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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.”

Social Roundup: JR Nation reacts to Alex Bowman taking over the No. 88

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It’s official. Alex Bowman will replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. in the No. 88 Chevrolet in 2018.

Now that the news is out, it’s time for the Internet to react.

This is one of the few times where we’ll encourage you to read the comments.

Below, after Hendrick’s tweet announcing Bowman’s appointment to the No. 88 and Bowman’s reaction, are reactions from social media.

Brace yourself.

 

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Nationwide returning to No. 88 car, Axalta adding more races with hiring of Alex Bowman

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Nationwide will return as a sponsor of the No. 88 car next year with Alex Bowman taking over the ride for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick Motorsports announced Thursday.

The team also announced that Axalta will sponsor the car in 15 races, an increase of two from this season. Axalta’s contract goes through the 2018 season. Axalta has been with Hendrick Motorsports since 1992 and a sponsor of the No. 88 car since 2016.

“Our relationship with Nationwide is unbelievable,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement. “They have a true passion for NASCAR and our fans, and to have them extend with us is gratifying for our whole team. It’s also a credit to the way Alex carried himself last season and built lasting relationships. We’re fortunate to work with partners like Nationwide and Axalta that have built impactful, enduring programs around the countless opportunities our sport provides.”

Nationwide’s contract was to have expired after this season. The company is serving as the primary sponsor for Earnhardt in 21 races this season.

Nationwide joined Hendrick Motorsports in 2014 as a corporate partner and became a majority sponsor of the No. 88 Chevrolet and Earnhardt in 2015.

“We are thrilled to continue our relationship with Hendrick Motorsports and welcome Alex to the No. 88 Nationwide team,” said Terrance Williams, chief marketing officer at Nationwide, in a release from Hendrick Motorsports. “Rick Hendrick and the No. 88 team have been exceptional partners for the last three years, and we look forward to our joint commitment and engagement with the NASCAR community, both on and off the track.”

Hendrick Motorsports announced in January 2016 that Mountain Dew would serve as a primary sponsor of Earnhardt’s car for three races through 2018 while also serving as a primary sponsor for Chase Elliott’s car in two races annually and Kasey Kahne’s car for one race per year.

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Alex Bowman to take over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s No. 88 car in 2018

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Alex Bowman, once told by a doctor that he couldn’t race for eight weeks after a severe crash but returned in half that time, saw his patience for sitting out this NASCAR season rewarded Thursday when Hendrick Motorsports announced that the 24-year-old will take over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s Cup ride next season.

“Ever since I was a kid, racing is all I’ve wanted to do,” Bowman said in a release from Hendrick Motorsports. “I’ve had so many people believe in me along the way. My family has sacrificed a lot and always been behind me. I would never have this chance without the support of Dale and everyone involved with the No. 88 team. To be part of Hendrick Motorsports and for Mr. (Rick) Hendrick to have this confidence in me, it’s just amazing.’’

Hendrick Motorsports also announced Thursday that Nationwide signed a one-year extension and will sponsor the car for 19 races. Axalta returns and will be the primary sponsor for 15 races, an increase of two from this season.

Bowman was among the favorites for Earnhardt’s ride because he drove 10 races in the No. 88 car last year while Earnhardt recovered from concussion symptoms. Bowman won a pole at Phoenix Raceway and had three top-10 finishes.

His performance last year earned praise from within Hendrick Motorsports.

“Alex impressed the heck out of us last year with his talent, poise and professionalism,” said car owner Rick Hendrick, in a statement from the team. “He stepped up in a very demanding situation and showed that he can run with the best and compete for wins. His ability to stay focused through it all, and the way he’s handled himself since then, has shown a lot of character. (Crew chief Greg Ives) and the team loved working with Alex, and that dynamic will get even better with more time together.

Earnhardt, who is in his final full-time season racing Cup, endorsed Bowman as the next driver of the No. 88 Chevrolet on Periscope in May.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Alex Bowman at Texas last year when Bowman drove 10 races while Earnhardt recovered from concussion symptoms. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“Alex Bowman in the 88 car next year, is that what you want?’’ Earnhardt said on Periscope a day after the All-Star Race. “That would be pretty awesome. Alex in the 88. That sounds good to me. He earned it last year. He ran real good.”

