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Teams leave two-day NASCAR Las Vegas test with positive feelings

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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.

Friday’s speed chart

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.”

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What drivers said after first drafting session at Las Vegas

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Cup drivers were on track Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, running in a pack for the first time with the new rules package.

The rules package kept the cars closer together in a 25-lap run Thursday afternoon. Two more drafting sessions were scheduled for Thursday and two more for Friday.

Clint Bowyer, Kurt Busch and Kyle Busch spoke to the media after the session. Here is some of what they had to say:

CLINT BOWYER

“The cars seemed like they handled well. Obviously a lot of wide-open throttle time, a lot of the things we knew going in. It’s going to be a work in progress how you balance that drag with downforce. Kind of business as usual for a test.”

“This is an important test. Everybody knows that. We need to learn as much as we can. The neat thing about what you just saw is a lot of different variations of what we can do with these race cars on the race track, whether it is pulling that drag out and making that thing go cat go and not handling the best or go for handling. That happy medium balance is going to be important when we come back and race.”

“Aric (Almirola) is already on my phone and Kevin (Harvick) is waiting on a phone call. They’re home watching. There are a lot of people watching what is going on because there’s opportunities within these changes and everybody is looking for those opportunities to beat the next guy to the punch.”

KURT BUSCH

“It’s been a good start for us on the (Chip) Ganassi team. For us, we’re just trying to do a lot of checklist items to make sure we were getting up to speed on all the communication items, all the little checkmark items as far as switching teams, as far as seat, mirror, a lot of little things that we were working on this morning. It seems like we’re off a little bit on speed. It’s because we really haven’t turned up the wick on how aggressive we were going to attack this package with. I’m expecting more out of the afternoon session. It will be fun to get out there with a different setup and see how it blends in with the traffic with all the cars mixed in.”

“This new package, the way that it drives, it is as radically different as when we switched to the Car of Tomorrow. That’s how much a dramatic difference it is. It’s a lot to adjust to, lot of differences. It’s wide open all the way around but when you do crack the throttle, you do lose a lot of speed and lose a lot of momentum and you’re trying to keep focused on the handling.”

“What we’re trying to do with this package is have a better on-track product and that is to get the cars side-by-side, have the draft down the straightaways, have the drivers have the option moreso than the engineers as far as where the speed comes from. It’s more a chess game, trying to balance out this setup and package right now. We just have to have better racing on track. That big draft that we saw earlier today, I was wide open and lost the draft in the back. That’s very similar to what you would see at Daytona and Talladega, so it’s just going to happen at a mile-and-a-half track instead of a big track.”

KYLE BUSCH

“I faded back to see how far back I could get, where I could find a relatively safe hole, I think it was sixth or seventh. I was able to pass a couple of guys and a couple of guys kind of quick and a couple of guys it kind of took a little bit to get by them. Then got back up to third or so and then the 3 (Austin Dillon) was fading, he was dropping back and then I was I behind the 14 (Clint Bowyer), trying to work over the 14 and the 14 pulled over and that’s how I got the lead back. There was no like once I got to second, it didn’t seem like you could anything with the guys in front of you.”

“It reminds me a lot of the trucks when we were with the truck race last spring with myself and Brett Moffitt. We ran 1-2 and kind of drove away. We could get in a draft and kind of drive away from the rest of the field. We were the ones that weren’t lifting as much as the rest of the competition was and I had a hard time passing Brett. I couldn’t get by him. I was behind him for 30 laps and couldn’t do anything to get by him. There’s just not enough off-throttle time for handling to come into play. You’re under the tire. You’re driving through the corners under the limits of the tire, so your speeds are just too slow. That doesn’t allow you, the runs on the straightway doesn’t allow you to get big enough runs to blitz guys on the inside or outside or whatever it might be. I did a couple of those today because guys were getting out of the gas. Once you get into race situations and guys figure out what they need to be a little bit better, those aren’t going to happen as easy they were today.”

