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Ryan: Ranking the best races of the 2016 season

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NASCAR’s 2016 season was bookended by its best races.

In ranking the top five events attended by this writer during the past year, the Sprint Cup season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway tops the list. Jimmie Johnson’s record-tying seventh championship capped a memorable night on the 1.5-mile oval, snatching victory from Kyle Larson after title contenders Carl Edwards, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch each appeared to have chances.

The season opened with the No. 2-ranked race — Denny Hamlin’s victory in the Daytona 500 by 0.10 seconds over Martin Truex Jr., the closest finish in the 58-year history of the Great American Race.

There was one rule for the rankings: Only the races that I’ve covered are eligible. That made for a few notable absences (Phoenix and Fontana in March; Bristol and Richmond in April; Sonoma). But I was present for 20 races, including nearly all of the NBC half of the season.

Here are ruminations on my top five (followed by my rankings in each of the previous five seasons):

  1. NASCAR Sprint Cup, Miami, Nov. 20: In only three years, the revamped championship finale has become the closest thing to a sure thing in a sport whose capricious underpinnings often make predictions impossible.
    HOMESTEAD, FL - NOVEMBER 20: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 and the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Championship at Homestead-Miami Speedway on November 20, 2016 in Homestead, Florida. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)
    Jimmie Johnson takes the checkered flag to win the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Ford EcoBoost 400 and the 2016 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series championship. (Photo by Chris Trotman/Getty Images)

    That element of randomness also has been among the chief complaints since the championship format was expanded and transformed into the closest approximation of a true playoff. But a winner-take-all codicil undeniably has turned Homestead-Miami Speedway into an annual battle royale between the series’ best teams that underscores one of the most overused sporting clichés.

    In the race that matters most, drivers and their crews truly do rise to the occasion and deliver their most Herculean performances of the season.

    Each of the four title contenders had those moments in the Ford 400. Carl Edwards, who entered as the underdog, led the most laps and drove a flawless race until his crash on a late restart that was the head-turning and heart-stopping moment of the season. Joey Logano rebounded from Edwards’ wreck and nearly snatched the championship on fortuitous tire strategy. Kyle Busch overcame pit miscues and was achingly close to repeating as champion.

    But the greatest show of grit belonged to champion Jimmie Johnson, who transformed into a world-beater in the final 20 laps with a No. 48 Chevrolet that was middling for most of 350 miles. How Johnson defeated leader Kyle Larson – who had the preferred lane on his favorite track in a dominant car – remains a mystery that forever might defy sufficient elucidation.

    The only firm and plausible explanation is this: With more at stake than ever – a seventh championship and place among the stock-car pantheon — Johnson unleashed the most otherworldly finish of his incomparable career. If, as some believe, this iteration of the Chase truly was created to thwart Johnson, he inadvertently helped validate its existence by proving its central tenet: When pushed to the limits, NASCAR stars will make their sometimes inherently monotonous craft more watchable than ever.

  2. NASCAR Sprint Cup, Daytona 500, Feb. 21: In an attempt at recapping the feverishly compounding plot twists that resulted in the closest finish in this crown jewel’s history,
    DAYTONA BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 21: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, races Denny Hamlin, driver of the #11 FedEx Express Toyota, and Martin Truex Jr., driver of the #78 Bass Pro Shops/Tracker Boats Toyota, ahead of the field during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series DAYTONA 500 at Daytona International Speedway on February 21, 2016 in Daytona Beach, Florida. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
    Matt Kenseth (No. 20), Denny Hamlin and Martin Truex Jr. battle for the lead in the last corner. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

    my column and social media musings short-changed this affair as being mostly mundane.

    Yes, the Great American Race featured the fewest number of lead changes in seven years, and the tire wear wasn’t conducive to passing.

    But restrictor-plate races at their core are always some form of a chess match, and this slowly unfolding version of Deep Blue vs. Kasparov is preferable to the speed matches found in Washington Square.