Bowman’s hire adds another young driver to the Cup series — which already features nearly one-fifth of the starting lineup age 25 or younger.

His path to this ride comes in an unusual way. Rarely do drivers sitting out for an extended period of time get quality rides, let alone join one of the sport’s top organizations.

Bowman, who signed with Hendrick Motorsports in Oct. 2016, has only raced in the Clash in February — earning that spot for his pole at Phoenix last year — and a Camping World Truck race in March at Atlanta Motor Speedway. His primary duty has been as driver in the Chevrolet simulator and driving Chevrolet’s car at NASCAR-allowed tests.

His work in the Chevy simulator has been praised by his future teammates.

“We put a lot on him now,” Jimmie Johnson said last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I think he’d be a great fit to come in that car from a wide variety of angles.”

Bowman made his debut in the No. 88 car last July at New Hampshire after having run 71 Cup races for BK Racing and Tommy Baldwin Racing from 2014-15.

“When I look at how he stepped in seamlessly, it was really impressive for me,” Johnson said of Bowman’s performance in the No. 88 last year. “He handled the pressure, won a pole, was up there duking it out for race wins, had a heated moment or two with some of the veterans and wasn’t rattled.

“We all watched him evolve. You drive for a lower level team and unfortunately, people’s opinion about you can change. That cloud or stigma was there for a while, and he had a chance to reset the deck when he drove the 88. I think he’s plenty capable. He’s been a great teammate. He knows our system.”

While Bowman is most noted for running 10 races last year for Earnhardt, he has been tied to Earnhardt since 2014.

Bowman ran two Xfinity races for JR Motorsports in 2014 and returned to run nine races for the organization in 2016.

Bowman’s path to this point has been one full of gambles in a sport where few succeed. His father put a second mortgage on the home to fund Bowman’s racing and saw his used car dealership close during the economic downturn.

Bowoman’s racing started when his father got him a quarter midget at age 7. Bowman went on to collect nine quarter-midget national championships before he moved to race midgets.

He was the USAC National Midget Rookie of the Year in 2009 but a crash the next year at the dirt track at Las Vegas Motor Speedway put his season in jeopardy. His midget tumbled several times. He cracked ribs, broke his collarbones and damaged blood vessels in his eyes. He was unable to see for three days because his eyes were swollen shut. When his vision returned, it was blurry. Eventually his vision returned.

Even with both arms in a sling, he wanted to race as soon as possible. Told it would be eight weeks at the earliest, Bowman said he had a race in three weeks. Bowman returned in four weeks.

He’s been focused on racing since — even with the decision to turn down rides this year to be aligned with Hendrick Motorsports even though there wasn’t a ride for him.

Beginning next year, he’ll be out of the simulator and back on the track.

“The No. 88 team is such a great group of people,’’ Bowman said in a release from the team. “I know we can pick up where we left off last year, and I truly believe we can win races and contend for a championship. I’m excited to build on the relationship with Nationwide and all of our partners. It means the world that they have faith in me, and I’m thankful to have them on my side. Now I just want to go win.”

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Brett Moffitt joins GMS Racing for Xfinity Series race at Iowa

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Brett Moffitt, the 2015 Cup Series Rookie of the Year, will join GMS Racing for the July 29 Xfinity Series race at Iowa Speedway.

A native of Grimes, Iowa, Moffitt will drive the team’s No. 96 Chevrolet, which has been driven by Ben Kennedy in four starts this year.

It will be Moffitt’s first Xfinity start of the year and just the second of his career.

His first came in 2012 at Iowa for Robby Benton.

The race will be Moffitt’s first NASCAR action since making five starts for Red Horse Racing in the Truck Series to start the year before the team shut down.

“I am really excited to be racing in my home state again,” Moffitt said in a press release. “I’m extremely thankful for the opportunity with GMS Racing and I’m very grateful of the support that the Iowa community has shown and put in to support this race. It would be really awesome to bring home a solid finish in front of my hometown fans.”

Moffitt earned his first NASCAR win last year with Red Horse Racing at Michigan International Speedway.