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Tony Stewart, Jeff Gordon competing together for likely final time at Martinsville

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FORT WORTH, TEXAS – Tony Stewart and Jeff Gordon entered Sprint Cup racing seven years apart, but they’ll be leaving together, just on very different terms.

Stewart and Gordon, winners of seven combined Sprint Cup titles, will make what is likely their last NASCAR start together this weekend at Martinsville Speedway in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500.

If you can’t help but feel we’ve gone through this before, well, we have.

“Keep in mind we thought we were doing that last year in the same scenario,” Tony Stewart said two weeks ago at Texas Motor Speedway during his “Smoke Show” fantasy camp to benefit the Speedway Children’s Charities. “Who knows, he might be here 10 more years at the rate he’s going.”

Gordon and Stewart made their original “last” start together in the November 2015 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway, capping off Gordon’s farewell tour after 24 years on the circuit. Two months earlier, Stewart announced that 2016 would be his final season driving full-time in Sprint Cup after 18 full-time Cup seasons.

Stewart made it clear then that he did not want his final season to mirror Gordon’s, which consisted of gifts and special presentations by every track, including horses from Texas Motor Speedway.

“I’m not really that kind of guy,” Stewart said. “I’m content to go race and be around the racing community and the racing family and be around our fans. They can just send me a note from the track president and say, hey, thank you, and that’ll be sufficient for me.

“I think it’s been very fitting for Jeff. I don’t think I’m worthy of that kind of admiration because I think Jeff has really done so much for the sport that nobody will ever be able to do again.”

But as 2016 unfolded, Gordon wrote an unexpected epilogue in his racing story, while Stewart’s final chapter was shortened. A pre-season back injury kept Stewart from making his first start of 2016 until the ninth race at Richmond International Raceway.

When Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a season-ending concussion in June that didn’t present symptoms until July, Gordon was enlisted by Hendrick Motorsports to drive his No. 88 Chevrolet in eight races. That’s eight more races for “Smoke” and “Wonder Boy” to write history together.

“I haven’t thought about it a lot, to be honest,” Stewart said at TMS. “No more than I did last year. But it’s cool to run (against him) again.”

Aside from giving the command to start engines for the Sprint All-Star Race in May, the only real ceremonial moment Stewart has taken part in was at the July 24 Brickyard 400, Gordon’s first race in the No. 88.

The two drivers, who have both called Indiana home at one point in their lives, did a post-race parade lap around the 2.5-mile track they’ve won seven combined races at as a salute to the fans and the state that gave birth to their Hall of Fame racing careers.

“The Indy deal was special because it was Indy,” Stewart said. “He lived in Pittsboro, he wasn’t born there, but he lived in Pittsboro a lot of his life and he was 20 minutes away, I was 45 minutes away from there (in Columbus, Indiana). That’s a special place to us. It was neat to share that together.”

And they’ll get to share their final Martinsville start together.

Gordon is the active all-time wins leader at the short track with nine victories, including his final Cup win there last October.

Stewart has three wins there, including one during his third and final championship campaign in 2011.

Entering Sunday’s race Stewart and Gordon have combined for 1,418 Sprint Cup Series starts, 142 wins, 96 poles, 37,751 laps led and seven championships.

Here’s a look at the tracks Stewart and Gordon have enjoyed much success at together:

Martinsville Speedway – Gordon (nine wins), Stewart (three wins)

Watkins Glen International – Stewart (five wins), Gordon (four wins)

Daytona International Speedway – Gordon (six wins), Stewart (four wins)

Indianapolis Motor Speedway – Gordon (five wins), Stewart (two wins)

Sonoma Raceway – Gordon (five wins), Stewart (three wins)

Dover International Speedway – Gordon (five wins), Stewart (three wins)

Ryan Blaney returns to Kansas where win slipped away in May

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Ryan Blaney got into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs thanks to his first career win at Pocono Raceway in June.

But Blaney nearly got to victory lane three races earlier at Kansas Speedway in May.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver earned his first pole, won Stage 2 and led 83 laps in the Go Bowling! 400. But the No. 21 Ford was passed by Martin Truex Jr. with 19 laps to go and Blaney slipped back to fourth before the checkered flag.

Now the Wood Brothers crew returns to Kansas for this weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400, the elimination race for the Round of 12.

Blaney is currently inside the top eight that would advance to the next round, but he’s not safe. He is seventh in the standings, nine points above Kyle Busch in ninth place. Jimmie Johnson sits in the final transfer spot, seven points up from Busch.

Blaney comes into Sunday’s race after he earned 18 stage points at Talladega and one playoff point for winning Stage 2. But Blaney’s Sunday ended when he was involved in a five-car wreck with 10 laps to go.

“We saw how important stage points are last week at Talladega, and it’ll be the same this week at Kansas,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said in a press release. “The 18 points Ryan earned in the first two stages at Talladega allowed us to move up four spots in the standings even after wrecking out of the race.”

Blaney will be battling with the bubble drivers of Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to advance at Kansas.

To advance, Blaney needs to either win the race or earn 54 points in the race according to Racing Insights. That competition for those points begins on Friday when teams qualify.

“The weekend starts for sure on Friday, of trying to qualify up front and staying up front for the first stage or second stage and trying to get those points,” Blaney said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.” “They’re so valuable to your weekend and your playoff run. I don’t want to say it’s all about it. But they’re a really, really big part of the race on Sunday.”

Though Blaney trails the other four bubble drivers in regards to stage points earned through all five playoff races so far, he has the advantage when it comes to stage points earned in the Round of 12.

Blaney has earned 20 to Johnson’s 14, Kenseth’s 12 and Busch’s eight.

Blaney has an average of 7.1 stage points per race at 1.5-mile track this season. That trails Kenseth’s 7.3 and Busch’s 10.

A glaring disadvantage for Blaney is in playoff points. When he won Stage 2 at Talladega, Blaney garnered his ninth playoff point of the season.

That gives him the fourth fewest among the 12 remaining playoff drivers. The only drivers with fewer are Chase Elliott (six), Kenseth (five) and Jamie McMurray (three).

Blaney has made five starts at Kansas, including his first Cup start in 2014. With three top-10 finishes among them, his average finish is 11.4.

Blaney’s average finish on 1.5-mile tracks this season is 11.8. Of the four main bubble drivers, that is only bested by Kenseth’s average (10.1).

When it comes to points earned per race at 1.5-mile tracks, Blaney (32.4) is topped by Busch (33.4) and Kenseth (34.1).

Here’s your primer heading into second half of NASCAR Cup playoffs

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If you thought the first five races of the NASCAR Cup playoffs were intense, you haven’t seen nothing yet.

As the 10-race playoffs move into their second half, the final five races will likely be more competitive than the first five.

That’s particularly true in Sunday’s cut-off race at Kansas, where the current field of 12 remaining playoff contenders will be cut to eight after the checkered flag falls.

And then there will be the Round of 8 cut-off race at Phoenix in four weeks that will set the four-driver field for the championship race in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Thanks to our friends at RacingInsights.com, here’s some of the top playoff insights that will help fans better understand where we are in the playoffs heading into Kansas:

  • Playoff drivers have won all five races in the 2017 playoffs.
  • The last time a driver who didn’t make it into the playoffs won a playoff race was Denny Hamlin at Homestead in 2013.
  • The last playoff race won by a playoff driver who was previously eliminated from the playoffs was Dale Earnhardt Jr. at Phoenix in 2015.
  • Tony Stewart in 2005 is the only driver to go on to win the championship without winning a race during the playoffs.
  • Four of five playoff races so far this season have been won from a qualifying position of sixth or better.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Talladega driving a Ford, ending a four-race playoff winning streak by Toyotas. Also, prior to Talladega, Toyota drivers had won all four poles and all four races in the 2017 playoffs. Dale Earnhardt Jr. took the pole at Talladega, but finished seventh.
  • Brad Keselowski won at Talladega with a last lap pass for the win, it was the eighth playoff race won with a last lap pass and the only one in the last 29 races.
  • There were 11 cautions at Talladega, the most cautions in the last 18 playoff races.
  • There were a combined 21 cautions in the last two playoff races, the same number as the previous four playoff races combined.
  • Talladega last week: 14 cars running at the finish, 26 total DNFs (including 24 DNFs due to wrecks), three red flags and only two playoff drivers finished in the top 10 – all records for a playoff race.
  • A Chevrolet driver has finished runner-up in each of this season’s first five playoff races.
  • Chase Elliott has finished runner-up three times so far in the playoffs. The record for most runner-up finishes in the playoffs in a season was four by Jeff Gordon in 2014 and Jimmie Johnson in 2006. Elliott has also finished runner-up at both 1.5-mile tracks so far, with three more 1.5-mile tracks still left in the final five races (Kansas, Texas and Homestead-Miami).
  • Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Busch are the only drivers still playoff-eligible that have scored stage points in every playoff race.
  • The best average finish by a driver in all 10 races of the playoffs is 4.9 by Carl Edwards in 2011. Edwards tied Tony Stewart for the championship, but Stewart won on the first tiebreaker – more wins (five to Edwards’ one).
  • Martin Truex Jr. has led the playoff standings through the first five races of the playoffs, tying Matt Kenseth in 2013 for the most races led by a driver to start the playoffs. Truex also won at Kansas in May.
  • Three drivers have won races during the playoffs in all three years of the elimination format entering 2017: Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano and Jimmie Johnson all three drivers have yet to win in 2017.
  • Only two of the 135 playoff races were won by drivers getting their first NASCAR Cup win: Clint Bowyer in 2007 at New Hampshire and Brian Vickers in 2006 at Talladega.
  • Jimmie Johnson is the only driver to win a race in every season of the playoffs entering 2017. Entering Kansas, Johnson remains winless in the 2017 playoffs.

