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.