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.
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.’’
Erik Jones — Averages 23.2 points & 3.2 stage points per race
Team President Joe Garrone: “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.’’
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 wildcard 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.’’
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
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.’’
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.’’
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 race tracks. 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.’’
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 race track, 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.’’
With NASCAR’s excursion to the West Coast done, and the first five races run, Cup teams can begin to take what they’ve learned and apply it for upcoming races.
This opening five-race stretch can prove vital in helping a team throughout the rest of the year. Teams often say that with so little turnaround time for cars before races at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Auto Club Speedway on consecutive weekends those cars have to be prepared well in advance.
NBC Sports talked to the those who oversee the competition departments for NASCAR’s top Cup teams to have them assess their strengths and areas of improvements based on the opening five races.
Thursday, NBC Sports will have what those team officials said they’ll be focused on in this next five-race stretch, which features three short tracks, a repaved (and reconfigured )1.5-mile track and a restrictor-plate track.
CHIP GANASSI RACING
Consider this: Had Kyle Larson not run out of fuel on the final lap of the Daytona 500 and not been impatient on the final restart at Phoenix, he could have won three of the season’s first five races. Larson’s car has been among the fastest this season. Teammate Jamie McMurray also has shown a lot of speed, giving this organization something to be excited about.
It’s a marked change from the start of last year when Larson had three finishes of 26th or worse in the first five races, and McMurray had four finishes of 16th or worse in the same stretch.
This year, Larson has finished second or better in each of the last four races. McMurray has three top-10 finishes in the last four races.
Wins: 1 (Kyle Larson at Auto Club Speedway)
Key Fact: Kyle Larson ranked first in restart speed in each of the last two races, Phoenix and Auto Club, and ranked third in that category at Las Vegas and fourth at Atlanta, according to NASCAR’s Loop Data.
Team Manager Tony Lunders: “We’ve had the chance to test our stuff and our car’s ability and our team’s ability and happily have been pretty pleased with that so far.
“We’d still like to improve our restrictor-plate stuff. I think we took a pretty big step from last year’s performance at Daytona and Talladega. Jamie’s car was good enough to win but got in a wreck there. Kyle, obviously, was leading with a lap to go and ran out of fuel. We’d like to see a little bit of a step forward there come Talladega.
“I would say our pit crews have come together and have stepped up over the last few weeks as well, and they’re rolling. It’s hard to point to (a weakness) right now, it sounds maybe arrogant, but our stuff has been running pretty good at each of these tracks that we’ve seen.
“I look at last year’s performance at about this time of the year, we were struggling. The group has been doing its own chassis here for as long as the place has been around. We took that as one of the main components. You have a hundred items or whatever that is. We went to work on all of them from brakes to fuel systems. You name it, we dove into every component of the car and tried to figure out what can we improve on it.
“On the chassis, we had room on it like everything else. At this level it’s all small gains. Probably the difference maker is when you can polish the details out.’’
It’s not easy to add a team to what had been a single-car operation and continue to perform as well as the team did last year.
Also, the team overcame an issue with its templates that caused them to not build their cars correctly, something that was a factor at Daytona. Even with having to redo cars that were built, this team maintained the speed it has had.
Wins: 1 (Martin Truex Jr. at Las Vegas)
Key Fact: Martin Truex Jr. has led 225 laps this season, second only to Kevin Harvick, who has led 342 laps.
Team President Joe Garrone: “I think now that we have these races behind us, we can clearly see we have speed in the 77 car(Jones) and certainly the 78 (Truex) at least on the tracks we’ve been on.
“As far as the growth that we went through in the offseason leading into this year, everything went really well right up to Daytona and we kind of had a snafu coming out of the shop with our template grids, which was a disaster because we had several cars already built and we had to come back and basically start over. When you go through something like that, it was pretty intense, there were a lot of hours spent by the guys at the shop. In some ways, it really rallied the guys together. We hired close to 40 people (with adding the second team) and everybody dug down and got in the trenches and got ourselves bailed out.
“Now that the dust has kind of settled and we’re through that, I think we’re better for that. I don’t want to ever go though something like that, but I really liked what I saw as far as how the guys handled it in the shop to recover and it really brought everybody together.
“The important thing is through all that is that the cars have speed. We expected that with Martin. We didn’t know what to expect with Erik. He should have had top 10s in all these races had we not had issues on pit road and other areas.
“Right now the weakest point is our pit stops and that’s not just the pit crew, it’s a little bit of working with Erik on getting in and out of the pits, optimizing pit road. I think he would tell you that one of the differences between Xfinity and Cup, everything is on kill in Cup, there’s nowhere to relax. You have to come down pit road right on the brink of speeding, you have to get in your box right on the point of sliding out of it. Everything has got to be perfect or you lose a massive amount of track position.
“The stops, we’re working on getting them better like you would expect with a new team. We’re going to have some ups and downs for sure. The key is keeping speed in the cars, and we have got speeds in the cars, so we’re happy with that.’’
Other than Chase Elliott (63 stage points), the Hendrick drivers have not fared well in the stages. Jimmie Johnson (18 points), Dale Earnhardt Jr. (12) and Kasey Kahne (zero) all rank outside the top 10 in stage points. Johnson is 11th and Earnhardt is 14th. That’s an area that has gained the attention of Hendrick Motorsports.
Best Finish: Chase Elliott, 3rd at Las Vegas
Key Fact: Chase Elliott is the only driver to rank in the top five in green-flag speed at Atlanta (third), Las Vegas (fourth), Phoenix (fourth) and Auto Club (third), according to NASCAR’s Loop Data.
General Manager Doug Duchardt: “The 24 team (of Elliott) has done a really good job … been very competitive, led laps, been a factor basically in about every race that we’ve run. So very happy with that.
“I would say that our engines have shown well between Chase and Kyle Larson (Chip Ganassi Racing gets its engines from Hendrick Motorsports). I feel like our engine shop has responded well through the beginning of this year and have been competitive.
“I think that we have shown overall decent speed. Chase has run well. (Johnson’s) team obviously hasn’t had the finishes that we wanted. I feel like at Atlanta they had a top-five car. At Vegas, they kind of got behind in strategy there on that second stage. In Phoenix, they were running top five and the way things ended we ended up (ninth). This weekend obviously was not what we wanted (21st at Auto Club). I think up to this weekend, I thought they were, obviously not as strong as the 24, but were pretty good.
“I think that (Kahne’s) team had started strong. In the past two weekends, we didn’t finish where we wanted, but the car was running better than that. I try to look at the pace of the car vs. where it finished. Where were they running? For instance at California, Kasey was ninth until the next-to-last restart and got split up and fell back to 18th in one lap. You try to look at it more how did it go through the weekend. Did they seem like they had speed? Then it’s to minimizing your mistakes mechanically and on pit road, pit road speeding and pit stops and things like that. I think that the 5 team has had a good start and would like to see them bounce back here after a couple of rough finishes.
“I think that Dale and Greg (Ives) are showing signs of the car getting better. I think they’re going in the right direction. Overall I think the company, we’re good relative to the competition, but obviously we’re going to have to continue to work and make the next step as far as speed in the cars.
“I think we need to qualify better as a group. We typically have some pretty decent long-run speed, sometimes our short-run speed isn’t where we want it, it’s track to track and tires and things like that, but I think just in general we need to qualify better to put us in position to get points in that first stage.’’
JOE GIBBS RACING
Expectations are high at Joe Gibbs Racing, which had won 26 of the last 67 races (38.8 percent) entering this season. While not winning a race in the first five isn’t the end of the world, it is a shock considering how dominant this team has been the past two years.
Best Finish: Matt Kenseth, 3rd at Atlanta & Kyle Busch, 3rd at Phoenix.
Key Fact: Joe Gibbs Racing has scored its first win of the year by the sixth race of the season the past nine years. Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway marks the sixth race of this season.
Senior Vice President of Racing Operations Jimmy Makar: “We have a great driver lineup. We’ve got drivers very capable of running up front and competing for wins and even with Daniel (Suarez) coming onboard, I like his learning curve, the way he’s approaching races. He’s not getting over his head. He’s coming up with some good finishes. He’s improving from the beginning of races to the end of races. He’s just kind of quietly and methodically doing well. That makes you feel good about our driver lineup.
