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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Kurt Busch re-signs with Stewart-Haas Racing

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Kurt Busch has re-signed with Steward-Haas Racing, putting him back in the No. 41 Ford for the 2018 Cup season.

The winner of the 2017 Daytona 500 confirmed his re-signing in a statement.

Motorsport.com has reported Busch signed a one-year deal.

Busch, 39, will continue to be sponsored by Monster Energy as he enters his fifth season with SHR. Monster Energy is also the entitlement sponsor of the Cup Series.

“Having my hard work pay off by winning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and the 2017 Daytona 500 has given me the drive to continue conquering the NASCAR world,” Busch said. “I am excited to enter the 2018 racing season as a Monster Energy athlete where I will continue to drive my favorite manufacturer, the Ford Motor Company. Knowing that SHR is committed to optimum performance, I believe that I have everything I need to win races this season and take home the 2018 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup. I look forward to taking on next year with my team, sponsors and determination.”

Busch completes SHR’s 2018 Cup driver lineup with Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer and newcomer Aric Almirola.

SHR announced over the summer that Busch’s original contract option would not be picked up.

The 2004 Cup champion will enter his 18th full-time season in the Cup Series.

He made the playoffs in 2017 with his Daytona 500 win, but was eliminated after the first round. He finished the season with six top fives and 15 top 10s. In his four seasons with SHR, Busch has five wins.

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Richard Childress Racing, Caterpillar extend relationship

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Richard Childress Racing announced Tuesday it has extended its partnership with Caterpillar Inc., which will continue to sponsor Ryan Newman‘s No. 31 Chevrolet in select races in 2018.

Caterpillar was the primary sponsor on the No. 31 in 20 races last season.

Caterpillar has been a sponsor of Cup teams since 1997 and partnered with RCR in 2009. Newman has been sponsored by the company since joining RCR in 2014.

“I am happy to announce the continuation of our partnership with Caterpillar and the No. 31 Chevrolet in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series,”  Richard Childress said in a press release. “I’ve had the opportunity to meet and interact with so many Cat dealers, customers and equipment operators through the past nine years. They are passionate about both racing and their Cat equipment, and I share their passion for both. I have used Cat equipment for many years and there is no better heavy machinery on the market. We’ve enjoyed our long-term association with Caterpillar, and helped them sell a lot of equipment over the years. I’m proud to represent the Cat brand.”

Newman is coming off a season where he earned one win (Phoenix I), his first since 2013 and first with RCR. Newman qualified for the playoffs. He was eliminated after the first round and finished the season in 16th.

The 2018 season will be Newman’s 17th full-time year in Cup.

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John Hunter Nemechek to race part-time for Chip Ganassi Racing in Xfinity Series

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John Hunter Nemechek, the son of former Cup driver Joe Nemechek, will join Chip Ganassi Racing in 2018 to compete part-time in the Xfinity Series, the team announced Tuesday.

At 20-year-old driver will pilot the No. 42 Chevrolet in multiple races, sharing the ride with Kyle Larson. Fire Alarm Services, which sponsored Nemechek in the Truck Series, will move up to Xfinity with him.

The No. 42 has significant meaning to the Nemechek family. Joe Nemechek earned his first of four Cup wins driving the No. 42 for Felix Sabates in 1999 at New Hampshire. He drove for Sabates from 1997-99.

Sabates is a co-owner of Chip Ganassi Racing.

John Hunter Nemechek spent the last two years full-time in the Camping World Truck Series driving the No. 8 Chevrolet for his family-owned team, NEMCO Motorsports. He has 76 starts in the series since 2013 and five wins, two coming in each of the last two seasons.

“I couldn’t be more excited to join Chip Ganassi Racing,” Nemechek said in a press release. “I feel like their cars and organization were the talk of the garage in 2017 and I hope to play a part in continuing their run of success in 2018 and beyond. Also, Fire Alarm Services has been a supporter of my career since 2016 at our family-owned team, and I am looking forward to continuing that partnership at Chip Ganassi Racing. I am extremely grateful to Shannon and Connie Smith, owners of Fire Alarm Services, Inc. I also want to thank my father for all that he has done to help grow my passion for racing.”

Nemechek will work with veteran crew chief Mike Shiplett, who has led the No. 42 team for the last four seasons.