    The final lap — and how it was defined by a parade of endless choices made by Matt Kenseth, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – was drawn into the sharpest of contrasts by the perceived absence of action over the previous 497 and a half miles. It really wasn’t lackluster when viewed as the calculating maneuvering of chess pieces rather than simply a dearth of passing in the most important race of the season.

    Ultimately, the 2016 Daytona 500 will be remembered solely for its final circuit, but it still holds up as a body of work when the prior 199 laps are evaluated. As winner Hamlin so deftly put it, NASCAR stars are “defined by the big moments.” The races are, too – and the moments happen because they’re preceded by the cascading effects of unheralded signposts in time.

  3. NASCAR Sprint Cup, Phoenix, Nov. 13: It almost seems cruel that two of the most indelible endings of 2016 came at the expense of Matt Kenseth’s conscience.
    AVONDALE, AZ - NOVEMBER 13: Matt Kenseth, driver of the #20 Dollar General Toyota, has an on track incident during the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Can-Am 500 at Phoenix International Raceway on November 13, 2016 in Avondale, Arizona. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)
    Matt Kenseth crashes out of the lead on an overtime restart at Phoenix International Raceway. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

    The second-guessing eternally will haunt Kenseth because it cost him 1) a third Daytona 500 win (see best races, No. 2) and 2) a berth in the championship finale. In the former, the blame could be attributed to the spotter who wasn’t there. In the latter, the fault might have been placed on the car a spotter didn’t see.

    All of it was interwoven into a veteran’s heartbreaker that neatly bookended the 2016 season with a sobering reminder of how the fortunes of so many drivers can depend on just a few flicks of the wheel.

    For Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, everything fell correctly just moments after the outlook had seemed as bleak as it ended for Kenseth, who gracefully afforded one more way Daytona and Phoenix inextricably were linked.

    In both instances, the Joe Gibbs Racing veteran stood outside his No. 20 Toyota and patiently answered every painful question for several minutes, agonizingly deconstructing an outcome that was demoralizing for him and exhilarating for virtually anyone else who saw it.

  4. NASCAR Camping World Truck Series, Eldora, July 20: After four consecutive editions of this event as a smashing success, the central question no longer is “Would Cup cars work on dirt?”
    ROSSBURG, OH - JULY 20: Kyle Larson, driver of the #24 DC Solar Chevrolet, and his son Owen Larson hold the NASCAR Camping World Series 4th Annual Aspen Dental Eldora Dirt Derby 150 trophy after winning at Eldora Speedway on July 20, 2016 in Rossburg, Ohio. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)
    Kyle Larson celebrates with his son, Owen, after winning the truck race at Eldora Speedway. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

    It’s “What earthly reason possibly can remain for avoiding finding out?”

    There is no other race in NASCAR that can offer an emerging star (Kyle Larson) fiercely competing against relative unknowns (Bobby Pierce!?!) in a nonstop exhibition of entertainment and skill that never feels like a novelty act.

    But the gimmick factor seems to be precisely the hang up about Eldora’s appeal (along with an insidious elitist attitude that equates “dirt” with “low class”).

    Somehow, the false narrative goes, the event is special only because it’s unique.

    This is categorically untrue (though it does apply to the races held later that week at nearby Indianapolis Motor Speedway).

    The Eldora truck races have been scintillating because the quality is high. If you have something that works well, it’s counterintuitive to say there should be less of it solely because it’s different from every other NASCAR race with a national profile.

    But this is the wrongheaded groupthink that has conspired to keep Eldora – a jewel of a short track owned by the greatest driver of his generation, Tony Stewart, and run by the resourceful Roger Slack – from getting a rightful shot at the major leagues. And given the current challenges faced in finding audience and youth, it’s well past time for NASCAR to get bold.

  5. NASCAR Sprint Cup, Martinsville, Oct. 30: There have been more entertaining races here in recent years (and the fact this race made the list is partly an indictment of the season),
    MARTINSVILLE, VA - OCTOBER 30: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's Chevrolet, celebrates with champagne in Victory Lane with crew chief Chad Knaus after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Goody's Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway on October 30, 2016 in Martinsville, Virginia. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)
    For the ninth time, Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus (left) celebrate with a grandfather clock. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

    but this event was memorable because of what it confirmed about the track’s all-time greatest driver.

    With his record-tying ninth win on the 0.526-mile oval, Jimmie Johnson advanced to the championship round for the first time and showed why he would win his record-tying seventh title. Overcoming damage from collisions, a midrace dustup with Denny Hamlin and a fuel-pressure problem that threatened to end his day, Johnson soldiered through the adversity.

    When he finally took the lead, he never relinquished it and led the final 92 laps in a quiet affirmation of his team’s strength. His win in Miami essentially was a continuation of what started in Southwest Virginia – and watching him carve up the field on the circuit’s trickiest track was a treat to watch even absent the usual Martinsville fender-banging.

RANKINGS IN PREVIOUS SEASONS

2011: 1. Martinsville, April 3; 2. Miami, Nov. 20; 3. Daytona 500, Feb. 20; 4. Martinsville, Oct. 30; 5. Richmond, Sept. 10.

2012: 1. Phoenix, Nov. 11; 2. Bristol, Aug. 25; 3. Texas, Nov. 4; 4; Daytona 500, Feb. 27; 5. Richmond, Sept. 8

2013: 1. Indianapolis 500, May 26; 2. Richmond, Sept. 7; 3. Phoenix, Nov. 10; 4. Bristol, March 17; 5. Kansas, Oct. 6.

2014: 1. Eldora, July 23; 2. Fontana, March 23; 3. Daytona 500, Feb. 23; 4. Miami, Nov. 16; 5. Talladega, Oct. 19.

2015: 1. Kentucky, July 11; 2. Martinsville, Nov. 1; 3. Daytona 500, Feb. 22; 4. Indianapolis 500, May 24; 5. Eldora, July 22.

A long time coming: Kurt Busch earns best finish since Daytona 500 win

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With a win in the Daytona 500, the 2017 Cup season couldn’t have started out better for Kurt Busch.

But since, it’s been a struggle much of the time for the 2004 Cup champion.

The Daytona win qualified him for the playoffs, but he exited after the first round.

Along the way, he managed just four other top-five finishes, had seven DNFs (six crashes, one engine issue) and has endured a mediocre 16.2 average finish per race.

But much of that was forgotten – at least for a little while – after Busch’s runner-up finish in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway, his best showing since his Daytona 500 win.

“I really wanted that one bad,” Busch told NBCSN. “I don’t know what it is about this place. I feel like I’m on pins and needles most of the day. (Crew chief Tony) Gibson always throws nice adjustments at it and the race comes to us and we’re right there. We had a shot at winning. When we get it right, we’re right there.”

Later, the driver of the No. 41 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford Fusion praised Gibson further, although he didn’t exactly feel that way after Saturday’s qualifying.

“All in all, Tony Gibson deserves this second‑place finish,” Busch said. “He got on me pretty hard on Saturday morning after qualifying (15th). He said, You know, we got a brake problem. I said, ‘What do you mean?’

“He goes, ‘You didn’t use brake, that’s why we didn’t run good in run two and run three.’ I’m like, ‘Man, I never use brake in qualifying.’ So he actually really pissed me off. I spent the whole race pretty agitated. At the end, I made sure I used brake and brought it home in second.”

While his championship hopes were dashed at the end of the Round of 16, Busch hopes to build momentum for the remaining four races.

Yeah, it was nice to have things unfold in our favor today, even though I brushed the wall and got us a lap down early,” Busch said. “The mentality that I’ve been trying to accept right now is run for 10th, try not to push the car too hard. Anything above 10th is icing on the cake.”

One thing that helped Busch’s finish was using sticker tires instead of scuffs late in the race. That allowed him to close on race winner Martin Truex Jr., even though Busch still came up over two seconds short at the start-finish line.

