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Ryan: William Byron’s knockout underscores a flaw of Chase

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AVONDALE, Ariz. – When William Bryon’s engine exploded with 12 laps remaining in Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race, it exposed the greatest of fault lines in NASCAR’s playoff structure.

And it could rupture in a full-blown implosion of intractably poor optics in the Nov. 18 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Since switching the Chase for the Sprint Cup (which was christened in the truck and Xfinity circuits this year) to a system of eliminations and points resets, the danger always loomed of a driver consistently beating the competition before falling prey to a fluky finish that short-circuits a title bid.

There have been other examples – Jimmie Johnson’s axle seal failure at Dover leaps to mind – over the past three seasons, but none resonated as much as Byron’s plight.

It’s not just that the Bryon has as many victories (six) this season as the remaining four title contenders combined.

It’s how he consistently has outraced Johnny Sauter, Matt Crafton, Christopher Bell and Timothy Peters during the Chase.

In the previous five races of the playoff, Byron finished higher than at least one of those four contenders every time. Twice, the Kyle Busch Motorsports driver’s No. 9 Toyota was the group’s highest finisher.

So now what happens if the 18-year-old rising star, who is headed to Hendrick Motorsports and surely would be a highly desirable asset as champion in NASCAR’s desperate marketing push for Millennials, manages to win the Nov. 18 season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

Bryon will have won twice in the Chase and finished in the top 10 of every other event except Phoenix – where a faulty part late in the race kept him out of victory lane after leading 112 of 150 laps.

The championship never will have seemed more arbitrary and less valid.

The most tired trope trotted out to defend the current Chase is that a favorite eliminated in such a manner as Byron was would be the equivalent of the New England Patriots’ undefeated season ending in a Super Bowl loss to the New York Giants.

This is nonsense.

Byron’s situation is much more analogous to the Cleveland Indians winning the first six games of the World Series but losing the championship to the Chicago Cubs because they were forced to play a seventh game and lost.

It is possible (though certainly not plausible) that a driver could win the first nine races of the Chase for the Sprint Cup, lead the first 266 laps of the finale and lose the championship because of an engine failure at the white flag.

That is why NASCAR’s playoffs are fundamentally different. Some of these factors might be more applicable to the truck Chase, which has the smallest sample sizes of drivers (eight to start) and races (seven) — but the underpinnings of this playoff structure always make these scenarios possible.

There are no “real” eliminations, there is only ineligibility. Everybody keeps playing (as they should; racing doesn’t lend itself to heightened drama by reducing the field), increasing the possibility that a supremely worthy candidate’s chances can be doomed by suspect circumstances.

That’s why Friday night’s stunning twist felt unlike any other.

And that’s why next week’s coronation in South Florida will ring especially hollow if Byron wins – and surpasses the 2016 victory total for the championship four – while another driver is crowned champion.

 

Despite crash, Elliott Sadler maintains lead in Xfinity points standings after Charlotte

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Despite finishing 35th because of a late crash, Elliott Sadler maintained his Xfinity Series points lead Saturday after the Hisense 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Sadler remained six points ahead of JR Motorsports teammate Justin Allgaier. Teammate William Byron is ranked third.

With Allgaier and Ryan Reed qualified for the playoffs via victories, provisional playoff spots basesd off points currently belong to Sadler, Byron, Daniel Hemric, Darrell Wallace Jr., Brennan Poole, Matt Tifft, Michael Annett, Blake Koch, Cole Custer and Dakoda Armstrong.

Click here for the Xfinity points standings after Charlotte.

Xfinity Series results and statistics from Charlotte Motor Speedway

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Ryan Blaney scored the fifth Xfinity Series victory of his career and first since September 2015, winning the Hisense 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Blaney seized the lead from runner-up Kevin Harvick on a restart with three laps remaining.

Austin Dillon, Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin rounded out the top five.

Blaney led a race-high 107 of 200 laps.

