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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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Team Penske’s appeal hearing to be rescheduled

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Team Penske’s hearing before the National Motorsports Final Appeals Officer, which was to have been held Wednesday night, is being rescheduled by the appeals administrator, NBC Sports has learned.

No new date has been set for the hearing, the final appeal avenue for Team Penske in this matter.

NASCAR suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe for three races and fined him $65,000 and docked Brad Keselowski and Team Penske 35 points each because Keselowski’s car failed the Laser Inspection Station after a fifth-place finish March 19 at Phoenix Raceway.

The team sat Wolfe out at Auto Club Speedway, counting toward one of the three races the penalty called for him to miss, but he was back on the pit box for Martinsville — where Keselowski won — Texas and Bristol as the matter went through the appeals process.

The National Motorsports Appeals Panel upheld NASCAR’s penalty after an April 12 hearing.

A hearing before Final Appeals Officer Bryan Moss was scheduled for 6 p.m. ET today before a need to reschedule arose.

Car owner Roger Penske said after Keselowski’s win at Martinsville that the team was challenging the consistency of NASCAR’s procedures. The team claims that it was permitted only one attempt to pass post-race inspection on the LIS platform while others have gotten multiple attempts previously.

“I think that consistency is really important to me from an officiating perspective,’’ Penske said April 2 at Martinsville. “We’ll have a chance to go and talk about our side of the story. We might get nothing, but I think at least maybe we can make the sport better.”

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Hendrick Motorsports: No timeline for filling Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 ride

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A Hendrick Motorsports executive said Wednesday there is no timetable – or concern – for finding Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s replacement in the No. 88 Chevrolet.

“Obviously it’s an important decision for us, and one we’re going to take our time, and we’re going to find the right person, the right fit for all the factors that go into that,” Hendrick Motorsports general manager Doug Duchardt said during “The Morning Drive” on the SiriusXM NASCAR channel. “We really don’t have a timeline on that. I feel real fortunate in the talent we have around us, and so I feel like we’re going to be in a good spot no matter where we land. We’re going to take our time and make the right decision for that car, the sponsors and the fans.”

In the release announcing Earnhardt’s retirement after the 2017 season, Hendrick said it would “announce plans for 2018 team alignment at a later date.” Asked to elaborate on those plans Tuesday, Hendrick said, “we’ve got a lot of people to consider, meaning (sponsors), and we’ve just been talking to them. Priority one is to get everything prepared, get the day over with, and then we’ll take time to decide what we do there.”

There would seem to be a short list of internal and external candidates depending on the direction that the team chooses with the ride. There also are the options of weighing a long-term deal vs. a one-year stopgap.

It appears that a new driver might have to be accompanied by a new sponsorship deal. Nationwide said it’s re-evaluating its contract with the No. 88 beyond the 2017 season at Hendrick (though it plans to continue the business relationship with Earnhardt), but Duchart said the plan is to run four cars next season regardless.

“I haven’t heard any conversation like that at all,” he said of cutting back to three cars next year. “On the sponsor search side, we’re really happy with the partners we have, and we think they’re happy with us. We’re going to sit down with them and work thought the transition so we’re optimistic about that. I haven’t heard any sort of dialogue like that.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. succeeded in desire to ‘leave some kind of mark’ from Hendrick tenure

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. – In the moments before explaining his retirement from the NASCAR Cup Series, Dale Earnhardt Jr. took a quick stroll through his 18-year career.

Wearing a suit and a striped tie, Earnhardt had to walk by four large portraits depicting high points of Cup career.

Photo by Daniel McFadin

The first two represented his eight full seasons with Dale Earnhardt Inc., the second pair his 10 seasons with Hendrick Motorsports.

First, there was Earnhardt and his father, Dale Earnhardt Sr., smiling after his victory in the 2000 All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Then came a shot of  Earnhardt hoisting the trophy following his emotional Pepsi 400 win at Daytona International Speedway, five months after his father’s death on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

The third portrait, the largest of the four, showed one of his recent wins in a Daytona 500 qualifying race. Next to it, a picture displayed Earnhardt’s joyous celebration of his lone Martinsville win in 2014.

Not pictured was the win Earnhardt believes allowed him to “leave some kind of mark” on the team he joined in 2008: the 2014 Daytona 500.

The moment marked the end of a very long winter for Earnhardt. It was only his third win with Hendrick in seven years and his first outside the state of Michigan since 2006.

“Winning the Daytona 500, I always kind of wanted to leave some kind of mark here,” Earnhardt said. “Jimmie Johnson‘s got them all over the place. He’s marking up this joint left and right.”

“This joint” is the Team Center on the Hendrick Motorsports’ campus, where Earnhardt’s announcement was held.

