Crew chief analysis: Testing may tell all
March 06, 2014, Brad Parrott, Special to NASCAR.com, NASCAR.com
Editor's note: Brad Parrott, a 19-time winner in NASCAR national series competition, has joined NASCAR.com as a guest writer for the 2014 season. Here is his first-person analysis ahead of Sunday's Kobalt 400 for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:
What happens in Vegas might stay in Vegas for most. But for NASCAR crew chiefs, what they learn in Vegas can forecast success in plenty of different locations.
NASCAR has a test day scheduled on Thursday, so that gives the teams an extra day to run their race setup all day. Then on Friday, they can concentrate on nothing but qualifying runs. This past weekend at Phoenix, they had to run their race setups early because no one knew if the weather was going to wash out practice on Saturday or not.
The qualifying format, which expands to three rounds this weekend, is going to force crew chiefs to be very strategic in terms of knowing how many laps you can run. A fast car in the top 12 is going to go out and make one solid run in that first 30 minutes. I don't see anybody going out for their second run in that first session and landing in the top 12.
It's drastically different than Phoenix, where you ran two or three laps to get your fastest lap. Jamie McMurray went out on his third run at Phoenix and moved into the top 12 and then actually got higher up in qualifying because he had older tires. Vegas is all about running 200 mph down into the corners and the grip level is going to be there, but the tires will go away faster. It's worn in so well now. The fast cars are going to go to the top.
You're going to have drivers going out and making just one qualifying run because their heart can't stand two. You'll see everyone going all-out. It's hard for a driver to make that many runs in a row doing nothing but mashing the gas and letting off, not even using a whole lot of brake. You may see more accidents in qualifying because that guy going out for his second or third attempt might not realize how much grip level that the tires have lost.
New tires are always the key to being fast there, but again, you've got a different downforce package this year. It may help somebody that messed up their first lap to be able to go out and run another lap.
I think the test that teams had in Charlotte last December is going to be another key to who's fast in Vegas. The Stewart-Haas Racing cars were strong then; the Chip Ganassi Racing cars were also strong -- those guys will have a slight advantage going into Vegas, but you have a full day of testing for other teams to catch up.
There's a lot of items that are going to be thrown out on the table, a lot of engineers set up, a lot of work. Instead of being in the casino Thursday night, they're going to be sitting down at their hotels rooms and going over data to bring back to their team on Friday morning.
Leading into Saturday, it's going to be a crapshoot as far as who can get their car handling the best. A lot of the springs they ran at Phoenix, they'll also run at Vegas because that keeps the car on the ground and gives them max downforce.
The wind really plays havoc in Vegas. It really depends where the storms are on the West Coast. We've had a 20- to 30-mph wind blowing into Turn 3 at Vegas on some days. With the new package these days, the wind does pick up the cars and toss them around a little more. Everything will go as planned as long as the temperatures are right and the weather is right.
Ultimately, a lot of the race weekend will come down to who comes out of this Thursday test the best. Some of these guys will know where they are based off their Charlotte test in December. As you might expect, the teams that have put the most time in over the winter will rise to the top.
In terms of favorites, Dale Earnhardt Jr. -- with a win and a second-place right off the bat, combined with the way he finished last season -- he'll carry that momentum into Vegas. The whole Hendrick organization has the momentum on their side -- their gas gauge is reading "full" right now.
Ten years ago, Las Vegas might've been loaded with distractions for the drivers because every single driver didn't have a motorhome. Every driver who will finish in the top 20 Sunday, their motorhome is at the race track to keep them out of the casinos. They'll be going down to The Strip for autograph sessions and everything, but as far as the true gamblers in our sport, that was 10 years ago. Now drivers know their concentration level's got to be not on blackjack, not on roulette, but on four springs, four shocks and air pressures on their race cars.
It's an adult playground, for sure. But for our drivers, it's a business trip.