NASCAR America: Breaking down championship chances for remaining Cup contenders

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With four races left, eight drivers remain with a shot at the Cup championship.

On Tuesday’s NASCAR America, analysts Parker Kligerman, Nate Ryan and Steve Letarte gave their take on the eight still in contention.

Each driver was given a tag line that best describes their championship bid.

Check out some of what our analysts had to say, the tag line for all eight drivers.

Martin Truex Jr. – “Domination on track … adversity off track”

Letarte: “They dominate every category, but I want to know with that huge lead and the Round of 8 almost secure, the question for me is will the pressure build, knowing that Miami is four weeks away. That can be great for preparation but can also just break your nerves down.”

Ryan: “It’s just been a very tumultuous year. But I think what gets forgotten sometimes is Martin Truex Jr. is no stranger to adversity. This is a guy who, in 2013 with Michael Waltrip Racing, had his ride taken away by one of the biggest scandals in NASCAR history. He weathered that with so much class, very admirably, that I think he emerged a changed man after that … and we’ve seen that this year.”

Kyle Busch – “If you ain’t first, you’re last”

Kligerman: “This driver cares only about one thing, and that is winning. He wants to win every time he steps in a race car, whether it’s a Super Late Model, an Xfinity car or a Cup car. If he wants to go on to win his second championship, it’s about winning. … He can most definitely win at Martinsville. He told Marty Snider after Kansas, ‘I want to win Martinsville, so I don’t have to worry’ (about earning berth into the Championship 4 at Miami).”

Letarte: “For the 18 to be good in the next round, it’s very important for them to look back. They should feel reborn coming out of the Round of 12 because it was a disaster and started with the driver making a mistake from Charlotte and it just tumbled from there.”

Brad Keselowski – “Legacy”

Ryan: “He feels as if he needs a second championship to validate the first one (2012). He’s heard whispers around the Cup garage that people think his 2012 title was a fluke. Until he wins another one, he feels like he’s not going to put his doubters to rest.”

Letarte: “That’s how Brad is. If you look at him, we’re going to know very quickly. His best shot to advance to Miami starts at Martinsville this weekend. He said Talladega was a must-win and he did it. I wouldn’t say Martinsville is a must-win … but he must run well. He has to be in the top two or three at Martinsville to feel good about Miami.”

Kevin Harvick – “Relentless”

Ryan: “I think (that tag line) is very fitting. His and crew chief Rodney Childers’ goal is to win everything, and not just races, but qualifying, practice sessions, it’s lead every lap. They want to be completely dominant. If that sounds like an unrealistic goal for a team that likes challenges, that IS Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers.”

Letarte: “He has the nickname of ‘The Closer’ because he does a great job of fighting through the races and being there at the end. … I expect Kevin Harvick to be his normal self, to be relentless. He will be there inside the top two or top three. If he doesn’t have a good enough car to take the lead, he’s going to put the pressure on the leader to make sure they execute correctly.”

Jimmie Johnson – “#Chasing8”

Kligerman: “He’s chasing that record eighth championship. They need to find speed. He’s confident they can find that speed and go to Miami and compete. Remember, they went into last year’s Championship 4 and not a lot of people had them going on to win it, but they found a way to win it. They’re a clutch team and that’s what it’s going to take.”

Letarte: “Waiting for Miami or needing it to happen at Miami, the odds go against them, the probability goes down. Somehow, they have to find a moment in the next three races to give themselves a little momentum and put themselves on the radar to make other competitors concerned.”

Denny Hamlin – “Redemption”

Letarte: “He’s been waiting for that chance to kind of emerge and get back on that stage. All year long, we’ve been talking about the 78 and 18 … while Denny Hamlin has been very quietly putting together what I consider a very good season. When you look at the tracks coming up, there’s no reason why he can’t win and that’s what it will take. Denny’s my sleeper. You get him into Miami, he has a lot to prove. Thirty-one wins without a championship. This is a Hall of Fame career. The only way to silence the critics is to win the championship.”

Ryan: “A driver like him is like what it was like for NBA stars competing against Michael Jordan. Clyde Drexler, who never won an NBA championship because he faced off against Michael Jordan. Denny Hamlin doesn’t want to be that person in NASCAR. Having raced in the Jimmie Johnson era, he needs to seize the opportunity to get that first title.”

Ryan Blaney – “Win it for the Wood Brothers”

Letarte: “It’s all about the race team he drives for, win it for the Wood Brothers. They believed him, gave him the opportunity, he got them win No. 99. … He’d love to win a championship for the Wood Brothers.”

Ryan: “He has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He’s listening to what people said about him advancing out of the Round of 12 … that he wasn’t going to make the Round of 8, which makes it all the more special (that Blaney did).”

Chase Elliott – “Youngest ever”

Kligerman: “He has been great through the playoffs here. If he were to win a championship at 21 years old, he’d be the youngest Cup series champion ever, which would be incredible. But there is an elephant in the room with the 24 team, and that is they’ve not won a race. … I look at Texas for the 24 team. This could be the best chance for them to get that elusive first victory and then propel themselves to fight for a championship.”

