Who’s Hot and Who’s Not heading into playoff cutoff race at Dover

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This weekend’s Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway marks the end of the first round of the Cup playoffs.

When the checkered flag falls, four of the 16 playoff drivers will be eliminated as things move on to the Round of 12.

Drivers in danger of being eliminated are: Richard Childress Racing teammates Austin Dillon (13th heading into Dover) and Ryan Newman (14th), Kurt Busch (15th) and Kasey Kahne (16th).

Points leader Martin Truex Jr. is the defending race winner, while Jimmie Johnson won this past spring’s race at Dover, his 11th victory at The Monster Mile.

Even though he’s struggled for many of the last 11 races, Johnson is still a threat to win at the 1-mile, concrete speedway.

But who can forget the 2015 race at Dover, when he suffered a mechanical failure, finished 41st and didn’t advance?

Johnson is in better shape this time, 32 points ahead of 13th in the points heading into Dover, but nothing’s guaranteed.

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)

  • Finished fifth at New Hampshire, was involved in the big one while leading
  • Won at Chicago after a speeding penalty and loose lugs
  • Finished in the top-10 19 times this season, the most of all drivers
  • Won 19 stages this season, the most of all drivers
  • 59 Playoff Points this season, includes 15 points for clinching the regular season
  • Five wins this season, most of all drivers and personal best
  • Led a series-high 1,835 laps in 2017, led the most laps in eight races
  • Two wins at Dover, the first of his career in 2007 and this race last year
  • Finished top 10 in six of the last seven Dover races, other finish was 11th
  • Led over 100 laps in three of the last five Dover races
  • Finished third at Dover in June, led 102 laps

No. 18 Kyle Busch (Hot)

  • Won at New Hampshire, third win in the last eight races
  • Won the pole for the last two races
  • Loose wheel and speeding penalty then lack of cautions caused his 15th-place finish at Chicago
  • Three wins this season (Pocono 2, Bristol, NH 2)
  • Two Dover wins, both in the Spring 2008 and 2010
  • Finished runner-up in the last two Fall Dover races,
  • Won the pole, finished 16th in June

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

  • Finished 12th at NH, worst finish in the last five races
  • Fifth in the standings, +44 to the cut line
  • Top-five finishes in 10 of the last 14 races including two wins
  • Best Dover finish is fourth, twice
  • Finished top 10 in the last three races at Dover including eighth in June

No. 44 Kevin Harvick (Hot, decent at Dover)

  • Finished 36th, DNF at NH, his worst finish since Las Vegas in March
  • Five fewer top fives and top 10s this year compared to last year
  • 10th in the standings, +25 of the cut line
  • One Dover win, this race in 2015 to advance
  • Finished 37th in this race last year but had won NH the week prior
  • Finished ninth at Dover in June

No. 48 Jimmie Johnson (All about the wins and he has lots at Dover)

  • 14th at NH, seven finishes outside the top 10 in the last nine races
  • Three top 5 finishes this season, all wins
  • Seventh in the standings, +32
  • 11 Dover wins in 31 starts (win percentage: 35%)
  • Won at Dover in June

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

  • Finished second at NH, eighth runner-up finish this season
  • Four wins in 2017, had one entering this season
  • Best finish at Dover in seven races is runner-up twice, including June
  • Finished top 10 in five of the last six races

No. 20 Matt Kenseth (sneaky Hot)

  • Finished third at NH, eight top-10 finishes in the last 10 races, all but Michigan, flat tire in OT while 
running third and an ambulance problem at Richmond
  • Three-time Dover winner but all in the Spring
  • Top 10 finishes in six of the last eight races at Dover

No. 24 Chase Elliott (Starting to turn things back around, Great at Dover)

  • Finished 11th at NH, his worst finish in the last four races is 11th, twice
  • Ninth in the standings, +26 to the cut line (includes 15 point penalty after Chicago)
  • Finished top five in all three series starts at Dover

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

  • Finished fourth at NH, only two top-10 finishes in the last seven races but both came in the playoffs
  • Locked into round 2 on at least points
  • One Dover win, this race in 2012
  • Finished top 10 in six of the last 10 races at Dover, 38th DNF accident in June

Cup – Who Is Not Hot

No. 1 Jamie McMurray (Decent)

  • 16th at NH, first finish outside the top 15 in the last seven races
  • Eleventh in the standings, +9 to the cut line
  • 14 top 10 finishes this season, five more than this point last year
  • Best Dover finish is second in 2006
  • Finished top 10 in three of the last five races at Dover including seventh in June
  • Finished last in this race last year, engine failure

No. 21 Ryan Blaney (Not Lately)

  • Finished ninth at NH after 11th at Chicago, best two consecutive finishes this season
  • Last top-five finish was his win at Pocono in June
  • Ten top-10 finishes this season but none have come in back-to-back races
  • Three Dover starts, best finish of eighth in the Spring of 2016, finished 32nd in June

No. 41 Kurt Busch (Two bad races, Not at Dover)

