Friday 5: NASCAR Cup teams looking for answers in Las Vegas

The winningest Cup driver over the last year has no idea what to expect this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Hopefully, our car drives well and we can lead most of the race like we did last year,” William Byron said, “but there’s definitely a lot to see how it unfolds.”

In the 36 Cup races since he took the checkered flag last March at Las Vegas, Byron has won a series-high seven times — including this year’s Daytona 500. But even he is unsure what to expect Sunday because Ford and Toyota have new car bodies this season.

What happened at Daytona and Atlanta the past two weeks doesn’t carry over because of the special package for superspeedway racing that chokes horsepower and keeps cars close together.

This weekend will be the first chance to see how much Ford and Toyota have improved their bodies. Byron and the rest of the Chevrolet camp will find out how well their same Camaro ZL1 body from last year compares to the competition.

Erik Jones, whose Legacy Motor Club team switched from Chevrolet to Toyota before this season, said he is intrigued to see how his team measures against the rest of the field.

“I just want to know where we stack up in the game,” Jones said. “What we got to work on.”

AUTO: FEB 25 NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400
AUTO: FEB 25 NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400

Good news, bad news for NASCAR Cup teams heading to Las Vegas

Atlanta provided a dramatic finish along with plenty of good and bad for teams.

This weekend will start to answer some questions, such as which organizations have work to do and which ones are the leaders. Last year, Hendrick Motorsports, led by Byron, finished 1-2-3 in the spring Las Vegas race.

This weekend also is important for another reason: Las Vegas is a 1.5-mile track and those tracks will play a key role in the season.

Four of the next 12 points races are at 1.5-mile tracks: Las Vegas (Sunday), Texas (April 14), Kansas (May 5) and the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway (May 26).

With those races spaced nearly a month apart, it gives teams time to apply lessons from the previous event.

The 1.5-mile tracks also have a significant role in the playoffs. Three of the last seven playoff races are at such tracks. Both Las Vegas and Homestead are in the third round. A victory there for a driver still in title contention will move them to the championship finale at Phoenix.

Last year, Fords struggled on 1.5-mile tracks for part of the season, leading fewer than 30 laps four times at such venues. Ford’s only win at a 1.5-mile non-drafting track was Ryan Blaney’s victory in the 600.

Toyotas had the most speed at 1.5-mile tracks, winning the pole for the last four events at those tracks and scoring three wins. Christopher Bell won the Homestead playoff race last year to reach the title race at Phoenix.

That’s all history. Crew chiefs have been focused on finding the best setups for this weekend.

"Right now, nobody really knows what they have,” said Matt Swiderski, crew chief for Daniel Suarez, after Suarez’s win last week at Atlanta. “So we've been spending a lot of time on the simulator working through it, but until we get some real-life data, we'll all find out together on Lap 1, I guess.”

Crew chief Chris Gabehart, who led Denny Hamlin to a win at Kansas last May, is curious to see how the Toyotas react on track.

“Did we go into 2024 thinking we were making the car worse? No,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “But are there some unforeseen consequences … that may come? Certainly we came into a couple of them at Daytona. We didn’t expect to qualify that bad.

“But when you stack everything up and you look at it with the beauty of hindsight, it’s like ‘OK, I could see that maybe we need to work on this now.’ So, easily we could see something like that in Vegas. It’s hard to say.”

Teams will get answers soon.

But more questions remain.

Las Vegas is the second of a four-race stretch of tracks that will host playoff races later this year. The stretch began last week at Atlanta and goes to Las Vegas, Phoenix (which debuts a new package for short tracks and road courses) and Bristol.

Atlanta will host the opening playoff race, Sept. 8. Bristol is the cutoff race in the first round on Sept. 21. Las Vegas is the opening race in the third round on Oct. 20. Phoenix will determine the championship Nov. 10.

“The next three tracks are all important playoff tracks,” Rudy Fugle, crew chief for Byron, told NBC Sports. “You’re really looking to see where everybody stacks up, to see what improvements we’ve made as a company over the offseason.”

2. Challenge from “teammates”

Hendrick Motorsports has been the dominant Chevrolet team for years and remains so, but a couple of Chevrolet teams have raised their performance in the Next Gen era.

Daniel Suarez’s victory last weekend at Atlanta was the seventh for Trackhouse Racing since the Next Gen car debuted in 2022.

AUTO: MAR 05 NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube
AUTO: MAR 05 NASCAR Cup Series Pennzoil 400 presented by Jiffy Lube

NASCAR’s weekend schedule for Las Vegas

NASCAR teams take on an intermediate track for the first time this season.

Trackhouse Racing is tied with Richard Childress Racing for wins in that period. Hendrick Motorsports leads the Chevy contingent with 22 victories in the Next Gen era.

To have more than one organization winning regularly is a change for Chevrolet.

After Stewart-Haas Racing left Chevrolet for Ford in 2017, RCR and Chip Ganassi Racing were the next level Chevrolet teams to Hendrick on the track.

RCR had four wins from 2017-21. Chip Ganassi Racing had eight wins during that time. Trackhouse Racing purchased Chip Ganassi Racing’s two charters in June 2021. Ganassi left NASCAR after that season.

So how does the improved performance by Trackhouse and Richard Childress Racing impact Hendrick?

