Ryan: The stages of anger after a strong comeback? Joey Logano knows them too well

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MOORESVILLE, N.C. — Following a fourth-place finish that featured an impressive comeback from two laps down, Sunday night’s ride home from Martinsville Speedway was fairly miserable for Joey Logano.

“I was mad because we left so much on the table,” the Team Penske driver said Monday morning at his team’s shop, where he was promoting Verizon’s new Innovative Learning initiative. “God, I drove home angry about fourth after being two laps down. If it was last year, it’d be like, ‘Hell of a recovery! Awesome!’

“Now I’m sitting here thinking we left 10 to 15 points out there. It’s like, ‘Arrrgh!’ ”

While much of the focus from the STP 500 was on Kyle Busch’s loss of a playoff point because of a bump by Ricky Stenhouse Jr., no one’s fortunes have been more indicative of the importance of stage points than Logano. He has been an unwanted poster child for the renewed importance of running well throughout an event now that stage points are awarded to top 10 twice during every race.

Logano earned zero stage points Sunday because of a pit penalty (the jack man went over the wall too soon) in the first stage and a cut tire in the second.

He rebounded from the unscheduled green-flag pit stop (after running over debris) to motor to his third top five of the season, but it still felt hollow.

Fourth place paid him 33 points – or two more than 15th-place Jimmie Johnson and three more than Martin Truex Jr. in 16th.

Even more importantly is the significant gap to teammate and race winner Brad Keselowski (55 points), runner-up Kyle Busch (52) and third-place Chase Elliott (50).

“That’s how important it is to run up front throughout the whole race,” Logano said. “We’re getting something out of it at the end of the day (with a fourth), but we’ve got to be able to clean it up a little bit.”

From the season’s first stage – when a loose wheel on his No. 22 Ford forced him into another rally (for sixth) in the Daytona 500 – squandered points have been a storyline for Logano, whose team has proven to be as strong or better than last year’s runner-up to Johnson for the championship.

Though tied for the series lead with five top 10s in six races, he is ranked fifth in the standings – and the biggest consequences still could be lurking.

The stage points could impact his finish in the top 10 of the regular-season points standings, which will be rewarded with playoff points that will carry all the way through to the championship round.

One point can make a difference in the playoffs. Ask Busch, who advanced out of the first round in his title-winning 2015 season by that margin.

“You can’t leave (points) on the table,” Logano said. “That’s what we’ve done. When I look at this year, we’ve had something go wrong in every single race, and we’ve had to recover.

“If I just had a couple more points, that could make the difference of getting to (the championship round at Miami). And yes, we think about that. That’s why I said, ‘Yeah, we finished fourth. Good but not so good.’ ”

Perhaps not good at all when the playoffs roll around.

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NBCSports.com colleague Dustin Long dug up some interesting talk about what modifications could lie ahead for the 2017 All-Star Race. This will be the first under Monster Energy, which could portend some radical departures in the format of an event where the title sponsor usually has influence.

At the risk of paraphrasing myself, the feelings from this corner haven’t changed much since this column nearly three years ago.

Before determining what the All-Star Race should look like or where it should be held, there is a fundamental question that needs answering:

What should it be?

Is it intended to be a skills competition like other sports? Is it a glitzy showcase for the title sponsor? Is it an opportunity to highlight the personalities of NASCAR’s stars with their helmets off (hint, hint)?

Maybe it’s all of the above.

Regardless, these hopefully are the questions being considered as the Drivers Council, RTA, NASCAR and Monster shape the future of a race whose relevance has been under scrutiny for years.

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Taken statically, the news of the Xfinity/Truck series awards ceremony’s move to Charlotte might seem to have limited bearing.

But it could be a test run for the Charlotte Convention Center’s ballroom (which was built as an offshoot of funding the NASCAR Hall of Fame) as host of the Cup Awards Ceremony in the future.

The Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Bureau ponying up $17.5 million over seven years to help bring a second annual Cup race to Las Vegas Motor Speedway probably means an end after 2017 to a seven-figure subsidy from Vegas for the Cup Awards Ceremony (which has been held in the gambling mecca with help from the city since 2009).

It seems feasible that Charlotte could become the home for all of NASCAR’s national series awards ceremonies in 2018 – which actually makes a lot of sense.

We always will be partial to the Waldorf-Astoria and Christmastime in Manhattan as an ideal home for the awards ceremony. But Charlotte’s massive event space would be a fine place to resurrect the incomparably fun Waldorf afterparty, which once featured the Starlight Orchestra playing into the wee hours of Saturday morning every year.

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Though Martinsville’s new lights weren’t used last weekend, they will be turned on for the finish of the Oct. 29 playoff race at the 0.526-mile oval, and speculation is natural about when a Cup race might be held at night on the short track.

Here’s a thought with Phoenix Raceway clamoring to change its early March date (which conflicts with spring training): Move another track into Las Vegas’ slot and start the West Coast Swing a week later, ending with Phoenix in Martinsville’s current spring slot. Then try a midweek night race at Martinsville in June or July.

By the way, don’t count on a night race necessarily bringing a sellout Martinsville, which seemed to have one of its weaker crowds Sunday despite beautiful weather and another highly entertaining 500-lap race.

So what’s the solution to lagging attendance at some tracks?

A humble suggestion (from someone who admittedly lacks expertise in economics or finance): Would cheaper tickets be an option?

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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