Who’s Hot and Who’s Not heading to New Hampshire

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One race down, nine to go to crown a champion. That’s where the NASCAR Cup playoffs stand heading into this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Following the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway, four drivers below the cutoff line – Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman – have races at New Hampshire and Dover to bounce back.

Kevin Harvick is the defending race winner. Matt Kenseth has won three of the last eight races at the 1.058-mile flat track. Denny Hamlin is a two-time winner there, including this past July.

Courtesy of Racing Insights, here’s this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not:

Cup – Who Is Hot

No. 78 Martin Truex Jr. (Hot)

  • Won at Chicago after a speeding penalty and loose lugs
  • Finished in the top 10 a series-high 18 times
  • Won a series-high 18 stages
  • 58 Playoff Points includes 15 points for clinching the regular season
  • Five wins this season, most of all drivers and personal best
  • Led a series-high 1,723 laps in 2017, led the most laps in eight races
  • Started top three and led over 100 laps in the last three New Hampshire races
  • Won the pole finished third at New Hampshire in July

No. 18 Kyle Busch (Hot)

  • Finished 15th at Chicago, broke a streak of six straight top 10 finishes
  • Sat on the pole at Chicago by nearly three tenths of a second
  • Loose wheel and speeding penalty then lack of cautions caused his 15th-place finish at Chicago
  • Two wins this season (Pocono and Bristol)
  • Two NH wins, last was summer of 2015
  • Finished 12th at NH in July after leading 95 laps, speeding penalty
  • Finished top 10 in seven of the last nine NH races

No. 11 Denny Hamlin (Hot, Good at NH)

  • Finished fourth at Chicago, fourth straight top-five finish
  • Top-five finishes in 10 of the last 13 races including two wins
  • Won at NH in July, third NH win (won in a backup car due to a practice crash)
  • Finished top two in nearly a third of his NH starts (7 of 23 or 30 percent)

No. 4 Kevin Harvick (Hot, good at NH)

  • Finished third at Chicago, first top-five finish in the last six races, led 59 laps, his most since Texas in April
  • Four fewer top fives and top 10s this year compared to last year
  • Two NH wins, including this race last year, led only eight laps
  • Top five finishes in five of the last six NH races including fifth in July

No. 48 Jimmie Johnson (All about the wins)

  • 8th at Richmond and Chicago, only the second time this season he has scored back-to-back top 10 finishes
  • Three top-five finishes this season, all wins
  • Three time NH winner but last was 2010
  • Has only led seven laps in the last 12 NH races
  • Finished 10th at NH in July after starting second

No. 20 Matt Kenseth (sneaky Hot)

  • Finished 9th at Chicago, seven top-10 finishes in the last nine races, all but Michigan, flat tire in OT while running third and an ambulance problem at Richmond
  • Three NH wins, all in the last eight races
  • Finished top six with two wins in the last five races including fourth in July

No. 2 Brad Keselowski (Warm, Good at NH)

  • Finished sixth at Chicago, first top 10 in the last six races
  • One NH win, summer 2014
  • Finished top 15 in the last 12 races at NH including ninth in July

No. 42 Kyle Larson (Hot in 2017, Good at NH)

  • Finished fifth at Chicago, never really a factor for the win
  • Four wins in 2017, had one entering this season
  • Finished second in seven races this year
  • Best finish at NH in seven races is runner-up twice, including July

No. 31 Ryan Newman (Pretty good lately, not so much at NH lately)

  • 23rd at Chicago, just did not run well, broke a four race top-10 streak
  • Three NH wins, last coming in 2011
  • Has led 722 laps at NH, but only two in the last 11 races
  • Finished 27th at NH in July
  • Seven top-five finishes at NH but only one in the last 12 races

No. 1 Jamie McMurray (Decent)

  • 10th at Chicago, sixth straight top-15 finish
  • 14 top-10 finishes this season, five more than this point last year
  • Best NH finish is third in 2010
  • Finished 17th at NH in July, only three top-10 finishes in the last 13 races at NH

Cup – Who is Not:

No. 21 Ryan Blaney (Not Lately)

