The Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series kicked off the West Coast swing on Sunday, heading to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the Kobalt 400. Despite early domination from Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. was the leader when it mattered, winning both stages and claiming the race victory. Tensions flared shortly after the race ended as a fight between Kyle Busch and Joey Logano broke out on pit road.
Truex and Keselowski established themselves as the dominant drivers before Sunday when they swept the front row in qualifying, the latter winning the pole. Keselowski led for much of the first stage, with the first caution coming out on lap 18 when Corey LaJoie hit the turn two wall. Truex took the lead for the upcoming restart on lap 25, though Keselowski quickly regained it.
On lap 69, the second caution came out when Kevin Harvick cut a right front tire and slammed into the outside wall. With five laps to go in the stage, Logano was the leader until Truex passed him with two to go to win the first stage and claim ten bonus points. Joining Truex in earning stage points were Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Keselowski, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch and Dale Earnhardt Jr.
The second stage began on lap 81 as Truex continued to lead. The race ran green until lap 152 when Derrike Cope spun as he exited turn two to force the third race-related caution of the day. After pit stops were completed, it set up another five-lap sprint to the end of the stage. Truex finished 1st at the end of lap 160 to record another stage win, followed by Keselowski, Larson, Elliott, Logano, Ryan Blaney, Earnhardt, McMurray, Ryan Newman and Johnson.
With 100 laps to go, the final stage began. 13 laps into the stage, Kurt Busch collided with the wall, though no caution was brought out; an unhappy Busch was told by crew chief Tony Gibson to “drive the car until it stops, then bring to pit road.” Busch eventually pitted to change batteries, a similar situation that plagued him earlier in the race. As the cars came to pit road for green-flag stops on lap 212, Johnson elected to stay out and took the lead. The seven-time series champion led for 16 laps until he was forced to pit for fuel, allowing Truex to regain 1st. Keselowski retook the lead on lap 244, leading until lap 253, when Danica Patrick’s engine expired and resulted in the sixth caution of the day.
The race resumed on lap 259 with Keselowski as the leader. He continued to lead and was in position to win his second straight race when his tire blew with two laps to go. Truex passed him and went on to win his eighth career Cup Series race, while Keselowski was forced to finish 5th.
When Keselowski cut his tire, he remained on the racing line as he rolled along the backstretch on the final lap. His teammate Logano passed him on the inside, while Kyle Busch was behind him and attempted to avoid the #2 car. Instead, Busch and Logano made contact as they entered turn three, spinning Busch out. After the cars came to pit road, Busch confronted Logano, shoving him before the pit crews intervened. Busch was thrown to the ground and appeared to be kicked before he was pulled away; he suffered a bloody forehead in the incident.
“There wasn’t much talking, just a lot of swinging,” Logano commented. “I was racing hard there at the end.” In a brief interview, Busch said, “I got dumped, that’s how he races. He’s gonna get it.” Keselowski later apologized for being the catalyst that led to the fight.
Penalties for the two drivers were not announced immediately upon conclusion. In December 2016, title sponsor Monster Energy stated it wants to see more “raw emotion” from the drivers. “We want to see the emotion — the raw emotion in the sport,” Monster Vice President of Sports Marketing Mitch Covington proclaimed. “We never tell our athletes what to say in an interview. We never script them.”
With the announcement, fans speculated the possibility of reduced punishments for off-track incidents by NASCAR. However, it is unlikely that penalties would be handed down for the Busch/Logano fight; in 2014, neither Keselowski nor Jeff Gordon were punished after their fight following the Texas fall race (although multiple crewmen from both sides were suspended for their involvement).
For Truex and Furniture Row Racing, the win is the eighth and seventh for the two parties, respectively, and the sixth together. He became the first driver in NASCAR history to win all three stages of a race.
“It was a gift,” Truex stated in Victory Lane. “I felt like the race didn’t play into our hands. We had to go really long on that last set of tires and Brad was really good on long runs all day. He was always catching us at the end. I was driving my little butt off and I couldn’t keep him behind me. We got a little bit lucky there.” Regarding the fight, Truex added he was not able to witness it, before asking which drivers were involved and who won.
The West Coast trip continues next week when the Cup Series heads to Arizona’s Phoenix International Raceway for the Camping World 500 on March 19.