Upon Further Review: Charlotte chaos changes Chase for title contenders

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CONCORD, N.C. — As smoke poured from his engine and the leaders sped away, Denny Hamlin lamented his fate.

“Denny Hamlin luck in the Chase,’’ he radioed his team. “That gets you every time.’’

Just when it seemed as if the top eight Chase drivers could relax after four foes suffered misfortune Sunday, Hamlin saw his comfortable points bulge waste away quicker than a before and after picture.

He was one of five Chase drivers to finish 30th or worse at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He became the oddity that could throw this Round of 12, which includes a cutoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, into chaos.

Before Hamlin’s woes, it appeared the top eight Chase drivers would hold a healthy advantage on the four — Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick — who suffered from miscalculations, miscues and mischievous machinery.

Just before Hamlin’s engine blew while running second, he had a 31-point lead on those outside a transfer spot.

At that point, it appeared as if Dillon and Elliott would be 19 points out of the cutoff spot. In the two previous years of the elimination format, only one driver more than 15 points out of the final transfer spot after the opening race in the second round advanced. That was Brad Keselowski. He did so by winning at Talladega in 2014. No one so far back made it on points.

After Hamlin’s woes put him in the final transfer spot in the standings, Dillon and Elliott found themselves only three points behind him.

Now, there are two Chases. Those in the top seven can take fewer risks because the penalty of losing points could be critical with Talladega looming in two weeks. The bottom five, including Hamlin, are in a race among themselves for the final transfer spot if they can’t win this weekend at Kansas or the following week at Talladega.

“All I can do is try to run as fast as I can,’’ Hamlin said. “I won’t be able to control what any of my competitors do. All I can do is try to go to Kansas and try to win, go to Talladega and try to win.’’

Last year, Hamlin’s luck saw him fail to advance from the second round. He entered the cutoff race at Talladega second in the standings, 18 points ahead of the cutoff. He failed to make transfer after an issue with the roof hatch and then was collected in a last-lap crash.

Teammate Kyle Busch had it worse in 2014. Busch was second in the standings, 26 points ahead of the ninth place, the first driver outside a cutoff spot entering Talladega and was eliminated after a crash when hit from behind by Dillon.

Logano, who finished 80 laps behind the leaders Sunday after suffering two tire issues and slamming the wall twice, joked that if he had finished only two laps down, “I could have had a good points day.’’

Had he done so, he would have finished 23rd instead of 36th and those extra 13 points would have put him in the final transfer spot instead of Hamlin.

That’s how volatile Sunday was for some Chase contenders. Now, it impacts decision drivers and crew chiefs will make the next two weeks.

“We’re not in must-win, but we’re in can’t-screw-up mode,’’ Logano said.

HAIRY SITUATION

Blake Koch thought he’d have some fun after making the inaugural Xfinity Chase.

He decided to mimic hockey players who grow beards during the playoffs and do it for NASCAR’s version of the playoffs.

Truth be told, Koch, figured he’d have the beard for only the first three races and then could shave, but he’ll keep it going after advancing to the Round of 8 after Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I’m a pretty optimistic person, but I expected us to make the Chase, not to really transfer to the next group of eight,’’ he said. “That’s really tough to do. If I would have known that, I wouldn’t have set to growing this Chase beard because it’s going to get long now.

“I thought it was going to be a three-week beard. It’s going to be an eight-week beard, at least, maybe nine weeks.’’

Koch advanced with a team that has 16 employees and moved shops during the season. They prepared cars for Dover in May with flashlights because their new shop didn’t have power yet.

“I think that’s definitely the biggest story of the first round, Blake and his guys making the second round,’’ said Elliott Sadler, who advanced to the Round of 8 via his win at Kentucky Speedway. “The start-up team and where Blake came from last year to this year, congratulations, that to me is a job well done.’’

PIT STOPS

Kurt Busch and Brad Keselowski are tied with the best average finish in the eight races on 1.5-mile tracks. Both have a 7.0 average. Keselowski finished seventh on Sunday; Busch eighth. Three of the last six races, including the season finale at Homestead, are on 1.5-mile tracks.

— For the first time in this Chase, there were multi-car accidents. In the first three Chase races, there were seven cautions for spins or accidents. All had been single-car incidents. Sunday, two of the five cautions for accidents featured multiple cars, including the 12-car incident off a restart.

— Last year, Joey Logano and Kevin Harvick were 1-2 in the points after the opening race in the second round. This year, they are 11th and 12th.

Kasey Kahne’s third-place finish was his best result since his win at Atlanta in Sept. 2014 — a span of 77 races.

Danica Patrick’s 11th-place finish Sunday was her best result of the year. Her previous best was 13th at Dover in May.

— Five of the top-10 finishers Sunday were drivers not eligible for the title. They were Kasey Kahne (finished third), Ryan Newman (fourth), Kyle Larson (fifth), Tony Stewart (ninth) and Jamie McMurray (10th).

— Tony Stewart’s ninth-place finish snapped a streak of seven consecutive finishes of 13th or worse.

Michael McDowell’s 14th-place finish was his second top-15 result in his last four starts.

Brad Keselowski Racing announces crew chief assignments

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Brad Keselowski Racing has announced the crew chiefs that will be paired with both of its full-time rookie drivers this season in the Camping World Truck Series.

Austin Cindric, driving the No. 19 Draw-Tite Ford, will work with Doug Randolph. Randolph has been a crew chief for BKR since 2012 and has six wins, including three with Tyler Reddick in the last two seasons. Randolph also has four Xfinity Series wins.

Mike Hillman Jr. will be the crew chief for Chase Briscoe in the No. 29 Cooper Standard Ford. Hillman is a two-time Truck series champion as crew chief for Todd Bodine (2006, 2010). He has 20 Truck Series wins, the last coming in 2013 with Jeb Burton.

“Austin Cindric has already had success in various forms of racing, and has shown a lot of potential in our Ford F-150 race trucks,” said Keselowski in a press release. “I certainly believe that Chase is ready to take the next step in his career, and we’re excited to have him join the BKR family. He won the ARCA championship in his first full-time season, and he’s proven to have the ability to learn quickly and win races. We’re pleased to give both Austin and Chase the opportunity to compete full-time at a high level in NASCAR.”

Briscoe, 22, enters his rookie season after winning the ARCA Racing Series title behind six race wins.

“It’s an absolutely huge opportunity and such an honor to drive for Brad,” said Briscoe in a press release. “The competition level in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series is so high, but I’m going to be in the best equipment out there. It’s really cool to once again be working with the Keselowski family. When I moved to North Carolina three years ago, I was helping Brian and Bob in their shop, so things have come full circle. I’m truly blessed with this opportunity, and I hope to make the most of it. At the end of the day, it’s all about winning races and championships, and that’s what I plan to do.”

Cindric, 18, is the son of Team Penske president Tim Cindric. He has six starts with BKR over the last two seasons. His best result is 15th last November at Phoenix International Raceway.

“This is a massive opportunity from Brad and everyone at BKR who trusts me and believes in my abilities as a driver to move on to the next level for a full season,” said Cindric in a press release. “2017 gets more and more exciting for me with every day that goes by. I’ve only done a handful of one-off races in my brief stock car career, so I’m really looking forward to having the same guys by my side week in and week out. I’ve spent a lot of time at the shop the last few weeks and I know everyone is really excited to get back racing.”

The Truck Series season begins Feb. 24 at Daytona International Speedway.

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Kurt, Kyle Busch come up short in Nations Cup finale at Race of Champions

LAS VEGAS, NV - DECEMBER 04:  NASCAR Sprint Cup Series champion Kyle Busch hugs brother Kurt Busch during the 2015 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Awards show at Wynn Las Vegas on December 4, 2015 in Las Vegas, Nevada.  (Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images)
Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images
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After early exits in the first day of the Race of Champion exhibition Saturday in Miami, Kyle and Kurt Busch returned on Sunday in hopes of winning the Nations Cup for the United States of America, but were swept in the finale by Germany’s Sebastian Vettel.

The brothers, representing Team USA NASCAR, were in Group A with USA IndyCar, USA Rally and ROC Factor Canada.

Kurt Busch’s struggles from Saturday continued in his first race against IndyCar driver James Hinchcliffe. The Canadian driver beat Kurt Busch by .002 of a second. The NASCAR representative would bounce back in his next race, beating action sports star and former NASCAR driver Travis Pastrana.

In Kyle Busch‘s first race of the day, he faced and beat karting champion Stefan Rzadzinski of Canada. He followed it up by beating Scott Speed.

After six races, Team USA NASCAR and IndyCar had four wins each and faced each other in the semifinal round. But the Busch brothers prevailed over Ryan Hunter-Reay and Alexander Rossi from USA IndyCar to advance to the Nations Cup final against Vettel, who represented Germany by himself.

But Vettel swept the race, betting Kurt then Kyle Busch to claim the Nations Cup. Vettel swept all of his races, finishing Sunday with seven wins.

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NMPA names Jimmie Johnson Driver of the Year among annual awards

HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 18:  Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, stands in the garage area during practice for the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 18, 2016 in Homestead, Florida.  (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Jimmie Johnson was named the Richard Petty Driver of the Year on Saturday by the National Motorsports Press Association as part of its annual awards banquet.

It’s the seventh time that Johnson – who was named on 62 percent of the ballots cast – has been recognized with the award. He previously won it in 2004, ’06, ’07, ’09, ’10, and ’13.

The award comes after Johnson became the third driver to win a seventh championship in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series.

The NMPA also named Al Pearce of Autoweek as its annual Pocono Spirit Award winner.

The award, sponsored by Pocono Raceway, “recognizes character and achievement in the face of adversity,
sportsmanship and contributions to motorsports.”

Pearce won for a four-year project that raised $13,000 through the auction of a racing helmet signed by the 20 living World Driving Champions and Phil Hill and Sir Jack Brabham prior their passing. Proceeds from the project went to the Victory Junction Gang Camp, the Kyle Petty Charity Ride, the Jimmie Johnson Foundation and the Jeff Gordon Children’s Foundation.

Dave Ferroni, the public relations representative for Furniture Row Racing,  was awarded the Ken Patterson Helping Others Award.

Involved in auto racing for more than 30 years, Ferroni was the publicist for the “Miracle on Ice” U.S. hockey team in 1980 before later serving working for Brainerd International Raceway and the National Hot Rod Association. His company, DMF Communications, has also worked with U.S. Army, Miller Brewing Co., Pennzoil, McDonald’s and Valvoline.

The Ken Patterson award is sponsored by Talladega Superspeedway, where Patterson served as the public relations director, and has been given out since 2004. The track will donate $1,000 in Ferroni’s name to the Kenneth Patterson Educational Trust Fund.

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NBCSN to broadcast NASCAR announcement at 6 p.m. ET Monday

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NBCSN will air live a press conference held by NASCAR industry stakeholders to discuss the upcoming 2017 season at 6 p.m. ET Monday.

The announcement will be attended by NASCAR executives, Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series drivers, NASCAR team representatives and NASCAR track representatives.

The press conference is being held at the Charlotte Convention Center.