Race Weekend Central

Thinkin’ Out Loud: 2013 Kobalt Tools 400 at Las Vegas

Editor’s Note: Mike Neff is writing Matt’s column this week.

The Key Moment – On the penultimate caution of the race, Matt Kenseth took fuel only while Kasey Kahne, who appeared to have the dominant car, took two tires and had to check up exiting his pit box. As a result, Kahne restarted sixth, had to fight his way to the front and ended up without enough ability to stick on the bottom and pass Kenseth. That left the driver of the No. 20, in just his third race with new team Joe Gibbs Racing taking the checkers on his birthday.

In a Nutshell – The drivers mixed it up, from top to bottom on restarts until the tires heated up; then, it was single-file racing. There was some on-track passing, which might be a little more than we used to see, but there is still plenty of work to do with this new car.

Dramatic Moment – Kahne got to second place with 26 laps left and was making ground in the high lane. As he came up on Kenseth, eight circuits later, everyone was holding their breath for fireworks. But as Kahne prepared to make a bid for the lead, Kenseth moved up and took the lane away. We didn’t know it then… but that was all she wrote. For the remainder of the race, Kahne made every run he could, lagging back, pushing hard, driving on the apron, but none of them gave him enough of a run to pull alongside the leader.

Kyle Busch made a hairy, three-wide move on a restart with 100 laps remaining to both take the lead and earn consolation prize in this category

What They’ll be Talking About Around the Water Cooler on Monday

After the senseless $25,000 fine of Denny Hamlin for speaking his mind about the difficulty in passing with the new car at Phoenix, almost every driver nearly threw their backs out Sunday, bending over backwards to compliment the new car. Let’s not fool ourselves after freedom of speech was no longer guaranteed to earn the drivers a healthy paycheck. As Sunday showed, despite some promising moments the first few races with a new car will be a challenge until the teams figure out how to make them fast and how they’ll respond to mechanical adjustments. Until then, NASCAR, please let the drivers speak their minds again. Fans have begged and pleaded for them to have a personality; instead, as soon as one emerges NASCAR makes a habit of jumping down their throat. Hamlin was the latest case in point.

Goodyear is back to the rock hard tires again. Kahne kept his left sides on for the last 106 laps of the race; Kenseth won with right sides 42 laps older than his closest competition. We heard talk of the fuel mileage card being played before the fourth caution of the race Sunday; why? It’s because teams can keep tires on forever. Phoenix was headed in the right direction, despite what most fans thought with tires wearing out and actually giving a benefit to those who took four tires versus two or none. This weekend, with a track that has lost some grip thanks to the harsh heat of the Vegas environment, Goodyear could have gone softer and made conservation key; that would have helped cause a dropoff in speed, leading to more passing over those long, green-flag runs. Instead? They opted for the Flintstones again, throwing NASCAR back into the stone age unnecessarily…

With all that said, despite much criticism over NASCAR’s Gen-6 car the moments of brilliance we saw gave us hope. On lap 148, Martin Truex Jr., Jeff Gordon, Jeff Burton and David Reutimann went four-wide at a 1.5-mile oval. The car can obviously do some passing when someone is obviously faster than the car in front of you; now, if we can just get to happen when the car is only slightly faster.

We all know that NASCAR is embracing Social Media. Well, that’s great and all… but do we really need to shove sponsorship into that mess? During the beginning of the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas, our friends at FOX showed the Kobalt Tools Social Media Command Center. Seriously?!?!?! How about the Kobalt Tools community aid center? Or the Kobalt Tools center to assist unemployed craftsmen? It would go a lot further for a sponsor to spend some money on helping people instead of enabling the ability to Tweet.

There’s no question this new car is a work in progress, but one thing is still never mentioned which would make the biggest difference of all. The problem with cars behind other cars, in the Sprint Cup Series is they don’t get enough air to the nose. That is primarily because there is no air coming from underneath the car in front. My solution would be to raise the nose of these cars so they can’t get closer to the ground than three or four inches. You do that and the entire “aero loose” principle disappears like magic.

One more note on the Gen-6: The cars are really fast. That’s right; race cars should be fast. That’s the point. Some folks are suggesting that we slow the cars down to make the racing a little better. Just a thought… isn’t that was we do with the restrictor plates? Yes, having throttle response would help but if you slow these cars down to 170, they’re going to go flat out every lap and we’ll be watching high-speed parades where cars can’t get away from each other.

