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Upon Further Review: Jimmie Johnson gains upper hand

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Jimmie Johnson’s victory Sunday at Martinsville Speedway puts him in a strong spot to dictate who he’ll race for the championship in Miami.

If he could win this weekend at Texas Motor Speedway — where he’s won the last four Chase races — it would take away an automatic spot to the title race for a championship contender and mean at least two drivers would advance through points.

If Kevin Harvick went on to win at Phoenix — where he has won six of the last times — it would leave two spots among reigning series champ Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Carl Edwards, Kurt Busch and Joey Logano.

The top two Chase drivers in points not yet qualified for the championship race are Hamlin and Kenseth after Martinsville.

“That chance might be there, but when you have guys like Chase Elliott, Martin Truex and Brad Keselowski that aren’t in the Chase, I’d put those three right up there as favorites going into Texas,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports about being able to control, in a way, who could advance to Miami. “It’s not a guarantee that I’d keep a Chaser from winning.

“We want more trophies, I want our team to deal with as much pressure as possible before Homestead, so the more laps we can lead, the more races we can contend for, the better it’s going to make our team. That’s really our motivation to go down there.”

Johnson is right, should a driver not eligible for the title win, that also would prevent a driver from advancing automatically to the final round — just as Johnson has done each of the past two years since he was out of title contention by the Texas race.

UP AND DOWN

One of the fascinating elements of this Chase has been Joe Gibbs Racing’s inability to win, and Jimmie Johnson’s success after struggling much of the regular season.

Their differences are magnified when looking at when they’ve led laps during the Chase races.

Joe Gibbs Racing cars have led 753 laps in the Chase but only 36.5 percent of those laps have come in the second half of a race. In essence, they’re not controlling races past the halfway mark as they often do in the first half.

Johnson, who has two wins in this Chase, has led 455 laps in the Chase. The key with him is that 78.7 percent of the laps he’s led have come in the second half of the race, showing that he gets stronger as the race progresses and puts himself in position to win races.

Martinsville proved the exception for Joe Gibbs Racing. Its cars led 74 laps in the race’s first half and 153 laps in the race’s second. Yet, JGR still couldn’t beat Johnson, who led the final 92 laps.

Kyle Busch expressed frustration with how teammate Denny Hamlin raced late in Sunday’s race, saying that didn’t help.

“We worked so good together that we just gave the win to (Johnson),” a frustrated Busch said afterward. “So, JGR all the way.”

BIG ADVANTAGE?

Although Jeff Gordon won at Martinsville last fall (the opening race in the Round of 8) and had the extra two weeks to focus on the championship finale, it wasn’t enough for him to win the title.

Still, Gordon doesn’t discount the advantage Jimmie Johnson has after Johnson’s victory Sunday.

“I think Homestead is probably the biggest question mark for them,’’ Gordon said, “but the way they’ve been running on the mile-and-a-halves this year and the work they’ll be able to do … man, that’s going to be tough to beat them.’’

Gordon said it was helpful to win at Martinsville last year to give the team more time to prepare for Miami.

“We were just solely focused on Homestead from that point on,’’ Gordon said. “It gives them time just to massage (the Homestead car) and know that car is going to Homestead to race for a championship.’’

PIT STOPS

AJ Allmendinger’s 10th-place finish marked his third consecutive top-10 result. That’s the first time in his career he’s done that.

— Joe Gibbs Racing is winless in the Chase (seven races). This is the organization’s longest winless drought of the season.

Michael McDowell’s 18th-place finish at Martinsville was the best finish of his career at that track. Also, the finish marked his ninth top-20 result of the season. He had three top-20 finishes in the past two seasons (35 starts).

— Jimmie Johnson’s win ended a six-race winless drought at Martinsville Speedway. Since scoring his first Martinsville win in 2004, he’s never gone more than six races between victories there. He has nine career victories at the circuit’s shortest track.

— Denny Hamlin finished third despite a penalty for speeding on pit road. This marked the sixth time this season Hamlin has scored a top-five finish after a penalty in a race.

