Five thoughts after Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway…
1. Expectations left unfulfilled
Imagine there’s a new movie coming out and it has all the buzz of a must-see blockbuster. Hollywood news outlets are pumping up the all-star cast, critics who have gotten sneak peeks say it’s Oscar-worthy and your timeline is filled with tweets about people who can’t wait to see it.
You can’t afford to miss out, so you buy advance tickets in the first hour they go on sale. You count down the days after months of hype, and finally — FINALLY — you settle into your seat with popcorn and a giant soda.
The lights dim. The movie starts. And…it’s just…OK.
Under normal circumstances, if you’d gone into the theater with standard expectations of what you want out of a movie, it’d be fine. This, though, feels like such a bummer.
This film wasn’t just supposed to be average; it was supposed to be AMAZING. You’d bought into the talk of how this movie could revolutionize Hollywood. Maybe it would even set a new standard for entertainment.
Not surprisingly, you’re quite unhappy about this development. Your emotions alternate between feeling deflated, disappointed and outright pissed — at yourself and those who oversold it — because it didn’t live up to your hopes.
You obviously get where I’m going with this, but that’s what happened Sunday in Las Vegas. The new rules package (how many times have you heard those three words together in the last year?) dominated the conversation for so long, and you’d read and heard everything there was to read and hear about it.
Then it debuted, to much ado. And it was just fine.
For a mile and a half track, it was quite a decent race. A good race by many historical standards.
But given how sky-high the expectations were, and the buildup and anticipation surrounding it…well, it felt like a letdown.
It sucks to feel that way about a race that had thrilling restarts, great battles for the lead and a close finish after a long green-flag run. When you’re expecting to see something epic, though, it’s hard to settle for pretty good.
2. What happened
Let’s back up for a moment and talk about why there was so much genuine hope espoused by many people in the garage. From officials to drivers to spotters to media, there was a public expectation of a wild Sunday that featured solid racing throughout the field. (It’s important to note I don’t think this was phony hype to trick people into watching, but rather a true belief in what was to come.)
The evidence for this was based primarily on four 25-lap “races” during the Las Vegas test in January, but it also extended to Saturday’s final practice — where drivers were all over the track.
If practice looks this good, imagine the race itself!
But once the rag dropped on Sunday, it was more spread out than even NASCAR officials thought it would be. The fact there were no cautions didn’t help, either — since restarts were the best part of the race.
As it turns out, the drivers weren’t surprised by this development. When I asked Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Brad Keselowski if they were caught off guard by the field breaking apart quicker than at the January test, they all said no.
“I knew they were going to break apart,” Stenhouse said. “Watching in the test, they started breaking away fairly quick — and there were cooler conditions then and less cars. I knew if they were breaking apart then, they were going to break apart here (with much warmer weather).”
Many of you were quick to point out on Twitter that you knew all along the drafting would look different under actual race conditions. Apparently you were right.
“The testing is never like racing,” Keselowski said.
It would have been nice if someone had said that before the race in order to set more realistic expectations for how Las Vegas. If they did, I missed it.
3. On the bright side
Whoever is the defending NASCAR champion has traditionally had a platform for opinions and had a receptive audience when stumping for change — at least among reporters eager to print any interesting viewpoints.
Joey Logano has yet to really use his platform for that purpose, although he had some very strong opinions about the Vegas race that reflected his optimistic nature and sunny outlook on life.
Logano enthusiastically endorsed the new rules package and was baffled to hear a reporter mention that fans on Twitter didn’t love it as much as Logano did.
“I don’t really know what to say if you don’t like that,” he said. “It’s not very often where you’re going to have a green flag run that long (100 laps) and have a finish that close between three cars. That’s something, I’ll tell you what.”
Logano said Vegas was a “great race” and said the new package was “a big thumbs up for the sport.”
“I thought the racing was awesome,” he said. “You’re side by side. There’s aggressive blocks and big moves and bumping and banging. That’s NASCAR, baby! I don’t really know what else to tell you.”
NASCAR itself (or at least the person speaking for NASCAR — competition chief Steve O’Donnell) took a more conservative approach to evaluating the race. O’Donnell said he “liked what I saw” but was also “not satisfied” at the same time. He said the package remained a work in progress.
“Was it tremendous improvement (over last year)? Probably not,” O’Donnell said. “But as a fan, you want to see lead changes. We saw that today. In the past with no cautions, we would have seen someone check out all race long and we wouldn’t have seen a lead change.”
Though most drivers either bit their tongue or were salty about how the package raced (coughKyleBuschcough), some indicated they’re just along for the ride.
“If it was entertaining to watch, then I don’t care (about how it raced),” Chase Elliott said. “That’s the main thing. If entertainment is produced, I’m happy to drive whatever it is.”
4. O caution flag, where art thou?
After flirting with a caution-free race twice last year, the Cup Series finally produced one on Sunday (not counting the pre-planned stage cautions, of course). That made for the first race without a “natural” caution flag since October 2002 at Talladega.
Of everything that happened Sunday, that was by FAR the most shocking. There was a real concern the race would be a total wreckfest, with drivers unable to handle ill-handling cars in traffic and on crazy restarts. There was actually a bet available at the Vegas sports books that had the over/under of “cars out of the race at the halfway point” at 1.5. I didn’t play it, but was thinking that bet would be the lock of all locks.
Instead, no cars were officially out of the race by the halfway point (and only one, Joey Gase, didn’t finish).
Even O’Donnell said he was surprised by the lack of cautions.
“You go back before the race, and I think even some of the media (said) — and it probably came from the garage — ‘We’re going to wreck the entire field. This isn’t going to be a race,’” he said. “Didn’t happen.”
Why not? According to Denny Hamlin, it’s because the cars can’t get close enough to each other once the field breaks apart following the restarts.
“Once it gets strung out like that, it’s honestly so tough to run kind of near someone — especially late in a run — that the chance of someone running into each other is less likely,” he said.
It will be fascinating to see if this becomes a trend in the new package, or whether Vegas was an anomaly.
5. TV’s role
During a key moment of the race, when Team Penske teammates Keselowski and Logano were battling for the lead, viewers briefly lost perspective on the action. FOX was showing the race from Logano’s bumper cam, and the drivers suddenly had some sort of contact — but it was hard to tell what happened. A replay from a wider angle was never shown (unless I missed it, which is definitely possible).
That’s ironic, since Keselowski on Friday had stumped for NASCAR’s TV partners to “zoom the cameras out” when showing races.
“Whether it’s this rules packages or last year’s rules package, I just don’t feel like with the cameras zoomed in you can really appreciate all that’s going on,” he said. “If I was sitting on my couch watching the race, the first thing I would say is ‘Zoom the cameras out!’ That’s what I’m saying when I watch an Xfinity Series race or something.
“I think more so than any rules change, the biggest thing we can do is try to give a better perception of how much great racing there is across the whole field.”
This year it’s going to be more important than ever for TV to offer enough of a glimpse to pull back and show the big picture of what’s happening — particularly since it seems like the leader may be tough to pass in clean air. The real racing may be a cluster of cars fighting for fifth rather than first.
Now, did FOX missed much action on Sunday? No. From what I saw live, the racing was often single-file on the bottom groove, so the TV angles may not have mattered. But as the season marches on, let’s hope Keselowski’s wish comes true and helps NASCAR give the rules package a fighting chance with viewers at home.