Friday 5: Is Hendrick Motorsports’ recent run overshadowing a weakness?


Hendrick Motorsports’ domination the past three weeks has been impressive, but it comes with an important caveat.

All three wins were at tracks that are not in the playoffs.

In a season where teams will transition to a new car next year and the focus on playoff tracks has evolved, the question is what does Hendrick’s streak mean?

The recent run is reminiscent of the team’s dominating days.

Kyle Busch, who finished third in the Coca-Cola 600, said after that race: “On a one to 10 (scale), if Larson was a 10 tonight, we’re about a seven, so we’ve got some work to do.”

It’s a matter of how much they have to do.

“As close the cars are … you’ve just got to be a little bit better and you look like a hero,” Travis Geisler, competition director for Team Penske, told NBC Sports.

Todd Berrier, technical director at Joe Gibbs Racing, told NBC Sports: “Racing is a game of advantages, and we have to work a little bit more.”

But that’s the thing. How much and in what areas?

Geisler notes the results from the 600 can’t be discounted even though the Charlotte oval won’t host a playoff race.

“This kind of speed carries over to a lot of different tracks,” he said.

But will it carry over to enough such tracks? Only three of the 10 playoff tracks are 1.5-mile speedways: Las Vegas, Kansas and Texas.

There are more tracks 1 mile or less in the playoffs: Martinsville, Richmond, Bristol and Phoenix, site of the championship race.

James Small, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said that after Truex finished 10th in the season finale at Phoenix last year, he spent the offseason working on ways to be better there.

The result was that Truex won at Phoenix this year. All three of his wins this season have come at tracks that will host playoff races — Darlington (playoff opener), Martinsville (sets field for championship race) and Phoenix (title race).

Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers, meanwhile, combined to lead less than 1% of the 1,105 laps run at Darlington, Martinsville and Phoenix this year.

Larson finished second to Truex at Darlington and Elliott was second to Truex at Martinsville. Hendrick isn’t too far behind, but it is evident the organization has work to do at those tracks, which feature the lower downforce package.

Hendrick Motorsports did win earlier this year at Richmond. Alex Bowman led the final 10 laps to win. Joe Gibbs Racing drivers led 315 of the 400 laps in that race before finishing second, fourth, fifth and eighth. Hendrick had only one other driver finish in the top 10 in that race. William Byron was seventh.

Penske’s Geisler said that every team has to be careful about focusing too narrowly on playoff tracks because all races pay playoff points.

“Certainly stacking points right now matters,” he said. “So you don’t want to just give that away.”

Larson has the most playoff points with 19. Truex has 18.

For as good as Hendrick has been lately, it’s still three months until the playoffs begin. While there won’t be practice at most events, there’s still the chance for others to improve during the summer.

Just like last season.

Elliott won twice in the first 31 races a year ago and then won three of the last five races, including the finale in Phoenix, to claim his first title. Kevin Harvick, who won seven of the 26 races in the regular season and scored two more victories in the first round of the playoffs, failed to advance to the championship race.

“You see it a lot, the team that’s the best throughout the regular season isn’t the team that always is the best throughout the playoffs and wins the championship,” Larson said. “I think we all know that at Hendrick Motorsports, and I think that’s why we continue to not settle with where we’re at.”

2. Help for young athletes 

Three-time Cup champion Tony Stewart often said how there was no manual to prepare a young driver for what they would experience at the sport’s highest level, particularly dealing with media. It’s something that some athletes would say about their sport.

The issue became magnified this week when Naomi Osaka, the world No. 2 tennis player, withdrew from the French Open, citing mental health concerns.

The 23-year-old, who is the reigning Australian Open and U.S. Open champion, stated before the French Open that she would not attend press conferences during the event. She sought to avoid what she viewed as a potentially unhealthy situation.

Osaka was fined $15,000 because she skipped a media session after her first-round win at the French Open. She decided to withdraw from the tournament.

In her explanation, Osaka noted that she had suffered “long bouts of depression” since her U.S. Open championship in 2018, and “I have had a really hard time coping with that. Anyone that knows me knows I’m introverted, and anyone that has seen me at the tournaments will notice that I’m often wearing headphones as that helps dull my social anxiety.”

Bubba Wallace, who has talked openly about struggles with depression, said he understands Osaka’s feelings.

“Any profession you do, you grow up and practice how to play tennis, you grow up and practice how to race cars,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “Everything else falls into place, talking in front of media, talking in front of crowds, being a public speaker. None of that is practiced. … I can totally relate to what she’s saying. It’s tough for anybody.

NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Texas Grand Prix Practice
Bubba Wallace says he relates to Naomi Osaka’s comments on feeling anxiety talking with the press and says ‘showing your signs of what you’re going through is not a sign of weakness.” (Photo by Carmen Mandato/23XI Racing via Getty Images)

“It may come more natural for (some) people, but at the end of the day, it’s still tough. It’s something that we’re not comfortable with just because we didn’t practice or learn it growing up.

