Much at stake for teams entering West Coast swing

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Now comes the fun part for NASCAR teams. Or the part they’ll dread.

After a restrictor-plate race and one on a worn 1.5-mile surface, the West Coast swing will give teams a better evaluation of how they’ll compare to the field over the next three weekends at Las Vegas, Phoenix and Fontana, California.

Teams will race at a 1.5-mile track (Las Vegas) that is more on par with other such tracks, a 1-mile track (Phoenix) and a 2-mile track (Fontana) where aero and horsepower are king.

“If you can have a good three-week span, it really kicks off the rest of the season and kind of makes everything flow easier,’’ AJ Allmendinger told NBC Sports. “I’ve been on both sides of it. I’ve been where we’ve had a great three weeks and it feels like it just carries on for the next 15 weeks. I’ve also had it where we’ve had a horrible three weeks and it feels like you’re so far behind before you ever get back home that it just makes the rest of the season an uphill battle.

“So, the West Coast swing is three weeks that are very important to the rest of your season.’’

In the last three years, only four drivers who finished in the top five at either Las Vegas, ISM Raceway (Phoenix) and Auto Club Speedway during the West Coast swing failed to make the playoffs that year.

Also worth noting, eight of the 12 drivers who made it to the championship round in Miami the past three years scored at least a top-three finish at one of those races the year they made it to the title race. Jimmie Johnson, the 2016 champ, won at Auto Club that year. Martin Truex Jr., the 2017 champ, won at Las Vegas last year.

MORE: Kyle Larson fastest on opening day of preseason test at Las Vegas

MORE: Kyle Larson fastest in final day of preseason test at Las Vegas

A new wrinkle for teams this year is that Las Vegas Motor Speedway is the opening race of the playoffs in September. So how much will it make this weekend’s race more meaningful for teams?

“With Las Vegas not only being early in the season but also as the first race of the playoffs, I think lends itself to the belief that if you run well there in the spring that you will run well there in the fall,’’ Brad Keselowski told NBC Sports. “Unfortunately, that’s just not how it works.

“Generally speaking, there’s a number of rules changes and enforcement changes that happen throughout the season that effectively change the performance of the car so dramatically over the course of seven or eight months that it’s unrealistic to think that the same things will work for you that worked in the spring.’’

Another key factor will be the conditions. Early forecasts call for a high of 58 degrees for Sunday’s Cup race. The playoff race will be Sept. 16. Last year, the high was 88 degrees that day. In 2016, It was 90 degree that day.

But that’s not the only change teams will face on the West Coast swing.

ISM Raceway (Phoenix) will move the start/finish line to the just before the dogleg on the backstretch for the November race — the last race to set the four drivers for the championship race in Miami. The move is being done in conjunction with more seats being added to what was Turn 2.

“I don’t know what to expect,’’ Chris Buescher told NBC Sports. “I know how crazy it is now … but when you put it in a restart zone trying to go through the gears in a turn is not going to be easy, making sure it is clean when you try and get the throttle.’’

Kevin Harvick, who has won six of the last 11 Cup races at Phoenix, isn’t fretting the change.

“I’m all about change,’’ he told NBC Sports. “You know, if it’s the start/finish line at Phoenix, or the schedule changes that we have this year, we need more of them. We need to keep it interesting, we need to keep it fresh.’’

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NASCAR America: Better equipment, skilled drivers changed road racing

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The Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway is the first of three road course races on the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series calendar and the preparation involved in setting up these cars is much greater today than it has been in the past, according to NASCAR America analysts Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Dale Jarrett.

“I think the same emphasis is put in those two road course races and the cars that will be in those races,” Earnhardt said. “And now the Roval that will be at Charlotte – being a very important race in the playoffs – these road course racers are even more important.”

Man and machine need to be equal to the challenge.

“Not only is the emphasis more on the drivers to prepare and learn how to become road course racers, but there is a lot more emphasis on the cars too,” Earnhardt said. “All the cars are so much more similar and there is a lot more dedication to preparing the cars for these particular races. It’s almost like there is as much effort into putting a good road course car on the track as there is speedway cars – like Daytona and Talladega cars.”

Even the best driver cannot compete in equipment that is not up to the challenge and it took some outside expertise to raise NASCAR to the level of other marquee road racing series mechanically. Car owners like Jack Roush and road ringers like Boris Said contributed to the evolution of the racing discipline.

“The cars are so much better now than when we started,” Dale Jarrett said. “Whenever I got started in the Cup series fulltime in ’87, there were a couple of good road racers – and I think of Mark Martin, Ricky Rudd, Rusty Wallace … but Jack Roush brought something totally new into the sport a little later in the 80s and early 90s. … Their equipment was a little bit better because they understood road racing a little more. Now everybody has all that.”

Jarrett recalled what he believes might be one of the biggest upsets of his career. He won the pole for the 2001 Global Crossing at the Glen because he received a tip from Said, who told him he was not getting deep enough into the corners because his brakes were not good enough.

“You talk about road course ringers: Boris Said and Ron Fellows and some other guys coming in,” Jarrett said. “One of the things that helped them, they were better because they did it all the time, but they also would tell the teams they were going to drive for, ‘hey, there’s a lot better braking and other things out there that you can do.’ They came in and they had better equipment, which made them look even that much better than what we were.”

For more, watch the video above.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Dale Earnhardt Jr., Dale Jarrett preview upcoming races

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN with Dale Earnhardt Jr. making his weekly appearance on the show.

Krista Voda hosts with Earnhardt and Dale Jarrett from the Big Oak Table in Charlotte.

On today’s show:

· Not long ago, Dale Earnhardt Jr. bragged about his ability to remember who he’s beaten for wins in past races. In this episode, we’ll test his memory in a trivia game called “Who Did Junior Pass For The Win?” We’ll be taking your questions for Junior throughout the show. Just send it on social media with the hashtag #Wednesdale.

· Sonoma begins a critical summer stretch for the Monster Energy Cup Series. With Chicagoland, Daytona, Kentucky and New Hampshire on the horizon, teams will be challenged and playoff hopes will rise and fall. Dale Jr. & Dale Jarrett preview the upcoming races.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. 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.

Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones at Sonoma

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Three Cup drivers will reach career start milestones when the series visits Sonoma Raceway this weekend.

Ryan Newman leads the way with his 600th Cup start.

The Richard Childress Racing driver will become the 28th driver to reach the mark. His first start came on Nov. 5, 2000 at ISM Raceway with Team Penske.

Newman is one of four remaining active Cup drivers, including Matt Kenseth, Kurt Busch and Derrike Cope, who competed against Dale Earnhardt in a Cup points race. Only Newman and Busch compete full-time.

Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin will make his 450th start. He will become the 52nd driver to reach that mark.

Hamlin’s first start came on Oct. 9, 2005 at Kansas Speedway. All of his starts have been with JGR.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. will make his 200th career start. He will be the 132nd driver to reach that mark.

Stenhouse’s first start came in the 2011 Coca-Cola 600 with Wood Brothers Racing when he substituted for Trevor Bayne, who was out due to illness. Every other start has been with Roush Fenway Racing.

The last race at Michigan International Speedway saw AJ Allmendinger make his 350th Cup start. 71 drivers have reached that mark.

How much does starting position matter at Sonoma?

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Do you need to qualify on the pole, the front row or the even the top five to better your chances of winning a NASCAR race?

On a typical race weekend one would think that’s the case. Through 15 races this season, the winner has started in the top five eight times. Only four winners started 10th or worse.

But this isn’t a typical race weekend as the Cup Series heads to Sonoma Raceway for its first road course race of the season.

The series has held 29 races at the road course since 1989. In those 29 races, the winner started from the pole five times (17.2 percent).

That makes it the most prolific starting position at the track in terms of wins.

But a winner hasn’t come from the pole since 2004 when Jeff Gordon did it for a track-best third time.

The driver starting second has won three times, the last occurring in 2010 with Jimmie Johnson. Since that race, only one Sonoma winner – Carl Edwards (fourth) in 2014 – has started in the top five.

In the 13 races since Gordon last won from the pole, the race winner started in the top five three times.

The last three races saw the winner start 11th (Kyle Busch), 10th (Tony Stewart) and 12th (Kevin Harvick).

In contrast, the 14 races from 1992-2005 saw every race winner came from inside the top 10 and 11 from the top five.

What’s changed? Road course racing became much more aggressive with the transition to double fire restarts in 2009. The introduction of stage racing last year added another wrinkle to a type of racing that already saw aggressive pit strategy.

But Sonoma isn’t too kind to drivers starting in the back half of the field.

The deepest in the field that a race winner has started is 32nd, when Juan Pablo Montoya won in 2007. Only one other time has the winner come from outside the top 15, when Kyle Busch started 30th and won in 2008.