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Upon Further Review: Team executives look ahead to key stretch of races

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As NASCAR Cup teams head to Martinsville Speedway for Sunday’s race, so begins a new series of challenges.

After an opening five-race stretch that had Cup teams racing at a restrictor-plate track, two 1.5-mile tracks, a 2-mile track and a 1-mile track, NASCAR teams enter a new phase of the schedule.

Three of the next five races are at short tracks (Martinsville, Bristol and Richmond). Teams also will go to Texas Motor Speedway, a 1.5-mile track that has been repaved and reconfigured. There wasn’t enough time for any testing, so teams will arrive uncertain of what they’ll face. The last track in this five-race stretch is the restrictor-plate track at Talladega.

Because the tracks are so different from the first five, what happened in the opening five races will have little impact on what happens in the next five.

Also what happens in this upcoming stretch is important because Martinsville, Texas and Talladega are among the tracks in the playoffs.

This week, NBC Sports talked to Cup team executives. They were asked to assess their organization’s start to the season earlier this week. Today, they explain what they’ll be focused on during this upcoming five-race stretch.

CHIP GANASSI RACING

Kyle Larson Averages 48 points & 14 stage points per race

Jamie McMurray Averages 32.4 points & 12.4 stage points per race

Team Manager Tony Lunders: “I’m actually looking forward and am actually excited to get to Martinsville this weekend. I think we’re going to be really strong there. I feel like Jamie is one of the top guys at Martinsville, and I felt like in the last two or three years he’s had great runs. He’s had a pole up there. Kyle, that wasn’t one of his favorite places to go, but he’s figured out over the last year or so to get around there a lot better and have more speed. I think both teams could very well go up there and win.

“Texas is going to be a little different for us. that will be a good test for the crew chiefs and engineering group to unload there and get the gaps, get the heights right on the car early and not try to use too much up practice-wise and tire-wise trying to dial it in. That will show some of the strength of our tools and our people back at the shop. At Bristol, I feel is a place both of our guys and teams run very well at. I would say that about everywhere.’’

FURNITURE ROW RACING

Martin Truex Jr. Averages 41 points & 10.6 stage points per race

Erik Jones Averages 23.2 points & 3.2 stage points per race

Team President Joe Garone: “We have history with Martin, so on the 78 car, I’m really looking at good races at these places and continuing to get more speed out of the cars as we learn more about the ’18 Camry. On the side of Erik, it’s going to be interesting to see how he does at Martinsville. We have no idea. I don’t know that he does, to be honest with you. What I can tell you is that he’s got a lot of smart people around him that are willing to help him as much as they can to understand what he might need to do and what to expect.

“It’s going to be interesting to see how we go through that stretch in particular with Erik. Martin, man, you’ve just got to love him. I truly feel we can go to any of these races and win.

“It feels that the field has certainly tightened up from last year in the competitiveness of all the cars. Everything has got to be dead on to win. I just feel real confident with Martin in that area right now.’’

HENDRICK MOTORSPORTS

Chase ElliottAverages 42.8 points & 12.6 stage points per race

Jimmie JohnsonAverages 21.8 points & 3.6 stage points per race

Dale Earnhardt Jr.Averages 18.2 points & 2.4 stage points per race

Kasey KahneAverages 24.4 points & 0 stage points per race

General Manager Doug Duchardt: “We start to get into some of these tracks that the (playoffs) are run on. There’s a huge unknown with Texas. I think a key from my perspective, and I say this a lot, is that the season is a marathon. You have to stay within the week-to-week grind of the season and focus on the next week. Things are going to change. The NASCAR garage changes. Rules can change. Competition, whose good now and who is going to be good in three or four weeks, it can change quickly. You just have to stay focused on working together, working to get the cars and engines better and minimizing mistakes when you run the race. Typically that’s going to get you success.

“In the next five races, the one that is going to be the wild card for sure is Texas. It will be interesting for the fans. Hopefully, we can optimize our tools and figure it out quickly and have success there. Martinsville has always been good for us. Bristol hasn’t been as good recently. Talladega is Talladega. I feel good about how our cars ran in Daytona, but Daytona and Talladega, interestingly, sometimes are two different places. We’ll see how it goes there. What I do feel real good about, I feel like our four teams are working very well together. Our four drivers are as close as I ever remember. They’ve been having fun together and working hard together.’’

JOE GIBBS RACING

Kyle Busch Averages 27.2 points & 7.2 stage points per race

Denny Hamlin Averages 24.6 points & 2.2 stage points per race

Daniel Suarez Averages 20.4 points & 0 stage points per race

Matt Kenseth Averages 14.6 points & 0.4 stage points per race

Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Jimmy Makar: “Martinsville is its own animal. Really nothing we’ve been to will apply to that. … I’m feeling like we should be able to be more competitive at Martinsville, even at Bristol and Richmond.

“I feel good about going into these races right now while we’re working on our mile-and-a-half (package), our higher speed tracks and the aero and chassis package.

“Who knows what (Texas) is going to be. You won’t know until you get there. I feel good about all those other races coming. Even Talladega. I felt like at Daytona we had good strong race cars, things didn’t pan out for us.’’

RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING

Ryan NewmanAverages 24.6 points & 3.8 stage points per race

Austin DillonAverages 18.4 points & 1 stage point per race

Paul MenardAverages 17.4 points & 0 stage points per race

Director of Competition Dr. Eric Warren: “I felt like our Martinsville program went reasonably well last year. Had a good spring race and a good fall race, and I want to be able to continue that.

“Texas will be the interesting one. Lot of your bed is made on the ‘West Coast Swing.’ You can kind of adjust your car maybe for Fontana some, but a lot of times, with the travel and the cars being sent back and forth, the first few races, you’ve kind of got those cars built to spec, kind of laid out. New cars coming for Texas.

Hopefully, Texas will be a good gauge. If it wasn’t for a whole new corner and a whole new track, you could use that to learn from the ‘West Coast Swing.’ I expect you’ll see some performance balance change on who all is good the first little bit.’’

ROUSH FENWAY RACING

Trevor BayneAverages 22.8 points & 0.2 stage points per race

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.Averages 17.2 points & 0.8 stage points per race

Competition Director Kevin Kidd: “Every track has its unique characteristics and problems, so we’ve just really focused on one race at a time. As simple and unsexy as that may sound, that’s what we do.

“Everything we do that goes into the car build side, the preparation side or the execution side, it’s all unique to that track that weekend. I’m a believer that wherever we’re going our process shouldn’t change. We build the car the best we know how that given week.’’

STEWART-HAAS RACING

Clint BowyerAverages 28.6 points & 3.6 stage points per race

Kevin HarvickAverages 27.4 points & 8 stage points per race

Kurt BuschAverages 23.6 points & 1.6 stage points per race

Danica PatrickAverages 12.6 points & 1.4 stage points per race

Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli: “Winning races, get our cars locked in the Chase early. There’s a lot of learning going on for us as a group.

“Over the next four or five weeks … there’s a bunch of different racetracks. There’s a lot of different things thrown at us. (The key will be) if we can continue to perform at the level that we need to and that is expected of us from our ourselves and our sponsors and our partners, that’s the biggest thing, being able to maintain the level of performance.’’

TEAM PENSKE

Brad KeselowskiAverages 35.8 points & 11.6 stage points per race

Joey LoganoAverages 34.8 points & 7.6 stage points per race

Ryan Blaney (Wood Brothers) — Averages 31.4 points & 6.2 stage points per race

Competition Director Travis Geisler: “After this next five, if you’ve gained or maintained a little bit on where you are in points, you’re going to be pretty established at that point. There’s going to be enough points scored that you feel like you start to get yourself in a stable spot. Right now, it’s still pretty volatile.

“If you have a couple of bad weeks, you’re going to move a lot in points right now. You look at these five, and it’s like somebody is going to stumble here throughout this because of the type of racetrack, between Bristol, Talladega and (repaved Texas), there’s going to be a couple of hiccups in the group, and you’ve just got to make sure that you can capitalize on that instead of being the one that has the issues.

“I think (the key) is minimizing the damage throughout the next few weeks and just trying to maintain good, solid performances and get your finishes. Qualifying becomes really important because you don’t have a ton of time to make up for it to score your stage points. I think that becomes something you’ve got to focus a little bit more. It’s always been important, but when you had 500 laps, you go, ‘Well, OK, I qualified 20th at Bristol, I’ll get there.’ The first stage is going to come really quickly at Bristol. I think those are the things you’ve got to look at there.’’

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NASCAR America’s Jarrett, Letarte, Petty recap 2017, make 2018 predictions

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The 2017 NASCAR Cup, Xfinity and Truck Series seasons have only been over for a few days.

