Denny Hamlin

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Kyle Busch fastest in morning Cup practice at Bristol

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Kyle Busch posted the fastest lap in Saturday morning’s Cup practice at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Busch led the way with a lap of 128.865 mph. He was followed by rookie Erik Jones (128.649 mph), Denny Hamlin (128.176), Kevin Harvick (128.091) and Dale Earnhardt Jr. (128.005).

Jones had the best average over 10 consecutive laps at 127.178 mph. He was followed by Kasey Kahne (126.863 mph), Chase Elliott (126.442), Paul Menard (126.388) and Austin Dillon (126.383).

Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who finished second at this track in August, tagged the wall with the right rear during the session. He told his team on the radio: “Obviously, too loose.”

The team unloaded its backup car but Fox Sports 1 reported that the team would repair its primary car, fearful that the final Cup practice session Saturday would get rained out and they wouldn’t get any laps in their backup car.

Most of the field ran in the bottom groove, which had been prepared to provide extra grip. Kyle Larson spent part of the session running high, trying to put rubber in that groove to make it better. Few others followed his lead. Larson spun and hit the wall with the right rear. His car had minor damage.

Click here for full practice report

 

Toyota’s Jones, Joe Gibbs Racing dominate Friday’s lone Bristol Cup practice

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Even though it has struggled in the first seven races of the 2017 NASCAR Cup season, Joe Gibbs Racing showed a lot of its old shine in Friday’s lone practice session at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Toyota dominated by placing five of the six fastest cars in the session. Erik Jones was fastest (127.843 mph), followed by JGR’s Kyle Busch (127.090), Ryan Blaney’s Ford (126.989), Jones’ teammate Martin Truex Jr. (126.964), JGR’s Matt Kenseth (126.704) and teammate Denny Hamlin (126.653).

The fourth JGR entry, the No. 19 of Daniel Suarez, was 27th-fastest (124.930 mph).

Late in the session, Joey Logano brushed the outside retaining wall, suffering minor but repairable damage to the right front fender and wheel well of his No. 22 Team Penske Ford Fusion.

“With all the marbles up there it was like you popped a tire,” Logano said afterward. “It just went straight to the wall. It’s amazing how quick it did that. Unfortunately, we got a little damage but it’s nothing that’s not fixable. … So we’ll fix it up and make some good adjustments.  We’ll be just fine.”

Rain earlier in the day forced NASCAR to push back the session, as well as cancelled qualifying. To make up for that, NASCAR Cup drivers will have two practice sessions Saturday morning prior to the Xfinity Series race at 1 p.m. ET.

Click here for the full practice results.

Kyle Busch isn’t fretting how Joe Gibbs Racing has started season

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BRISTOL, Tennessee — Joe Gibbs Racing hasn’t gone this late into a season without a victory since 2007, has more drivers outside the top 20 in points (Matt Kenseth and Daniel Suarez) than in the top 10 (Kyle Busch), and didn’t have a driver finish in the top 10 the last week.

Contrast that with how the organization won 26 of 72 Cup races the previous two seasons and it’s easy to question what’s wrong with Joe Gibbs Racing this season.

While Kyle Busch admits the organization has not had the start of past years, he does have a message for those raising doubts about JGR.

“I feel as though as we’re competitive and we’re close,’’ he said Friday at Bristol Motor Speedway. “There’s just some things that we see other teams doing that we haven’t necessarily ventured off to yet.

“We’re working on all those things. It certainly didn’t bode well for us last year to be as strong as we were in the beginning part of the season and the middle part of the season. We didn’t win a championship because of how strong we were early on. You look at (Jimmie Johnson) and those guys at Hendrick, they weren’t very strong at the start of the season and they picked up and won the championship.

“I don’t think there’s any reason for cause to be concerned yet. Ask me that question again in about 10 weeks.’’

Busch ranked second in Friday’s lone Cup practice session. Kenseth was fifth and Denny Hamlin was sixth.

