Sunday afternoon’s (Feb. 23) NASCAR Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was arguably one of the best intermediate races we have seen in recent memory. With it only being race two of the season, nobody quite knew which drivers would be the strongest. When you expect the unexpected, usually some very exciting races come out on the other end. Sunday was just that.
Should we expect intermediate racing to be that good all season long? Did Las Vegas set a tone for the rest of the season already? Is it too early to tell?
Throughout the first two races of the season, we have seen many pleasant surprises. Many drivers who were not expected to be near the front of the field this season have produced some great results already. Whether that is a sign of things to come this season, we will not know until we get further into the year, but no matter what, these underdogs have come out of the box swinging.
Who has stood out the most? Can they keep this up or will they falter slowly but surely? If anyone can keep it up, how well do you see them doing in 2020?
Q: Do you see the Las Vegas Cup race as a race that set the tone for the rest of the season? Tyler S., Tulsa, OK
A: Without a doubt, Sunday’s race in Las Vegas was one of the best intermediate races we have seen over the past few seasons. It had every aspect you would want in a race with lead changes, strategy, different lines on the track, different drivers near the front and a green-white-checkered to end it all.
This easily was the best race we’ve seen in Las Vegas in a long time, but this will not be the only race we see like this all season. Did it set a tone for the season? Yes it did, even though it is only race two. We cannot always expect every race to be that way, but anything less of what we saw on Sunday may be a slight disappointment to many. This is where we cannot set expectations too high.
While the bar is set high, we are going to have races that will not produce nearly as much as Las Vegas did, and that is perfectly fine. Every season has those races, and it is just bound to happen. However, you need to have more races like Las Vegas. If you do not, the season will not be successful.
What changed from last season to make this race so much better than one year ago? Well, really nothing changed because the package stayed the same and the race was held only a week earlier than it was in 2019. It seems as if teams have done their homework, especially Team Chevy, to make them more competitive than we have seen. The more competition there is, the better the race will be. This is something that was lacking in the last few seasons: a third extremely strong manufacturer, as Ford and Toyota left Chevy behind.
The drivers raced extremely aggressive as well, which always adds to the fun of a race. Aggression leads to exciting moves, which can also lead to catastrophic wrecks like we have seen. Goodyear also brought a great tire to the track. Falloff was noticeable, which is something that has not quite happened since the debut of this package last season. Softer tires and more tire wear will always equal great racing. If Goodyear can keep up with that idea, then we are in for a treat.
No matter what you think of the racing these days, you had to have liked what you saw on Sunday. Restarts were complete insanity, but throughout a run, nobody really pulled out to a big lead like we have seen. The field was quite close together for the majority of the race, and like previously mentioned, it led to many different faces near the front all day. Las Vegas could be an indication of what we see at similar tracks all year. If it is, 2020 is going to be great.
Q: Who stands out to you most after two races; a top driver or underdog who is having a great start? Joseph T., Greensboro, NC
A: There are so many drivers who have gotten off to better starts than many expected them to have. This is always a too-early-to-say type of thing because two races is such a small portion of the season that we really cannot tell who the true contenders are until about race six to seven. Drivers like Bubba Wallace and Corey LaJoie find themselves inside the top 16 in points, which is something many did not expect. With that said, though, there is one driver who has stood out to me. Let’s talk about Ricky Stenhouse Jr. for a minute.
Stenhouse was pushed aside by Roush Fenway Racing at the end of last season and has since joined JTG Daugherty Racing for 2020. While Roush Fenway was not winning races, they are still one of the top teams in NASCAR, and for Stenhouse, it seemed like going to JTG Daugherty was going to be a bit of a downgrade. He has surprised many in the first two races and currently sits fifth in the standings.
After winning the pole for the Daytona 500 and having a chance to win there, followed by a solid third-place finish at Las Vegas, Stenhouse is showing that the team has a lot of speed this season. Can they keep it up? They definitely have the potential to this season. The new Chevy body seemed to pay huge dividends for all the teams this past weekend, with many of them running near the front and leading laps. Stenhouse is now in one of those fast Chevy Camaros for the first time in his career.
Many believed he was in for a tough season going from his home for over 10 years to a team that has not been proven to run in the top 10 on a consistent basis yet. But he is bringing a lot of experience to the team, and that can be huge for a smaller team like JTG Daugherty. Crew Chief Brian Pattie is no slouch either, as he has had six wins at the Cup level.
While it is too early to tell whether Stenhouse will be a frontrunner all year, he is surprising many so far. He is one of the most aggressive drivers in the series, and while he has made some enemies, you have to respect his talent. In the right situation, he can thrive. Will this be the right fit? So far, it’s been a very good fit for him. It is going to be fun to watch what Stenhouse can do to close out the West Coast Swing and then see how he performs as we get into the bulk of the season.