  • Finished 37th DNF accident at NH, tied his worst finish this season
  • 17 points below the cut line
  • Trouble during playoffs: Speeding penalty at Chicago, accident at NH
  • One Dover win, this race in 2011 driving for Team Penske
  • Only one top 10 finish in the last 11 races at Dover
  • Finished 37th, DNF accident at Dover in June

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

  • Finished 19th at NH, only two top-15 finishes in the last nine races
  • 13th in the standings, tied for the cut
  • Playoff problems: Speeding penalty at Chicago, caused the big one at NH
  • 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 eight Dover races was eighth in this race last year
  • Finished 13th at Dover in June

No. 5 Kasey Kahne (Not)

  • Finished 35th, broken track bar at NH, only one top 10 finish in the last 18 races, win at Indy
  • 16th in the standings, -21 to the cut line
  • 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
  • He has only finished on the lead lap in 54 percent of the races this season
  • Best Dover finish is fourth, three times
  • Finished 17th at Dover in June (accident)

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

  • 13th at NH, top 10 finishes in four of the last six races, all but the two playoff races
  • 14th in the standings, -1 to the cut line
  • Three Dover wins, last came in 2004
  • Finished fourth in June, only top-10 finish in the last five races at Dover

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

  • 15th at NH, last top 10 was his win at Daytona in July
  • 12th in the standings, 0 points ahead of the cut line, wins the tie breaker with a 15th place finish
  • Zero wins in first 157 starts, two wins in last 19 starts
  • Best Dover finish is eighth in this race in 2015, only top 10 finish at Dover
  • Finished 39th at Dover in June, accident

Others to Watch:

No. 14 Clint Bowyer (Disappointing 2017)

  • Finished seventh at NH, first top 10 in the last six races
  • Was 88 points out of a Playoff spot
  • Finished runner up three times in 2017
  • 11 top-10s in 2017, had only three in all of 2016
  • Best Dover finish is fourth in 2014, finished 31st in June

No. 22 Joey Logano (Disappointing season)

  • 10th at NH, finished top 10 in the last three races best streak since April
  • 10 finishes outside the top 20 in the last 19 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
  • Best Dover finish is third, twice
  • Finished top 10 in eight of the last 11 races at Dover, 25th in June

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

  • Finished sixth at NH, top 10 finishes in seven of the last eight races this season
  • Finished 15th at Dover in June, involved in last lap accident

No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Not)

  • 34th at NH, involved in the big one, last top 10 was Sonoma in June (sixth)
  • Only two top 10s in the last 16 races
  • One Dover win, this race in 2001
  • Finished 11th at Dover in June

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NASCAR America: Matt Kenseth unable to realize potential due to team’s mistakes

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Sunday’s pit road mistake — having seven crew members over the wall when only six are allowed — not only knocked Matt Kenseth out of the race, it also knocked him out of advancing in the NASCAR Cup playoffs.

As a result, Kenseth lost out on his bid to earn a second Cup championship in what could potentially be his last season in the Cup series.

And it wasn’t the first time Kenseth has suffered through issues not of his making this season and in prior seasons.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, Kyle Petty, Dale Jarrett and Nate Ryan all gave their thoughts on what happened to Kenseth — and they didn’t hold back, either.

Click on the above video to hear what they had to say about Kenseth’s misfortune and how it could potentially impact his legacy going forward.

 

NASCAR America: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s picks for Championship 4

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On Monday’s editions of NASCAR America, Dale Earnhardt Jr. gave his predictions for which of the eight remaining championship-eligible drivers — including Hendrick Motorsports teammates Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott — will make it to the Championship 4 round.

In addition to Johnson and Elliott, Junior also makes it known in the above video that he’s also pulling for Ryan Blaney. He may even throw in a surprise to his picks.

Our NASCAR America team of analysts go over Junior’s picks and give their take, as well.

We don’t want to spill the beans of who Junior is picking here, so click on the video above to find out, as well as what our analysts think about his picks.

 

 

 

Long: Kyle Larson’s playoff exit significant to title contenders

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Lost among questions about rules, confusion on pit road and chaos on the track Sunday was just how significant Kyle Larson’s departure from the playoff is.

The owner of four wins this season, Larson was one of the few drivers who typically could race with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch on the 1.5-mile tracks and some even considered Larson the championship favorite if he made it to Miami.

“I think Kyle Larson was going to be the car to beat, and still will be the car to beat at Homestead,’’ said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch. “Now that he’s not in the (playoff) mix anymore, it probably opens it up for the rest of us.’’

Said Kevin Harvick: “I think you eliminated the best car at Homestead. That’s a big deal. For everybody.’’

Larson entered Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway with a 29-point cushion before his title hopes ended when his engine blew with nearly 200 laps left. He finished 39th.

“It’s crazy,’’ Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said of Larson’s playoff exit. “You can’t ever be safe, for sure.’’

Sunday marked the first time since 2013 that Larson failed to finish a race because of an engine failure. His first two career Cup races ended early because of engine issues that season.

Larson’s departure was as shocking as Busch’s exit in 2014 when he entered the elimination race at Talladega second in the standings with a 25-point cushion to advance to the next round.

