Ryan: A day of fast cars but frayed emotions for Joe Gibbs Racing

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. – Kyle Busch flipped a thumbs up and a discordant message at team owner Joe Gibbs while briskly walking away from the pits Sunday at Martinsville Speedway.

“—ing great teammate,” Busch said.

Without acknowledgement, Gibbs stoically walked a few yards down the track’s pit lane to the No. 11 Toyota, where the object of Busch’s ire, Denny Hamlin, still was completing postrace interviews.

Was Joe Gibbs Racing – the epitome of harmonious cooperation a week earlier in rear-guard formation at Talladega Superspeedway – suddenly in need of smoothing out some fissures within a NASCAR fortress that largely was impenetrable in dominating much of the Sprint Cup season?

“I don’t think so,” Gibbs told NBC Sports. “I think they kind of handle stuff like that themselves, but, you know, our guys are all very competitive. You got three different sponsors, and everyone’s going hard. That’s part of being in a good situation and having good cars.

“I think all three of them are racing extremely hard, and I think probably all three of them were going for it as hard as they could. I think that can happen when you have three good cars.”

JGR had four great cars in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500, but it was understandable why the powerhouse with half of the remaining eight Chase for the Sprint Cup contenders left the 0.526-mile oval with an empty feeling.

Carl Edwards finished 36th after blowing a tire on his No. 19 Toyota just before a scheduled pit stop with 160 laps to go. Teammates Busch (fifth), Hamlin (third) and Matt Kenseth (fourth with a race-high 176 laps led) all earned top fives that were served with a whopping double-combination reality check.

There will be no scenario in which JGR’s dream regular season – 13 wins in 26 races — will end with the championship decided in an intrasquad battle within the walls of its Huntersville, N.C., headquarters.

That was ensured by the continued resurgence of Jimmie Johnson, who quickly is emerging as the JGR dream killer of the 2016 playoffs.

With his 79th career victory, the six-time series champion catapulted into the championship round of the playoffs and will have the opportunity to prevent another driver from advancing next week at Texas Motor Speedway, where he has won four consecutive times in the annual November race.

Whichever three cars – JGR or otherwise – that are title-eligible for the Nov. 20 finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway will have to contend with Johnson, who has a two-week jump-start on the competition and the history-making motivation of tying an all-time record with a seventh title.

Though JGR has yet to win in the Chase, the team seems undaunted by the prospect of wresting a title from Johnson’s grasp.

“I think anyone can be beat,” Hamlin said. “I wouldn’t deem anyone better than the rest.  I think that any car that makes it in, whether it be points or wins, is going to be tough to beat.

“It’s not deflating from my standpoint because we still had a very good showing.  Our cars all ran really, really well throughout the entire day.”

The first half of Sunday’s race did belong to JGR and Toyota ally Martin Truex Jr.

Camrys occupied the top four slots for long stretches and showed deference on restarts (with the first-place car taking the outside so the second-place car stayed on the preferred bottom line and allowed the leader down).

But after the final restart on Lap 387 of 500, it understandably turned into a scramble that engendered some ill will, namely from Busch.

“We worked so good together that we just gave the win to (Johnson) today,” he said, sardonically adding. “So, JGR all the way.”

Busch’s primary issue was that Hamlin had raced so hard against him and Kenseth that it ruined any chance of a Gibbs car catching Johnson while simultaneously clearing a path for runner-up Brad Keselowski to knife by in traffic.

“You had the slowest Gibbs car holding up the rest of the line, and all we did was let somebody else (Keselowski) from another organization pass us and go up there and chase down (Johnson),” Busch said. “That could have been either (Kenseth) or myself if it wasn’t for (Hamlin) holding the rest of us up.”

Laughing after being told Gibbs said he lets his drivers settle their differences (“That ain’t true. He gets right in the middle.”), Hamlin said he hadn’t talked to Busch after the race. He also was puzzled by his teammate’s anger.

“I may have held those guys up for a little bit of that final run but definitely don’t think I was holding anyone up at the end, for sure,” Hamlin said. “I had no idea why anyone was mad at me, to be honest with you. If somebody is mad at me, honestly I don’t know why.

