each other, they were able to make it work without any big issues – well, except for a spin by the defending series champion Chase Elliott after getting loose.
The fields certainly strung out as the run took place, though were unable to get away from each other as a result of the package and parity among the teams in the field. Whether it was 20 or 40 laps into a run, there were battles around the speedway to keep your eyes peeled and intrigued as to what would occur next. A back-and-forth thriller to end Stage 1 between Brad Keselowski and Elliott or the Joe Gibbs Racing duo of Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. trading blows at the start of the final segment are among the highlights.
When everything was settled and done, Kyle Larson was able to find his way to victory lane in a dominating performance through the second half. Truth be told, seeing the No. 5 win is not a surprise as nobody has doubted the talent behind the wheel. Besides, he normally runs good at tracks where you ride the wall and he did a lot of that on Sunday. However, it was not expected to come this quickly in waiting for an adjustment period, and the fact Cliff Daniels was unable to find a lot of success with Jimmie Johnson last year. If they can already start ripping them off, the possibilities seem endless.
The victory also backs the claims about the strength of Hendrick Motorsports as recognized by William Byron’s win last week, and the organization placing cars in the top-five with each event this year. There was potential shown in 2020 with Elliott winning the championship, but it seemed his teammates could not keep pace with him. Now, Byron and Larson continue to emerge late in events, while the No. 9 has speed early and fades in the second half.
If you were going to base everything off the opening stage, Elliott showed the most speed of the Chevrolets, paced numerous laps, and went toe-to-toe with eventual runner-up Keselowski. However, he also sustained slight right side damage on a pit stop due to the jack, with Alan Gustafson electing to fix that following the first segment. Back in traffic, he would get loose and go around, making contact with Kurt Busch to damage the nose. He never fully recovered, ultimately placing just outside the top-10.
Was fixing the damage worth it? You could argue that both ways, but it seems reminders of last year are coming back with them unable to close the deal despite having speed. They solved that problem when it mattered in the playoffs to win the title, but certainly you’d hope it would get erased sooner in 2021.
The same type of question has to be asked about Team Penske. The organization had all three cars in the top-five through the opening stage, but it seemed to fall apart as more laps appeared on the scoreboard with handling struggles – just like Homestead. If they could all put a whole race together, you may see a change in tune with victory lane. Instead, Keselowski played second fiddle with Blaney in fifth, and Logano ninth.
While HMS and Penske are emerging as the title favorites early, you cannot count out Joe Gibbs Racing as they seem to be right on the outside. Christopher Bell did score the victory at the Daytona International Speedway road course, and all four of their cars placed inside the top-seven at the checkered flag on Sunday. Kyle Busch commented post-race he believes they would have more speed if they do a better job in the sim with finding the set-up to start the event with, as being so far out left field puts them behind early.