Letarte: “Could you think of a bigger win? What would be a bigger first career win then to do a walk-off at Miami for the first championship. … When the playoffs started, this team has risen up and have raised to the level of a championship-style race team.”

And don’t forget, on Wednesday’s NASCAR America on NBCSN, we’ll have special guest Joe Gibbs join us for a full hour from the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The show airs from 5-6 p.m. ET.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Scan All, Xfinity, Truck championship recaps

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and continues to recap the end of the NASCAR season.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Parker Kligerman in Stamford, Connecticut. Dale Jarrett, Steve Letarte and Kyle Petty join them from NBC Charlotte.

What to expect from today’s show:

  • Martin Truex Jr. capped off a dream season, earning the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship with a victory at Homestead-Miami Speedway. We’ll take a listen back on all the action between the drivers, crew chiefs and spotters with “Scan All: Miami.”
  • This past weekend two other NASCAR titles were decided. Christopher Bell won the Camping World Truck Series title, while William Byron captured the 2017 Xfinity Series title. We’ll discuss the rapid surge of Byron as he prepares for his transition to the Cup Series next year.
  • Furniture Row Racing had a season filled with triumphs and heartache but it ended in celebration, as they won the 2017 Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series Championship. Martin Truex Jr. dominated all season long while he and his team overcame obstacles on and off the track. Nate Ryan tells their story.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, you can also watch it 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 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Bump & Run: 2017 NASCAR accolades

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Who is your driver of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. While Martin Truex Jr. had the best season, I’m just amazed at what Byron has done with such little experience. Yes, he’s been in top equipment but he’s still had to wheel the car. What Byron already has done makes me wonder just what is to come.

Jerry Bonkowski: Martin Truex Jr. No other driver came close. One of best feel-good stories in NASCAR since Alan Kulwicki won the Cup championship in 1992.

Daniel McFadin: Martin Truex Jr.. Eight wins, his first Cup title and too many career-best stats to list in the most memorable driver campaign over a full season in recent years.

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr. His 2017 ranks with Jimmie Johnson‘s 2007 as the best season of the 21st century in the Cup Series. From start to finish, it’s the best since Jeff Gordon‘s 1998 masterpiece.

 

Who is your rookie of the year?

Dustin Long: William Byron. See previous answer.

Jerry Bonkowski: William Byron. Has made it look easy thus far in his career. Now comes the real test with his promotion next season to Cup racing and Hendrick Motorsports.

Daniel McFadin: William Byron. Won the Xfinity title with four wins, the most among series regulars and once again proved how quickly he can adept to a new level of racing.

Nate Ryan: William Byron. Shows signs of being the most adaptive and talented driver of his generation. When Kyle Busch is praising your “race craft” at the tender age of 19, you are special.

 

Who is your crew chief of the year?

Dustin Long: Cole Pearn. Was strong throughout the season and finished it with a split-second pit call that put Martin Truex Jr. in position to win the championship and close out a fantastic season.

Jerry Bonkowski: Cole Pearn. Overcame adversity several times, kept his cool most of the time, planned strategy methodically and if he or team made a mistake, admitted it and moved on. I truly believe he and Martin Truex Jr. have another one or two more championships in them. 

Daniel McFadin: Cole Pearn. In the first year of the stage format, he figured it out quicker than anyone and schooled the field all season long with Martin Truex Jr.

Nate Ryan: Cole Pearn. For his mastery of stages alone, he earned this crown. But for many other reasons — from his low-key and unthreatening affability that allows him to work seamlessly with Joe Gibbs Racing with a disarming ease … to his disdain for hierarchy that grants his co-workers empowering autonomy that other crew chiefs refuse to cede … to his simple choice of T-shirt over firesuit (“I don’t plan on getting on fire.”) as anti-establishment crew chief attire — he is changing the paradigm of being a team leader in NASCAR.

 

After seeing this playoff format for the first time, is there anything with it or related to it you’d consider changing for next year? Why?

Dustin Long: I’m fine with how it went. Let’s be careful of changing things for change’s sake.

Jerry Bonkowski: While I like the stages format, I feel that each race should be broken down into three stages of equal length. In other words, if it’s a 267-lap race, it should be divided equally to where each stage is 89 laps. Also, I’d like to see lap counting stop after each of the first two stages and resume on the ensuing restart, unlike what we see now where the second and final stages oftentimes log six or seven laps under caution before a restart for the next stage. 

Daniel McFadin: I like this format immensely after just one season. The only change I would like to see is making sure caution laps after stage conclusions don’t count. Starting a stage with four to five laps already ticked off takes away from the fan experience and gives less race for drivers and teams to work with.

Nate Ryan: A minor quibble: The “format” for selecting a champion didn’t change, just the manner in which points were accrued to determine one. That said, the addition of playoff points and stages worked well, producing the most worthy field of championship contenders yet and a deserving champion whose bona fides were tested as much or more than any other since NASCAR switched to a playoff-style structure in 2004.

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.