“Guys are going to figure out how far they can trim their stuff out for how bad they can get the car to drive and then there’s going to kind of go back the other way a little bit, they’re going to put a little bit of drivability back into the cars. Right now, I feel like there were a couple of guys out there that looked a bit evil, their cars were ill-handling. Ours was driving pretty good, so we’re going to step their way and get my car to drive bad so we can figure out how bad is too bad in order to kind of play the fence a little bit and see what is going on.”

“Predictions (for what the March Cup race at Las Vegas will be like) are tough especially this early. But if I had to say, yeah, I think the competition is going to be closer together than what we’ve seen in years past. I don’t know that you’ll see a lead guy be able to stretch it out five, six, seven seconds or whatever. You might see the top three, four, maybe five guys that will kind of keep within two seconds of one another. As far as the racability and the maneuverability and the passing back and forth and runs and such, slingshot moves, I don’t foresee that coming. There’s not enough draft effect on the straightaways that give you enough speed to launch you into the next corner. When you get closer and closer and closer to the car in front of you, like you’re drafting off him because it’s helping you, then you get within a car length of him and it’s start to push him away. Like I tried to move out when I was behind Brad (Keselowski), I had a run on him and I tried to move out from behind him and I just hit the wind and my car was not as trimmed out as his so mine fell backwards. There’s not enough draft effect.”

“We’ve taken the driver’s skill away from the drivers in this package. Anybody can go out there and run around there and go wide open. It’s a lot more of a mental game. It’s going to be a lot more skill, it’s going to be a lot more chess match, thinking how you’re going to make moves and how daring you will be in making some of those moves and how hard of a time the guy that you’re trying to pass is going to give you back and suck you around or spin you or whatever it might be. We’ll see, we’ll see how that plays out. Overall, it’s going to be interesting.”

AUSTIN DILLON

“I thought it was pretty interesting. Really reminded me of the truck days, and I always feel like the Truck Series really races well and gets some exciting racing going. Restarts are going to be really aggressive. I thought we stayed together pretty good so there will be groups of guys racing really hard together at different points of the races. We have a lot to learn. We haven’t really quite hit the balance that we would like in our race car, but it shows some pretty good speed. I’m pleased with it and I’m having fun right now.”

“I thought that first drafting practice was solid. No one was kind of just out there riding around. I thought everybody was pretty aggressive and it’s a hard balance because you don’t want to tear anything up testing. I thought we got pretty aggressive. I got three-wide a couple of times off of Turn 2. That’s good. We can see what the package can do. I’m sure a lot of guys are like, whoa, we’ve got to change our direction because some guys were really good, some guys weren’t and some guys were OK.”

“I think my biggest thing was Clint and I hooked up a couple of times and I tried to push him by a car and it was kind of frustrating that I couldn’t push him past the side-by-side battle but … the side-by-side battle was pretty intense and it created three-wide. I think you’ll see a lot of three-wide this year to clear someone. If a guy is slower and guy goes under him and can’t pass him for a lap, then the next guy gets a huge run from that bubble and can create a three-wide pass down low. I think there’s draft studies that will continue to go on from each team to figure out where to place their car to make the best pass. It’s definitely going to be hard, but you’re going to see passing. It’s going to be more passing than we have in the last couple of years I feel like.”

JOHN PROBST, NASCAR VICE PRESIDENT OF DEVELOPMENT AND INNOVATION, to NASCAR.com:

“I’d say that kind of the takeaway that I took from that (first drafting session) was that if you watched the beginning of the run, there were some cars that were pretty good that stayed at the front there and if you watched the 1 (Kurt Busch) and the 21 (Paul Menard), they kind of hung out at the back there, the last five laps they were actually coming pretty quick through the field. I stopped by and talked to Travis Geisler of Penske before I came up here and they’re talking about having to make compromises. If you just want pure speed or do you want to be better later in the run, which should make for some pretty good strategy decisions that the teams are going to have to make kind of on how they feel yellows may fall during the race. If they want a fast car to check out and hopefully get a lot of yellows and keep doing that, or if you think there’s going to be a lot of green-flag runs and you got to set your car up, maybe you’re not so good at the beginning but by the end you’re coming to the front.”

“We’re encouraged by what we saw on the track. But by no means, we’ve all done this long enough, we’re not going to sit here and declare victory or anything. We know that teams are going to keep massaging on this package and we’ve just got to stay with them to make sure that we put on some really exciting races for our fans.”

