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Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray ready to make Chip Ganassi Racing a force in the Chase

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For one, it’s unchartered territory. For the other, it’s hoping that the second time around is better than the first.

That’s how the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup shapes up for Chip Ganassi Racing teammates Kyle Larson and Jamie McMurray.

Larson is making his first playoff appearance. It comes in his third Cup season.

Larson, who won last month at Michigan, will start the Chase as the 10th seed.

McMurray is making the second consecutive Chase appearance. He’ll start the playoffs in the 16th and final position.

Larson has been one of NASCAR’s hottest drivers of late. Saturday night’s runner-up finish at Richmond International Raceway was his third straight top-three finish — He won at Michigan and finished third at Darlington.

It wasn’t easy, though. Larson struggled near the midpoint of the race with a loose wheel that caused him to pit on Lap 192. Still, he was able to come back for his best finish at Richmond.

The final restart, though, with two laps remaining was what sealed the deal for the northern California native.

“It felt like a video game on rookie mode, having fresh tires like that,” Larson told NBCSN. “It was a fun last restart and to get all the way to second. I felt I could get to fourth, but I got to second, so that was great.”

Given his hot streak, Larson hopes to ride into the opening race next Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway and keep that momentum going as the Chase opens.

“The Chase tracks, most of them, are good tracks for me,” Larson said. “We start at Chicago, which is one of my favorite tracks and I really think we can make a good run.

“It’s been awesome and I’m looking forward to it, the first time in the Chase. There’s a lot of new guys in the Chase, so it should be exciting.”

McMurray, meanwhile, hopes to perform better in his second Chase than he did last season.

Like Larson, McMurray has had his own momentum of late, as well: His seventh-place finish Saturday was his ninth top-10 of 2016, including four of the last five races.

McMurray knew how much was on the line coming into Saturday’s race. Because he has yet to win a race this season, he was vulnerable. If a winless driver had won instead of Hamlin, McMurray could have missed the playoffs.

So he did something he typically doesn’t do — he drove defensively.

“I was racing so different than what you normally would, not taking any risk,” McMurray said. “Really good day, both our cars ran real great again today.

“The guys at our shop need to be really proud at what they have been able to build because it’s a lot of fun to drive and be able to run that quick. I looked up at one point and I think there was the four Gibbs cars and Kyle and I. We still have a little bit of work to do, but we’ve made some huge gains and I’m really proud of all those guys.”

McMurray was eliminated after the first round of last year’s Chase. He hopes that’s not the same case this year.

“I feel better about our chances this year vs. last year,” he said. “I felt like last year heading into the Chase that we didn’t really have anything in our pocket as far as little bit better cars.

“I feel like right now we have cars capable of winning. I look forward to getting (to Chicagoland), it’s been a good track for Kyle and I and would be a great way to start off the Chase.”

This marks the first time Chip Ganassi Racing has had two drivers in the Chase in the same year. Ganassi told McMurray before the race that if both he and Larson make the Chase, it would be the “biggest thing ever” at CGR in terms of NASCAR achievements.

“When you look at Chip’s organization, he’s been so successful in Indy cars, sports cars, we’ve won some big races at NASCAR, but the NASCAR side is really hard to keep on top,” McMurray said. “It’s like that for everybody. So when you get down, it’s really hard to climb your way back up.

“Earlier this year, we made some changes as far as personnel. He moved some people around. The crew chiefs and everybody is working really well together and they’ve been able to build some great cars. He’s proud of that because when you make those changes, there’s no guarantee it’s going to show up on the racetrack – but it has.”

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My Home Tracks: New Mexico’s the Land of Enchantment and home of Cardinal Speedway

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The state of New Mexico is known more for IndyCar racing, with the Unser family being the state’s favorite sons.

Al Unser won four Indianapolis 500s, brother Bobby three and Al’s son Al Jr. a two-time winner (this weekend’s 500 marks the 25th anniversary of Little Al’s second 500 triumph).

But there’s a strong grassroots racing scene in the Land of Enchantment, particularly in the far southeast corner of the state at Cardinal Speedway, a half-mile dirt track in the little town of Eunice.

NASCAR America continues its My Home Track series of 50 states in 50 shows.

Wednesday, we visit New York state.

2018 NASCAR schedule changes: EVP Steve O’Donnell breaks it down (video)

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On Tuesday’s edition of NASCAR America, NASCAR executive vice president Steve O’Donnell joined us to discuss the NASCAR Cup schedule changes in 2018, including running a road race at Charlotte and having Indianapolis be the final race before the playoffs.

“I’m real excited about these changes,” said O’Donnell, who cited unprecedented cooperation between NASCAR, its teams, drivers and sponsors to reach agreement on the schedule changes.

Among the key changes: Las Vegas will kick off the 10-race playoffs in 2018 (Chicagoland Speedway, which will have hosted the last seven playoff openers, will return to its more traditional race date in early July/late June and serve as a run-up to the Coke Zero 400 in Daytona.

Several other changes include:

  • The fall playoff race at Charlotte will move up a couple weeks in the schedule and also incorporate competition on both the infield road course and part of the speedway itself.
  • After 14 years as the deciding race to qualify for the NASCAR Cup playoffs, Richmond International Raceway will now become the second race of the playoffs.
  • Indianapolis Motor Speedway will see it’s Brickyard 400 go from late July to become the final qualifying race for the playoffs in early September.

Catch up on all the changes in the above video.

Tony Stewart pulled over by state trooper, but it’s not for speeding

Photo courtesy Damein Cunningham Twitter account
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Retired NASCAR Cup driver and team co-owner Tony Stewart was stopped by an Illinois State Trooper over the weekend near DeKalb, Ill., about 90 minutes west of Chicago.

But before you think Stewart was stopped for speeding by Trooper Damein Cunningham, he wasn’t.

Rather, Cunningham pulled Stewart over for improper lane usage, although exactly what the infraction was is unclear.

After getting a verbal warning, Stewart gladly posed with Cunningham for a selfie, which the trooper promptly tweeted out.

“Just pulled over NASCAR LEGEND Tony Stewart on I-88 in DeKalb, IL, what you think I got him for? #NASCAR #ISP”

But according to the Chicago Tribune, Cunningham’s bosses apparently didn’t have a sense of humor about the incident or realize the good PR it meant for the Illinois State Police.

That, or they’re not Stewart or NASCAR fans. They ordered Cunningham to delete the tweet, which he did.

It’s unclear what Stewart, who was stopped on his 46th birthday, was doing in the Land of Lincoln.

But his luck went from bad to worse a few hours later. According to USA Today, Stewart and others were stuck in an elevator in a Madison, Wisconsin hotel for about 20 minutes before being rescued by firefighters.

We can just imagine what the elevator riders talked about while trapped.

How much do you want to bet Stewart said, “Man, do I have a story about a cop that I have to tell you.”

Cunningham then posted another tweet on Sunday after attending church services.

 

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All-Star Race will remain at Charlotte in 2018

Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images
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NASCAR confirmed that the All-Star Race will be held again at Charlotte Motor Speedway despite more of a push from competitors and others to move the event.

Criticism was raised after last weekend’s 70-lap event featured only three lead changes. Kyle Busch took the lead on the restart to begin the final 10-lap stage and went on to win. It marked the fourth time in the last five years the All-Star winner led every lap in the final stage. In 12 All-Star Races at Charlotte since the track was repaved, there have been two lead changes in the final five laps.

Jim Cassidy, NASCAR senior vice president of racing operations, was clear in a call with reporters Tuesday that the All-Star Race is set for Charlotte.

“We’ve finished our discussions for ’18,” he said. ” We’ll begin looking at ’19 and beyond in the near future.”

The All-Star Race debuted at Charlotte in 1985, moved to Atlanta in 1986 and returned to Charlotte the following year. It has been held at Charlotte ever since.

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