By Steve Mickey
When NASCAR announced a couple of seasons ago that it would be putting a western swing in the schedule early in the season, it was done so with an eye towards getting away from the uncertain weather of the south during this time of year. Stops at Las Vegas, Phoenix and California were intended to be safe destinations at this time of year but on Sunday, the desert outside of Las Vegas Motor Speedway proved to be a challenge as Mother Nature became every driver’s toughest opponent.
Race day brought talk in the garage area of a weather forecast that included not only a chance of rain but wind gusts that could approach 50 mph. Rain delayed the start of the race but after last season’s unusual amount of rain it is not that uncommon but Sunday’s Kobalt 400 also included a couple of dust storms that made visibility difficult. The rain and dust storms were tough by themselves but it was the wind that provided the biggest challenge of the day as it made adjusting on the cars difficult for crew chiefs that had to figure out if their cars handling problems were due to the setup or the wind.
Every driver faced the same obstacles but at the end of the day it was Penske Racing that figured it out as it had a one-two finish in Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano. It was the first win of the young season for Keselowski but it didn’t come without some drama as he had to overcome a pit road speeding penalty during a caution on lap 180.
Keselowski would have never made it to victory lane if it had not been for a very gutsy call by his crew chief Paul Wolfe on lap 217 when a caution flag waved. Every car in the field came in for tires and fuel with the exception of Keselowski, Logano and Austin Dillon. All three elected to stay out to get track position in hopes that they could hold off the rest of the field until another caution flag waved.
The track position was all the Penske duo needed to put them in contention to race for the win as another caution lasted seven laps that turned out to be enough to get both Keselowski and Logano enough fuel to make it to the end. Kyle Busch had took the lead late in the race but a bad vibration late in the run allowed for the Penske cars to pass him on their way to a 1-2 finish.
The success that Penske Racing experienced at Las Vegas was validated even further by the sixth place finish of Wood Brothers Racing’s Ryan Blaney. The Wood Brothers have a technical alliance with Penske much the same way that Furniture Row Racing has with Joe Gibbs Racing.
The Wood Brothers are racing full-time this season for the first time in several years and they do not have the luxury of being one of the thirty-six Charter teams that are guaranteed a starting spot at each spot on the schedule. That leaves Blaney with the pressure of having to qualify each week but some of that pressure has been reduced as he can go to either Keselowski or Logano for help in how to find the quickest way around a particular race track.
PIT NOTES: Denny Hamlin proved at Daytona that the best way to keep your sponsor happy is by winning. Hamlin’s win in the season opening Daytona 500 was worth $1.9 million in earned media value for his sponsor, Fed Ex. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver provided 23 minutes of clear exposure during the race which was the best among all 40 cars that started the race. Goodyear will conduct a tire test on March 9 to gather data that will help the tire manufacturer come up with the tire compound that it will bring back to the track in May for the running of the NASCAR All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600. NASCAR’s new lower downforce package has required different tire compounds from what was used last season at several stops on the schedule. #78-Martin Truex Jr., #3- Austin Dillon, #1-Jamie McMurray and #44-Brian Scott are scheduled to participate in the test.
Event: Good Sam 500 (k)
Track: Phoenix International Raceway (1.0 mile oval, Turns 1 & 2 – 11o, Turns 3 & 4 – 9o)
Date: March 13, 3:30 pm
Defending Champion: Kevin Harvick