Toyota’s recent domination no guarantee of Cup playoff success

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In this short-attention span world, it’s easy to see Toyota’s dominance the last few weeks and all but concede the Cup championship to Kyle Busch or Watkins Glen winner Martin Truex Jr.

Funny thing, it was only a few months ago when a Toyota car couldn’t win a Cup race.

It’s easy to forget but Chevrolet and Ford combined to win nine of the first 10 races this season. Admittedly, there were a few races Busch lost (Phoenix, Martinsville and Talladega) during that early stretch, but it hasn’t been until lately that Toyotas dominated.

Toyota, led by Truex and Busch, have led 88.2 percent of the 992 laps run in the last five Cup races. Toyota has placed at least three drivers in the top five in four of the last five races. A Toyota driver has won nine of the last 10 stages.

Brad Keselowski, who won two of the first six races this season, lamented Toyota’s rise after last weekend’s Xfinity Series race at Watkins Glen won by Busch.

“The Toyotas in all three series just have so much (more) power and aero than everybody else that it’s like two different races,’’ Keselowski said.

So what does it mean for the playoffs?

Expect to see Toyotas advance but that doesn’t mean one will win the championship. Anything can happen in a single race for the title.

Truex, who has collected playoff points like a child hoarding candy, has put himself in good position to advance deep in the postseason. He has 34 playoff points after his victory Sunday. Truex is so far ahead in the points that he likely will finish as the regular season champion and collect the 15 playoff points that go with the honor. That would give him 49 playoff points that will carry through the first three rounds, provided he remains in contention for the title. 

“I feel like with the way we run, coupled with the bonus points, we should essentially be a lock for Homestead,’’ said Truex, who has led three times as many laps as all Chevrolet and Ford drivers have combined in the last five races. “I really feel that way. But at the same time, this is racing, and anything can happen.’’

Or change.

While there weren’t playoff points last year, one can look at the 2016 season and see that even a poor summer stretch doesn’t preclude a driver from winning the crown.

Jimmie Johnson had four finishes of 30th or worse in a nine-race stretch from Daytona to Darlington last year. Yet, he won a race in the second round and another in the third round to advance to the season finale in Miami. He won that race to score his seventh series title.

Could Johnson repeat his run and claim an eighth series title? His finishes have faded in the last six races — he’s placed 25th or worse four times — as they did about this time a year ago. 

Johnson was collected in a crash last month at Kentucky while running eighth. He crashed while racing three-wide for the lead late in the race at Indianapolis.

As he’s always said, the final 10 tracks align well for him.

As for a Ford driver to watch, Kevin Harvick has shown more speed, while Keselowski and Joey Logano have struggled to find it for Team Penske. Logano, who has made it to the championship race twice in the last three years, is in danger of missing the 16-team playoffs after a penalty prevented his Richmond victory from counting toward playoff eligibility.

For as good as the Toyotas have been, Michigan International Speedway, site of this weekend’s Cup race, has not been a good track for the manufacturer lately. In the last three races there, Toyota has had only one car finish in the top five. Denny Hamlin placed fourth in the June race won by Kyle Larson.

With the playoffs still a month away, there’s time for the other teams to catch up to Toyota … or fall further behind.

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Virginia’s Motor Mile Speedway to end short track racing, drops NASCAR sanction

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Motor Mile Speedway has decided to not renew its NASCAR sanction for 2018, ending its reign as a circle track.

The .416-mile paved oval track in Fairlawn, Virginia, will undergo a significant transformation starting next year which does not include short track racing. A NASCAR Home Track, it has hosted the NASCAR Whelen All-American Series for a number of years and hosted a number of then-Busch Series races nearly 30 years ago.

While it may return to host some select racing events in the future, track officials in a news release announced it will soon host “a variety of entertainment and sporting events.”

“We have tried to make the speedway successful, but with a downturn in interest, it’s increasingly difficult to make it work,” Speedway co-owner David Hagan said in a media release. “We are looking at a variety of events to bring new life and excitement to the property.

“The schedule could include everything from concerts, mud runs, festivals, camping, and even new racing events at some point.  You name it and it’s probably come up at our table.”

