Cup title contenders looking ahead to Playoffs

Rusty Jarrett/NKP/Motorsport Images

Cup title contenders looking ahead to Playoffs


Cup title contenders looking ahead to Playoffs


William Byron just wants to make his race car go — and not just go, but go fast consistently.

In recent weeks, the Hendrick Motorsports driver has been frustrated by the lack of results for his No. 24 team and the downturn in performance. Byron has not had a top-10 finish since Sonoma Raceway, and last weekend at Pocono Raceway he overstepped and spun the car in practice, and while he kept the car off the wall, the team still needed to make repairs which sent Byron to rear for the race.

“We just have to figure out how to make the car go as a group,” Byron said. “That’s my feedback, that’s adjustments, that’s everything. We’ve got to figure out how to make it go and right now, we’re struggling to make it go. [New Hampshire] in practice, we did have a good practice, so it’s not been all that way [every week]. Trying to make it consistently go faster is the goal.”

Asked whether it’s been a speed or a balance issue, Byron said, “I don’t know. It seems like we can have one or the other, but we haven’t put together – most of the time – put together something that we can be consistent with. So we’re trying to figure that out and give good feedback and get ourselves in a good place.”

Byron and his team’s focus over the final weeks of the regular season is clear, but it’s different for everyone.

Those without a win are just trying to find a way to qualify for the Playoffs. Those with a win, like Byron, are looking at the bigger picture of what they need to clean up before the championship hunt begins.

For Byron’s teammate and defending Cup Series champion Kyle Larson, the work never stops. He isn’t necessarily looking at the car or on-track performance, however.

“The main area — and I feel like you see it with other teams — but pit stops are really important this year,” Larson said. “I feel like that’s been an area we’ve struggled some, and that’s not a knock on [the pit crew]. They won us a championship last year. I’m not knocking on them at all.

“For whatever reason, these pit stops are different this year, and there are some teams that are really, really fast. I feel like a lot of times we have a car capable of winning, but then we just have to call a race a certain way or whatnot to try and play it safe. That stands out to me the most. Overall, I’m happy with the performance of our team — we just have to get a little bit better in some areas, and I think we can be right there with Chase [Elliott] and some other guys.”

The single center-locking lug nut is not just a new world for pit crews — it’s  led to different approaches. Some teams have stuck with the traditional pit road choreography that has been successful for some time, while others — notably Joe Gibs Racing — have experimented with ways to pick up time by how their crews come around the car.

Larson is fourth in points with one win. A year ago, he had four wins and would win the regular season championship and then the overall title after adding six more wins.

Denny Hamlin is still seeking better execution from himself and the No. 11 Joe Gibbs Racing team. Take having to come from the back of the field multiple times in a race for one reason or another as an example.

“Really just getting through what we call green races,” Hamlin said. “I think last season, by this time, we had like 13 or 14 green races, which means nothing detrimental to our day happened. I think we have three this year, so it’s not good at all. That’s really what we’re trying to shore up.”

Ironically, Hamlin made such comments before crossing the finish line first at Pocono Raceway before his car was disqualified. It’s been an inconsistent season for the No. 11, with just five top-10 finishes and currently sitting 21st in the championship standings.

Hamlin is not alone in wanting to smooth out rough days, though. Tyler Reddick has a win, and has been fast, but feels his No. 8 Richard Childress Racing team needs to button things up if they want to be serious contenders.

“When things go right, they go really well,” said Reddick. “Most of our races, we’ve had good cars, but we’ve had some unfortunate mistakes along the way that take us from running fifth and put us back to 15th or out of the race, whatever it is.

“We need to smooth that out. A lot of things we’ve learned from those types of days have made us better, but some of those mistakes we have to really work on and be disciplined on race day.”

Ross Chastain is still in contention for the regular season championship and is qualified for his first NASCAR Cup Series playoff appearance. Chastain isn’t thinking about what his Trackhouse Racing team needs to change — he’s just enjoying the journey.

“I’m more experiencing this, along with everybody else — the rise and arrival of Trackhouse,” he said. “The biggest thing coming from the top down has been, ‘Embrace it.’ We are who we are and we have arrived and we are going to be here for a long time. Yes, we’re going to learn a lot throughout these Playoffs, and we’re both [Chastain and Daniel Suarez] going to be in them to start, and we’re definitely going to know more after Phoenix than we do right now. The biggest thing to me personally is believe in what we’re doing.

“We’re not changing anything. We’re not going to get to the Playoffs and change our whole week and change our sleep schedule and our diet. We’re going to keep doing what we do — just unplug some. We do need to do that.”