First off, this could be a completely moot point based off the weather forecast that is out for Saturday. If mother nature rears her ugly head Saturday at the Las Vegas Motor Speedway, then this whole story if for not and would be revisited on the next impound race.
But, if weather does cooperate and all 38 NASCAR Cup Series drivers do get to take to the 1.5-mile Nevada race track on Saturday afternoon for qualifying to set the field for Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 (3:30 p.m. ET/FOX/PRN), then this point is completely relevant — race setups vs. qualifying setups.
See, we found a big trend on impound races last year and that’s the drivers that elected for race speed over qualifying speed, may have gave up a good starting spot, but they were up front when it mattered the most – the end.
An impound race means, the drivers will have two practices, the only two practices of the weekend by the way, on a Friday. Then, they’ll qualify on Saturday and the cars will be impounded until the race on Sunday. That means, once they qualify, you can’t touch them. You essentially race what you qualified on.
Last year, we thought track position at most places would be a bigger key than faster race pace and at some venues it was. But, on 1.5-mile tracks and even some short tracks, qualifying with a good “race car” and not necessarily a fast short run car, was the equation for success.
Just look at the starting positions of the top five finishes in last year’s playoff race in Vegas. 24th, 3rd, 18th, 8th and 23rd respectively. What about sixth through 10th?
19th, 14th, 15th, 22nd and 17th respectively.
Eight of the top 10 finishers came from Row 7 on back. That’s saying something. Qualifying was a bit of fools gold.
See, the Stewart-Haas Racing cars grabbed the top four starting spots last September. They elected for qualifying speed in hoping that the weekend’s race on the 1.5-mile track would reward clean air. The others went for true race pace.
You can tell which strategy worked.
That’s why Kevin Harvick’s runner-up result was eye opening. He and his team made the right amount of adjustments all night to be the only guy that started five to nab a top 10 at the end of the race.
“We always want to win, but these guys just did a great job,” Harvick said after scoring his third top four in the last four Vegas races last September. “We were way off when we got here this weekend and they just kept working. We qualified well, weren’t where we wanted to be when we started the race, got stage points and led there late and gave us an opportunity. I knew the Gibbs cars would be tough and Martin (Truex Jr.) was just so tough in the second half of the run. He had made up that ground and was able to stay close to us.”
Look at what race winner Martin Truex Jr. had to say.
“We took a gamble and qualified 24th and for a while there, it wasn’t looking too smart with the 4 (Kevin Harvick) out there in front,” said Truex. “But we got the right adjustments at the end, had a great car all day long.”
Clint Bowyer earned his first pole since 2007 and just the third of his career on Saturday but his race car was junk on Sunday. He’d come home 25th.
“We just weren’t very good tonight,” Bowyer said after his string of three straight top 10 finishes came to an end. “We were just off. Off in all areas.”
The third SHR driver in Aric Almirola was happy with stage points but admitted his car fell off like his teammates as the race went on.
“The car wasn’t 100% perfect and we still managed to go up there and lead the race and score stage points,” Almirola said. “I think we finished third in Stage 1 and scored a fair amount of stage points. After Stage 1 we kind of lost the handle on the car and lost some track position and it because even more of a handful. We dug deep and fought hard and got out of here with a decent finish. Our Smithfield Ford Mustang showed some signs of strength tonight and we just lost a little bit of the handle on it.”
The same can be said for what happened on the other impound races after that. The drivers that elected for qualifying speed struggled to contend in the race itself.
In Richmond, the very next week following Vegas last year, only two of the top six finishers even started inside of the top five.
In Kansas, another 1.5-mile track like Vegas that also was an impound race, the starting spots of the top 10 finishers were – 23rd, 14th, 18th, 15th, 25th, 11th, 20th, 21st, 40th and 12th.
11th through 18th? 16th, 28th, 26th, 5th, 27th, 19th, 29th and 22nd.
Just one car that started in the top 10 finished in the top 18.
This weekend is an impound race. They’ll practice twice on Friday, qualify on Saturday, race on Sunday.