NASCAR Crash Course: Hendrick Motorsports rallies in Vegas as favorites rise again

Shirley Beal

Ricky Stenhouse, Jr. won the Daytona 500 with +4000 odds at some sportsbooks. Kyle Busch won Auto Club Speedway in his second start driving for Richard Childress Racing. The stage was set for a season of surprises as the NASCAR Cup Series hit the gambling capital of America: Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Turns out Cinderella stories don’t come in threes.

Powerhouse Hendrick Motorsports controlled Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 from start to finish, with William Byron and Kyle Larson taking turns as the fastest car. They combined to lead 239 of 271 laps and Larson awas head late until a surprise caution forced NASCAR Overtime. That allowed Byron to retake the point, edging out Larson on pit road before blasting by Martin Truex, Jr., who stayed out on old tires, on the final restart to reach victory lane.

Larson wound up second and Alex Bowman third, the first time Hendrick’s finished 1-2-3 since Dover Motor Speedway last May. They made it look easy, as the parity of the Next Gen car was nowhere to be found — Byron won the first two stages, besting everyone but Larson by over five seconds.

“I don’t know that we’ve seen a dominant race car at a mile-and-a-half track since we’ve come out with this Gen-7 car,” Byron’s crew chief Rudy Fugle said. “From green to checker, I don’t know if we’ve had somebody lead tons and tons of laps like we had with the old car yet.”

That’s not entirely true; Larson led 199 laps last October while winning at Homestead-Miami Speedway, a race that produced just 11 lead changes. This Vegas event played out in similar fashion, its 13 lead changes the second fewest on a 1.5-mile oval in the Next Gen era.

It felt like Larson would come out on top in this race, too, until that Almirola’s crash left an opening for Byron’s pit crew to capitalize.

“It seems like you count the laps down lap by lap, and then sure enough, the yellow lights come on,” Larson said. “You just have to get over that and try to execute a good pit stop. I thought I did a really good job getting to my sign and getting to the commitment line. I had a gap to William behind me, so their pit crew must have done a really good job and got him out in front of us.”

It was a second chance for Byron after sliding through his pit box earlier in the race, handing track position and the advantage to Larson entering the final stage. It’s his fifth career win, the fewest among the Hendrick quartet as Byron looks to prove some championship pedigree of his own in 2023.

Now, he’s got a likely playoff bid under his belt as Hendrick put its best foot forward in the wake of Chase Elliott’s snowboarding accident earlier in the weekend.

“I texted Mr. H after practice,” Byron said. “And felt really good about the car and just wanted to reassure that we’re going to go out there and try to win for him because it was a tough week.”

Mission accomplished.

Traffic Report

Green: Bubba Wallace — The fourth-place finish for Bubba Wallace was much needed, the first top-5 effort by 23XI Racing after 4 DNFs for their two-car organization to start the year.

Yellow: Ross Chastain — While it wasn’t flashy, a 12th-place finish by Chastain came with 11 additional stage points. That’s enough for a three-point lead over Bowman in the championship standings just three races into a long season. Teammate Daniel Suarez sits fourth in points as Trackhouse Racing makes clear they’re not a flash in the pan.

Red: Ford — The Blue Ovals earn this spot for the second time in three races after a weekend that began with so much promise. But Joey Logano’s pole run ended in disaster, the lone driver who failed to finish after contact with Brad Keselowski in the final stage.

“Considering how we’ve been here in the past, you kind of expect it a little bit more performance-wise today than what we had,” said Logano, a three-time Vegas winner since 2019. “Just off on overall speed… we have to go back to the drawing board for when we come back here.”

The stats back him u,p as no Ford finished better than sixth.

Speeding Ticket: Crew chiefs not taking more chances — When the final caution came out for Aric Almirola hitting the wall, there were 18 lead-lap cars. So why did only one, Truex, pull a Hail Mary gamble by staying out on old tires?

A win virtually guarantees a playoff spot under NASCAR’s current system. So if you’re running 12th on back, why not take a chance, gain track position and see what happens? Those few points you lose if the gamble goes wrong probably won’t make or break your playoff bid. Losing a shot at victory lane? That almost certainly will after a Next Gen debut season that produced 19 different winners in 2022.


The biggest mistake of the weekend happened off the track as Elliott’s snowboarding crash reverberated around the NASCAR garage. Breaking his tibia Friday, a three-hour surgery left NASCAR’s 2020 series champion recovering at home back east and out for a currently unknown number of races.

It was a tough break for a Hendrick Motorsports team that frowns on adventurous off-track activity. But their approach has softened in recent years after signing Kyle Larson, who races in dozens of dirt track events and will attempt the 2024 Indianapolis 500.

“Chase’s health is our primary concern,” owner Rick Hendrick said this weekend. “He’s spoken with several members of our team and is understandably disappointed to miss time in the car. Of course, he has our full support, and we’ll provide any resources he needs.”

Elliott has applied for a playoff waiver, important in that he could still be championship-eligible upon his return: Kyle Busch won the title in 2015 after breaking his right leg in the Daytona season opener. How long Elliott will be out – and who will sub long-term – remains unclear. NASCAR Xfinity Series driver Josh Berry filled in at Vegas but finished a disappointing 29th in the No. 9 Chevrolet, two laps off the pace while the rest of Hendrick finished inside the top three.

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