Week three of the NASCAR Sprint Cup season and it’s the third week of hearing how tough it is to get on pit road. Note to FOX broadcasters: it is always hard to slow a car down from 190 to 50, or 120 to 50 when you’re going from “as fast as you can” to near school zone speeds. Let’s just acknowledge slowing down a 3,300-pound stock car really fast is a bitch and just move on.

Three races in, each manufacturer involved in the sport has won. NASCAR loves to trumpet parity and, at least in Victory Lane this year, mission accomplished for Ford, Chevy, and Toyota.

Pit road penalties set back some of the front runners during the race… but we don’t have the evidence as to why. That gaping hole in the process, for fans and even other teams needs to change, ASAP. We have the technology to show little balloons above the cars and display telemetry for how fast cars are traveling. So let’s get into the 21st century and use GPS technology, enforcing the speed from one end of the pit road to the other with data visible to all teams. This voodoo science of timing loops and average speed is getting old.

Sam Hornish Jr. put his Nationwide Series ride in Victory Lane ahead of Kyle Busch on Saturday. Guess they should cancel the press release that announced Busch won every single race he entered in 2013. Yes, there’s no question Busch will win his fair share, now that he’s back in Nationwide with the support of dominant Joe Gibbs Racing. But 100% Cup drivers, all the time in that series? Absolutely not going to happen.

Caution flags were all but non-existent during the first half of the race. Just a suggestion to NASCAR officials, though; make sure the cars actually wreck before throwing the yellow rag. Marcos Ambrose got all kinds of sideways in turn four trying to make it to pit road, saved the car and kept on going. But NASCAR threw the yellow, taking advantage to bunch up the cars because Ambrose almost spun. C’mon, folks; let’s be a little more judicious than that.

As long as Michael Waltrip is in the booth, there is hope for every person in the world who can speak some form of English to be a race announcer.

Hindenburg Award for Foul Fortune

Ryan Newman started the season with a fifth-place finish at Daytona. That seems like eons ago. One week after a Talladega Nights fire scene at Phoenix – running from his crashed vehicle he strapped in Sunday and missed a shift. A blown engine now leaves him with two DNFs in three races, a reminder of no contract for 2014 and hopefully no extra Vegas gambling debt.

Gordon must have drawn the short straw during the Tuesday morning meeting at Hendrick Motorsports. While Kahne, Jimmie Johnson and Dale Earnhardt Jr. ran in the top 10 all day, Gordon’s car was the proverbial tub of S^&t that AJ Foyt had at Indianapolis for qualifying in the early ’80s. Already, Gordon has two finishes in the 20s to dig himself a second straight early season hole.

The folks at BK Racing had a whopper of a bad Sunday as Travis Kvapil done blowed up on lap 217. David Reutimann, in perhaps a more embarrassing moment came home one spot behind Danica Patrick (34th). The team that continues to try and establish themselves in the sport is doing everything they can to be competitive, but the difficulties that face smaller, startup outfits continue to come up and bite them in the butt.

Kyle Larson is a phenomenal talent and will almost surely win a race in NASCAR’s upper divisions before this season wraps up. For now, though he’s off to a rough start in the Nationwide Series, where he’s running for Rookie of the Year. A Daytona debut led to a respectable 13th, but his car was in 1,300 pieces, along with his heart after fans were injured by its flying debris. Then, after a decent run at Phoenix he was wrecked out this weekend through no fault of his own again. Larson’s going to make some rookie mistakes; let’s just hope he has enough cars to learn them all before they pay off in wins.

Try as he might to downplay it, the emergence of the runner-up jinx is starting to haunt Clint Bowyer. While avoiding the horrendous luck that plagued Carl Edwards last season, we’re only three races in. Bowyer’s car was simply junk all day at Vegas. He is ninth in points, so we won’t bury him yet, but we will keep an eye on his fortunes going forward.

The ‘Seven-Come-For-Eleven’ Award for Fine Fortune

Kenseth rolled the dice, with no tires on his final stop then made his car as wide as he possibly could over the final 40 laps to score the first win of his Joe Gibbs Racing career.

GoDaddy Domains sponsored Patrick this weekend and got more air time for a 33rd-place driver since Earnhardt Jr. put National Guard and AMP all over TV screens while getting shut out of Victory Lane for over three years.

Jamie McMurray done blowed up in Saturday practice. He wasn’t the best on Sunday, but managed to get on the lead lap late in the race and score a top-15 finish. The crew members who screwed up, installing the engine in his car in preparation for Vegas have to be feeling a little better today, too.

Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch spent most of the last 20 laps of the race driving it like they stole it. Fortunately, they did not get together and wreck each other. It is great to see drivers going for it so hard, late in the race when one point gained could cost you double digits due to a wreck.

Tony Stewart was pretty much out to lunch for most of the day. However, he got back on the lead lap with 67 laps to go and made the most of it, recording an 11th-place finish when the checkered flag flew. Hopefully, he won enough dough to compensate Rick Hendrick for the engine his teammate Newman grenaded.

Kevin Harvick and Paul Menard gave notice RCR is on the way back to the top of the heap rather than the scrap heap, scoring two top-10 finishes this weekend. RCR has been up and down for several years but it looks like 2013 is going to be one of the up ones.

Hamlin spoke his mind after Phoenix, was fined and told the sanctioning body that he isn’t going to pay. That typically means the bulls-eye is on your back; however, on the next-to-last restart Hamlin was three-wide but NASCAR chose not to penalize him.

Worth Noting

  • Kenseth won a race for the 11th of his 14 full-time years racing the Cup Series.
  • Keselowski is the only driver with top-five finishes in all three races of 2013.
  • Keselowski, Johnson and Earnhardt Jr. are the only trio who have top-10 finishes in all three races this year.
  • There were 22 lead changes among eight drivers during Sunday’s race. Seven of those lead changes took place on the track.
  • Kenseth became the third driver in history to win a Cup race on his birthday. He joins Cale Yarborough and Kyle Busch in that exclusive club. Amazingly, Kenseth claimed Sunday was his first time to ever run a Cup race on his birthday. Just a note for Matt: he ran the MBNA 500 at Atlanta on March 10th, 2002 and finished fourth.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (18th) was the Rookie of the Race over girlfriend Danica, who finished 33rd.
  • Kahne (second) led the most laps in the race with 114.
  • 13 penalties were handed out for pit road violations on Sunday. Five of those were for speeding.

The top 10 at Phoenix, by manufacturer:

Chevrolet 5
Toyota 3
Ford 2

What’s the Points

Johnson leaves Las Vegas atop the standings by five over Keselowski. Earnhardt Jr. sits third in points, 10 out of the lead. This trio already has some reasonable distance over their competition.

Hamlin is sitting fourth, 27 back from Johnson, while Edwards rounds out the top five. Mark Martin is sixth, but is not running the whole season so he’ll be dropping out of the running. Kenseth and Greg Biffle, former teammates, are tied for seventh, followed by Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Paul Menard, in 11th and 12th, respectively are the only other drivers who are mathematically within one race of the point lead.

If the Chase began now, we’d have a really shortened race season and would be searching for something to do by Memorial Day. As it is, things are lining up and no one is sure at this point who is going to be better than anyone else. You can say the Toyotas have fired the first volley on Intermediates, so they are in the best position, but it is way too early to make any kind of assumption on who will dominate the Chase.

Overall Rating: (On a scale of one to six beer cans, with one being a stinker and a six-pack an instant classic) This one gets two cans of semi-chilled Buckhorn. If you don’t know what that is, Google it. If you do, you know I’ve made a toast to the fact the top four drivers raced like hell with each other over the last 20 or so laps to salvage what was going to be a rather boring event from the scrap heap of Busch Light.

Next Up: Bristol Motor Speedway. We’ll see how the ground track that was supposed to return bump and run racing can do now that it has had another year to age.

P.S. – Bristol is a great track. It is one of the favorites for most of the fans of the sport, but let’s get something straight. It is not the World’s Fastest Half Mile. Don’t believe me? Check out the video of JoJo Helberg‘s 12.669 lap around another famed half-mile in Winchester, Ind. Try as they might to tell you otherwise, the folks at Bristol can’t come up with something faster than 12.669.

About the author

What is it that Mike Neff doesn’t do? The writer, radio contributor and racetrack announcer coordinates the site’s local short track coverage, hitting up Saturday Night Specials across the country while tracking the sport’s future racing stars. The writer for our signature Cup post-race column, Thinkin’ Out Loud (Mondays) also sits down with Cup crew chiefs to talk shop every Friday with Tech Talk. Mike announces several shows each year for the Good Guys Rod and Custom Association. He also pops up everywhere from PRN Pit Reporters and the Press Box with Alan Smothers to SIRIUS XM Radio. He has announced at tracks all over the Southeast, starting at Millbridge Speedway. He's also announced at East Lincoln Speedway, Concord Speedway, Tri-County Speedway, Caraway Speedway, and Charlotte Motor Speedway.

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