“It’s a matter of just keeping track of the adjustments throughout the race, making sure that we use every set of sticker tires that we possibly can and get the most out of sticker tires,” he said. “When we have scuffs, we struggle. We’re a 15th place car on scuffs.”

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Long: Tears turn to cheers for Furniture Row Racing

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Among his final acts alive, James “Jim” Watson texted his wife Saturday night and told her what a great time he was having with his Furniture Row Racing teammates at a local go-kart track.

Soon after, the 55-year-old father suffered a fatal heart attack.

“I take a little bit of solace in that he was happy in his last moments,’’ said a misty-eyed Cole Pearn after Martin Truex Jr. rallied to win Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

Pearn was on the way to the hospital Saturday night when he was told Watson died. The team later gathered at their hotel to grieve.

“We just all looked at each other and shed some tears and some hugs,’’ Pearn told NBC Sports.

No Cup team has faced so much personal adversity in such a public way this year as Furniture Row Racing. Its greatest season on the track has been offset by tragedy and tribulation.

Truex’s longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, had surgery in July for a recurrence of cancer. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in August 2014 and announced she was cancer-free in January 2016. Her ovarian cancer returned this summer. Truex won at Kentucky Speedway and brought her home from the hospital the next day. Her chemo treatments continue.

After the Kentucky race, Pearn’s closest childhood friend suddenly died after he caught a bacterial infection from a cut. Truex won that weekend at Watkins Glen to cap what Pearn called then “the hardest week of my life.’’

After Truex won at Charlotte two weeks ago, Pearn said “my wife and I put our dog down … that we’ve had for 13 years.

“It’s just like, man, I don’t know if regular life is supposed to be like this.’’

Then came Saturday night.

Watson had been with the team since February, joining as a fabricator, who worked on both the cars of Truex and Erik Jones. Watson was a longtime racer from Wisconsin.

“James was a friend to everybody,’’ said Joe Garone, president of Furniture Row Racing. “It’s hard to talk about.’’

Truex said both teams helped each other work through the pain while preparing for the race Sunday morning. Truex’s seventh victory of the season continued his dominance and is the most wins by a Cup driver in a season since Matt Kenseth won seven races in 2013.

Pearn called it “kind of overwhelming” to see Truex cross under the checkered flag ahead of the field less than 24 hours after Watson’s death. 

“I was doing OK and then I started seeing the faces on other guys,’’ Pearn told NBC Sports. “It just hits you like a ton of bricks.’’

When Truex won in the past, it had just been the No. 78 crew that gathered in Victory Lane. Sunday, the No. 77 crew also joined Truex’s team to celebrate a win and a life.

“Chris (Gayle) and I came to it … that if either one of us were fortunate enough to win, we’d both go to Victory Lane because Jim worked on both of our cars and was a part of both of our teams,’’ Pearn said of the crew chief for the No. 77 team.

It proved a fitting honor for Watson.

“He always wanted when we won to celebrate as a group,’’ Pearn said. “I just couldn’t think of any better way to pay tribute to him and know that he would have been happy with that call.’’

Tough night but the result was some solace we all needed. So proud of the team. For you Wildman RIP

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What Drivers Said after Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas

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Martin Truex Jr. continues to be the most dominant – and winning – driver of the 2017 NASCAR Cup season and playoffs.

Truex’s win in Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway was his third in the first six playoff races and his series-leading seventh win of 2017 – six which have come on 1.5-mile racetracks.

Now the playoffs advance to the Round of 8 semifinal round. Kyle Busch is second in the points, 27 points behind Truex, and Brad Keselowski is third, 43 points back.