“It just happens, ‘Oh by the way you need to talk to people after you make your qualifying run here.’ ‘Uh, OK.’ I can see where the anxiety builds up. You say one wrong thing, people lash out at you. It definitely puts you in a bad mindset. Definitely can relate on all levels there. Introvert, extrovert. It’s still a tough task to, I guess, be good at or just be comfortable with.”

In May 2019, Wallace gave an emotional interview where he said he was on the “verge of breaking down.” 

Wallace said then of his negative mindset: “I’ll be damned if it doesn’t all go away when you get behind the wheel. I guess it’s just 16 years of driving helps. But it’s tough. You see what you get now, I’m on the verge of breaking down.”

Seven-time Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton said Thursday that there needs to be more support for young athletes in dealing with media duties.

“When I was young, I was thrown into the pit and I wasn’t given any guidance or support,” Hamilton said ahead of Sunday’s Azerbaijan Grand Prix. “And what I do know is that, you know, when youngsters are coming in, they’re facing the same thing as I did. And I don’t necessarily know if that’s the best for them. I think we need to be supporting more, and I think it shouldn’t be a case where you’re pressured.

“For example, with Naomi’s scenario, she didn’t feel comfortable for her own personal health not to do something. And the backlash is ridiculous.”

Wallace said that Osaka speaking up is powerful, just as it was for Wallace when he’s talked about his struggles.

“Showing your signs of what you’re going through is not a sign of weakness,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “It’s actually very powerful and encouraging others to speak out and to be strong about what they feel.”

3. Tough challenge

Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway (4 p.m. ET on FS1) marks the first Cup race there since 2019. That year marked the return of teams running the Carousel. Teams had the high downforce package that season. Sunday’s race will feature the low downforce package. Also, there’s no practice or qualifying this weekend.

So how will Martin Truex Jr., who has won the past two Sonoma races, prepare with all those changes?

“Not really a whole lot you can do,” he said. “I went and ran the Toyota simulator (Tuesday) for a bit just to kind of re-acclimate myself to the track. Hopefully that gave us a bit of an indication of what the low downforce will be like. Really, that’s about all you can do. We were able to win there years ago and, obviously, it’s a little bit different now. The low downforce package we ran really well there in ’17 and felt like we were in position to win the race and lost an engine. We’ve got some good notes to go off and everything else. We’ll just have to see.”

The Carousel adds another challenge for drivers. The section of track goes down from Turn 4 through Turns 5 and 6 before leading into the course’s longest straightaway and the Turn 7 hairpin.

“I think it’s just a really awkward corner, and it doesn’t feel like a corner a race car should be going through,” Cole Custer said. “It’s really tight, really downhill, off camber. 

“It’s just a really tough corner, and it’s something that you never go through there and feel like you did it right. It never feels natural, so it’s one of those things you just kind of have to hit your marks and make sure you don’t overdo it through there.”

4. Best road course racers

Via Racing Insights, here is a look at the active drivers with the best average finish in road course races:

9.21 – Chase Elliott

12.98 – Kevin Harvick

13.54 – Joey Logano

13.57 – Ryan Blaney

14.15 – Martin Truex Jr.

14.27 – Brad Keselowski

14.41 – Kurt Busch

14.42 – Erik Jones

15.33 – Kyle Busch

15.57 – AJ Allmendinger

15.71 – Alex Bowman

15.91 – Denny Hamlin

16.06 – Kyle Larson

16.60 – Ryan Newman

17.10 – William Byron

5. “Taking the Lead”

Dave Alpern, president of Joe Gibbs Racing, can add author to his title.

Taking the Lead: Winning Business Principles that Fuel Joe Gibbs Racing” debuts June 8.

The book is more than just about business principles, detailing how Alpern rose from intern to an executive at the company with good friend J.D. Gibbs, one of Joe Gibbs’ sons. Alpern also shares stories of J.D. Gibbs, Joe Gibbs and others.

Alpern said he was motivated to write the book after his father died before finishing his own book. His father was in the CIA.

“He really kind of deprived our family of this amazing story we never got to hear,” Alpern said. “So 10 years ago, I told my wife, my story is not as interesting as my dad’s, but I’m going to write a book because I want my boys and future generations to hear this story about Joe Gibbs Racing and how I started as an intern and all that stuff.”

Alpern is donating his proceeds to the J.D. Gibbs Legacy Fund. J.D. Gibbs died Jan. 11, 2019 from complications following a long battle with a degenerative neurological disease. He was 49.

COTA Truck race results: Zane Smith wins


Reigning series champion Zane Smith won Saturday’s Craftsman Truck Series race at Circuit of the Americas for the second year in a row.

The victory is Smith’s second of this year.

MORE: COTA Truck race results

MORE: Truck points after COTA

Kyle Busch finished second and was followed by Ty Majeski, Tyler Ankrum and Ross Chastain.

