Paul Menard

What drivers said after Chicagoland Cup playoff opener

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Martin Truex Jr. said Sunday’s Tales of the Turtles 400 win to open the NASCAR Cup playoffs was not a statement.

Oh, but it was: By taking the checkered flag, Truex has an automatic berth in the Round of 12 that starts on Oct. 1 in the Bank of America 500 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Here’s what Truex and other drivers had to say:

Martin Truex Jr. – Winner: “I don’t care much about statements, I’m just having fun. I’m proud of our pit crew for doing what they did and everyone on this team. It’s important to come here and not let the pressure get to you and I think we did a good job of that. Every time you go to victory lane, it’s special. There’s just so many people to thank. I’m kind of speechless. … It’s a dream come true and we’re having the time of our lives.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 2nd: “Just a huge step in the right direction. Days like this are the days we are going to have to have. There is no way around that. I thought we had a solid day overall.  Our car drove good, it had pace, our pit stops were good. I didn’t have anything for Martin (Truex, Jr.). I thought we made the most of our day without some luck I wasn’t going to get around him unless we had a late-race restart or something. I had a solid day and frankly, it is a lot better than we have been doing and we’ve got to have days like this to keep moving forward.”

Kevin Harvick – Finished 3rd: “Our focus was to make sure that we didn’t make any mistakes today and everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing worked hard to work on that gap between those cars, but we’ve known about that gap and feel like we’ve closed that up and we knew that not making mistakes was gonna go a long way. We saw the 78 made mistakes today, but they had a fast enough car to recover from that. The 18 didn’t recover from his mistakes. We just had to execute and take what they’ll give you and not finish any worse than that.  I think we did that today. I felt like the 24 and the 78 were a little better than us and we finished right where we should have.”

Denny Hamlin — Finished 4th: “It was about a fourth-place car – the 18 (Kyle Busch) was very strong at the beginning. We just hung around the top five or sixth at worst and third at best. Finished about right where we should have.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 5th: “I thought we were about a fifth or sixth-place car all day. I didn’t start the race off very good. We were really tight, but worked on it and got it better at times. It was just really hard to pass for us. I know the No. 78 (Martin Truex, Jr.) was really good and he was able to cruise to the front no problem, but we seemed to and it looked like everybody really struggled in traffic except for a couple of guys. But, a solid day, got stage points and then a top five finish. That will be good going into Loudon.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished 6th: “Yeah, we can be happy with sixth. We scored a bunch of stage points and had a solid day up front. One more of these races either Loudon or Dover and we should be good to advance to the next round. I think we can pull that off. We are still looking for a little speed but execution today was really, really strong. Great day on pit road, great restarts. All that stuff was what you look for, we just need to marry that up with some speed and we can win any of these races.”

Joey Logano – Finished 7th: “We executed well. We ran in the top 10 the whole race and had no issues, nothing crazy, just not fast enough to compete for the win. We made gains the last few weeks to get closer but we have just caught up to our teammates. That is where we are at now, the same as our teammates but not good enough to go up there and win. I thought I would run seventh today and I ran seventh. We just have to go faster, that is all.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 8th: “The cars are all so equal at least the guys from third or fourth on back we are all so equal.  If you could get by somebody on a restart that was really about it, but for me, my car just really wanted to run the bottom of the race track. The higher I would go the looser it would get.  I knew there was a lot of real estate up there to try to take advantage of I just couldn’t make it work and had to chase the bottom all day long.”

Matt Kenseth (comment from crew chief Jason Ratcliff) — Finished 9th: “Honestly, I’m really disappointed. I thought that we would be way more competitive. At the start of the race, you know having our qualifiers (tires) on, I thought we were making ground. We kind of settled in and I thought OK, we’ll just keep working on it and making progress. It just didn’t seem like we could make any gains for some reason. We could change the car, but we kept getting stuck somewhere between seventh and ninth. It was good to get out of here with a top 10 and we’ll go to Loudon.”

Jamie McMurray – Finished 10th: “There were a lot of issues for people in the playoffs it looked like. So, 10th place isn’t bad. I think we finished 10th in one of the stages as well. I don’t know what happened on the backstretch. I think I just didn’t give the No. 31 (Ryan Newman) enough room and it got me turned around. We were lucky the caution kind of fell right and then we had a pretty fast car as well. We were faster probably at the beginning than we were at the end, but overall it was a good way to start the first race.”

