NASCAR Race Weekend Central

The Big 6: Questions Answered After the 2021 Pennzoil 400

Who… should you be talking about after the race?

After being out of a NASCAR Cup Series car for nearly a year following a suspension for violating the driver conduct policy, Kyle Larson was repentant and ready to get back on track. It took him all of four weeks to find his groove and win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the seventh win of his career.

The big question mark over Larson’s head has been his ability to close the longer Cup races, but that wasn’t a problem on Sunday (March 7), as Larson dominated in the second half, saving his tires and working lapped traffic late to take the checkers. It was a moment of redemption for Larson, who, to his credit, spent last year learning some valuable lessons and earning his second chance.

Sometimes a driver needs a good race more than he needs a win, and that was true for Team Penske driver Ryan Blaney on Sunday. After grappling with terrible luck the first three weeks with no finish better than 15th, Blaney was strong all day Sunday. And while he only led one lap, it was a smooth and relatively uneventful day. Blaney finished fifth.

For Blaney, luck and momentum have been hard to come by. He’s shown flashes of brilliance, and he’s had fast cars, with his teammates winning multiple races in 2020. Blaney won at Talladega Superspeedway last summer but often faced inconsistency. If he can find consistency, though, he’ll be a contender each week. He’s fast; he just needs a little luck in his side.

What… is the buzz about?

The buzz over the last couple of years was Hendrick Motorsports falling a step or two behind in the Cup garage after being a dominant force for two decades, winning 176 times with Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson alone. HMS has a total of 13 titles with four drivers since Gordon won his first in 1995. In that same time span, including Gordon and Johnson, 15 different drivers carried Hendrick colors to victory lane. So when the organization struggled a bit, it was noteworthy.

In 2021, though, HMS has two wins in four races, and neither belongs to defending Cup champion Chase Elliott. All four cars have been competitive, something the organization has always struggled with. And while the team made strides in 2020 with Elliott’s title, there’s another change that’s worth consideration: Chad Knaus. With Knaus, a seven-time champion crew chief, now in an executive role overseeing all four Hendrick teams, has that helped swing the momentum? It’s certainly something to keep an eye on.

Will HMS regain the dominance it had for so long? It’s starting to look like a distinct possibility.

Where… did the other key players wind up?

Polesitter Kevin Harvick lost a lot of momentum with an early unscheduled stop for a tire issue, but even before that, Harvick didn’t have the strength of some other top drivers. He led the field to green but didn’t lead the first lap and never took the point back. Harvick never came back to contend after his tire woes, finishing a lackluster 20th, a lap down to Larson.

Stage one winner Brad Keselowski fell short of Larson, finishing second, more than three seconds behind the winner. Keselowski said after the race he didn’t have the corner speed to compete with Larson. Keselowski has carried the banner for Team Penske through four races this year, the only Penske driver with two top-five finishes to show for his efforts.

Fall 2020 LVMS winner and Las Vegas native Kurt Busch had strong showings at both the Daytona International Speedway road course and Homestead-Miami Speedway, but Busch struggled at his hometown track this week, finishing 19th, fighting handling all day. Busch has done a solid job of carrying his equipment this year, but he can’t, and won’t, do it every week.

Las Vegas’ other native son, Kyle Busch, posted his first top five of 2021 at LVMS, but has yet to lead a lap this year. The younger Busch has struggled without regular practice sessions, and while he was strong Sunday, wasn’t able to run with Larson or teammate Denny Hamlin, who led 47 laps Sunday.

When… was the moment of truth?

It was a year ago this week when everything changed. A year later, NASCAR certainly has a different look than it did before the COVID-19 pandemic, and it’s still far from normal, but the sport has endured. Will it ever be the same?  Teams have enjoyed the shorter weekends, so it’s certainly possible fans won’t see Cup cars on track for three days of the weekend again. Fans may not be able to rely on as much in-person media as before, either; if live coverage remains limited.

The sport has endured, but it may be forever changed.

Why… should you be paying attention this week?

This should be the time of year when things get real. The top contenders usually begin to show themselves by five races in, and teams settle in. But one look at the schedule suggests that the unpredictability may continue a bit longer. Phoenix Raceway and Atlanta Motor Speedway are up next, and the winners there may come from a slightly more expected direction. But then there’s not another 1.5-mile track to be seen until Kansas Speedway in May. In the past, Auto Club Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway have filled the early docket with more intermediate action, but after Atlanta and the Easter holiday, there’s a night race at Martinsville Speedway, a dirt race at Bristol Motor Speedway, another night race at Richmond Raceway and Talladega, the ultimate in unpredictability on its best day.

