Long: Stage racing at Martinsville delivered what was promised

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MARTINSVILLE, Va. — Sunday was what NASCAR drivers, series officials, team executives and former racers forecasted when they introduced stage racing in January.

“The stages are going to bring a lot of excitement for the drivers and the fans.’’ — Dale Earnhardt Jr.

“The single-file, high-line ride out, those days are gone.’’ — Brad Keselowski

“When a race fan buys a ticket to go to a race, that race fan deserves to see a race that matters. That race fan deserves to see a race that’s going to impact the championship.’’ — NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton

The point was that with points earned based on finishes in the first two stages, drivers would take more chances and create action that might not have been seen in the past at such junctures.

What happened at the end of Stage 2 Sunday at Martinsville Speedway could define the playoffs … or at least define what drivers will accept in the closing laps.

Kyle Busch was dominant in the second stage and seemed headed toward a stage victory.

He admits that would have been critical to have won and earned a playoff point since his team has yet to win a race this season. He also made note of Joe Gibbs Racing’s lack of wins in the playoffs. JGR has three victories in the last 30 playoff races (10 percent), while having won 25 of the 78 regular-season races (32.1 percent) during that same time.

As the end of Stage 2 neared Sunday, Busch came upon a group of cars trying to stay on the lead lap. There were Austin Dillon, Ryan Newman, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Clint Bowyer among others. They weren’t going to make it easy on Busch, who had a comfortable lead on Chase Elliott as he approached the cars.

Busch worked his way through some of the cars and ran alongside Dillon on the backstretch on the final lap of the stage. If Busch lapped Dillon, Stenhouse would lose the free pass position because he had been passed moments earlier.

Stenhouse responded by running up to the back of Busch’s car entering Turn 3 and pushing the leader up the track. Stenhouse got by to remain on the lead lap (he went on to finish the race 10th), and Elliott nipped Busch to win the stage and collect that one playoff point.

“It was as hard as I could drive,’’ Stenhouse said. “I got sponsors, fans and a team to take care of. I had to stay on the lead lap.’’

He had extra incentive because he knew a caution was coming. Stenhouse had to make his move then.

His action left Busch lamenting that lost point and thinking of the future.

“When you got the leader to the outside and you keep banging him off the corner, that’s pretty disrespectful but do whatever you want, it’s going to come back and bite you one of these days,’’ Busch said. “We’ve just got to always remember that race car drivers are like elephants, they remember everything.’’

Busch knows how valuable bonus points can be for the playoffs.

When he won the 2015 championship, Busch made it out of the first round based on bonus points for wins. If he hadn’t had those, he would not have advanced and there would have been a different champion that season. Last year, Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, advanced to the third round instead of Austin Dillon based on a tiebreaker.

“That’s what this format is supposed to be about is having moments like that,’’ winner Brad Keselowski said. “Whether you agree with specific moves is really neither here nor there. But when you put things on the line, when you put more on the line throughout the race, you get more moments like that, and I think in the end, the fans win and the sport wins.’’

Everyone won Sunday but Kyle Busch.

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Long: Kyle Larson’s playoff exit significant to title contenders

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Lost among questions about rules, confusion on pit road and chaos on the track Sunday was just how significant Kyle Larson’s departure from the playoff is.

The owner of four wins this season, Larson was one of the few drivers who typically could race with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch on the 1.5-mile tracks and some even considered Larson the championship favorite if he made it to Miami.

“I think Kyle Larson was going to be the car to beat, and still will be the car to beat at Homestead,’’ said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch. “Now that he’s not in the (playoff) mix anymore, it probably opens it up for the rest of us.’’

Said Kevin Harvick: “I think you eliminated the best car at Homestead. That’s a big deal. For everybody.’’

Larson entered Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway with a 29-point cushion before his title hopes ended when his engine blew with nearly 200 laps left. He finished 39th.

“It’s crazy,’’ Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said of Larson’s playoff exit. “You can’t ever be safe, for sure.’’

Sunday marked the first time since 2013 that Larson failed to finish a race because of an engine failure. His first two career Cup races ended early because of engine issues that season.

Larson’s departure was as shocking as Busch’s exit in 2014 when he entered the elimination race at Talladega second in the standings with a 25-point cushion to advance to the next round.

Now a spot many presumed would be taken by Larson is open for someone else.

WORK REMAINS

Jimmie Johnson overcame two spins to finish 11th and advance to the Round of 8, moving a step closer to an eighth championship.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, wasn’t pleased after Sunday’s race.

On the radio afterward, Knaus said: “That was a pitiful performance.’’

Knaus had more to say after the race, telling NBC Sports:

“We ran like (expletive deleted). 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 race tracks 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 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.’’

Knaus is right to be concerned. The second round was mistake-riddled for the team.

The pit crew failed to tighten all the lug nuts late in the race at Charlotte, forcing Johnson to back up partially into his stall to remedy the issue, costing him time and positions.

An error by the team’s spotter led to the crew working on Johnson’s damaged car before the red flag period had ended, leading to the team being parked. The team had hoped to run one more lap after being collected in a crash to gain at least one more point.

Then came Kansas’ woes with the lack of speed, an ill-handling car and a seven-time champion causing back-to-back cautions.

