Three Big Stories: Las Vegas (2022)

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NASCAR pushed all its chips to the center of the table and won the pot, three races into the 2022 season.

Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway gave us much to discuss. Ross Chastain (possibly) had his breakout NASCAR Cup Series race with a dominant drive and podium finish. Alex Bowman inches closer and closer to taking that next step. Furthermore, NASCAR might’ve just saved the racing at the mile-and-a-half tracks with the NextGen car.

So without further adieu, let’s place our cards on the table and see the Three Big Stories of Las Vegas, 2022.

Three Big Stories: Las Vegas (2022)

Breakout race for Ross Chastain?

LAS VEGAS – MARCH 6: Ross Chastain, driver of the #1 ACM Awards Chevrolet, and Kyle Busch, driver of the #18 Ethel M Chocolates Toyota, race during the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6, 2022, in Las Vegas. Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Chastain is a textbook example of an underrated driver. His four-and-a-half seasons with JD Motorsports in the XFINITY Series showed he had talent, but never had equipment to match. When Chip Ganassi Racing gave him a quality ride for a few races in 2018, he won.

Chip Ganassi was so impressed, that he signed Chastain to run the No. 42 in the 2019 season full-time. Everything was great. Then we learned, however, that his sponsor, DC Solar, was running a Ponzi scheme. Which left Chastain out to dry.

Fortunately for him, he landed a ride in the Truck Series with Niece Motorsports and drove to a runner-up finish in points in 2019.

Fast-forward to Sunday, Chastain powered by Kyle Busch down the backstretch to take the lead on Lap 114. He won the second stage, led a race-high of 83 laps and finished third.

In a Trackhouse Racing car, too.

A team that showed flashes in 2021, but underperformed. Yet in the last two weeks, Daniel Suarez finished fourth at Fontana, in a race he legitimately could’ve won, and Chastain has a career day at Las Vegas.

Plus, Trackhouse made one NASCAR writer eat crow.

Of course, it’s still early in the season, and nobody has a good grasp of the NextGen car, yet. Whether Chastain and Suarez keep this performance up, only time will tell.

Three Big Stories: Las Vegas (2022)

How close is Alex Bowman to taking the next step?

LAS VEGAS – MARCH 6: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6, 2022, in Las Vegas. Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

After the race, Sunday, Kyle Busch hopped on the radio to say the following:

And there’s a kernel of truth to what Busch said.

Of Bowman’s seven Cup Series victories, he led the most laps in just one; 110 at Auto Club Speedway in 2020.

Since then, however, he largely won because of external factors. At Richmond, he wins thanks to a late gamble on tires. Then at Dover, he crew turns the fastest pit stop of the season to get him out ahead of Kyle Larson. Come Pocono, Larson hits the wall in Turn 3 and Bowman steals the victory. Finally, at Martinsville, he gets loose in Turn 3 and takes out race leader Denny Hamlin.

Sunday, Bowman benefitted from Erik Jones‘ late wreck that forced overtime. Take that out of the equation, and it’s a race for the win between Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

Now yes, a win is a win, but until he consistently dominates and wins without the massive aid of external factors, I can’t say if Bowman’s taken the next step to being an elite driver.

Three Big Stories: Las Vegas (2022)

NASCAR might’ve just found what saves the mile-and-a-half tracks

LAS VEGAS – MARCH 6: Alex Bowman, driver of the #48 Ally Chevrolet, celebrates with a burnout after winning the NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 6, 2022, in Las Vegas. Photo: Meg Oliphant/Getty Images

Shortly after midnight, May 24, 2020, Chris Knight and I walked down the steps of an apartment complex to hop in his car. We just finished watching Brad Keselowski win the Coca-Cola 600. On the way down, I told him that was the worst race I’ve ever watched.

And I sat in the press box in 2016, when Martin Truex Jr. led all but eight laps at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Yet watching that race, Skippy (Knight), Kelly Crandall, Chris Owens and I were some of the most miserable people ever. We were bored out of our minds and annoyed that we wasted our time watching that awful race.

I won’t tell you what was said during that get together, but there were times when I said to them that this race broke me.

Of course, Charlotte wasn’t isolated in this regard. This is basically what the racing at downforce-centric tracks have been for over a decade. And the high-downforce package made them worse, most days, and tolerable on good days.

Now after two races at downforce-centric tracks, with different wear patterns, NASCAR MIGHT have just found the thing that saves the racing at big tracks. Especially at Charlotte and Texas Motor Speedway. The latter of which might be on its last leg, with just one Cup Series points race weekend.

If this continues, then no longer will fans and media collectively dread watching/covering a race at these tracks. Furthermore, it could provide a path for tracks like Chicagoland Speedway and Kentucky Speedway to return to the Cup Series schedule.

TOP IMAGE: Dylan Buell/Getty Images