“I still feel like our pit crews, the way they’ve been performing, they’ve kept us in the hunt and in good shape.
“Obviously, we didn’t start off as strong as we thought we were going to be. I guess this package has hindered us more than we thought compared to other teams. We’re a little disappointed in that. We’ve had to go to work.
“Atlanta kind of gave us the first glimpse of it. We’ve improved on all of our races since then, I feel good about that, that’s a positive. We’ve been getting better week in and week out and we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve gotten in contention to win a few of these races here toward the end of the race. That has been a good thing. I still feel like we’re still a little behind the eight-ball on the way our cars drive compared to the field. I think we’ve got some work to do there.’’
“If you just look at it, it would make sense that the next reduction (in downforce), we should be able to still be on the top of our game. We’ve actually been talking about that a little bit.
“It may be something, I’m not saying this is it, but it could be something like our competitors, everybody has strong points and weak points, whether its chassis or setup or aerodynamic advantages that they have found depending on where they have worked the hardest at. It could be that our advantage has been our aero department and with our guys working very hard at that and we’ve put a lot of emphasis on that and maybe a little less emphasis on some of the other areas. Now that we’re taking this much downforce away, the difference between our competitors and ourselves have gotten so narrow, we can’t overcome some of our other issues that we may be behind on if that makes sense to you. I’m not saying that is it. That is a different way of looking at it, why this time we seem to be struggling a little bit more than last year obviously.’’
RICHARD CHILDRESS RACING
Crew chief Luke Lambert’s gamble not to pit put Ryan Newman in position to win at Phoenix and give Richard Childress Racing its first Cup win since Nov. 2013. That was important for an organization with a history of success.
Now, the work is to be the car that is dominant and wins the race because it is the best. That’s the next step for this team.
Wins: 1 (Ryan Newman at Phoenix)
Key Fact: The team’s average starting spot among its three drivers is 16.5 with only three top-10 starts.
Director of Competition Dr. Eric Warren: “It’s a little bit of a mixed bag I would call it. We started out, I thought we were competitive in the race for sure at Daytona, we made some mistakes there. We ran out of fuel there with the 3 (Austin Dillon). A lot of people did there. We pitted the last time ahead of the 41 and had a chance to probably put more fuel in it than we did. Felt like we were competitive there.
“Went to Atlanta and qualified great with the 3 and 31 (Newman) and really had a lot of speed. Really the 3 was passing the 2 there and 31 was good. Atlanta is a low-grip track, the first time with the aero package, I thought OK, we’ve really got a good start here, got a good baseline. Been struggling with the 27 (Paul Menard), getting some performance and getting that group to get something to build off of, I think that’s a concern that we’ve got to keep working on with Paul and the 27.
“Phoenix, Vegas, you get to the West Coast swing, starting out with Vegas, we had two tire issues with Austin that were just punctures, no overcamber, no issue. We thought at Vegas we didn’t quite have the speed in practice and qualifying that we had in Atlanta, so we were trying to understand what was different between the cars, what was different between the setups. Was Atlanta the fluke? Or was Vegas the fluke where we didn’t quite have our package together?
“I think, overall, looking as a whole, clearly the areo package has forced us to kind of change some of our mechanical setups. A lot of things we were doing toward the end of last year setup-wise are not working as much as we would like them to.
“It takes a couple of races to understand that. We’ve had a bunch of mechanical issues honestly. Alternators burned up basically at Atlanta on the two cars running in the top five. Had the issues of tires on the 3 and also Newman was kind of sixth to 10th the whole race at Vegas, had a right rear flat at the very end. Go to Phoenix, Newman ran fifth, sixth-place car the whole race. Fortunate to make the right call and won the race, which was really good for us as a company.’’
ROUSH FENWAY RACING
The struggles at Roush Fenway Racing have been well chronicled for an organization that has not won the past two seasons and downsized from three cars to two cars for this season. Roush has made many changes in the last year, including internally. Work remains, but there are signs of progress.
Key Fact: The organization’s average finish through the first five races this season is 18.0. Last year, the team’s average finish through the first five races was 21.4.
