Kevin Harvick is a good bet to contend Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Chris Trotman/Getty Images
Moments after the checkered flag dropped at Atlanta Motor Speedway, drivers being interviewed repeatedly endorsed the reduced downforce package.
One after another of NASCAR's elite pilots described and embraced the virtue of being in control of an out-of-control race car.
Out of control may be an exaggeration, but it's the easiest way to describe a race car this year -- being more difficult to drive -- than its predecessor used last year.
Atlanta was a sample, certainly not a pure indicator of what the greatest challenges will be with this altered aero package. At Atlanta, tire wear because of the abrasive racing surface is the key contributor to a car's personality.
But a smoother racing surface at Las Vegas Motor Speedway will translate to higher corner speeds for longer, resulting in a variety of challenges that didn't exist a week ago. Keys to winning
1) Tire Chatter: It's a description a driver has of his car completely losing adhesion to the race track, typically the front tires.
For instance, rather than describe a tight condition (where the front tires slide toward the wall more than the rear) a driver uses the expression "chatter" when the tires completely separate from the track and skip across the track like a flat rock skipping across the top of water.
It's very uncomfortable, it's very abrupt, and difficult for drivers to predict or control. Kyle Busch complained of it during Friday's practice, and it immediately registered to me that the tires could be too hard for this lower level of downforce.
So what challenges does this create? 2) Restarts: They could be volatile, because 40 cars lined 20 deep side-by-side creates excessive disruption to the air (dirty air) resulting in even less downforce for cars for the several laps following the green flag.
Most at risk will be drivers lined up on the inside as they turn into the turns with a car to their outside. In this scenario, a driver has so little room for error that it will be difficult to commit to extra corner entry speed, or aggressively going back to the accelerator for risk of creating the chatter and collecting the car to the outside, likely ending both drivers' days ... perhaps along with others in the vicinity.
It's like competing on a knife's edge, teetering from stable to falling moment to moment. It's very, very, difficult ... but it's why they are referred to as "drivers." 3) Track temperature: It will contribute greatly to a tire's performance, and a significant drop in ambient temperature can create critical changes in a car's limits.
A double-digit drop in temperature is the anticipated difference from Saturday's practice to Sunday's race.
This change prevents crew chiefs and engineers from sleeping well and leaves drivers a bit apprehensive at the start of a day's race.
Whatever challenges you have with your car during your last practice will more than likely be amplified if you leave the car the same (no major mechanical adjustments) and just have grip removed because of a colder track. The bottom line
It seemed most, if not all, drivers celebrated the reduced downforce debut at last week's race in Atlanta. For many on Sunday, the celebration will end, replaced with moans, groans, and complaints as drivers whistle into the turn lacking predictability from their cars.
A second or third groove, as many capitalized on last week, may not exist during Sunday's race, leaving drivers congested with one another at each end of the race track.
The great news for some: Adversity creates opportunity. Those tolerant enough to perform under these circumstances will be greatly rewarded.
Yes, the second race with these aero rules will be considerably more difficult than the first, and under this premise, talent always prevails.
So for the second straight week I favor Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch and Carl Edwards. On this day the driver who stands the tallest will be the driver who complains the least. Kevin Harvick wins Vegas!