By Mike Henle
Las Vegas’ first-ever presentation of NASCAR’s Race for the Chase lived up to its expectations Sept. 13-16 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
First, there was an allure that NASCAR brings to Las Vegas. Speaking of the conditions, September’s first two weeks brought with it a nagging rise in the thermometer that seldom went below the 100-degree mark during the daylight hours.
A crowd estimated at about 45,000 was announced and many of the ticket holders ditched the bleachers in favor of somewhere with shade
However, auto race fans are hearty souls who can handle any kind of weather, so high temperatures couldn’t stop the diehards. While the conditions were certainly challenging, slipping and sliding was part of the game throughout the day.
Energetic hotel executive Brendan Gaughan illustrated the pride factor in the event with his memorable “Drivers….Start your Engines!” that was well-received to start the event.
Also, there were many who felt that Gaughan didn’t need a microphone to spread the word to get the cars started on a day so warm that some swore they saw the Devil hitch hiking on the back straightaway.
At the half-way point, it was evident that the addition of a swimming pool in the fourth turn was unique considering that the pool was packed all day long.
And if there’s anyone who actually feels that race car drivers are not true athletes, he or she needed to witness the field that literally went from the pits to the frying pans of auto racing. The cockpit of every race car had to be like an oven.
While Alpine, Calif., charger Sheldon Creed led the charge winning the Star Nursery 100 to start the weekend, Grant Enfinger survived a trio of green-white-checkered flags in an overtime finish to take home the World of Westgate 200 to capture the Sept. 14 NASCAR Truck Series; Ross Chastain captured the DC Solar Las Vegas 300 XFinity battle and Brad Keselowski held off Kyle Larson to win the inaugural South Point 400.
In classic Las Vegas style, LVMS reeled in two rock-solid sponsorships (prominent hotel owner Michael Gaughan sponsored the overall NASCAR weekend (his son, Brendan, was fifth in the Star Nursery 100) and long-time race enthusiast, stellar businessman and Star Nursery President Craig Keough picked up the tab for the Star Nursery 100).
Vegas had a little of everything going on in what was a non-stop effort, and NASCAR, which has struggled with sour ratings along with other controversies throughout the year, had more challenges when its previous event at Indianapolis was delayed by rain. The rain played havoc with NASCAR haulers and team members that headed to Las Vegas a few days late from the Midwest.
Just to add even more interest to the scenario was the fact that once the Monster Cup Series was completed in Las Vegas, truck drivers had to turn right around and head back to Richmond (Virginia) for the Featured Auto Parts 400 Sept. 22 (you can envision NASCAR crews all with their tongues hanging out during the marathon weekend).
In Las Vegas, where nobody has time for sleep, the list of special events in the city represented a drag race of special events including a UNLV football game, the Vegas Golden Knights hockey and championship boxing, to name a few.
Indeed, the South Point 400 weekend was a drag race of things to do along with the challenges related to high temperatures.
You couldn’t help but admire the drivers; especially Ross Chastain, who captured the Xfiniti race in brutally hot temperatures. He piloted DC Solar – the race sponsor and Chastain’s sponsor – to Victory Circle after firing away at 132 tries.
‘Man, this is insane,” he said after winning his first XFinity race. “I’m just a watermelon farmer from Florida.”
As expected, Sunday started with a blast of heat as hard charging Kevin Harvick of Bakersfield, Calif., crashed and took pole sitter Eric Jones with him on Lap 147.
“Well, there was something wrong from the time we put the tires on,” Harvick said. “It was like Russian Roulette every time you put these pieces of crap tires on and try to drive around the track. One time it is tight, one time it is loose, one time they are blistered. We had a great car and then you put on a set of tires on and you can hardly make it through the field. I just hate it for everyone on our Mobile 1 Ford.”
The event was not friendly for the Las Vegas drivers Kurt and Kyle Busch. Kurt crashed on the last few laps and Kyle was in and out of the pits several times in the final portion of the event that both drivers attempted to stay out of the carnage as Kyle finished seventh and big brother was 21st.
Meanwhile, Brad Keselowski captured the inaugural South Point 400 and in doing so, registered Roger Penske’s 500th victory. In addition, the victory was Keselowski’s 27th victory in 332 NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series races.
“The 78 (Martin Truex, Jr.) car was faster than ours,” said Keselowski. “Congratulations to all of the fans who hung in there to tolerate the heat. This win was really a testament to the team, and how strong it is. We had so many restarts at the end. We’re on a roll now.”
Getting Penske’s 500th victory was the perfect accomplishment for Keselowski.
“That’s quite a number, isn’t it?” Keselowski said of the man everyone calls “Captain.”
Runner up Kyle Larson, driving the DC Solar Vegas Strong Chevrolet, said the race required clean air.
“You’re always looking for clean air when you race here,” he said. “The run timed out perfectly in that we could slow down a little bit. I never really got to his bumper. He was good on short runs and I was terrible at them.”
Even with the heat, Larson said he would rather race in the ‘Vegas climate rather than the humidity.
“It’s kind of nice not having any humidity,” he said. “My hair wasn’t even wet when I got out of the car. Hot days make for great racing. It was a lot of fun. I wish we could run more races in the heat.”
Rounding out the top ten were Martin Truex Jr., 3rd; Joey Logan, 4th; Ryan Blaney, 5th; Aric Almirola, 6th; Kyle Busch, 7th; Daniel Suarez, 8th; Ryan Newman, 9th; and Paul Menard, 10th.
NASCAR resumes the playoffs next weekend at Richmond, Va.