“We’re trying to make it as competitive as we can from the top to the bottom. I think the one thing you know that is important out of this, we’re not trying to create some artificial level of competition. I think you’re still going to see the good guys are going to go out and win and compete for wins. That’s kind of the way we wanted it to be. That’s probably the way it should be. We want to have entertainment, but we want to keep the competition in it as well.”

Why Las Vegas test is so important

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While nearly two dozen Cup and Xfinity teams will take part in this week’s two-day test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, at least one new driver-crew chief combination is putting its significance into perspective, particularly due to the new rules package that will mark the first time teams experience the new aerodynamic and horsepower elements.

“It’s almost at the very top (of all-time tests), obviously, because this is our one chance to work on communication and the new package, and we have some new players in the shop too, engineering-wise,” Matt McCall, crew chief for Kurt Busch at Chip Ganassi Racing, told a media gathering earlier this week.

“We’ve got a lot of different stuff we need to communicate on, not just between me and Kurt, but also the team and Kurt,” McCall added. “So, it’s pretty high up there, for sure.”

Busch, who won the 2004 Cup championship, is looking forward to the test at his hometown track and to work on car-to-team on-track communication. Busch owns LVMS’ speed record of 196.328 mph (set in 2016), but given the new package’s horsepower limitations, it’s unlikely he’ll come close to that speed in the test.

“For me, it’s just to get behind the wheel and to feel the Chevrolet and feel the drivetrain and to go through a few setup changes,” Busch said. “I think the most important thing is radio communication and how we want to mock-up certain pit stop sequences for changes as we’re out on-track and just having that banter back and forth so when we roll into Daytona, we’re best prepared.

“That’s a big reason why Chip Ganassi Racing is having the No. 1 car go do this test is to work the bugs out of it and just work those sequences into how we’re going to go attack things in Daytona.”

Las Vegas Motor Speedway officials are also touting the significance of the test on Thursday and Friday, issuing a media release with this headline: “Elite drivers ready for one of the most important tests in NASCAR history.”

The data teams collect from the test will go a long way towards adapting early in the season to 1.5-mile tracks such as Atlanta Motor Speedway and LVMS, which host the second and third races of 2019 – Feb. 24 and March 3, respectively – after the season-opening Daytona 500 on Feb. 17.

In addition to Busch and McCall, the Las Vegas test will also be the first on-track interaction between several other driver/crew chief combinations including Jimmie Johnson and new crew chief Kevin Meendering, Chad Knaus and William Byron at Hendrick Motorsports and Ryan Newman and Scott Graves at Roush Fenway Racing.

The test will be open to fans with free admission. Also, NASCAR.com will be streaming parts of the test.

Here’s the list of drivers and teams that will be taking part in the Las Vegas test:

Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series
0 Landon Cassill, Starcom Racing, Chevrolet
1 Kurt Busch, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
2 Brad Keselowski, Team Penske, Ford
3 Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet
6 Ryan Newman, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
13 Ty Dillon, Germain Racing, Chevrolet
14 Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford
18 Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
21 Paul Menard, Wood Brothers Racing, Ford
43 Bubba Wallace, Richard Petty Motorsports, Chevrolet
47 Ryan Preece, JTG Racing, Chevrolet
48 Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
51 Cody Ware, Rick Ware Racing, Chevrolet
95 Matt DiBenedetto, Leavine Family Racing, Toyota
Chevrolet W
heel Force car Ross Chastain, Chevrolet Racing
Ford W
heel Force car David Ragan, Ford Motor Company
Toyota W
heel Force car Drew Herring, Toyota Racing Development

NASCAR Xfinity Series
8 Zane Smith, JR Motorsports, Chevrolet
9 Noah Gragson, JR Motorsports, Chevrolet
18 Riley Herbst, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
98 Chase Briscoe, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford

Event schedule (all times Eastern Time):
Thursday, Jan. 31

11 a.m.–Practice begins; LVMS gates, grandstands and pit road (via infield tunnel) open to the public
2 p.m.–Drafting practice on track
3-4 p.m.–Driver’s lunch break, driver group interviews in media center
6 p.m.–Drafting practice on track
8 p.m.–Drafting practice on track
10 p.m.–Track secure

Friday, Feb. 1
11 a.m.–Practice begins; LVMS gates, grandstands and pit road (via infield tunnel) open to the public
Noon –Drafting practice on track
2 p.m.–Drafting practice on track
3 p.m. –Track secure

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Drivers gear up for important two-day test in Las Vegas

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Las Vegas Motor Speedway will host a major two-day organizational test for Cup and Xfinity Series teams starting Thursday.

