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Bump & Run: Is NASCAR returning to the Wild West in terms of justice?

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Conflict on and off the track has gained attention the past two weekends in the sport and how NASCAR responds will help set the tone for the garage the rest of the season.

Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty, who will be on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, join Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in discussing that subject and more in this week’s Bump & Run.

In the last two weeks, NASCAR did not penalize Kyle Busch and Joey Logano for an altercation on pit road, and a series official suggested this week that there might not be any additional penalties to Austin Dillon (who was parked by NASCAR) for slowly cutting across Cole Custer’s car and making contact after an incident between them in the Xfinity race. What do you make of NASCAR’s reaction to these incidents and the message it sends to the garage?

Kyle Petty: First, I will never condone the use of a race car or physical force in settling a perceived injustice. Having said that … I think NASCAR is in a little bit of a box they’ve put themselves in. We can go back to “boys have at it.’’ The stage races are just another level of that. Stage racing was designed to make every lap mean more, for drivers to race “harder” and to bring the intensity level and anticipation of the event to another level.

If that’s what you’re looking for, you can’t penalize the drivers when they react the way they do to the position the rules put them in. We’ve begged for emotion and personality from drivers, and when they give it to us there’s an outcry to penalize them. We can’t have it both ways, and the middle ground is confusing to fans and drivers alike. I guess it’s like that old saying “be careful what you wish for’’ because when you have it you don’t know what to do with it.

Dale Jarrett: I like the idea that nothing was done as far as the Kyle Busch and Joey Logano incident. This business is difficult, especially in a situation where something happened on the last lap of the race. It’s hard to expect a driver not to react in some way, shape or form. I’d rather Kyle Busch have a conversation and then if he felt it needed to go further … but he felt like he needed to talk in a different manner. I’m not opposed to that. I think you need to protect your ground and show your displeasure.

I’m not a fan even though I’ve been there and pretty much every driver has been there as far as a retaliation on the race track with the race car. I think we need to be discouraging that way more than we need to be discouraging drivers having conversations. We don’t need fights every weekend by any stretch of the imagination, but if they want to have discussions and something breaks out from there, I’m much more in favor of that than using the race cars.

Nate Ryan: The Busch-Logano reaction doesn’t surprise me. No harm was done (aside from the lone aggressor’s forehead), and I think it’s understood where the line is on drivers settling it between themselves. They have great latitude to approach each other after races, and as long as it doesn’t result in a broken jaw, there won’t be severe consequences for heated altercations between drivers (and subsequently their team members).

 The Custer-Dillon situation was slightly more surprising as NASCAR officials don’t want drivers employing their cars as weapons of revenge, particularly under caution. But some punishment was meted out in parking Dillon for the race and summoning him for a meeting. That officials will meet with Custer and Dillon together in Southern California this weekend also negates the need for further action. 

I think the message being sent is that NASCAR proactively is ensuring feuds don’t escalate to being uncontrollable but also is being careful to avoid the perception of micromanaging emotions.

Dustin Long: The days of NASCAR overseeing the drivers with the strictness of a convent school are over. That doesn’t mean that they’ll allow a driver to wreck another — as Matt Kenseth did to Joey Logano in 2015 — but for a sport that has an edgy sponsor and looks to gain the attention of more fans, slapping wrists with a ruler are long gone. The question is how far will officials go? When they react? Will it be an overreaction to get the garage back in line?

In the last seven races, dating back to last season, there have been seven different winners: Ryan Newman, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Joey Logano and Carl Edwards. Does the streak of different winners continue this weekend at Auto Club Speedway and who might be that driver?

Kyle Petty: Yes. I believe the streak continues! Larson, Elliott, Harvick. The list of drivers who have been strong so far this year is diverse. Not the usual suspects! We know Michigan was Larson’s first win and California is a sister track. Chase will contend again and has been in position to win every race this season. Harvick is Harvick, any race, any time, anywhere he can win. I will say all I know for sure is Carl Edwards won’t win!

Dale Jarrett: Yes. I think the name that probably comes to mine and everybody else’s is Kyle Larson. He was in position to win every race we’ve had so far this year. Especially with that race track, he’s done well there and it’s his type of race track. I think these new rules with less amount of downforce are really only enhancing his driving abilities. I think he will have to outrun Chase Elliott to get the checkered flag.

