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.

Ward Burton gets ‘nailed’ — and has the blood to show for it

Ward Burton Twitter page
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Former NASCAR Cup driver Ward Burton has always had a kind of tough guy aura about him – in a good way. It takes a lot to slow him down or to make him feel pain.

What happened Thursday to the older brother of NBC NASCAR analyst Jeff Burton is a perfect example of Ward’s toughness.

First, let’s start out with the pre-story: Thursday morning the 2002 Daytona 500 winner took to Twitter to allude to a day of chores to do:

 

But a few hours later, the 57-year-old Burton had a completely different look on his face – and not of his own doing.

He apparently had a mishap with a nail and board and – well, we’ll let the following tweet tell the story. And once again, it shows how tough Burton can be. Apparently before he even got the wound treated, Burton decided to take a photo and post it online.

“Part of getting projects done,” Burton tweeted.

Now that’s tough.

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NASCAR America’s MotorSports Hour 5 p.m. ET; IndyCar championship preview

NBC Sports
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This week’s episode of NASCAR America presents the MotorSports Hour airs today from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Krista Voda and AJ Allmendinger. And joining them from our IndyCar on NBC broadcast team will be race announcer Leigh Diffey and analyst Paul Tracy.

The show will cover multiple racing disciplines, including previewing this Sunday’s IndyCar championship-deciding race at Laguna Seca.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

If history is any indication, Martin Truex Jr. is just getting warmed up

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With his playoff-opening win in Las Vegas, Martin Truex Jr. could easily coast in the next two Cup races, knowing he’s assured of a spot when the Round of 12 begins next month at Dover International Speedway.

But neither Truex nor crew chief Cole Pearn have ever been the cruising type. Even though they’re locked into the next round, there’s still plenty of motivation for the remainder of the opening round of the playoffs this weekend at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) and next week on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

There are still valuable stage points for Truex and the No. 19 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota team to earn in the playoffs. 

These next two races are all about scoring more playoff points for us,” Truex said in a media release. “It’s great for us knowing that we’re already locked in, but we want to try to pad our advantage to start out that next round.”

With his win at Las Vegas, the Mayetta, New Jersey native has won three of the last four playoff-opening races (also first at Chicago in 2017 and 2016). And he comes into Richmond with a decent career record there: 27 starts, one win, four top 5s, 10 top 10s, one pole and has led 909 laps.

Richmond has been a great track for us the past few years,” Truex said in a media release. “Obviously getting the win in the spring was huge because it was our first with JGR (Joe Gibbs Racing) and kind of got us going for the rest of the season.”

In addition, JGR has 15 Cup wins at Richmond, including the last three there.

Richmond is not only where Truex earned his first of what five wins for JGR this season, but also was the site of his first Cup career short track victory. He’s also led the most laps in the last four races there (and five of the last six). But it isn’t the only track that been good to Truex of late.

Truex has dominated recently at the next three venues on the Cup playoff schedule:

* Won at Richmond in April.

* Won on Charlotte’s oval in May.

* Was one turn away from winning last fall on Charlotte’s Roval before a spinning Jimmie Johnson contacted Truex and ended his chances of winning. Also, in the last six road course races, Truex has three wins and two runner-up finishes.

* Won at Dover in May.

Richmond offers additional incentive for Truex, as well. If he can go back-to-back to victory lane there, he would reach a milestone 25th career Cup series win.

What’s more, he comes into a race for the first time this season atop the NASCAR Cup point standings, with a series-high five wins, as well as 11 top-five and 16 top-10 showings through the first 27 races of the season.

Truex, the 2017 champion, is trying to earn his second Cup title in the last three seasons. And to top things off, Truex’s seven Cup playoff wins since 2016 are the most in the series during that time.  Busch is second with five wins, followed by Kevin Harvick and Joey Logano with four wins each.

Add it all up and there most certainly won’t be any coasting from the No. 19.

We just need to keep it up and do all that we can to give ourselves the best chance possible for the rest of the playoffs and not just take it easy,” Truex said.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Ryan Sieg, Shane Wilson ready for opportunity races in Xfinity playoffs

Ryan Sieg Racing
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When Shane Wilson answered his phone Tuesday he was in the process of leaving a UPS store, a weekly destination that’s part of his many crew chief duties at Ryan Sieg Racing.

This week the team had to: prepare three cars for Friday’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond – including a car for Hermie Sadler, who is making his first Xfinity start since 2016 and the first ever for RSR, as well as repair a wrecked No. 93 car from Las Vegas and get Ryan Sieg’s No. 39 Chevrolet ready for a playoff run.

“Shoooo, we’re busy,” Wilson tells NBC Sports. “But, you know, good busy.”

That’s all been done with seven crew members at the team’s shop located just outside of Atlanta.

“We can go with seven-and-a-half to make sure I don’t leave anybody out,” jokes Wilson.

At the UPS store he had mailed a shock destined for Vermont. Its recipient would be Steve Hibberd, the team’s shock guy.

