By Bob Pockrass
It was the hometown win that Las Vegas native Kurt Busch had sought his entire racing career.
The 2004 Cup champion won in his 22nd Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, as he captured the South Point 400 on Sunday night. He celebrated by taking the checkered flag and waving it over each of the letters of “Las Vegas” painted on the track.
With the victory in the opening race of the second round of the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs, Busch vaulted himself into the third round, known as the Round of 8 – the semifinal round of the NASCAR championship system.
Here are three takeaways from Sunday night:
Win-and-advance is awesome
Say what you will about the NASCAR playoff system, but the win-and-advance dynamic of the playoffs helped turn the Las Vegas race into an exciting one.
When a caution flag came out during a cycle of green-flag pit stops, Kurt Busch went from a driver whose playoff hopes seemed a little grim into a driver who controlled his own destiny.
By taking the lead on a restart on Lap 243, and then holding on through two other restarts over the final 26 laps, Chip Ganassi Racing’s Busch went from a driver who spent most of the day below the provisional playoff cutline into earning an automatic bid into the semifinal round.
A fierce competitor, Busch was not going to be denied.
“It was going to be a tough pass for anybody to make,” Busch said. “That was our ticket to move forward, to win, to do the job that I need to do.
“It’s like giving a lion a piece of meat. I had it. I was in position, and nobody was going to take it from me.”
The drivers on the bubble could only shake their heads.
“Obviously, the 1 car [of Kurt Busch] was not a car that we needed to win a race,” said Clint Bowyer, who is 20 points out of the cutoff. “It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse as far as points-wise.
“Him winning changes that landscape quite a bit.”
Hamlin not distracted
It would have been easy to say Hamlin’s lackluster results in the first round of the playoffs were the result of him too focused trying to get the deal put together to start a team with Michael Jordan and Bubba Wallace as the driver.
Hamlin announced the formation of the new team Monday, and it followed a period where he was negotiating to potentially invest in Richard Petty Motorsports, where Wallace was driving.
Hamlin, who finished third and had one of the best cars Sunday night at Las Vegas, dismissed any speculation that he has been distracted the last few weeks.
“I’ve been working for like 10 weeks on stuff, not just racing stuff but stuff in general,” Hamlin said. “We had bad breaks tonight. It was just another bad break just like Darlington was or Bristol [in the first round].
“We led laps tonight. We were obviously the best car. People look at the results instead of actually paying attention to the race.”
‘Choose Rule’ is cool
NASCAR’s “choose rule” also made the end of the race Sunday intriguing as drivers chose which lane to restart in, something that could be pivotal in those late restarts.
The drivers weren’t sure how much of an impact it had, but they at least could control their own destiny.
“I don’t think it made a huge difference one way or the other,” Alex Bowman said. “The bottom went better than I thought it would at times. … People were just kind of able to control their own destiny a little bit more.”
Before the rule, Hamlin would have started fourth, the second car on the outside for the final restart. Instead, two cars in front of him also chose the outside and he ended up restarting sixth. He finished third.
“Overall it’s been a good change and at least let’s you decide, trying to make an educated decision when you get to choose,” Hamlin said. “I definitely like it.”
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