If Las Vegas was the ‘real’ start to the NASCAR season, what did we learn?

As much fun as it would be – and very on-brand in the motorsports space – to jump to conclusions based on small sample size, a bit of reserved judgement will be needed this week.

Sunday NASCAR’s Cup Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway was the season’s first contested event on an intermediate racetrack. Some would say it was the season’s official start after opening up with two expensive weeks of superspeedway racing. Not only was the garage eager to get to Las Vegas for that reason, but it would finally give everyone an idea of what they’d be working with for the foreseeable future.

The mile-and-a-half racetracks (i.e., intermediates) comprise most of the NASCAR schedule. Those tracks will make or break a team’s year, and there is no hiding being at a disadvantage or lacking speed.


Again, it’s far too early to crown someone or write anyone off in 2024 based on what was seen in Las Vegas. However, plenty of first impressions were made.

At the top, it’s all about Kyle Larson. There has been no better team on mile-and-a-half racetracks the last four years than Larson’s No. 5 group from Hendrick Motorsports. And they don’t just perform well or win. It’s dominant. Once Larson got the lead in Las Vegas, on Lap 3, it was all but game over.

William Byron likely wasn’t going to be far behind his teammate. The two Hendrick Motorsports drivers looked to be the class of the field early in the first stage, and then Byron had to fight from behind because of the giant black trash bag that caused his Chevrolet to overheat. As crew Rudy Fugle said on Monday, once that happened, they really didn’t get to show how strong they likely were.

Larson has now won the last two consecutive races at Las Vegas. Byron won the spring 2023 race and had speed Sunday. It has to give both teams a good place to start as they move forward with their intermediate programs.

“I think one advantage that we probably have right now is just the continuity of what we know of our car,” Larson’s crew chief Cliff Daniels said. “To be honest, I thought the Toyota’s pace was pretty impressive today; like the 45 [Tyler Reddick] was really good. Just knowing that their car is different, I would imagine the balance and some of the handling characteristics are a little bit different just from an aero standpoint. So, the continuity of our stuff and the depth of our notes, I think was really helpful for today.

“We’re going to have to keep evolving pretty quick because the more they start to get their stuff figured out. The gap is going to get closed. To be honest, I know that win both stages and win the race, you would say we had the dominant day, but there were some cars that were pretty tough right there with us, and at the end of long runs, the 45 was there every time.”

Reddick was disappointed to come up just short in Las Vegas, but his pace suggests he’ll have opportunities for redemption during the season. John Harrelson/Motorsport Images

Reddick looked to be the best of the Toyota bunch, although the Joe Gibbs Racing cars and the 23XI Racing cars all looked stout. Finishing second truly left Reddick feeling like the first loser because it felt like a victory that got away. Larson admitted Reddick was better than him at the end of the race and that if there had been more laps, Reddick would have found a way around him.

The biggest takeaway is that when Reddick and his No. 45 team have clean days, especially on the mile-and-a-half racetracks where Reddick can go to work behind the wheel, they’re contenders. Sunday wasn’t the cleanest day as Reddick slid in his pit stall, but it was one of the cleanest days they’ve had and the speed carried them forward.

Toyota also has a new car this season, the Toyota Camry XSE. Reddick was the highest-finishing Toyota driver, with Ty Gibbs fifth, Martin Truex Jr. seventh and Denny Hamlin eighth.

“Yeah, really happy,” Gibbs said about the new car’s speed. “(‘I’m) really excited about what our car is capable of. I feel really happy about what we have.”

To swing in the other direction, the Fords were OK; some of their drivers were on the fringe of the picture, but they have some work to do with their new Mustang Dark Horse. The Ford teams seem to have good single-car speed, but putting that into race speed will be key.

Joey Logano led two laps from the pole and then faded. He seemed a bit irrelevant through the first stage and then quietly finished the race in the ninth position.

The Stewart-Haas Racing cars needed all 400 miles to make progress and, early in the final stage, had three of their four drivers running inside the top 13. Noah Gragson started 30th and finished sixth with a car that had speed all weekend. Chase Briscoe, however, was fast at the beginning of the weekend and the race but then faded from having a car that could run fifth to 10th to finishing 21st.

The highest-finishing Ford driver was Ryan Blaney. It was a typical slow and steady day for Blaney and his No. 12 Team Penske team, who found himself in the picture late.

“The Chevys are still fast. The Toyotas are still fast,” Blaney said. “The Fords, we had a good showing today, too, but we just have a little bit of work to do.”

Sunday set a foundation for race teams; it was a first look at how much work is ahead. The next intermediate racetrack won’t be for another month when the circuit visits Texas Motor Speedway March 14, which will give even more data for a better picture of the teams standing above the rest.

Story originally appeared on Racer