“It’s no real surprise that mile-and-a-halves have been a little bit of a struggle for us this year,’’ Johnson said. “We’re putting in the effort. These guys are working around the clock. I’m looking under every stone I can to try to find something as well. We just don’t have the speed yet.

“We’ve got a real opportunity at Martinsville. If we’re able to win there … it sets us up for Homestead.’’

COMMUNICATION WOES

The communication issues Matt Kenseth’s team had Sunday wasn’t the first time for that team and crew chief Jason Ratcliff in the playoffs.

In the penultimate race of the 2013 season, Kenseth struggled all weekend and then had a disastrous pit stop when there was confusion on if the team would change two or four tires. After the call was made for four tires, Kenseth had to back up because the car was on the air hose.

The result was a 23rd-place finish that left Kenseth so far behind Johnson needed only to finish 23rd or better in Miami to win the title. Ratcliff apologized to his crew on the radio after the race for the effort.

Sunday’s scenario was different but communication again proved key and a miscue will keep the team from having a chance to race for a title.

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ Ratcliff said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully, we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.’’

So what happened?

“Two of them were holding tires (over the wall),’’ Ratcliff said of crew members. “We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically, it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

When Kenseth was told on the radio that he was being parked for having too many crew members work on his car while under the five-minute clock for crash damage, the former champion sounded incredulous that his — last? — chance to win a title ended in such a way.

With no plans announced for next year, there’s no guarantee Kenseth will be racing for a championship again. Now the goal becomes a win.

“We’ve had some great runs at Martinsville and there would be nothing greater than going there and finally getting that win with Matt,’’ Ratcliff said. “That would be special. Would it make up for not having a shot at Homestead? No, but it would be sweet to have that happen with just a few races to go in the season.’’

PIT STOPS

The final eight Cup playoff contenders include four former champions — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. There has been a first-time champion in three of the last five years, which could be a good sign for playoff drivers Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. … With winning the pole at Kansas, Truex Jr.’s team earned the first pick of pit stalls also at Martinsville this weekend because qualifying is on the same day as the race there.

Memorial service to be held Friday for Furniture Row Racing team member Jim Watson

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A memorial service for Furniture Row Racing crew member Jim Watson will be held Friday in Lincolnton, North Carolina, his family announced Monday.

Watson, who served in a number of roles for both the No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. and No. 77 of Erik Jones, passed away Saturday night after suffering a heart attack in Kansas City, Kansas, where the teams were preparing for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race.

Watson was 55.

MORE: Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

MORE: Long: Tears turn to cheers for Furniture Row Racing

The memorial will be from 4-6 p.m. ET Friday at the Warlick Funeral Home, 125 Dave Warlick Drive, in Lincolnton.

Watson’s obituary was included in the announcement of the memorial service:

Watson was born Sept. 27, 1962, in Kenosha, Wis., to Betty Paulus Watson and the late David Harrison Watson. He is survived by his wife, Laurie Ann Watson; a daughter, Brittany May Watson; his mother, Betty L. Watson; brother, Mike Watson; stepchildren, Eric James Conover and fiancé Claudia Rodriguez, and Matthew Sean Conover; Michael Patrick Conover, and wife Michele, and Nicholas Ian Conover; three grandchildren, Patrick Michael Conover, Michael Winston Conover, and Coleton Daniel Conover; nieces, Jennifer Watson and Katie J. Ballou; and many other uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorials be made to hatsalive.org.

NASCAR America at 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Round of 12 review, Round of 8 preview

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America begins at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN and wraps up Sunday’s Round of 12 elimination round at Kansas Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Nate Ryan from Stamford, Connecticut. NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty will join us from NBC Charlotte.

On today’s show:

* The Round of 12 has been whittled down to eight drivers after a lot of drama and action in Kansas yesterday. We will rehash all of the excitement from Martin Truex Jr.’s emotional win and the adversity that only some of drivers were able to overcome.

* 7-time NASCAR Cup champion Jimmie Johnson made it on to the Round of 8 but not before dealing with his own challenges, including two spinouts. Now, Johnson heads to a trio of tracks that have been more than kind to the 48 team over the years.

* Elimination Sunday provided a big surprise with an engine failure for Kyle Larson, one of the favorites to take the championship  this season. Despite his heartbreaking departure from the postseason, he did provide a positive outlook for the future.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it via the online stream at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

NASCAR Cup playoff leaderboard heading into Round of 8

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Two rounds down, eight drivers eliminated, two more rounds to go with eight other drivers remaining.

That pretty much sums up the status of the NASCAR Cup playoffs.

Following Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas, which cut the number of drivers still eligible for the Cup championship to eight, the Round of 8 semifinals begin with Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

Kansas winner Martin Truex Jr. continues to maintain his strangehold on the points going into the second-from-last playoff round.

Truex has a 52 point edge above the cut-off line, while Kyle Busch is 25 points to the good and Brad Keselowski is 9 points ahead.

Kevin Harvick is at the cutoff line, while Jimmie Johnson is below the line, even though both drivers are at 0 points.

Denny Hamlin is three points below the cutoff line, Ryan Blaney is eight points below and Chase Elliott is scored eighth, 11 points below the cutoff line.

Here’s the updated playoff leaderboard grid: