Upon Further Review: NASCAR’s new speedway leader

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Car owner Roger Penske’s Sprint Cup teams never won a restrictor-plate race until the 2008 Daytona 500. Now, his organization is the dominant team on such tracks.

Joey Logano’s victory Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway — the sixth in the last nine plate races for Team Penske — evokes memories of Dale Earnhardt Inc.’s dominance and Hendrick Motorsports’ success.

Penske’s run at restrictor-plate tracks the last couple of seasons ranks as the one of the best since 2000. Only DEI, which won nine of 12 plate races from 2001-03, has a better winning percentage over multiple seasons at such tracks than Penske.

The last time any team was as strong was when Hendrick Motorsports won six of nine plate races from 2004-06.

“We have a special group of people at the shop that work all year on the restrictor-plate cars,’’ Penske told NBC Sports of the team’s reign. “You’ve really got to give a lot of credit to Ford and Roush Yates (Engines), they gave us some power.’’

The only thing surprising is that Penske’s streak didn’t continue with Brad Keselowski, who led a race-high 90 laps before his engine failed.

“He could drive up there anytime he wanted,’’ Penske said. “I remember one time he just kind of sat back and decided to go and drove right up to the front.’’

Keselowski looked as dominant as he was when he won at Daytona in July and Talladega in May. In the last three plate races, Penske cars have led 56.9 percent of the laps. Sunday, the Penske cars led 70.3 percent of the race.

It’s not just the team that has gotten better on such tracks. Penske also credits his drivers.

Logano put himself in position to win by what he did before Sunday’s race.

“You prep for each race differently but prepping for a superspeedway is probably more different than most because it’s not necessarily you’re talking about your setup, you’re talking about the changes you made in practice, it’s talking about, ‘OK this guy does this a lot of times,’ and you rewatch films, and you find some driver tendencies and which cars are good,’’ Logano told NBC Sports.

“After practice you rewatch that. You spend a lot of time with your spotter talking. I think about all that stuff, and I work on that. That’s where I can make a difference. I’ve got to understand the draft.’’

He and Keselowski both have done so. No team has won more restrictor-plate races since 2010 than Penske. Here’s that list:

7 – Team Penske

5 – Hendrick Motorsports

4 – Richard Childress Racing

3 – Joe Gibbs Racing

3 – Roush Fenway Racing

2 – Chip Ganassi Racing

1 – Front Row Motorsports

1 – Richard Petty Motorsports

1 – Stewart-Haas Racing

1 – Wood Brothers Racing

STOWAWAY

Joey Logano admits when he left his pit stall after his first stop he didn’t know that the jack was attached to the car.

“I didn’t even know when I first left the pits because of the raised ride heights on these cars, I didn’t notice it until the car kind of compressed in the corner,’’ Logano told NBC Sports. “My crew chief Todd (Gordon) told me that I’m taking a jack with me.

“I was looking. A jack? I looked in my (left-side) mirror and I couldn’t see it, and I turned my head and I saw the jack handle. I said, ‘That’s not good.’ I tried shaking it out, but I couldn’t get it to come loose.’’

Gordon told NBC Sports the plate of the jack got deeper under the car “and when you dropped the jack, the jack post slid off the backside toward the jack and lodged itself in there. It was stuck. It took three guys lifting up and somebody to really work the jack to get it back out.’’

The pit crew made up for it by getting Logano into the lead on Lap 148 after a two-tire pit stop. Logano went on to lead the final 45 laps to score his second victory of the season.

THAT CLOSE

NASCAR stated that Denny Hamlin beat Kurt Busch by .006 seconds for third place Sunday. Had Hamlin finished behind Busch, Hamlin would have not have advanced to the Round 8. Austin Dillon would have.

To compare, Hamlin beat Martin Truex Jr. for this year’s Daytona 500 by .010 seconds — the closest finish in Daytona 500 history.

PIT STOPS

Joey Logano’s win marked his sixth Chase win since 2014. He and Kevin Harvick are tied for the most Chase wins since 2014.

— Kurt Busch’s fourth-place finish was his best result since placing fourth at Kentucky in July.

— Denny Hamlin’s third-place finish marked the fifth time he’s rebounded from a penalty during a race to score a top-five result. He was caught for speeding on pit road.

— Martin Truex Jr. finished last, marking the first time since 2010 at Atlanta that the pole-winner finished last in a race.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s sixth-place finish was his first top-10 result since placing second at Bristol in August.

— How much of an equalizer can restrictor-plate racing be for a smaller team? Michael McDowell finished 16th Sunday. His average finish in the four plate races this year is 15.5. His average finish in 23 other starts is 26.7.

— Half of the remaining eight drivers in the Chase have made the championship round in Miami since the elimination format debuted 2014. They are Kevin Harvick (2014 champion), Kyle Busch (2015 champion), Denny Hamlin (’14) and Joey Logano (’14).

Ryan Reed finished 26th in his Sprint Cup debut.

Brian Scott finished a career-high second, and Richard Petty Motorsports teammate Aric Almirola (eighth) scored his first top-10 finish of the season.

NASCAR America: Scan All from the Alabama 500 at Talladega

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“Ol’ Dega is giving me one last thrill.”

That’s the remark Dale Earnhardt Jr. made after he narrowly avoided being collected in the second of three wrecks in the final 16 laps of Sunday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway, his last start at the track.

It’s one of many highlights in the latest edition of “Scan All,” which documents the Alabama 500 at the restrictor-plate track.

In the above video, Brad Keselowski and crew chief Paul Wolfe relive the race, which ended with Keselowski’s sixth win at the track.

Here are more highlights from “Scan All.”

  • Listen to the communication of the No. 48 team as confusion breaks out over whether they can work on Jimmie Johnson‘s car during a red flag.
  • “It is a restrictor-plate race, so I’m not going to promise you anything.” – Brendan Gaughan after remarking he hoped his team wouldn’t have to make too many body repairs. He would be eliminated in a crash with 10 laps to go.
  • “Those stands are packed. They should get a free Dale Jr. autograph.” – Clint Bowyer on the large crowd that took in Earnhardt’s final Cup start at Talladega.
  • “Holy (expletive). What an idiot. That was the absolute stupidest (expletive) thing he’s ever done.” Kyle Busch after a crash involving Jame McMurray, Erik Jones and Jeffrey Earnhardt. The crash began when McMurray slowed down enter pit road and Jones ran into him.
  • Listen as Keselowski and his team struggle to communicate with each other do to a faulty radio system.
  • “How in the (expletive) did we wind up in the (expletive) back? (Expletive) stupid.” – Part of a tirade by Bowyer following a Lap 157 crash that collected him. Bowyer pulled his car into his pit box, exited it, had a brief exchange with his crew chief and walked back to the garage.

Watch the above video for more.

Race distance for Charlotte Motor Speedway road course still TBD

Harold Hinson HHP/Charlotte Motor Speedway
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CONCORD, N.C. — It still might be known as the Bank of America 500, but 500 kilometers might not be the distance of the first road-course race in the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs.

Charlotte Motor Speedway announced Wednesday in the media center during a break in tire testing that next year’s Round of 16 cutoff race would be 500 kilometers or about 130 laps on the 2.42-mile layout. Track officials said it would be the longest road course race on the circuit (roughly 90 miles longer than the events at Sonoma Raceway and Watkins Glen International).

That prompted a raft of buzz on social media about a 500-kilometer race that likely would be pushing at least four hours with two stage breaks and a few cautions (lap times were in the 90-second range during the test).

But in a statement early Wednesday evening, NASCAR wouldn’t confirm 500 kilometers as the distance of the Sept. 30 race.

Here’s the statement:

This week’s test provided valuable data that will be part of the equation in determining the distance for next fall’s race. We will continue working closely with our partners to develop the best event for fans and competitors alike.

There was no immediate response from Charlotte Motor Speedway to the NASCAR statement. A release from the track near the conclusion of the two-day tire test late Wednesday afternoon referred to next season’s race as the Bank of America 500 but didn’t specify the race’s distance.

Charlotte road course could be Talladega, Part II as Round of 16 cutoff race

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CONCORD, N.C. – There are many unknowns about the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course – passing zones, tire compound, even race distance – but Martin Truex Jr. said Wednesday there is one certainty.

When the new layout makes its debut as the Round of 16 cutoff race next season, playoff drivers will want to be assured of advancing ahead of time.

“I’m going to be hoping I’m going to win one of the first two in that round,” Truex said. “I’m going to put this right in there with Talladega.”

The Furniture Row Racing driver tested tires Tuesday and Wednesday on the 18-turn, 2.42-mile track (which incorporates most of Charlotte’s 1.5-mile oval) with Kurt Busch, Jamie McMurray and Daniel Hemric.

Busch said the layout was similar to the Daytona International Speedway road course but with a much smaller footprint that ratcheted up the intensity.

“There’s no room for taking a break or having a quick, deep breath down the straightaway,” Busch said. “As soon as you’re in high gear off turn 2, you’re in a chicane. Back through the gears, you’re downshifting on the brakes to go to the frontstretch chicane. It’s a very busy track.”

There is a 35-foot change in elevation on the course, which features two chicanes that track officials say are designed to encourage passing and provide an option for rain tires.

The transitions between the high-banked surface and the flatter road course make it tricky to navigate.

“There’s all kinds of craziness going on,” Truex said. “Turns 1 and 2 are pretty wild, narrow with concrete walls on both sides. Intimidating.

“It’s a unique track. I don’t know if I’ve run a road course anything like it because of the elevation changes, the bumps and the humps. Charlotte isn’t smooth to begin with and add in infield that has been around a long time, there’s a lot of swells in it. It definitely is interesting. It’s a unique challenge. I don’t know I’ve raced anything like it.”

The track announced the race distance as 500 kilometers, which would make it the longest road course race on the circuit, but NASCAR didn’t confirm the length of the first playoff race with right turns (saying “it provided valuable data that will be part of the equation in determining the distance for next fall’s race”).

Also in flux is the layout. Truex talked to Speedway Motorsports Inc. CEO Marcus Smith about adding some safety features such as curbing, runoff areas, tire barriers and walls.

Busch also has recommended eliminating Turn 8 to connect the seventh and ninth turn, reducing the number of slow corners on the track. “There are a lot of slow sections with turns 5, 6 and 7,” Busch said. “Those are good rhythmic corners. … (But) a 3,500-pound car going 35 mph too many times isn’t too exciting. We need to speed up the track a bit.”

Truex, who shaved 10 seconds off his lap time on the first day, estimated the top-end speed is about 175 mph and said the ninth turn (before entering the oval in Turn 1) is the slowest.

Where are the best passing zones?

“That’s a great question,” he said. “I can’t tell you that. Single-car runs so far, it’s hard to say. There’s a lot of places you can crash. I’m not sure about the passing yet.”

After starting on the Watkins Glen tire, it’s expected Goodyear could bring a softer tire next year for faster speeds and better grip. Lap times were in the 90-second range, which Busch said was slower than anticipated but illustrated the difficulty of balancing a tire between a high-speed oval and a road course that drove more like the technical Sonoma than the high-speed Watkins Glen.

“The corners are sharp, low grip and we have 800 horsepower, so we’re trying to put the power down and sliding the tires quite a bit,” Busch said. “The process is to work with Goodyear and Charlotte Motor Speedway to find things we can change safety-wise and recommend the shapes of chicane around the back straightaway and even the front straightaway section.”

Busch, who drove the No. 14 Ford in place of Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer, said he volunteered for the race because of its playoff implications in 2018.

“It’s a cutoff race,” he said. “Teams better get their arms wrapped around it and their heads focused on it because it’s one of the most important races of the year. When it’s a new situation like this, there’s a lot of oddities and variables. Fans will see it.”

Aric Almirola returns to Kansas for first time since May’s crash there

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The last time Aric Almirola left Kansas Speedway, it was in an ambulance after being involved in the hardest wreck of his racing career.

That three-car wreck on May 13th – which also involved Joey Logano and Danica Patrick – fractured the Tampa native’s back and sidelined him for two months. Almirola missed seven NASCAR Cup races in the process.

He climbed back behind the wheel for the first time after the wreck on July 16 at New Hampshire, where he qualified 21st and finished 24th.

Almirola returns this weekend to Kansas Speedway with confidence and some unfinished business in the race.

“I have no hesitation heading back after the accident there in the spring,” Almirola said in a team media release. “It had nothing to do with the track and was just a product of hard racing.

“I’m fully healed and ready to head back out there. We had a good week last week (fifth at Talladega) and really fought for a top-five finish. We’ll try to use that momentum this week to get a good finish as we near the end of the season.”

Where Almirola goes after this season remains a question mark. Almirola has already announced he will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports next season. Darrell “Bubba” Wallace Jr. – who filled in for four of the seven Cup races Almirola missed while recovering from the wreck – has already been announced to  drive the No. 43 Ford for RPM next season.

So for the remaining five races of the season, Almirola will continue to give a best effort and keep talking with other teams for a potential ride next season.

“I always like going to Kansas,” he said. “It’s a track where we’ve been able to compete up front in the past, so we are always excited to see if we can improve on that.”