Photo by Daniel McFadin

As Earnhardt made his remarks, facing him on the opposite side of the room were 16 red, tie-shaped banners. One for each national NASCAR series title Hendrick Motorsports has earned since 1995.

Four belong to Jeff Gordon and the last seven belong to Johnson.

None has Earnhardt’s name.

On the wall to his left was the “Milestone Wins” display.

Under graphics of the outlines of Daytona, Darlington Raceway, Charlotte and Indianapolis Motor Speedway, each win by a Hendrick driver in the Daytona 500, Southern 500, Brickyard 400, Coke 600 and Bank of America 500 is listed.

Photo by Daniel McFadin

Among 47 victories observed, Earnhardt’s only contribution is that Daytona 500 win under the lights, which launched a career resurgence with seven wins in two seasons.

And Earnhardt is OK with that.

“I wanted to leave some kind of mark that somebody would know I was here,” Earnhardt said. “When we won that Daytona 500, that made me feel good about my impression on the company. It’s always fun to win with Rick, because like I said, that’s what he loves the most.”

There’s still 28 races left in Earnhardt’s Cup career. Twenty-eight chances to have fun. Among them are the Coke 600, Brickyard 400, Southern 500 and Bank of America 500.

And a few entries on the “Milestone” wall could lead to a banner on the ceiling.

Eventually, stage hands took down those four pictures.

But Earnhardt’s mark on the wall – and the sport – remain.

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Kevin Harvick addresses how he will know when it is time to retire

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s announcement that he’ll retire from the Cup series at the end of this season has the focus turning to other drivers age 40 and over and when they might leave the sport.

Former champion Kevin Harvick, who is 41, addressed how much longer he’ll race on his show “Happy Hours” Tuesday night on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“I can tell you that I have four more years left on my contact at Stewart-Haas Racing,’’ said Harvick, who signed a contract extension last year with the organization. “To me that would be the time when you sit back and re-evaluate things as to what you do going forward, just for the fact of where is (son) Keelan at in school? It’s very important for us to be involved as parents That’s my main priority to be the father figure in his life and make sure he’s progressing and doing the things he needs to do moving forward. There’s definitely a family aspect of that decision and where we are as a family and how the sport is affecting our life.

“I think from a competition side of things, that’s what drives me. I love the fact of the challenge that comes with, ‘Alright, we’re not running good, what have we go to do to fix things?’ When you’re running good, how do you maintain those things.

“That competition of pulling into that garage every week and looking over at the guy next to you and saying, ‘Man I want to kick that guy’s butt, and I want to run good this week,’ and the motivation of showing up at the shop and being a part of the team — when that goes away that’s probably when I’ll just say adios.’’

Harvick was on the show with wife DeLana and she talked about how their plans have changed over the years.

“The funny thing is when Kevin first started and we got married (in 2001), we both agreed it was going to be 40,’’ she said of when he would retire from racing. “That was our drop-dead date, he was going to retire at 40 no matter what had happened. We passed that.

“When you’re younger, you sort of try to put things into perspective. We never thought we’d be 40 when we were in our 20s. Now we’re here in our 40s. Part of the reason that we waited to have Keelan so much later is that Kevin wanted to be a part of those things. I don’t know if he actually knows that because I ask him all the time with everybody with Jeff, Tony and Carl and now obviously with Dale Jr. I kind of try to poke and prod a little bit and I don’t get very far with him because I’m not sure that it’s something these guys ever really like to think about. That was a question I have for you Kevin when you see your peers starting to do this is it something that becomes more present in your mind, do bad days make it worse or how do you sort of compartmentalize as it comes to your career?’’

Said Harvick: “I think when you look what you think about, I think you’re always thinking about, when do you retire, when is the right time to retire especially when you get into a certain part of your life. I think performance definitely has a lot to do with it.

“As you look at running good or running bad, you look at a situation like (Greg) Biffle had, it all just timed out wrong and he wound up not doing anything this year and out of the car. Dale announcing his retirement. I think when you look at Tony’s situation, there were a number of things that happened that led up to Tony saying I’m done with it, maybe had something to do with in the car, out of the car, but there were some things that led up to that. I think when you looked at Jeff, I think he just said ‘OK I’m going to retire here because of whatever reasons. I think it’s different for everybody.

“When you look at my situation, I’m kind of a late bloomer on the racing side of things because we’ve had so much success over ether last three years at Stewart-Haas Racing, winning a championship That’s the performance that I’ve wanted my whole career. It’s not like we didn’t perform well at RCR, but we didn’t win a championship. We won races, but we’ve done it consistently over the last three years. For me that’s the most fulfilling part of what I do and what I put into my career.’’

Harvick, the 2014 champion, enters this weekend’s Cup race at Richmond International Raceway ninth in the points after his third-place finish on Monday at Bristol.

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