NASCAR Pre Race Media: 5 burning questions for Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN)

Can SHR Improve In Vegas?

Stewart-Haas Racing used to be among the best teams at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Kevin Harvick won twice in a four race span a few years ago. Since? He’s had just two top five results in five tries. While he’s not been terrible, he’s just not been great either with finishes of eighth and 10th respectively a year ago.

SHR has in fact just missed the setups on the 1.5-mile track lately. They’ve qualified really well but not excelled in race conditions for the recent impound races. Then throw in no qualifying for last Fall and you can see where the miss it for them.

Aric Almirola’s last three finishes are 13th, 21st and 17th respectively. Cole Custer was only 19th and 16th as a rookie a year ago. Chase Briscoe is a rookie.

Can they close the gap this weekend? We’re not practicing or qualifying again this weekend, so if they look at Sunday based off the years past, they know which direction to not go. The thing is, they were a no show essentially last weekend in Homestead too. 

Can Joey Logano Go 3 Straight Spring Race Wins?

Joey Logano won the spring race in Vegas in 2019. He backed that up with another victory last March. Can he make it three straight?

Logano, has scored a top 10 finish in all but one start at Vegas since joining Team Penske. In fact, he’s had 10 top seven finishes in his last 11 tries there.

He was leading on the last lap at Daytona for the ‘500. He was leading coming to the white flag on the road course race at DIS. His car has been in contention to win a lot so far this year. He’s got to be a lead candidate to win on Sunday for a three peat.

How Much Will Setups Translate Over?

Last spring was an impound race in Vegas. They practiced on Friday, qualified on Saturday and raced on Sunday. Last Fall there was no practice or qualifying whatsoever. We return without either again this weekend. How much does last years notes translate over to this Sunday’s race?

We know the two dates annually differ in terms of setups. The spring race is usually much cooler than the Fall. Plus, the Fall race typically ends under the lights too. 

Will Late Race Restart Alter The Race?

Las Vegas has had some good trends. 19 of the last 21 races have seen a past champion win. The only time it didn’t was with Carl Edwards twice. Penske, SHR or JGR have won 12 of the last 13 races there too. Just once time has the winner over the last 13 races also been under the age of 30.

You’d think this is a recipe for a predictable winner, right?

Well Vegas has been anything but lately and that’s because of late race cautions.

Last year, Ryan Blaney and Alex Bowman were well on their ways to battling for the win in the end. Blaney was leading and Bowman was chasing him down. Unfortunately for both, a caution came out in the closing laps. The pit gamble was on. They were in the lame duck position.

If they pit, others would stay out. If they didn’t pit, others behind would for fresh tires. So, they took the conservative route and hit pit lane. As predicted, several other cars stayed out and they punted away a shot at victory.

Joey Logano benefitted from staying out and won.

Last Fall, Kurt Busch, Matt DiBenedetto and others ran their second to last stint long. They were hoping for a caution. See, the leaders had already pitted for their final time and if Busch and DiBenedetto wanted to make something happen and get inside of the top 10, their only hope was to run this sequence long and hope and pray for a yellow.

They got it.

They’d pit and be able to cycle still to 1-2 and hold off everyone else with clean air and less than 30 laps of racing.

Cautions completely altered the entire race in both instances last year in Vegas. Will we see it happen on Sunday? That’s why you can’t just assume that the cars dominating all day will win in the end. All it takes is one fluke caution towards the end of the race and you get mayhem.

LAS VEGAS, NV – MARCH 03: Kevin Harvick, driver of the #4 Jimmy John’s Ford, and Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Office Toyota, lead the field to green for the start of the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil Oil 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on March 3, 2019 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

More Parity Again? Will We See Another Wild Winner As A Result?

I combined two questions into one because they go hand-in-hand. As stated above, there’s a good chance a late race caution can completely alter the complexity of Sunday’s race. Plus, just look at how this season has gone thus far. Fluke winners in all three races. Will we see another one in Sunday’s Pennzoil 400?

The top drivers on 1.5-mile tracks used to be a select, yet elite small group. If you wanted to win on the intermediate race tracks at NASCAR’s top level, you were going to have to go through Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick or Jimmie Johnson to do so. Now, they have some company up front.

Out of the last 76 races on 1.5-mile tracks, 59 of them have been won by a handful of drivers. Martin Truex Jr. (12) leads them but Kevin Harvick (11), Brad Keselowski (11) Jimmie Johnson (10),  Kyle Busch (9) and Joey Logano (8) have been at their best on intermediate race tracks too.

With Sunday’s race the Las Vegas Motor Speedway being a 1.5-mile track, we’ve seen 12 different winners in the last 18 races on intermediates including seven straight and 10 in the last 11. 

