Who… should you be talking about after the race?
Defending Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series champion Joey Logano made it two for two in intermediate track races for Team Penske this year. He followed up last week’s win by teammate Brad Keselowski, putting the No. 22 car in Victory Lane for the first time in 2019 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. So far, the Penske organization has been the class of the field, showing last year’s Big Three (and the rest of the field) a thing or two about how to race with the high-drag Cup cars this season. Only Kevin Harvick led more laps than Logano’s 86 on Sunday.
Logano wasn’t part of the title conversation last year until he inserted himself in it at Martinsville Speedway last fall and stayed there as he won it all at Homestead. But the 2014 Cup champion is making sure he’s part of the talk in 2019.
The current aerodynamic package favors a driver who’s not afraid to push his car – and other drivers – to the limit. From that angle, it plays into Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s hands. The aggressive Stenhouse earned stage points, led once last week in Atlanta and followed that up with a strong run this week, finishing sixth with five laps led. His run shows that a driver who can go out and take every position he can get and not be content to ride it out will be rewarded this year.
What… is the takeaway from this race?
Closing and passing are two different things. The version of the aero package we saw at Vegas allowed cars to close and kept Logano from opening up the kind of lead he might have a year ago. Certainly, the margin of victory will benefit from this type of racing. The race for the win was one of the better ones in recent memory, but a lot of fans won’t remember it because it wasn’t on the last lap. Keselowski made a great final effort to pass his teammate on the white flag lap, but the best battle happened several circuits before that.
That’s still a good battle for the win, though many won’t see it that way because it happened a few laps too early. Like Atlanta, the 2019 version of intermediate racing didn’t produce the best race ever, but it didn’t produce the worst one either.
It’s still too early to tell how the cars will shake out a month from now, or six months from now. If we get good, but not great races on a consistent basis, will NASCAR stay the course? And if not, will it be willing to take a completely opposite approach: making the cars fast enough that drivers will have to lift more entering the corners at most tracks? That moment off throttle could prove to be the one drivers need to take advantage of a weaker opponent. It makes different lines and entry points more valuable.
Somewhere there is a balance of power and handling. If it’s not in this package, how far will NASCAR go to find it?
Where… were the other key players at the end?
2018 race winner and pole sitter Harvick won the first stage and led a race-high 88 laps, but got nipped by Kyle Busch in the final laps and finished fourth. That’s respectable, but it’s far from Harvick’s dominance a year ago. He said after the race that his team struggled to get the handling right in the second half of races at both Atlanta and LVMS. That’s a big change from a year ago when Harvick only got better as races wore on.
This weekend’s Truck and Xfinity series winner Kyle Busch looked like he was going to take the trifecta at his home track this week. But a speeding penalty cost him enough positions that he couldn’t quite get back to the front by the end. He made an impressive effort, working his way back to third by the finish, and without that penalty, it might have been a very different race.
Fellow hometown hero Kurt Busch has not posted a Cup win at LVMS, unlike his younger brother, and he wants it. Busch started a disappointing 28th, but used smart pit strategy, staying out after the end of the second stage, to lead 23 laps on the day and finish a very respectable fifth. His run hints that the No. 1 team has some strong races in the coffers and 2019 could prove to be what both driver and team need.
Active LVMS wins leader Jimmie Johnson looked like he might be a contender this week, qualifying ninth and immediately racing his way into the top five as a follow-up to a solid off-season test session. Johnson hung inside the top 10 long enough to score a single stage point, but it was clear that whatever handling issues are plaguing his team haven’t gone anywhere. If it takes several weeks for a driver and crew chief to mesh (and that change is a big one for Johnson), he’s got a handful more races before the excuses run out completely, but he’s got to show some sign of life soon.
Last week’s winner Keselowski was feeling much better this week after a bout with the flu, but he didn’t get the same result on track. After swapping the lead back and forth with Logano in the closing laps, Keselowski had to settle for a hard-fought second.
When… was the moment of truth?
Experience vs. inexperience: It’s something that gets a lot of talk pertaining to seat time. But it doesn’t end there. Experience in running at the front on a weekly basis is, in some respects, even more important than simply getting laps in.
Take a look at Sunday’s race. Two of the fastest drivers in the field had fairly opposite days, and it started with a pair of penalties.
Kyle Busch incurred a pit road speeding penalty late in the race. He’s is usually in the mix for wins, and that experience paid off for him. He knew how to work his way back from the penalty, and by the end of the race, he and his team were able to make any necessary changes to account for being put back in the pack.
On the other side of the coin was Austin Dillon. He has a couple of wins but is not a weekly contender. Part of that is equipment, but Dillon had one of the fastest cars at LVMS both in a preseason test and this weekend. Yet after a pit road penalty for men over the wall too soon, Dillon was unable to recover. Perhaps the car didn’t handle as well buried in traffic as it had near the front. Whatever the reason, Dillon never did work his way back into contention, just eking out a top 20 run by the end of the day.
The difference between the team used to running for wins every week and the one who’s not there yet was noticeable. There’s no easy answer. If a driver doesn’t have the equipment to contend, he can’t learn to be a contender. For fans who like a lot of different winners, that makes it harder because having the talent to win and knowing how to win are not quite the same thing. And if the equipment isn’t strong enough, it won’t matter.
Why… should you pay attention this week?
When the Cup Series hits ISM Raceway in Phoenix next weekend, it’ll be without the aerodynamic package we’ve seen the last couple of weeks, making it the fourth different package in as many races. We’ve seen a few different players score great finishes so far: Michael McDowell, Ty Dillon and Ross Chastain at Daytona; Chris Buescher in Atlanta and Stenhouse in Las Vegas. While that’s great for the sport, will it continue in Phoenix? Will one of last year’s Big Three make a statement (maybe ISM win leader Harvick)?
The more different drivers having success, the better for everyone involved, from sponsors to fans to NASCAR. There should be a vested interest in finding ways to make a deeply competitive field. The new package has helped with that, but for how long? The cream (if cream is a euphemism for money these days) will rise eventually, but the changes have put some drivers in the Monday morning conversation we don’t usually talk about too much. That’s a small success, but it is one for sure.
How… come the spring schedule doesn’t hit the West Coast right away?
After a chilly weekend in Atlanta, NASCAR was treated to a nicer one in Las Vegas this week. Next, it’s off to Phoenix and Fontana before heading to Martinsville.
While it’s true that Las Vegas had snow just last week, that’s not usual. It seems like going directly to Las Vegas, then following that up with Phoenix, Fontana and Texas before heading to Atlanta and Martinsville would make those two East Coast races much more enjoyable for fans.
Some will say that it’s by design: if Atlanta and Martinsville don’t bring in fans, it would be easier for NASCAR to take them off the schedule later. That would be a disservice to the entire sport since the tracks are fan favorites and produce some of the best races each season. Another odd placement is Richmond in mid-April while Talladega is in early May. While TV money is NASCAR’s bread and butter, the tracks need to put fans in seats, and they should be given the best opportunity to do so.