NASCAR's roll of the dice starts Sunday with a full new rules package rollout
It seems appropriate NASCAR's new 2019 handling package debuts in full at Las Vegas, the gambling capital of America in Sunday’s (March 3) Pennzoil 400. There’s symbolism in using Sin City to roll the dice, a place where casinos are a dime a dozen. The financial future of the sport, its popularity and competitive parity are at stake and no one knows how it’s going to turn out.
That’s one heck of a bet to put on the craps table, right?
After a weekend of mixed reviews at Atlanta, 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway presents the final piece of NASCAR’s new 2019 package: air ducts. These holes, installed on the front bumpers, redistribute air and displace it around the sides of each race car. The hope is that increases the draft between two vehicles and makes it easier to pass, counterbalancing that dreaded “aero” push that has dragged down NASCAR racing at the front for much of the 21st century.
We didn’t have those ducts at Atlanta, creating a race that was difficult to judge. There were more cars on the lead lap there compared to last year; the finish between winner Brad Keselowski and Martin Truex Jr. was worth watching. But it also seemed a reduction in speed and horsepower left the cars stuck in place after restarts. Drivers like Kyle Larson found themselves trapped in traffic, unable to work their way back to the front after facing adversity during the race.
Las Vegas promises to fix that, or so it seems with an add-on that’s proven successful elsewhere. Races like the Xfinity Series events at Indianapolis have shown us the potential of the ducts to cause lead changes while leaving the lead pack superglued together. But the sensation of speed is lost a bit; Kevin Harvick’s pole speed was eight mph slower than last year. There’s also concern about team racing as multi-car organizations might gel together into single-file freight trains that’ll greatly reduce passing.
There’s a wide variety of scenarios that could ensue; it feels like a situation that could go either way. What we know for sure is literally the sport’s future is on the line. There’s a bunch of nervous executives aware ratings have slid (however slightly) even further during the first two races this year. In order to stop that trend, NASCAR needs this package to produce a buzz about better racing and quality competition. Whether the sport gets sold or not, a large portion of its financial value will ride on how its rules (and future direction) are interpreted by fans they’re trying to court.
It’s time for the dice roll. Let’s see what comes up.
Time: 3:30 p.m. ET (Sunday)
Track: Las Vegas Motor Speedway
Radio: PRN, SIRIUS XM Channel 90
Who’s at the Front: Kyle Busch
Typically, Brad Keselowski would own this space. His charge to the front at Atlanta, winning the race with the flu was NASCAR’s equivalent of a Michael Jordan-like performance. The way in which Team Penske rallied after poor qualifying efforts last weekend deserves some kudos.
But the younger Busch, a Las Vegas native, has set the stage for a hometown record. Wins in NASCAR’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series and Xfinity Series this weekend leave him in position to sweep a trio of races in his hometown. Not only would it be a NASCAR first for LVMS but it would continue a scorching start for Busch. He’s now won three of the first eight races held in the sport’s top three divisions. He’s three-for-five in races entered and his worst finish? Sixth.
Who’s at the Back: Hendrick Motorsports
People run too quickly with slumps early in the season of any sport. That said, no one expected the absolute dud HMS produced at Atlanta. Jimmie Johnson, a dark-horse pick for the win dropped like a rock from the start of the green flag. He wound up 24th, two laps down and may have been worse if not for his 11th-place starting spot. Crew chief Kevin Meendering seemed helpless to fix the problems after a better-than-expected Daytona start.
But Johnson’s wasn’t alone in his drop off the pace. No HMS car finished better than 15th; in all, they had a net loss of nine positions. Considering the way they raised expectations during Speedweeks the yo-yo back to mediocrity was a big surprise. Will it be just a one-week wonder?
Kyle Busch has signed an extension with M&M’s and Joe Gibbs Racing that will leave the trio together for years to come. The length of the deal was not disclosed but Busch, who is approaching 200 wins combined in NASCAR’s top three series, made it clear this week he wants to spend the rest of his career at JGR.
