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More Cup teams playoff eligible after seven races than in first three years of format

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After seven races in the NASCAR season, the sport’s premier series is experiencing its highest level of parity this early since the introduction of the current playoff format in 2014.

Drivers and teams become eligible for the one of the 16 spots in playoffs with a race win. Any spot not filled by a race winner is filled by points.

Jimmie Johnson‘s win Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway put the number of teams and drivers eligible for the playoffs via wins at six each ahead of the Easter break this weekend.

For teams, that’s the most organizations that have become eligible since the format was introduced. Four teams were eligible in each of the first three years.

Six drivers is the second most since the seven that qualified in 2014.

Teams and drivers that are eligible for the playoffs through seven races: Stewart-Haas Racing (Kurt Busch), Team Penske (Brad Keselowski), Furniture Row Racing (Martin Truex Jr.), Richard Childress Racing (Ryan Newman), Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson) and Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson).

The parity is helped by Richard Childress Racing, Furniture Row Racing and Chip Ganassi Racing winning races this early for the first time under the win-and-in format.

Joe Gibbs Racing was shut out of Victory Lane before the off-week for the first time under the format. JGR qualified two drivers in 2014 and 2016 and one driver in 2015.

MORE: Hendrick teams find speed, Joe Gibbs Racing still struggling

Hendrick, Penske and Stewart-Haas have had at least one playoff-eligible driver through sevens race in each season.

Hendrick has never had more than one driver eligible through seven races.

Here’s which teams and drivers were eligible at this point in the first three years of the current playoff format and how many teams were eligible at the end of the regular season.

2014; four teams/seven drivers: Hendrick Motorsports (Dale Earnhardt Jr.), Stewart-Haas Racing (Kevin Harvick, Kurt Busch), Team Penske (Kesleowski, Joey Logano), Joe Gibbs Racing (Carl Edwards, Kyle Busch).

End of regular season: Eight teams/16 drivers

2015; four teams/five drivers: Team Penske (Logano, Keselowski), Hendrick Motorsports (Johnson), Stewart-Haas Racing (Harvick), Joe Gibbs Racing (Denny Hamlin).

End of regular season: Eight teams/16 drivers

2016; four teams/five drivers: Joe Gibbs Racing (Hamlin, Kyle Busch), Hendrick Motorsports (Johnson), Team Penske (Keselowski), Stewart-Haas Racing (Harvick).

End of season: Eight teams/16 drivers

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NASCAR America: Comparing Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s final season to Usain Bolt’s

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With Dale Earnhardt Jr. nearing the end of his Cup Series career, NBC Sports analysts Ato Boldon, a four-time Olympic medalist in track and field, discussed how the twilight of Earnhardt’s career compares to that of Usain Bolt, whose running career recently ended with a hamstring injury in the last race of his career.

“I think there are a lot of similarities,” Boldon said. “I think a lot of people would have loved to have seen Junior having a better year in this his final season. It’s the same thing that happened in London. That place was sold, 60,000 people, because we wanted to see how Usain Bolt would go out. The fans were hoping he would go out with a win.”

Watch the rest of the video for Boldon’s take on NASCAR, which he is discovering this year as a member of the NASCAR on NBC team.

 

Brad Keselowski Racing to cease operations in Truck Series after this season

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Brad Keselowski Racing announced Thursday it will cease operations after this season, ending a run in the Camping World Truck Series that began in 2008.

The two-truck team fields entries for Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric.

“The Truck Series is truly special to me given my family’s ties to the history of the sport, and this decision comes with much contemplation. But, for a number of reasons, and as I plan for the long-term future, I’ve decided not to field a team in 2018,” Brad Keselowski said in a press release.

