NASCAR Cup Series

OBSERVATIONS: Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway

After seeing fans and drivers contest the lack of passing and exciting racing on the intermediate tracks, NASCAR implemented a higher-downforce, lower-horsepower competition package. There were some positives, but it certainly did not deliver to the expectations touted before the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Through testing in January, pack racing was evident with the drivers unable to get away from each other through a 20-lap run. As a result, the restarts were predicted to be chaotic, and they certainly were. Drivers were three-wide around the Las Vegas Motor Speedway as they got runs on each other virtue of the air being disturbed by the new high rear spoiler. 

You also had the ability to pass back and forth over the course of  a run, with drivers making their way forward as much as they went backwards. Kyle Busch made his way back up to third despite a pit road speeding penalty in the second stage, while Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski swapped the top spot back and forth. There was also a battle between Busch and Logano in stage two for first, as well. 

However, drivers having to rely on other cars to get runs and draft with fellow competitors really doesn’t constitute to what “true racing” is supposed to be in saying everybody go as hard as they can with their own equipment. That is where the package has it’s biggest downfall with several drivers and fans.

“The cars don’t have any speed,” Busch said post-race. “You’re wide open just trying to suck off of any car that you can that’s in front of you to get a draft. I was running 31-flats when I was chasing those leaders down and then once I got there, I stalled out to 31.40s because the wind was just so bad behind those guys that you couldn’t corner anymore, you couldn’t maneuver. I couldn’t run low if they ran low and I couldn’t run high if they ran high so you’re always trying to figure out which way to go.”

Frankly, those battles were great to watch, but they don’t make up for the rest of the run.

The further you got into a run, the more spread out the cars got and essentially, you were stuck watching everybody run single file – and it happened only 15 laps into a run for the first stage, compared to 20 like testing. The second and third restarts would see the field stay closer for a longer period of time, thanks to everybody being held by the leader playing the strategy card – Keselowski taking two tires to start stage two, while Kurt Busch stayed out in the final stage.

You can see the idea of keeping the cars closer together falling apart when you see less than 20 cars on the lead lap. The drivers were even bored with Clint Bowyer telling his team that it was “pretty boring” and taking them for a lap by leaving the radio on for a full lap, letting the engine noise play, without any crack in the throttle.

Anybody remember the days of having to watch the drivers battle against the handling of the cars, cracking the gas at times due to sliding sideways? Darrell Waltrip touting “the cars are more driveable at this speed,” doesn’t make the fans feel any better when the racing puts them to sleep. 

The new package also showed the more things change, the more things stay the same as the familiar races reigned at the front of the field. The Big Three from last year (Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick, and Kyle Busch), along with 2018 series champion Logano spent the day in the top-five, now joined by Logano’s teammate.

The ideology that the new package would allow some of the smaller teams to mix it up at the front was lost today, too. 

NASCAR on Fox’s TV Coverage has been a constant topic of discussion, and not in the lightest way possible. On top of fans criticizing Michael Waltrip‘s “Grid Walk” segment for the goofiness and the commentary heard from the booth, they need to be reminded about how to show a race properly.

As the leaders spread out single-file 15 to 20 laps into a run, they chose to focus on them and talk about drivers individually. Why not show “zoo-like” back half of the field that Aric Almirola described to give us some entertainment?

Additionally, they also chose to take three commercial breaks in the first 40 laps, and missed the first batch of leaders heading in for green flag pit stops. They also showed advertisements, rather than the three-way battle for first that was shaping up. 

If NASCAR ever wants to make the package more exciting to watch, they need to consult with their broadcast partners in showcasing what they are doing. 

Austin Dillon and Kyle Larson were both touted early for their speed and ability, with thoughts of them being in the discussion for the victory. Unfortunately, they were both handed a pit road penalty that they were unable to overcome.

For Larson, it marks the second straight week in a row that he has seen his run fooled by something happened on pit road. He showed the speed last year to contend for victories and be part of the Championship 4, though saw his playoff chances folded by engine failures. He needs to find some consistency if he is even going to dream of making a run this year.

Kyle Busch was also fooled by a pit road penalty, caught speeding as previously mentioned. While he overcame loose wheels in both the NASCAR Gander Outdoor Truck Series and NASCAR Xfinity Series to win, he was only able to get back to third today. 

NASCAR may have gotten the officiating right in the race per the rulebook, but that doesn’t mean they are not insane in the process. Larson and Dillon were both penalizing for “having too many men over the wall.” The additional crew member didn’t service the car, nor they did step on pit road. Essentially, they reached over to help retrieve the tires as they were being rolled over to the wall and touched the ground. 

There’s one thing to make rules for safety, and another for fair competition. Then there’s insanity, which is what this is. Essentially, if I slip my footing a little and touch the ground, my team is screwed? That seems a little harsh.


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By Ashley McCubbin

Currently the Executive Editor for Popular Speed, Ashley McCubbin also runs Short Track Musings, while handling media relations for OSCAAR. Currently living in Bradford, Ontario, she spends her weekend at the local short tracks in the area taking photos.