Nate Ryan: Yes. Kyle Busch has this place sorted (three wins, including two of the past four races), and he drives well when motivated. Though “Everything Is Great,” it won’t diminish Busch’s drive to return to victory lane and take some smug satisfaction at reclaiming the spotlight for the right reason.

(P.S. I also reserve the right to change my mind for Sunday’s pre-race Staff Picks post on nbcsports.com/nascar.)

Dustin Long: Yes. After the millennials have finished second each of the first four races (Ryan Blaney at Daytona and Kyle Larson each of the past three weeks), one of them is due to win. That includes Chase Elliott, who has two top-five finishes this season.

Watch Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Starting grid for Cup Series Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond

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The Toyota Owners 400 at Richmond International Raceway will begin Sunday with Matt Kenseth and Ryan Blaney on the front row.

They will lead a 38-car field to green in the ninth race of the Cup season.

Filling out the top five is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

Click here for the full starting grid.

Denny Hamlin: Joe Gibbs Racing’s rebound won’t happen ‘overnight’ or ‘in a month’

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With NASCAR visiting a track where Joe Gibbs Racing has won the last three races, one of its drivers admits the issues that have plagued the team so far in 2017 won’t be remedied quickly.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,” Denny Hamlin said Friday at Richmond International Raceway. “It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.”

Entering the Toyota Owners 400, Joe Gibbs Racing has yet to win race through eight events. All four of its drivers sit outside the top 10 in points. Hamlin was the last active JGR driver to win, winning last years’ regular season finale at Richmond.

The 2016 Daytona 500 winner is 15th in the standings and has yet to finish in the top five. By this point in each of the last two seasons, Hamlin had three top fives and one win.

“It’s always taken me a long time to get over winter break,” Hamlin said. “For whatever reason, it’s taking 10 races or whatever into the season to kind of hit my stride. I’m not really sure what it is. I try just as hard at the beginning as I do at the end. It just seems like that break in the offseason, it takes myself a little while to get over that hump, get in the flow of things. I’m not really sure.”

JGR is still learning about its new 2018 Camry bodies, which Toyota introduced this year. Furniture Row Racing, which is in a technical alliance with JGR, has one win with Martin Truex Jr. (Las Vegas), who is also third in points. Erik Jones is 13th in the standings with just one top 10.

Truex and Jones claimed the top spots in Friday’s only Cup practice session.

“We all get the same information,” Truex said Friday. “I guess at the end of the day it’s how you use it, how you put it to use. I think our team, (crew chief) Cole (Pearn), (engineer) Jazzy (Jeff Curtis), (competition director) Pete (Rondeau), our guys in general are just – right now we’re just clicking. We have a lot of confidence. Things are going well.”

Through eight races, there have been six different winners. NASCAR America analyst Steve Letarte has called this Sunday’s race “pivotal” for Joe Gibbs Racing.

“I think our competition also did a phenomenal job over the off‑season of getting better,” Hamlin said. “They just showed up this year with just more raw speed than what they had at the end of last year. It’s the same drivers, same crew chiefs, but their cars are faster. That makes their job a whole lot easier. But these are the trying times, you could say, that defines your character. It makes you work hard. We were on top for probably a year and a half, every week having four out of five of the fastest cars each week. Sometimes we won, sometimes we didn’t. But we’re going to get better. We’re not on top right now, so we’ve got to work extra hard to get there.”

One piece of the JGR puzzle who has had to work harder is Daniel Suarez.

The defending Xfinity Series champion enters the ninth race of his rookie season 22nd in points. The biggest road block for him has been working with two crew chiefs. His initial partner, Dave Rogers, took an indefinite leave of absence following the West Coast Swing. Since then, the No. 19 team has been led by Scott Graves, who was Suarez’ crew chief last year during his title campaign.

“It’s been a lot going on for sure,” Suarez said Friday. “I felt like we were going in a good direction maybe a month and a half ago and then we had some changes that were out of our hands and I feel like we had to start again on these processes in the Cup car. Scott, he’s a very smart crew chief, he knows a lot and he has won two championships in a row in the Xfinity Series, but in the Cup car it’s different and he knows that and I’m learning that. I believe now we are learning together instead of I’m just learning myself.”