Nemechek announced he’d be making a career change with a video posted to Twitter on Dec. 5.

NEMCO Motorsports made clear on Twitter that it is not closing its doors.

Larson, Tyler Reddick and Alex Bowman split time in the No. 42 in 2017 and combined to earn five wins.

The No. 42 will be the only full-time entry for Ganassi in the Xfinity Series in 2018. It fielded the No. 48 for Brennan Poole the last two seasons. No announcements have been made about Poole’s future.

We are happy to have John Hunter join our organization and also announce the relationship with Fire Alarm Services,” Chip Ganassi said in a press release. “We had a very successful 2017 with our Xfinity program and look to improve upon that.  We feel that John Hunter has the talent to be a future star in the sport and can’t wait to get him behind the wheel.”

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NASCAR announces 2018 Xfinity Series start times, TV schedule

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NASCAR has revealed the start times and TV broadcast plan for the Xfinity Series in 2018.

The season opens Feb. 17 at Daytona International Speedway. The race is scheduled for 2:30 p.m. ET on Fox Sports 1.

The NBC portion of the schedule begins June 30 at Chicagoland Speedway with a 3:30 p.m. ET broadcast on NBCSN.

Both races at Richmond Raceway are night events. The April 20 race begins at 7 p.m. ET. The Sept. 21 race begins at 7:30 p.m. ET.

The June race at Iowa Speedway is scheduled for 5 p.m. ET on Sunday, June 17 on FS1.

The road course race at Road America is scheduled for 3 p.m. on Saturday, Aug. 25 on NBCSN. The race was run on Sunday in 2017.

See the entire schedule below.

All times are Eastern

Date Location Network Start time
Sat, Feb 17, 2018  Daytona FS1 2:30 PM
Sat, Feb 24, 2018  Atlanta FS1 2:00 PM
Sat, Mar 03, 2018  Las Vegas FS1 4:00 PM
Sat, Mar 10, 2018  Phoenix FOX 4:00 PM
Sat, Mar 17, 2018  California FS1 5:00 PM
Sun, Apr 01, 2018  Off week – Easter
Sat, Apr 07, 2018  Texas FOX 3:00 PM
Sat, Apr 14, 2018  Bristol FS1 1:00 PM
Fri, Apr 20, 2018  Richmond FS1 7:00 PM
Sat, Apr 28, 2018  Talladega FOX 3:00 PM
Sat, May 05, 2018  Dover FS1 1:30 PM
Sat, May 26, 2018  Charlotte FS1 1:00 PM
Sat, Jun 02, 2018  Pocono FS1 1:00 PM
Sat, Jun 09, 2018  Michigan FOX 1:30 PM
Sun, Jun 17, 2018  Iowa FS1 5:00 PM
Sat, Jun 30, 2018  Chicagoland NBCSN 3:30 PM
Fri, Jul 06, 2018  Daytona NBCSN 7:30 PM
Fri, Jul 13, 2018  Kentucky NBCSN 8:00 PM
Sat, Jul 21, 2018  New Hampshire NBCSN 4:00 PM
Sat, Jul 28, 2018  Iowa NBCSN 3:30 PM
Sat, Aug 04, 2018  Watkins Glen NBC 3:30 PM
Sat, Aug 11, 2018  Mid‐Ohio NBCSN 3:00 PM
Fri, Aug 17, 2018  Bristol NBCSN 7:30 PM
Sat, Aug 25, 2018  Road America NBCSN 3:00 PM
Sat, Sep 01, 2018  Darlington NBC 3:30 PM
Sat, Sep 08, 2018  Indianapolis NBCSN 4:00 PM
Sat, Sep 15, 2018  Las Vegas NBCSN 5:00 PM
Fri, Sep 21, 2018  Richmond NBCSN 7:30 PM
Sat, Sep 29, 2018  Charlotte NBCSN 3:00 PM
Sat, Oct 06, 2018  Dover NBCSN 3:00 PM
Sat, Oct 20, 2018  Kansas NBCSN 2:30 PM
Sat, Nov 03, 2018  Texas NBC 3:30 PM
Sat, Nov 10, 2018  Phoenix NBC 3:30 PM
Sat, Nov 17, 2018  Homestead-Miami NBCSN 3:30 PM