Ryan Blaney – Finished 11th: “We started off not great, got into it with a lapped car. That put us behind and got us a lap down. We spent a long time trying to get a lap back and finally did and were able to go racing. We went the wrong way on our last adjustment and that hurt us unfortunately. We can’t hang our heads about that. A lot of other cars had problems today. It stinks we didn’t get any stage points, but maybe next week.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 13th: “We kind of went back and forth all day between loose and tight. I think we were on the splitter there for a while as well. We kept working on it but never really got it to where we needed it to be to race with the leaders.”

Paul Menard — Finished 14th: “This team never gave up all day, and we have a solid result to show for it. The Moen/Menards Chevrolet had speed all day, we just fell a lap down early because of our track position. We took the wave around and got on a different pit sequence than most of the field, and it worked out in our favor. We got the free pass a couple of times and were able to end the day 14th. It was a great strategy and a solid effort all around for this No. 27 team.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 15th: “We had such a fast Skittles Sweet Heat Camry. It’s just disappointing that we had trouble on pit road like that. We just never had the opportunity with how the cautions fell to get back on the lead lap. We’ll get back to the shop and talk about it, and really all we can do is move on and put it behind us.”

Austin Dillon – Finished 16th: “It’s just frustrating. I put ourselves in a hole speeding on pit road and just trying to get too much. You talk about not making mistakes, and we made one. We had a really good race car truthfully. It was a top 10 car for sure, maybe top five. We got behind. We were two laps down. We got one back. Racing the No. 18 (Kyle Busch), he’s a hard one to beat for the Lucky Dog. I had him for a long time. But, there were just no cautions today. We needed more cautions. It went green a lot.”

Danica Patrick — Finished 18th: “It was a little tight in the middle and off (in the final stage).”

Trevor Bayne — Finished 22nd: “We just couldn’t get the speed we were looking for on the short run. Our Performance Plus Ford was really fast on the long run and (crew chief) Matt (Puccia) made some really good adjustments. I hate that we made some contact with the wall but my guys kept fighting all afternoon and never gave up. We’ll move on from today and get after it in Loudon.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 23rd: “This Caterpillar Chevy was pretty solid Friday and Saturday, but when the race started today, we were facing an uphill battle and could never really recover.  I’m not sure what happened between our practices and the race. We were extremely loose and in desperate need of grip. We tried just about everything to race back onto the lead lap, but it just didn’t work out for us. This isn’t the way we wanted to kickoff the playoffs. We’re fighters so we are certainly still in this thing.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 24th: “I felt like we had a really good car to start off with. We were good on the long run. The first few adjustments we made were good, but then, the car just got really loose. We battled the loose condition the rest of the day. We got it better at the end but were stuck laps down at that point. The timing worked for us on the last caution, and (crew chief) Drew (Blickensderfer) made a good call to run to the end.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Finished 25th: “I got into the fence early on and then had a commitment line violation which put us two laps down. With so few cautions, we weren’t able to get back on the lead lap. It’s definitely not the race we wanted to kick off the playoffs. We head to Loudon which is usually a decent track for us.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 28th: “This wasn’t the day that we were looking to have in Chicago. We were too far off to start the first stage. I was way too loose and didn’t have any grip on entry and exit. My team made changes to get us handling better, but we had lost too much ground to the leaders by then. We’ve grown a lot as a team this year and the next step is to start these races stronger. We always get to where we need to be later in the race, but we need to be there from the time that we unload on Friday morning. This team grinds like no other, though, and we will take what we can from this weekend and use it to be better at this track next year.”

Here’s your primer for this weekend’s opening of the NASCAR Cup playoffs

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As we prepare for this weekend’s start of the NASCAR Cup playoffs at Chicagoland Speedway, here’s a primer – courtesy of our friends at Racing Insights – on what to expect.

We’ll cover the playoff format and the number of playoff appearances to date for all 16 drivers and 16 crew chiefs:

2017 Playoff Format Explained

The format for the 2017 the playoffs will be divided into four rounds:

Round One – Round of 16 (Races 27-29 – Chicago, New Hampshire, Dover)

  • All drivers have their points adjusted to 2,000
  • Top-10 in regular season points are awarded regular season playoff points
  • Playoff points accumulated during the first 26 races are added
  • All playoff points earned will continue to transfer as long as a driver remains playoff eligible
  • A win by a playoff driver in round one automatically advances them to round two
  • Remaining positions are filled based on points earned in round one
  • All playoff points accumulated during round one will be applied in the second round as long as that 
driver has advanced

Round Two – Round of 12 (Race 30-32 – Charlotte, Talladega, Kansas)