“My goal with BKR was to create a top-tier team which would allow me to give back to the sport by creating opportunities and quality experience for others, whether they be drivers, mechanics, engineers, or support personnel. With outstanding leadership from BKR GM Jeremy Thompson, assistance from Team Penske, and the support of our long-time partners Cooper Standard and Horizon Global, we were able to successfully achieve this goal. I am very proud of this and intend to do my best to help my BKR team members stay and grow in the sport. I am also incredibly appreciative of the great relationships we have developed with our partners over the years.”

The team has earned nine series wins – none this year.

“The team has also provided me with meaningful experience as a team owner,” Keselowski said. “I’ve never made it a secret that I would eventually like to be an owner at the top-level of the sport. And, while this is many years down the line, I want to start to prepare for that possibility now. Part of that preparation is seeking to develop an advanced engineering and manufacturing company that would be housed out of our 78,000 square foot facility in Statesville and ultimately help to support this vision.”

Soon after the announcement, Keselowski published a blog about the decision. He said having to tell his team it was shutting down was “one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done.”

Keselowski went on to share how his time driving for Roger Penske has shaped his outlook on his future ownership goals.

“One of the things I’ve learned from Roger Penske is the importance of having a successful core business outside of motorsports,” Keselowski wrote. “If you have a successful business venture outside of motorsports, you can kind of roll with the ebbs and flows of the sport as an owner. That’s the position I want to be in, and that I’ll need to be in to be an owner who lasts in NASCAR.”

BKR joins Red Horse Racing in ending its operations in the Truck Series. Red Horse Racing competed in the first five races of the season before shutting down. The teams combined to have two of the eight drivers in last year’s Truck playoffs.

Keselowski’s decision comes after he’s repeatedly talked about the costs of owning a Truck team.

“It’s a money loser,’’ Keselowski told NBC Sports earlier this year. “Big time.’’

In 2014, Keselowski told NBC Sports’ Dustin Long his team lost $1 million that season. Keselowski also said when he would know it would be time to no longer own a Truck team.

“I’m not interested in being involved in the Truck Series if I don’t feel like we can be competitive,” Keselowski said. “My breaking point is two areas – it’s going broke and not being competitive. We have to walk that line every day with every decision we make.”

Four drivers have earned BKR’s nine wins. Ryan Blaney (four wins), Tyler Reddick (three wins), Joey Logano (one win) and Keselowski (one win). Keselowski won his only Truck Series race in 66 starts in 2014 at Bristol.

Drivers who have competed for BKR include NBCSN’s Parker Kligerman (37 races), Ryan Blaney (58 races), Dave Blaney (one race), Logano (six races), Reddick (62 races), Ross Chastain (14 races), Daniel Hemric (23 races), Austin Theriault (10 races) and Alex Tagliani (two races).

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Bristol preview and more

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to analyze this weekend’s races at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts from Stamford, Connecticut. Slugger Labbe joins here from NBC Charlotte and Parker Kligerman and Ato Boldon join from Bristol.

On today’s show:

· From London to Bristol … fresh of his duties at the IAAF Track & Field World Championships, Ato Boldon joins us live from Bristol Motor Speedway. He’ll recap his introduction to NASCAR earlier this year, including a ride along at Daytona. He’ll also share what’s on his docket this weekend in Thunder Valley.

· We’ll recap last night’s Truck Series race won by Kyle Busch, as well as both sessions of today’s Xfinity Series practice.

· American Flat Track star Shayna Texter also stops by to discuss her journey to the top level of flat-track motorcycle racing.

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.

Kyle Busch fastest in Final Xfinity practice at Bristol (video)

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Kyle Busch was fastest in the final Xfinity Series practice session for Friday’s Food City 300.

Busch posted a top speed of 124.315 mph around Bristol Motor Speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver is attempting to sweep all three NASCAR races this weekend after he won last night’s Truck Series race.

Following Busch were Joey Logano (123.865), Brennan Poole (123.586), William Byron (123.372) and Justin Allgaier (123.308).

Tyler Reddick recorded the most laps in the session with 105.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. was 17th fastest in the session.

Click here for the full report.