The three intermediates in May (Kansas, Darlington Raceway and Charlotte Motor Speedway) are sandwiched around Dover International Speedway and Circuit of the Americas. (Aside: it’s pretty great seeing the Lady in Black on the schedule twice again.)

So don’t settle in just yet. The most unpredictable season we’ve seen in a long time (and thank goodness for it) may not settle back to the same old, same old just yet. And fans should hope it doesn’t.

How… important is chemistry?

It gets a lot of lip service, but is team chemistry really a big deal? A skilled driver and fast cars should be able to find their way to the front regardless, right?

Not so fast. The way a team meshes is integral to its success. A good pit crew works seamlessly together; a great one can anticipate what each other is going to do before they know it themselves. And that can translate into the split seconds that decide track position off of pit road.

If it’s important for the pit crew to have that little bit extra, it’s even more important for driver and crew chief to gel. The crew chief has to take what the driver says and translate it into the adjustments he needs, but one who really understands his driver can stay a step ahead — he knows what the car will need in 50 laps based on what he’s being told now, and he’ll have it handling that way in 50 laps.

And that doesn’t always transfer from one pairing to the next. A driver can have the best crew chief in the garage, and if they don’t have that connection, they don’t reach their potential. Take a look at William Byron for a second. He’s come out fighting this year with former Camping World Truck Series crew chief Rudy Fugle back on his pit box. He looks like a different driver than he did last year when he had Chad Knaus, one of the top head wrenches ever, up there. Is Fugle a better crew chief than Knaus? Probably not … but he’s a better crew chief for Byron right now than Knaus was.

You can pick apart most pairings, and you’ll spot a few that just seem to have something more than standard communication … that’s chemistry, and yes, it matters.

RACE WEEKEND CENTRAL: LAS VEGAS

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Bill B

Another decent race on a 1.5 mile track. It was entertaining and worth watching overall. Congrats to Larson. I was expecting him to contend for wins but not until much later in the season. He is finally in top tier equipment for the first time in his career. It will be interesting to see how he fares as the season continues but it would not surprise me to see him win a couple of more times. After 4 races we have three guys that weren’t in the playoffs last year and one that barely made it and was out after the first round. I’d say guys like Almirola, Dillon, and Dibenedetto that made the playoffs last year should be worried.

janice

it will be interesting to see if the series does limited practice and qualifying during the season if the 18 will suffer. he sure seems to not like not having that practice.

JW

Yeah it was a great race-Mario Andretti called it the most entertaining Nascar race he’d ever watched. Sure Larson dominated but there were tons of lead changes too, 29 I think. FS1 just doesn’t give us the coverage like the old cable networks did-however, I do love hearing Bowyer and Gordon banter back and forth-Bowyer does a good job of making a joke then going back to the race. Gordon is Gordon and we cannot take anything from him. It is great to have Darlington back twice-but what would really be cool is if one of those Darlington dates went to Rockingham; North Wilkesboro is in disrepair even though Jr and an IRacing team cleaned it up. South Boston would be awesome. But the high banks of Fontana’s short track are going to be great; word is that it is going to be an asphalt surface with banking comparable to Bristol’s. The dirt race should really be exciting. I know NASCAR alienated some of the remainder of it’s “southern” core by banning the rebel flag but we are in a new age now. We need a great female driver and more diversity. But just imagine this: what if suddenly, Dale Jr came out of retirement to drive the #3 for Childress or someone like Robbie Allison was given a shot (Davey’s son). NASCAR has always been about the people that make it up, as well as the cars. The Next-Gen car is supposed, again, from reading what Letarte and Andy Petree have made videos of, to be able to be adjusted about 60% more than these cars. It is going to be an exciting time for Nascar–heck baseball suffered like heck after their strike and Nascar has had the recession and B. France to bring it down. It isn’t going away though and I am thankful. I watch each race in it’s entirety. I would make a few suggestions though; kill stage racing, leave the choose rule and crown the champion over the ENTIRE season as that was something that differentiated NASCAR from stick and ball. Ironically, as soon as the CHASE was introduced in 2004, ratings slowly fell off. Visit more short tracks and rebuild your fanbase. However, I have seen sell-outs for the tickets that were sold at the last two races (pandemic protocols). Which is great. NASCAR will rebound and won’t go away. Neither will I ever, as a real fan.

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