Ryan: Things we learned at Las Vegas regardless of racing

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By any objective or subjective measure, Sunday’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway fell short of being a game-changer.

Yes, there were a record number of green-flag lead changes and passes (as well as a record-tying fewest number of cautions, and there is some obvious causality there).

But if you were expecting a show of dazzling side-drafting brilliance and the looming threat of nonstop door-slamming, that’s not what you got.

What you got was a race.

A race that had some entertaining battles for the lead between Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski, a smaller gap from first to second on average and a compelling final lap that briefly felt as if the outcome could be in doubt.

But still a race nonetheless.

That means for more than two and a half hours, roughly three dozen cars turned left for 400 miles in a process identical to a few thousand other races that preceded this one and hopefully thousands more to come.

In many of those prior races, drivers occasionally lose control of their cars while racing for position. That results in wrecks and their many byproducts — emotions spiking, feuds erupting, and fans cheering.

That’s racin’.

What a concept.

So, let’s concede that Sunday in Sin City was no game changer for 1.5-mile tracks – which NASCAR has admitted were the primary target of its lower-horsepower package and aero ducts – nor could or should it be.

But there were some elements with game-changing potential that emerged from the debut of the full 2019 rules package. Here were a few:

New ways to call a race: The biggest takeaways might have come not behind the wheel but from atop the pit boxes, particularly the No. 1 of Kurt Busch and No. 24 of William Byron.

Busch’s crew chief, Matt McCall, essentially sacrificed any stage points by pitting Busch late in the second stage for four tires and then staying on track to assume the lead for the final restart. Busch still had to pit earlier than the rest of the lead-lap cars, but the strategy allowed him to overcome a starting spot of 28th to earn his second consecutive top five.

The tactical call by Chad Knaus on the No. 24 was even more intriguing– a clever splash-and-go call near the end of the second stage that kept Byron on the lead lap and nearly still earned a point (Byron finished 11th in the stage).

There were risks involved with both strategies – an overtime finish could have hurt Busch’s cause and Knaus was betting that his young driver could be patient and his pit crew could execute a swift stop – but they also adapted well to the caution-free flow, the clogged traffic and slower lap speeds.

Those factors (married with stages carrying two predetermined cautions) will create opportunities for strategic innovation.

There are more 1.5-mile tracks ahead that also will feature low tire wear (on recently repaved surfaces). If yellows remain down as they were in Atlanta and Las Vegas, the risks taken by McCall and Knaus will be worthy of more consideration by other teams.

–Just passing through: When third-place finisher Kyle Busch was caught for speeding with just under 130 laps to go, it figured to be an arduous slog to get back on the lead lap, much less the top five. But it took 20 laps to achieve the former and 70 laps for the latter, leaving Busch still in a solid position to win over the final 50 laps.

Though track position still is vital with this package, Busch showed how a strong car and slower speeds make it possible to rebound quickly from an unscheduled trip to the pits under green. His No. 18 Toyota was leading when it sped on entry, and he fell off the lead lap after serving a pass-through penalty – but only because Busch and Byron had yet to stop.

When they did, the lead cycled on lap 150 to race winner Joey Logano, whom Busch had managed to stay in front of after pass-through. When the caution flew for the stage break 10 laps later, Busch was able to pit with the lead-lap cars in a fortuitous turn of events that stemmed from this year’s reduced horsepower.

With lap times down sharply (the pole speed fell more than 10 mph from a year earlier) but pit speeds remaining constant, Busch’s extra trip to the pits cost him a little more than 30 seconds, a duration in the neighborhood of the weekend’s fastest laps.

In 2018, when cars were turning laps 2 seconds quicker, he probably would have emerged on the lap behind Logano and would have had a tougher fight to regain the lead lap (via a wavearound or the free pass). Instead, he gained two spots on his Lap 163 stop and restarted in 16th with perhaps the fastest car and nearly 100 laps to overcome the deficit.

The mistake still cost him the win, but Busch had much more time to try to atone for it.

