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Consistency is a clearer path forward for some contenders after Charlotte chaos

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CHARLOTTE – As the task of reaching the next round of the NASCAR playoffs got much rockier for five drivers Sunday, it got much easier for the seven drivers ranked ahead.

How much easier?

“If we could run top 10 the next two races, I’d say it’s an easy transfer,” Brad Keselowski told a small group of reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR Hall of Fame.

The Team Penske driver is ranked fourth in the standings, 25 points ahead of the ninth-place cutoff after the Round of 12 opener at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Denny Hamlin, who finished 30th with an engine failure, is ranked in the eighth-place transfer spot, 19 points behind Martin Truex Jr. But Hamlin is only three points ahead of Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott, six in front of Joey Logano and eight ahead of Kevin Harvick.

Keselowski believes the four drivers eliminated after the next two races at Kansas Speedway and Talladega Superspeedway will come from those five because the top seven (aside from Jimmie Johnson, who is locked in with a win) can play it safe.

“I think it drastically changes the dynamic,” Keselowski said. “There’s really two ways to (advance), through consistency and winning. You look at the simple math, there are four cars that are going to be eliminated, and five cars in really rough shape that aren’t going to have the opportunity to be consistent and make their way in, so they’re pigeon-holed into the other half of the equation.

“Being one of the cars that’s in between and had a pretty good point gap, that all but guarantees that you can use consistency to get through this round. That certainly changes mindsets. A car with any gap is going to lay up at Kansas and try really hard not to put yourself in that situation. Certainly there are some situations you can’t avoid. The reality, is if you have a pretty good gap, you’re probably going to take a log off the fire.”

In the third year of the restructured Chase for the Sprint Cup featuring eliminations and points resets, Keselowski said drivers are becoming more cognizant of the risk-reward ratio. The 2012 champion still shakes his head at his run-in with Jeff Gordon while battling to take a lead at Texas Motor Speedway. Keselowski needed a win while Gordon could have been safe with a top five.

They collided, and Gordon suffered a cut tire that effectively eliminated him the following race at Phoenix.

“I knew he didn’t have to win,” Keselowski said. “All he had to do was run like fourth. Probably 10th. When I made the move, I was shocked that he didn’t know the situation. How do you not know the situation? I’m behind you with newer tires, you’re not getting a good restart. All you need to do is run fifth. Know the situation.”

Crew chiefs and drivers seem much more attuned this season to the importance of points, which frequently were emphasized during the first round.

“The first year certainly demonstrated that there was less recognition to the situational awareness that defines those moments,” Keselowski said. “When you get into years two and three, and everybody learns the format, everybody is like, ‘Oh, I understand. This is what I need to do.’”

That decreases the likelihood of repeating last year’s finish at Kansas, where Joey Logano, who already was guaranteed to advance, spun Matt Kenseth, who was in desperate need of a win, from the lead in the closing laps.

After being eliminated, Kenseth intentionally wrecked Logano out of the lead at Martinsville Speedway to open the next round.

Keselowski expects more secure title contenders will yield more easily to those who are desperate.

“That’s definitely happening, yes,” he said. “And will continue to happen with this format. Without a doubt. Everyone saw what happened with Joey, and they’re not going to do that to themselves.

“It’s like basketball. You want to make sure you don’t have a bunch of fouls and aren’t worn out when the fourth quarter comes, because it seems like those are always five-point games in the fourth quarter, so don’t be in the spot to foul out. Make sure you’ve got your legs beneath you.”

Jimmie Johnson breaks through with first top 10 of season

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Jimmie Johnson was finally relevant on Sunday.

The seven-time Cup champion started 33rd in the Auto Club 400, but was able to do two things he hadn’t done through the first four races of the season.

He earned his first stage points of the year, finishing fifth in Stage 1 and seventh in Stage 2.

A six-time winner at Auto Club Speedway, Johnson also earned his first top 10 of the season. His ninth-place finish snapped a career-worst streak without a top 10 at 10 races.

His last top 10 was October at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Johnson’s career-worst streak of races without a win now stands at 28.

“Each week we have been getting a little bit better,” Johnson said. “We are definitely not happy with where we are right now, but we are seeing the improvements, we have been seeing it internally.  We are making the cars drive better and better and we are getting more competitive. So, a strong day for the Lowe’s Chevrolet Camaro ZL1. We are not where we want to be but we are getting closer every week.”