And while it’s understandable that on Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, analysts Steve Letarte, NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty reflected back on the recently completed race seasons, they also took a very bold move:

The new season is still three months away, but our analyst team is ALREADY making predictions for 2018.

We don’t want to spoil the surprise or show their hands. If you want to hear how they’re already viewing 2018, click on the video above.

Justin Hartley from NBC’s ‘This Is Us’ on Dale Jr.’s special bond with fans

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Even though Dale Earnhardt Jr. is now officially retired as a NASCAR Cup driver, the special bond between the former driver of the 88 will likely never go away.

Sure, Alex Bowman is replacing Junior in the 88, which will likely pick up some of Junior Nation to cheer for him. Others will gravitate to cheer for other drivers, perhaps youngsters William Byron, Chase Elliott, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and others.

But one thing is for certain: once a Dale Jr. fan and a member of Junior Nation, ALWAYS a Dale Jr. fan and a member of Junior Nation.

Justin Hartley, who plays Kevin on NBC’s top-rated “This Is Us,” is proud to call himself a card carrying member of Junior Nation. In the video above, Hartley shows what it’s like to be a Dale Jr. fan, what the third-generation driver meant to so many people for so many years, and how his legacy will continue on for decades to come.

Check out the video above to see what Junior Nation is all about, as well as thoughts from our NBC analysts, Kyle Petty, Steve Letarte and Dale Jarrett.

NASCAR America: Nate Ryan on how 78 rode roller coaster to Cup crown

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If the 2017 NASCAR Cup season was an amusement park ride, it definitely would be a roller coaster for Martin Truex Jr., crew chief Cole Pearn and the rest of the No. 78 Furniture Row Racing team.

Up and down the season went, from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.

There was adversity on the track and tragedy off the track, with Pearn losing his best friend to a freakish infection, and team member Jim Watson passing away in Kansas one day before the Cup race that Truex would go on to win and dedicate to his fallen teammate.

And through it all, Truex and longtime girlfriend Sherry Pollex dealt with the recurrence of ovarian cancer with strength, inspiration and fortitude.

The 78 team’s dedication, sticking to the plan and rallying together as a family was the difference.

NBC Sports’ and NASCAR Talk’s Nate Ryan presented a touching pre-race tribute to Truex and his team before Sunday’s race. On Tuesday’s NASCAR America, Ryan gave an updated version of that tribute, capping it off with the best way possible: recalling how Truex and the 78 team won it all.

Check out the video above to see Nate’s touching piece.

 

Scan All: Miami — the best from the season-ending Ford EcoBoost 400

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This week’s Scan All: Miami combined not only regular scanner traffic from team radios during Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400, but also studio cut-ins of Truex and crew chief Cole Pearn talking about their road to the Cup championship.

Here’s some of the best exchanges:

Martin Truex Jr. on coming into the race: “I felt good all weekend, I really did. I was relaxed and knew that no matter what happened, we had a great season and a lot to be proud of and a lot to build upon for the future.”

Truex on his team radio just before the green flag: “We’ve been working a long time to get here. I can’t say enough about how proud I am of you guys and what you’ve done. Thank you for an unbelieveable season. Let’s cap it off tonight.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. just before the green flag: “I just want to thank everybody that’s had an impact on my career. I’ve made friendships and relationships that’ll last a lifetime, and I’m just so thankful for that.”

Aric Almirola on his last start for Richard Petty Motorsports: “King, if you’re on the air, thanks for that phone call six years ago. It’s been a lot of fun driving this 43 car.”

Crew chief Darian Grubb to Kasey Kahne on his final start with Hendrick Motorsports: “I know it’s an emotional day for everybody. I’m proud to be able to call you teammate and even more proud to be able to continue to call you friend after this, bud.”

Kahne’s reply (while holding back tears): “Thank you guys for everything, man.”

Kahne’s spotter, Kevin Hamlin, to Grubb: “Man, you’ve got to make him cry before we go green?”

Cole Pearn on Kyle Larson getting a run: “The 42 is running the wall. He’s hauling ass.”

Clayton Hughes, spotter for Truex: “How about this, Martin Truex Jr., you are the champion, baby!”

Truex in studio cut-in on winning championship: “It was our time. There’s no doubt in my mind that it was our time. Sometimes, things are meant to be.”

Check out the whole Scan All segment in the video above.