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Denny Hamlin salvages day for Joe Gibbs Racing with third-place finish

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First, Matt Kenseth led the opening 164 laps with ease. But his day was ruined by a cut tire and the No. 20 Toyota finished 23rd.

Kyle Busch later challenged for the lead. But the four-time Richmond winner was left simply stating “balls and strikes” after a commitment line violation relegated him to 16th.

Rookie Daniel Suarez was never a factor, finishing 12th.

That left Joe Gibbs Racing’s best chances for winning its first race this season to Virginia native Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin led three times for 59 laps in the Toyota Owners 400, but the last time the No. 11 Toyota led Sunday was 38 laps from the race’s conclusion.

Hamlin wound up third after a series of late-race restarts, earning his first top five of the year.

“We optimized our day,” Hamlin said. “It’s the best we could do. We finished right where we should have.”

Though Kenseth earned the pole and led the most laps and Hamlin earned his best result through nine races, Hamlin cautioned this doesn’t mean JGR has pulled out of its early season “short falls.”

“I think that some of the issues that you might have with speed is masked just a little bit on a short track, so by no means does this indicate that we’ve fixed anything,” Hamlin said. “When I’m running out front, my balance is very, very good, where I need it to be, and we just don’t have a car that was quite fast enough. Aerodynamics matter, skew matters, things like that, and we’re just a little behind. So we’ve got to just take solace in some small wins and goals, and today was a good finish.”

On Friday, Hamlin had warned that JGR’s woes wouldn’t be fixed “overnight” or in “a month.” That remained the case 48 hours later, even though Kenseth led his first laps of the season and won a stage.

The team was unable to defend its three-race win streak at the .75-mile track. Hamlin delivered the last win there in  September 2016 race. That was also the last win by an active JGR driver (Carl Edwards, who is not racing this year, won at Texas in November with the team).

“We know where we need to get better,” Hamlin said. “That’s the tough part. At least if you know why, then you can go to work on those areas.”

Through nine races, JGR’s four drivers have combined for five top-five finishes.

“We haven’t gotten better,” Hamlin said. “We’re really right where we were. I mean, if we go to a mile-and-a-half (track) next week, we’re just as far off as what we were a week ago.

“You’ve still got to have raw speed. You cannot just have a better setup than those guys and go out and beat them. You have to have a faster car, and we just ‑‑ you know, I’m optimistic. I hate to be pessimistic about today, but we’ve got to be real about it and realize, hey, it’s just a short track. We still have a lot of work to do to catch up.”

If short tracks like Richmond help even out the competition, the series heads to the epitome of even competition in Talladega Superspeedway.

Hamlin has two points wins in restrictor-plate races since 2014, including last years’ Daytona 500. He placed third in the fall race at the 2.66-mile speedway.

“Definitely looking forward to it,” Hamlin said. “Our Superspeedway program has been great at JGR. …  It’s honestly probably the best chance I have at winning until a few months from now. Everything is pretty level. I’m optimistic we’re going to have a car that can win, and I’ll do the best I can to fight for every position.”

Matt Kenseth: Brickyard 400 restarts ‘kind of ridiculous’

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Matt Kenseth came close to winning Sunday’s Brickyard 400, but ultimately finished fifth.

Kenseth called the race “kind of ridiculous” down the stretch because of the several restarts that brought about further havoc and wrecks.

Kenseth competed in his final Brickyard 400 for Joe Gibbs Racing. With his future uncertain and whether he’ll be able to continue racing in 2018, could Sunday have been the final Brickyard 400 of his career, much like good friend Dale Earnhardt Jr., who is retiring after this season?

Check out the video above for Kenseth’s comments on the race.

Rick Hendrick on Kasey Kahne’s future: ‘Our plans are not set for the No. 5 car’

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INDIANAPOLIS – Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne has a contract for 2018 at Hendrick Motorsports but possibly doesn’t have a job next season.

Team owner Rick Hendrick confirmed Sunday night that “our plans are not set for the No. 5 car” after Kahne ended a 102-race winless streak in the Cup Series.

“There’s nothing concrete or done, and that hasn’t changed,” Hendrick said. “We’ll see how things shake out the rest of the year.  There’s a lot of things involved, sponsors and a lot of things we look at.  We’re going to try hard.  But there’s no decisions made at this time.”

Kahne felt the 18th victory of his career helped him make a case for staying in the No. 5 Chevrolet.

“I think this shows I still want to win races,” he said. “It shows I gave it all that I can to get a win and shows that I’m passionate about driving stock cars, and that I can still win races, too.

“I have a deal through 2018 with Hendrick Motorsports. I hear a lot of things, but it’s tough to say exactly what’s going to happen. I don’t know at this point and time. I know me and Mr. H will figure it out. I think this shows that I want to be and still have the drive and passion to do it, so I’m going to keep trying hard I know that.”

During a Sunday morning pre-race news conference to formally introduce Alex Bowman as the replacement next season for Dale Earnhardt Jr., Hendrick said he planned to run four cars next season but deflected a question about Kahne’s status (“that’s for another day”).

Xfinity Series rookie William Byron, who is under contract to Hendrick, would be an option for the No. 5 Chevrolet, but Hendrick said “we’re not ready to cross that bridge yet” when asked about Byron’s Cup future.

Kahne is ranked 22nd in the points standings with only four top 10s in 20 races this season.

“When you’ve had a rough road, your confidence gets down,” Hendrick said. “He said, ‘I know I can do it. The harder I try, the more it seems like I have this rough bad luck.’

“Something like this (win) can be really good for any guy to have, the whole team, to have confidence.  … All I can say about Kasey is he shows up, he shows up on time, and he shows up on time with his game face on, and he puts in the effort. Sometimes it just takes a break.  But he’s done everything.  I know in his heart he wants to do it.  He’s trying, so … ”

Ryan Newman on Brickyard 400: ‘That’s not racing, just craziness’

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Ryan Newman was in the right place at the right time in Sunday’s Brickyard 400, finishing third.

It was Newman’s second-best finish of 2017 after his win earlier this year at Phoenix.

But Newman, who is never afraid to speak his mind, did just that after Sunday’s race. Even with his strong finish, he echoed the comments of several other drivers that the racing action — particularly restarts — by saying, “That’s not racing, just craziness.”

Check out what Newman had to say in the video above.

Joey Logano’s fourth-place finish is bittersweet as playoff chances dip

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Joey Logano had a bittersweet day in Sunday’s Brickyard 400.

He finished a strong fourth in the incident-filled 24th edition of the Brickyard 400. It was just Logano’s second top-five finish and third top-10 showing in the last 11 races.

But there was also bad news, too.

Kasey Kahne‘s win knocked Logano further back in his bid to rejoin the top-16 drivers eligible for the upcoming NASCAR playoffs. With Clint Bowyer dropping out of the top-16 and Kahne moving into playoff contention, Logano has slipped back to 18th place in the playoff-eligible standings.

As a result, Logano all but has to win one of the next six races to qualify for the playoffs — unless he can point his way in with continued strong top-five finishes.

Logano talked about the situation he faces with NBC Sports after Sunday’s race. Click on the above video to see what he had to say.