Track Talk: A Preview of the Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas

After kicking off the season at NASCAR staples at Daytona and Atlanta, the Sprint Cup tour heads West for the next three weeks.  Their West Coast Swing kicks off with today’s 19th running of the Kobalt 400 at the 1.5-mile Las Vegas Motor Speedway where the speeds have picked up quite a bit, an impressive fact in itself considering the new low downforce rules package in place for the Cup series.

It’s not 400 miles of gambling or Sin City fun.  To further disappoint, what happens in today’s race at Las Vegas will not strictly be confined to this popular American destination.  Instead, it might be a race where a Cup driver and team punches their way into The Chase.  At the very least, it’s where teams will learn how much progress has been made or needs to be made after all is said and done.

On top of that, the drivers will once again tackle cars that won’t drive exactly to their comforts.  Expect to see them sawing the steering wheel.  The pit crews will be put to the test on race day as their efforts to aid their driver on pit stops will make all the difference between winning and losing this race which will at least go 267 laps.

Joe Gibbs Racing has showcased their speed and power in the early going as they’ve maintained their strength from last season highlighted by Kyle Busch’s first Sprint Cup title.  Matt Kenseth led for the majority of the early going before a costly pit mistake and some miscommunication essentially cost them a shot to win the race.  Carl Edwards maintained his consistency with another top-five finish while Denny Hamlin struggled to find the balance after winning his first Daytona 500.

Meanwhile, Hendrick Motorsports reminded their peers that they’re still a force to be reckoned with as Jimmie Johnson scored his fifth win at Atlanta while Dale Earnhardt Jr took a runner-up effort.  Chase Elliott rebounded from his Daytona debacle with a solid eighth place performance while Kasey Kahne was sequestered to a 23rd place finish.  Overall, this Chevrolet outfit looked solid and perhaps their Atlanta performance was a better indicator of things to come for this year.

As for our TPF Track Talk crew of Ashley Hobbs, Ashley Hull, Cody Shoppe, Jessica TowKathleen Cassidy, Katie Copple, Kerstin Smutny, Sean Fesko and Stephen Conley, they’re about ready to talk some racing!  With that being said, let’s get to it, shall we?  Let’s kick things off with the first portion of Track Talk in the form of Trending Topics!

Trending Topics
Question 1
Get used to seeing the No. 4 ride changed into a Ford by this time next year.

Get used to seeing the No. 4 ride changed into a Ford by this time next year.

Stewart-Haas Racing announced last week that they would switch from Chevrolet to Ford starting in 2017.  They’ll build their own chassis and receive their engines from Roush Yates.  What’s your take on SHR going to the Blue Oval camp and is this going to be a move that helps or hurts them in the long run?

Cassidy :  Although most of the drivers I root for are Ford drivers, I cannot look past the fact that Ford has appeared to be struggling for some teams over the last few years. Other then Joey Logano last year, most other Ford teams were having trouble adjusting to new packages and finding speed. As for Stewart-Hass Racing, I think this manufacturer struggle, will take them a few years to get over. Once Ford and Roush Yates Engines are able to figure out this new low downforce system, they will find speed and continue their success with all teams across all series of NASCAR.

Smutny :  This is a very bold move especially considering Ford hasn’t won the championship in many years. That’s not to say that Ford is a poor engine package by any means though. We have seen Ford drivers competitive each week, namely Team Penske’s entries. I am sure SHR would not switch from a very strong Chevy package unless there was a great benefit, and it’s only a matter of time before we all see what that is. Maybe they will be the team to bring a championship to the Blue Oval in 2017!

Fesko :  This is a positive move for Stewart-Haas, but it’s an even better move for Ford. Team Penske is the only Blue Oval team that has done anything significant in the last couple of years (Carl Edwards excepted), so adding two previous champions, a proven race winner and one of the most popular drivers in the field is a major steal for the manufacturer. How they were able to lure SHR away from Chevrolet is a mystery, but it has to have been such a great long-run deal that Stewart not only entertained the offer but took it.