Now a spot many presumed would be taken by Larson is open for someone else.

WORK REMAINS

Jimmie Johnson overcame two spins to finish 11th and advance to the Round of 8, moving a step closer to an eighth championship.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, wasn’t pleased after Sunday’s race.

On the radio afterward, Knaus said: “That was a pitiful performance.’’

Knaus had more to say after the race, telling NBC Sports:

“We ran like (expletive deleted). It was a bad weekend. We managed to capitalize on some other people’s misfortune, which was great for us. We’ve got some work to do. I don’t know what’s going on. We definitely don’t have the speed that we need.

“Good news is we’ve got three really good race tracks coming up for us, at least historically. Very optimistic heading into Martinsville and going to Homestead this week to test, so hopefully we can hit on some stuff there to take to Texas. We obviously have run well there in the past. Phoenix has been a really good race track for us as well. We’ve got three great opportunities. Just got to do the best.’’

Knaus is right to be concerned. The second round was mistake-riddled for the team.

The pit crew failed to tighten all the lug nuts late in the race at Charlotte, forcing Johnson to back up partially into his stall to remedy the issue, costing him time and positions.

An error by the team’s spotter led to the crew working on Johnson’s damaged car before the red flag period had ended, leading to the team being parked. The team had hoped to run one more lap after being collected in a crash to gain at least one more point.

Then came Kansas’ woes with the lack of speed, an ill-handling car and a seven-time champion causing back-to-back cautions.

“It’s no real surprise that mile-and-a-halves have been a little bit of a struggle for us this year,’’ Johnson said. “We’re putting in the effort. These guys are working around the clock. I’m looking under every stone I can to try to find something as well. We just don’t have the speed yet.

“We’ve got a real opportunity at Martinsville. If we’re able to win there … it sets us up for Homestead.’’

COMMUNICATION WOES

The communication issues Matt Kenseth’s team had Sunday wasn’t the first time for that team and crew chief Jason Ratcliff in the playoffs.

In the penultimate race of the 2013 season, Kenseth struggled all weekend and then had a disastrous pit stop when there was confusion on if the team would change two or four tires. After the call was made for four tires, Kenseth had to back up because the car was on the air hose.

The result was a 23rd-place finish that left Kenseth so far behind Johnson needed only to finish 23rd or better in Miami to win the title. Ratcliff apologized to his crew on the radio after the race for the effort.

Sunday’s scenario was different but communication again proved key and a miscue will keep the team from having a chance to race for a title.

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ Ratcliff said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully, we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.’’

So what happened?

“Two of them were holding tires (over the wall),’’ Ratcliff said of crew members. “We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically, it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

When Kenseth was told on the radio that he was being parked for having too many crew members work on his car while under the five-minute clock for crash damage, the former champion sounded incredulous that his — last? — chance to win a title ended in such a way.

With no plans announced for next year, there’s no guarantee Kenseth will be racing for a championship again. Now the goal becomes a win.

“We’ve had some great runs at Martinsville and there would be nothing greater than going there and finally getting that win with Matt,’’ Ratcliff said. “That would be special. Would it make up for not having a shot at Homestead? No, but it would be sweet to have that happen with just a few races to go in the season.’’

PIT STOPS

The final eight Cup playoff contenders include four former champions — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. There has been a first-time champion in three of the last five years, which could be a good sign for playoff drivers Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. … With winning the pole at Kansas, Truex Jr.’s team earned the first pick of pit stalls also at Martinsville this weekend because qualifying is on the same day as the race there.

Memorial service to be held Friday for Furniture Row Racing team member Jim Watson

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A memorial service for Furniture Row Racing crew member Jim Watson will be held Friday in Lincolnton, North Carolina, his family announced Monday.

Watson, who served in a number of roles for both the No. 78 of Martin Truex Jr. and No. 77 of Erik Jones, passed away Saturday night after suffering a heart attack in Kansas City, Kansas, where the teams were preparing for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race.

Watson was 55.

MORE: Furniture Row Racing crew member dies of heart attack

MORE: Long: Tears turn to cheers for Furniture Row Racing

The memorial will be from 4-6 p.m. ET Friday at the Warlick Funeral Home, 125 Dave Warlick Drive, in Lincolnton.

Watson’s obituary was included in the announcement of the memorial service:

Watson was born Sept. 27, 1962, in Kenosha, Wis., to Betty Paulus Watson and the late David Harrison Watson. He is survived by his wife, Laurie Ann Watson; a daughter, Brittany May Watson; his mother, Betty L. Watson; brother, Mike Watson; stepchildren, Eric James Conover and fiancé Claudia Rodriguez, and Matthew Sean Conover; Michael Patrick Conover, and wife Michele, and Nicholas Ian Conover; three grandchildren, Patrick Michael Conover, Michael Winston Conover, and Coleton Daniel Conover; nieces, Jennifer Watson and Katie J. Ballou; and many other uncles, aunts, cousins, and friends.

In lieu of flowers, the family has asked that memorials be made to hatsalive.org.