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

How Will New Package Look?

This is the first true test of the new car, right? The LA Coliseum is a football stadium, Daytona is Daytona and Fontana we’ve not been to in two years. With the dwindling nature of 1.5-mile tracks and NASCAR trying to find a way to improve the racing, this weekend will be an early indicator if this new car helps or hurts the show?

Last weekend in Fontana was treacherous. The drivers all agreed that this car is much harder to drive than the past one and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The problem is, there were a lot of spin outs in all three aspects of the weekend. We saw it in practice, qualifying and the race.

Part of that is due to the tire. The other due to the nature of this car.

So, what will we see this weekend?

The thing is, this race has been run under mostly green flag conditions. Last year saw 89% of the race run under green flag conditions. 2020 saw nine cautions, but three were for stage breaks or a competition caution while the others were for single car incidents. The 2019 race saw two caution flags fly — both for stage breaks. In the race in 2018, we saw only four cautions fly for just 29 laps. The spring race has been tame in nature lately.

So, which wins out?

See, when NASCAR went to the 550 package, they tested it in Vegas. This was a place with fresh asphalt to see if they could create the Daytona or Talladega type racing there. After a couple of years of racing, it never really panned out.

Now, we have a new car that’s supposed to help the show further. The pack racing and edge of year seat action is what’s been desired. The question is, will it happen?

Also, we’ve long heard that this new car will erase all the past old notes that everyone has. Again, Daytona is Daytona and Fontana has had a lengthy absence off the schedule. How much will Vegas look different than last year? How much of the old notes will translate over or is this an entire fresh slate?

It has for both races so far.

This weekend is the first test of the new car.

Will Larson and Elliott Smooth Everything Over?

Hendrick Motorsports was very open to the fact last year that a large part of their new found success was a new culture that was being established within their North Carolina walls. While they had four separate teams within the organization, they would operate as one.

One team, one goal. One for all. No moving pieces in opposite direction. HMS wasn’t the 5 team (Kyle Larson), the 9 team (Chase Elliott), the 24 team (William Byron) and the 48 team (Alex Bowman). They were one.

It paid off nicely too.

The 2021 season was extra special with what the Hendrick Motorsports organization was able accomplish. They took home their second straight championship via Larson’s triumph in Phoenix. It was their 17th win of the season.

Hendrick Motorsports’ second-most in a single season and third-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972-Present). 2021 was the organization’s 36th straight season with a victory; longest-ever streak by a team in the series and its 37th season overall with a win; the most-ever by a team in the series. Plus, Hendrick Motorsports swept first and second in seven races last season; tied for the second-most all-time and most by a team in NASCAR’s Modern Era. They also became one of two teams in Cup Series history to finish 1-2 in four straight races (between Dover and Sonoma). And to top all of that, the organization became the all-time wins leader in the NASCAR Cup Series with 279 total Cup wins – lead all other teams by 11 victories. Kyle Larson’s win in May at Charlotte Motor Speedway broke the all-time record previously held by Petty Enterprises (268 wins).

The Hendrick Motorsport’s foursome of Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, William Byron and Alex Bowman also became the only team in NASCAR’s Modern Era to win six straight races (between Dover and Pocono) and the only team in Cup history to have all four Cup cars entered in a race sweep the top-four finishes positions (Dover). They also became the first team in history with four winners under age 30 in a single season.

Absolutely,” Hendrick said on if he thinks the organization is back where it needs to be in terms of dominance. “I mean, when you have a Jeff Gordon and Terry Labonte, you won four championships in a row, you won a ton of races, then you kind of go through a rebuilding year, you don’t Jeff or Jimmie or Dale, and you’ve got Alex Bowman and William Byron and Chase Elliott.

“You watch Larson. He say, Hey, he’s got a tremendous amount of talent. Can he be a team player? Can he come in an organization and have an impact, really help the other guys? The answer to all those is yes.

“I’ve been amazed with William Byron, his year. You work at where he was, if he had gotten in the Roval, he looked like he was going to win that race. He could have been a player in the championship.