Competition Director Kevin Kidd: “So far reasonably happy with the improvement we’ve seen in the company as a whole. Obviously, a tremendous amount of room for improvement over the last couple of years. Very targeted areas that we went to work on, pit crews, aerodynamics, some of our race execution, engines, strategy and everything else. We’ve had those areas that were selected and targeted as areas of improvement, and I think we’ve moved the needle in all of them. We’re happy that we’ve been able to do that.
“We’re certainly better right now at the Atlanta, Fontana style tracks where the tire wear is high. We seem to have pretty good long-run pace and that’s suited our needs at the moment. We ran OK at Vegas. I think it doesn’t suit us quite as well. All in all, fairly pleased with where we’re at, but pleased in regard of the fact that we’ve made progress. We’re certainly not satisfied with where we’re at. We’ve got a long ways still to go.’’
“We’re not bashful at going out and being aggressive at fixing problems, whether that is a problem with the race car or a problem with how we’re structured here internally with how we go about our business. We’re turning over a bunch of rocks and trying to fix problems. At the same time, we’re trying to just build a better culture, and in doing that, we’ve had to sort of accept the longview mentality where we know the problems that we have are large problems and that they are going to take a lot of time to fix. We want to be aggressive and get those problems fixed as quickly as we can.’’
Stewart-Haas Racing started the year by scoring its first Daytona 500 win and seemed on pace to open the year with back-to-back wins before Kevin Harvick lost the lead because of a speeding penalty late at Atlanta.
Harvick has shown speed throughout the first five races but it has been sporadic for his teammates. Remember, this is a team that switched from Chevrolet to Ford in the offseason and that still has had an impact.
Key Fact: Last weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway marked the first time this year that SHR had a driver other than Kevin Harvick ranked in the top five in green flag speed in a race. Clint Bowyer ranked fourth in that category at Auto Club, according to NASCAR’s Loop Data.
Vice President of Competition Greg Zipadelli:“Honestly, I think as a group everybody is working well together, and with the crackdown from a body perspective and templates, where they’re trying to move, it has been a real moving target for us, especially for us building new cars, trying to learn these cars. Honestly, I feel like we’re pretty scattered right now, that’s just being very honest with you.
“I think our group has done a good job. The improvements standpoint, a lot of it is the tools and things behind the scenes that I would say the group has worked really hard on and done a really good job on getting things moving forward. Until we really got to Daytona it was hard to really pinpoint what was going to happen at the racetrack.
“There’s two things. We’ve switched from Chevrolet to Ford, so we’re learning many of the little details with the Ford body. We’re still learning that. Then NASCAR, we’ve all asked them to treat people fair and rein things in and they’ve been working on that. This weekend at Martinsville there are some new tolerances and some templates. From Daytona to Martinsville they’ve been slowly going that way. When you’re moving, you’re changing everything that is done. You’re learning and re-learning. For our group that doesn’t have years of experience at building the car, every time we go back we somewhat start over. I don’t feel like we have a great baseline at building these cars. We’re still working on our Texas cars right now. We’re literally building them because I feel like we’re behind.’’
This organization has been fast. Both Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas) and Joey Logano (Phoenix) have won a pole. Keselowski has made it to the final round in each of the first five races. Also, Penske driver Ryan Blaney, who drives for the Wood Brothers, a satellite team, has two top-five qualifying efforts, showing that his team also has speed.
Wins: 1 (Brad Keselowski at Atlanta)
Key Fact: Team Penske led 102 laps last year through the first five races of the season. This year, the team has led 226 laps.
Competition Director Travis Geisler:“I think strength-wise I would say our general speed has been very good. It’s been good to have Joey and Brad both have a pole, the 21 car (Blaney) hasqualified fairly well. In the races, it seems we’re able to run a fairly competitive position on track and maintain competitive lap times.
“I think the biggest weaknesses is just in execution, attention to detail and execution of the event. We’ve had more penalties than we should have had. We’ve had some issues on pit road that we need to clean up. We had a part failure at Vegas that cost us a win.