Located about an hour southwest of Roanoke, Virginia, the speedway sits on a 170-acre parcel of land. While the speedway will cease holding races, it’s adjacent drag strip will continue to operate for sportsman racing.

Click here for the full media release from the speedway.

NASCAR issues three lug nut penalties in final penalty report of season

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NASCAR has issued three penalties to crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts following the championship weekend at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jason Ratcliff, crew chief on the No. 20 Toyota driven by Matt Kenseth, has been fined $20,000 and suspended one Cup points race for two unsecured lug nuts.

Ratcliff will be moving to the Xfinity Series to serve as Christopher Bell’s crew chief next season. The suspension is series specific. So he will be available to crew chief Bell in the season-opening race at Daytona.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford, was fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

In the Camping World Truck Series, Phil Gould, crew chief on Ryan Truex‘s No. 16 Toyota, was fined $5,000 for an unsecured lug nut.

Watch: Denver-area fans celebrate Martin Truex Jr.’s championship

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Barney Visser’s Furniture Row Racing is the only Cup team headquartered west of the Mississippi River, claiming Denver, Colorado, as its home.

Since the team began competing in NASCAR in 2005, the team has built up a dedicated fanbase in the city.

Those fans were rewarded when Martin Truex Jr. won Sunday’s Ford EcoBoost 400 and claimed the team’s first Cup championship.

One watch party in the area took place the Quaker Steak & Lube in Westminster, just north of Denver.

A fan has shared video of the moment Truex captured the championship.

Above, you can watch the Furniture Row Racing fans in attendance celebrate during the final lap of the race.

NASCAR America: Elliott Sadler shouldn’t blame Ryan Preece for losing Xfinity title

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It was arguably one of the most difficult pills Elliott Sadler has ever had to swallow.

Just when it appeared he might finally capture his first career NASCAR championship in Saturday’s Xfinity Series title race, Sadler found himself held up by Ryan Preece, who was racing for the car owner’s title for Joe Gibbs Racing but was not involved in the race for the driver championship.

Preece was running the high line and kept Sadler from getting by him. Sadler tried everything he could to pass Preece, even putting his bumper into the back of Preece’s Toyota to get him to move over.

But that contact ultimately wound up costing Sadler one last chance to catch William Byron, who went on to win the Xfinity championship in his first year in the series.

Sadler, meanwhile, finished second for the second consecutive year — and the fourth time in the last seven seasons.

On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Dale Jarrett and Parker Kligerman broke down what happened to Sadler and whether Preece played a part in preventing Sadler from winning the title.

Here’s how Jarrett looked at it:

“I understand the frustration from Elliott Sadler with a driver that really’s not involved in anything. Ryan Preece is an outstanding young driver that made a name for himself. … I think they gave him bad information and put this young man in a very difficult situation. He wasn’t going to catch the 22 car at that point in time. It was really time for him to get out of the way of the two drivers battling for the championship.

“Unfortunately, his name is going to be associated with affecting the championship in this way. It’s part of it, he doesn’t have to pull out of the way, it’s up to Elliott to figure out a way to get around him.”

And here’s how Kligerman analyzed things:

“I completely understand Elliott Sadler’s frustrations. He had a chance to win the championship, he was in the front and felt like not being able to accomplish that pass on Ryan Preece and maybe get a little help there.

“But it’s not like Ryan stuck it out there, he was beside him and it just didn’t work out. And as they got together, I felt Ryan was running the same line he had been running, and that was Elliott trying to make a last-ditch effort.

“… He’s racing to have a job, to have a career in this sport, like Elliott Sadler. He told me after the race he was upset because he was an Elliott Sadler fan his whole life. He grew up watching Elliott Sadler. He did not want to be part of the championship discussion but was trying to do his job, doing what Joe Gibbs Racing told him to do, which was to try to beat the 22 for the owner’s title.

“I know why Elliott is upset, it’s the fourth time he’s finished second, but I don’t think Ryan did anything wrong.”

Catch more of what Parker and DJ had to say in the video above.

And speaking of William Byron, check out what our two analysts had to say about his championship in the video below.