Las Vegas NASCAR test: What we know — and what we don’t — about new rules package

NASCAR preseason testing is a giant tease in that it provides tantalizing hints of what’s to come, but the information is often incomplete.

Take this two-day organizational test in Las Vegas, for example. There were 13 cars on track, draft-racing for 25 laps at a time with temperatures in the low 60s. Will those sessions look the same when there are 40 cars driving a full race in warmer weather next month? Of course not.

So let’s focus on what we know for sure after this test at Las Vegas and the three-car Goodyear tire test at Fontana last month. When it comes to the new rules package, what can we write with pen and what remains in pencil?

Here’s the first, most obvious, most indisputable fact about the 2019 package: It signifies a mentality shift in NASCAR that had been in the works for years.

This isn’t a small tweak to the racing, like the addition of the free pass. This isn’t even on the level of breaking up the races with stages or implementing double-file restarts.

This package — which brings drafting to the Cup Series on a widespread level — is a fundamental change in the way NASCAR races will look and feel.

By placing a priority on entertainment, officials have crafted the racing to produce a show they hope will thrill and excite the fan base. Ten-second leads are dead, raw speed has diminished importance and the outcome of races will more often be in doubt.

“We want cars close together, we don’t want people falling off and going laps down, we don’t want people checking out,” NASCAR vice president of development and innovation John Probst said. “We don’t want that ‘wall of noise’ (where the cars are spread out and just going by the stands continuously).”

By keeping the cars from escaping one another, the demand on the drivers will change. This won’t be about the bravery of driving into the corner deeper than another competitor, but rather about understanding the draft and making moves to find pockets of clean air — and thus gain position.

Many of the drivers, as you can guess, hate this. They’re trying to be restrained in public, biting their tongues or talking around their real opinions of the package. They save their griping for private, believing it does no one any good to blast it within earshot of fans.

Well, for the most part.

We’ve taken the driver skill away from the drivers in this package,” Kyle Busch said. “Anybody can go out and run around there and go wide open. You (media) can probably do it. It’s going to be a lot more mental game, a lot more chess match, thinking how you make moves, how daring you’ll be.”

Many of those who view themselves as “racers” in the garage feel the same way, grumbling the new rules go against the traditional spirit of motorsports.

NASCAR is well aware of the opinions, of course. Probst acknowledged the majority of drivers dislike the package (and wondered aloud why they would openly say it doesn’t take skill if drivers are paid for those very talents). But officials pushed forward with this approach in hopes it would make for a better on-track product.

In short, if Cup cars race like the Truck Series, it will be deemed a success in the halls of NASCAR. After all, fans have long claimed Truck racing was the best NASCAR had to offer. NASCAR took that as a hint.

So will it work? That’s where the pencil comes in and the pen disappears.

The short answer: I don’t know. You don’t know. The drivers don’t know. NASCAR doesn’t know. No one knows for sure, and anyone saying otherwise is just guessing.

However, there were some hints at the Vegas test. And the results were mixed:

— Could the cars stay closer together than before? No doubt. However, Vegas is a relatively smooth, fast and low-wear track. During the drafting sessions, the leader could hold the gas wide open all the way around the track — but the cars in the pack had their hands full and often had to lift, depending how their cars were set up. That won’t be the case at a place like Fontana, where the tires were making a considerable difference at the three-car test and even the leader had to lift after six or seven laps.

— Could the leader get passed? Through the five draft sessions in Vegas, it looked quite difficult to achieve. If a driver had even a half-decent car, it appeared clean air would leave them untouchable as the second- and third-place cars scrambled to try and get by. The action in the field was good, but for the lead? Not so much. But again, that’s at a specific test with specific circumstances that might not apply everywhere — so we just don’t know yet.

— Did this package take some engineering out of the cars? Maybe in some ways, but now crew chiefs and engineers will just have a different challenge. They can trim their cars out to be fast but perhaps not handle well or set up to have a good long-run car but sacrifice some of the drafting speed.

— Will this change the strategy? Big time, and moreso than we can even grasp. With track position looking like it could mean more than ever, crew chiefs might have to take huge gambles on tires late in a race. Pit stops will be absolutely vital; a pit-road penalty might doom someone’s race. And there might even be some wrinkles we can’t yet anticipate, such as drivers teaming up to bump-draft in order to pass the leader.

Let’s go back to writing in pen for a moment, because we know this much for sure: As it stands now, this will be one of the most unpredictable seasons NASCAR has ever had. Between the new package and the playoff format, trying to come up with a field of 16 playoff drivers — let alone a championship pick — will be more like wild guesses.

