Reviewing the race at Atlanta Motor Speedway and the news around Las Vegas this week are a few topics covered.
1. There were 13 speeding penalties during the Cup race on Sunday in Atlanta. Why do you think that happened?
Jim: The common consensus seems to be that the change in pit road timing lines from a year ago may have contributed to the problem. Well that may have played a role, for me, that doesn’t explain why several drivers had no issues the first two or three times they came down pit road, but did later. If new timing lines were the problem, that situation would have been more likely reversed. I think in most cases teams’ may have simply not set their tachometers correctly or drivers simply could have been pushing the issue.
Lee: NASCAR installing nearly twice the timing lines at Atlanta Motor Speedway significantly increased the opportunities to nab speeders on pit road. The combination of additional timing lines coupled with competitors pushing the limits in attempt to gain an advantage, proved costly for 11 drivers on Sunday — including champions Jimmie Johnson and Matt Kenseth, twice.
Nick: I think more timing lines is the main cause. Like we saw with Harvick, he was only a third of a mph over in one section, so they aren’t getting nabbed by much. With the amount of time that can be gained or lost on pit road though, I don’t expect the drivers to back it down in future races.
Tim: I think this is just another product of drivers and teams pushing the limits to get any advantage they can and this time is caught up with several drivers. Whether it was because of the increased number of timing lines (which probably had a lot to do with it) or the fact drivers are always looking for any advantage; the outcome cost Kevin Harvick an almost sure-fire win.
2. Are you surprised with the performance of Ford right out of the box so far this season?
Jim: Yes and no. Clearly, Team Penske has been strong ever since they made the change from Ford so it really is no surprise to see them run well at both Daytona and Atlanta. The bigger surprise is how quickly Stewart-Haas Racing has adapted and immediately became contenders for race wins. They had an excellent chance to start the season 2-0 if it weren’t for Kevin Harvick’s pit road speeding penalty with 14 laps left at Atlanta. Even the Roush Fenway Racing entries ran consistently up front on Sunday. I think Ford is starting to sniff the manufacturer’s championship again.
Lee: Absolutely not. It’s been since 2009 since Ford won the first two races of the season. But Ford hasn’t won the manufacturer’s title since 2002. While Team Penske has performed incredibly with a two-driver squad, it’s not surprising that Ford Performance recruited Stewart-Haas Racing to increase its odds. One would expect SHR to be solid from the get-go. And the friendly rivalry between Penske and SHR will only push the organizations further.
Nick: I am. I was convinced there would be growing pains for SHR, but they seem even stronger than they were last year at this time. 2016 was the year of Toyota, but perhaps 2017 is the year Ford returns to the top.
Tim: While I expected the addition of Stewart Haas Racing to increase the amount of wins Ford might have this season, I must admit that the end result of the first two races has surprised me a little. With the investment Ford has obviously made this season, the folks at the blue oval in Detroit have to be happy.
3. We’ve had two weeks of stage races in the top 3 NASCAR series, have they made any difference to you in the quality and/or outcomes of the races versus what might have happened last year in your opinion?
Jim: The number one change I’ve noticed is the abundance of different strategies that are coming into play throughout the race. You can see teams making choices between short-term gain vs. race-win outcome within almost every stage. Regardless of the actual racing on the track, I think the added strategies creates more storylines throughout the event. I see the stages also as an opportunity for some teams to better recover from early-race incidents. They can sacrifice stage points to make decisions that will ultimately put them back in contention for the win late in the race. I think Brad Keselowski’s team worked this to perfection on Sunday at Atlanta.
Lee: The Stages have added new dynamics to the races. There seems to be a sense of urgency at the end of the segments but the Stages also make the races seem longer. The greatest change appears to be in the new point structure. Points leader Kevin Harvick has earned twice the points of the bottom 26 drivers. While not every team can make obtaining stage wins appear easy, Harvick is doing just that. And it’s paid off in the standing.
Nick: In the 500, it made the race unpredictable and exciting from the very first lap to the last lap. Atlanta was a bit of a dull race for the most part and the stages helped break up the monotony. I’m going to be interested to see how they factor into races with several cautions and if they’ll be mid-pack teams rolling the dice to grab some bonus points.
Tim: I like the use of different strategies by teams during the race now during the races and I feel this will only keep the interest up with the stages being used. Although its early in the season, it will be interesting to see how the stage points might help a driver who hasn’t won many – if any – races come playoff time.
4. As reports surfaced about Las Vegas Motor Speedway possibly getting a second Cup date in 2018. Would this be good or bad for the sport and why?
Jim: Although many will groan about the addition of another “cookie cutter” 1.5-mile track to the schedule, at this time, the sport needs to focus and deliver for the places that tend to support the events. Clearly, the Las Vegas community embraces the addition of another race and is willing to put a large amount of money behind it to make it happen. In a perfect world, it would be nice to go to smaller venues or different types of tracks, but professional sports run on money. If people don’t show up at the track, it’s difficult to justify maintaining the status quo.
Lee: Las Vegas Motor Speedway obtaining a second date is a win-win for the fans and Las Vegas. The fans have the opportunity to combine a destination vacation with racing. Las Vegas has the opportunity to boost tourism. But long-term, NASCAR needs to look at adding new venues to the schedule not recycling existing venues. In order to grow the sport, new markets need to be introduced to the product. NASCAR cannot rely on TV partners to sell the sport to new fans.
Nick: Not really excited to have another 1.5 miler in the Playoffs, especially with it being a second date for Vegas. I would much rather see another short track or a road course make its way into the postseason.
Tim: This is a win-win for Las Vegas Motor Speedway parent company Speedway Motorsports Inc., but I don’t know if it’s a win for fans who are tired of 1.5-mile race tracks. While its well-documented by the drivers that every 1.5-mile track races differently, this will still not sit well with some fans. I understand why the move was made because in the end, like other sports leagues, this is a business. I wished it was going to a short track or a road course instead. Perception is the reality when it comes to the general public sometimes and when the sport needs an injection of enthusiasm to try and get fans back to the track, this might be good in the short term.