–But … don’t get penalized: OK, but all that said, getting penalized under green still can destroy a day more easily, as Kyle Larson and Austin Dillon learned the hard way.

Both drivers’ teams were penalized for too many men over the wall during pit stops midway through the first 80-lap stage. They ended the stage a lap down, and neither could fully recover, which put a damper on the promise of final-round qualifying appearances.

“I think we had a top 10 car, just never got the track position we needed,” said Dillon, who started in the top 10 but finished outside the top 15 for the second consecutive week. “We lost it from the beginning, and when you lose it, you can’t ever get it back.”


The surprising lack of yellow flags certainly had a major impact on all the above, too.

The two cautions were the fewest number for a full-distance race at Vegas since the yellow flew only twice in the March 1, 1998 inaugural.

This comes on the heels of an incident-free Atlanta Motor Speedway race that featured five cautions (two for stages, the other three were for competition/tire wear, debris and fluid).

So that means 900 miles have been run in NASCAR’s premier series without a driver so much as spinning on track once under highly competitive conditions.

Maybe it shouldn’t be so surprising, though. These are world-elite drivers, and they’ve been handed an enormous amount of downforce.

Despite all the predictions of mass chaos on “crazy” restarts (side note: Restarts have been inherently “crazy” since they were changed to double file nearly 10 years ago), drivers seemed to get by just fine while going four wide a few laps at a time the past two races.

That seems nettlesome.


No one is rooting for wrecks, but caution flags can help enliven the show (within reason). Look no further than the 12 yellow flags in the previous race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, which begs an interesting question.

Which was the better show at the 1.5-mile oval: Last year’s playoff opener or Sunday?

The smart money here is on the Sept. 16, 2018 race that was hailed by many as the best kickoff event in 15 years of NASCAR’s 10-race championship structure. With many championship contenders desperately pushing beyond the limits of their cars and tires, there were five restarts in the last 40 laps, and Kyle Larson delivered one of the greatest passes for the lead in 2018.

That race was run less than three weeks before NASCAR unveiled its 2019 rules package.


The two-race sample size is small, but Team Penske’s ability to adapt still should be hailed. The consecutive victories by Keselowski and Logano underscore that when things change in Cup, Penske is as nimble as any organization in addressing the challenge. Look no further than the 2014 move to group qualifying, and how quickly Keselowski and Logano became final-round fixtures.

Auto racing is a sport where rolling with the punches is paramount, and team owner Roger Penske has the longest track record of doing it better than anyone.


The wild qualifying session at Las Vegas reminded Jimmie Johnson of the short-lived experiment with group qualifying on restrictor-plate tracks four years ago.

“I think it was great entertainment, but we were all afraid of how many cars we were going to tear up,” Johnson said. “So far, no cars are torn up (at Las Vegas), but I think that opportunity really exists.”

NASCAR made swift changes back to a single-car format at Daytona and Talladega after Clint Bowyer crashed in the 2015 Daytona 500 qualifying session.

After several near-misses at Vegas, it’ll bear watching when the inevitable crash in speedway qualifying this season eliminates a decent car (or several).


Regardless of what the temperature is among fan councils, social media surveys and satellite radio discussions, there is one given about the 2019 rules: They are here to stay.

There are no quick tweaks to this package. When you dramatically reduce horsepower, it requires some heavy lifting. That’s the reason the package wasn’t implemented for a few races last season after the 2018 All-Star Race; it would have been too much strain on engine builders.

This won’t unfold like the 2015 season when NASCAR quickly detoured into high-drag and low-downforce options because it was dissatisfied with 1.5-mile action

Backing up to the 2018 rules package would require months of work (never mind huge sums of cash) for engine builders who are boxed in by the hardware and logistics driven by meticulously scheduled inventories of V8 engines. It isn’t as simple as pulling out the aero ducts and tuning up the engines.

NASCAR is locked into 550 horsepower for the foreseeable future.

No matter what you thought of Sunday’s race, the reality is that package is here to stay.