“I think it’s fairly similar to how we look at our four teams within our walls,” Jeff Gordon, vice chairman at Hendrick Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “Those are the ones that we hope that we’re having to beat. That’s a good problem to have on Monday, is talk about one of them that won and how the other three helped and shared information. … I think it’s the same way with the other key partner Chevy teams.

“If we’re working together, then we should be elevating the whole brand and all of success within the sport and give us more opportunity to win.”

William Byron’s Daytona 500 victory marked the first for Hendrick Motorsports in that event since 2014. Richard Childress Racing’s Kyle Busch leads the points after two races. Suarez gave Chevrolet a sweep of the first two Cup races with his Atlanta win.

“We were congratulating Trackhouse (after Atlanta) and Trackhouse was congratulating us from Daytona,” Gordon said. “Even though we’re all trying to go win and we want to win ourselves, selfishly, but at the same time, we’re happy for them when they get it done because it makes Chevrolet happy. We see Chevrolet’s commitment. Their increased commitment has been significant in racing and NASCAR.”

3. Pit crew change

Last weekend’s race at Atlanta saw the first pit crew change of the season for a Cup team.

Kyle Busch’s Richard Childress Racing team opened the season with Josh Sobecki as the jackman in the Daytona 500. During that race, Busch had to return to the pits after a stop because the left front tire was not secure. The car was dropped from the jack — the driver’s signal to go — before the left front tire had been tightened.

Garrett Crall served as the jackman last weekend at Atlanta and is listed on the team’s roster for this weekend’s race at Las Vegas.

NASCAR Xfinity Series  Ag-Pro 300 - Qualifying
NASCAR Xfinity Series Ag-Pro 300 - Qualifying

Friday 5: Richard Childress isn’t ready to quit and here’s why

This season marks 30 years since RCR won its last Cup title.

Busch said last weekend that the team had been looking to add pit crew members in the offseason but noted the challenges with Richard Childress Racing’s location in Welcome, North Carolina — about an hour from the Charlotte area and where many of the teams are based.

“We were trying to redo a few different positions over the offseason, and some of the talent we were scouting, talking to and giving offers to, they declined them and went somewhere else,” Busch said. “We kind of just had what we had, and we’ve been working through that.

“It’s tough out there. It’s really hard to recruit and get guys. Especially with where RCR is based and where they’re at. It’s a long drive to get up to Welcome to pit-stop practice sometimes three and four times a week, whatever it might be.

“I know that (pit coach Ray Wright) and all the guys there in the pit crew department are working super hard. Trust me, they’ve heard it – not from me, but from Richard (Childress), week in and week out. Their ears are bleeding, but I know they’re trying and I know they’re working hard.”

Crew chief Randall Burnett said last weekend that Crall had showed “a lot of promise” and was given the chance with Busch’s team at Atlanta.

“You got to put people together and see if they mesh and see how things go,” Burnett told NBC Sports after the Atlanta race. “We figured (Atlanta) was probably a little safer bet to put him in here and try him out and just see how things went.”

4. Gaining confidence

Todd Gilliland has led a series-high 74 laps in the first two races but he’s been collected in accidents and is 30th in points.

Despite the setback on results, the Front Row Motorsports driver doesn’t discount what the start of the season — and running up front — has meant for him.

"As still a youngerish guy that is still trying to find my way and make a name for myself, racing against the best of the best is just a huge confidence booster for myself,” said the 23-year-old Gilliland, who is in his third Cup season.

AUTO: FEB 25 NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400
AUTO: FEB 25 NASCAR Cup Series Ambetter Health 400

Ryan Blaney leads NASCAR Power Rankings after Atlanta

NASCAR started its season with consecutive superspeedway races.

“I think I can do it and expect myself to be able to run well in those positions, but you never know what the other guys or the industry is going to think of yourself when you’re up there, so, for me, it’s been really awesome and just have to put those experiences in the memory bank.

“This is a huge confidence sport. Like when we unload at Vegas, I’m gonna need to be very confident in my car to go almost wide-open around that place from Lap 1, so it definitely carries over and even if it’s not so much as the on-track results.”

Gilliland said it is much different running at the front compared to the middle of the pack.

“I think at the front of the pack the guys just get single-filed out really quickly and everyone’s cars are driving fairly good for the most part,” he said. “And then you get back in the pack and everyone is putting each other four-wide and everyone is out of control. It’s definitely more fun up front. For me, that was Atlanta. As soon as I got back in the pack it was fairly out of control. It’s just nice to be up front.”

5. Moving forward

Corey LaJoie enters this weekend’s race 12th in points after finishing fourth in the Daytona 500 and placing 13th last weekend at Atlanta.

Making the playoffs for the first time is a goal for LaJoie, who went from 31st in points in 2023 to 25th last season at Spire Motorsports.

One of the ways he and his team measure their progress is by dividing the season (after the Daytona 500) into seven five-race “mini seasons” as he calls it. The team measures, among other categories, average finish, laps led and laps completed.

“If you hit those markers for the five-race mini season, then everybody in the shop gets a bonus,” LaJoie said. “Even the (Spire Motorsports) Truck team gets a bonus if the Cup team hits it.

“So, we introduced that last year and it made the season much more palpable. You know it gets long and grueling, but it allows you to reset and kind of attack each race segment with attention and some attainable goals.

“I think we hit two out of the seven last year and came up a little short on two more, so if we can hit all those little mini-season benchmarks then that should put us up in the conversation as right on the fringe, right on the outside looking in of pointing our way in the playoffs.”