If you asked someone to name the most unpredictable races of the season, they’d probably say Daytona and Talladega. And it makes sense, given the volatility of the Big One and the changing nature of the racing (single file vs. pack).
But from this view, today’s race at Las Vegas — the first with the full/extreme 2019 rules package on the cars — is way more hard to predict.
We don’t know who is going to be good (“You can’t look at the speed charts,” Ricky Stenhouse Jr. said). We don’t know what the racing is going to look like (the most laps ever run in this package was 25 laps at a test with a dozen cars). We don’t know how potential wrecks might play into the outcome of the race.
That said, here are a few guesses to what might happen today:
— Track position is going to be everything for the leader — and ultimately the winner. It will be very difficult to pass the leader once they get into clean air, although that car will never be able to pull away by more than a couple seconds.
— Given the emphasis on track position, restarts are going to be absolutely bonkers. The scramble is going to be crazy when the field is bunched up, and it will probably last for a solid 10 or 20 laps after the green — with the high chance of a big wreck or two.
— Even though the leader might not be touched, the racing from third to 15th is going to be way better than it was before at most intermediate tracks (in terms of close racing and passing and cars all over the place). So maybe that’s the biggest positive of this package.
— Some cars are going to absolutely kill it with their setup and car builds — and some are going to be painfully out to lunch. It all depends on how much they’re “trimmed out” — which is the balance between speed (getting the gigantic spoiler out of the air) and handling (having more downforce to provide stability in traffic but also more drag, which will slow the car). For example: The Richard Childress Racing cars of Austin Dillon and Daniel Hemric have been at the top of the speed charts all weekend — but the garage thinks that’s because they’re trimmed out more than everyone else. “I was behind the 3 a couple times and he had to lift pretty big from getting loose, so that’s a product of having your car trimmed out and trying to make speed out of it,” Stenhouse said.
— The best performers today will be the best drafters, not necessarily the ones with the fastest cars. Kyle Busch crew chief Adam Stevens said the entire key is “about who can stay in the gas the longest and navigate through traffic and get out front.” When a driver has to get out of the gas due to a sketchy moment or ill-handling car, they’re going to get left behind (since most of the competitors will be wide open). Said Dillon crew chief Danny Stockman: “There is a balance you’ve got to hit, and whoever hits that balance will be in victory lane on Sunday.”
— All that said, here are my top five drivers to watch today: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Jimmie Johnson.