Johnson and his three Hendrick Motorsports teammates had to overcome starting from the rear Sunday.

All four cars were among 13 that failed to get through qualifying inspection on Friday, preventing them from making a qualifying attempt.

Chase Elliott finished 16th, his worst result this year not related to a DNF for a crash.

Alex Bowman finished 13th, tying his best result of the season.

William Byron placed 15th.

Bowman and Byron remain without top-10 finishes this season.

Kyle Larson earns best finish of season after early contact with Kevin Harvick

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For the first time since June 2016, Kyle Larson was not the winner of a Cup race at a 2-mile speedway.

In Sunday’s race at Auto Club Speedway, Larson was knocked down a peg by Martin Truex Jr., finishing second for his best result through five races this season.

It ended a run of four consecutive races the Chip Ganassi Racing driver had won at either Auto Club or Michigan International Speedway.

Despite finishing one spot better than he started, the runner-up result was not a given for Larson.

He kept his No. 42 Chevrolet in one piece after contact with Kevin Harvick on Lap 39 that put Harvick in the wall. The two had been battling for third place when Harvick’s failed attempt to side draft brought the two together.

“It was a pretty tough race from the start,” Larson said. “Obviously, Kevin and I had our issue there down the backstretch, just racing hard, side drafting each other for a few laps. I think he came down to maybe side draft down me, got in my right rear, it spun him pretty quick.”

Larson thought Harvick would be mad at him, even though Larson knew he wasn’t at fault. But Larson “was able to chill out some” after being told Harvick was taking the blame.

Larson went on to finish sixth in the Stage 1 and eighth in Stage 2.

But Larson had to pit a second time during the Stage 2 caution for a vibration, giving up eighth place.

“I haven’t exactly seen what broke,” Larson said. “Sounded like brake duct or something fell in between the wheel.  Yeah, I don’t know if that was something the pit crew guys hit and broke or whatever. I’m just glad I could feel it under that caution and was able to pit. That would have ruined our day, had I not.”

After fighting back to race among the leaders, Larson passed Kyle Busch for second with 19 laps to go. But Truex was roughly six seconds ahead.

“It was good to get all the way to second,” Larson said. “Would have liked to be one spot better, but we couldn’t even see Martin.”

Larson has finished in the top three in three of his five starts at Auto Club Speedway.

Larson has three top 10s and two top fives through five races. He is seventh in the points heading to Martinsville Speedway.

The No. 42 has been one of the few Chevrolet teams to consistently run up front with the new Camaro body since the Daytona 500. He was one of three Chevy drivers to finish in the top 10. Jimmie Johnson placed ninth and Austin Dillon finished 10th.

“It’s nothing I’ve found,” Larson said of the new body. “Our race team has a lot of smart people within our organization. Any time we had a rules change over the last three or four years, the one‑off weekends like Darlington or Michigan, our team would do a good job, we’d be fast those weekends.

“I think they just did a lot of homework on this new car. For whatever reason, we seem to be a little bit better than the other Chevy teams, which we were kind of last year, too.”

Larson was the only Chevrolet driver to win more than three races last season.

“I’ve been happy to see how we’ve started so far,” Larson said. “But we still have a little ways to go to win.”

Kyle Busch says he wasn’t approached for postrace interviews

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Kyle Busch was ready to answer questions after finishing third Sunday at Auto Club Speedway, but the Joe Gibbs Racing driver said there weren’t many.

Now he wants to ensure there will be in the future, lobbying for an expansion of postrace driver media availability.

In a series of tweets after the Auto Club 400, the 2015 Cup champion explained he was parked at the end of the pits because of unsecured lug nuts on his No. 18 Toyota. He apparently was approached there only by a reporter from the Motor Racing Network.

During its postrace coverage, Fox Sports said none of its reporters had talked with Busch, who has faced criticism before for electing to decline postrace interviews after tough finishes. His mic drop after finishing second in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 also caused controversy with Busch later explaining he is wired to be emotional.

Busch also wasn’t brought to the media center for the postrace news conference. NASCAR’s PR staff typically brings the winning team, runner-up and a third driver of its choosing that often is the best storyline (which is sometimes the third-place finisher).

