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Five drivers to watch at Martinsville

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The Round of 8 begins this weekend at Martinsville Speedway. Here are five drivers to watch.

Jimmie Johnson

The six-time Cup champion enters new territory as he makes his first appearance in the Round of 8 under the current Chase format. But he’s always a threat at Martinsville, where he’s scored eight wins and finished in the top 10 almost 80 percent of the time (23 top 10s in 29 starts). A finish in that range would put him in good position for next weekend at Texas — where he’s won the last four Chase races.

Kevin Harvick

He’s posted the best average finish across this year’s short track events (7.0). That’s even with a 17th-place finish in April at Martinsville. Harvick led 72 laps in that race but fell back on a late restart after being stuck on the dreaded outside lane. While Harvick is a past winner at Martinsville (Spring 2011), his best chances to win in the Round of 8 and advance to the championship are still to come. Like with Johnson, a top-10 finish would be a solid start for him.

Kurt Busch

If the Cubs’ No. 1 fan is going to make it to Miami, he’s got to survive Martinsville. He’s a two-time winner at this track, but his most recent victory in Spring 2014 is his only top-10 result there since 2006. So far in the Chase, he has been able to hold steady with a 9.7 average finish and no finishes worse than 15th. But it’s time to turn up the wick.

Kyle Busch

The defending Sprint Cup champion has led more laps than anyone on the short tracks this year (686), but the outcomes have varied. Good: He led 352 laps in route to his first Martinsville win in April. Bad: Later that month at Richmond, he was bumped out of the way by teammate Carl Edwards for the win. Ugly: He crashed out of both Bristol races. 

Jeff Gordon

He makes his final start in place of Dale Earnhardt Jr. this weekend at the track where he scored one of the biggest wins of his career last fall. The results haven’t been especially great for Gordon in the 88 car (best finish: 10th at Dover earlier this month), but his feedback has no doubt helped Hendrick Motorsports’ resurgence. And as we know very well, you can never count him the nine-time Martinsville winner.

Former champions battling to stay alive in Cup playoffs

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Title hopes could end today for more than one series champion.

Former champ Jimmie Johnson holds that final transfer spot to the next round, but he leads former champion Kyle Busch by seven points and former champion Matt Kenseth by eight points.

“This is our first Homestead of this year,’’ Busch said, referring to the season finale that determines the crown. “We’ve got to come through this race. It’s not a must-win, but it is a must-perform.’’

It will be challenging because Busch, Johnson and Kenseth are all strong at this track.

Johnson’s three wins at Kansas are the most among active drivers. Busch has finished in the top five in five consecutive Kansas races. Kenseth has led 269 of the 536 laps (50.2 percent) run in this event the past two years.

That makes Sunday’s elimination race (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN) even more intriguing.

Johnson, who is in his first bid to break a tie with Richard Petty and Dale Earnhardt for most Cup championships, finds himself in this spot because of a lack of speed. It’s hurt him in qualifying, costing him stage points, and hurt him throughout the race.

“We are a team and a group that thrives on adversity,’’ said Johnson, who noted he was the slowest of the championship cars last year in Miami and still won his record-tying seventh title.

“Whenever we have been backed into a corner we have always stepped up and have delivered. All the members of this No. 48 team love a challenge, and we are not even close to losing that desire and that fight to be out there and compete and race for the win and race for the championship.’’

Mistakes have plagued the team the past two weeks. At Charlotte, Johnson took off before all the lug nuts were secured on the left front tire and had to back up to have that remedied, losing time. Last week, spotter Earl Barban told the team they could begin work on Johnson’s wrecked car before the red flag was withdrawn. NASCAR parked the team for the infraction.

“There are lessons learned in everything,’’ Johnson said. “When I think of the Charlotte pit stop itself and I think of Talladega and the mistake there that Earl made, really all mistakes come from guys trying as hard as they can. 

“I personally have sympathy for that. I mean, the guys are just trying to do the best job they can and everybody makes mistakes. I make plenty of them, and I think Fridays show that on a regular basis. It’s hard for me to jump on somebody over that.  What I ask of myself is to learn from those lessons and try not to repeat them.’’

Kenseth, winless in his last 48 starts, has a Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota but his team has seemed to be the weakest of JGR’s playoff teams throughout the postseason.

“If we don’t run good Sunday, then we don’t deserve to be in the next round anyway,’’ Kenseth said Friday.

Kenseth lamented the performance he and his team had at Kansas in May, finishing 12th.

“You’re only as good as your last race,’’ he said. “Our last one here we ran really, really bad.

Kenseth suggests he might have to knock someone else out of a playoff spot if Kyle Busch runs like he’s capable.

“If I’m Kyle (Busch), I’m feeling pretty good,’’ Kenseth said of his teammate. “He’s crashed two weeks in a row and he’s still in (playoff contention). That’s pretty amazing. Plus he’s been running so good, it’s one of his better places now. So I wouldn’t be very concerned if I was Kyle, I guess, because he’s had the performance.

