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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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Christopher Bell takes pole for tonight’s Xfinity race in Iowa

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Christopher Bell will start from the pole in tonight’s American Ethanol e15 250 at Iowa Speedway. It marks Bell’s first NASCAR Xfinity Series pole in only his second career start in the series.

Bell, who is currently ranked second in the Camping World Truck Series, covered the .875-mile oval with a best lap of 133.305 mph. Kyle Benjamin was a close second (133.294), followed by defending winner Sam Hornish Jr. (133.260), Elliott Sadler (132.990) and Justin Allgaier (132.89).

Sixth through 10th were William Byron (132.520), Dakoda Armstrong (132.286), Brennan Poole (132.186), Matt Tifft (132.059) and Ty Majewski (131.998).

A total of 40 cars made qualifying runs.

Click here for the full qualifying results.

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Carl Edwards surfaces, doesn’t miss racing: ‘I’m enjoying life and it’s good’

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Cancel the APB, take his face off the milk cartons.

Carl Edwards has been found. The former NASCAR Cup star surfaced Saturday at Sonoma Raceway – representing a former sponsor at an event that had been previously scheduled.

Edwards is happy, hale and hearty.

Yet if you think that returning to a racetrack means Edwards will be getting behind the wheel of a race car once again, forget about it.

But he hasn’t lost his wicked sense of humor, either.

“I’ve been talking to a bunch of people and weighing my options — no, just kidding,” he said with a laugh, according to JeffGluck.com.

Then Edwards got serious.

“I haven’t talked to anyone and I haven’t even considered coming back,” Edwards said. “Not right now.

“I think it’s pretty clear if I really want to do something, then I would do it. But like I said in January, I would talk to Coach (Joe Gibbs) first — and I haven’t had any conversations about that.”

Gluck noted that Edwards did write a thank-you note to Gibbs recently that reiterated the opportunity to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing and that the organization supported him when he decided to leave racing after last season.

Given that racing has been part of his life for more than half his life, it was interesting to hear Edwards, who turns 38 in August, say he hasn’t kept up much with NASCAR nor watched many races since he walked away from the sport.

But he is doing some good. He’s continuing to fly medical patients to treatment in his private plane.

Saturday was the first time Edwards has been at a racetrack since Atlanta Motor Speedway in early March.

He then added, per ESPN.com, “I’m probably happier and more content [than in March],” Edwards said. “You know how change is. You make a change, and there always is good and bad and there’s uneasiness. But, man, I’m enjoying life and it’s good.”

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Kyle Larson Express earns second straight pole, Danica Patrick to start sixth

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Kyle Larson continues to lead the way in NASCAR — both literally and figuratively.

The current NASCAR Cup points leader will also start Sunday’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 race at Sonoma Raceway from the pole for the second straight race, having done so in last week’s eventual win at Michigan International Speedway.

“This is cool to get a pole on a road course in my home state,” Larson told Fox Sports 1. “This is the closest track to Sacramento and Elk Grove, where I grew up, so lots of friends and family here.”

And to make things even sweeter, Larson (qualified with a field-best speed of 95.295 mph) will start Sunday’s race alongside Chip Ganassi Racing teammate Jamie McMurray, who qualified on the outside of the front row with his own effort of 95.204 mph.

“I thought I did a really good job,” McMurray told FS1. “I don’t feel like I gave up, or that there was a corner that stuck out. Overall, it was a really good lap, but Kyle just got a little bit more.”

It was also Larson’s third pole of 2017; he also started from the front at Fontana (where he also won) in March.

Here’s the rest of the top 10 qualifiers:

Row 2: Martin Truex Jr. will start third, alongside Kyle Busch, still searching for his first Cup win since last year’s Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis.

Row 3: A.J. Allmendinger starts fifth alongside Danica Patrick, who had the best qualifying effort of all four Stewart-Haas Racing drivers.

It was Patrick’s best Cup qualifying effort since starting fourth at Charlotte in May 2014, and her third-best Cup qualifying effort ever. It also marked the sixth time since she joined SHR that she out-ran all of her teammates, per RacingInsights.com.

“I feel like I can drive this place in my sleep just because I’ve driven so many laps here over the years,”Patrick told FS1. “Man, I hope Sunday’s good and everything falls right. It’s great, it’s nice, it’s been a tough go of it this year. It feels good to have a good starting spot and let’s hope we start clean and have a smooth day.”

Row 4: Ryan Blaney will start seventh, next to Chase Elliott, who was forced to go to backup car after wrecking in practice Friday.

Row 5: Chris Buescher starts ninth, his best career qualifying effort, alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Only 38 cars are qualified for Sunday’s race. Matt Kenseth didn’t get an attempt in Saturday, so he’ll start from the back of the pack.

Click here for the full qualifying field results.

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Trevor Bayne: ‘The hardest it’s ever been to leave home to come to the race track’

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Yes, Trevor Bayne wants to win, but he can’t wait to get back home after Sunday’s race and see his family and newborn son.

“This was probably the hardest it’s ever been to leave home to come to the race track,’’ Bayne told reporters Saturday before qualifying at Sonoma Raceway.

His son, Levi Jensen Bayne, was born June 20 after a challenging birth.

Bayne and wife Ashton went to the hospital at 6 a.m. on June 19 to induce so their son would be born before Bayne left for this weeknd’s Cup race in Northern California.

Hours later, the baby still hadn’t arrived.

“We induced Monday at 6 a.m. and at midnight still hadn’t had a baby,’’ Bayne said. “She labored all day, and he kind of stopped progressing. I guess … at about 8 o’clock that night, the nurse was checking to see how dilated she was and he grabbed her hand. His hand was above his head and grabbed the nurse and she freaked out. She moved his hand and thought that would helped him progress. At midnight that hadn’t happened. So they decided to do a C-section.

“It’s so hard when you love somebody and you want the best for them, but you’re not in control. Not being in control in the operating room was wearing me out. I just had to keep going back and praying and saying, ‘Lord, I trust you, you’ve brought us this far and whatever good you have for us, I’m going to leave him in your hands.’

“They got (Levi) out and gave him to me, and Ashton was like falling asleep in the middle of it. I couldn’t watch them do the incision, but I watched them sew her back up and that was probably a bad idea. She’s tough, I’ll tell you that much. They found (Levi’s) umbilical cord was around his neck and that’s why he didn’t progress, so it’s a really good thing they did the C-section.

“The next day .. we brought our little girl (18-month-old Elizabeth Kate Bayne) in and she was loving on him and smiling like crazy. Ashton obviously was recovering. This was probably the hardest it’s ever been to leave home to come to the race track. Thursday morning, we left the hospital at 7:30, got home and spent two hours getting them sorted, and I had to leave to fly here. I wanted to stay home. Offseason babies are awesome because you can stay home for a couple of months.

“Everybody is good. Can’t wait to get home to them.’’

Before he does, he has Sunday’s race. Bayne enters this weekend 18th in the points. His best finish is 23rd in two previous races at Sonoma.

Loaded em up and got them all home! Now it gets real! @ashtonbayne lookin good 2 days after birth!

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