CONCORD, N.C. -- To the naked eye, racing appears to be an individual sport. One driver for every car. On a closer look, though, you’ll see an entire group of team members dedicated to giving their driver the fastest car possible.
One area of the car that requires significant attention is the interior. Driver cockpits are built for speed, not comfort. For interior mechanic Cesar Villanueva, his goal during the week is to fit the the interior of the No. 5 HendrickCars.com Chevrolet to his driver, Kyle Larson.
At the track, Villanueva works as a tire mechanic, collecting measurements from each tire that comes off the car and reporting that information to the team's crew chief, Cliff Daniels. Between these two responsibilities, Villanueva's work is crucial to the success of the team.
"Right after a race weekend is over, we have to prepare for the next one," Villanueva said. "You have to get parts ready for the next week, so you end up building the car, all the finer details, I guess. You’ll have a seat in the car, tubes in the car, just driver preference stuff that you have to put into the next week’s car that was in the previous car."
Unlike many others in the shop, racing wasn't a childhood interest for Villanueva. In fact, it was not until his college days that the New Jersey native began to follow in the sport. After watching the 2001 DAYTONA 500 and seeing the impact that the passing of Dale Earnhardt had on the industry, he began to watch NASCAR for the first time.
"I had never heard of Dale Earnhardt until that moment," Villanueva said. "He was a big deal and he changed the sport. The next week I was watching Rockingham and then Vegas and so on."
After getting his start in the industry in 2003, Villanueva began working with smaller teams before moving his way up to the NASCAR Cup Series and then landing with Hendrick Motorsports in 2018. Even with years of experience in the sport, his most successful season came in 2021 when Larson and the No. 5 HendrickCars.com team won 10 races as well as the All-Star Race and the 2021 Cup Series championship.
While last season’s dominance and championship will always be remembered fondly, it was a moment from earlier in the season that he regards as his favorite. After Larson brought home the 600-mile crown jewel race at Charlotte for the record-setting 269th Cup Series win for Hendrick Motorsports, Villanueva was finally able to celebrate with his parents in victory lane.
"I had my parents there that weekend," Villanueva said. "For all these years, I’ve been doing this a while and never got to have my parents with me in victory lane, never got to win a race and we won, and they were there for it. Afterwards, we took pictures with the checkered flag and everything from the race. That was pretty cool."
With the 2022 season moving further along, Villanueva and the entire No. 5 HendrickCars.com team are looking for a second straight Cup Series championship. The team will return to action this weekend for the Ally 400 at Nashville Superspeedway. You can catch the race on Sunday on NBC at 5 p.m. ET