Four drivers were eliminated from advancing to the next round: Matt Kenseth, Kyle Larson, Jamie McMurray and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

All of them, as well as many other drivers, had a lot to say about Sunday’s race:

Martin Truex Jr. – Winner: “Definitely racing with heavy hearts today with losing Jim (team member Jim Watson, who passed away Saturday night from a heart attack) last night. Want to send our condolences to his family and all of his friends. He was a heck of a guy and a great worker and put a lot of speed in these Furniture Row Toyotas, so glad we could get him one here. Excited to get another one here at Kansas. This feels really awesome. It’s really Furniture Row’s home track. We got that one in the spring after so many heartbreaks and then today it looked like it was going to happen and we just persevered.”

Kurt Busch – Finished 2nd: “I really wanted that one bad. I don’t know what it is about this place. Kyle (Busch) struggles here too. I feel like I’m on pins and needles most of the day. (Crew chief Tony) Gibson always throws nice adjustments at it and the race comes to us and we’re right there. We had a shot at winning. When we get it right, we’re right there.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 3rd: “It was a good race. We did a nice job coming from the back and I thought we got our car pretty decent there in the second stage. Then there was a mixup with some strategy stuff and pit calls and it felt like we were kind of at the back part of that but we were able to recover and miss that wreck which was big for us. We ran strong enough all day that we should have been in with where we ran. I am really proud of my team for the effort and we will move on to the next round and Martinsville.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 4th: “It was a wild day for sure. We fought our balance all weekend. I know the result wasn’t terrible, but definitely feel like we could have been a lot better this weekend and just the way things worked out for us. But, our car got better as the day went along, we just didn’t have the balance on a very long run to go up and pass guys like you need to have. So, we will go to work and get this side of things ready for Texas.”

Denny Hamlin – Finished 5th: We definitely got our car better from where it was yesterday, but still a little bit off today. Just fought a terminal condition that we just couldn’t fix on pit road, but proud of the whole FedEx Toyota team for giving me something I could battle up front there with a little bit. Just got to get a little faster on the short run and we’ll be fine. The biggest thing we need to work on is short run speed. If we can do that, then we could contend, but we’re heading to a mighty good race track for us next week (Martinsville) that hopefully we’re able to capitalize.”

Chris Buescher – Finished 6th: “Yeah, absolutely that was an awesome day for our Scott brands Chevrolet. But, just proud of everybody back at JTG Daugherty Racing. We have been working really hard the last several months to try and get it turned around. We have hit the summer months and we haven’t had the speed we wanted. So, this weekend was a big step in the right direction for us. It’s excited. It’s fun to come back and run well.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Finished 7th: “We ended up having a decent run. I am just glad that we brought another good finish home. I think that is about where the car should have finished this weekend. … (On missing the big wreck) It’s all luck.  A lot of times if you just run the back of somebody and push them through it that kind of works for you too. I did a little bit of that too. Just real lucky. That helped us on our finish today. I don’t know if we could get the track position and get a top 10. The car was fast enough at times to run up there and finish up there, but we will take it.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished 8th: “As you look at the result of the day you want to have a chance to win. We had a car capable of winning. Just got stuck in a box and the box kept on getting smaller and smaller. The caution came out with the 47 (A.J. Allmendinger spin) and that put us and the 18 in a bad spot. That was it. Our focus was one stage at a time and we accomplished that. After that it was about trying to win the race.”