  • Finished 11th at Chicago, third straight finish outside the top 10
  • Last top-five finish was his win at Pocono in June
  • Nine top-10 finishes this season but none have come in back-to-back races
  • Four NH starts, best finish of 11th in the summer of 2016, finished 19th in July

No. 41 Kurt Busch (Not, Mixed at NH)

  • Finished 19th at Chicago, broke a streak of three straight top five finishes
  • Speeding penalty at Chicago
  • Three-time NH winner, last time was 2008
  • Finished eighth at NH in July, only his third top-10 finish there in the last 12 races

No. 3 Austin Dillon (Has a win but is NOT HOT)

  • Finished 16th at Chicago, speeding penalty
  • Won on fuel mileage at Charlotte
  • Only four top-10 finishes this season, had 10 at this point last year
  • Only top-10 finish in seven NH races was eighth in summer of 2015
  • Finished 15th at NH in July

No. 24 Chase Elliott (Starting to turn things back around)

No. 5 Kasey Kahne (Not, Not, Not)

  • Finished 21st at Chicago, only one top-10 finish in the last 17 races, win at Indy
  • Six DNFs accident this season
  • Won at Indianapolis ending a 102-race winless streak, took a super lucky timed caution and turned it into a win
  • One NH win, summer 2012 (last win by HMS there)
  • Finished 28th at NH in July, it was his seventh finish outside the top 10 in the last nine NH races

No. 17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr (Has two wins this season)

  • 25th at Chicago , last top 10 was his win at Daytona in July
  • Zero wins in first 157 starts, two wins in last 18 starts
  • Two top-10 finishes in nine NH starts, best of ninth in 2014
  • Finished 14th at NH in July

Others:

No. 14 Clint Bowyer (Disappointing 2017)

  • Finished 13th at Chicago
  • Was 88 points out of a Playoff spot
  • Finished runner up three times in 2017
  • 10 top 10s in 2017, had only three in all of 2016
  • Two-time winner at NH, finished seventh in July

No. 22 Joey Logano (Disappointing season)

  • Seventh at Chicago, finished top 10 in back-to-back races for the first time since April
  • 10 finishes outside the top 20 in the last 18 races
  • Won at Richmond but was encumbered after starting in the rear due to a transmission change
  • First time he missed the playoffs with Team Penske
  • Two-time NH winner
  • Finished 37th in July after a flat tire and suspension issues

No. 77 Erik Jones (Hot, ?? at NH)

  • Finished 33rd at Chicago, multiple issues, broke a streak of six straight top 10 finishes
  • Finished 39th at NH in July, accident after 40 laps, it was his first Cup start there

No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (Not)

  • 17th at Chicago, last top 10 was Sonoma in June (sixth)
  • Only two top-10s in the last 15 races
  • Best NH finish is third in 2004
  • Finished 18th at NH in July, it was his first start there since 2015

Toyota executive calls Truck Series ‘critical step’ in developing drivers

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A Toyota Racing Development executive says that the manufacturer would accept a spec engine in the Camping World Truck Series, noting how valuable that series is for the development of drivers.

David Wilson, president of TRD, made the comments Friday on “Tradin’ Paint” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

NASCAR tested a spec engine for the Truck series multiple times last year and it is expected to be optional this season.

Wilson admits the spec engine idea has raised concerns among manufacturers.

“It is a little bit of a sensitive issue with all the manufactures,’’ Wilson said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “Arguably the biggest single piece of (intellectual property) in any car or truck is the engine, so certainly that’s important to us.

“By the same token we understand the bigger picture. We have been working with NASCAR, all the (manufacturers) have been working with NASCAR to make sure that we keep this series going because here’s the bottom line — while our motivation to run in Trucks has changed over the years, it remains an absolute critical step in how we as an industry develop drivers.

“The leap from ARCA or K&N or Super Late Models straight to Xfinity, that’s too big of a leap. You need a step and that Truck Series is a very important step. You look the drivers that have come through just in our camp — Erik Jones, Christopher Bell, Daniel Suarez — that experience in the Truck garage has been absolutely critical in preparing them to be successful in Xfinity and ultimately in Cup. We’re going to continue to take a big picture approach with the Truck Series and work with our friends at NASCAR. If there are some spec engines that have to be under a Tundra hood, so be it, we’ll be OK.’’