Long: Lack of stage points could end Jimmie Johnson’s bid for 8th title

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Jimmie Johnson’s spotter says he’ll be “crossing my fingers” this weekend at Kansas that the mistake he made at Talladega doesn’t keep Johnson from advancing in the playoffs.

Should the seven-time series champion fail to move on to the Round of 8 — he holds the final transfer spot entering Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway — it won’t be because spotter Earl Barban told the team it could work on Johnson’s car before NASCAR had withdrawn the red flag at Talladega, incurring a penalty that ended the team’s race.

No, Johnson, crew chief Chad Knaus and the rest of the team can look at their failure to collect as many Stage 1 points as their competitors. Even if Johnson advances, his lack of stage points could keep him from racing for a championship if he doesn’t win a race in the Round of 8.

Johnson goes to Kansas with a seven-point lead on Kyle Busch for the final transfer spot. Matt Kenseth trails Johnson by eight points.

Before the playoffs began, Johnson was asked if there would be more of a penalty for his summer slump that cost him stage points.

“I really think so,’’ he said. “We know our qualifying average doesn’t lead to a Stage 1 opportunity.’’ 

Johnson’s struggles in qualifying have put him in a mid-pack spot and made it difficult to score many points in the opening stage. His average starting spot of 17.0 this season is worst among the remaining playoff contenders

The result is that Johnson has scored 59 Stage 1 points in 31 races this season — fewest among all but one of the remaining playoff contenders. Johnson has scored only 35.8 percent of his 165 total stage points in the opening stage. To compare, Kyle Busch, who has an average starting spot of 7.1, scored 58.7 percent of his 315 total stage points in the opening stage. 

Johnson’s difficulties in the playoffs have been as pronounced.

Johnson’s average starting spot of 15.2 in the postseason is only better than Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (16.2 average starting spot in playoffs) and Jamie McMurray (18.2).

Johnson’s 27 stage points are more than only Stenhouse (14) and McMurray (13) in the playoffs.

Johnson also has scored 37 percent of his total stage points in the opening stage — the lowest percentage among the remaining title contenders in the playoffs. 

To compare with Busch, he has an average starting spot of 4.8 in the playoffs. That’s allowed Busch to score 63.5 percent of his 52 total stage points in the opening stage.

Add it together and Johnson could face quite a challenge to stay in title contention.

Having to hold off Busch won’t be easy, provided Busch doesn’t run into problems.

In four of the first five playoff races, Busch has scored five or more stage points than Johnson in the opening stage. If Busch does that Sunday, he will be in position to pass Johnson for a spot in the next round over the final 187 laps of the 267-lap event.

That’s a likely scenario. Busch has outscored Johnson 80-41 in stage points in the season’s eight races on 1.5-mile tracks.

If Busch moves into a transfer spot, Johnson likely will have to beat Ryan Blaney to have a chance to break his tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt in championships. Blaney has a two-point lead on Johnson.

Blaney has scored 108 Stage 1 points compared to Johnson’s 59 for the entire season. Blaney has outscored Johnson 196-165 in total stage points this season. In the playoffs, Blaney has a 10.2 average starting spot (compared to Johnson’s 15.2). Blaney has outscored Johnson 28-27 in total stage points in the postseason.

The challenges could be difficult for Johnson this weekend.

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NASCAR video: A.J. Allmendinger could be spoiler at Kansas

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It’s admittedly been a rough season for A.J. Allmendinger.

In the first 31 races, Allmendinger has one top-five finish and five top 10s.

He’s 26th in the NASCAR Cup point standings, which is on pace to be the worst full-time season of Allmendinger’s Cup career.

But there’s a bright spot for Allmendinger in this weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway.

Allmendinger has recorded two top-10 finishes in the last three races at the 1.5-mile track.

And he’s ready to go for another top-10 Sunday.

“In the last few races, the track has widened out for three-wide racing,” Allmendinger said. “It’s a fun race track, run the bottom, middle or top. It’s a place we’ve had success at, we’re ready to go do it again.”