If Kevin Meendering left Las Vegas with a big smile on his face, there’s a very good reason.
No, the new crew chief for seven-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson probably didn’t hit it big at the slot machines or poker tables, but he definitely was very happy with what his new driver did in Thursday and Friday’s NASCAR open test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Johnson was fastest of 21 NASCAR Cup and Xfinity drivers that took part in the test, hitting a top speed of 178.885 mph on Thursday. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski was fastest in Friday’s abbreviated half-day session, just a tick below Johnson’s previous day’s speed at 178.436 mph.
“I think it was a huge learning experience for us,” said Meendering, who took over for Chad Knaus this season (Knaus moves to crew chief for William Byron). “We got out there in a decent pack and figured out what issues we’re going to have, what we need to work on and some direction of how we need to develop our cars.
“It’s going to be a trade-off of building speed in your car versus handling, and that’s going to be track dependent and is going to be a big learning curve, for sure.”
In addition to the way the No. 48 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 performed, Meendering, who previously was crew chief for the now-retired Elliott Sadler at JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series, was particularly happy with how he and Johnson communicated in their first on-track time together.
“(Johnson’s) feedback’s phenomenal,” Meendering said. “He really has a great understanding and feel for the car and gives great feedback, so it really makes my job a lot easier.
“The communication’s been great, he’s easy to talk to and I feel like the learning curve has been pretty quick.”
Friday’s portion of the two-day test was only a half-day in length. Drivers racked up a number of single-car laps, plus there were two additional drafting sessions like Thursday in packs of up to 11 cars each.
Keselowski, teammate of defending Cup champ Joey Logano, also came out of the test with a positive feeling.
“We were pretty good, and I feel like, if we’re as fast as we were today when we come back to race (for the Pennzoil 400 on March 3), I feel like we’ll be a threat to win,” said Keselowski, who won the first playoff race in LVMS history last September. “(The car) is about as different as it can be, but it’s our job to master it and be the best with it.
“I feel like we learned some things and got better, and that’s kind of what you expect when you have something so much different than what we’re normally accustomed to, but I’m glad to see that’s how it played out.”
Another driver that took part in the test was Richard Petty Motorsports’ Bubba Wallace.
“It’s just good to get back in the car and knock the dust off,” Wallace said. “(The car) was completely different than what I expected.
“I expected it to be a little bit like the (2018) All-Star Race, but it had a lot more speed than that. When we got in the pack, it was a little bit of a handful, and we’ve still got to work on passing a little bit.”
As for working in the draft, Wallace added, “It’s not quite plate racing, but (when you get out of the draft) you can hear the motor pick up a different octave and feel it in the seat. It’s just the fine balance of if you want your car really fast by yourself or really fast in the pack.”