Last year’s Xfinity champion and rookie of the year, William Byron, ran a full season in Trucks in 2016. Erik Jones, the 2016 Xfinity rookie of the year, ran 17 Truck races before his Xfinity debut. Daniel Suarez, the 2017 Xfinity rookie of the year, had run only one Truck race before his Xfinity rookie season but he also ran 13 Truck races while competing in Xfinity that first year.

Those young drivers also illustrate Toyota’s emphasis on new talent. But with only five seats — four with Joe Gibbs Racing and one with Furniture Row Racing —  with Cup teams partnered with TRD, Toyota is having a hard time finding spots for all its drivers.

Wilson said the manufacturer remains committed to developing drivers.

“It’s a commitment that Toyota has made to NASCAR and to motorsports,’’ he said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We enjoy a tremendous amount of value. NASCAR is simply a phenomenal place for us to race. This is part of our payback.

“We feel like we have the social responsibility to give back to the series. We know we’ll lose as many of these young guys and gals as we’ll be able to keep because we simply won’t have enough seats for them. That’s just simple math. It’s already been proven out by William Byron (who raced for Kyle Busch Motorsports in Trucks before moving to Chevrolet in Xfinity and now Cup). We’ll be racing against William, who used to be in a Toyota.

“Bottom line this sport still benefits. As I’ve said before, getting to know these young kids and getting to know their parents at a young age and as they’re coming up in the sport, I believe that will pay dividends. These kids can have a career that spans decades. Who’s to say that we won’t cross paths again? By us building that relationship early on, showing them who we are … the responsibly we have to their well-being, I think it’s a sound investment.’’

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WATCH: Sneak preview of the Hall of Fame induction at 8 p.m. on NBCSN

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The NASCAR Hall of Fame’s ninth class of inductees won’t be remembered so much for the imprint left on the record books as on the revolutions in stock-car racing.

In a video essay that will be shown during tonight’s induction ceremony (which will begin at 8 p.m. on NBCSN), Robert Yates, Ray Evernham, Red Byron, Ken Squier and Ron Hornaday Jr. are saluted as much for what they achieved as how they accomplished it – and their lasting effects on the machines and people that they touched.

–Yates’ ingenuity with engines ranked him among the greatest engine builders. But along with the wins and championships, he also imparted life lessons and knowledge to the apt pupils who are carrying on his successful legacy.

— A crew chief with three Cup championships and 47 wins, Evernham transformed how races and teams were managed, from innovative car designs to clever tire strategies to finely tuned pit crews.

–As the premier series’ first champion, Byron raced with a special brace connecting his leg (which was injured in World War II) to the clutch pedal, embodying the self-determination and grit of NASAR.

–“The Great American Race” was coined by Squier, whose pitch-perfect wordsmithing helped make him a broadcasting legend whose dulcet tones described some watershed moments in evocative and remarkable detail.

–Four championships made Hornaday synonymous with the truck series, but he indirectly played a role in eight Cup titles, turning his couch into “Camp Hornaday” for fellow California natives and budding stars Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson.

You can watch the video essay above or by clicking here.

Tune in at 8 p.m. for TV coverage of a ceremony that should feature special moments and some surprises.

The Hall of Fame ceremony also can be viewed 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 8 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

The moral choice that Kyle Larson made in the closing laps at Miami

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CHARLOTTE – Every NASCAR driver has a code of ethics, and the closing laps of last season’s finale at Homestead-Miami Speedway presented a quandary for Kyle Larson.

If you can’t pass two title contenders with a championship on the line, does discretion become the better part of valor in choosing to pass neither?

It did for Larson, who reflected on his most recent Cup race this week.

With eventual champion Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch dueling ahead of him in the final 20 laps, Larson elected to stay in third place and let them settle the title instead of passing Busch and then taking a shot at Truex with his No. 42 Chevrolet, which led a race-high 145 laps.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver, who has led the most laps at Miami the past two years, said his only option in vying for a victory would have been having the consistent speed to assure he could overtake Truex and Busch.

