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.’’
Chase Elliott — Averages 42.8 points & 12.6 stage points per race
Jimmie Johnson — Averages 21.8 points & 3.6 stage points per race
Dale Earnhardt Jr. — Averages 18.2 points & 2.4 stage points per race
Kasey Kahne — Averages 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 Newman — Averages 24.6 points & 3.8 stage points per race
Austin Dillon — Averages 18.4 points & 1 stage point per race
Paul Menard — Averages 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 Bayne — Averages 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 Bowyer — Averages 28.6 points & 3.6 stage points per race
Kevin Harvick — Averages 27.4 points & 8 stage points per race
Kurt Busch — Averages 23.6 points & 1.6 stage points per race
Danica Patrick — Averages 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 Keselowski — Averages 35.8 points & 11.6 stage points per race
Joey Logano — Averages 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.’’