Though Busch and Kevin Harvick would have seemed to be involved in the best storylines Sunday after race winner Martin Truex Jr. and runner-up Kyle Larson, fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski was chosen as the third attendee.

“I’m not really sure why I’m here,” Keselowski said with a smile. “I finished fourth.”

Busch also seemed surprised he wasn’t chosen to attend the media center news conference.

He later advocated for mandating that the top three always are brought to the media center and also called on more clarity for postrace media obligations.

NASCAR declined comment on Busch’s remarks.

For the record (according to a Toyota release), here is what Busch responded when asked postrace about where Truex was beating him on the 2-mile oval: “Everywhere. Just thought we were closer than that but obviously not. We were right on top of (Truex) yesterday. The first run I thought we were really good and showed some strength but from there on out showed no strength.”

Armed with an apparently strong WiFi signal for his trip home to North Carolina, Busch was in a chatty mood on Twitter.

As Busch’s Twitter interactions grew (both with haters and fans) in the hours after the race, it caught the eyes of others in the NASCAR industry who were both amused and impressed.

What drivers said after Auto Club 400

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Martin Truex Jr. — WINNER:Honestly, it just feels good to win. I don’t really care. I don’t really worry about who’s winning, who else is fast. Obviously (Kevin Harvick) has been quick. They’v got a great team. Kevin is an awesome driver. They had it going on the last couple weeks. As we seen today, we can put together a run like that as well. I think most of all it feels good we’re able to find that speed we’ve been looking for the last couple weeks. Like I said, we’ve been close, but not quite close enough.  We knew we were off a bit, so it wasn’t a surprise that we weren’t winning. Today I felt really good about what we had. It was really fast. It’s just kind of reassurance that what we’re doing is working. We have a lot of things we have to look forward to this year. That’s because of the hard work of the guys, just everybody in our program, Toyota, TRD, all the guys in Denver, JGR chassis, all we do together with them. It’s been an unbelievable couple of seasons. Hopefully, we can keep it rolling.

Kyle Larson — Finished 2nd: “We were racing really hard, and I was better than (Kevin Harvick) in three and four, and he was better than me in one and two. I would side draft him down the frontstretch, and he would side draft me down the backstretch, and I don’t know if he was just coming down to side draft me or what, but we made contact, and it spun his car to the right. So, you never want to make contact with anybody, but all in all, it was a good day for our DC Solar Chevrolet team. We had a lot of weird issues like vibrations and stuff that made us have to restart in the back, and we would have to go back forward. It always seemed like we would get to third or fourth and kind of stall out there. But it was still a very good day. (Martin Truex Jr.) was really good, and I think (Kevin Harvick) was probably the best car again although he didn’t get to race a whole lot.  We are right there, and we just have to continue to work hard.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 3rd: “Just thought we were closer than that but obviously not. We were right on top of the 78 (Martin Truex Jr.) yesterday. The first run I thought we were really good and showed some strength, but from there on out showed no strength.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 4th: “We had exceptional speed today with the Wurth Ford Fusion on the short runs, but not very much for them there on the long runs, that’s for sure. I was hoping to get a late-race caution, and I could make it exciting for the fans that are here, but it didn’t pan out that way. I still think the 4 car (Kevin Harvick) is probably the best car in the field right now. Things didn’t come together for him today. There will probably be a race in the future where he’s not the fastest, and it does come together. That’s how things work.

Joey Logano — Finished 5th: “The 78 had a great car.  I was in front of him for about five laps and I was like, ‘Hey,’ but it was short-lived. Overall, it was a good weekend. We got a top-five here, and a win yesterday is great. I would have liked to sweep the races here at Auto Club, and we’re just trying to get this Auto Club Fusion to Victory Lane at Auto Club Speedway. I’ve been so close for quite some time now, and it’s been a great race track for us and a lot of fun to race here, I just need more speed to be able to keep up there. We made one change that the car didn’t like right before the last stage, and we lost some track position there, and by the time we were able to start catching back up it was too late. We probably could have finished fourth, maybe third at the end if we didn’t have that bad run, but overall that’s where we’re at.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 6th: “We just had a mistake on our pit stop. I flew through my box again. Once I got that remedied, it looked like were somewhere around a fourth or fifth-place car. Even a third place at times. In the long-run we were exceptional but we were just too slow on the short run to keep up. Those guys would pull 7 seconds on us, and we’d maintain after that and gain a little.”

Erik Jones — Finished 7th: “It was a really consistent day. We fought the handling here on the SiriusXM Camry. We couldn’t quite get it to turn the center and stay with the drive-off all day. Struggled a little bit with that in practice. A good day overall. We had about a seventh-place car, and we finished there. So we did a good job of running where we supposed to and not making any mistakes all day. We have to keep doing that. We need to be a little bit faster, and I think we’ll get there. It’s going to take a little bit of time. We’re working hard but a good finish.”

Jimmie Johnson — Finished 9th: “Each week, we have been getting a little bit better. We are definitely not happy with where we are right now, but we are seeing the improvements. We have been seeing it internally. We are making the cars drive better and better, and we are getting more competitive.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 10th: “It was a pretty solid day. We struggled, truthfully. I thought we were way closer in practice, and it just didn’t work out. We took off. We were plowing. We freed up way too much. Our balance was decent at the end, we just weren’t far enough up front to really do anything. I think we were a top-five car at the end. We just waited too late to get there.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 11th: “We got really lucky to finish this race today. That tire was coming apart, and I didn’t think we had any chance of making it to the checkered flag, but it did. We wanted more than 11th, and at times today we were really good. We got some stage points, but we have some work to do. We’ll be ready for Martinsville.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 21st: “We made a major overhaul to our Chevrolet Accessories Camaro ZL1 last night. Our car fired off fast but wasn’t as fast as we needed it to be on the long run like our teammate’s car. Unfortunately, from the beginning, our handling was way off. Our car was so tight in the corners and loose off. We’re scratching our heads right now figuring out what went wrong. It wasn’t for a lack of trying on our part. We threw everything at it, had one run in the top 10 but could never get the handling in our favor to stay up with the lead pack.”  

Ty Dillon — Finished 27th: This was a real test of our team and how much fight we have in us because Auto Club Speedway was not kind to our Twisted Tea Camaro ZL1 today. It’s such a rough and old surface that it wears out your tires and can make car control incredibly difficult. Like a lot of other cars this weekend, I tagged the wall early in Stage 1 and got some pretty heavy right-side damage. We adjusted around that as best we could, but then we had to deal with a broken track bar at the end of Stage 2. It was certainly not the day we wanted to have, but I’m proud of my guys for battling back and not giving up. It’s easy to get down, but our team kept going. Even though it’s disappointing, we will not let this get to us. We will turn our focus to preparing for Martinsville and be ready for them next weekend.”

KEVIN HARVICK — Finished 35th: “I went down to side draft, and he was coming up, and we touched, and it just knocked the thing to the right and spun out. I don’t know that it’s his fault. I think that’s my fault for coming down the race track right there and trying to side draft and then as we touch it just came back up the race track. I was just trying to get a little too much right there. I knew the stage was coming in. I’ve just got to thank all of my guys. They did a great job on our Busch Beer Ford, and it was just my fault back there.”

Trevor Bayne – Finished 37th: “It’s not something where you would normally keep it on the outside of him (Ryan Newman). He was a little faster than us, but (the leader Martin Truex Jr.) was coming. I saw (Paul Menard) was having issues, so you have to stay in that lucky dog spot or the free pass, so I stayed on the outside of (Newman), and he just kept coming up and squeezed us into the fence. I think he thought he would clear us, and I was still just there. It’s unfortunate. It wasn’t really that much contact and I didn’t smell that bad of smoke through turn one and two, but then coming down the back I thought we better just hit pit road because we had a lot more to lose than to gain by staying on the race track. I turned to come down pit road and as soon as I turned off the wall the right-front blew at 200-whatever we’re doing here and the problem with here is you see the wall coming forever, so that’s not a fun ride when you’re on the brakes, and it isn’t slowing down, and it’s not turning. You know you’re going to hit hard, and I feel like I should be hurting right now as hard as that was, so that’s a testament to what NASCAR has done with safety because I feel like I should be looking at you funny right now, and I feel great. That was a hard hit.”

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