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

NASCAR returns to NBC Sports as the Cup Series returns to the 'Music City' for the first time in 37 years at Nashville Superspeedway. Watch Sunday, June 20 at 3:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and stream on the NBC Sports app.

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

AUSTIN, TEXAS - MAY 22: Bubba Wallace, driver of the #23 DoorDash Toyota, waits in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Cup Series EchoPark Texas Grand at Circuit of The Americas on May 22, 2021 in Austin, Texas. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/23XI Racing via Getty Images)

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.