Johnson won two of the first five races last season but then went 25 races without a victory before snapping it at Charlotte in the second round of the playoffs. He won three of the final seven races on the way to winning his seven series title.

Car owner Joe Gibbs said earlier this week that the organization is working to score only its second Cup victory since mid-September.

“Last year, we had one of our best years, were up front, very successful,’’ said Gibbs, whose team won seven of the first 12 races a year ago. “This year shows you how hard things are. Some people have improved. The hardest thing is to stay up there. It’s a short trip back down. We’ve isolated five different things we need to work on and improve on. Five things just overall with our program.’’

He did not name those areas.

Kenseth said earlier this week that this season has been a struggle. He enters this weekend 22nd in points.

“Martinsville has been one of our strongest tracks on performance since I’ve come to JGR,’’ Kenseth said. “We ran really, really bad the last time there. We didn’t finish bad, but we ran bad.

“We ran bad at tracks we historically run good at, which for me is a concern. If we run good this weekend and are competitive and part of the lead group, no matter where you finish, you feel you’re part of that lead group and can run with guys who have been running good all year, you’ll feel better about being on the right track and feel good about fixing problems and getting ahead of the curve.’’

Until then, questions will persist.

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Bump & Run: Is a changing of the guard taking place?

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Parker Kligerman, who will be on NASCAR America from 5:30-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN, joins Nate Ryan and Dustin Long in discussing key topics in NASCAR in this week’s Bump & Run.

Six drivers in the top 16 in points are age 26 or younger — Erik Jones (20 years old), Chase Elliott (21), Ryan Blaney (23), points leader Kyle Larson (24), Trevor Bayne (26) and Joey Logano (26). After seven races in the season, is this an official changing of the guard in the Cup series? 

Parker Kligerman: Considering earlier this year when we did this feature, when asked to name a certain driver we had our eye on for 2017, I answered with a group. Specifically the 26-and-under group. Because, no doubt in my mind, this year is a turning point. There are enough uber-talented drivers in cars with astronomical funding levels. It was only logical we would see these young drivers become a conversation point. 

With that said, I do not think the guard has changed yet. Not until we get to the Championship Four, and we are not talking about an eighth championship for J.J., or a second for Brad K., Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, or Matt Kenseth, or a first for Denny Hamlin or Martin Truex Jr., but we are talking about how the average age of the Championship Four is far from midlife crisis age, and the 26-and-under drivers are the main contenders. Maybe even the winner. Only than can I say the guard officially has been changed. Right now, the guards are just swapping shifts. 

Nate Ryan: It definitely is evidence that a new era is dawning, but I’m not ready to say the group once known as the “Young Guns” is ready to ride off into the sunset. It’ll be at least a few more years — and several victories, plus maybe a championship — for that youthful crop to have displaced Jimmie Johnson, Matt Kenseth et al. 

Dustin Long: No, it’s not a changing of the guard. Seven races is not enough. Just look at the number of wins those six drivers have combined to score this season: One. That’s not a changing of the guard. Yes, this group is gaining more attention with four of them in the top six in points heading to Bristol, but until they show this type of dominance — and win more often — for a full year will it be a changing of the guard.

The next two weeks feature Cup races at short tracks (Bristol and Richmond). Which driver or team will you be watching closely to see how they fare?

Parker Kligerman: Kyle Busch: I know … How boring! But bear with me: Kyle is EXCEPTIONAL at these two tracks, but his race cars have been nothing of the sort in 2017, aside from Martinsville (a short track). In my time at Kyle Busch Motorsports, it was these two tracks that I watched him very closely and realized I had some serious work to do to be able to consider myself win-worthy. His ability to deal with a very, very loose race car on the entry of the corners is what makes him so good at Richmond. But he can shoulder only so much. Will JGR bring cars worthy of his talent, similar to Martinsville?  

Nate Ryan: Joe Gibbs Racing and in particular Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. Either could win at both races, and that would help quell the incessant questions about why JGR has struggled off the starting line in 2018. 