It all started nearly two years ago, on June 30, 2019 at the Chicagoland Speedway to be exact, with Alex Bowman. Then, Kentucky Speedway (Kurt Busch), Las Vegas in the Fall (Martin Truex Jr), Kansas (Denny Hamlin), Texas (Kevin Harvick) and Homestead (Kyle Busch) to close out the season. Last year, we had Las Vegas (Joey Logano), Charlotte (Brad Keselowski/Chase Elliott), Atlanta (Harvick), Homestead (Denny Hamlin), Kentucky (Cole Custer), Texas (Austin Dillon), Kansas (Brad Keselowski), Vegas (Kurt Busch), Kansas (Joey Logano) and Texas (Kyle Busch) following suit. So far, we’ve had one 1.5-mile track in 2021. That occurred last week in Homestead. William Byron won. 

We’re running out of names to keep this going? All that’s left on the big teams are Kyle Larson, Christopher Bell, Ryan Blaney, Chase Briscoe, or Aric Almirola.

Truex has gone well over a year since his last win on 1.5-mile track. He won the Fall Vegas race in 2019 as his last. He says the reason for the parity now is all due to how these cars race these days.

“I think it’s mostly the cars and the situations to where it seems we always have a late restart,” Truex said. “You look at the way that these cars drive and the way on restarts, we don’t have a lot of horsepower. You can’t get away from each other. You’re kind of at the mercy of the drag and the horsepower and we all end up in a big wad for 2-3 laps. That’s kind of where we’ve seen the different winners come from and it’s come at a pretty consistent basis.”

As to why the odd trend of fluke winners this year?

“I think the rules have been the same for a while, and everybody has had all off-season to kind of work on our stuff and understand where they were last year and a lot of people obviously made some good decisions on how to get better,” said third place finisher in Homestead Martin Truex Jr. “Yeah, definitely seeing a lot of guys running up front today that we don’t normally see, but I think it’s just the box that we work in is so small and the longer we have the same rules package the closer everybody is going to get.”

Michael McDowell was 0-for-357 before his win. Christopher Bell was 0-for-38. William Byron went 0-for-97 before his first win came last year at Daytona and was 1-for-110 before his Homestead victory. 

“I think one of the biggest things for us is there hasn’t been a tremendous amount of development, not new chassis, new parts, new pieces,” McDowell said. “We used to fall so far behind, but now I feel like we’re able to build on what we had in the past and make our cars a little bit better each time we come to the racetrack without changing all the fundamental pieces and kind of starting over and having to re-engineer everything.

“It’s kind of simplified the process for us a little bit just to keep building on what we have and try to make it better. But what an incredible run for our Front Row team. It’s so exciting to be a part of this organization. We’re really doing it, and it’s fun to be a part of it right now, and I’m so thankful that I get to drive it.

“I didn’t do anything different as far as me. I didn’t come with a different approach of how I was going to drive it. I just did what I normally did do, and we were fast. Really thankful we had a strong car.”

McDowell’s three straight top 10 finishes is the most he’s had in-a-row ever. he had zero back-to-back top 10’s in his 13 years prior. 

“That they’re crazy,” McDowell said on what he would have said if he was told before the season that he’d have three straight top 10’s to start the year off with. “You know, I think that we are realistic about where we finished the year and where we wanted to be, and we thought that we were in that 15th to 20th range pretty consistent last year.

“To make a big jump like we did, I wouldn’t say that it’s a complete, like, unbelievable shock, but it’s pretty close to it. We have definitely out-performed where we thought we’d be, especially on the mile-and-a-half. These places, especially these slick places are really tough for the smaller teams. I think that at the same time we had a good run here last year and something to build on, so we came back and made some improvements, and yeah, we kind of shocked ourselves.”

How much does the lack of practice help this too? I mean, given track time, most of the big teams have the resources to alter the car to ensure that they’re firing off on all cylinders from the drop of the green flag and have plenty of data from practice that weekend to stay ahead of any changes needed. Without practice now, they don’t have that luxury. 

Also, with a new car coming out in 2021, maybe most teams decided to forego some big money upgrades for this year and chose to refine what they previously had since the cars and setups wouldn’t change much between this year and last. That’s why we could see some wild racing then for even longer. 

“The rules are the rules, and they haven’t changed in a while, and everybody is really just trying to work on the same things here each and every week,” said Truex Jr. “So it gives you time to work on your stuff and not have to really develop a lot of things. The smaller teams definitely get to catch up.”

Truex thinks that the bigger teams will eventually come on though. 

“We’ll see if it continues,” he continued. “I still think the strong teams will end up being the teams to beat when all is said and done, and I feel like for us in particular on the 19 we’ve been really strong all year. We’ve been really fast. We had some tough breaks in Daytona and then we were in the hunt today. We’re feeling good about things and hopefully we can just continue to find some stuff to get better and keep running up front.”

McDowell agrees.

“It definitely has closed the gap, but the best teams and the top teams will always be the top teams,” he said. “They just consistently do it just a tad better. Pit road, execution, lighter, faster, more downforce. We’ll just take it as it goes.”

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