CHARLOTTE, N.C. – Drivers had mostly positive reviews for the reduced-downforce package used last weekend at Atlanta. Now, as the Sprint Cup Series heads to Las Vegas to start a three-race West Coast swing, they must figure out how to fine-tune the new rules.
Kevin Harvick led 131 laps at Atlanta but faded to a sixth-place finish. Asked after the race how he must approach Las Vegas, where he's the defending race winner, Harvick said it was simple.
"Don't worry about how fast you are in practice," he said. "Make sure it drives good."
The 2016 rules package reduced downforce approximately 25 percent by shortening the spoiler and front splitter and moving to a smaller radiator pan. The drivers pushed for the package most of last season because lower downforce makes the cars more difficult to drive — which allows the drivers to show their talent.
"This is real racing. We're driving hard," Carl Edwards said. "You can see the guys out here just digging for everything they're worth. I'm worn out. That's a tough race and just a lot of fun."
The new package is also supposed to help improve passing, particularly at the front of the field.
"I love that the cars are harder to drive," Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. "I think all the drivers wanted that, and I think all the drivers will get out of it after (Atlanta), even the ones that didn't run good, and say, 'This is the right direction to go.'"
The race at Atlanta was not a true indicator of how the package could improve the racing because the first 210 laps last week were caution free. There were just three yellows at Atlanta, and it made for a spread out field with limited passing. Only 12 cars finished on the lead lap.
But Earnhardt said Atlanta was an anomaly because it's "a unique racetrack."
"We run from the apron to the wall, so you're not going to have debris laying around on the track for NASCAR to find and for cautions to develop as often as you will at other racetracks, because we keep that track pretty clean by running on it and using every inch of it," he said.
TRUEX'S START: Martin Truex Jr. has used the first two races of the season to prove his inclusion in the championship finale last year was no fluke.
Truex was seventh at Atlanta and second in the Daytona 500, where he lost the closest finish in race history to Denny Hamlin.
Truex has 24 top-10 finishes since the beginning of the 2015 season, and only three drivers have racked up more than him: Kevin Harvick (30), Joey Logano (29) and Brad Keselowski (26).
Now he heads to Las Vegas, where in the last 10 starts, Truex has completed all but four of the 2,691 laps for a 99.9 percent lap completion rate. The four laps he didn't complete were at the 2009 race.
Truex was runner-up to Kevin Harvick at Las Vegas a year ago.
"I feel we're starting out the season stronger than the way we ended last season," he said. "Our new affiliation with Toyota and our alliance with (Joe Gibbs Racing) is really working out for us. I feel we're only going to get better as the season moves on."
Truex did get some bad news Wednesday: His crew chief was suspended one race and fined $50,000 for a rules violation at Atlanta.
Cole Pearn was punished by NASCAR for a roof flap violation on the No. 78 Toyota found during pre-race technical inspection.
Truex also was penalized 15 driver points and team owner Barney Visser was penalized 15 championship owner points.
Furniture Row Racing said it will appeal the penalty because it was "safety related and not competition related" and Pearn will be able to work this weekend at Las Vegas pending his hearing.
XFINITY SERIES RINGERS: The Xfinity Series field for Saturday's race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway includes five Sprint Cup regulars, and they will be trying to remain undefeated in NASCAR's second-tier series.
Cup full-time drivers have won the first two Xfinity races of the season. Chase Elliott, a former series champion and current rookie in the Cup Series, won at Daytona. Kyle Busch won last week at Atlanta.
Also racing Saturday will be Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon and Brad Keselowski.
Busch has 77 career Xfinity Series wins, but none at Las Vegas, which is considered his home track. He did win a Cup race at Las Vegas in 2009.
"It's another one that has eluded us thus far, like Atlanta last week, but we got that one checked off the list and hopefully we come out strong here and I can get this one for my bucket list, too," Busch said. "I finished second there the last two times I raced ... so I'm anxious to get back on my home track and see what we can do this week."
NO NEW BUSINESS: Rick Hendrick doesn't expect to take on any new customers next year to replace Stewart-Haas Racing.
SHR is moving from Chevrolet to Ford at the end of the season, a switch that will cost Hendrick considerable business. Hendrick Motorsports currently builds chassis and leases engines to SHR.
Hendrick said last weekend at Atlanta Motor Speedway that his company is "pretty much taxed" with its current customers. In addition to SHR, Hendrick leases engines to HScott Motorsports and Chip Ganassi Racing, and supplies engines and support to JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series.