Click here for full results from Saturday’s Xfinity race at Charlotte.

Ryan Blaney wins Charlotte Xfinity race for first victory in series since September 2015

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CONCORD, N.C. — Ryan Blaney won Saturday’s Hisense 4K TV 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Blaney took the lead from Kevin Harvick on a restart with three laps to go.

It’s his fifth Xfinity Series win and the first for Team Penske in 2017. It’s Blaney’s first Xfinity victory since Sept. 26, 2015 at Kentucky Speedway.

Blaney was followed by Harvick, Austin Dillon, Christopher Bell and Denny Hamlin.

“I thought we were going to run out of laps to make it happen,” Blaney said, who was aided by a series of rapid cautions in the closing laps.

“We got a good restart and I was able to barely stay on (Harvick’s) quarter (panel) off of (Turn) 2 and dragged him back into (Turn) 3,” Blaney told Fox Sports 1. “I’m very proud, but you’re going to feel really bad if you mess up and don’t win. That’s what I thought was going to happen. I didn’t know if we were going to get our shot to get back to the lead. I don’t want to say the caution went our way because we kind of needed long runs. But they worked out so we could put ourselves in a position to  capitalize on it.”

Driving the No. 12 Ford, Blaney led four times for 107 laps on the way to the victory. Blaney raced to the front after starting from the rear for unapproved adjustments. He is the first driver to win after going to the rear since Marcos Ambrose at Montreal in 2011.

Blaney’s win comes 11 year after his father, Dave Blaney, won the fall Xfinity race at Charlotte. They are the first father-son duo to win at Charlotte in the Xfinity Series.

Stage 1 winner: Kevin Harvick

Stage 2 winner: Ryan Blaney

MORE: Race results

MORE: Points standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: On the third lap of his Xfinity career, Christopher Bell was turned by Ryan Reed on the frontstretch and slid through the grass. He continued on and battled back to finish fourth. …. Brennan Poole brought out a caution with 42 to go after he got into the frontstretch wall, but managed to finish eighth. … Brad Keselowski finished sixth after starting 39th. He started there after multiple trips through inspection kept him from making a qualifying run. … Brendan Gaughan finished ninth after he spun exiting Turn 4 late in the race.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: Michael Annett’s day ended with 25 to go when he got into the wall on a restart and went to the garage. He finished 36th …. On the next restart, points leader Elliott Sadler spun in Turn 4 and hit the inside wall hard. He was uninjured and finished 35th … Darrell Wallace Jr. was having his best race of the year, including leading three laps in the final stage, when it came unraveled. He brushed the Turn 4 wall with seven laps to go. He then lost a tire and spun in Turn 2. He finished 28th.

NOTABLE: Not counting the end of each stage, the race was slowed by 10 cautions.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “Give him a sponsor, man. He passed me on a restart and drove away from me. It was awesome.” – Ryan Blaney on his battle for the lead with Darrell Wallace Jr. at the start of the final stage.

WHAT’S NEXT: OneMain Financial 200 at Dover International Speedway at 1 p.m. ET on June 2 on Fox Sports 1.

Kyle Larson fastest in final practice for Coca-Cola 600

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kyle Larson topped the final practice session for Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 with a speed at 186.400 mph.

The Cup points leader, Larson will start 39th in the race because his No. 42 Chevrolet didn’t clear inspection in time to qualify.

Ryan Blaney (185.861), Matt Kenseth (185.046), Kurt Busch (184.856) and Erik Jones (184.818) rounded out the top five.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was seventh fastest at 184.433 mph. Pole-sitter Kevin Harvick was 20th fastest at 182.648 mph.

Jimmie Johnson recorded the most laps in the session with 47.

Jamie McMurray had the best 10-lap average at 180.914 mph.

The session was stopped for a caution once after Brad Keselowski spun exiting Turn 4.

Click here for the full practice report.