“I think there were some laps I was faster than them,” he told NBC Sports during a Tuesday announcement to announce DC Solar as an expanded primary sponsor in Cup for 2018. “I obviously didn’t want to affect the outcome of the race. The only negative part of the (playoff) format is when you’re not in the final four, you can’t race your hardest.

“I don’t know if I would have won. I think I could have got to second and potentially the lead. I wanted to pass both of them quickly. I didn’t want to pass Kyle and then stall out for three laps and have him be upset or whatever.”

Indeed, Busch was upset with another driver, expressing frustration that he believed Joey Logano blocked him while trying to take fourth after the final restart.

Though Larson made a conscious choice to avoid separating Truex and Busch, he also dispelled the notion that he still wasn’t trying to muster the speed to win.

“I was driving my ass off,” Larson said. “Obviously, I ran into the wall a few times trying to pass them or get the run to pass both of them quickly, but I could never get it going. So no, I didn’t let (Truex) win or whatever. I was still racing hard.”

Larson, who scored a career-best four wins last year, seemed a good bet to be racing for a title until an engine failure at Kansas Speedway. After a busy offseason of racing sprint cars around the world, a refreshed Larson returned to his team’s NASCAR shop this week and ready to reset his focus.

“I don’t even think about NASCAR until now,” he said. “I feel like today is Day 2 of my offseason. I’m just now getting back into the swing of things.

Larson is enthused about a Jan. 31-Feb. 1 test of Chevrolet’s new Camaro at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (“You can kind of get an idea of how the start of your season will be there.”) before heading to Daytona International Speedway for Speedweeks.

“Last year, I didn’t know we were going to be that good, and then we started the year off really good, and we maintained that consistency and competitiveness,” said Larson, who led the points standings after the fourth through 11th races of the 2017 schedule. “I hope that we can do that again. I feel like when you get close like we did last year, it pushes everybody to be as good or better than what we were.

“I expect that we’ll be contenders again, but it’s hard saying with the new body and stuff like that. I’m sure there’ll be growing pains throughout it, but I definitely feel we have an extremely smart group of people who can do what it takes to get our cars better every week to have a shot.”

Daytona International Speedway releases Speedweeks schedule

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Daytona International Speedway has released the schedule for Cup, Xfinity and Camping World Truck teams for Speedweeks.

Cup teams will have one practice of 1 hour and 20 minutes for the Clash (down from 1 hour, 50 minutes for Clash teams last year).

Cup teams will have five practices for a total of 4 hours, 10 minutes in preparation for the Feb. 18 Daytona 500. Last year, Cup teams had seven practices for a total of 6 hours, 25 minutes before the Daytona 500. The two Cup practices the day of the Duel qualifying races have been eliminated this year.

Xfinity will have the same amount of practice as last year. Camping World Truck Series will have one more practice this year for an extra 1 hour, 20 minutes of track time this year.

Here is the track schedule for Speedweeks.

SPEEDWEEKS SCHEDULE

*subject to change

SATURDAY, Feb. 10

10:35 – 11:55 a.m. — Practice only for teams in Advance Auto Parts Clash

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Cup practice (for all teams)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Cup practice (for all teams)

4:45 p.m. — ARCA race

SUNDAY, Feb. 11

12:15 p.m. — Daytona 500 qualifying

3 p.m. — Advance Auto Parts Clash

MONDAY, Feb. 12

No track activity

TUESDAY, Feb. 13

No track activity

WEDNESDAY, Feb. 14

No track activity

THURSDAY, Feb. 15

11:35 a.m. – 12:55 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series practice

2:25 – 3:25 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series practice

4:35 – 5:25 p.m. — Final Camping World Truck Series practice

7 p.m. — Can-Am Duel 1

9 p.m. — Can-Am Duel 2

FRIDAY, Feb. 16

12:05 – 12:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Cup practice

2:05 – 2:55 p.m. — Final Xfinity practice

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Cup practice

4:30 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series qualifying

7:30 p.m. — Camping World Truck Series race NextEra Energy Resources 250

SATURDAY, Feb. 17

9:35 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying

12:05 – 12:55 p.m. — Final Cup practice

2:30 p.m. — Xfinity race PowerShares QQQ 300

SUNDAY, Feb. 18

2:30 p.m. — Daytona 500

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