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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.


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.’’


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.’’


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.’’


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.’’


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.’’


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.’’


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.’’


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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Trevor Bayne on Charlotte Roval: ‘You have to be on your game’

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Rain washed out the second day of Goodyear tire testing Wednesday on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval. Goodyear has tentatively scheduled May 1 as a make-up test date.

Trevor Bayne, Kyle Busch, Paul Menard and Kyle Larson took part in the test Tuesday.

“I just took some slow pace laps and got a feel for the race track,” Bayne said in a statement from Charlotte Motor Speedway. “I was nervous, but I wasn’t anxious because I was never going to go out there and make qualifying laps. We worked our pace in and our plan, we stuck to it. I felt really good by the end of the day.

“You have to be on your game, that’s for sure. You can’t really let your guard down anywhere. There’s no room to make mistakes. If you make a mistake, you’re going to pay for it pretty quickly. If you try to do something and it doesn’t work, you’ll pay the price. It’s going to be a survival race. … If you’re smart, you take care of your car and you don’t make mistakes, you’ll have a really good shot at the end for a good finish. I enjoyed it. It was a challenge for me – something new – and I enjoyed that part of it.”

Organizational tests at Charlotte will be in July. There will be two different sessions. Each team is allowed to test at one of the two sessions, which will be July 10 (rain date of July 11) and July 17 (rain date of July 18).

The Charlotte Roval hosts the final race of the first round of the Cup playoffs on Sept. 30 on NBC.

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NASCAR issues two fines for unsecured lug nuts at Auto Club Speedway

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NASCAR announced two crew chief fines for unsecured lug nuts last weekend at Auto Club Speedway.

Adam Stevens, crew chief on Kyle Busch‘s No. 18 Toyota, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Xfinity Series, Eric Phillips, the crew chief for Ryan Preece‘s No. 18 Toyota, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

No other penalties were announced.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Drivers to watch, favorite sports upsets

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and begins to look forward to this weekend’s racing at Martinsville Speedway.

Marty Snider hosts with Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan from the “Big Oak Table” in Charlotte.

What to expect from today’s show.

  • The same names have been dominating the headlines in the first five races in the 2018 season. We will take a look at some of the other drivers to be on the lookout for as the season rolls on.
  • One of NASCAR’s most historic tracks is up this weekend – Martinsville! We’ll check out some of the recent drama “The Paperclip” has provided ahead of the race.
  • In the spirit of March Madness, our panel will tell us about their most memorable sports moments, as well as some of NASCAR’s biggest upsets.
  • Plus, The Indianapolis 500 will have a new home in 2019. We’ll have all the details on NASCAR America.

If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

New year, new teams bring improvement for Matt Tifft, Brandon Jones

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It took until March 9 for Matt Tifft to realize it wasn’t 2017 anymore.

During a press conference at ISM Raceway, Tifft was not introduced as the driver of the No. 19 Toyota owned by Joe Gibbs Racing.

That honor went to the driver sitting to his left – Brandon Jones.

“I was like, ‘Oh wait, that’s not me,’” Tifft said that day.

On race days in the Xfinity Series, Tifft now pilots Richard Childress Racing’s No. 2 Chevrolet.

The end of the 2017 season and resulting offseason saw arguably the silliest of “Silly Seasons” in recent NASCAR history.

Drivers retired, got promotions, were forced to unceremoniously retire and in a few cases, swapped teams.

The last option was the case for Tifft and Jones.

Brandon Jones during the Xfinity race weekend at ISM Raceway (Getty Images).


Things did not go well last year for either driver.

Specifically Jones.

The 21-year-old driver calls his last 33 races with RCR “bizarre” and “confusing.”

It started with Jones on the pole for the season-opener at Daytona.

It ended with Jones 16th in the standings (he was 10th in 2016). He recorded no top fives, three top 10s and seven DNFs.

“It was definitely rough time, man,” Jones says. “It was just confusing because we had guys on the team and stuff that were top-of-the line guys and we put this team together and we were honestly having so much fun as a team that it almost took away from having bad luck and bad runs and stuff.”