NASCAR’s weekend schedule for Auto Club Speedway

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NASCAR’s West Coast swing continues this weekend with a visit to the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.

Cup and Xfinity Series teams will be in action, with the weekend capped off by Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

For Friday, wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy skies, a high of 81 degrees and no chance of rain.

For the start of Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, the forecast is for sunny skies and a high of 70 degrees.

On Sunday, the forecast for the start of the Cup race is cloudy skies, a high of 54 and a 39% of rain.

Here’s the full weekend schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

Friday, Feb. 28

Noon – 10 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

1 – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice (FS1)

4:05 – 4:55 – Cup practice (FS1, Motor Racing Network)

5:02 – 5:27 p.m. – Final Xfinity practice (FS1)

5:35 – 6:25 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

Saturday, Feb. 29

10 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

11:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

1:05 p.m. – Xfinity qualifying; one car/single lap (FS1)

2:15 p.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief introductions

2:35 p.m. – Cup qualifying; one car/single lap (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

3:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

4 p.m. – Production Alliance Group 300; 150 laps/300 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, March 1

11:30 a.m. – Cup garage opens

1:30 p.m. – Driver-crew chief meeting

2:50 p.m. – Cup driver introductions

3:30 p.m. – Auto Club 400; 200 laps/400 miles (Fox, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Myatt Snider: It’s ‘game on’ if conflict with Noah Gragson continues

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The spat between Xfinity Series drivers Myatt Snider and Noah Gragson may not necessarily be over.

The pair tangled in Sunday night’s Xfinity Series race in Las Vegas. Gragson made contact with Snider’s car, sending it into a spin.

Snider discussed the incident Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” and where things stand between the two drivers.

“It, to me, just seemed like some impatience on Noah’s part,” Snider said of the incident. “I had gotten into a rut and was trying to figure out how to make the car faster but at that point in time, I didn’t. So he was running me down and he actually had a run on me going to the frontstretch.

“So I was, ‘Okay, he’s going to go by me.’ Then I felt a little yoink in the left rear quarter and around I was going. It’s kind of unfortunate it had to go down that way, that’s not racing to me. But I’m a big believer in karma and what goes around, comes around. We’ll be performing at our best over these next couple of weeks and I’m not worried about it.”

Snider also told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he hasn’t texted or talked to Gragson since Sunday, but Snider said he’s ready if the spat continues.

“I’m the kind of guy that believes in racing people how you’re raced,” Snider said. “I’m not going to take any kind of stuff like that. If (Gragson) wants to send that kind of message early, then game on.”

On Tuesday, here’s how Gragson explained what happened on “Sirius Speedway” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It was just some hard racing between the two of us and we got into each other, so I think we both can look forward to the next couple of races and stay out of each other’s ways,” Gragson said. “I think we’re both at fault. It was a long race, none of us were going to give and we’re going to go on to California and run as good as possible and do as good as we can.”

Much has been made about the TV replays of Gragson and Snider meeting after the race to talk about the incident. Gragson tried to give Snider a fist bump only to have Snider walk away without fist bumping him.

“I told (Myatt) let’s play rock, paper, scissors,” Gragson quipped in part on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I went with rock and he still hasn’t gotten back to me if he wants scissors, paper or rock.”

Gragson won the season opener at Daytona and finished fourth at Las Vegas for JR Motorsports. Snider, who won the pole at Daytona, finished 33rd at Daytona and 16th at Las Vegas for Richard Childress Racing. Snider will race this weekend at Auto Club Speedway for RSS Racing.

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Ryan Newman gets standing ovation in visit to Roush Fenway Racing

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Exactly 10 months to the day when the country will celebrate Thanksgiving, the entire Roush Fenway Racing organization gave thanks and a warm welcome to driver Ryan Newman, who visited the team’s shop Wednesday.

Newman, who was involved in a horrific crash coming to the finish line of the Daytona 500 just nine days earlier, received a standing ovation from his colleagues and posed for a number of photos.

While there is still no timetable for Newman’s return behind the wheel of his No. 6 RFR Ford Mustang — Ross Chastain is scheduled to drive the car until Newman comes back — Wednesday’s appearance was yet another positive move in that direction.

“Just a good day,” RFR president Steve Newmark tweeted about Newman’s visit.

Newman said in a prior statement he suffered an undisclosed head injury in the crash but did not suffer any broken bones or internal injuries.

Tuesday he took part in one of his favorite pastimes:

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Hendrick focused on Jimmie Johnson’s success, not successor

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Kyle Larson. Brad Keselowski. Ryan Blaney. Erik Jones.

No, we’re not talking about this week’s fantasy racing picks, but those four drivers have been among drivers mentioned most often when it comes time for Hendrick Motorsports to name a replacement for Jimmie Johnson, who will retire after this season.

Yet even though filling Johnson’s spot is important, it’s not as much a priority right now as it is for the entire organization to learn more about the nuances of the new Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE, according to HMS vice president of competition Jeff Andrews.

“We don’t have a timetable for that, to be honest with you,” Andrews said of naming a replacement for Johnson on Wednesday “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Our focus has been getting better race cars under Jimmie Johnson and getting better race cars for (crew chief) Cliff Daniels and his race team to work with on the weekend.

“The focus right now immediately for the 48 is to get a win, get that car in the playoffs, get multiple wins through the season and then get Jimmie Johnson to Phoenix at the end of the year to battle for that championship.”

Andrews admits the vibe around Hendrick Motorsports’ campus is markedly different this year, knowing it’s Johnson’s final season in the No. 48.

“I think the sense is pride here within Hendrick Motorsports, to just have been associated with someone like Jimmie,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “For those of us who have been here really throughout his career, we’re just incredibly proud that he chose to drive for Hendrick Motorsports throughout his whole career.

“But we’re also proud of all his accomplishments and what he’s done for this company. I think we would have an awful hard time of ever paying him back for all that. Our goal this year is giving him everything he needs for a multiple win season and to get to Phoenix. We owe him that at the least.”

The Hendrick organization has struggled in adapting to the new Chevrolet Camaro body style this year. In the season-opening Daytona 500, Chase Elliott (finished seventh) was the only HMS driver in the top 15.

Things were a bit better this past Sunday at Las Vegas. Johnson was the highest-finishing HMS driver (fifth), while Alex Bowman was 13th. But there was considerable sense of accomplishment overall for Chevrolet as a whole, with six of its Camaros in the top 10 (as opposed to only two Chevys in the top 10 at Daytona).

That leaves Andrews, the competition department at HMS and Chevrolet officials as a whole feeling optimistic as the series heads for the third race of the season this weekend at the two-mile track in Fontana, California.

“From a barometer perspective, we’re feeling good about where we’ve been,” Andrews said. “We haven’t had that finish, that win that we’re looking for, but certainly we’ve started off the year with some good speed in our cars.

“The one thing that all of our drivers were commenting on is we had more speed in our cars and just had a better platform in our cars and a better ability to run multiple lines on the racetrack, which is something we haven’t in recent years.”

Admittedly, it’s been a tough road for Hendrick drivers over the last three seasons. Since Johnson’s seventh Cup championship in 2016, no HMS driver has reached the Championship 4 round since.

Also during that time frame, only two drivers have finished in the top-10 overall in the last three seasons (Chase Elliott, fifth in 2017, sixth in 2018 and 10th in 2019; and Johnson, 10th in 2017).

These next five races, particularly the last two of that stretch at Homestead-Miami and Texas, will help give Andrews and his staff a better handle on where their adjustment to the Camaro goes from there.

“We know it’s a long season and have a long ways to go with this,” Andrews told SiriusXM. “We need to get through three or four more races.

“I think we’ve targeted as a company a better understanding of where we’re at after the Homestead/Texas timeframe to get some types of tracks and learn with this new car.

“Steep learning curve with the new car and we’ve got to act quick. We have just a year to work with this before we get to another generation of race cars. … We’re looking forward to going back to the track this weekend in Fontana and see where we go with it.”

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