What matters in today’s Cup race? Let’s dive into the analytics, trends and strategy that will shape the Pennzoil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on Fox):
Tires matter, even when they don’t
Last weekend’s race in Homestead spoiled us, offering tires with lap-time falloff as much as three seconds. Contenders like Brad Keselowski, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Larson saw some of the biggest deviations, which impacted the long-run handling conditions of their cars. But what we witnessed was on the extreme end of tire wear possibility in NASCAR races on 1.5-mile tracks.
Whereas last year’s regular-season race in Texas represented Homestead’s polar opposite with practically no falloff and a surprise winner in Austin Dillon who eschewed new tires late in the event, a race like today’s sits firmly in the middle of the two extremes. Last fall’s playoff race in Las Vegas saw 1-1.5 seconds worth of falloff on worn tires, making all strategies — short-pit, conservative-pit and long-pit — workable, though not entirely equal.
Certainly, it’d behoove teams to short-pit the fuel window to take advantage of fresh rubber and fast laps sooner than surrounding competition. But Kurt Busch scored the win with the 13th-fastest car in last year’s Las Vegas playoff race, the result of a long-pit bet on a caution flag. Chris Buescher similarly finished ninth with the 23rd-fastest car. The long-pit isn’t the strategy with the best odds, but it offers legitimate opportunity since cars on fresh tires can’t cut into the on-track delta as effectively as they could at Homestead. Don’t consider it an outright safety net, but it’s something which didn’t exist last weekend.
That’s music to the ears of an unorthodox strategist like Travis Mack, who long-pitted Daniel Suárez twice in the Homestead race. Mack cost his driver four spots in bets for a timely caution flag to lock in track position. Effectively, these were bad calls, but they weren’t without logic. If Suárez and his Trackhouse Racing team were to win Homestead — the third race in the team’s existence — it’d likely be the result of a race breaking in an unforeseen way. In order for any team to take advantage of a fluke conclusion, they’d most likely need to be on a strategy counter to the field. Mack kept his strategy weird in order to put his team in this specific position.
Such maneuvering didn’t work in Homestead and likely never would have, but in Las Vegas, where lap-time falloff is less severe and more flexible, a strategy like Mack’s has more of a fighting chance.
The tire’s impact on setup, track position
If you noticed a difference in the racing on 550-horsepower tracks between 2019 and early 2020, you have a keen eye. Goodyear’s tire compounds on these facilities changed between the two seasons and again in the second half of last year. This was a point of contention among drivers and teams who didn’t have significant practice time on the tires in early 2020 — hence, the lack of parity among frontrunners — and felt more comfortable with the tire combinations featured last fall in Las Vegas, Kansas and Texas.
“Tires make a big difference. They dramatically change the way cars drive,” Keselowski said during a 2020 media availability. “The tire we ran (in 2019) seemed like it was more about how you get through traffic. The tire we ran (in early 2020) seemed more about how the car handles and getting that balance right. Now, we’re back to pretty much the same tire we had (in 2019).”
This begs the question: If this tire combination forces teams to steer their setups for getting through traffic, does it mean 550-horsepower tracks are finally rewarding the best passers? Not necessarily. The two Las Vegas races last season saw no meaningful shift in correlation coefficient, measuring the strength of the relationship, between surplus passing ranking and finishing position from the February race (+0.1) to the September race (+0.2).
It seems track position remains an elusive commodity.
Restarts are the most realistic opportunity for track position
If we’re to see any driver singlehandedly create track position today, it’ll most likely be the result of a restart.
The two-lap window following restarts served as Homestead’s hive for activity, influencing positioning for the eventual winner — William Byron moved from sixth to second on lap 208 — and third-place finisher — Martin Truex Jr. navigated from 17th to fifth on fresh tires at the onset of the final stage.
Both drivers rank among the most efficient position defenders on restarts through three races this season:
The restart dynamic should look similar in Las Vegas. Like Homestead, the location of the statistically preferred groove shifted from the inside line to the outside line past the first row. It’ll lead to choose-zone decisions based largely on driver comfort:
Top single-attempt gains in last fall’s race in Las Vegas came from Truex (+8, from 12th to fourth, on lap 267), Hamlin (+6, from 13th to seventh, on lap 256) and Kyle Busch (+5, from 11th to 6th, on lap 267). In the February 2020 race, Harvick secured 11 spots across seven attempts.
The late pit call is not a Catch-22
Facing an overtime restart on old tires, Todd Gordon relinquished Ryan Blaney’s lead in the spring Las Vegas race last year thinking new tires would assist in reclaiming the lead and securing the eventual win. It proved fruitless; Blaney restarted 12th and finished 11th.
“I wish I had that one back,” Gordon told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio the following Monday. “I wish we had left him out there and let him defend.
“I think in the situation, I was waffling. When (the caution) first came out, I thought we would stay (out). The more we talked about it, the more we scanned people, I let the information we gathered from that point forward skew me to pit and looking at it, and you think about this racetrack and where we were and you’ve got less than a second of falloff.”
The tire combination is different this year, but the spirit remains the same: Relinquishing leads typically never works, making the choice to stay out, grab clean air — an equalizer against competition with fresher tires — and defend the lead the statistically superior choice.
A study last year of 333 clean restarts from 2019-20, indicated the lead car successfully retained its restart position 75.08% of the time. Of the outliers, 36 instances contained obvious, explainable errors, such as the lead car choosing the statistically non-preferred groove. The remaining 47 attempts saw mixed results with different variables, including poorly executed restarts by the leaders after pitting.
The kind of dilemma which anguished Gordon has long been referred to as the crew chief’s Catch-22, but it’s a flawed logic. Ceding the lead late in a race on a track like Las Vegas, especially with an efficient restarter behind the wheel, is a decision with little to no upside.