The Headline(s): Two-thousand miles away, on newer asphalt with open aero ducts, the same 500 miles that played out in Atlanta repeated themselves in Las Vegas, with the Team Penske Fords managing a lead and holding off a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota for the win. This time, Joey Logano held off Brad Keselowski and a hard-charging Kyle Busch.
How It Happened: Another Cup race on an intermediate oval, another uneventful first stage that saw Kevin Harvick pull away from the field through the first run and again after green flag pit stops cycled through. Starting from the pole, Harvick scored a relatively easy first stage win.
Using pit strategy, Keselowski took two tires after the first stage break and restarted as the leader, followed by Logano and Kyle Busch. Keselowski held the lead for several laps on two tires but eventually gave way to what would be a fierce battle between Busch and Logano, who sliced and diced with lap traffic numerous times in one of the most pitched battles of the afternoon. Once the driver of the No. 18 effectively used lapped traffic to clear the No. 22, Logano pitted and handed the lead to Busch. Coming to make his green-flag pit stop, Busch endured a race-altering pit road speeding penalty on lap 129, which allowed Logano to take the lead once green-flag stops cycled through. Logano would then narrowly hold off Harvick to score the stage two win.
Then, the hammer dropped.
Kurt Busch opted to stay out on old tires, and despite the gap in rubber he managed to hold off the entire field until lap 188, when Harvick was finally able to clear the No. 1 for the race lead. As the run continued, Harvick eventually fell victim to Logano, who proved to be unstoppable on the high side up until the final cycle of green flag pit stops.
From there, it was a Penske party at the front of the field. Keselowski fielded two charges at Logano, briefly taking the lead on lap 245 and again at the white flag, with Keselowski finishing only a few car lengths behind his teammate as he took the checkered flag.
Should You Care? For the same reasons as Atlanta, sure. Again, even with the new aero ducts open this go around, the vaunted new “package” didn’t ruin the racing, and didn’t really change it either. The lead car still proved near impossible to pass, as Kyle Busch had to use lapped traffic twice to clear Logano in stage two, while Kurt Busch was able to hold the entire field at bay for more than 10 laps on 20-plus lap old tires by mirror driving.
This race was largely robbed of comers and goers the same way Atlanta had them, thanks to tires that refused to give up. Kurt Busch holding up the leaders for 10 laps on 20-plus lap tires is not a positive development. Nor was Keselowski falling no further than sixth over a nearly full fuel run during the second stage despite being on two tires. Though Keselowski may be an outlier given how strong his car was over the long run, this is a package that, like the old one, is better on old asphalt.
What this race did have, however, that Atlanta seemed to lack, was proof positive that recovering from a mistake with this package is not impossible. Case in point, Kyle Busch.
After getting busted for pit road speeding on lap 129, Busch worked his way up to third position by race’s end, despite there being only one caution (the second stage break) to bunch up the field. Driver talent, awesome car, whatever the reason, recovery from mistakes is possible with this package.
Now, having said all of that, all the tweets out there about how this package is essentially a slowed down, high drag version of last year’s racing are 100 percent accurate. For the race fans who want to chuck analysis out the window and simply ask why all the time and effort was spent on this package, I’m in complete agreement.
Drivers Who Accomplished Something
The Penske duo of Keselowski and Logano seem to have NASCAR’s new package, and the new Ford Mustang, already completely figured out. Keselowski had arguably the strongest car in the field over the course of a long run, while Logano took on the vaunted Toyota of hometown Kyle Busch for the lead on several occasions, and proved completely up to the task. Take away Logano’s tire issues late last Sunday, and the Penske deuces may have finished 1-2 in consecutive weeks.
The Busch brothers fell short of the big trophy at Las Vegas, but they certainly did the hometown fans proud this weekend. Kyle absolutely mowed down the field trying to make up for his pit road gaffe, and was in position to score the win had a single caution flag flown.
As for Kurt, scoring consecutive top five finishes in his new Chip Ganassi Racing ride (three races into 2019, he’s scored as many top fives as Jamie McMurray did in the No. 1 car all of last season) and doing it while holding off the leaders for as long as he did on old tires demonstrated a lot of heart and hunger that’s quickly validating his hiring.
After another mistake at Daytona and a disappointing 18th-place finish following a stellar qualifying effort at Atlanta, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took the mantle back at Roush Fenway Racing Sunday with a sixth-place finish, his best finish on a downforce (can we still call them that?) track since Bristol last spring.
Chase Elliott survived a sudden vibration that cropped up in the last 20 laps of the race (the team radio suggested he had a tire coming apart) to score a ninth-place finish, his first top 10 of 2019, equaling Hendrick Motorsports’ best result of the season.
