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Bump & Run: Examining a biting comment and who is need of a good result soon

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Steve Letarte, who will be on NASCAR America from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, joins Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in discussing key subjects in NASCAR in this week’s Bump & Run.

Jimmie Johnson bristled last weekend about people questioning his performance this season and said: “Sixteen years, 80 wins and seven championships and people want to question us? I mean come on.’’ What do you make of Jimmie’s reaction?

Steve Letarte: I think it’s frustrating to him, apparently, to continue to have to answer that question. I think he had to answer that question last year as well and last year turned out OK. It’s going to be interesting to see the lack of stage performance, if that haunts the 48 and Jimmie Johnson more than last year because there was really no negative to not performing in the first half of the year. I think his performance in Miami last year, I took it as he thought it should have bought him a little bit of leeway early in this season, but I think it’s a fair question. I also think it’s a fair response. I would have concern if none of the Hendrick cars were running well but I think Chase Elliott is and I think Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus showed more patience last year than any year that they won a championship. I expect to see to see the same sort of run at the end of this year with the wildcard being how far behind can they afford to be on playoff points come September.

Nate Ryan: There are two ways to look at it: 1) Johnson has gotten more comfortable in his own skin and being blunt and outspoken comes more natural to him now than even after his third championship. He never will carry the swagger of The Intimidator, but he also has reached a point in his life where he feels worthy of a certain respect and isn’t shy about demanding that deference when he tires of familiar questioning; 2) But there also is probably a sliver of concern being masked about the worst start to a season in Johnson’s career. As he has said, the No. 48 Chevrolet has run well at times (aside from Fontana), and it’s too early to panic, but this isn’t how he wanted to begin his seventh title defense.

Dustin Long: Jimmie isn’t thrilled with how he’s finished this year and he shouldn’t be. A wrong strategy in one race, some pit road issues that need to be cleaned up and cars that are not the fastest in the Hendrick camp (that would be Chase Elliott) are enough to bother any competitor. Johnson is right to be a bit testy because of that and also because of such a question coming so early in the season. There’s still more than five months until the playoffs begin. Let’s see where he and his team are in September.

What would have been the preseason odds that Richard Childress Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing each would have wins before Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing?

Steve Letarte: It would have to be a field bet because those odds would not have been created in Las Vegas, they’re so far-fetched. The simple fact is that question alone is why I love auto racing. That’s why I love sports. How many golfers are guaranteed to win that collapse on the back nine? How many times did Dale Earnhardt Sr. have to fail in the closing laps of the Daytona 500 from circumstances outside of his control? Sports in general, and especially racing, creates these stages that you can’t make up. That wouldn’t have been a field bet in Las Vegas.

Nate Ryan: Very high. I think Ganassi had a shot at a win ahead of Hendrick or JGR, but getting a victory ahead of both would have been a 20-1 proposition. RCR seemed miles behind both of those powerhouses entering 2017.

Dustin Long: Astronomical. Credit Richard Childress Racing for gambling at Phoenix, but that’s something that the organization was more willing to do to snap a winless streak that dated back to late in the 2013 season. The Chip Ganassi Racing cars have been fast all season so it is not as surprising that they have won. Still, I don’t think anybody would have said that RCR and Ganassi would have won before both Gibbs and Hendrick this year.

Who is in need of a good result soon?

Steve Letarte: I know this sounds silly but I think the 41 (Kurt Busch) needs a good result off a restrictor-plate track. When I listen to Kurt Busch on the scanner, he doesn’t seem like a calm, calculated driver who has a win this year. I’m OK with poor performance because it’s going to happen because it’s a long season. But his emotion and lack of constructive feedback concerns me. It sounds like a driver that is in a year-long slump and has been struggling and he isn’t. He’s the Daytona 500 champion. I feel that what I feel the Daytona 500 should do to a race team hasn’t done to this 41 team. I don’t feel there’s any sort of air of confidence. I think they’re still distressed, and I think it’s because they’re getting outrun by both Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

Nate Ryan: Matt Kenseth. Back-to-back heavy impacts (and crashes in three of the first five races this year) surely have left the driver and team a little shook. He has run well in all five races, however, and he’s been a factor at Martinsville since joining Joe Gibbs Racing.

Dustin Long: Matt Kenseth. He’s wrecked three times in the first five races and hard the past two weeks. He just needs to finish without hitting a wall or another car. It’s too early in the season to be damaging so many cars and getting beat up.

Watch Steve Letarte and Jeff Burton on NASCAR America today from 5:30 – 7 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Saturday’s NASCAR Cup, Xfinity schedule at Richmond

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Today is the midpoint of the racing weekend at Richmond International Raceway.

The NASCAR Cup Series will have two practice sessions, while the NASCAR Xfinity Series will have qualifying and then race in the Toyota Care 250.

Here’s how today’s schedule shapes up (all times are Eastern):

6:30 a.m. – Xfinity garage opens

7:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. – Cup garage open

9 – 9:55 a.m. – Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

10:05 a.m. – Xfinity qualifying; three rounds/multi-car (FS1)

11:15 a.m. – Xfinity driver-crew chief meeting

11:30 a.m. – 12:20 p.m. – Final Cup practice (FS1, MRN)

12:30 p.m. – Xfinity driver introductions

1 p.m. – Toyota Care 250; 250 laps/187.5 miles (FS1, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

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.