Friday the 5th NASCAR Cup teams look for answers in.com2Frest2Fdownload2FimageID3D22605654

Friday the 5th: NASCAR Cup teams look for answers in Las Vegas

Last year's winningest Cup driver has no idea what awaits him this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

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

In the 36 Cup races since he took the checkered flag in Las Vegas last March, Byron has won a series-record seven times – including this year's Daytona 500. But even he isn't sure what awaits him on Sunday, since Ford and Toyota have new bodies this season.

What happened at Daytona and Atlanta in the last two weeks doesn't translate, as the special package for superspeedway racing curbs horsepower and keeps the cars close together.

This weekend is the first opportunity 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 performs compared to the competition.

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

“I just want to know where we stand in the game,” Jones said. “What we need to work on.”

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

This weekend will begin by answering some questions, such as which organizations still have work to do and which are taking the lead. Last year, Hendrick Motorsports, led by Byron, finished the spring race in Las Vegas with a one-two finish.

This weekend is important for another reason: Las Vegas is a 1.5-mile track and these 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 these races almost a month apart, teams have time to learn lessons from the previous event.

The 1.5-mile routes also play an important role in the playoffs. Three of the last seven playoff races took place on such tracks. Both Las Vegas and Homestead are in the third round. A win there for a driver still in title contention will take him to the championship finale in Phoenix.

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Last year, Fords struggled on 1.5-mile tracks for part of the season, leading fewer than 30 laps on such tracks four times. Ford's only win on a draft-free 1.5-mile track was Ryan Blaney's victory in the 600cc race.

Toyotas had the fastest speed on 1.5-mile tracks, won the pole in the last four events at those tracks and scored three victories. Christopher Bell won the Homestead playoff race last year and reached the title race in Phoenix.

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

“Nobody really knows what they have right now,” Daniel Suarez’s crew chief Matt Swiderski said after Suarez’s victory last week in Atlanta. “So we've spent a lot of time working on this on the simulator, but until we get some real data, I think we'll all figure it out together in Round 1.”

Crew chief Chris Gabehart, who led Denny Hamlin to victory in Kansas last May, is excited to see how the Toyotas respond on the track.

“Did we go into 2024 thinking we were going to make the car worse? No,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “But can there be unforeseen consequences? We certainly experienced a few of those at Daytona. We didn't expect that we would qualify so poorly.

“But when you put it all together and look at it with the beauty of hindsight, it's like, 'Okay, I could see that maybe we need to work on this now.' So we could easily see something like that in Las Vegas. It's difficult to say.”

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Teams will receive answers soon.

But more questions still remain unanswered.

Las Vegas is the second part of a four-track circuit that will host playoff races later this year. The route began last week in Atlanta and travels to Las Vegas, Phoenix (where a new short track and road course package is being introduced) and Bristol.

Atlanta will host its first playoff race on September 8th. Bristol is the cutoff race in the first round on September 21st. Las Vegas is the opening race in the third round on October 20th. Phoenix will decide the championship on November 10th.

“The next three tracks are all important playoff tracks,” Byron crew chief Rudy Fugle told NBC Sports. “You really want to see where everyone stands and what improvements we made as a company in the offseason.”

2. Challenge from “teammates”

Hendrick Motorsports has been and remains the dominant Chevrolet team for years, but some Chevrolet teams have increased their performance in the next-gen era.

Daniel Suarez's win in Atlanta last weekend was the seventh for Trackhouse Racing since the launch of the next-gen car in 2022.

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This is the first time this season that NASCAR teams will be competing on an intermediate track.

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

Having more than one organization win consistently is a change for Chevrolet.

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

RCR had four wins from 2017-21. Chip Ganassi Racing won eight victories during this time. Trackhouse Racing acquired the two charters from Chip Ganassi Racing in June 2021. Ganassi left NASCAR after that season.

How does the improved performance of Trackhouse and Richard Childress Racing impact Hendrick?

“I think it's pretty similar to how we look at our four teams within our walls,” Jeff Gordon, vice chairman of Hendrick Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “Those are the ones we hope we have to beat. That's a good task on Monday, talking about one of them who won and how the other three helped and shared information. … I think it's the same with the other major Chevy partner teams.