“Alex won four races. Chase is going for the back-to-back championship. When you have everybody working together, when you have the crew chiefs not trying to hide things but legitimately wanting to help each other and make all the cars better. Communication between the drivers where you don’t have a driver that’s upset with the other driver or jealous, just building a wall between them.

“Again, it’s the best we’ve ever had when you look at four crew chiefs and four drivers. We had Jimmie Johnson that won seven, won five in a row. The rest of the organization was running at that par.

“This has been a phenomenal year for us.”

They led the fifth-most by any team in NASCAR’s Modern Era (1972)-Present); but set a new Hendrick Motorsports team record that stood for 12 years (4,017 in 2009). Junior Johnson and Associates holds the NASCAR Cup Series Modern Era organization record for the most laps led in a single season with 4,296.

Hendrick Motorsports 2021 dominance doesn’t end there, they also posted 33 finishes inside the top two; most in the Modern Era (since 1972), scored 83 top-10 finishes; the team’s second-most (84 in 2007, 82 in 2012), posted 55 top-five finishes; the team’s second-most (57 in 2007) and won 28 stages; had only won 33 prior to 2021.

Since the inception of the NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs in 2004, the 2021 is the first time Hendrick Motorsports has placed two drivers in the Championship 4 Round (Elliott, Larson). Impressively, Hendrick Motorsports has won at least one Playoff race in each of the 17 Playoff seasons (since 2004) for a combined 53 postseason wins, most all-time.

That’s all great. Unfortunately, all that mantra is being threatened by a run-in between Larson and Elliott at Fontana. Towards the end of the race, Elliott had a run on Larson and Joey Logano for the lead and while Larson was moving to side draft Logano coming across the finish line, he moved up to break the air and push him forward. While doing so, he inadvertently pushed Elliott into the wall.

Larson says that he didn’t know Elliott was there. His spotter even took the blame in saying he was focused on Logano and didn’t alert Larson that Elliott was outside until it was too late. Elliott, wasn’t very happy with Larson and rightfully so.

HMS officials and Larson said they’d all sit down with Elliott and his team to clear the air. While I suspect they absolutely will and will definitely talk between last Sunday and this Sunday in Vegas, the main question is, will the air be cleared or will Elliott still have a lasting impact from this situation?

Until it is, HMS isn’t operating as one team. There’s separation there. All the focus on Vegas prep is being interrupted by this. Discussions and meetings are being had to address it which that time could be spent preparing for Vegas.

It’s a distraction and one that the quicker they can move on and have no ill wills towards each other, the quicker HMS gets back to 2021’s success.

Look this isn’t the first and certainly won’t be the last time teammates get into each other. In fact, this is the second straight week.

In the final lap of the Daytona 500, it was Austin Cindric vs. Ryan Blaney. Same thing happened in the final lap of the 2021 Daytona 500 between Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski.

“When you’re married to somebody, you have to figure it out,” Logano said last year of he and Keselowski talking about Daytona. “You’re married. You don’t just leave. You get married, it’s supposed to be forever. And so, when you have conflict or differences of opinion, you have to talk about it. You can’t just roll it up under the rug. It’s not going to work. It’s not healthy. It’s kind of the situation here.

“I will be forced, and he will be forced to work with me. We’re still teammates. We will have to figure this out. We may not have to agree on everything, but we at least have to find a way to move forward, and that is going to be the approach we need to do because going back to the 400 men and women who work at Team Penske, we owe it to them to figure this out and we will fix it. It’s fine. Like I said, you can look at this thing three different ways, and there are going to be six different opinions on how the last few laps went, and depending on what seat you’re in, you would pick differently.”

Logano noted last February that they didn’t talk until the next weekend. That was by design. He said that it’s best to cool your jets before meeting about it. You don’t want to meet and let things boil over still and say things you don’t mean and let this carry on further.

“It’s maybe not what needs to be said, but what is the goal moving forward,” Logano said. “The goal is to move on and not say, ‘You raced me hard, so I’m going to race you hard’ and now we’re going to beat the doors off each other and it grows and grows and grows and grows.