Spire Motorsports made another driver change this week, putting journeyman Reed Sorenson behind the wheel of its No. 77 Chevrolet. The team has now had three drivers in three different races since debuting on the Cup circuit with the charter it purchased from Furniture Row Racing.
NASCAR by the Numbers
Out of the last 10 races Kyle Larson has failed to win after leading the most laps in the race. Atlanta was the latest stumbling block, Larson dropping to 12th after leading 142 laps but suffering through a pit road speeding penalty.
Driver who failed to finish last weekend at Atlanta (Ryan Preece). 21 drivers posted a DNF in the season-opening Daytona 500.
Playing the Odds (Fantasy Spin)
Kevin Harvick starts on the pole for Sunday’s race. That reduces the amount of bonus points you’ll get on your roster if he wins in certain formats. But if Harvick winds up dominating the race, just like last year, you’ll be sorry if you leave him off the team. Stewart-Haas Racing has showed well with this new package, winning two straight pole positions and their drafting teamwork has been impeccable. Expect Harvick and SHR to contend.
Looking for someone starting a little further back? Martin Truex Jr. clocked in just 23rd but is unlikely to stay there long. The king of intermediates the past few years has gelled quickly with his new team at Joe Gibbs Racing and has won at this track as recently as 2017. His march to the front will give you some bonus points along with it in position differential formats.
Oh, and then there’s a guy named Kyle Busch. Have you heard of him? It’s hard to bet against the Vegas native when history and a broom sweep are well within reach. Even a top-5 finish would be the perfect roster bonus for you.
Kurt Busch is starting way back in 28th this weekend. But don’t be fooled. Busch has confidence in his step after a third-place Atlanta run and has had previous success at his hometown track. Busch’s last top-5 finish at LVMS came back in 2005 (yes, 2005) but the car he’s driving had top-10 speed here as recently as 2017. Expect Busch to work his way up through traffic in a way teammate Kyle Larson would struggle to match.
Daniel Suarez is starting 22nd, giving him bonus points to work his way to the front. Quietly, he ran top 10 at Atlanta and sped off the coattails of his three SHR teammates. If the four of them get hooked up in a draft? And the draft becomes the dominant force on Sunday? Even the fourth-best SHR Ford is in line for an impressive finish. And it’s not like Suarez has been terrible here, anyway; he was eighth in the fall race last year.
Rookie Daniel Hemric qualified fifth a week after running inside the top 5 for much of the race at Atlanta. Tire problems felled him there but I don’t expect the lightning of bad luck to strike twice. New packages like this one often allow for an unexpected name to use the parity to their advantage. The lack of experience won’t hurt Hemric as much as it would, say, with the old car. Add in two top-5 qualifying efforts and it’s clear Richard Childress Racing has an early leg up on the competition.
It feels like Front Row Motorsports is the underdog team figuring this package out quicker than anyone else. Michael McDowell had a strong qualifying effort at Atlanta and now David Ragan starts sixth on Sunday. That’s his best starting spot on the Cup circuit in over three years (Richmond, September 2015).
Ragan was a solid 16th at Atlanta, posting his best finish there in a decade and knows how to keep the car in one piece. The right drafting help could result in FRM getting their best ever finish at an intermediate track.
What Vegas Thinks
NASCAR’s Big Three from 2018 are back in front of the odds chart. Kevin Harvick has 9/2 odds to win on Sunday followed by Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch at 11/2.
What I Think
It feels like this race is Harvick’s to lose despite all the wackiness that may go along with it. But on a day this unpredictable, it’s often the favorite who falls apart, usually through no fault of his own.
So I’ll break ranks and go outside the box. Denny Hamlin finds a way to win at a racetrack he’s struggled to figure out. It’s one of eight racetracks on the circuit he hasn’t won at in Cup... until Sunday.