“I had everything possible except for a blown motor that could have gone wrong,” Jones says. “It was just bizarre. Couldn’t ever catch a break. We kind of put that behind ourselves this year. Wanted to try and start fresh whenever I made the move to JGR.”


In the middle of 2017, Tifft had a conversation with Ben Kennedy, then one of the drivers rotating in and out of RCR’s No. 2 car.

Kennedy brought up his crew chief, Randall Burnett.

“I just lean on this guy because he’s got to much experience,” Kennedy said. Burnett was in his first season as an Xfinity crew chief. In 2016, he was crew chief for AJ Allmendinger in Cup after 10 years as a Chip Ganassi Racing engineer.

“That was way before I knew I was going to RCR,” Tifft told NBC Sports.

Matt Tifft drives the No. 2 Dollar Shave Club Chevrolet  at ISM Raceway on March 9. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)

In October, the 21-year-old driver was announced as moving to RCR after one full-time season with JGR.

While his rotating cast of teammates won 12 of 33 races in 2017, Tifft came up empty. He earned just two top fives, at Mid-Ohio and Road America, and 13 top 10s.

Even without a win Tifft made the playoffs, where he placed in the top 10 in seven of the eight races. But was eliminated after the second round.

“I felt like we were competitive in the playoffs. That’s the time there I felt like we were starting to get there. But it took that long,” Tifft says. “I think I just had a hard time putting the races together and dealing with pressure and the ups and downs. I don’t think I knew exactly how to handle it. I think part of it was I didn’t know how to prepare for it, too.”

Tifft eventually found himself eating lunch at “one of the few restaurants” in Welcome, North Carolina, where RCR is headquartered.

With him was Burnett, who he had found out that day would be his crew chief in 2018.

“I felt like there was just a really good connection there as far as personalities and where he was at,” Tifft says. “This deal is so stressful that you’ve got to be able to have that trust in a relationship with your crew chief. Jimmie Johnson talks about it all the time. It really is a relationship. You’ve got to have that.”

Early on Tifft established a clear understanding with his car chief, Cam Strader.

“He said straight up, ‘Hey, we’re going to bust our tails to make sure that we’re bringing the best stuff for you but you make sure you focus on what you need to do, not only from a driver side of things, but also from a promotional side of things.,’” Tifft says. “If we’re out doing events and stuff and I can’t be at the shop that one day they understand because I want to make it clear to them if I’m not in the shop I’m doing something that’s productive for our race team.”

Blake Koch has a new role as a mentor to Matt Tifft. (Photo by Robert Laberge/Getty Images)


Tifft is keeping his side of the deal with Strader.

Where race preparation was a weakness last season, Tifft isn’t just relying on resources provided by RCR to improve.

He’s getting a little help from “the hardest working” guy he knows in the garage – Blake Koch.

While Tifft and Jones landed safely during “Silly Season,” Koch found himself without a ride at the end of 2017, replaced at Kaulig Racing by Ryan Truex.

Now, through a mutual connection who manages drivers, he’s Tifft’s unofficial driver coach.

“It wasn’t like I was in a dire situation where I needed somebody like that,” Tifft says. “But I was just thinking back to when you start racing in go karts and late models and all that stuff, there’s usually a strong mentor piece or someone that’s looking out for you. I felt like I was going to have a very strong foundation there this year at RCR with having (Daniel) Hemric as a teammate and whoever’s rotating through the 3 car is going to be really strong I felt like. Anything I could do to try to step up my game and keep on accelerating that learning curve to where I can make our organization better by being a better teammate, just trying to give the best effort I could.”

Koch, who has 213 Xfinity starts since 2009, helps Tifft with his workouts, weekend prep and debriefs him after the race weekend.

“He’s very particular about every single thing I’m doing,” Tifft says. “From first lap on practice to coming up to speed in qualifying, your lines and techniques. … I think a lot of the fundamental stuff that you can improve on as a driver was something I felt I needed to get better at last year and I felt like I made that jump in the playoffs.”