— Jimmie Johnson’s win continued Ford’s drought at Martinsville Speedway. Ford has not won there in the last 28 races. Ford’s last Martinsville win was with Kurt Busch in 2002.

NASCAR America: Under the radar playoff drivers, Talladega’s playoff placement

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SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Pete Pistone dropped by NASCAR America for his weekly appearance to discuss the Cup playoffs so far.

Pistone was asked who he thought is the most under the radar driver through five races in the playoffs. He chose Joe Gibbs Racing’s Denny Hamlin.

“We’ve heard from Denny Hamlin on some other things, some off-the-track stuff,” Pistone said. “He’s been in the headlines. But in terms of how he’s running and where’s he’s running, I think we’ve sort of been missing him a little bit.”

Hamlin finished sixth at Talladega for his third top 10 of the playoffs. His worst result so far is 35th (DNF) at Dover for an axle problem.

Kyle Petty asked Pistone who he would rather see eliminated from the playoffs if he were Martin Truex Jr: Jimmie Johnson or Kyle Busch.

“I think I want to see Jimmie Johnson eliminated and the only reason I would say that Kyle is because Jimmie’s been there before, (crew chief) Chad (Knaus) has been there before. We’ve written off Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson even this late in the playoffs before. It’s almost Halloween. They’re sort of like Michael Myers from Halloween, the movie. If you let them up and be alive again they’re going to come and get you with a knife.”

Watch the above video for more.

Kasey Kahne, Matt DiBenedetto marking Cup start milestones at Kansas

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series race at Kansas Speedway will mark career milestones for Kasey Kahne and Matt DiBenedetto.

Kahne, who is in the final five races of his tenure driving the No. 5 for Hendrick Motorsports, will make his 500th Cup Series start.

DiBenedetto, driver of Go Fas Racing’s No. 32 Ford, will reach the century mark with his 100th Cup start.

The two join the ranks of drivers who have celebrated similar milestones this season.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. marked his 600th start at Auto Club Speedway. Kevin Harvick made his 600th start in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway and Kurt Busch made his in the Bristol night race.

Brad Keselowski won Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway in his 300th Cup start.

Kahne, 37,  made his first Cup start in the 2004 Daytona 500 for Evernham Motorsports. The 24-year-old driver won the Rookie of the Year that season, making him the youngest winner of the award at the time since Jeff Gordon earned it at the age of 22 in 1993.

Since then he has earned 18 wins, 92 top fives, 175 top 10s and 27 poles. He has yet to miss a race in his 14-year career in the Cup Series.

DiBenedetto, 26, made his first Cup start on March 15, 2015 in the CampingWorld.com 500 at Phoenix Raceway. The start, in the No. 83 Toyota for BK Racing, came after he failed to qualify for the previous two races at Atlanta and Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In the two years since, DiBenedetto has earned three top 10s, including two this year in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

His career-best finish is sixth in the April 2016 race at Bristol.

Through 31 races this year, DiBenedetto has an average finish of 26.8, an improvement over his totals in 2015 (32nd) and 2016 (30th).

In five Kansas starts, DiBenedetto’s best result is 24th in the fall 2016 race. His average finish is 28.2.

“I really enjoy racing at Kansas Speedway,” DiBenedetto said in a press release. “Our mile-and-a-half program has been very strong this year and (Crew chief) Gene (Nead) has been giving me fast race cars to compete with. We qualified in the second-round here at Kansas earlier in the season, so that gives us a lot of hope.

“I like the racing at Kansas because you can move around a lot groove-wise and find a line that works with the balance of your race car. I’m usually one of the first people to move up into the high-groove and that seems to help find us some speed. If we can get a balance on the race car like we had in the spring, I know we’ll be fast and competitive.”

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

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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.

Asked about NASCAR’s statement, Charlotte Motor Speedway spokesman Scott Cooper said the track still was planning for a 500-kilometer race.

“We’re learning a tremendous amount about the Roval from this week’s test,” Cooper said in an email to NBCSports.com. “Ultimately, we want the most challenging road course race for the drivers and the very best show for the fans, and we’ll continue to work hard to get there.”

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.