Bump & Run: How concerned should Joe Gibbs Racing be with its start to season?

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Many say that the NASCAR season actually begins with the second race of the year because that race has the rules package that will be used throughout most of the season.

Atlanta certainly provided much to discuss.

Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte, who both will be on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in answering this week’s Bump & Run questions.

1. Joe Gibbs Racing did not have a car finish in the top 15 in the Daytona 500. Matt Kenseth placed third at Atlanta, the only Gibbs driver in the top 15. How concerned should Joe Gibbs Racing be with the way the season has started?

JEFF BURTON: I think very. Daytona doesn’t concern me because they all ran well. Atlanta concerns me because they didn’t show the speed and the pace that you’ve come to expect from them. I would be concerned. I think Vegas is really important. You can make the argument that there is no other track like Atlanta, it’s rough, the asphalt is worn out, the grip level is way low, the majority of mile-and-a-halves aren’t like that. If they go to Vegas and perform the way they performed at Atlanta, than that concern grows even more.

STEVE LETARTE: From a competition standpoint, we’ve really only run one race. Daytona is kind of a standalone. I thought Joe Gibbs and TRD had speed down there. Just didn’t work out between the accidents and the pit strategy. There are a lot of things they probably would go back and do differently, but I don’t think it would bring different cars. I think they had OK vehicles. They just didn’t execute.

When you look at Atlanta, Matt Kenseth had a little bit of speed, but Kyle Busch was a non-factor. I don’t think they’ve slowed down as much as everybody has caught up. RCR showed speed. Roush Fenway showed speed. Obviously, Stewart-Haas Racing had speed. I don’t think there is reason for concern, but I think that they kind of have what they have through the West Coast swing. Coming home from the West Coast, if they struggle to put cars in the top five, then I think at that point they will need to re-evaluate.

NATE RYAN: From an image/marketing standpoint, perhaps slightly concerned. The team is racing the 2018 Camry, which is on the racetrack six months ahead of being available in dealership showrooms. This was a major deal for Toyota Motor Corp., which trotted out the race car alongside the new street model in a heavily promoted appearance at the Detroit Auto Show in January. If the new model badly struggles through the first half of the Cup season, it might dampen the crossover potential and synergy with its production counterpart.

From a competition perspective, the team shouldn’t be too worried. In getting NASCAR approval, the new Camry hit its downforce targets on the first try. It’s too early to panic, but if things don’t go well at Las Vegas …

DUSTIN LONG: I would be. If you look back to late last season, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth combined to lead four laps in the last three races at 1.5-mile tracks (Atlanta this year and Miami and Texas last year). It was evident in last year’s playoffs that the Gibbs cars were not as dominant as they had been in the regular season and that trend appears to be continuing. The next three races (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Auto Club Speedway) should be very telling for JGR.

2. Kevin Harvick has scored 47 stage points. Only 12 drivers have scored as many or more total points than that. How important are stage points going to be this year?

JEFF BURTON: It’s going to be huge. The teams are starting to realize. Kevin Harvick is giving them the blueprint of how you perform during the race, it can really help you. To me, they are the case study. He hasn’t won a race yet but he has three playoff points because of that. Brad Keselowski has five playoff points and he’s got a win. Wins are still much more important, there’s no doubt about it, but how you run the race is going to impact the year a great deal.

Remember, you’re adding up these points all year long to determine how you seed the playoffs. In the first two races without a win, Kevin Harvick and his team have shown that leading laps and putting yourself in the right position is going to be really, really important. For those people who want every race to matter, that want the best drivers to accumulate points through the entire year, what we’re seeing is exactly what the idea was — to reward the teams that are running the best.

STEVE LETARTE: I think that Kevin Harvick is purely putting the blueprint on how valuable stages can be. If you compare him with seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson, who has only three stage points, you’re talking basically a race difference. There are a lot of playoff points that are being awarded that Jimmie Johnson isn’t getting. I think these stage points are going to be more valuable than anybody gives them credit for.

NATE RYAN: This is a good indicator that stage points will have a significant impact, which is a good thing. Harvick and crew chief Rodney Childers compete at the maximum output on every lap, and it’s encouraging to see the excellence rewarded despite disappointing results in the final stages of the first two races.

DUSTIN LONG: Stage performances will be significant. Kevin Harvick’s three stage wins gives him three playoff points. Atlanta winner Brad Keselowski has five playoff points for his win. So by dominating in the middle of the race, Harvick is being rewarded and it could play a role in how far he goes in the playoffs. You never know when those points will come in handy as the season progresses.

3. What stood out to you about the first race with the lower downforce package?

JEFF BURTON: There’s still work to be done. I believe that this is a difficult thing to work with. The call for lower downforce has merit to it, but it’s more complicated than just say take downforce off the cars. There has to be a continued evolution, and I know there is, of the aero side vs. mechanical grip side of these race cars. I did not see on Sunday any advantage given to the car that is behind another car. Matter of fact, I was a little surprised when someone would poke up right behind another guy and they didn’t really affect the car they were trying to affect.

In the past, if you could get to the rear bumper of another guy, you could take the air off his spoiler and get him up the race track and mess him up. I didn’t see a lot of that Sunday. Ultimately, a downforce/grip combination has got to provide the guy that is following someone else some kind of an advantage in some kind of way.

When you go to a track that has really low grip and you’re already sliding around, maybe there is not that opportunity versus when you go to a track with more grip. I think this weekend at Vegas will be really interesting to watch how all that works, a track that still doesn’t have tons of grip but more than Atlanta. It will be interesting to see how that plays out this weekend.

STEVE LETARTE: Atlanta is a very difficult place to measure low downforce just because the surface is unique to racing at the Cup level. But I saw a lot of drivers out of control, which I think is good. I’m a fan, the drivers are the superstars of the sport. It’s no longer the cars. I want to see the stars perform. I want to see golfers play on the most difficult golf courses, and I want to see drivers drive in the most difficult circumstances. That’s what I saw.

I saw drivers that really struggled, even Kevin Harvick dominating the race didn’t look like he was out for a Sunday drive. I saw him fighting his vehicle, which is what I want to see. I think Las Vegas, with a little more grip, fast speeds through an entire run, will be a little bit better test to see how the competitors race around one another but there was nothing negative that I saw in Atlanta.

NATE RYAN: I still can’t get over how short the spoiler is, and a photo shared on social media triggered a wave of feedback that told me fans are awed by it as well.

DUSTIN LONG: It does take getting used to seeing such a short spoiler. It was entertaining to see the drivers battle their cars. What often is difficult for drivers can be entertaining for fans. Atlanta presents some unique challenges that drivers and teams aren’t going to face at other 1.5-mile tracks. I’m curious to see how this plays out at Las Vegas, Texas and Kansas in the coming weeks.

Watch Jeff Burton and Steve Letarte on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 6:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN.