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Bump & Run: Is a changing of the guard taking place?

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Parker Kligerman, who will be on NASCAR America from 5:30-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, joins Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in discussing key topics in NASCAR in this week’s Bump & Run.

Six drivers in the top 16 in points are age 26 or younger — Erik Jones (20 years old), Chase Elliott (21), Ryan Blaney (23), points leader Kyle Larson (24), Trevor Bayne (26) and Joey Logano (26). After seven races in the season, is this an official changing of the guard in the Cup series? 

Parker Kligerman: Considering earlier this year when we did this feature, when asked to name a certain driver we had our eye on for 2017, I answered with a group. Specifically the 26-and-under group. Because, no doubt in my mind, this year is a turning point. There are enough uber-talented drivers in cars with astronomical funding levels. It was only logical we would see these young drivers become a conversation point. 

With that said, I do not think the guard has changed yet. Not until we get to the Championship Four, and we are not talking about an eighth championship for J.J., or a second for Brad K., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, or Matt Kenseth, or a first for Denny Hamlin or Martin Truex Jr., but we are talking about how the average age of the Championship Four is far from midlife crisis age, and the 26-and-under drivers are the main contenders. Maybe even the winner. Only than can I say the guard officially has been changed. Right now, the guards are just swapping shifts. 

Nate Ryan: It definitely is evidence that a new era is dawning, but I’m not ready to say the group once known as the “Young Guns” is ready to ride off into the sunset. It’ll be at least a few more years — and several victories, plus maybe a championship — for that youthful crop to have displaced Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth et al. 

Dustin Long: No, it’s not a changing of the guard. Seven races is not enough. Just look at the number of wins those six drivers have combined to score this season: One. That’s not a changing of the guard. Yes, this group is gaining more attention with four of them in the top six in points heading to Bristol, but until they show this type of dominance — and win more often — for a full year will it be a changing of the guard.

The next two weeks feature Cup races at short tracks (Bristol and Richmond). Which driver or team will you be watching closely to see how they fare?

Parker Kligerman: Kyle Busch: I know … How boring! But bear with me: Kyle is EXCEPTIONAL at these two tracks, but his race cars have been nothing of the sort in 2017, aside from Martinsville (a short track). In my time at Kyle Busch Motorsports, it was these two tracks that I watched him very closely and realized I had some serious work to do to be able to consider myself win-worthy. His ability to deal with a very, very loose race car on the entry of the corners is what makes him so good at Richmond. But he can shoulder only so much. Will JGR bring cars worthy of his talent, similar to Martinsville?  

Nate Ryan: Joe Gibbs Racing and in particular Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Either could win at both races, and that would help quell the incessant questions about why JGR has struggled off the starting line in 2018. 

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. He has only one finish better than 10th so far this season. He won at Richmond last fall. I would expect him to run well at both tracks and climb higher in the points. This also could be a chance for him to score some stage points. He has only 14 this season — nine came at Martinsville in the first stage. If Hamlin doesn’t run well in these two races, then it would raise some red flags, especially with how the JGR cars have not been as strong on the bigger tracks. This is a two-race stretch for Hamlin to collect some much-needed points.

Which streak is likely to continue: Hendrick Motorsports is winless in the last three years at Bristol and Richmond; Joe Gibbs Racing has won five of the last eight races at Bristol and Richmond.

Parker Kligerman: I think HMS stays winless. Odd, I know, to bet against the team that just won the most recent race. But it’s hard for me to feel confident in any car out of that stable except the 48. And I know the 48 has momentum, but from what I saw at Martinsville, there is work to be done. Add in the 24 has not closed one out yet. The 88 seems to be looking for a bit of consistency, and the 5 is still lost. I don’t like the chances of HMS in the next two races.

Nate Ryan: Hendrick Motorsports, though I wouldn’t count out a breakthrough by Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose resurgence at Texas Motor Speedway seemed legitimate. 

Dustin Long: Hard not to go with Hendrick remaining winless at Bristol and Richmond in recent times. I’ll be interested to see how the Hendrick cars do the next couple of weeks since these tracks, particularly Richmond, have not been their best. After some sub-par performances, these tracks are an opportunity for the HMS teams to build some momentum. Question is if they will.

Watch Parker Kligerman on NASCAR America today from 5:30-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Check out Southern 500 paint schemes for Erik Jones, David Ragan and Landon Cassill

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Monday saw the reveal of three paint schemes for the Sept. 3 Southern 500 (on NBCSN). Here’s a look at the cars for Furniture Row Racing’s Erik Jones and Front Row Motorsports’ David Ragan and Landon Cassill.

Jones, who is in contention for the Rookie of the Year award in the Cup Series, will honor previous winners of the award with his paint scheme. Specifically, the No. 77 Toyota will pay tribute to the Rookie of the Year recipients from 1984-89.

The scheme will feature pictures of Rusty Wallace (1984), Ken Schrader (1985), Alan Kulwicki (1986), Davey Allision (1987), Ken Bouchard (1988) and Dick Trickle (1989).

Ragan’s No. 38 Ford will be sponsored by Good Sam. Ragan’s paint scheme is an ode to the RV company’s early days. It was founded in 1966.

Cassill’s paint scheme probably looks familiar. It’s the same one the team used for the last Southern 500 when Chris Buescher drove the N0. 34. The team had to call an audible after Michael McDowell and Leavine Family Racing beat them to the punch on a Kulwicki tribute scheme. Fortunately, Cassill was cool with it.

MORE: Retro Rundown of 2017 Southern 500 paint schemes.

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Bump & Run: Taking stock of the NASCAR season

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What has surprised you the most about this season?

Jeff Burton: My biggest surprise is that there really hasn’t been a flaw in the new stage racing format. I believed that something would happen that revealed a flaw that no one had anticipated but we have yet to see it.

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr.’s emergence as the championship favorite. It was expected he would run well and be a playoff contender and winner, but Furniture Row Racing regularly outrunning Joe Gibbs Racing as the best-in-class Toyota team has been a surprise – as has Truex’s runaway lead in the playoff points standings. He and crew chief Cole Pearn have become the crew chief-driver combination that is setting the pace in every way possible, whether it’s lap speeds, setup decisions or strategy calls.

Dustin Long: That there have been 14 different Cup winners (13 eligible for the playoffs) at this point in the season, which is already the most number of winners in an entire Cup season since 2013.

What driver has impressed you the most this season?

Jeff Burton: Martin Truex Jr. Speed and consistency is hard to achieve. He has been the guy that seems to be in the battle every single week. 

Nate Ryan: William Byron. His promotion to the Cup Series is well deserved, because he has proven the past two years to be an absolute prodigy with his acclimation to Xfinity and trucks. It makes one wonder if he already would have been a Cup winner if he had started his racing career in earnest before becoming a teenager.

Dustin Long: I’m amazed what William Byron has done for his relative lack of experience compared to drivers who started before they hit first grade. His ability to handle pressure situations has been noteworthy. While the challenges will increase next year, I’m already interested to see how he will do in Cup.

What storyline most intrigues you for the coming weeks?

Jeff Burton: I’m intrigued about the playoffs. There will be a big time driver and team that doesn’t advance into the playoffs. Watching who can take control and who can’t step up will be very interesting to witness.

Nate Ryan: The impact of playoff points on the championship race and how it affects who advances in each round. The suspicion here is that there will be much second-guessing and re-examination of decisions made during the regular season that had unanticipated repercussions months later.

Dustin Long: I’m intrigued to see if Kyle Busch and his team can finally eliminate the mistakes that have plagued them throughout the season and prevented Busch from possibly an epic season. With two wins in the last four races, he’s on the verge of a breakout that will lead to a dominating title run. Will it happen?

SunnyD extends sponsorship deal with Roush Fenway Racing

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SunnyD has extended its contract with Roush Fenway Racing to sponsor Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s team through the 2019 season, the organization announced Tuesday.

SunnyD will add races as primary sponsor each season, although how many was not announced.

The company has been the primary sponsor of Stenhouse’s car in three races this season – Atlanta, spring Bristol and Indianapolis. SunnyD will next sponsor Stenhouse in October at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“We’ve had a great time partnering with SunnyD the last two years,” Stenhouse in a statement from the team. “It’s one of the coolest paint schemes on the track, and we’ve had a lot of fun promoting their classic brand. I’m excited that we have extended our relationship, and I can’t wait to see how much fun we can have with SunnyD in victory lane.”

“We are very excited to announce that we tore up the old contract and signed a new one that extends for another season and adds additional races with Ricky and Roush Fenway,” said Henk Hartong, Chairman of Harvest Hill Beverage Company, owners of the SunnyD brand, in a statement. “I’m very proud of our relationship with Jack Roush, Steve Newmark and the entire Roush Fenway team. It is something that we wanted to lock in for the foreseeable future. Ricky is one of the rising young stars in NASCAR and we have seen great response to the program from the passionate NASCAR fans.  We are pleased to bolster our association with him and Roush Fenway.”

Stenhouse has two wins this year and will be in next month’s playoffs.

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Martin Truex Jr. continues to dominate NASCAR Cup playoff grid

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Martin Truex Jr. continues to dominate the weekly NASCAR Cup playoff standings.

Truex did not gain any extra points during Saturday night’s Bristol Night Race, so he remains with 35 points, but that’s still a large spread over those chasing him.

Bristol winner Kyle Busch jumped from fifth to second place in the standings with 20 playoff points.

Kyle Larson fell back to third place (18 points), Jimmie Johnson fell to fourth (16) and Brad Keselowski is fifth (14).

As for the playoff bubble, Chase Elliott is 69 points ahead of the cut-off line, followed by Matt Kenseth (+61) and Jamie McMurray (+58) with two races left until the playoffs.

Outside the playoff cut line is Clint Bowyer, who dropped from 31 to 58 points down and Joey Logano from -98 to -117. Erik Jones climbed from -130 to -127, and Daniel Suarez dropped from -139 to -163.

 

Here’s this week’s playoff standings grid: