LAS VEGAS -- Only 14 laps had passed Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and Clint Bowyer was already screaming over the radio.
"Let me know if you've got a tire down! Quick!" last season's championship runner-up shouted after making an unscheduled early pit stop for what he thought was a flat tire. As it turned out, all four of Bowyer's tires from the previous run had been intact. What he was battling was a wickedly loose race car -- and he was far from alone.
Matt Kenseth may have won at Las Vegas thanks to a no-tire gamble as bold as any made in a casino this weekend, but to a large degree Sunday's event on the 1.5-mile layout was dominated by one word -- loose -- uttered over and over again over team radio. Loose is typically a good thing in Vegas, particularly when it pertains to slot machines that pay out a little more regularly. But not when driving a race car at 200 mph on an aging surface made slick by the desert sun.
"Oh my god, this is just terrible," Danica Patrick said at one point about the handling of her No. 10 car, and she had plenty of company. "Loose in, loose off, the more I go," echoed Kyle Busch. "It's still loose, guys," Bowyer lamented. Crew chiefs were left to apologize and tighten their race cars whenever they could, but by then the damage was often done.
"I really didn't see that coming, to be honest with you," said Brian Pattie, Bowyer's crew chief, after his driver finished two laps down in 27th. "I'd swear we had a tire going down, the way it was acting. I haven't seen it that loose since I've been with him."
It might have been little solace, but Pattie was in good company. Reigning Sprint Cup Series champion Brad Keselowski also pitted at one point for what he thought was a flat tire, although he used a late no-tire stop to rebound and claim third. Tony Stewart lost a lap early because his car was so loose, yet earned a late free pass that allowed him to catch up with the leaders and finish 11th. Patrick suffered from a similar condition but couldn't shake it, and wound up six laps down in 33rd.
"There's been a lot of nasty ones out there," crew chief Tony Gibson told her over the radio. "Sorry about this."
"I was extremely loose the whole time," Patrick said after the race. "We made it a little bit better in the middle of the race, to the point where it would go for half the run, but by the end of every run I would find myself very, very loose again. Being behind traffic, the aerodynamics change a lot, and it's a handful. I felt like I was about to spin on the frontstraight. We just have to figure out how to make it better and work our butts off to make sure that we never have this day again."
At some point, it seemed, almost every driver in the field fought a severe loose condition. Although this week marked the debut of the more brand-identifiable Generation-6 race car on an 1.5-mile intermediate track, and all of Friday's activity was washed out due to rain, crew chiefs pinned the blame on something much more routine -- the weather.
"Track conditions changed," said Steve Addington, Stewart's crew chief. "This place is notorious for that. We thought we adjusted for it, but it was a little worse with this car for some reason. It caught a lot of us off guard, and some of them went a little bit more and hit it. We were just really loose at the start and battled back all day to get it tightened up. We tightened it up a ton."
Sprint Cup teams came to Las Vegas a day early and tested for six hours in the new car Thursday, a session that proved beneficial when opening practice the next day was rained out. Much of the weekend had been uncharacteristically overcast and cool -- until race day, which was warm and sunny, and made the track surface as slick as it had been all week.
For teams that had prepared under much different conditions, it was a perfect storm. "I think we all fought tight in the test, so everyone is freeing up, freeing up, freeing up, freeing up, and then the sun comes up and it gets really hot and the track gets free, and it's the opposite of what you worked on," said Dave Rogers, Busch's crew chief. "I think it's more a function of the track than anything."
Other factors played a role. Rogers said the Sprint Cup cars had been tight at Las Vegas last year, perhaps leading crew chiefs to build in too small a margin for adjustment. Many Nationwide drivers -- Busch included -- had reported battling loose conditions in Saturday's race, which in hindsight might have provided a clue. But teams are also still learning the characteristics of a vehicle that's taking its first steps on the sport's fastest unrestricted tracks.
"This was the biggest unknown that we've had all year," Addington said. "People went through practice and it was cooler temperatures, and the track was cooler, and you try to not hurt yourself by leaving the car alone if you were tight. You've got to set a plan for it and put an adjustment in it, and we just didn't go far enough."
Neither did Bowyer's team. "Obviously when you practice when it's nice and cool and you have cloud cover, and you race in the sun, you should adapt," Pattie said. "And we didn't. I'm glad to know that somebody else didn't, either."
But some did. "I wasn't shocked at all," said Steve Letarte, crew chief for Dale Earnhardt Jr., who finished seventh. In his view Sunday was typical Las Vegas, a bumpy and aging surface that forces teams to make choices on setups. The bumps take a toll on the front end, so teams have to free up the car, and by the time the nose comes around the rear is out of whack. It's a constant battle of give and take, accentuated by changing weather conditions.
"You've got an older mile-and-a-half track with older pavement, and the sun came out. I think the track just swung that way," Letarte said. "I love it. I love races like that, when you lack grip at both ends of the trace rack. That makes for great racing."
That certainly showed in the statistics -- Las Vegas on Sunday featured 31 green-flat passes for the lead and 22 lead changes, the latter the most at the facility since 2007. Kenseth and Kasey Kahne battled one another in a dramatic finish. And cars were able to compete in multiple grooves, which Earnhardt attributes to a track that has worn in since its most recent resurfacing prior to the 2007 season.
"Compared to last week in Phoenix, this is a completely different surface," he said. "This is exactly what you would want as a race track owner. This is where you want to be, right here where this track is living right now, and the age of this surface. This is exactly what you want to strive for."
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