There will likely be drivers who make the playoffs based on a Hail Mary call to stay out at the right time, while others who benefit from races filled with attrition from the additional crashes that will take place this season. There will be spectacular wrecks on restarts and highlight reels filled with daring, aggressive moves for the lead.

Will the new package save the sport? No, because no one thing will. Will it increase interest and attendance, or at least stop the slide? That’s the potential payoff for this gamble, and officials have decided betting with the sport’s integrity itself is worth the risk in order to entertain its fan base.

Good or bad, the verdict won’t come anytime soon. Only two of the first six races — Vegas (March 3) and Fontana (March 17) — use the full version of the new package, and it will take much longer than that to measure the impact.

In the meantime, drivers, fans and media alike will look for signs, wondering if this new Entertainment Era will lift the sport or only drag it down further, as some have seemed to predict via social media.

For NASCAR’s part, officials are just hoping fans give it a chance.

“I would encourage them to give it a chance and see it and watch it,” NASCAR’s Probst said. “I think they’re going to find it will be very entertaining.”

John Probst said NASCAR officials were pleased with what they saw in the Vegas test, but said they aren’t ready to celebrate yet.

Watch: Periscope broadcasts of the 2019 rules package test at Las Vegas

 

Las Vegas Testing Day 2: What can we really learn?

With so many unknowns heading into 2018 and so little information to start guessing what will happen, it’s awfully tempting to jump to conclusions based on little nuggets of data from this week’s Las Vegas test.

For example: William Byron was the fastest in two of the four sessions after never getting in a Cup car before this week. The Chevrolets showed speed with their new Camaro. Kyle Larson had the quickest overall lap time when most teams switched to qualifying trim on the final day.

What’s it all mean? Anything? How much can we really tell from a test?

“You never know who is maybe tuned up trying to raise morale within their own team and who is legit,” Brad Keselowski said. “Usually the bigger teams are fairly legit in these tests. … But you never can really tell for certain.”

For example: Keselowski said Team Penske often does not bring its best cars to the test, and Ty Dillon said some teams might not even bring their best motors.

Learning what the car likes and what adjustments work are more important than chasing lap times, the drivers said. And with so many different agendas, it’s tough to tell how much the lap times matter.

“I don’t think you can really judge it to the fullest,” Dillon said.

Plus, there’s no inspection at the tests — so teams can do whatever they want, in theory (although that would seem like a waste of time considering they came all the way across the country for this).

“You never know who is trying what,” Larson said. “And I honestly don’t even know how far our team has pushed the boundaries for the test.”

Did last year’s preseason test tell us anything? Not really. It was held at Phoenix, and Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the fastest overall lap. He was one of four drivers — Larson, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick the others — who were in the top five for all four Phoenix sessions.

But that wasn’t a good barometer for the season, since only two of them even made the playoffs and the four drivers combined for just two top-fives in the Phoenix races.

So do we know anything after Las Vegas?

I’m going to say yes. First, we know that when most teams actively tried to post a fast lap at the end of the test, it was Larson who had the advantage.

“When we switched to qualifying trim, we were faster than everybody here,” Larson said. “I don’t know how that would be if it were a full field, but I felt happy overall.”

Also, there was a frequent pattern for most of the two days: Larson, Ryan Newman (second-fastest overall) and William Byron were consistently near the top of the charts.

All of those drivers race for Chevy teams, who have a new nose this year.

“I think you can get some sort of an idea (of who is fast),” Larson said. “The Penske group, whenever I’ve done tests with them, they’re not as competitive at the test and then they come back at the race and they’re really fast.

“But overall, our balance felt really good. So you can take that at least and know you’re going to come back to the majority of the mile-and-a-halfs and be competitive.”

Day 2 combined top single-lap speeds (I took the driver’s top speed from the morning and afternoon sessions; most were in the afternoon when they finished in qualifying trim):

Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet) / 191.259 mph

Ryan Newman (Richard Childress Racing Chevrolet) / 190.027

Erik Jones (Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota) / 190.007

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Roush Fenway Racing Ford) / 189.827

William Byron (Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet) / 189.281

Kasey Kahne (Leavine Family Racing Chevrolet) / 189.009

Brad Keselowski (Team Penske Ford) / 188.745

Kurt Busch (Stewart-Haas Racing Ford) / 187.754

Paul Menard (Wood Brothers Racing Ford) / 187.500

Ty Dillon (Germain Racing Chevrolet) / 187.500

Chris Buescher (JTG/Daugherty Racing Chevrolet) / 187.318

Darrell Wallace Jr. (Richard Petty Motorsports Chevrolet) / 187.298

Cole Custer (GoFas Racing Ford) / 186.761

Drew Herring (Toyota wheel force car) / 184.319 *

Justin Allgaier (Chevrolet wheel force car) / 183.824 *

David Ragan (Ford wheel force car) / 180.542 *

* — Wheel force cars are used by manufacturers to gain additional information through advanced telemetry equipment and have a primary objective of gathering data.