All of these comments were made Friday morning and afternoon. In the evening, Matt Kenseth did his part to turn things around for JGR by winning the pole for Sunday’s race.

It’s the first pole for JGR since the Kenseth claimed it last fall at Kansas Speedway.

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Matt Kenseth wins first pole of year for Toyota Owners 400

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For one afternoon at least, Matt Kenseth changed the conversation about Joe Gibbs Racing’s early season problems by winning the pole for the Toyota Owners 400.

Kenseth won his first pole of 2017 with a speed of 121.076 mph around Richmond International Raceway. It’s also the first pole for Toyota this season.

It’s Kenseth’s 19th Cup pole and his second at the .75-mile track (spring 2013). Kenseth’s previous best start this season was fourth at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

“Those guys did really a job adjusting between rounds,” Kenseth told Fox Sports 1. “We had enough speed in out Circle K Camry that we only had to do one lap in each of the first two rounds to get into the third round. … This year has not been a good year for us, obviously so far. … We haven’t been getting any stage points, we’re buried in the points back there. We finally got a decent finish last week (at Bristol).

“Hopefully this week we can start up front, stay up front and collect some stage points.”

Kenseth will try to extend JGR’s win streak at Richmond to four races.

Ryan Blaney qualified second with a speed of 120.854 mph.

“The last lap of the last section we moved up (the track),” Blaney told FS1. “I wish I had done it both laps of the last session. so I knew how hard to go. I was in there little bit shallow the second lap and I knew I regretted it right away … I guess a bunch other cars did that and they picked up. I don’t know where (Kenseth) ran. It was a solid effort.”

It will be Blaney’s third start from second this season, which is a fact that annoys the sophomore driver in the No. 21 Ford.

“I really want to race the Clash at Daytona, that’s like my biggest thing right now,” Blaney said. “It’s upsetting me that we can’t get a pole.”

Filling out the top five for Sunday’s race is Martin Truex Jr., Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Joey Logano.

In his first race since announce his retirement following this season, Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 12th.

Other notable starting spots: Chase Elliott (14th) Brad Keselowski (15th), Denny Hamlin (16th) Jimmie Johnson (17th) and Kyle Larson (18th).

Austin Dillon will start last as a penalty for failing pre-race laser inspection five times last week at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Click here for full qualifying results.

 

Will Carl Edwards return? Denny Hamlin gives his odds of it happening

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What are the odds Carl Edwards returns to NASCAR after announcing in January he would not drive full-time?

“I would just be guessing, but I would say 50 percent,’’ former teammate Denny Hamlin said Friday at Richmond International Raceway — site of where Edwards scored one of his three Cup victories last season. “I think that Carl is a competitor. At his age (37), I’d find it hard to believe that he would just step away and not do it ever again.

“I think him leaving the window open in his press conference to say he’s not retiring, he’s just stepping away, I think it depends. I don’t know. Has anyone found out whether he’s having a good time right now or not? I think that would tell the story about whether he’s interested in coming back or not. From what I hear from all the retired drivers, it’s awesome for like a few months – then you kind of get bored a little bit.”

Earlier this week, Edwards responded by text to NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan on if he was interested in the No. 88 car after Dale Earnhardt Jr. announced he would retire from the Cup series after this season.

Texted Edwards: “You may have it mixed up. I’m recruiting Dale to drive a tractor!”

Edwards also said that he was happy for Earnhardt and that it would be a great ride for someone.

Edwards announced in January that he would not race full-time in NASCAR this year, adding: “If I’m going to get back in a race car, which I’m not saying the R word (retirement) here, I’ve seen how that’s worked out for guys, but if I’m going to get back in a race car, I’m calling Coach (Joe) Gibbs first.’’

Edwards also said in January: “I don’t have any intention of going back to full‑time racing. I don’t have a plan to drive a race car right now. I just know how things work, and if it comes up and the right opportunity is there and at that moment, it’s the right thing, then for sure I’d entertain it. But like I said, the first person I’d talk to is Coach.’’

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