When the best and brightest of NASCAR's Sprint Cup Series retired to their corporate jets and flew home from Las Vegas, site of the season's third race, they must have felt slightly like the Children of Israel.
The Kobalt 400, Brad Keselowski's 18th career victory, was no ordinary race. Ordinary races do not include winds varying from 10 to 50 miles an hour. They do not often include a delay for a sandstorm. Thankfully, no plague of locusts descended on Las Vegas Motor Speedway before its 267 laps were completed. No frogs, lice, flies and no thunderstorm of hail and fire.
It was weird. It wasn't biblical.
"I guess that's the wild, wild west, right? It was dusty, rainy, windy, crazy," runner-up Joey Logano said. "That made for a great race."
Well, interesting, anyway.
"It was pretty brutal at times," the surprise sixth-place finisher, rookie Ryan Blaney, said. "That would be the biggest problem, if it was unpredictable. If it had been a steady wind, it wouldn't have been so bad. You can get into a rhythm."
The race had its memorable moments. Kyle Busch drove from sixth to first in a lap, and the move will likely be remembered as a signature moment of the season. It would be remembered longer had Busch held on to win, but Keselowski, once free of an an intramural squabble with Penske Racing teammate Logano, tracked Busch down and passed him with six laps to go.
|Comparing the Three Races So Far|
|Track||Winner||Make||Lead Changes||Caution Flags|
|Las Vegas||Brad Keselowski||Ford||20||6|
The rules package now in place at all tracks save Daytona and Talladega predictably drew rave reviews, in part because NASCAR officials have successfully lobbied the sport's principals—drivers, owners, crew chiefs—to lob talking points at every opportunity.
"The new rules package? I thought it was tremendous," Keselowski said.
From the vantage point of fans sitting in the grandstands or their living rooms, the change is not nearly so apparent. With two races under the "low downforce" configuration, the changes do not appear to have made a major difference in the quality of the spectacle. The cars have been made harder to drive, which, in turn, should give the drivers with the most talent something of an advantage, and that is the way it should be.
In the short run, and with wind, sand and rain factored in for good measure, it seems as if the cars have been made so hard to drive that some drivers don't drive them particularly hard. Until the laps wind down and the checkered flag beckons, many drivers seem more interested in making it to the end than Victory Lane.
Survival and glory are both appealing virtues.
It's going to get better, which is what people often say when it isn't yet. Keselowski shot it straight, though, when asked about the prospects in the winner's media conference.
He said, "The challenge for NASCAR is that we've got all these teams spending millions of dollars to develop the aerodynamics on the cars because there's such a competitive advantage to finding more downforce, finding more side force, reducing the drag on the cars.
"It will only take us about half a year to a year's time to where we remove all the benefits that this package has given the racing to showcase a day like today with a lot of passing for the lead."
Putting the nagging pessimism aside, Keselowski said, "I think there are a lot of variables...Probably the biggest variable will be the tire compounds (furnished by Goodyear) week. I think you're going to see some tire compounds that are easier to drive and some that are harder to drive. It will be hard to pick out one team as a favorite."
Based on early results, the racing is a bit better. Perhaps it is a victim of NASCAR hype. Perhaps expectations have been raised to the point where falling short is inevitable.
Twelve of the event's 20 lead changes were a result of full-speed passes, as opposed to pit-road assumptions and the shuffles that occurred under the six caution periods.
The racing was always hard but not as often exciting. It got exciting at the end, which happens almost every week when laps wind down and urgency amps up.
"This weather was horrible for the race fans," Kyle Busch, who faded to fourth in the final six laps, said. "I feel bad for all of them having to deal with all the wind. The wind in the desert, you get sand in your face and eyes and everywhere else.
"But for us behind the wheel, it wasn't too bad. I didn't feel much of it. There were some opportunities where the wind was going in a different direction and you could really hustle your race car, and others where it was blowing another direction where you'd have to check up and be a little easy and tentative, though."
Busch's signature pass occurred on a green flag at Lap 224. He restarted sixth, saw an opening on the outside, used a wind-aided charge down the back straight to take third and, armed with momentum, zipped to the bottom of the track to pass Logano for the lead.
"Wind was really a big factor," Carl Edwards, caught up in the day's only major crash, said. "It was actually a little bit of a struggle for me at points, but it was a struggle for everybody and that's OK.
"It certainly didn't seem like a different rules package here. We were screaming fast. You're really locked down. I'd catch a guy, and he'd be eight or 10 lengths back and that was about it. I don't know if everybody had that problem. NASCAR is working on it, and it's better than it was because of the changes they made. Hopefully, they keep working on it."
A flat mile, Phoenix International Raceway, is next, followed by a visit to two-mile Auto Club Speedway in Fontana, California.
“This shouldn’t be easy,” Keselowski said. “This is the Sprint Cup Series. These cars should be very hard to drive. At the end of the run, they were a challenge. It’s nice to be part of that.”
No overriding theme has been established yet. Three racers. Three different winners. Three different makes of car.
It's simply too soon to tell.
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All quotes are taken from NASCAR media, team and manufacturer sources unless otherwise noted.