As co-Ford A Team with Penske, SHR will have the full backing of Ford rather than having to share Chevrolet support with Hendrick and Childress. Furniture Row Racing already moved away from Chevrolet and with SHR following, it’s time for Chevrolet to realize it needs to support more than just Hendrick if it wants to continue its dominance in the manufacturer standings.

Hobbs :  I think the real question should be – since when has Roush Yates been competitive enough to even be considered a team to align with? The answer – not since their big name drivers were there. Roush Fenway Racing has been in a rebuilding season for years, and with a young team anchored by veteran Greg Biffle, the team just has not proven themselves to be able to hang with the top tier teams. Last season, the team as a whole was 12th (of 25 teams) in average finish, with a team average finish of 23.26, average start of 23.81 with 0 wins and 0 poles. With the alliance with HMS, Stewart-Haas was the 6th best team with an average finish of 17.12 and an average start of 15.26 with 5 wins and 5 poles. I just ask myself why they would make this move with no solid performance behind the team that will be supplying them with engines? Statistically, it does not make sense for the move to take place.

And looking at Ford in 2015, of the 3 manufacturers, they had the worst average finish at 24.37, an average start of 25.94, and only had 7 wins and 9 poles. Chevrolet had 15 wins and 15 poles with an average finish of 20.54, all reasons why they won the NASCAR Manufacture Championship again.
Hull :  It still boggles my mind as to why they decided to go with Ford instead of leaving things the way they were, other than for monetary reasons. The way I see it, other than Penske Racing, other Ford teams in the Cup Series haven’t been that competitive. But on the other hand, since SHR is a top-notch team, it may make Ford somewhat more competitive again. Also, I am not sure what will happen with Kevin Harvick as well. Since he is a Chevy driver, it will be interesting to see whether he stays or goes. It would be too bad because he found a competitive team to be with.
Shoppe :  This announcement was a total shock to me! Even the most regarded insiders in the sport were taken by surprise by this announcement. I am most surprised with the timing. SHR has worked closely with Hendrick Motorsports since their inception in 2009. With the news of Stewart Haas leaving them, how close will their relationship remain during this now lame duck season? I expect it to remain professional just has Hendrick representatives said, but I suspect most information sharing will be limited between the two teams.
I understand Stewart-Haas’ choice to do this. They have been riding the coattails of Hendrick Motorsports and are ready to make their mark on Sprint Cup racing on their own. They have the people, talent, and resources to do so and to help put Ford back on top in NASCAR.
Tow :  Considering that Tony Stewart has always been a Chevrolet man I found this move to Ford extremely interesting…very, very interesting in fact. SHR’s partnership with Hendrick and Chevrolet has proven to be top notch, especially over the last couple of seasons. When looking ahead and thinking of Roush-Fenway Racing and its current affiliates I can’t help but think of their lack of performance over recent years. I’m wondering if this new partnership will help invigorate life into Roush Fenway’s current performance and bring new hope to these teams that have struggled to run at the front and/or produce wins.
Copple :  Hopefully I wasn’t the only one completely SHOCKED by this announcement. And if I’m being honest… I haven’t even picked my jaw up off the floor yet. For a team like Stewart-Haas Racing to switch to Ford is a big move… a BIG move. Especially since they are currently getting their chassis AND engines from Hendrick Motorsports which happens to be one of if not the biggest powerhouse in the sport today. With two drivers in their fleet who have driven nothing but Chevy’s during their time in NASCAR (Kevin Harvick and Danica Patrick), it makes this move even more shocking. I could see SHR making their own chassis. A team of their caliber has the resources to do that but to make as big of a change as switching to a different car completely?

I hope this goes well for SHR and their four drivers. It will be a major adjustment for not only Harvick, Patrick and Busch but to the engineers, builders, crew chiefs and everyone else involved with the teams. I think SHR will struggle a bit next season, especially at the start but Fords have been very competitive as of late, this could prove to be a brilliant decision. As far as 2016 goes, their relationship with Hendrick Motorsports is definitely hindered with this announcement…especially this early in the season.