Kyle Busch – Finished 10th: “I thought we had a good shot to go for the win today and got off on tire strategy a little today. (Martin) Truex got by us and he was checking out, but was just going to play it out when we pitted and the rest of those guys pitted, where it would all shake out. But obviously that caution came out and it bit us and got us behind. Fortunately, our situation today was that we had to race guys that ended up crashing out, hate it for them. I would have liked to race it heads up and that might have been a different situation, but all in all we’ll take what was given to us today and we’ll live to see another day and fight again next week going to Martinsville.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 11th: “(On Martinsville, where he has nine wins) It’s not a bad track for us. So, hopefully we can repeat last year’s performance there. And then we have Texas coming up. We’re not where we want to be. There’s no doubt about it. But, we’re staying alive and I know this team so well, we can find something and we’re going to sure as hell try to get it. It’s not back to zero with all those stage points. For us to advance moving forward we’ve got to win. We’ve got to win one of these next few races coming up. It’s really simple from our stand point. We’ve got to get some speed in our cars and we’ve got to win a race.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished 13th: “We were good enough and better than our finish. The pit road speeding penalty was ridiculous because I was way under pit road speed and running right with everyone else both times and they didn’t get a penalty. I will have to see that one for my own eyes. All in all, my guys put a good effort in it and I think we were better than we finished.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 16th: “Today was a definitely a crazy day at Kansas Speedway. With the changing track conditions as the sun set and shaded parts of the track, we had to be on top of the adjustments to our GEICO Chevrolet for the entire race. My team did a great job making calls, and I didn’t struggle with balance much at all. Track position was just key, and it was hard to make passes out there. Overall, I think this was a good weekend and shows the improvements to our intermediate-track package. There’s still work to be done, but we are definitely getting closer.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 19th: “We just couldn’t get on the right side of anything, strategy-wise, nothing. We got caught up in the wreck. Certainly not the way you want to finish at home. I had a top-five car all weekend long, just wasn’t meant to be.”

Trevor Bayne — Finished 20th: “We really didn’t have anywhere to go during that deal on the backstretch. … It’s really unfortunate we didn’t get the result we deserve but we will keep fighting and get after it next weekend at Martinsville.”

Joey Logano — Finished 21st: “We had a tough day with our Shell-Pennzoil Ford. We struggled on short run speed and once the field got spread out it was tough to make up spots. Then we got caught up in the wreck later in the race and that damage certainly didn’t help us. We’ll regroup and head to Martinsville next week.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 29th: “We really struggled today with the handling of our Fastenal Ford. It’s a bummer we couldn’t advance but no one really gave us a chance to make the Round of 12. Overall, we have had a great season so we can’t hang our heads. We have four more races to gain as many points as we can and finish off the season strong.”

Jamie McMurray — Finished 34th: “I had a really fast car. I thought we had one of the best cars, and I felt like if we could have gotten to the lead, I could have led the race for a while. It was a good Cessna Chevy. But we’ve had two bad races in a row and there’s nothing you can do about it. We had a car that could have won. I think if we could have gotten to the front, but just didn’t make it to the end.”

Erik Jones — Finished 35th: “(On his wreck) I just lost it. It’s unfortunate and I feel bad for my guys and my team and I also feel bad for the cars that we took out of the race. It’s just a shame, I made the same mistakes here in the spring and this place has just been tough to me. Fortunately we had a fast 5-hour ENERGY Camry and it was up front, we had worked our way back up to that point after having mishaps at the start of the day. Nonetheless, not the ending that we wanted, but hopefully we can come back a little stronger for Martinsville.”

Daniel Suarez — Finished 36th: “You have to thank NASCAR very much for all the work that they do on these race cars to make them very safe because I got hit from everywhere and I hit the 77 (Erik Jones) very, very hard. I’m perfect – the car’s not, but I’m good. Honestly, I don’t really know what happened. I just know that the 77 got very loose somehow and the next thing I saw was his door and my nose. I really couldn’t do anything at that point, but I haven’t seen a replay yet.”

Matt Kenseth — Finished 37th: “I don’t know what any of the rules are. Seems like we got a lot of stuff that kind of gets, you know, changed so often I honestly can’t keep up with it. My head kind of spins from putting lugnuts out of pit boxes to one too many guys over the wall, you’re not allowed to race anymore. I just don’t get it, to be honest with you. I really don’t have a lot good to say right now. I’m more than disappointed. We showed some flashes of brilliance this season, been off and on, been fast at times, had great pit stops at times, just haven’t been able to put it all together like a championship team needs to. Unfortunately this is an example of that. I hope that I can do a better job here the next four weeks and hopefully go get a win. … Honestly, I’ve never heard of disqualifying somebody from a race if you got one too many guys over the wall or whatever happened there. Couldn’t be any more disappointed.”

