It was a little past 11 a.m. Thursday when the auto racing Busch brothers and 12 guys not from Las Vegas dived into Turn 1 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in nondescript race cars painted primer gray and black.
The drive to save NASCAR was underway.
That might be overstating it a tad, even if a news release called the two-day test “one of the most important in the sport’s history.” But NASCAR logos on windbreakers almost outnumbered spectators, so there seemed to be more gravity and knitting of brows than usual for a preseason test.
It was the first time the stock cars were outfitted with a new — and controversial — aerodynamic package that, combined with a reduction in horsepower, in theory will improve the quality of racing at LVMS and at the other intermediate-sized ovals that form the crux of the schedule.
Based on the first of five scheduled 25-lap drafting sessions, Kyle Busch wasn’t ready to announce that NASCAR has been saved.
“We’ve taken the skill away from the driver in this package,” sniffed the 2015 Cup Series champion during Thursday’s lunch break. “Anybody could go out there and run around wide open.
“You could probably do it.”
From the rooftop of the ThriveHive Digital Center — the LVMS media center formerly known as such — this is what it looked like:
The cars were bunched closer than at last spring’s Pennzoil 400, when Kevin Harvick drove as if his hair were on fire and the other drivers were wearing flameproof hairnets under their helmets.
There was more side-by-side racing.
There were few passes, at least at the front of the field.
A couple of cars were able to break away from the pack, but only a couple.
Asked to predict how the new package, which allows the cars to be driven without lifting off the gas pedal, would impact competition at LVMS and the other midsized tracks, Busch sighed.
“Yeah, I think the competition is gonna be closer together than what we’ve seen in years past,” the polarizing driver of the Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota said. “I don’t know if you’re gonna see a lead guy be able to stretch it out to five, six, seven seconds or whatever.”
That sounds encouraging for those in the stands seeking excitement.
“But as far as passing back and forth and such, the slingshot moves — I don’t foresee that coming,” Busch said. “There’s not enough draft effect on the straightaways that give you enough speed to launch you into the next corner.”
That sounds like those in the stands seeking another beer will have plenty of opportunity to fetch one.
Other drivers were more optimistic, or auditioning for second careers as political operatives.
Eye test passed
“You guys just witnessed the first stab at it,” veteran Clint Bowyer said. “A lot of people are gonna have a preconceived notion about what you see today. But there’s only really one voice that matters, and that’s the fans. The entertainment in our sport has always been great. This is obviously the next step to try to make it better.”
It’s a good thing they didn’t award points for the first drafting session, or Kurt Busch already might be eliminated from playoff contention. Busch circulated in the back of the pack in his first drive in the No. 1 Chip Ganassi Racing Chevrolet.
“This new package, the way that it drives … it’s a lot to adjust to,” the 2004 Cup Series champion and 2017 Daytona 500 winner said. “What we’re trying to do with this package is have a better on-track product.”
As interest and TV ratings continue to plummet and its speedways continue to be downsized, NASCAR is hoping another set of new rules and a more exciting on-track product will provide stock car racing with another much-needed shot in the arm.
After the first drafting session, it might have seemed more like the speed doctor advising the patient to take two aspirin and get plenty of rest.
But by the second one, Kurt Busch was dialed in and running up front. Nobody broke away from the pack. One time, the cars even ran four-wide going into Turn 1.
“It passed the eye test,” chirped one NASCAR official in the media center.
To which a grumpy Kyle Busch might have replied at least something got passed, and that the eye test probably needs to work on its setup.
Passing the test
The top six drivers in NASCAR testing Thursday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway:
1. Jimmie Johnson, Chevrolet, 178.885 mph
2. Bubba Wallace, Chevrolet, 178.253
3. Austin Dillon, Chevrolet, 178.024
4. Kurt Busch, Chevrolet, 177.795
5. Kyle Busch, Toyota, 177.784
6. Brad Keselowski, Ford 177.678