Conley :  It will certainly help them, if for nothing else, to be one of the top teams for the manufacturer. Right now the top of the Ford camp is Penske. This move will almost instantaneously move SHR to number two, even ahead of Roush. According to Tim Duerr of Ford Performance, SHR will begin work on building their Chassis this year even while running the Chevy’s from HMS.

Even though it brings double the work, SHR has a staff comparable with almost any team out there and the work load should not be a problem, with that said. I think the competitive advantage that this will bring is bigger than some might expect. SHR is no slouch and the power of the Blue Oval is strong in this one.

Question 2
Carl Edwards has been elated with the new rules package only since Kentucky last year.

Carl Edwards has been elated with the new rules package only since Kentucky last year.

The drivers generally had positive remarks about the low downforce package as Carl Edwards said, “This is real racing. We’re driving hard. You can see the guys out here just digging for everything they’re worth. I’m worn out. That’s a tough race and just a lot of fun.”  Do you see this sentiment being the consensus with the upcoming races at Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Fontana?

Cassidy :  I believe this low downforce package has shown a lot of potential so far with only two races into this season. Personally, I think the last two races have been some of the bests for fans to watch in recent years. It is beneficial that the drivers also enjoy racing these packages. Overall, I think this package has captured what NASCAR wanted.

Smutny :  I think we will continue to see competitive racing with the low downforce package. However, Vegas, Phoenix, and Fontana are all quite different tracks so we will see how that plays into things over the next few weeks with this.

Fesko :  I think the biggest wild card in the West Coast swing is Phoenix. It’s essentially a short track so it’ll be interesting to see how the new package meshes with the track type. Las Vegas and Fontana have the ability to be great races – and Fontana has already put some great shows on in the past few years. I wouldn’t be surprised to see a repeat of Atlanta at both of those races – long green-flag runs, multiple opportunities for passing and a lot of tire falloff. That is, if NASCAR doesn’t bring back cautions for Miss Terry Debris.

Hobbs :  Las Vegas has very similar specs to Atlanta so I can expect a very similar race. Phoenix is a different track so maybe we will see close racing and more battles than on an intermediate track. Jumping back to Fontana, being another intermediate track, we might see similar racing to Atlanta and Las Vegas. While fans seemed split on how they felt, the fact that there was a lot more racing than cautions should be a good thing.

There may not have been a lot of passes for the lead, but back in the pack, things were always going on. I don’t foresee anything that could help make leader battles closer because that clean air is what makes that leader just drive away. This is what the drivers wanted and they seem to be pretty darn thrilled with the racing, and if they are pleased, they will be sure to keep racing like this and putting on a great show for us fans!

Hull :  We shall see how this package impacts the West Coast Swing tracks. I can see racing being really out of control at Phoenix, since it usually very hot and slick! I am hoping that it won’t be another caution-filled Darlington. Las Vegas may be a fun track to have this package at, since it requires a lot of passing to be successful at it. Fontana will be the one that will be a handful as well, because it is one of the fastest and trickiest tracks on the circuit. So it will be a wait and see kind of thing. The drivers had said that they want this to be more about the drivers, so we shall see if they can handle it!

Shoppe :  Every track is different. Each race will have a different on track product as teams get used to the new rules package. I am in favor of the changes just as the drivers are. I know some fans were not impressed with the Atlanta race and the long green run that we saw in the first half but I don’t believe the new package is to blame. It will be interesting to see how the western swing goes! I’m sure the drivers will continue to enjoy themselves.

Tow :   This new low downforce package is producing some of the best racing we have seen since the debut of everyone’s favorite Car of Tomorrow model (COT). With only two races in the books so far, the racing is close and tight and almost reminds me of what you would see at a local short track on a Friday or Saturday night. I’m really excited to see how these cars and packages perform when #NASCARGoesWest.

Copple :  I think it’s too early to really see how this low downforce package is going to run. Atlanta is a different beast. Once we get through Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana…we will have a better idea on how this will go throughout the season. Just looking at Atlanta though, I thought the racing was some of the better we have seen in quite some time. It gives the drivers a bit more of a challenge each race weekend. I believe we will see some unforgettable racing come this season with this new low downforce package.

Conley :  I think the sentiment is overwhelming from the drivers in both weekends. This is almost grass roots style racing for these superstars. The slipping and sliding, having to search for new lines as the tires wear out. It’s old school, problem being, it’s not what the new school fans are going to want. it’s not going to produce that side by side racing that they had hoped for.

California in 2014 had the best race of the season, last year with some of the changes, it was a little lackluster compared but still a great Fontana race. I’m hoping I’m wrong, but I think with the amount of slipping and sliding this package produces, it’s going to more of a hang on a survive race than anything else.

As the old saying goes, If the drivers love it, the fans will overwhelmingly hate it.
Question 3
Two weeks with a shot at winning, two painful missed shots at victory for Matt Kenseth in 2016.

Two weeks with a shot at winning, two painful missed shots at victory for Matt Kenseth in 2016.

Matt Kenseth encountered problems about a third of the way into last Sunday’s race at Atlanta for improper fueling.  Confusion between Kenseth and crew chief Jason Ratcliff, the latter who attempted to plead their case to NASCAR, put them in a rut with officials as they did not score the No. 20 entry for a lap.  Eventually, Kenseth heeded to the penalty with a drive through penalty.  Was this a case where Kenseth should’ve answered to NASCAR’s black flag immediately or was it understandable for Ratcliff to argue the call for his team?

Cassidy :  I think when in a situation like Matt Kenseth, the call would be to take the black flag immediately. When you know you have a strong car that could win the race there is no time to play games. A recovery, although uncommon, is possible for a driver and team when the car has that much speed. However, I see Ratcliff’s instinct to challenge the call but it put the team back further then the drive through penalty would have.

Smutny :  This can be a tricky subject. When do you defend your team and your decisions? And when do you just quietly take your place in line because it might be better in the long run? In racing, you’ll probably find more of us likely to stand up on the defense. Personally, I think Ratcliff made the right move to plead their case with NASCAR because ultimately when you are racing in such a close championship, it might be worth the gamble.

Fesko :  From what I understand, neither Kenseth, Ratcliff or spotter Curtis Markham knew that the black flag had been displayed. It’s unfathomable that this could have happened, and perhaps Kenseth said so in an attempt to save face when he was displayed the black with white cross, but either way there was a gross miscommunication by the team. They absolutely should have served the penalty after failing to easily win their appeal. They lost the race because of this, and hopefully they’ll remember to pay better attention in the future.

Hobbs :  No matter the reason for a black flag, drivers and teams will ALWAYS argue that they did nothing wrong. Rarely, if ever, has NASCAR reversed their decision about a black flag penalty. They do allow the teams a few laps to plead their case, but if they did not give a stopping point, then it could go on the entire race. The entire team dug themselves further into that whole by not heading the warning and knowing if they kept it up, they would not be counted. So, they lose a lap that way plus a lap on the drive through penalty.

Being two laps down is a lot more difficult to come back from than being one lap down especially in a race that just seems to be going and going. There is a fine line between arguing your case and arguing to the point that it hinders your race even more, and I think Ratcliff and Kenseth went too far and just shot themselves in the foot. It may suck to have a pass through, but clearly the alternative is worse.

Hull :  It was a problem with the team, both with the driver and the crew chief. Regardless of whether it was the right call on the penalty or not, it would have been a lot less more painful if Kenseth would have went in and served his penalty rather than being obstinate. Also, Jason Ratcliff should have never taken the head phones off. When serving penalties like this, it’s crucial to have communication. A lot of trouble would have been saved if they would have served the penalty instead of wasted their time arguing about it. As confusing as the rule was, the gasman was clearly breaking a rule, which was he was doing something else while the gas can was engaged. So they should have served it and they would have been able to fight back instead of having a crappy Sunday.