“Now, (Jimmie Johnson) hasn’t run quite as good as he’s accustomed to running. We haven’t run as good as we’re accustomed to running.”

That Busch is so close after a miserable round (29th at Charlotte and 27th at Talladega) is because he has so many more playoff and stage points than Johnson and Kenseth.

Busch has 41 playoff points. Johnson has 17 and Kenseth five.

Busch’s job is simple he says.

“I look at it as out-finishing (Johnson) and (Blaney) by three, four spots each stage, each round, in order to make up enough points to pass them both,’’ he said. “Whether that’s doable or not, we’ll see. We’ll certainly try. We’ll fight hard, hopefully run up front all day long. We’ve done that this year. We did that here in the spring. We just need to back it up and do it again when it’s crunch time.”

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Justin Allgaier leads Xfinity playoff standings after first race of second round

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Justin Allgaier and two of his JR Motorsports teammates lead the Xfinity playoff standings after the first second round race, the Kansas Lottery 300 at Kansas Speedway.

Allgaier holds a two-point lead over William Byron and a 11-point lead over Elliott Sadler after finishing fifth in the race.

The top five is completed by Brennan Poole (-28) and Matt Tifft (-33).

Only four of the remaining eight drivers will advance to the championship race.

Click here for the point standings.

Stats, results for Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway

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Christopher Bell claimed his first Xfinity Series win in the Kansas Lottery 300 after passing his teammate, Erik Jones, with four laps left in the race at Kansas Speedway.

Bell only led the final four laps after Jones led 186.

Completing the top five was Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for results.

 

Christopher Bell wins first career Xfinity Series race at Kansas

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Christopher Bell passed teammate Erik Jones for the lead with four laps left in the Kansas Lottery 300, withstood contact from behind by Jones and claimed his first career Xfinity Series win.

Bell, driving the No. 18 Toyota, won in his fifth career start. It comes in the opening race of the second round of the playoffs.

Bell passed Jones in Turn 3 and drifted up to the wall as they exited Turn 4, where Jones then ran into him.

“I haven’t seen it so I can’t really talk much about it,” Bell told NBC. “But I never want to wreck anyone, especially my teammate. I don’t know. My spotter said clear, I drove it in really deep. I felt like I cleared him (watches replay). I don’t know man, I was clear. It’s my first Xfinity win. I’m sorry that Erik couldn’t finish the race. But I’m just stoked. This thing was awesome.”

Jones dominated the race until the pass by Bell. Jones led 186 of 200 laps and swept the first two stages. He finished 15th, one lap down due to damage from running into the back of Bell.

“It’s not dirt racing, he (wasn’t) clear,” Jones told NBC. “I can’t just stop on the top. I didn’t expect him to drive in on the bottom so far he wouldn’t be able to hold his lane. It’s unfortunate. … I thought we were going to race for the win. Unfortunately there wasn’t much of a race. It was more of a wreck.”

Jones has not finished better than 15th in his last four Xfinity starts.

It is the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing since Denny Hamlin won at Darlington Raceway, a five-race stretch. JGR has won 11 Xfinity races this season.

Bell, 22, is a full-time driver in the Camping World Truck Series. He will race full-time for JGR in the Xfinity Series next year.

The top five was Bell, Tyler Reddick, Ryan Blaney, William Byron and Justin Allgaier.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Erik Jones

STAGE 2 WINNER: Erik Jones

MORE: Race results

MORE: Points standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Elliott Sadler finished seventh after bouncing back from a spin in Turn 4 on Lap 77 and a pit penalty … Tyler Reddick gave the No. 42 Chevrolet its fourth top-two finish in the last five races … William Byron finished fourth and Matt Tifft placed eighth after both had to start from the rear for unapproved adjustments.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Daniel Hemric finished 18th, a lap down after receiving a penalty for pitting outside his box … Blake Koch finished 23rd, four laps down after getting into the wall with about 35 laps to go … Cole Custer finished 19th, two laps down after pitting for a bad tire with less than five laps to go.

NOTABLE: The 186 laps led by Erik Jones are his most in 75 career Xfinity starts … The cars of Matt Tifft and Ryan Blaney each had one unsecured lug nut after the race. Any penalties will be announced later in the week.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I just don’t think that’s the way to do it. I get that (Christopher Bell) was clear. He wasn’t clear for the run I was having on the top. I was in the gas. There was no way I could slow up enough to let him. It’s just unfortunate. It took me out of the race. … I just don’t really appreciate that. I don’t think many people will.’’ – Erik Jones

WHAT’S NEXT: O’Reilly Auto Parts Challenge at Texas Motor Speedway at 8:30 p.m. ET on Nov. 4 on NBCSN