Kyle Larson became the fourth different driver to win in as many races to start the 2021 NASCAR Cup Series season. While the unpredictable nature is strong, one thing is starting to show though – who has speed and who doesn’t.
Hendrick Motorsports may have the top overall speed in the game right now. Team Penske may be right there behind, followed closely by Joe Gibbs Racing. Everyone else is fighting for fourth on back and that includes Stewart-Haas Racing.
HMS, JGR and Penske combined to take the entire top nine of the final finishing order of Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway. It was the second straight win by HMS with William Byron winning last weekend at the Homestead-Miami Speedway too.
Christopher Bell won the road course race at Daytona a week prior to that. While those are three winners no one really saw coming this early in the season, it’s still JGR and Hendrick cars going to victory lane.
“I mean, certainly the Hendrick guys have come to play,” Kyle Busch said following Sunday’s race. “They were really fast here last year with Chase. I thought Chase was fast early in the race. I never saw the front, so I don’t know. I think I seen him up there.
“So the 5 was just able to close the deal and finish it off. But, yeah, they certainly are pretty quick. It was interesting how the 2 was up front, the 2 was fast all day. I think the 22 never really got there. The 12 I think was okay. Yeah, I mean, we as JGR, we are definitely a little bit behind. We’ll continue to try to work on that and get better.
“But as the perception seems to be, Hendrick and Penske are certainly ahead of us, yes.”
Still, the unpredictable nature isn’t likely to go anywhere though for a while. As to why?
“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,” Martin Truex Jr. said last week in Homestead. “Yeah, definitely seeing a lot of guys running up front 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.”
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.
“Last week we were on the simulator for Homestead, same thing for this week for Vegas. It’s just not correlating close enough for us,” said Kyle Busch following a third place run Sunday in Las Vegas. “If we can get that better and closer, I feel like there’s something there.
“Off on balance to start. Got way better towards the end. Still there was room for improvement there at the end. Overall our speed was a little off. We weren’t going to keep up with the 5 or the 2. Definitely on restarts we could see that I was really slow, just getting attacked on by everybody, drove backwards. Took me a while to fight my way back up front, but that was our day.
“I mean, every track is different. Every week it seems to be close or far away, whatever. It’s interesting on how we can figure it all out.
“But, yeah, I mean, last year, once we lost practice and everything like that, we knew we weren’t going to go back to practice, we would go to the simulator every single week. I spent five hours there working on things, trying to get us the right balance that I feel like on a sim and a raceable one where I feel like I can drive the car a particular way that you need to drive it in the race on there, then in real life. It’s just not quite correlating between the two.
“This week we came to the racetrack super, super tight. I mean, eight numbers tighter on the racetrack than it was in sim. Typically when you’re good in sim, you’re about two numbers loose. I don’t know. That’s a 10-number difference, right? It’s just a big deal.
“I mean, a lot of it is tire. We have to figure out the tire model, and try to make what we think is right there. I don’t know, we’ll keep working on it. That’s the only tool we’ve got.”
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.
“It’s such a strange year. I think every company is a little different,” runner-up finisher Brad Keselowski said. “Inside every company, the teams are a little different. I think there’s a fair amount of companies that have probably punted to NextGen, which is sensible. Then there’s some companies that have really doubled down on this year’s car, their team and lineup, which makes sense, too.
“To each their own. It’s hard to tell in the first three races who’s done what. I felt like all along Vegas was the clearest indicator of what we’re going to see for a lot of the season. Both of these races, Vegas and next week in Phoenix, I think they represent what it’s going to take to win the championship, being good on tracks of these two types.
“We can tell the most from these races.
“As far as teams that might be ahead or behind others, it’s still pretty early. Certainly cause for concern if you weren’t towards the front today.”
Truex Jr. said sort of the same last week.
“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 and McDowell both think that the bigger teams will eventually come on though. So far, they’re doing just that.
“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.”
“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.”
Sunday showed this was a HMS-Penske-JGR fight.