Aging race surface should play a role today
March 09, 2014, Kenny Bruce, NASCAR.com
LAS VEGAS -- There will be plenty on the line today when NASCAR Sprint Cup Series teams hit the track for the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
The event is the third of 36 stops on the 2014 schedule, and one more chance for drivers to virtually assure themselves of a slot in this year's Chase for the NASCAR Sprint Cup.
But perhaps just as important, it is the first for Sprint Cup teams with the new rules package on an intermediate-sized track. Eleven of this year's 36 events will be contested on 1.5-mile venues.
From the teams’ standpoint, winning remains the focus.
For officials, how the rule changes affect the completion will be crucial.
The new package includes statically setting the front ride height, a taller spoiler as well as side skirt and rear fascia changes. It was developed after much testing and input from teams and automakers in an attempt to improve on-track competition, increase passing opportunities and lessen the aerodynamic dependency of the 2014 car.
In spite of the changes, drivers say they aren’t expecting to see a big difference in the on-track competition.
“I think we’ve seen some changes in the cars over the last couple of years trying to help all of that and to help passing and everything,” Kyle Busch, a former winner here at Las Vegas, said Friday. “Air is at such a premium – we’re running through the corners faster than ever. The faster you go, the more air you want.
“I don’t know if that’s going to make it any easier to pass guys just going through the corner faster. The thing that keeps us alive is the thing that makes auto racing the hardest thing to make competitive, in my opinion.
The series saw an average of 21.73 lead changes on 1.5-mile tracks last season, with a high of 28 at Texas Motor Speedway and a low of 11 at Kentucky. There were 22 lead changes in last year’s race here at LVMS, a race that was won by Joe Gibbs Racing driver Matt Kenseth.
Team Penske teammates Joey Logano and Brad Keselowski will start 1-2, with Clint Bowyer, Sunoco Rookie of the Year contender Austin Dillon and six-time Sprint Cup champion Jimmie Johnson completing the top five.
Points leader Dale Earnhardt Jr., winner of the season-opening Daytona 500, qualified 14th.
“The setup stuff is just so different - taking away the ride height thing,” said Kenseth, who will start 29th. “It’s really hard to compare anything from the past.”
The aging of the racing surface will play as much of a role in today’s race, as the worn asphalt provides numerous lines for drivers to choose in their search for speed.
“The track got pretty wide last year,” Kenseth said. “There were some guys way up on top, some guys way on the bottom. So I feel like it’s widened out and it’s pretty good. It’s definitely got some options for where you can run.”
Cup teams were allowed to test for four hours here on Thursday as they continued to work through the changes. The weekend schedule also included practice sessions on Friday and Saturday.
“I was a little shocked that in testing (Thursday) that really the bottom of the race track was the preferred line,” Jamie McMurray, driver of the No. 1 Chevrolet for Chip Ganassi Racing, said. “Normally it’s that way here until it rubbers up a little bit and then you see guys starting to move up, especially in (turns) one and two to get around the bumps.”
Logano, seeking his first win of the season and the fourth of his career, said starting out front will be beneficial, no different than for any other race.
“We’ve just got to make sure we get a good start, get that lead and focus on running those laps, tuning it in throughout the race and make sure we’re there at the end,” Logano said.
“Strategy will come into play here. Tires aren’t wearing much. Lap times aren’t falling off much and clean air is definitely worth $1 million. So it’s definitely going to be a strategy race.”