By Matt Weaver, Special Contributor
Regardless of what happened over the final five laps, the Pennzoil 400 was a one-sided beatdown no matter how you slice it.
And it might be a sign of things to come, at least on the intermediate tracks this season, as the Cup Series Next Gen age of parity might have come and gone after just one season as it’s clear that Chevrolet has taken the lead when it comes to horsepower and aerodynamics.
On Sunday, William Byron and Kyle Larson of Hendrick Motorsports were the 1a and 1b of the field, clean air largely dictating who could drive away with Alex Bowman running top-5 throughout the race. They finished 1-2-3 on Sunday as well.
The difference between the Hendrick Chevrolets and Joe Gibbs Racing Toyotas was best articulated by Denny Hamlin on his Actions Detrimental podcast on Sunday night when he said the 24 and 5 could just ‘straightaway’ him when he was behind or be immediately flanked by both sides when he somehow got track position on them.
“My goodness, I had a tough time holding those guys off when I got the lead,” Hamlin said. “I get to the start-finish line and it’s like ‘which side are they coming from, the left or the right,’ and I couldn’t hold them off.
“They were fast, smokin’ fast, Hendrick and Chevrolets in general. Toyotas had a great run as well. We were the next in line. We were third, fourth, fifth and sixth best cars after that.”
It is potentially a sign of the times right now because the Gen-7 is a fixed spec platform, with no means to R&D components, and it seems like the Hendrick Chevrolets (and probably Trackhouse, too) have an advantage. That doesn’t mean Toyota (or to a lesser extent, Ford) can’t win on the intermediates this season, because everything is still relatively close, but Hendrick (and probably Trackhouse) have clearly separated themselves at this stage of the Next Gen life cycle.
With No. 24 crew chief Rudy Fugle wasn’t surprised to see his team with the best cars, even he was surprised to see William sweep all three stages on Sunday, because that’s not something that happened in 2022.
The intermediates had way more parity in the first season with the platform, even as Chevrolet started to find more consistency on downforce tracks into the fall.
“I think since the beginning of last year, Chevrolet has had a really good product, a really good car,” Fugle said. “That group just did a really good job of giving us a good body. We have great engines. Either camp you get engines, they work together.
“Then we’ve got good teams, and the teams are working together better now than we ever have. I think there’s something to be said for that. Eric Warren is pushing all of that, and just really proud of the Chevrolet bunch and how they’re pushing us to work together to get better as a group.”
Vegas has traditionally been the playground of Ford, and most recently Penske, and that isn’t the case right now as best described by Joey Logano.
“Given where we’ve been here in the past, we expected better, and we’re just off on overall speed,” Logano said after being released from infield care following a wreck on Sunday. “We got to go back to the drawing board for when we go back here.”
That’s not to say it’s over for Ford, and that Toyota can’t be right there with Chevrolet, but a pecking order has been established 16 or so months into the Next Gen era.
“When we go to these fast tracks, good luck catching those Chevys,” Hamlin said.
PHOENIX PRESENTS OPPORTUNITY
The most obvious way for the other manufacturers and teams to find an advantage is on short tracks and road courses, something that was absolutely the case last season, ending with Logano winning the championship in November at Phoenix.
In their return trip to the desert, teams will be challenged by a new short track rules package, one that NASCAR anticipates will reduce overall downforce by 40 percent. It’s a completely untested package, beyond the handful of teams NASCAR invited from each manufacturer for a tire compatibility test in January, leading the sanctioning body to offer a 50-minute practice session on Friday instead of the usual 15-minute group sessions.
“That is going to be a game-changer,” Hamlin said. “This is going to be a simulation race. This is going to be drivers in the sim, engineers working on set-ups non-stop. This is going to be a big big change to what you see on Sunday, the product.
“NASCAR said 40 percent less downforce than what we had. Christopher Bell, and Logano, the guys who ran that test said you’re much more on edge without the downforce. I’m looking forward to it. I’m excited.
“Be looking for the practice times because I think you’re going to be looking at the biggest spreads we’ve seen because until these teams get a notebook under them, to get our cars a little more stable with all the downforce gone, you could find a team hits on something, that no one saw coming.”