“If we work together, we should strengthen the overall brand and success of the sport and give ourselves more chances to win.”

William Byron's Daytona 500 victory was the first for Hendrick Motorsports at the event since 2014. Richard Childress Racing's Kyle Busch leads the points after two races. With his victory in Atlanta, Suarez secured victory in the first two Cup races for Chevrolet.

“We congratulated Trackhouse (to Atlanta) and Trackhouse congratulated us from Daytona,” Gordon said. “Although we all try to win and want to win ourselves, at the same time we are happy for them when they do because it makes Chevrolet happy.” We see Chevrolet's commitment. Their increased involvement has been significant in racing and NASCAR.”

3. Change of pit crew

Last weekend's race in 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 Jackman in the Daytona 500. During that race, Busch had to return to the pits after a stop because the left front tire was unsafe. The car was thrown off the jack – the driver's signal to move – before the left front tire had been tightened.

Garrett Crall served as Jackman last weekend in Atlanta and is on the team's roster for this weekend's race in Las Vegas.

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Busch said last weekend that the team had been looking for pit crew reinforcements in the offseason, but noted the challenges presented by Richard Childress Racing's location in Welcome, North Carolina – about an hour from the area Charlotte and where many of the teams are based.

“We tried to fill a few other positions in the offseason, and some of the talent that we were looking for, that we were talking to and that we were making offers to, they turned them down and went somewhere else,” Busch said. “We just had what we had and we worked at it.

“It's tough out there. It's really hard to recruit and get people. Especially where RCR is based and where they are located. It's a long drive to pit stop practice, sometimes three or four times a week, whatever it may be.

“I know (pit trainer Ray Wright) and all the people there in the pit crew department work super hard. Believe me, they've heard it – not from me, but from Richard (Childress), week after week. Their ears are bleeding, but I know they are trying and that they are working hard.”

Crew chief Randall Burnett said last weekend that Crall had shown “a lot of promise” and was given the opportunity with Busch's team in Atlanta.

“You have to get people together and see if they fit together and see how things go,” Burnett told NBC Sports after the race in Atlanta. “We thought (Atlanta) would probably be a little safer to bring him here and try him out and just see how things went.”

4. Gain trust

Todd Gilliland led a series-record 74 laps in the first two races, but has already had accidents and sits 30th in the points standings.

Despite the setback in results, the Front Row Motorsports driver isn't neglecting what the start of the season – and the position at the top – has meant to him.

“As a younger guy still trying to find his way and make a name for himself, racing against the best of the best gives me a huge confidence boost,” said 23-year-old Gilliland, who is in his third Cup season.

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“I think I can do it and expect myself to do well in these positions, but you never know what other people or the industry will think of you when you're up there, so that's it for me so.” It was really great and I just have to remember these experiences.

“This is a sport with great self-confidence. For example, if we get out in Las Vegas, I have to have a lot of confidence that my car can get around that location almost completely from Lap 1, so that definitely carries over, even if it doesn't translate as much to the results on track arrives.”

Gilliland said it's very different running up front than running in the middle.

“I think the guys at the front leave the field very quickly and all the cars are doing pretty well for the most part,” he said. “And then you get back into the pack and everyone is pushing each other in groups of four and everyone is getting out of control. It's definitely more fun at the front. For me that was Atlanta. Once I was back in the pack, things got pretty out of control. It’s just nice to be at the front.”

5. Move forward

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

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

One way he and his team measure their progress is to divide the season (after the Daytona 500) into what he calls seven “mini-seasons” of five races each. The team measures, among other things, the average position, the laps led and the laps completed.

“If you hit those five-race mini-season markers, everyone in the shop gets a bonus,” LaJoie said. “Even the (Spire Motorsports) truck team gets a bonus if the Cup team gets there.

“So we introduced that last year and it made the season a lot more tangible. You know it's going to be long and tiring, but it allows you to restart and attack each race segment with attention and some achievable goals.

“I think we achieved two out of seven goals last year and came up a little short on two others. So if we can hit all of these little mini-seasonal benchmarks, then that should position us at the very edge of the discussion, right? from the outside looking in to show us the path to the playoffs.”