The key moment came when Parker Kligerman‘s truck came to a stop on the frontstretch at Lap 28. Smith, running second, made it to pit road before it was closed. Busch, who was leading, had already passed pit road entrance.

Smith gained the lead with the move, while Busch had to pit under the caution and restarted 16th. Smith was able to build a lead and beat Busch by 5.4 seconds.

Stage 1 winner: Christian Eckes

Stage 2 winner: Kyle Busch

Who had a good race: Ty Majeski’s third-place finish is his best of the season. … Tyler Ankrum’s fourth-place finish is his best of the year. … Corey Heim has finished sixth two races in a row. … Rookie Nick Sanchez finished seventh, giving him back-to-back top 10s.

Who had a bad race: Parker Kligerman was running third when electrical issues forced him to stop on track just after the end of the second stage. … After winning the first stage, Christian Eckes had mechanical issues and had to pit for repairs, costing him several laps.

Notable: Front Row Motorsports has won the Truck COTA race all three years. Todd Gilliland won the race in 2021 and Zane Smith has won it the past two years.

Next: The series races April 1 at Texas Motor Speedway (4:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

NASCAR Craftsman Truck Series XPEL 225
COTA winner Zane Smith’s truck catches fire after he did his burnout on the frontstretch. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

COTA Cup starting lineup


Hendrick Motorsports driver William Byron, who has won two of the first five races of the season, will lead the Cup field to the green flag Sunday at Circuit of the Americas.

Byron will be joined on the front row of the starting lineup by Tyler Reddick, the only driver to win multiple races at road courses last year.

MORE: COTA Cup starting lineup

Austin Cindric starts third and is joined in the second row by Jordan Taylor, who is filling in for the injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 Hendrick car.

Taylor’s performance is the best qualifying effort by a driver making their Cup debut since Boris Said started second in his Cup debut at Watkins Glen in 1999.

William Byron wins Cup pole at COTA


William Byron will start on the pole for Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas.

Byron won the pole with a lap of 93.882 mph around the 3.41-mile road course Saturday. He becomes the first Cup driver to win a pole at four different road courses: Charlotte Roval (2019), Road America (2021), Indianapolis road course (2021) and COTA (2023).

MORE: COTA Cup starting lineup

Byron will be joined on the front row by Tyler Reddick, who had posted the fastest lap in Friday’s practice and fastest lap in the opening round of qualifying Saturday. Reddick qualified at 93.783 mph.

Austin Cindric (93.459 mph) qualified third. Former IMSA champion Jordan Taylor, substituting for an injured Chase Elliott in the No. 9 car for Hendrick Motorsports, qualified fourth with a lap of 93.174 mph. AJ Allmendinger (93.067) will start fifth.

Taylor’s performance is the best qualifying effort by a driver making their Cup debut since Boris Said started second in his Cup debut at Watkins Glen in 1999.

Ross Chastain, who won this event a year ago, qualified 12th. Former world champion Kimi Raikkonen qualified 22nd, former world champion Jenson Button qualified 24th, seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson qualified 31st and IndyCar driver Conor Daly qualified 35th.

Sunday Cup race at Circuit of the Americas: Start time, TV info, weather


Is this Toyota’s weekend?

Chevrolet won the first four races of the season. Ford won last weekend with Joey Logano at Atlanta. Is it Toyota’s turn to win its first Cup race of the season? Or does Chevrolet return to dominance?

Chevrolet drivers have won 11 of the past 12 Cup races on road courses. The exception was Christopher Bell‘s win for Toyota at the Charlotte Roval in last year’s playoffs. Chevrolets have won the two previous Cup races at COTA: Chase Elliott in 2021 and Ross Chastain in 2022.

Details for Sunday’s Cup race at Circuit of the Americas

(All times Eastern)

START: Brendan Hunt, who plays Coach Beard in “Ted Lasso” on Apple TV+, will give the command to start engines at 3:38 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled to wave at 3:49 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at 12:30 p.m. … Drivers meeting at 2:45 p.m. … Driver introductions at 3:05 p.m. … Invocation will be given by Sage Steele, ESPN broadcaster, at 3:30 p.m. … Jaime Camil, actor from “Schmigadoon” on Apple TV+, will perform the national anthem at 3:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 68 laps (231.88 miles) on the 3.41-mile, 20-turn road course.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 15. Stage 2 ends at Lap 30.

TV/RADIO: Fox will broadcast the race at 3:30 p.m. Pre-race coverage begins at 2 p.m. on FS1 and moves to Fox at 3 p.m. … Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage begins at 2:30 p.m. and will also stream at; SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the PRN broadcast.


FORECAST: Weather Underground – Mostly cloudy with a high of 80 degrees and a 2% chance of rain at the start of the race.

STARTING LINEUP: COTA Cup starting lineup

LAST YEAR: Ross Chastain scored his first career Cup win in a physical battle with AJ Allmendinger on the final lap. Alex Bowman finished second. Christopher Bell placed third.


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