It's Vegas, baby! (Photo: Getty Images for NASCAR)
By Mike Mulhern
Okay, so what do you think about these 2013s now?
No, not the drivers, not the crew chiefs, not NASCAR executives -- but you, the fans.
After all this is your sport. You pay the bills. You pay for the big jets and lavish salaries these men enjoy.
What do you think now about these new 2013s?
That is the big question, and NASCAR officials certainly want to hear your vote, yea or nay.
We can't trust the drivers to give honest answers on this, now that NASCAR has trashed their credibility. And we can't trust NASCAR officials to offer anything other than rosy stats and press releases.
No, it's up to you, and your own eyes, to make the call.
After two rather boring Sprint Cup races to open the season, and that stunning $25,000 fine on Denny Hamlin for some relatively innocuous comments about the new stockers needing some tweaking, NASCAR's new race cars were the center of attention here Sunday afternoon at Las Vegas Motor Speedway...much more so than even drivers and teams.
Throw in precious little practice time leading up to the race, and precious little practice time on any of the 1-1/2-mile tracks like this one that are the predominant field of battle for this series, and consider that this track is wicked fast even on the best of days, and you can see where much of the worry came from.
It may have taken NASCAR execs too long to realize their car-of-tomorrow (which ran from 2007-2012) needed a major facelift, with the body especially but also under the chassis. But they finally have, and the new cars look rather neat, or at least cooler than the COT with its common template styling.
But will these 2013s perform? Will they really make the racing better?
Remember all those boring, caution-free, gas-mileage races the last two seasons. And the drooping TV ratings. And the dwindling crowds.
This sport clearly needs a big shot in the arm to get back on track.
Will the 2013s provide that?
Well, three races don't make a verdict, and the jury should withhold decision for at least a few more weeks.
And Sunday's Las Vegas 400 may not have been as wild and crazy as everyone would have liked. In fact, it was rather staid....not unusual for this track.
But there were a number of bright spots in Sunday's race.
These cars are definitely fast, very, very fast. And this is a fast track, and dangerous. And yet drivers handled all that quite well, it would seem.
They drove fast. They didn't lay back off the throttle. And yet they didn't crash either.
Now the action itself wasn't like, say, classic old-school Bristol. And there wasn't a pass for the lead and the win in the closing laps. But Kasey Kahne, who dominated, did make some moves on leader Matt Kenseth in the final miles, and there was a clear edge of doubt over the final 12 laps about who might win.
And Kyle Busch made a nice charge from the rear of the pack up through the field to the lead, showing passing is possible -- well, he is Kyle Busch, remember, probably the best pure racer in the sport.
The race was pretty tight a battle between Joe Gibbs' Toyota guys (and yes Hamlin was right in there too, until a late yellow foiled him) and Rick Hendrick's Chevy guys.
Fords showed little, surprisingly. And the Richard Childress and Chip Ganassi Chevy camps didn't have much for Gibbs and Hendrick either.
So we could give the 2013s in this race maybe a C-plus, you think? Even possibly a B-minus, considering all the potential negatives.
Not great, not bad.
And certainly better than the Daytona 500 (a D-minus, at best) and the Phoenix 500K (maybe a liberal D-plus).
And maybe Phoenix wouldn't have looked as weak as it did if the tires had done a better job. Even Goodyear concedes the tires weren't spot on (of course NASCAR changed the 2013 car rules considerably after the Phoenix tire test).
Now it's on to Bristol....which a year ago had its own set of problems, and a curious 'grind-down-the-high-groove' change-up repair job by owner Bruton Smith.
What are drivers saying, following Round Three of Project 2013?
Kahne and Keselowski, side by side post-race, only laughed when asked for comment.
Kahne: "My car drove good. I felt like I could pass. I could race underneath a car, do things that maybe I wouldn't have been able to do in the past."
Kahne pointed to the tires, last year's tires this week, new tires last week. At least the old tires here were a known quantity.
And his 2013? "I had a lot of fun driving it, and I thought it was a heck of a race. I got to race through cars, traffic, and battle for the lead four, five, six times. I felt really confident."
Kenseth got a good pit road call from new crew chief Jason Ratcliff, gas only late. That helped give him better track position.
"I knew we had to pit, and I was 'Try to keep me up front if you can,'" Kenseth said of the call. "When he said that we only needed fuel....then I heard him counting under his breath.
"So when I left pit road I was grinning. When you come to a new team, you're hoping to work with somebody who doesn't only prepare race cars to win races but who calls races to win races...and be aggressive.
"The last two weeks Jason has been really aggressive on both counts. We got the cars good enough to go up there and win races if all the stars aligned."
Ratcliff liked hearing that confidence in his calls: "We're going to pick up about a little over a second if we don't take tires, or we can take right side tires if there's going to be some more cautions later in the race. When Matt came on the radio and said 'Man, just keep me up front,' I said 'Okay, game on!"
Kahne was surprised he couldn't get around Kenseth, and surprised that traffic didn't slow him up much:
"I really thought I was going to catch him. And I felt I could turn down (under Kenseth) in the center of the corner and carry a ton of speed doing it.
"I felt really confident when I got to him I'd be able to do that.... like I had raced with Kyle Busch and Jimmie Johnson earlier.
"But when I got to Matt I couldn't do it.
"So I was trying to brake in, and mess with anything I could -- lift early, lift late. Tried it all, and just couldn't find a way past him.
"He did a really good job of keeping his momentum up, keeping his speed.
"He was cutting across me off the corner. He just put up a great battle... and pulled it off on old tires."
Where did all that emotion come from, that Kenseth displayed in victory? He's usually Mr. Cool, unflappable.
"There were a lot of reasons for that," Kenseth said. "I was pretty comfortable where I was at (with Roush). We had cars that could win. We had an organization that could win. Pretty comfortable.
"And this -- although I knew it's not really that much of a risk, and I'm 100 percent sure it was the right thing and all that -- still there's some pressure, some unknowns.
"I know they're expecting me to perform.
"Before this year I can't remember the last time I've ever been nervous at all inside of a race car, and every week it gets a little bit better. But you're always a little bit nervous, and you want to meet their expectations or exceed them.
"I'm pretty fired up to win with these guys. I hope there's a lot more in front of us.
"They've made me feel so welcome. Just glad I was able to do my job today."