Shoppe :  It was absolutely understandable for Jason to be down there arguing the call to the official. If the team doesn’t understand what they are being penalized for then they have a right to an explanation. My problem with that situation is that NASCAR started counting the laps before they stop scoring the car during the argument about the penalty. You have five laps after the penalty is announced to the team. That means you better have argued your case and had an official verdict from NASCAR within those five laps or you will no longer be scored. I believe the lap count towards you not being scored should start when the the officiating staff has listened to the plea of the team and officially upholds the penalty for the fairest calls possible.

Tow :  As with any other circumstance, Crew Chiefs have the right to question and dispute calls that are made by NASCAR Officials. Therefore, it was completely understandable for Jason Ratcliff to take up the issue and provide his stance on the call that was made during one of his team’s pit stops. However, while Ratcliff was sidetracked with the dispute that was taking place in the pits, Kenseth’s spotter could have easily told their driver that he was being black flagged. Instead, no one communicated and Kenseth was left scoreless for a couple of laps as NASCAR stopped scoring him once the black flag was thrown. Ultimately, Kenseth should have been aware that the black flag was issued, then if the penalty was overturned, NASCAR should have given him that lap back. For those who may have missed this on Sunday, the Radioactive segment on FOX Sports did a good job of showcasing the entire situation.

Copple :  Both. Can I answer both on this question? I can see where the No.20 team was disputing the call and wanting it reversed. It was a tough call to make but ultimately, NASCAR made it and that was that. Kenseth made it worse by not pitting right away. Ignoring the black flag was not the best call but when you are in the middle of a race and one of the race leaders at that, I can see why Ratcliff and Kenseth went that route. The pit road cameras and infractions are tough to call but in the end…when when it comes down to it, you lose either way.

Conley :  No way Kenseth could have just made that call on his own, but it is a situation of where the rest of the team, the spotter especially should have been aware of how close they were to having their scorecard pulled. Jason’s (Ratcliff) job is argue that call and get the clearest definition, and to make sure the rules were followed or not. Even though we have cameras, it’s still a person making the call. But in this case, there was no question it was a violation, all be it one that probablly needs revised a little, Ratcliff needed to do a better job of informing his driver. Just imagine had this been Bristol. Matt could have been 5-8 laps down before he was called in. Communication is key and Matt had every right to be upset with the way his team handled it as it cost him a race.

Question 4
Will Brad Keselowski enjoy more tool time today?

Will Brad Keselowski enjoy more tool time today?

In the past seven NASCAR Sprint Cup races at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, a different driver has prevailed and made their way to Victory Lane.  Does this trend continue or might history finally repeat itself?

Cassidy :  I think this trend with continue at Las Vegas. With all odds in the air at Vegas, this year will be no different. Specifically, speaking in terms of the new low downforce, teams will not know exactly what to expect heading into the West Coast swing. Drivers and crews will just be able to take last years notes on Las Vegas and apply the knowledge they now know from the 2016 package to this weekend’s car. The team with all the luck will be leaving Las Vegas with the win.

Smutny :  We could see Kevin Harvick repeat his victory from last year, or “Double down” as they might say in Vegas.

Fesko :  Considering that the list includes Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick – all drivers who have excelled under the new package, expect the streak to fall on Sunday. If the race is a repeat of Atlanta, and it could be since teams that missed the mark the first time around can’t really expect to right their ships in one week, you’ll see Busch, Johnson and Harvick battling for the win.

Hobbs :  With the past winners being Harvick, Keselowski, Kenseth, Stewart, Edwards, Johnson, and Kyle Busch, I do not believe we will see a new winner.

Hull :  I think with this new low downforce package, it is a wait and see kind of thing. So we will have to wait and see. I see history repeating itself though, and I see someone who has won before winning this week.

