Observations• There have been several doubters of whether NASCAR’s new Chase format would live up to its promises. Three races into the 2014 season, it’s safe to say it’s already delivered. The is no way Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s team elects to roll the dice on fuel three races into the season to gain a second win if he wasn’t already virtually ensured a spot in the Chase. And the downside – which really isn’t one – is there are already three very talented drivers known who will battle for the title – Brad Keselowski, Earnhardt and Kevin Harvick.
• For much of the weekend, it appeared Danica Patrick might have been primed for one of her better NASCAR performances. She was fast in practice on Friday and did well in qualifying. She was also good in Saturday’s first practice session. In Saturday’s final practice, however, she seemed to fall off and in Sunday’s race she quickly fell back in the field. But it wasn’t all bad, by the end of the race Patrick finished 21st, one lap down, but she was the highest finisher of all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers.
• No idea if it’s a sign of things to come but fans certainly turned out in much larger numbers this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway than a year ago. The tone was set on Friday which saw one of the largest qualifying crowds in several years for any NASCAR track. It’s much too early to tell if NASCAR changes this season are the reason, but it’s safe to say they haven’t hurt.
Good day goes south for Harvick: Midway through Sunday’s race, Kevin Harvick appeared in excellent position to repeat his victory of a week ago.
He led 23 laps and was closing in on retaking the lead when he abruptly headed to pit road with what turned out to be a broken left-front wheel hub. His No. 4 Chevrolet required extensive repairs in the garage before he could return to the race.
“It’s hard to complain. These guys on this Chevrolet have given me cars that are good every week. Just a little parts failure there and just we will figure out the cause of it and try to just keep that from happening,” he said.
“Every week is a new notebook for us. I really think as we get established and get some foundation for our set-ups and just the little things this team is going to be dangerous.”
Menard makes strong showing: Forgive Paul Menard if he was distracted this weekend – he and his wife, Jennifer, are awaiting the arrival of the couple’s first child. Despite being on call for the delivery, Menard managed to turn in a solid performance in Sunday’s race.
Menard took the lead on Lap 199 after dueling Jimmie Johnson for the lead and remained in contention for the win through the finish. He ended up third – his best finish since he also finished third at the fall race at Kansas in 2012.
“Whoever had clean air seemed like they checked out. You saw (Keselowski) do that earlier, (Earnhardt) did it at the end. So clean air obviously is still very important,” he said. “But I felt like our car, I could move lanes and we could race people and pass people, which was obviously really important.”
Not exactly what they wanted: Joe Gibbs Racing drivers Matt Kenseth, Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin struggled much of the weekend, especially in qualifying, and finished 10th, 11th and 12th. Certainly not horrible, but not the improvement they hoped to see.
“We just kind of struggled most of the weekend. We got some decent track position but I just couldn’t really go anywhere,” Kenseth said. “It was about all we could do.”
Busch did lead 52 laps – second-most in the race – but by the end of the race the handling of his No. 18 Toyota had fallen off.
“We started working on the car and just seemed like the more we worked on it the more we slowed it down,” he said. “We had a good piece to start, but we didn’t end that way.”
Kwasniewski joins Chip Ganassi Racing: Two-time NASCAR K&N Pro series champion and current Nationwide series driver Dylan Kwasniewski has joined Chip Ganassi Racing as a development driver.
Kwasniewski will continue to compete in Nationwide with Turner Scott Motorsports but team owner Chip Ganassi hopes to move the 18-year-old Las Vegas native to the Cups series in two to three years.
“This young man has impressed us from the moment we saw him,” Ganassi said. His poise, skill and determination on the race track are remarkable for someone so young.”
Five key moments
1 . Team Penske drivers Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski had fast cars all weekend, including sweeping the front row in the knock out qualifying session on Friday.
2 . Kevin Harvick led 23 laps early and appeared to have a strong car but suffered damage to his left-front wheel hub, which required a trip to the garage for repairs on Lap 194.
3 . Keselowski elected not to pit while the rest of the field did and took over the lead on Lap 157. He remained out front until a round of green-flag pit stops began on Lap 197.
4 . During the final caution on Lap 223, most drivers pit for fuel, but Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards and Denny Hamlin remained on the track. Earnhardt’s team wanted to gamble for the win.
5 . Just as it appears Earnhardt will make it to the finish, he slows dramatically on the backstretch on the final lap and Keselowski passes him for the victory.