“That’s the goal that you can’t have. You can’t seek revenge or just, ‘Well, you made my life hard, so I’m going to make your life hard.’ That’s childish. We’re adults. We’re not doing that. I’m not going to do that for a multiple of reasons. … If you do that, it’s the most selfish thing you can do because you’re not just hurting yourself or hurting him, you’re hurting all the people that work on that car and what did they do to you? They’re the same people that work on my car by the way, so it’s a matter of just saying how do we move forward, not you did this, you did this, you did this.

“It’s, ‘OK, that’s that.’ Start at zero. Clean slate. Never to bring up anything that’s happened six months ago, a year ago, five years ago. If you want to talk about it, that is the time. The best time to talk about it, bring it up, be honest, get it off your chest. If you need to get it of your chest because it makes you feel better, good. That’s going to be healthy, but after that it’s never being brought up again. Never. It’s got to start at zero.”

Does HMS treat it like that or address it immediately this week?

Logano said prior to the Busch Light Clash that the way this new car is and the situations that NASCAR is making with formats, track sizes, downforce levels, etc, is creating more of these tense moments on track for their to be more and more run ins with drivers.

“There are moments on the race track that test your character,” he said. ‘It tests who you are and how you want to race and what are you going to do to win a championship now.

“NASCAR has all put us in a position to make challenging decisions on what is right. I’ll be 100% honest with you, I don’t even know what’s right. You try to play out all the scenarios in your mind before the weekend starts so you know what to do in the moment, but half the time, it’s something that comes up of maybe something that you didn’t think about or maybe you didn’t have the answer to yet but you’re forced to make a decision in a split second. That’s what we have to think about.

“That’s also very entertaining for you guys. That sucks for us sometimes. You just got to do what you’ve got to do. It’s something all of us drivers think about a lot.”

Logano says though in wake of these potential pitfalls, that you have to treat it like you would if you were the one on the other side of the coin.

“You have to be consistent,” he says. “What’s consistent? I’m going to win. I’m out there to win the race. That’s the goal and you do what it takes to do that. But, you have to have your moral code and know what is okay to do that. Is it dumping somebody is okay to win a race? I don’t think so. That’s not really in my cards. Now, bump-and-run? I’ve proven that I think that’s okay. The facts are that you have to be okay with that happening to you. Am I okay with being wrecked? No. Am I okay with being moved out of the way? I don’t have to be happy about it but I have to be okay with it if I’m going to do it. I feel like that should be the code. Whatever your happy with being done by you have to have be okay with it if it was someone else.”

Will Larson Sweep The West Coast Swing?

Kyle Larson won last Sunday’s race in Fontana. That’s the first leg of the three leg west coast swing with Las Vegas this weekend and Phoenix next to wrap it up. The question now is, will Larson make a clean sweep? Will he win 2 of the 3 or will Fontana be his lone victory of this stretch?

Coincidentally enough, the last time the NASCAR Cup Series visited Las Vegas in the spring, Larson won. It was his first victory with Hendrick Motorsports last March. The last time the Cup Series was in Phoenix, he won and took home the championship.

Can he pick up where he left off last year and win the next two weeks?

Larson, has won 5 of the last 7 Cup races dating back to last Fall as his organization, Hendrick Motorsports, has won 6 of the last 7.

Furthermore, if you go back to the final race of the opening round of the playoffs last year (10 races), HMS has won 70% of the races (7-for-10) with Larson taking 6 of those checkered flags first. 2 of the 3 races they didn’t win were on superspeedway’s (Talladega, Daytona). The only other one in that span that they didn’t win?

Las Vegas in the Fall. Denny Hamlin beat Chase Elliott (an HMS driver) that night.

Who Needs A Good Weekend?

We all knew that this car could lead to early parity and so far, it absolutely has. With 20 possible top 10 opportunities the last two weeks combined and 10 top fives on the hook, we’ve seen 19 different drivers take the 20 top 10 spots and 10 drivers take the 10 top fives available.

That’s parity.