Kevin Harvick expressed doubt that the package would be “as effective as everyone hopes it would be,” while Ryan Blaney said “it’s in the right direction … It definitely can’t be in the wrong direction.”
NOT THE BEST SHOW
The race on Sunday looked a lot like the 550 package style races from the final years of the Gen-6 era, but really, just the worst attributes of NA18D.
Drivers enjoyed very little off-throttle time, were stifled by a tremendous amount of dirty air, something even the mighty Hendrick cars struggled to navigate through on long green flag runs once they reached the back half of the field.
There were two reasons for this. One, it was a really cold day and the cars were making a lot of grip with the lower ambient temperatures. It’s conventional wisdom that the warmer the track is, the less grip cars make, and it was pretty dang cold.
Fugle believes some of that will improve as the season progresses into the summer months.
“When the track is gripped up like this, it’s cool out there, so track temp was down,” Fugle said. “Track temp was under 70 today. Beginning part of the year you’ll have some of this that I think will fix itself as we start to warm up.”
But also, a year into the platform, and teams have really started to dial-in what they need to do to make speed with these cars. And since it’s a spec car, it’s hard to create a lot of divergence in speed.
Byron said drivers are less prone to make mistakes now that they understand the car better too.
“I personally think just from being out there, everyone gets more dialed in to what the track and the car needs,” he said. “I think there was so much unknowns last year that it created guys bottoming out, wrecking, guys making big mistakes that you don’t normally see at this level with how good everyone is.
“Now the drivers are back to understanding what they have, and these are the best guys out there. You don’t make mistakes. To race against Kyle Larson, he doesn’t make any mistakes that really cost him time.
“It’s just kind of the excellence on display of the teams and drivers.”
It was a far cry from the racing enjoyed on Saturday, with the Xfinity Series cars have a wide difference in lap times, a lot more fall-off and a car that generally makes less grip with far less downforce. What happened on Sunday might have been an aberration resulting from cooler temperatures or it also might be the start of a new normal.
And maybe a year from now, we’ll be talking about how to improve intermediates the same way we’re talking now about the short tracks and road courses.
ABOUT CHASE ELLIOTT
The biggest storyline of the weekend was easily the injury to the 2020 Cup Series champion and how it likely will cost him at least a month of his season of not more.
The controversy was that he fractured a tibia in a snowboarding incident in Colorado with a subset of the fandom believing Elliott should face consequences for getting injured in a non-racing accident while enjoying a hobby during the racing season.
There are some who believe team owners should follow the lead of Joe Gibbs, who restricts his drivers from participating in open-wheel dirt races, or in this case institute some kind of extreme sport policy, something Hendrick Motorsports president Jeff Andrews is not going to do in the aftermath of what happened this week.
“These guys have to go out and live a life,” Andrews said.
That sentiment was echoed by Kevin Harvick.
“You have to be able to go out and live your life and do things to keep yourself sane or this deal will eat you up,” Harvick said.
Elliott will surely receive a waiver to be playoff eligible, something the sanctioning body has done under a similar circumstance before when Tony Stewart suffered a fractured vertebrae in an ATV incident on the sand dunes the week before the Daytona 500 in 2016. He went on to win at Sonoma in June and made the playoffs.
That’s something Elliott is more than capable of matching after winning five races last season. In other words, his season isn’t over and very well could follow the lead of Kyle Busch, who broke a leg and foot in the 2015 Xfinity Series opener at Daytona.
That year, Busch missed the first 11 races, won five times and went on to win the championship that season.
Hamlin says the injury and missed seat time only marginally affects his championship chances.
“I like his chances to win when he comes back,” Hamlin said on his podcast. “He could be dead last in the points, and when he comes back, he could vault himself all the way to the front.
“He is going to be missing out on playoff points, and that’s a good point, but let’s just assume he’s out a month and he still has many, many, many months to win many races and get many stage points. He’s not going to be in this gigantic hole that he can’t win himself out of. I think he’s a contender week in and week out, so I don’t foresee that being an issue.
“We blow things up sometimes because we’re searching for stories.”