Danica Patrick — Finished 38th: “I came out and said, ‘I got a turkey,’ three in a row. That is some bad luck. The Code 3 car had just started to get better, just starting to get hooked up, actually. I actually felt like I was catching the right lanes and right movements on the track and having good restarts. Would have been nice to finish one off. We haven’t done that in awhile.

Kyle Larson — Finished 39th: “I guess, I’m not stunned because freak things happen in every sport.  I mean you look at every year in the past and a lot of times – most every time at least in the new playoff format era – not always does the best team win. Not saying we are the best team, but we have been one of the contenders all season long. So, I’m not stunned, because it is a long 10 race playoff season, so anything can happen, but we have had a solid playoffs.  We have been consistent and just now got bit. … (On winning 4 races and gets eliminated) It’s painful. A part of me, I guess, will maybe be thankful that it wasn’t on my doing. I keep saying everything sucks. I don’t really know how to answer these because it’s the same answer for every question.”

Jimmie Johnson survives multiple accidents to advance in playoffs

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Jimmie Johnson‘s championship hopes were in peril on Lap 197 of Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

They were saved on Lap 198 by a 14-car crash that Johnson narrowly made it through.

Johnson, who finished 11th in the playoff elimination race, had come off consecutive spins on Laps 189 and 194 and trips to pit road for repairs when the wreck broke out on restart following his second spin. The first spin had sent his No. 48 Chevrolet sliding through the rain-soaked grass in the infield.

“The car was extremely loose,” Johnson told NBCSN. “We fought the balance throughout the day and the car would swing so hard. We were trying for short run speed to free the car up and we just got too far with it and I spun out twice. Thankfully I didn’t hit anything too hard.

“And when things really changed was down the back straightaway in that wreck. Somehow, I went through there at a high rate of speed and missed everybody. I don’t know how, but I made it. And then the No. 1 (Jamie McMurray) car was sitting there and I thought I had him lined-up for a square impact, but fortunately he slid out of the way. … It wasn’t a pretty day, but we got it done.”

Chad Knaus, Johnson’s crew chief, had less kind words for his team’s day.

“We ran like (expletive),” Knaus told NBC Sports. “It was a bad weekend. We managed to capitalize on some other people’s misfortune, which was great for us. We’ve got some work to do. I don’t know what’s going on. We definitely don’t have the speed that we need.

“Good news is we’ve got three really good racetracks coming up for us, at least historically. Very optimistic heading into Martinsville and going to Homestead this week to test, so hopefully we can hit on some stuff there to take to Texas. We’ve obviously have run well there in the past. Phoenix has been a really good race track for us as well. We’ve got three great opportunities. Just got to do the best.’’

Johnson is the active wins leader at Martinsville with nine. He is the defending winner of the fall race. It is his only top five in the last six races at the short track.

“It’s not a bad track for us,” Johnson said. “Hopefully we can repeat last year’s performance there. And then we have Texas coming up. We’re not where we want to be. There’s no doubt about it. But, we’re staying alive and I know this team so well, we can find something and we’re going to sure as hell try to get it.”

Johnson is also the defending winner at Texas Motor Speedway, where he earned one of his three wins this year in April.

At Phoenix, Johnson has four wins, but the last one came in 2009. He also only has one top five there in his last six starts.

Johnson heads into the Round of 8 seeded fifth in the standings with 4,017 points.

“It’s not back to zero with all those stage points,” Johnson said. “For us to advance moving forward, we’ve got to win.  We’ve got to win one of these next few races coming up.  It’s really simple from our standpoint.  We’ve got to get some speed in our cars and we’ve got to win a race.”

In his quest to win a record eighth Cup championship, Johnson has earned just four top fives this season. His third-place finish at Dover in the final race of the first playoff round is the only one since his June win also at Dover.

Johnson is the only driver who has won a race in every season of the playoffs entering 2017. He has four races left to continue the streak.