The test is significant because it will be the largest collection of teams to test the Cup Series’ 2019 rules package at the same time.

“We don’t know what we don’t know,” said Brad Keselowski, who will take part in the test, on how the new package will be on track. “You’ll figure it out.”

There will be 21 drivers involved, including 16 Cup drivers and two full-time Xfinity drivers, Noah Gragson and Chase Briscoe. Ross Chastain, David Ragan and Drew Herring each will drive manufacture wheel force cars. Xfinity drivers Zane Smith and Riley Herbst will also be present.

The test, which is open to the public, will be from 11 a.m.- 10 p.m. ET Thursday and from 11 a.m.- 4 p.m. ET Friday.

On Thursday, the first of three drafting practice sessions will begin at 2 p.m ET. The other two drafting practice sessions are scheduled for 6 and 8 p.m. ET.

Friday will feature two drafting practice sessions at Noon and 2 p.m. ET.

Here’s who is involved in the test.

Cup Series Drivers
No. 00 – Landon Cassill, Starcom Racing, Chevrolet
No. 1 – Kurt Busch, Chip Ganassi Racing, Chevrolet
No. 2 – Brad Keselowski, Team Penske, Ford
No. 3 – Austin Dillon, Richard Childress Racing, Chevrolet
No. 6 – Ryan Newman, Roush Fenway Racing, Ford
No. 13 – Ty Dillon, Germain Racing, Chevrolet
No. 14 – Clint Bowyer, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford
No. 18 – Kyle Busch, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
No. 21 – Paul Menard, Wood Brothers Racing, Ford
No. 43 – Bubba Wallace, Richard Petty Motorsports, Chevrolet
No. 47 – Ryan Preece, JTG Racing, Chevrolet
No. 48 – Jimmie Johnson, Hendrick Motorsports, Chevrolet
No. 51 – Cody Ware, Rick Ware Racing, Chevrolet
No. 95 – Matt DiBenedetto, Leavine Family Racing, Toyota
Chevrolet Wheel Force car Ross Chastain, Chevrolet Racing
Ford Wheel Force car David Ragan, Ford Motor Company
Toyota Wheel Force car Drew Herring, Toyota Racing Development

Xfinity Series drivers
No. 8 Zane Smith, JR Motorsports, Chevrolet
No. 9 Noah Gragson, JR Motorsports, Chevrolet
No. 18 Riley Herbst, Joe Gibbs Racing, Toyota
No. 98 Chase Briscoe, Stewart-Haas Racing, Ford

 

Friday 5: Crew chief marvels at Chase Elliott’s progression

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It wasn’t until Chase Elliott scored his first Cup victory last season that crew chief Alan Gustafson saw the toll that not winning took on his driver.

With high expectations and a large fan following, pressure built on Elliott as his winless drought stretched beyond his rookie year in 2016, then 2017 and past the halfway mark of 2018.

Ryan Blaney won his first Cup race before Elliott. So did Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher and Erik Jones.

Elliott’s winless drought reached 98 Cup races before his Watkins Glen triumph.

“I think I underestimated how it was wearing on him and how personally he was taking it not winning races,” Gustafson said this week. “Once he won, I realized, ‘Wow, it was something that he was taking very personal and something that was weighing on him.’ ”

Elliott scored eight career runner-up finishes before that first victory in August. He went on to win twice more last year (Dover and Kansas in the playoffs).

Those performances showed the growth Elliott has made since his rookie Cup campaign in 2016.