Koch is even picky about “garage flow,” an effort to declutter Tifft’s mind at a track

“When you show up to a race track and you get in your car you shouldn’t have to wonder how the heck you get on the race track,” Koch says. “When you get to the race track, the only thing you should have to think about is hitting your marks and running in a perfect line and focusing on your task at hand, not the other small details that are just cluttering your mind.”

What’s been Koch’s emphasis through the first few weeks of their partnership?

Tifft points to being more efficient in passing.

For Koch, it’s all about restarts

“That was the main thing we focused on going into the year, let’s be the best at restarts,” Koch says. “I think five races in he’s had better restarts than he had in the entire year last year and that’s pretty important in our series right now with the stages, with track position being so important. I would say that’s the No. 1 improvement.”

Brandon Jones drives the No.19 Juniper Toyota, during the NASCAR Xfinity Series DC Solar 200 at ISM Raceway on March 10. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)


There’s not that much different in terms of resources when it comes to teams like RCR and JGR.

But Jones has found there’s a difference in how they’re used.

No more so than when it comes to simulator time.

Every Tuesday, he and teammate Christopher Bell spend the day in Toyota Racing Development’s simulator. Bell takes the morning shift and Jones takes over in the afternoon.

“We’re there and talking to each other and bouncing stuff off each other, what’s working and what didn’t,” Jones says. “That’s been a really big help for me this year. There were times last year where I was able to run a little bit on the simulator, but it wasn’t every single week and it wasn’t a set date. That’s been one of the things that’s been really cool about going to Toyota this year is just having a set date for their simulator every single week.”

Also, there’s data. So much data. The information proved to Jones that simply having better cars wasn’t the only reason the field was left chasing JGR the last few years.

“I think they were available to me at RCR, either I didn’t know to ask for it was they didn’t cram it down my throat kind of deal,” says Jones. “I get everything possible I can for a driver.”

Some of that info comes straight from the mouths of JGR’s Cup drivers.

“Even when it comes to talking to Kyle Busch or one of those guys on how they do pit stops, ‘Man, I do it way differently, but your way is more effective, so I’m going to work on doing it that way.’” Jones says. “It’s hard to know how to do all that stuff without ever being taught it. At the end of the day, some of it’s pretty obvious when they show it to you, but you would have never thought of doing stuff like that without seeing it.”


Whether it’s data, equipment or luck, Tifft and Jones’ first five races of 2018 are a marked improvement from last year.

Following Saturday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Jones has two top 10s and he’s finished outside the top 15 once.

Last year, he didn’t have a top 10 until race 13. He’s also catching breaks he didn’t in 2017.

At Atlanta, he cut a tire and brushed the wall, but narrowly avoided being rammed by cars as he dove to pit road. He finished 17th.

At Phoenix, Jones “saw my life flash before my eyes” when he avoided a lapped car on the backstretch that didn’t have power steering. He placed 11th.

In Fontana, after a harmless spin in practice, he kept from wrecking with Kaz Grala at the checkered flag. He finished 13th.

“Just about everywhere we were pretty quick,” Jones says. “We’re very close. I think by the end of the year, we’re going to be very, very close if not right there with them. … We’ve got the long-run speed figured out. It’s more just trying to figure out how to get short-run speed out of me and how to qualify just a little better.”

Tifft has seen improvement every week. After finishing 19th at Daytona, he had finishes of 12th, 11th, seventh and then eighth in Fontana after starting 20th.

His first consecutive top 10s last year weren’t until races 11 and 12.

Even though they’ve swapped teams, Tifft doesn’t see Jones as his head-to-head competition, at least not yet.

“To be focused on one car and beating them is kind of stupid unless you’re in the Dash 4 Cash or the playoffs,” Tifft says. “It’s too early in the year to say we need to go out and beat the 19 car. You’d just drive yourself crazy for no reason.”

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