Hibberd is a former employee of Orleans Racing, the Truck Series effort for Brendan Gaughan in the early 2000s that Wilson led. He’s one of Wilson’s two “secret weapons.”

The other is another Orleans team member and former Dodge employee, Ryan Isabel, who provides engineering support for the team in identifying trends via a database of car setups.

This small, spread out operation helped Sieg produce the best season in his six years of full-time Xfinity competition and his second playoff berth, following his 2016 campaign.

He enters Richmond with two top fives and nine top 10s (matching his top 10s from the rest of his Xfinity career). His previous best total for top 10s was three in 2016, the first time he went to the playoffs.

But Wilson, a former long-time employee at Richard Childress Racing who crew chiefed for Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer, doesn’t seem too stressed about the playoffs before him or his limited resources. In fact, he’s having his most fun in NASCAR in “a long time.”

For a former electrician apprentice from Vermont, he could be doing worse.

“Whenever I have a bad day in racing I think about running pipe in December in Vermont along the Connecticut River,” Wilson says with a chuckle.

Ryan Sieg has made the Xfinity playoffs for the second time in his career. (Photo by Adam Lacy/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Sieg and Wilson don’t want to hype up a potential Cinderella story for the Xfinity Series playoffs, even if it does have a few ingredients for that.

Sieg and his small team will start their playoff run at the track he had his best non-superspeedway performance earlier this year.

The April 12th race at Richmond saw Sieg start 13th, finish Stage 2 in fifth and then finish the race in fifth for his second top five of the year.

That leads into the Sept. 28 race on the Charlotte Roval. The opening round then closes out at Dover International Speedway.

Wilson sees the first round as three “opportunity races.”

“They’re not cookie cutter mile-and-a-halves, like Vegas,” Wilson says. “I really feel like we can go there and do well.

“I like road racing, Ryan doesn’t necessarily like road racing. I’m trying to get him in the state of mind and that’s a good opportunity race.”

But….

There are a few of those.

They make Wilson a “realist” about their situation, especially when it comes to facing the juggernauts of Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske and the other Cup-affiliated teams.

First, there’s the cars.

Those Cup-affiliated teams will likely be bringing new or updated cars to the track as the playoffs open.

Meanwhile, Sieg’s team will be using the same three cars they’ve been rotating through all year. Luckily for Wilson, they’re relatively new chassis the team purchased from Richard Childress Racing before this season, so he’s familiar with them.

“Here we will be running the same cars as we have been because that’s what we have,” Wilson says. “But I don’t think I’d ever switch that anyway, you gotta kind of ride the horse that got you there and try not to out trick yourself or race something that’s a little bit better cause you really need to bring something you know and that you’ve raced all year then see where you land.”

Then there’s the playoff points.

Sieg enters Richmond 11th in the standings with 2,001 points after the standings were reset. That one playoff point is a result of Sieg winning Stage 2 at Texas Motor Speedway in March.

“Looking at it, those top three cars (Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick) have such a big advantage, you almost have to pencil them into Homestead,” Sieg says. “To make it through the first (round), that’s what we want to do and need to do. But if we don’t, be consistent over the seven races and get top 10 in points, I think we got eliminated in the first round in 2016, but we still finished ninth in the standings. So it’s always nice to be top 10 in points. … Anything can happen.”

However, with all that, there’s one additional tool in the No. 39 team’s utility belt they didn’t have in April.

They return to Richmond with a Cup pit crew, which they began using in May at Charlotte.

Why is that notable?

Shane Wilson, right, has been a NASCAR crew chief since the early 2000s in Truck Series. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

“We lost I think 30 spots on pit road that first race and still finished top five,” Sieg says.

Well, maybe it felt like 30.

“It wasn’t quite 30, but it was like 17 though,” Wilson says with a hearty laugh. “Which is still a lot.”

Even with a more experienced pit crew, Sieg’s philosophy on what happens on pit road has been drilled into him.

“We don’t want to gain spots on pit road, we don’t want to lose any either,” Sieg says. “We just want to maintain. I bet you in my career if you counted the number of times I’ve come off pit road I’ve probably lost more positions than I want to count. That’s part of being a small team. If we come in eighth and Brandon Jones is ninth, he’s got a Joe Gibbs pit crew. If they beat us by two seconds, you’re going to lose that spot. I’ve kind of dealt with that a lot in my career. I’m not complaining, cause it’s part of what it is. So I just want to come in 10th and go out 10th. Yeah, it would be great to come out fourth, but that’s less realistic.”

And what if that Cup pit crew had been in place at Richmond six months ago?

“We might of won,” Wilson says. “Or we would have finished second. Because we passed two guys who finished in front of us about three different times. The only one we never passed was (winner Cole Custer).”

While advancing to the next round would be huge for Sieg’s team, Wilson’s goal for the next three races is straightforward: “finish ahead of four of those guys every week” and “accumulate enough points to make them have to race us at Dover.”