There were 8 different teams in the top 10 in Daytona and nine in Fontana. With that said, it’s created a few drivers to need to dig themselves out of a massive hole.

Just look at the bottom half of the standings.

Alex Bowman is in 25th. Denny Hamlin is 30th. William Byron, Harrison Burton, Ross Chastain and Christopher Bell are 33rd, 34th, 35th and 36th respectively in holding onto the bottom four spots.

Hell, Jacques Villeneuve sits ahead of them in points.

That has all pressing this weekend. You can’t afford another bad week.

Bowman, has 2 top sixes in his last 4 in Vegas but the other two were outside of the top 10. His teammate in Byron has 3 finishes of 18th or worse in his last 4 Vegas tries. Chastain was 23rd in both races a year ago. 3 of Bell’s four Vegas Cup finishes have been 24th or worse. Burton is a rookie.

Hamlin, won last year’s playoff race and has three straight top fours there so maybe this is his time. The others? Well they have to hope this new car brings out better results for them on Sunday.

What Can Be Done About The Tires?

The new car was hit with raving reviews from Speedweeks. Other than the tires falling off a couple of cars, there wasn’t really any problems stemming from it. But, after how Fontana went, a pattern is taking shape and it’s from the tires.

NASCAR adapted to the tire issue from Daytona in issuing a bulletin for changes that Penske and RFK Racing found a week prior to Speedweeks. What they did wasn’t illegal after all and in fact sparked a change for the entire series.

But, Fontana brought out a whole new set of problems via tires not only cutting down, but disintegrating all the way down to the rim. It basically caused cars to be stuck on track because you couldn’t risk driving it back.

The thing is, this needs addressed and absolutely needs fixed but what can you do? That is a major question being asked this week. Do you add an inner liner? I don’t think that’s viable. From what I’ve heard is there’s no room in this tire to add it.

As to why this is happening?

The new tire incorporates an 18-inch wheel diameter, an important component of the stockcar’s performance capabilities, aesthetics and ability to function more like a passenger sports car.

It also features shorter sidewalls, a 1.5-inch wider footprint and a softer tire compound, which will give drivers better grip than the Gen-6 predecessor, exclusively used in the Cup Series 2013-2021.

Goodyear collaborated closely with NASCAR, race teams and drivers to ensure optimal tire performance at more than 25 racetracks, from superspeedways to short tracks.

An engineering undertaking two years in the making, Goodyear’s NASCAR Next Gen tire closely mirrors its high-performance tire for passenger cars. The body designs of the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, Ford Mustang and Toyota TRD Camry – the three stock cars featured in the NASCAR Cup Series – will also mimic their showroom counterparts more directly.

“Incorporating an 18-inch bead diameter tire was an important factor of the NASCAR Next Gen design, performance capabilities and aesthetics,” said Greg Stucker, director, Race Tire Sales and Marketing for Goodyear. “Creating a low-profile, street-inspired tire for Cup Series racing was a significant accomplishment that required coordination throughout the entire NASCAR racing community.”

Setting it apart from its 15-inch predecessor used exclusively in the Cup Series from 1997 to 2021, the new tire features a softer tire compound and an inch and a half wider footprint to help give drivers enhanced grip on the racetrack. Importantly, Goodyear designed the shorter sidewall of its NASCAR Next Gen tire to help withstand the sustained duty cycle of oval racing.

The NASCAR Next Gen tire’s development consisted of a rigorous testing process, including thousands of testing miles, simulations with the original equipment manufacturers (OEMs) and in-lab research and development conducted by Goodyear Racing engineers. Alongside the OEMs, Goodyear collaborated closely with NASCAR, race teams and drivers to help ensure optimal tire performance at more than 25 racetracks, from superspeedways to short tracks and road courses.

“Goodyear’s NASCAR Next Gen race tire is integral to the vehicle system and is the only component that physically connects the Next Gen car to the racetrack,” said John Probst, NASCAR senior vice president, Racing Innovation. “Goodyear’s endless engineering and collaboration throughout the testing and development process has been absolutely critical and continues to help drive the sport forward.”

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