The Top Five: Breaking down the Las Vegas race

Five thoughts following Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway…

1. The Game Done Changed

Brad Keselowski sounded the alarm bells last year when he said NASCAR hadn’t let one manufacturer get so far ahead of the others since the 1970s.

He was talking about Toyota, of course. And with only minor rules changes coming into this year and Chevrolet rolling out its slick new Camaro, Keselowski was worried the Fords might “take a drubbing,” as he put it last November.

But after seeing Fords finish sweep the podium at Atlanta and then take six of the top 10 spots Sunday at Las Vegas — including another dominating win by Kevin Harvick — Keselowski said he is feeling differently.

“My initial reaction is — without a full data set — it seems to imply the field has been evened out a little bit,” Keselowski told me as he walked down pit road. “Or at least the balance has been shifted.”

Keselowski believed Harvick’s strong performance at the end of last year was in spite of the Fords not being on an equal playing field (his words) as the Toyotas. But now, he said, “We got to an equal playing field, and he showed to be as strong as he probably should have been last year.”

So what changed? Well, many people have been pointing the finger at the new inspection system (which was initially called “Hawk-Eye” and then “The OSS” and now the “Optical Scanning Station,” but for our purposes we’ll call the “black tent”).

Does most of the credit go to the black tent? Keselowski gave an initial yes, but he cautioned it’s still too early to know for sure.

“We felt all along if the cars were held to the gold standard — which is the submittal (of the car’s specifications that get approved by NASCAR) — then the playing field would be level,” he said. “And we didn’t feel like that was the case last year, which is why we pushed really hard for this system so everyone was racing what they were supposed to be racing.”

2. Big OSS

Along those lines, Harvick noted the rules might not have changed, but the enforcement has. The black tent — “Big OSS,” as SiriusXM host Jim Noble called it — has made for “a totally different interpretation of the rules,” Harvick said.

“There was a lot of things with the splitters last year that some people were doing and people weren’t doing,” he said. “There’s not rules changes per se, the rules were really different and how teams interpret them.”

There’s a common splitter now, which teams all purchase from the same supplier. So that can’t be manipulated in the same way.

Aside from that, the rules haven’t changed much. So it’s sort of fascinating to see how teams approach the big black tent.

As you recall, Martin Truex Jr.’s team failed three times before qualifying at Atlanta. But then the 78 car was one of the first teams to make it through before the Atlanta race inspection.

Similarly, Jimmie Johnson’s team got through pre-qualifying inspection at Las Vegas easily, but then failed three times Sunday morning before the race (which forced them to start in the back and resulted in the ejection of the car chief).

It was quite common in the last couple years for teams to loudly whisper about NASCAR’s laser inspection station being inconsistent. To this day, many swear the LIS would occasionally spit out bogus numbers.

“Last year, there were so many (times) that you’d go through tech and you’d go through with the same car that you didn’t change — and the numbers were different,” team owner Tony Stewart said. “We didn’t change anything on the race cars, and numbers were drastically different.”

But that’s not the case with this new system so far. Teams are getting through easily, and when they don’t, it’s because they’re pushing the limits — not because NASCAR’s equipment is inconsistent.

Just look at Johnson’s team on Sunday. You can’t fault Chad Knaus for trying everything he could to get Johnson some more speed, but you definitely can’t fault NASCAR for enforcing the limits, either.

Rules are rules. As long as officials apply them fairly to everyone, no one should complain.

3. Johnson’s comeback

As the laps wound down in the first stage, Johnson was in serious danger of going two laps down under green — the continuation of a nightmarish streak for his team dating back to last fall.

As it turned out, Johnson and Knaus pulled out some of the magic that made them so special over the years, salvaging a 12th-place finish on a day that initially looked ugly.

Johnson acknowledged he had to change his approach on Sunday and get back to basics.

“At the end of last year and even in Atlanta, I was trying too hard,” he said. “Just giving 100 percent and driving the car where it’s at and bringing it home is what I need to start doing.

“I have been trying to carry it, and I’ve crashed more cars in the last six months than I have really in any six-month stretch or whole year stretch. (I was) just trying to drive it 100 percent and not step over that line.”

It worked, although Johnson indicated Hendrick Motorsports is still behind — and it’s not all just because the new Camaro is in its infancy.

“There is a piece of performance that is familiar from last year, so I think we have some work to do ourselves underneath the body with the chassis and the setup of the car,” he said, referring to an area where Hendrick fell behind in 2017. “… I think the body is definitely helping the car, we’ve just got some other stuff to sort out to go along with it and kind of find the sweet spot for the car, too.”


4. Fords Real, Tho

Part of the Ford boost so far this year has resulted in improved performance for drivers like Paul Menard (ninth at Las Vegas) and Aric Almirola (10th).

Fords are 1-2-3 in the point standings (Harvick-Joey Logano-Ryan Blaney) and eight of the top 13 after the first three races.

“The strength of the Fords has been nice,” Logano said. “Heck yeah. I am excited about it.”

So…are they for real? Though Las Vegas was a good indicator the answer is yes, drivers cautioned to hold off for a few more weeks before making any firm conclusions.

“You take all six races before the (Easter) break to realize (what kind of speed a team has),” Ryan Blaney said. “You come here and it is different than Atlanta. You kind of show your strength here. You kind of see where your short track stuff adds up at Phoenix and then we go to a big two-mile (at Fontana) and you really get an idea there.

“I think when the break comes and that off-weekend comes, you really know where you stack up.”

Kyle Busch said Vegas is indicative of who will run well in the future — but only the immediate future, not the whole year. He pointed to how his team started last season as a top-10 car but eventually improved to a frontrunner by the summer.

“I don’t think it’s a huge telltale, but it’ll obviously give you an idea of who’s going to be tough up through May,” he said.

Keselowski said each race is a data point, and there are only two real data points so far.

“One data point doesn’t mean anything,” he said. “Two data points doesn’t mean everything — but it does mean something.”

5. Stinking up the show?

It didn’t seem like Sunday’s race was the greatest display of NASCAR racing that has ever existed. Clean air was a factor (it even plagued Harvick when he was in traffic) and a single car led 321 of the 400 miles in the race.

But honestly, I’m not sure what NASCAR can do about that. Sometimes a car will just hit on something and kick everyone’s butts — which seems to be the case the last two weeks.

It’s not going to last forever, though. Sure, Harvick might go out and do this again at Phoenix — no one would be surprised if that happened — but it’s not going to be like this all season.

In fact, I don’t even think Harvick is going to pull a Truex and rack up an unfathomable amount of playoff points. One or two gains in speed, and everyone else will be right there with Harvick.

Now, if Harvick is still doing this by the time Texas rolls around? Then yeah, it’s going to be a lonnnnng year for everyone else.