“I guess the best way to describe it,” Gustafson said, “is I can remember when I first worked with him, he was so good at such a young age. ‘Where is his ceiling?’ He seems to be awfully close to it to me. Then kind of a pleasant surprise to me, he’s been able to push that ceiling, he’s made some significant growth and improvement.

“I think it stems from going to these races … knowing what line works. What line is good for this or how did this guy win the race … all these little nuances that you get from experience.”

The result was that Elliott was one of three drivers to win twice in the playoffs last year — champion Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also won twice in the playoffs.

“I am 100 percent confident if we give Chase a car that he wants, he will win the race with it,” Gustafson said. “He can adapt really well and there hasn’t been anything that he has not been able to overcome.”

2. Will IndyCar knowledge help Chevy thrive in Cup in ’19?

There are so many questions entering this season with what the racing will be like under the new rules package. Some questions will start to be answered at next week’s organizational test at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, but even then there will be much uncertainty.

For Chevrolet, this could be daunting after its struggles last  year. The car manufacturer won four races a year ago — its lowest total since 1982 — and last had a car race for the Cup title in Miami in 2016.

Pat Suhy, Chevrolet’s NASCAR Group Manager, notes how the manufacturer’s IndyCar program could help its NASCAR teams with this rules package that has tapered spacers reducing horsepower and downforce added to the cars.

“We’ve been able to take a lot of what we’ve learned in IndyCar, where you are power limited,” Suhy told NBC Sports. “If you look at last year and really years past, we just piled on as much downforce as we could and you would always go faster, but when you’re power limited with the tapered (spacer) 550 (horsepower) engine, when you’re power limited, you have to start making decisions about how much drag you’re willing to accept for a downforce gain. It’s really more about trading off straightaway speed for cornering speed.

“We’re in a really good position to help answer that question with some of the tools that we have developed and used week in and week out in the IndyCar Series. We’ve been able to bring that to our NASCAR teams.”

3. JTG Daugherty Racing making changes

JTG Daugherty Racing will be more closely aligned with Hendrick Motorsports this season, according to Ernie Cope, JTG Daugherty Racing’s director of competition. JTG Daugherty Racing will receive Hendrick engines, use Hendrick simulation and have Hendrick pit crews service the cars of Chris Buescher and rookie Ryan Preece.

JTG Daugherty Racing also has purchased five chassis for Daytona from Hendrick Motorsports. The rest of JTG Daugherty Racing’s fleet will be built in-house. Cope told NBC Sports that Car No. 10 was on a surface plate this week. 

Car No. 1 will be used for wind tunnel testing. Car Nos. 2-3 will debut at Atlanta Motor Speedway. Cope said the organization plans to have new cars for all the races through Texas, which is the seventh race of the season.

Why build their own chassis?

“Part of it is you control your own innovation and destiny and when parts are coming,” Cope said. “We control our own production schedule. I think it’s going to work out fine.”

4. Chatting with the new guy

Clint Bowyer admits he didn’t know Daniel Suarez well before Suarez signed to drive the No. 41 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing starting this season. A recent sponsor appearance together in Texas gave them the chance to talk on the flight.

“Man, it’s fun to be around kids like that are full of talent, full of piss and vinegar,” Bowyer said. “He’s set on kill. He’s excited about his opportunity, as he should be. He’s in good equipment. I know the equipment he’s going to be sitting in, the team that he’s going to be with. They were on fire last year with Billy Scott and all those guys. He’s got a good future ahead of him for this year. I’m excited for him.”

5. Fans in the Cup garage

Details are being finalized, but look for the Cup garage to be open to fans at a select time on some race weekends. This has been done in the Xfinity and Truck Series and will expand to Cup this season.

How tracks offer this to fans, how many fans will be allowed in, what time and what day this will take place on a race weekend will be set by tracks and NASCAR.

The tentative Daytona Speedweeks schedule lists an open Cup garage for fans from 9:30 – 11:30 a.m. ET on Feb. 10 — the day of the Clash and Daytona 500 qualifying. The Cup garage also is listed as being open to fans from 4-6 pm ET at Daytona on Feb. 14, the day of the Duel qualifying races.

A spokesperson for Daytona International Speedway told NBC Sports that track officials are developing their plans for this and don’t have anything to announce at this time.

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