Long: Dominant trio could put pressure on playoff drivers to advance to Miami (video)

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While this weekend’s focus turns to those seeking to advance to the Round of 12, the question could be if the field is actually racing for one spot in the championship race in Miami?

Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson have dominated this season and clinched spots into the next round, moving them one step closer to a potential championship showdown.

While the past doesn’t guarantee the future, the performance of Truex, Busch and Larson this year makes it easy to envision all three advancing to Miami.

Consider their achievements:

  • They’ve won 42.9 percent of the races (12 of 28), a total that could have been higher had Busch and Truex not had issues in some races they were strong and Larson won some of the eight races he’s placed runner-up.
  • They’ve won seven of the last eight races, including Busch’s win this past weekend in New Hampshire. The exception was the Southern 500. Denny Hamlin passed Truex in the final laps to win after Truex hit the wall.
  • They’ve won 35 of 57 stages (Truex has a series-high 19 stage victories).
  • They’ve combined to lead 55.5 percent of the 7,971 laps run this season.

If Truex, Busch and Larson avoid problems in the upcoming rounds and advance to Miami, that would leave one spot left among the 13 other drivers.

So who will it be?

Will it be Hamlin?

He finished 12th at New Hampshire, ending a streak of four consecutive top-five finishes. He’s placed in the top five in six of the last eight races.

Hamlin said he and his team have more work to do to challenge for a title.

“Our best race tracks are at the end of the season,’’ Hamlin said after Sunday’s race. “But I think if we’re going to win the championship, listen we can get ourselves to Homestead the way we’re running, but if we want to win we’ve got to get faster in certain parts of the run, for sure.’’

Will it be seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson? It’s hard to count him out regardless how strong others are. 

“When you look at fast laps, laps led, those guys are on it,’’ Johnson said at New Hampshire of the Toyota drivers. “I’ve been there before. Didn’t want anybody to take away from what we had and was frustrated when people said we had some kind of unfair advantage. When you do your hard work and got everything right and your manufacturer has got everything right, man, you’ve got to enjoy those days because they don’t come very often.

“They’re very fast in a lot of areas. It’s not just one thing. We won the championship last year with the fourth-fastest car at Homestead. If we’ve got a chance down there, we’ll make it happen.’’

Or could it be Matt Kenseth, adding another Toyota in the title hunt at Miami? Kenseth’s third-place finish at New Hampshire marked his eighth top-10 in the last 10 races. Although he’s not won this season, his team has progressed since July and become a factor in races.

Or could it be a Ford driver — Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney or Kurt BuschWhile Keselowski has stated that Toyotas have a speed advantage, the fastest car doesn’t always win.

The scary proposition for the field is if Truex, Larson and Kyle Busch don’t have issues that keep them from advancing, there will be just one spot left for Miami to race for the championship.

WHO IS SAFE?

So who can breathe and who will need to be careful this weekend at Dover to make sure they advance to the next round?

Only once in the previous three years has a driver gone to Dover with a double-digit lead on the first driver outside a transfer spot and failed to advanced.

In 2015, Jimmie Johnson had a 27-point lead on 13th in the points going into Dover. Johnson finished 41st because of a mechanical issue and failed to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Kyle Busch entered Dover 13th but climbed into a transfer spot and used that to begin his run to the championship.

Those with leads of 27 points or less on the first driver outside a transfer spot entering Dover are Ryan Blaney (26 points ahead of 13th-place Austin Dillon), Chase Elliott (26 points), Kevin Harvick (25 points), Jamie McMurray (nine points) and Ricky Stenhouse (tied with Dillon but owns the final transfer spot at this point based on a tiebreaker)

“You’re never really comfortable with your position, unless you have a win,’’ Blaney said.

Each of the previous three years a driver not in a transfer spot entering the Dover cutoff race advanced to the next round.

Last year, Kyle Larson held the final transfer spot by five points entering Dover and failed to advance after finishing 25th. Austin Dillon finished eighth to advance.

In 2014, AJ Allmendinger had a one-point advantage on the final transfer spot entering Dover but was knocked out by Denny Hamlin.

BATTLE HEATING UP?

Ryan Blaney finished ninth Sunday at New Hampshire but his focus was on another issue with rookie Daniel Suarez.

Asked about the racing, Blaney said: “It was good racing until (Suarez) just about took us out coming to the white for eighth. I don’t know why he did that. That’s twice in two weeks he’s done that to me. That wasn’t very cool, but, other than that, the race was really good. The people we were racing with in the playoffs seemed to race each other with respect, which is nice to see.” 

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Christopher Bell wins first career Xfinity Series race at Kansas

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Christopher Bell passed teammate Erik Jones with four laps left in the Kansas Lottery 300, withstood contact from behind by Jones and went on to claim his first career Xfinity Series win.

Bell, driving the No. 18 Toyota, earned the win in his fifth career start. It comes in the opening race of the second round of the playoffs.

Jones had dominated the race until the pass by Bell. He led 186 of the race’s 200 laps and swept the first two stages. He finished 15th, one lap down due to damage from running into the back of Bell.

It is the first win for Joe Gibbs Racing since Denny Hamlin won at Darlington Raceway, a five-race stretch. JGR has won 11 Xfinity races this season.