And now for Kyle Busch’s side of the Las Vegas fight

Joey Logano twice presented his side of the Las Vegas fight story on Friday.

After getting back on track at Phoenix Raceway and qualifying ninth, it was Kyle Busch’s turn.

Busch spoke to a pair of reporters (including me) on pit road after his qualifying lap, telling us why he punched Logano last week and adding he still didn’t buy Logano’s explanation.

When Busch tried to make a move down the backstretch and avoid a slowing Brad Keselowski on the last lap, he made contact with Logano. He felt Logano then took revenge right away.

“It was instantaneous,” Busch said. “I made a move down the backstretch that cut Joey off — and I had to; I wasn’t just going to roll out of the gas and fall in behind Brad and probably lose spots to more guys behind me. So I made a bold move — I was two-thirds of my way past Logano, and I figured I can wedge my way through there a little bit.

“And I did, and it was instantaneous retaliation. That’s what I thought and that’s kind of what I still think.”

Logano presented Busch with data during their meeting with NASCAR that he felt proved the incident was unintentional, but Busch didn’t believe it.

“No,” Busch said after being asked whether the data changed his mind. “Nope.”

Busch said he’s raced Logano well over the years and “didn’t expect that move from Joey.” He thought the two would be able to showcase their talent in a good, side-by-side finish and then say something like, “Ah, he got me this time. Damn.”

But Logano “chose a different route,” Busch said.

“And if it was Brad, I would have expected that route to be chosen, you know what I mean?” he added. “So that’s how I interpret that.”

Busch also expressed frustration over “continuing to get wrecked by the Penske guys.” You’ll recall Logano has also been in recent high-profile wrecks with Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.

As for the lack of NASCAR penalty for punching Logano on pit road?

“There could have been different circumstances that played out that wouldn’t have allowed me to be here, and that’s why I said what I said earlier — that everything is great,” Busch said. “Life is good.”

Oh, and one more thing: Did Busch’s punch connect or not?

Busch’s public relations representative cut off the question, and the driver didn’t answer — but Busch grinned and shook his hand like it hurt.

More from Joey Logano on the Las Vegas fight

In case you can’t get enough of this topic, Joey Logano came into the Phoenix Raceway media center Friday afternoon for a scheduled session. Naturally, most of the questions were about the fight.

Here are some of the highlights:

— On what he and Busch discussed during their Friday morning meeting with NASCAR: “I told him that we obviously made contact on the back straightaway. I had a not-very-good entry and had to slow down the car a lot to stay on the bottom and tried to make up some of that speed at the bottom of the racetrack and then I got loose. Once you get loose once, then I was on his door. You get loose again and at that point that was it. That is my mistake.

“The fact of the matter is I tried to stay on the bottom, I made a mistake and got up into him. I hate that it happened. I would take it back in a heartbeat. He asked for data when we talked on the phone (during the week) and I was able to bring that with me and present that and try to explain what was going on inside my race car.”

— On whether he got through to Busch: “Time will tell. I guess your actions on the racetrack are what speaks the loudest a lot of times. I believe so. I tried to be as open and honest and be an open book. There are no secrets. Hopefully that helped.”

— On whether it was intentional: “We were racing to the checkered flag and I have no reason to do anything on purpose for fourth place. That makes no sense. We were racing hard for position and the car got loose.”

— On whether he’s OK with Busch not being penalized “Of course. I don’t see where there should have been a fine for anything. I didn’t see anything wrong.”

— On his insistence he didn’t get punched in the face: “I have ninja moves man! I slipped. … I can say that I didn’t feel anything (if Busch did connect). It sure didn’t hurt.”

As for Busch’s side of all this? Well, so far all we’ve gotten is “Everything is great!”

News Analysis: Kyle Busch not penalized for Las Vegas fight

What happened: NASCAR’s penalty report from Las Vegas Motor Speedway contained no penalties of any kind for Kyle Busch, Joey Logano or any of their crew members following Sunday’s pit road fight.

What it means: Angry drivers are allowed to punch someone after a race, and NASCAR is going to embrace that emotion. If that seems like a change from recent years, welcome to the Monster Energy Era. Mixing it up on and off the track is exactly what the series sponsor wants, and apparently even fights are fair game. It’s nice to see NASCAR didn’t act in a hypocritical fashion and fine Busch while profiting from the publicity and using it to promote upcoming races.

News value (scale of 1-10): Six. It’s above average news for the reason it might set a new precedent for how NASCAR will react to such altercations.

