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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.

Here’s the point(s): Brad Keselowski locked into second round already

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Brad Keselowski came into the NASCAR Cup playoffs concerned primarily about one thing: wins.

His strategy was if he won at least once in the first two or three rounds, it likely would leave him in good position to reach the final Round of 4 for the championship in the season finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Ironically, Keselowski is just two races into the 10-race playoffs and he’s already advanced to the second round Round of 12 not on wins, but points.

After finishing sixth in the playoff opener last Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway, Keselowski finished fourth in Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

That’s enough points earned to put Keselowski and Kyle Larson into the second round with points, while Chicagoland winner Martin Truex Jr. and New Hampshire winner Kyle Busch also advance to Round 2 with their victories.

While Keselowski would have liked to earn his first playoff win and third triumph of the season, knowing he doesn’t have to worry about where he’ll finish next Sunday in the first round elimination race at Dover gave the 2012 Cup champion satisfaction indeed.

“It was great execution,” Keselowski said. “The pit crew was really solid today and a pretty good setup too. (Crew chief) Paul Wolfe and the engineers did a good job putting the right stuff under the car.”

Even though he never led a lap in Sunday’s race, a win was definitely possible for Keselowski, even though he was contending with the Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Truex Jr.

He stayed in the top 5 for much of the race, didn’t suffer any problems on pit road and stayed out of trouble.

“I felt like we were where we needed to be to win and to run up front with the pit crew and the setup, just kind of lacking a little bit with aero stuff to keep up,” Keselowski said. “But on this type of track, aerodynamics are a little less important and I felt like it helped us run a little bit higher this week.”

Now, Keselowski can go into Dover a bit more relaxed, knowing he’ll race yet another day after next Sunday – as in the Round of 12 opener at Charlotte on Oct. 8.

“I think today this execution is as good as you can get,” Keselowski said. “A little bit of luck helps and of course you want to be the fastest car.

“That’s not the scenario with rules the way they are now, so we’ve got to make the most of it and hope to catch a few breaks and make sure we do our part.”

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Ricky Stenhouse Jr. overcomes tough day to hold on to final transfer spot

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LOUDON, New Hampshire — No, there were not any bruises although Ricky Stenhouse Jr. admits it felt like “we were in a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather all week.’’

Stenhouse persevered Sunday, coming back from scraping the wall on Lap 7 of Sunday’s  race and getting lapped before halfway to finish 15th. That puts him in the final transfer spot for the second round with only next weekend’s race at Dover International Speedway left before the playoff field is trimmed.

Stenhouse is tied with Austin Dillon for the final transfer spot but owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. Stenhouse’s best finish in this round was the 15th-place finish he scored Sunday. Dillon’s best finish is 16th, which he scored last weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Stenhouse entered Sunday’s race four points behind Dillon for the final transfer spot. Odds were not in his favor to gain ground. Stenhouse had the worst average finish (20.44) at New Hampshire among the 16 playoff drivers coming into the race. It looked all weekend as if he’d struggle to make it into the top 20.

“We just couldn’t find speed, couldn’t find the handle on the car,’’ Stenhouse said. “We made a lot of adjustments for today and was surprisingly a little bit better than we were in practice. I didn’t think we were as capable of a car to finish where we did, but we did what we needed and had some good breaks and some good pit stops and ended up gaining some points. That was our goal, so I feel really good about that. I’d say we’ve had two sub-par weeks and we’re still in this thing, so we’ll regroup and get focused and go to Dover.”

Stenhouse has 2,044 points, tied with Dillon and one point ahead of Ryan Newman.

Dillon finished 19th and was involved in an incident with Kevin Harvick that spun Harvick and triggered an eight-car crash at the end of the second stage.

Dillon said he didn’t know what happened.

“He kept coming left and I was in the gas and he bobbled and when he bobbled I tapped him and it spun him out,’’ Dillon said of Harvick.

As for next week, Dillon said: “We’ve got to go get ‘em … and have a good race and we will see where we end up.”

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Kyle Larson: ‘Top fives will get us to Homestead’

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Kyle Larson has finished in second a lot.

His runner-up finish Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway was his eighth of the year and his first in the playoffs.

In Sunday’s ISM Connect 300, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver started and finished second after failing to track down Kyle Busch in the closing laps of the race.

But Larson doesn’t mind, especially after he’s earned two top fives to open the playoffs.

“That’s a lot of second-place finishes this year, but I’m fine with second,” Larson told NBCSN. “Top fives will get us to Homestead (for the championship race), so hats off to everybody on our Target team. The pit crew was great all day. I think we gained spots every time. Normally I’m struggling on short tracks, but this year we were pretty good.”

Larson placed second in both New Hampshire races this year. Before this season, he hadn’t finished better than 10th in his previous four starts. He placed third and second in his first two New Hampshire starts in 2014.

Larson earned his first short-track win two weeks ago in the regular-season finale at Richmond Raceway. The rest of his five Cup victories have come at 2-mile speedways, of which there are none in the playoffs. But there is the short track of Martinsville and the 1-mile oval at Phoenix in the third round.

Any sting of finishing second once again is likely dulled by the fact Larson has already advanced to the second round based on points.

But Larson wants to make more trips to victory lane in the final eight races.

“You could probably point your way to (the championship race), but I would prefer to get a win in each of these rounds,” Larson later said in his post-race press conference. “If we can keep the good runs going, we should be all right.

“Obviously, I think as you get into the later rounds, wins are even more important than they are now. We had good regular season points, gave ourselves some good playoff points. This first round I knew would be fairly easy, but I think as we get into the next round and then the third round, a win would be great.”

Larson leaves New Hampshire second in the NASCAR Cup standings. He is 24 points behind Martin Truex Jr.

Larson’s next chance to win in the first round of the playoffs is next weekend at the 1-mile Dover International Speedway. In his seven starts at the “Monster Mile,” Larson has three top fives.

Two of those were runner-up finishes, including in the last visit there in June.

NASCAR Cup standings after Loudon: 4 drivers locked into second round

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Four drivers emerged from Sunday’s ISM Connect 300 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway with a bit of pressure taken off their shoulders.

In addition to race winner Kyle Busch and last week’s winner, Martin Truex Jr., Sunday runner-up Kyle Larson and fourth-place finisher Brad Keselowski are all locked into the second round of the NASCAR Cup playoffs, also known as the Round of 12.

That means no matter what happens at Dover International Speedway next Sunday, those four will have automatic berths in the second round.

Drivers in the first round that need strong results at Dover to advance — or run the risk of being eliminated if they don’t — are Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (12th place), Austin Dillon (13th), Ryan Newman (14th), Kurt Busch (15th) and Kasey Kahne (16th).

Following Sunday’s race, Martin Truex Jr. remains No. 1 in the standings, holding a 24-point lead over Larson, a 30-point edge over Kyle Busch, 43 points ahead of Brad Keselowski, 61 points ahead of Denny Hamlin and 62 points ahead of Matt Kenseth.

Click here for the full NASCAR Cup standings after Sunday’s race at New Hampshire.