Updated March 6, 2022 - 9:17 pm
The locale previously known as Sin City was transformed into Spin City and finally Win City for Alex Bowman.
The 28-year-old driver passed Hendrick Racing teammate Kyle Larson during a two-lap overtime sprint to the finish to prevail in Sunday’s NASCAR Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a race marked by spinouts and lead changes.
It was another big day for NASCAR’s new Next Gen car, but an even bigger one for Bowman after a 24th-place finish in the season-opening Daytona 500 and 25th at Auto Club Speedway in California in his previous start.
The Arizona native’s seventh career victory was decided by pit stop strategy after a late spin by Erik Jones collected Bubba Wallace and brought out the yellow flag with six laps to go. Las Vegas’ Kyle Busch was leading at the time after starting last in a backup car following a practice crash Saturday.
Bowman, Larson and Hendrick teammate William Byron, who finished fifth, opted for two fresh tires during the ensuing stop, while Busch took four — a decision the winner didn’t think would work.
“No, I was really surprised,” Bowman said about he and Larson driving away from third-place finisher Ross Chastain and Busch, who settled for fourth. “Obviously, a lot has changed with this (new) race car, but typically (changing only) two tires tighten you up a ton.
“I’m glad it worked out, but before the restart, I thought the 18 (Busch) would have won.”
Right call this time
Bowman, whose NASCAR career was nearly derailed by a serious crash at the LVMS Bullring in a midget car when he was a teenager, led three times for 16 laps. He powered past Larson, the defending Cup Series and Pennzoil 400 champion, as the two raced side by side after taking the white flag.
“I don’t know if there was something Kyle could have done any differently,” Bowman said in reference to Larson’s win in California the previous week, when he took control after blocking and colliding with teammate Chase Elliott.
“He was super tight on my door, side drafting me as hard as he could. He just ended up getting tight in three and four.”
Along with the near-tragic crash, Bowman thought LVMS might have owed him in another regard after the wrong strategy probably cost him a victory in the 2020 Pennzoil 400.
“We were the fastest car at the end,” he said. “The caution came out with a couple (of laps) to go. We pitted. A bunch of people stayed out. We didn’t finish well at all.”
New car, few blues
At the end of the day — and at the beginning and in the middle of it — it was another encouraging performance by NASCAR’s new Next Gen car.
There were 12 caution periods for 60 laps — most for single-car spins — pointing to the difficulty of driving the car. But at the same time, Busch and others were able to charge from the back of the grid to the front, and positions were swapped from start to finish throughout the field in a race that produced 15 leaders.
Chastain, in his first season with relative NASCAR newcomer Trackhouse Racing, led the most laps with 83.
“That was one of the intentions going to a car like this, and it’s been refreshing to see,” said former NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon, vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports. “We’ve seen great racing, we’ve seen cars coming from the back to the front and going front to the back. We’ve seen they can race hard, but the cars are definitely on the edge.”
That puts the outcome more in the drivers’ hands than the engineers of the new low downforce, high horsepower configuration, Gordon said. Whereas the 1.5-mile ovals tended to produce a lot of single-file racing, Sunday’s race offered plenty of action that a crowd estimated at 55,000 — the best LVMS turnout in several years — seemed to enjoy.
“When you see guys spinning out by themselves — we haven’t seen that in years,” Gordon said.