“I think we’re realizing how important it is to continue to stack up those (stage) points throughout the day. Like Brad did this weekend, he finished second but we still lost points to everybody we’re around. The 78, the 24 and especially the 42, they all were at the front of the stages and they ended up putting up a bunch of points between you. That’s a tough situation, but it’s the reality of it, and I think we’re all realizing that you have to be good all day long. You can’t just finish well. That’s a change of mindset.’’
NASCAR.com reported that the Appeals Commission confirmed the team had withdrawn its request for an appeal.
That means crew chief Rodney Childers will serve his one-race suspension this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. The team has not stated who will fill in for Childers.
NASCAR penalized the team for a track bar slider assembly that was not approved. The infraction was discovered after the Phoenix race. NASCAR docked Harvick and the team 10 points each, suspended Childers one race and fined him $25,000. NASCAR also ruled that Harvick’s finish was encumbered.
Harvick explained on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” Tuesday night what the issue was.
“Basically, we got in trouble for a part that was drawn a certain way and didn’t appear that way on the car,” Harvick said. “The way NASCAR works now is you submit drawings for pretty much every part on the car and it has to meet those specifications and that part didn’t.”
No big deal that Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing both haven’t won a Cup race yet?
Maybe, but consider this — the last time both teams had yet to win by the season’s fifth race was 1994. That’s before Hendrick Motorsports driver Chase Elliott was born, before Jeff Gordon had won his first championship and two years after Richard Petty’s final race.
While this season celebrates five different winners in the first five races, including Stewart-Haas Racing’s first Daytona 500 triumph and Richard Childress Racing’s first Cup win since Nov. 2013, it also notes what hasn’t been done with Hendrick and Gibbs failing to reach Victory Lane.
Of course, that likely will change Sunday at Martinsville Speedway. Hendrick and Gibbs have combined to win 80 percent of the last 30 races (See Chart at right) at the historic half-mile track, dating back to 2002. Hendrick Motorsports has 16 wins during that time, including last fall with Jimmie Johnson.
Executives from both organizations told NBC Sports this week that they’re not fretting about their starts to the season.
“I don’t sense any extra pressure,’’ said Doug Duchardt, general manager at Hendrick Motorsports. “There’s no meeting saying we’ve got to win or anything like that.’’
Said Jimmy Makar, senior vice president of racing operations at Joe Gibbs Racing: “I don’t put a timestamp on it, we’ve got to win by our fifth or sixth race. I feel like that we need to be competitiveweek in and week out and then we tweak from there. I know our guys are capable of winning.’’
Duchardt notes the speed Chase Elliott’s car has had this year as a sign of the potential for each Hendrick team. While questions have been raised about Jimmie Johnson’s start to the season, Duchardt sees the matter differently.
“The 48 team obviously hasn’t had the finishes that we wanted,’’ Duchardt said. “Other than this past weekend (21st at Auto Club Speedway), I feel like at Atlanta they had a top-five car. At Vegas, they did, kind of got behind in strategy there on that one second stage. In Phoenix, they were running top five and the way things ended we ended up (ninth). This weekend obviously was not what we wanted. I think up to this weekend, I thought they were, obviously not as strong as (Elliott), but were pretty good.’’
Duchardt said one area he’s looking for improvement is in qualifying, feeling that has hindered some of the teams in scoring stage points. Elliott has 63 stage points, while Johnson has 18, Dale Earnhardt Jr. 12 and Kasey Kahne has yet to score a stage point this season.
“Overall I think the company, we’re good relative to the competition, but obviously we’re going to have to continue to work and make the next step as far as speed in the cars,’’ Duchardt said.
Joe Gibbs Racing entered this season having won 26 of the previous 67 races (38.8 percent), but its Toyota ally, Furniture Row Racing, has made it to Victory Lane first this season with Martin Truex Jr.
“Obviously, we didn’t start off as strong as we thought we were going to be,’’ Makar said. “I guess this package has hindered us more than we thought compared to other teams. We’re a little disappointed in that.
“We’ve had to go to work. Atlanta kind of gave us the first glimpse of it. We’ve improved on all of our races since then. I feel good about that. That’s a positive that we’ve been getting better week in and week out, and we’ve gotten to the point where we’ve gotten in contention to win a few of these races. I still feel like we’re still a little behind the eight-ball on the way our cars driver compared to the field.’’