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2019 rules package on display in Las Vegas drafting practice

Fourteen cars, each from a different Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series team, began to break in the 2019 rules package during an open test Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Teams were shaking down the full 2019 rules package for the first time at the 1.5-mile track, using aerodynamic ducts and a tapered spacer designed to reduce engine horsepower to a target of 550.

Live-streamed on NASCAR.com and NASCAR’s YouTube and Twitter handles, the initial 25-lap drafting practice three hours into the day yielded the most insights early into this two-day session.

NASCAR Executive Vice President and Chief Racing Development Officer Steve O’Donnell and NASCAR Vice President of Innovation and Racing Development John Probst both were in Las Vegas to watch the action unfold and chat with race teams.

“This is a journey,” Probst told NASCAR Digital’s Jessica Ruffin from the track. “We started a few years ago trying to bring more entertaining and competitive racing to our sport. This was the first time we got to see 14 cars go out there and run 25 laps. So far, so good.”

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An early takeaway: Plenty of close racing throughout the entire field as the drivers took to the track together in a coordinating drafting session.

Brad Keselowski led early with Ryan Newman behind him, then Kyle Busch in third. Busch passed Newman and challenged for the lead, Paul Menard and Jimmie Johnson engaged in a multi-lap duel for position and there was near-contact between Ty Dillon and Newman jockeying for position.

Clint Bowyer and Busch also sped to the lead during the session.

That drafting practice was the first of three on Thursday, and the first of five for the entire two-day session.

“We feel like all the big pieces are in place here,” Probst said. “We’re encouraged by what we saw on the track, but we know we have to keep working. I think that what we saw so far, from the front to the back, was pretty tight after 25 laps. Right now we want to see them go out there. They’re testing, they aren’t necessarily up there racing. We do want to emphasize this is a test, but we’re committed to this package and we’re pretty excited.”

Earlier in the day, several drivers checked in with NASCAR Digital’s Jessica Ruffin in the “Neon Garage” to discuss the on-track time and their expectations entering 2019.

“You still have to balance these race cars,” was the takeaway from Austin Dillon after a handful of runs. “You still have to drive well. A lot of people were thinking it would pretty much going to be easy to drive around here. Bubba (Wallace) came up to me after the second run and he’s like, ‘Man, I think you still have to drive these things.’ And yeah, you do.”

With the understanding that the first laps in the new rules package makes it difficult to offer a wholesale assessment, seven-time champion Johnson appeared to be one of the fastest cars on the track.

The Las Vegas test gives Johnson and first-year crew chief Kevin Meendering plenty of reps together as they try to move on from a winless 2018 for the No. 48 team.

“It’s great to get here and be able to get reps and feel it,” Johnson said. “Last year was a tough year for our company. This year with the rules changes, we are all back at ground zero and starting over. We don’t want to live through again what we did last year, but we’re all kind of on equal footing right now.”

The Monster Energy Series will return to Las Vegas on March 3 for the Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube, the third race of the season. All three NASCAR national series will be in action, with the Xfinity Series and Gander Outdoors Truck Series joining the tripleheader bill.