Questions: How far can a driver go before getting penalized now? If Busch had injured Logano, would the situation be different? Should Busch get a gift card or something for all the attention he got for NASCAR this week?

Here’s a slo-mo version of the video if you want to break it down frame-by-frame:

The Top Five: Breaking down the Las Vegas race

Each week, I’ll give some race analysis through a post called the Top Five — notable storylines from the just-completed event. Typically, this will be posted as soon as possible after the race — but my site has been crashing for the past couple days, so I was unable to post anything new! My apologies for the delay.

Get ready for the mixed messages

It will be fascinating to see how NASCAR reacts to the Kyle Busch/Joey Logano incident.

In one respect, NASCAR probably has to give Busch a slap on the wrist (probation or small fine) to say, “Hey dude, you can’t go up to someone and just punch them.”

But on the other hand, this is exactly what NASCAR wants! You know NASCAR is going to use it in all sorts of promotional aspects heading into Phoenix and beyond, so it’s hypocritical to penalize Busch while also profiting from it.

That’s been how NASCAR has operated for years, of course, dating back to the 1979 Daytona 500 (the drivers were fined for that famous fight, even though it put NASCAR on the map).

With the addition of Monster Energy, though — which has openly advocated for drivers to mix it up — can NASCAR really fine Busch with a straight face?

If so, he shouldn’t pay it.

Finish saves a ho-hum race

The sun was pouring into the press box during the first stage, and — combined with a food coma from lunch and the expiration of my morning coffee buzz — I almost started to nod off.

You can yell at FOX all you want (There’s great racing through the field, they’re just not showing it!), but the truth is the entire field was running single file for a long stretch in both of the early stages.

At one point, a reporter (who shall remain nameless) shouted, “Whoa!” We scanned the track for trouble, didn’t see anything, then turned to the reporter with puzzled expressions.

What happened?

“A pass in the top 12!” he said.

Though the crazy finish with Brad Keselowski’s problems and the post-race fight salvaged the day, there are now legitimate concerns about the racing following the first two 1.5-mile tracks of the season. Both Atlanta and Vegas weren’t as exciting as their 2016 editions — especially Atlanta — and it makes you wonder what’s up with the much-anticipated lower downforce package.

Phoenix probably isn’t going to be an amazing race — it’s just not the most action-packed track after restarts — but Fontana should be, since it’s become one of the best circuits. If not, there will be much head-scratching going on within the industry.

Martin Truex Jr. closes it out

Every time I thought about the new points system heading into the season, I thought of Martin Truex Jr. He was so dominant at times last year, and then he got into the Chase and — well, you know what happened. But if he had the playoff points under the current system, he might have made it to Homestead.

So with that in mind, it was interesting to see Truex get the maximum seven playoff points (which, remember, are bonus points that carry over all the way through Phoenix). Prior to this system, a win was only worth three bonus points — and those could only be used in the first round.

“That really would have helped us last year,” Truex said. “We ran so good and led so many races, and always didn’t get the finish we probably deserved or thought we should have gotten, and so it’s cool to get rewarded for running good and pushing hard and being up at the front of the pack more consistently than other guys.”

With one great race, Truex now has more bonus/playoff points than he’d have for two wins last year. That’s really going to add up for some of the top drivers, and it’s going to make the chances of some fluke elimination in the early rounds much less likely.

Kyle Larson is having a fantastic start

Don’t sleep on Larson this year — and I’m not just talking wins, but the championship.

Dating back to the Phoenix race last fall, Larson has finished third, second at Homestead, 12th at Daytona, second at Atlanta and now second at Las Vegas.

“Super happy with how our season has gotten started,” he said. “Way better than where I’ve ever started a season.”

It seems like things are really clicking for Larson, who isn’t taking himself out of races with some of the mistakes he made in the first couple seasons.

When you combine Larson’s results with consecutive top-10s for Jamie McMurray, there’s a lot to like about Chip Ganassi Racing right now. Both cars appear to have the speed to be contenders in many weeks this season.

Keselowski the early title favorite

I just said not to sleep on Larson (see above) for the championship, but the favorite at the moment has to be Keselowski.

He won Atlanta despite having to make an untimely pit stop with a loose wheel, then won the pole for Las Vegas and was certainly either the best car (he was about to win, after all) or the second-best all day.

Keselowski said he didn’t know what happened to his car in the last couple laps, when he suddenly lost power (and if he did know, he was keeping it close to the vest). But either way, the overall speed is there and Team Penske seems to be extremely strong (Keselowski’s teammate Logano is the only driver with top-10 finishes in all three races).

It’s still very early, of course, and many things can and will change in the coming weeks. But if you’re looking for the NASCAR equivalent of a 25-day weather forecast, it’s looking bright for Keselowski.