Column By: HOLLY CAIN / NASCAR – LAS VEGAS, NV – For more reasons than you think, Brad Keselowski seems especially satisfied to have won early in the 2019 season. His victory last week in the second race of the schedule – at Atlanta – all but insures a place in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Playoffs this Fall.
The win also takes a little stress off his Team Penske organization as it – along with the rest of the field – figures out a new technical package for this season’s Cup cars. In Sunday’s Pennzoil 400 (3:30 p.m. ET, FOX, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway the cars will not only run a reduced horsepower package, but will have special aero ducts installed in the front of the car – both creating competitive challenges for drivers and teams.
The idea is to create closer racing similar to the package used in last year’s All-Star Race on the 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway – an event that created record lead changes and earned rave reviews.
Most of the drivers conceded during Friday practice sessions that there were no sure-bets in Vegas this weekend. It’s a learning process and with a victory already in Keselowski’s pocket, it will be easier to gamble.
“When you have a car that’s locked in, you can kinda throw some bones at them,’’ Keselowski explained of the victory-luxury. “If it works? Good. If it doesn’t? Ehhhh.,’’ he said smiling. “Then it seems like it kinda flips right before the playoffs start.”
One thing Keselowski concedes he’d like his No. 2 Team Penske Ford crew to focus more on is qualifying. This week it could play an especially important role in collecting early race stage points – something he didn’t do last week despite his victory. He started 19th at Atlanta and 35th in the season-opening Daytona 500.
“By not qualifying well last week, probably cost our team a lot of stage points,’’ Keselowski said. “We won the race and only scored the fifth or sixth most points because of that.
“If we had scored some stage points, we’d be leading the points right now. That stinks. I want to qualify well and get some stage points and that really starts with Friday.”
He added, that he was hopeful that being a part of the offseason test session at Vegas would be helpful to that end.
“Based off the test if you’re really fast in qualifying you’ll be really fast here leading in the race but if you lose track position you’ll never get it back.
“I really have no idea what to expect in qualifying. Part of me thinks the 3 (Austin Dillon) and 8 car (Daniel Hemric) will pull away and sit on the pole. Part of me thinks we’ll see a 10-car drafting pack and part of me things we’ll see cars sit on pit road until time expires. I really don’t know what to expect, if I’m being honest.”
And, he noted, “The stages for this kind of rule settings have a bigger effect than before because the strategy will be even more mixed, it’ll be hard to keep track position so you’ll do things to win the stage that might bury you for the next stage. … it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.”
It has certainly played out well historically-speaking for Keselowski at Las Vegas. His three wins here are second only to Jimmie Johnson’s four victories among active drivers. Keselowski has won three times in the last six races at the 1.5-mile track, an unmatched mark of late. His worst finish in the last seven Vegas races is seventh – in 2015. He’s either won the pole position or won the race in five of the last seven races
And with a playoff berth all but assured already, only two races into the season, Keselowski is feeling ready to gamble. He certainly has had the field covered at Las Vegas and says he really feels like the season settles in after the series returns from the western swing of Vegas, Phoenix (next week) and then Auto Club Speedway in California in two weeks.
“I put Kansas as a big marker,’’ Keselowski said of judging championship progress. “We’re out here on the West Coast and the teams don’t really get a good chance to innovate on the cars and kind of re-do them. But by the time we get through Texas (March 31) and get to Kansas (May 3), generally we see the field kind of settle in to where it’s going to be and I’d expect that to be the case with the way the schedule plays out this year.