There’s not much to write about Harvick at Las Vegas that hasn’t been written already, but his fourth-place finish again carried the banner for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Drivers Who Accomplished Nothing
Two straight weekends of strength in practice and qualifying, two straight weeks of disappointing race results for Richard Childress Racing. Unlike Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon was unable to recover from an early race pit road penalty and spent much of the day mired in traffic, finishing off the lead lap in 20th. There wasn’t any silver lining to the results either, as Daniel Hemric proved to be a non-factor in the event, finishing two laps down in 23rd. When in the pack, the trimmed out bodies that have allowed RCR to qualify so well are not performing to this point.
On a similar note, Front Row Motorsports for the second week in a row put a car in the final round of Cup qualifying, but couldn’t deliver similar results on race day. Both Michael McDowell and David Ragan finished outside the top 25.
As Frontstretch noted earlier this weekend, Ryan Newman was in a sour mood after group qualifying turned into the farce it was. The race didn’t go any better. While Stenhouse was a solid top 10 fixture for much of the race, Newman dropped from the start and never was a factor in battling a loose condition, finishing two laps down in 24th. A promising set of results in the first two races is effectively buried in the Nevada desert.
Ryan Blaney’s struggles after having to make an extra pit stop during the first stage for a loose wheel resulted in a nondescript finish for Penske’s third car. The question to ask about this: If a driver that can run up front like Blaney can’t make up ground in a Team Penske Ford, is there reason for concern with this package?
— Frontstretch (@Frontstretch) March 3, 2019
Insights, Opinion and Fake News
For as pivotal a practice as Saturday’s Happy Hour was, the first half of the broadcast of that session was pretty much worthless, given just how much time the booth spent answering Vegas trivia questions and discussing DW’s backstage concert passes.
Once Larry McReynolds got involved discussing how the new package actually worked, the broadcast improved, but given this was the arguably the most important practice that NASCAR has had in recent memory, it seems that the tech talk should have been front and center from the start of the session. I’d like to think FOX was just compensating for uncertainty regarding what the practice would look like, but after hearing NASCAR airtime discussing Celine Dion I’m not ready to give them that much credit.
Onto the package itself. Two races in, and the overall end product has not changed as far as racing on intermediate ovals. Last week’s Atlanta race looked a lot like Atlanta races of old. Though the finish was closer than last year, the racing on the track at Las Vegas didn’t look that much different from previous races at Las Vegas.
What the package has completely failed to provide is to allow for side-by-side racing, which was largely non-existent even during the fiercest battles for the lead. Harvick took more than 10 laps to get past the No. 1 car, even with four fresh tires early in the final stage.
Even as Logano and Kyle Busch battled in the second stage, all the slicing and dicing resulted in quick passes, rather than sustained side-by-side action. I’m not ready to say the package put on a bad race. It didn’t. But if the end goal is side-by-side racing, mission failure.
A major distinguishing factor of this event was that, minus two stage breaks, this was a caution free race. NASCAR hasn’t seen a caution free race (and no, I do not count stage breaks as a caution) since Talladega in 2002. I’m deliberately putting this in bold. Caution-free races are NOT a bad thing.
But Twitter voiced concerns that this new package has perhaps made the cars too driveable, in the sense that they can’t seem to wreck:
Having watched hundreds of laps of racing and practice this weekend, the naked eye test says this is true (with one caveat: they’re easier to drive); cars have been seen to get out of shape, but they do visually appear to be glued to the ground with this package. Wrecks are not a desirable outcome of racing. But for driver talent to show, they have to be able to push the car to the ragged edge, so that a wreck is a distinct possibility.
If nothing else, as this package has not proven to be stock car racing Armageddon, NASCAR is not guilty for trying something new.
What they are guilty of, though, is a ridiculous oversell of how different this package would make things. Frontstretch’s own Joe Wolkin perfectly summed it up:
The lack of a simulated race test hurt #NASCAR. They thought it would be extremely close racing, but it's not. There should have been tests with different packages, like they did a few years ago.
Now, it's the same thing as last year, but slower. https://t.co/mshIv5aKgW
— Joseph Wolkin (@JoeWolkin) March 3, 2019
What does this mean? The fact that we’ve had three races with close finishes to start the 2019 season, that we’ve seen last season’s big three take a back seat, that what is emerging as a dynamic season the sport actually needs, all of that is being overshadowed by the fact that the hyped package has changed very little as to how races look and play out. Let’s remember the old adage: “Stock car racing is not entertainment. Stock car racing can be entertaining.” It has been in 2019. That’d matter more if NASCAR could just shut up and race.
Getting away from the aero package and to the race itself, the penalty assessed to Kyle Larson’s team for too many men over the wall is a vivid example of the road to hell being paved with good intentions.
In case you missed it, Larson’s team was penalized because one of the men behind the wall to catch old tires put his hand down on the pit box. The “hawkeye” pit road system meant to make penalty calls and enforcement uniform and transparent has done a lot to lift the veil of pit road officiating if nothing else, but to see a pit crew man gaining no competitive advantage to balance himself on a wall assessed a penalty that essentially derailed a 400-mile race for an entire team can’t be the intent, or in the sport’s best interest.