Bell, 22, is a full-time driver in the Camping World Truck Series.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Erik Jones

STAGE 2 WINNER: Erik Jones

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. bursting with joy over thoughts of baby girl

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — They laughed.

When the doctor told Dale Earnhardt Jr. and wife Amy that Amy was pregnant, the couple laughed.

It wasn’t the kind of laugh one makes after a joke or a funny story. It was … well, let Dale explain:

“Something just comes out,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday at Kansas Speedway. “You just burst out like joy. It wasn’t funny ha-ha. It was a joyful moment.’’

And then they got to hear the heartbeat.

“Somebody says you’re wife is pregnant, that registers a little bit but, man, when you hear that heartbeat, it’s like yep, it’s real,’’ Earnhardt said. “This is a real thing in there. It’s here. My God, it’s happening. Just all this emotion pops out.’’

The prelude to the excitement was the waiting. It was almost too much for Earnhardt when they first went to the doctor’s office to confirm that Amy was pregnant.

We went to the doctor and I’m still thinking man, I’m not believing crap until this doctor tells me,’’ Earnhardt said. “So, we’re sitting in there for like 20 minutes. And they’re talking woman language and I’m not understanding. They are just talking about things and I’m like well, when is she going to say it? I want to hear it from the doctor’s mouth that she’s pregnant, so we can rejoice.

“It took them a while. I was scared to speak up. Finally, they said something that confirmed it for me and I was like, awesome. And then we had the ultrasound and got to hear the heartbeat and all that right there, and that was great. We go back for another checkup here soon, in a couple of days, and those are awesome. They are so much fun because it’s like the closest you can get to it before they’re born and I’m looking forward to each and every one of them.”

Earnhardt said on his podcast this week that the baby is due May 2.

“I know that Amy has changed my life a lot, and I imagine this baby is going to have the same impact and just can’t wait to meet her,’’ Earnhardt said Saturday. “It’s just taking forever.”

Earnhardt says he understands the excitement friends and family have had with their children.

“I guess the thing that hits me is I’ve watched all my friends, a lot of them, have kids and my sister have kids,’’ he said. “I was happy for those milestones in their lives, but I had no idea what that really meant. And as we found out and were going through these little moments through the pregnancy it’s just hitting home how impactful that child has been in all the lives of my friends and family. And I just really didn’t understand or appreciate, I guess, how incredible that moment must have been for them and how their lives completely changed. I saw it from a completely different point of view when I wasn’t experiencing it myself. 

“I look at my friends completely different. I look at my sister completely different knowing what I know now and what I’m learning as I go. And I know there is more to be exposed to and more enlightening and more eye-opening experiences that will make me not only appreciate what me and Amy, what we have, but what my friends and family and folks that I am very close to have and what they have experienced. 

“Because I thought I knew, childbirth is exciting, it’s awesome to have children and everybody says it changes your life and everybody says it’s the greatest thing ever, but you just don’t know until you really go through it.’’

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Ryan Blaney fastest in final Cup practice at Kansas

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Ryan Blaney was fastest in the final NASCAR Cup Series practice at Kansas Speedway.

Blaney, who will start last Sunday after failing post-qualifying inspection, posted a top speed of 182.057 mph.

He was followed by Kyle Busch (181.143), Kevin Harvick (181.720), Danial Suarez (181.665) and Matt Kenseth (181.543).

Pole-sitter Martin Truex Jr. was 12th fastest.

Harvick posted the best 10-lap average at 180.120 mph.

Jimmie Johnson, who was 15th fastest, recorded the most laps with 53.

There were no accidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.

Tyler Reddick wins pole for Xfinity race at Kansas Speedway

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Tyler Reddick claimed his first career Xfinity Series pole Saturday at Kansas Speedway, winning the top spot with a speed of 181.117 mph.

Rounding out the top five are Erik Jones, Ryan Blaney, Christopher Bell and Austin Dillon

William Byron was the highest qualifying playoff driver in sixth, but he will start from the year because of unapproved adjustments.

Reddick’s pole comes in his 17th Xfinity start. It also continues an impressive stretch for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 Chevrolet. Both Reddick and Alex Bowman earned their first Xfinity wins in the last three races. Reddick won at Kentucky Speedway. Bowman won at Charlotte Motor Speedway two weeks ago.

“This cooler weather might be helping us,” Reddick told NBCSN. “We were really tight yesterday. I think that’s going to help us in the race.”

The pole also comes the week after one of his grandmothers, Carolyn Joyce Brown, passed away. Her name is on the roof of his car.

“The last two weeks have been rough,” Reddick said. “She was battling health for a long time and just finally lost the battle. She watched every single race and ever lap on track. She was there watching it at the race track or at home. Hopefully we can do something special for her. This will be the first race she hasn’t been here to see.”

Here is where the playoff drivers qualified:

William Byron – sixth

Cole Custer – seventh

Matt Tifft – eighth

Brennan Poole – ninth

Daniel Hemric – 10th

Elliott Sadler – 11th

Justin Allgaier – 13th

Ryan Reed – 15th

Click here for the qualifying results.