“None of us were going to get (Johnson). That’s real talk there. Someone’s upset, I think it’s just because we all had a top‑three car during the end of the race, and we ended up three, four, five. That’s never happy.”

It’s hard to make everyone happy in a sport where “teammates” are racing tooth and nail for positions on every lap.

For JGR, it figures only to get harder from here.

NASCAR America: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. talks Phoenix finish, racing roots

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. joins NASCAR America to go over his fourth-place finish at Phoenix Raceway.

The Roush Fenway Racing driver also shares his racing origins in Mississippi and the hobbies he and girlfriend Danica Patrick share with each other.

Stenhouse is in his fifth full-time year competing in the NASCAR Cup Series with Roush Fenway Racing.

NASCAR America: 50 States in 50 Shows: Alaska

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NASCAR America continues its journey through the United States with the second chapter in “50 States in 50 Shows.”

Following South Alabama Speedway, the show features Capitol Speedway and Alaska Raceway Park in Alaska.

Owned by Nancy and Wes Wallace, Capitol Speedway is a 3/8th-mile oval and features sprint car racing and demolition derbies.

 

Kevin Harvick crew chief fined, suspended one race for encumbered finish

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Kevin Harvick‘s crew chief, Rodney Childers, has been suspended for one NASCAR Cup Series race and fined $25,000 for an unapproved track bar slider assembly last weekend at Phoenix Raceway.

The penalty, a L1 infraction, results in an encumbered finish. Harvick placed sixth in the Camping World 500.

The No. 4 team has also been docked 10 driver and owner points. Harvick was seventh in the standings after four races. He trailed leader Kyle Larson by 61 points. The loss of points drops Harvick one spot to eighth behind Jamie McMurray.

Harvick has not won a race yet, which would qualify him for the playoffs.

MORE: Brad Keselowski closes crew chief for three races, team docked 35 driver points

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NASCAR docks Brad Keselowski, Team Penske 35 points; suspends crew chief Paul Wolfe

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NASCAR docked Brad Keselowski 35 points, suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe three races and fined Wolfe $65,000 because Keselowski’s car failed inspection after finishing fifth in last weekend’s race at Phoenix Raceway.

NASCAR also docked the team 35 owner points for the L1 infraction. NASCAR stated that Keselowski’s result is an encumbered finish.

NASCAR cited Keselowski’s car for failing weights and measurements on the laser platform. NASCAR stated in Wednesday’s penalty report that the team failed the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station. 

MORE: NASCAR suspends crew chief Rodney Childers one race

Team Penske issued a statement Wednesday:

“We have acknowledged the penalties levied against the No. 2 team following last weekend’s Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series race at Phoenix International Raceway.  The race cars returned to the race shop today and we are in the process of evaluating the area in question. In the meantime, we have decided Brian Wilson will serve as Brad Keselowski’s crew chief at Auto Club Speedway while we evaluate our approach relative to today’s penalties.”

The penalty drops Keselowski from second in the standings to fourth heading into this weekend’s race at Auto Club Speedway.

The more significant issue is how this could impact Keselowski, who already has a win, in the playoffs.

The top 10 in points before the playoffs begin earn additional points. The points leader earns 15 playoff points. The driver second in the standings earns 10 playoff points, the driver third in the standings earns eight playoff points, the driver fourth in the standings earns seven playoff points. It goes down to the driver 10th in the standings earning one playoff point.

Those playoff points carry through the first three rounds, which is different from last year. Falling behind in the regular season – or losing points because of a penalty – could have ramifications in the playoffs. 

“I think it’s real important to explain why points matter this year,” Keselowski said on Fox Sports 1’s “Race Hub” on Wednesday night. “Last year, you got a win and you locked in and you got to the next round. This year with points, you still lock in with wins. The difference is there’s a huge points bonus for having the most points at the end of the season that carries all the way through the playoffs, and you only get that bonus if you’re one of the best cars and leading up front at the end of the regular season, which requires having a lot of points. Thirty-five points is a pretty big deal, and so is 10 points for Kevin (Harvick) and his team.”

 

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