Unless of course, the intent was to make NASCAR more like a stick and ball sport with ticky tack penalties. If so, mission accomplished:
— Geoff Magliocchetti (@GeoffJMags) March 3, 2019
It’s ridiculous for a 32-year-old to speak of life experiences, but seeing Logano slice and dice to avoid Kyle Busch’s picks as they battled for the lead in the first stage took me back to one of the most memorable races I ever saw, the 2008 Carolina 500 ARCA race at Rockingham. The most memorable moment of that event was seeing wily veteran Ken Schrader pull a cross-over on Logano exiting Turn 2 that literally had the entire crowd roaring. Logano would eventually prevail on tire strategy, but there wasn’t a fan there that didn’t relish seeing “sliced bread” getting sliced up.
Fast forward to today, and Logano was holding his own with the local ringer, and arguably the most talented driver in the Cup Series today.
Joey, “when I met you, you were but the learner, now you may well be the master.” Don’t believe me? Check out this Tweet:
— Mouthy Hamster (@CaliperCat88) March 3, 2019
That’s a shocking observation considering we’re in Las Vegas.
Speaking of Logano, his most notable soundbite from his post-race remarks were describing his high level of mental exhaustion following his win. Kinda sounds like a driver that just finished at Daytona or Talladega.
Just look at the top seven finishers: Daytona 500 champion Logano. Talladega master Keselowski. Daytona winner Kyle Busch. Daytona 500 champion Harvick. Daytona 500 champion Kurt Busch. Daytona and Talladega winner Stenhouse. Defending Talladega winner Almirola. As I wrote earlier this weekend, echoing our beloved Matt McLaughlin, call it what you will, but this is an experiment in restrictor plate racing. And the finishing order speaks to that.
Lastly, as much as I hate giving this fake news story any more credence, the comparison of Kyle Busch’s pursuit of 200 wins in NASCAR’s top three series to the King winning 200 Cup races has to stop, now. Put the analysis of the quality of competition while Petty was running to bed. Petty’s wins all came at the top level of racing. Well funded or not, Petty played at the pinnacle of stock car racing. He didn’t just beat the field into submission, he beat the best field in the sport into submission.
Petty won 200 pinnacle races. Kyle Busch has won 51.
Before arguing about schedule length, let’s use proportions. Petty won 17 percent of his starts at the premier level of stock car racing. Busch has won a little over 10 percent. And perhaps even more telling, let’s look at just how dominant each drivers’ best season at the Cup level was. Kyle’s most dominant years in Cup racing came in 2008 and 2018, where he won eight of 36 Cup races or 22 percent of the year’s events. Petty accomplished 22 percent or more wins at the top level eight times in his career, including a ridiculous 27 wins across 49 races in 1967.
Kyle’s pursuits have established him as NASCAR’s greatest minor league driver ever. That’s all his pursuit of 200 means.
Best Paint Scheme: Kurt Busch The Star Nursery special was a unique scheme in its own right, but to see a Cup champion on the media center stage with the sponsor that first brought him into racing of any kind was something special. Love or hate the Busch brothers, Kurt’s hope that this becomes a trend is one shared by this writer.
Lil strategy never hurts. Very happy with today’s result, let’s keep polishing up on things @CGRTeams. What a week for the Star Nursery Special. Thanks fans, media, friends, and family! pic.twitter.com/gAsl5N72y4
— Kurt Busch (@KurtBusch) March 4, 2019
Make Pit Road Safe Again Red Ballcap: Rick Ware Racing For the first time in 2019, a Cup race was run without a Rick Ware Racing car causing an incident on pit road.
— Rick Ware Racing (@RickWareRacing) March 3, 2019
Do You Know Who I Am? Kyle Busch Busch took responsibility for his self-inflicted speeding penalty in post-race remarks, but immediately after taking the checkered flag, Busch went on an immediate profane tirade directed at the lapped car of Corey LaJoie, as if the lapped traffic obstruction cost him a shot at the win. Busch was strong on Sunday, but he was not strong enough to make up full seconds in one lap.
Semantics Award: NASCAR, for their use of the term “tapered spacers.” Enough said:
Where It Rated: NASCAR’s best battled for the lead throughout, the final run to the checkered flag was close, and, knowing how much race cars cost to build and repair, I will never complain about a caution-free race. NASCAR fans didn’t hit a jackpot while in Vegas, but they’re going home with their shirts and pride intact, and their exploits a safe distance from social media.
Whats the Points? Come back after the West Coast swing. Though I will also note that NASCAR came on in the media center during their inspections announcement to state there were inaccuracies in the points that were distributed out post-race at the track.
Dust Off the VCR: NASCAR’s westward swing continues to the ISM Raceway in Glendale, Arizona next Sunday. Coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. ET. on Fox.