By any objective or subjective measure, Sunday’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway fell short of being a game-changer.
Yes, there were a record number of green-flag lead changes and passes (as well as a record-tying fewest number of cautions, and there is some obvious causality there).
But if you were expecting a show of dazzling side-drafting brilliance and the looming threat of nonstop door-slamming, that’s not what you got.
What you got was a race.
A race that had some entertaining battles for the lead between Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, a smaller gap from first to second on average and a compelling final lap that briefly felt as if the outcome could be in doubt.
But still a race nonetheless.
That means for more than two and a half hours, roughly three dozen cars turned left for 400 miles in a process identical to a few thousand other races that preceded this one and hopefully thousands more to come.
In many of those prior races, drivers occasionally lose control of their cars while racing for position. That results in wrecks and their many byproducts — emotions spiking, feuds erupting, and fans cheering.
What a concept.
So, let’s concede that Sunday in Sin City was no game changer for 1.5-mile tracks – which NASCAR has admitted were the primary target of its lower-horsepower package and aero ducts – nor could or should it be.
But there were some elements with game-changing potential that emerged from the debut of the full 2019 rules package. Here were a few:
Busch’s crew chief, Matt McCall, essentially sacrificed any stage points by pitting Busch late in the second stage for four tires and then staying on track to assume the lead for the final restart. Busch still had to pit earlier than the rest of the lead-lap cars, but the strategy allowed him to overcome a starting spot of 28th to earn his second consecutive top five.
The tactical call by Chad Knaus on the No. 24 was even more intriguing– a clever splash-and-go call near the end of the second stage that kept Byron on the lead lap and nearly still earned a point (Byron finished 11th in the stage).
There were risks involved with both strategies – an overtime finish could have hurt Busch’s cause and Knaus was betting that his young driver could be patient and his pit crew could execute a swift stop – but they also adapted well to the caution-free flow, the clogged traffic and slower lap speeds.
Those factors (married with stages carrying two predetermined cautions) will create opportunities for strategic innovation.
There are more 1.5-mile tracks ahead that also will feature low tire wear (on recently repaved surfaces). If yellows remain down as they were in Atlanta and Las Vegas, the risks taken by McCall and Knaus will be worthy of more consideration by other teams.
–Just passing through: When third-place finisher Kyle Busch was caught for speeding with just under 130 laps to go, it figured to be an arduous slog to get back on the lead lap, much less the top five. But it took 20 laps to achieve the former and 70 laps for the latter, leaving Busch still in a solid position to win over the final 50 laps.
Though track position still is vital with this package, Busch showed how a strong car and slower speeds make it possible to rebound quickly from an unscheduled trip to the pits under green. His No. 18 Toyota was leading when it sped on entry, and he fell off the lead lap after serving a pass-through penalty – but only because Busch and Byron had yet to stop.
When they did, the lead cycled on lap 150 to race winner Joey Logano, whom Busch had managed to stay in front of after pass-through. When the caution flew for the stage break 10 laps later, Busch was able to pit with the lead-lap cars in a fortuitous turn of events that stemmed from this year’s reduced horsepower.
With lap times down sharply (the pole speed fell more than 10 mph from a year earlier) but pit speeds remaining constant, Busch’s extra trip to the pits cost him a little more than 30 seconds, a duration in the neighborhood of the weekend’s fastest laps.
In 2018, when cars were turning laps 2 seconds quicker, he probably would have emerged on the lap behind Logano and would have had a tougher fight to regain the lead lap (via a wavearound or the free pass). Instead, he gained two spots on his Lap 163 stop and restarted in 16th with perhaps the fastest car and nearly 100 laps to overcome the deficit.
The mistake still cost him the win, but Busch had much more time to try to atone for it.
Both drivers’ teams were penalized for too many men over the wall during pit stops midway through the first 80-lap stage. They ended the stage a lap down, and neither could fully recover, which put a damper on the promise of final-round qualifying appearances.
“I think we had a top 10 car, just never got the track position we needed,” said Dillon, who started in the top 10 but finished outside the top 15 for the second consecutive week. “We lost it from the beginning, and when you lose it, you can’t ever get it back.”
The surprising lack of yellow flags certainly had a major impact on all the above, too.
The two cautions were the fewest number for a full-distance race at Vegas since the yellow flew only twice in the March 1, 1998 inaugural.
This comes on the heels of an incident-free Atlanta Motor Speedway race that featured five cautions (two for stages, the other three were for competition/tire wear, debris and fluid).
So that means 900 miles have been run in NASCAR’s premier series without a driver so much as spinning on track once under highly competitive conditions.
Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, though. These are world-elite drivers, and they’ve been handed an enormous amount of downforce.
Despite all the predictions of mass chaos on “crazy” restarts (side note: Restarts have been inherently “crazy” since they were changed to double file nearly 10 years ago), drivers seemed to get by just fine while going four wide a few laps at a time the past two races.
That seems nettlesome.
No one is rooting for wrecks, but caution flags can help enliven the show (within reason). Look no further than the 12 yellow flags in the previous race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which begs an interesting question.
Which was the better show at the 1.5-mile oval: Last year’s playoff opener or Sunday?
The smart money here is on the Sept. 16, 2018 race that was hailed by many as the best kickoff event in 15 years of NASCAR’s 10-race championship structure. With many championship contenders desperately pushing beyond the limits of their cars and tires, there were five restarts in the last 40 laps, and Kyle Larson delivered one of the greatest passes for the lead in 2018.
That race was run less than three weeks before NASCAR unveiled its 2019 rules package.
The two-race sample size is small, but Team Penske’s ability to adapt still should be hailed. The consecutive victories by Keselowski and Logano underscore that when things change in Cup, Penske is as nimble as any organization in addressing the challenge. Look no further than the 2014 move to group qualifying, and how quickly Keselowski and Logano became final-round fixtures.
Auto racing is a sport where rolling with the punches is paramount, and team owner Roger Penske has the longest track record of doing it better than anyone.
The wild qualifying session at Las Vegas reminded Jimmie Johnson of the short-lived experiment with group qualifying on restrictor-plate tracks four years ago.
“I think it was great entertainment, but we were all afraid of how many cars we were going to tear up,” Johnson said. “So far, no cars are torn up (at Las Vegas), but I think that opportunity really exists.”
NASCAR made swift changes back to a single-car format at Daytona and Talladega after Clint Bowyer crashed in the 2015 Daytona 500 qualifying session.
After several near-misses at Vegas, it’ll bear watching when the inevitable crash in speedway qualifying this season eliminates a decent car (or several).
Regardless of what the temperature is among fan councils, social media surveys and satellite radio discussions, there is one given about the 2019 rules: They are here to stay.
There are no quick tweaks to this package. When you dramatically reduce horsepower, it requires some heavy lifting. That’s the reason the package wasn’t implemented for a few races last season after the 2018 All-Star Race; it would have been too much strain on engine builders.
This won’t unfold like the 2015 season when NASCAR quickly detoured into high-drag and low-downforce options because it was dissatisfied with 1.5-mile action
Backing up to the 2018 rules package would require months of work (never mind huge sums of cash) for engine builders who are boxed in by the hardware and logistics driven by meticulously scheduled inventories of V8 engines. It isn’t as simple as pulling out the aero ducts and tuning up the engines.
NASCAR is locked into 550 horsepower for the foreseeable future.
No matter what you thought of Sunday’s race, the reality is that package is here to stay.