Dustin Long: Denny Hamlin. He has only one finish better than 10th so far this season. He won at Richmond last fall. I would expect him to run well at both tracks and climb higher in the points. This also could be a chance for him to score some stage points. He has only 14 this season — nine came at Martinsville in the first stage. If Hamlin doesn’t run well in these two races, then it would raise some red flags, especially with how the JGR cars have not been as strong on the bigger tracks. This is a two-race stretch for Hamlin to collect some much-needed points.

Which streak is likely to continue: Hendrick Motorsports is winless in the last three years at Bristol and Richmond; Joe Gibbs Racing has won five of the last eight races at Bristol and Richmond.

Parker Kligerman: I think HMS stays winless. Odd, I know, to bet against the team that just won the most recent race. But it’s hard for me to feel confident in any car out of that stable except the 48. And I know the 48 has momentum, but from what I saw at Martinsville, there is work to be done. Add in the 24 has not closed one out yet. The 88 seems to be looking for a bit of consistency, and the 5 is still lost. I don’t like the chances of HMS in the next two races.

Nate Ryan: Hendrick Motorsports, though I wouldn’t count out a breakthrough by Dale Earnhardt Jr., whose resurgence at Texas Motor Speedway seemed legitimate. 

Dustin Long: Hard not to go with Hendrick remaining winless at Bristol and Richmond in recent times. I’ll be interested to see how the Hendrick cars do the next couple of weeks since these tracks, particularly Richmond, have not been their best. After some sub-par performances, these tracks are an opportunity for the HMS teams to build some momentum. Question is if they will.

Watch Parker Kligerman on NASCAR America today from 5:30-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

NASCAR Stock Market: Who’s up and who’s down from last year

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No Cup driver has had a better turnaround in the last year than Clint Bowyer.

The Stewart-Haas racer is one of five who are 10 or more spots better in the points than they were a year ago. Bowyer, who is ninth in the standings, is 23 spots better than he was at this time last year.

The change is not a surprise. Bowyer was with HScott Motorsports, which ceased operations after last year, and now is with one of the sport’s elite teams.

“There is nothing in this sport at this level that comes easy,’’ Bowyer said earlier this month at Texas Motor Speedway. “It doesn’t matter the racetrack or circumstances, it is always hard because there is always the next guy working every bit as hard to accomplish the same goal. That being said, I knew it would be a positive move.’’

Bowyer has two top-10 finishes, which is one shy his total last season. He also has five top-15 finishes in the first seven Cup races of the season.

On the opposite side, Dale Earnhardt Jr. is 20th in points, 14 spots worse than he was at this time a year ago. He is coming off a season-best fifth-place finish at Texas Motor Speedway.

Earnhardt’s challenge, in part, has been coming back after missing the last 18 races of last season because of issues related to a concussion.

“I figured we would get one sooner or later, but it’s nice,’’ he said after the Texas race. “I know our fans are really pulling for us. 

Here’s a look at the drivers who have gained the most spots in the points since this time a year ago and the drivers who have fallen the most in the same time.

MOST POSITIONS GAINED

23 — Clint Bowyer (9th in standings this year)

17 — Kyle Larson (1st)

14 — Ryan Blaney (6th)

12 — Chase Elliott (2nd)

11 — Trevor Bayne (12th)

9 — Chris Buescher (27th)

8 — Martin Truex Jr. (3rd)

6 — Ryan Newman (13th)

6 — Cole Whitt (31st)

5 — Brad Keselowski (4th)

5 — Jamie McMurray (8th)

5 — Michael McDowell (28th)

MOST POSITIONS LOST

14 — Dale Earnhardt Jr. (20th in standings this year)

11 — Austin Dillon (21st)

10 — Matt Kenseth (22nd)

10 — AJ Allmendinger (25th)

9 — Jimmie Johnson (11th)

8 — Kurt Busch (15th)

8 — Denny Hamlin (16th)

7 — Kevin Harvick (10th)

6 — Kyle Busch (7th)

5 — Paul Menard (26th)

5 — Danica Patrick (29th)

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