Shoppe :  Looking through the list of winners in the past seven races at LVMS, I think it’s save to say one of those drivers will repeat this weekend. With a list of names like Harvick, Johnson, Edwards, Kenseth, Keselowski, and Kyle Busch, that’s pretty much a who’s who of 1 1/2 mile racing in Cup today.

Tow :  There is a significant possibility that we will see an eighth straight different winner at Las Vegas this weekend, but I would be willing to bet that history repeats itself instead. The last seven winners at Las Vegas (in order by most recent win) are: Harvick, Keselowski, Kenseth, Stewart, Edwards, Johnson, and Kyle Busch. All of these drivers have had a stellar start to 2016 (well, for the most part…still wishing you a speedy recovery, Tony!) and all perform well at intermediate tracks. Certainly plan on seeing a repeat winner at Las Vegas this weekend.

Copple :  Oh Las Vegas… this track brings some great racing and I think that trend will continue this weekend. There are a handful of teams that have been fairly impressive so far this season and a few of them have wins at Las Vegas in the past few years. I think this season… we will see a repeat winner. You’ve got Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth, among others, that have “W’s” at Las Vegas in recent years… I can easily see one of them in Victory Lane this weekend.

Conley :  Repeat is inevitable. Jimmie Johnson won four out of six between 2005 and 2010 and then we ran off five different winners in a row. Looking at that list of winners, I’d be surprised if anyone else came up and continued that trend of a different winner. That being said, Kurt Busch wants to win at home as his brother has done it and now he is on the pole with a very fast race car. I still say we have a repeat winner.

Excellent insight once again, team!  Before we move forward with today’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas, let’s look at the race results from last Sunday at Atlanta and review the points standings heading into round three of 2016!

It’s a close battle thus far and so far, our points battles have been close thanks to our race picks being somewhat paired up in groups.  Does that trend continue with today’s Kobalt 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway?  Let’s find out with our race picks for the race!
Might one of these fast five drivers win today's Kobalt 400?

Might one of these fast five drivers win today’s Kobalt 400?

Tiongson :  It’s yet another hunch but one that isn’t whimsical.  Kyle Busch shall win once again at Las Vegas!

Cassidy :  Kyle Busch will win today’s race!

Conley :  I’ll go with Kyle Busch.

Fesko :  Kevin Harvick will take the checkered flag.

Smutny :  Kevin Harvick will be my pick to win it today!

Shoppe :  I’m going with Kevin Harvick for today.

Tow :  My pick for today is Kevin Harvick.

Hobbs :  Off to a pretty great start this season, with back-to-back 5th place finishes, and a few wins already in Vegas, the math says Carl Edwards should be pretty stout.

Hull :  My pick for the race this weekend is that I am thinking that Brad Keselowski will repeat history this weekend.

Copple :  Matt Kenseth is my choice to win the race today. If not for the penalty last weekend, Kenseth would have been up towards the front vying for the win at Atlanta. He is going to take that momentum and come to Las Vegas, ready to redeem himself.

There you have it, race fans! The Track Talk crew has spoken and given their thoughts for today’s Kobalt 400!  How about you?  What do you think are the biggest storylines heading into today’s race and who is your favorite to win?

Tweet us now @ThePodiumFinish and tell us now! Thanks as always to the TPF team.  The opinions and thoughts expressed in Track Talk are solely of the authors and do not reflect on any organizations that we are affiliated with outside of TPF. This weekly feature is strictly for entertainment purposes and are not indicative of TPF, the organization, and its staff.  

Rob Tiongson

30-something motorsports journalist who enjoys sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, track and field, and hockey. Born and raised in the Boston, MA area, racing was the first sport that caught my eye. From interviews to retrospective articles, if it’s about anything with an engine and four wheels, you’ll likely see an article on The Podium Finish by either myself or one of my talented columnists who absolutely have the motorsports passion.

Currently seeking a sports writing, public relations, or sports marketing career, particularly in motorsports. I enjoy editing and writing articles and features, as well as photography.

Graduated from Southern New Hampshire University with a Bachelor of Arts in Communication.

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