  • All drivers that advance to round two have their points adjusted to 3,000
  • All playoff points accumulated are then applied, including any playoff points gained during round 1
  • A win by a Playoff driver in round two automatically advances them to round three
  • Remaining positions are filled based on points earned in round two
  • All playoff points accumulated during round two will be applied in the third round as long as that 
driver has advanced

Round Three – Round of 8 (Race 33-35 – Martinsville, Texas, Phoenix)

  • All drivers to advance to round three have their points adjusted to 4,000
  • All Playoff points accumulated are then applied, including any points gained during rounds 1 and 2
  • A win by a Playoff driver in round three automatically advances them to Homestead
  • Remaining positions are filled based on points earned in round three
  • Playoff points are not awarded in Round three

Round Four – Championship 4 (Race 36 -Homestead)

  • All four drivers have their points reset to 5,000, No Playoff Points
  • No Playoff points or stage points awarded to the Playoff eligible drivers during the race
  • The highest finisher at Homestead among the remaining four eligible drivers in the Playoff grid wins 
the Championship******************************************

Playoff Appearances and Best Year End Finish during the Post Season Era: 14th year of the post season:

  • Martin Truex Jr. – 5th Playoff Appearance, best finish 4th in 2015
  • Kyle Larson2nd Playoff Appearance, best finish 9th in 2016
  • Kyle Busch – 10th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2015
  • Brad Keselowski – 6th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2012
  • Jimmie Johnson14th Playoff Appearance (every year), seven-time champion
  • Kevin Harvick – 11th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2014
  • Denny Hamlin – 11th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 2nd in 2010
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr.1st Playoff Appearance
  • Ryan Blaney1st Playoff Appearance
  • Chase Elliott2nd Playoff Appearance, 10th in 2016
  • Ryan Newman – 8th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 2nd in 2014
  • Kurt Busch – 11th Playoff Appearance, won the Championship in 2004
  • Kasey Kahne – 6th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 4th in 2012
  • Austin Dillon2nd Playoff Appearance, best finish of 14th in 2016
  • Matt Kenseth – 13th Playoff Appearance, best finish of 2nd in 2006 & 2013 **
  • Jamie McMurray3rd Playoff Appearance, best finish of 13th in 2015 and 2016

**Matt Kenseth won the Championship in 2003, the last year of the pre-Post Season era

*******************************************

Crew Chiefs Making First Playoff appearance:

* No. 5 Keith Rodden – Fourth full-time season as Crew Chief, third with Kasey Kahne, Lead Engineer of #5 from 2012- 2013

* No. 21 Jeremy Bullins – Third season with #21 all with Ryan Blaney, won 2013 & 2014 NXS Owners title as Crew Chief of #22, Race engineer with multiple teams from 2000-2011

*******************************************

Playoff Appearances by Crew Chiefs:

* No. 1 Matt McCall – 3rd appearance, all with Jamie McMurray all in the last three years

* No. 2 Paul Wolfe – 6th appearance, all with Brad Keselowski, won 2012 Championship together

* No. 3 Justin Alexander – 2nd appearance, first with Austin Dillon, one with Paul Menard 2015

* No. 4 Rodney Childers – 4th appearance, won the 2014 Championship with Kevin Harvick

* No. 11 Mike Wheeler – 2nd appearance, both with Denny Hamlin (currently suspended)

* No. 17 Brian Pattie – 5th appearance, first with Ricky Stenhouse Jr., three with Clint Bowyer, one with Juan Pablo Montoya

* No. 18 Adam Stevens – 3rd appearance, all with Kyle Busch, won 2015 Championship together

* No. 20 Jason Ratcliff – 5th appearance, all with Matt Kenseth

* No. 24 Alan Gustafson – 10th appearance, second with Chase Elliott, five with Jeff Gordon, two with Kyle Busch, one with Mark Martin

* No. 31 Luke Lambert – 3rd appearance, all with Ryan Newman

* No. 41 Tony Gibson – 5th appearance, third with Kurt Busch, two with Ryan Newman

* No. 42 Chad Johnston – 3rd appearance, second with Kyle Larson, one with Martin Truex Jr. at Michael Waltrip Racing
* No. 48 Chad Knaus – 14th appearance, all with Jimmie Johnson

* No. 78 Cole Pearn – 3rd appearance, all with Martin Truex Jr.

*******************************************

2017 Playoff Manufacturer Break Down:

Chevrolet – 7 Ford – 5 Toyota – 4

2017 Playoff Organization Break Down:

Joe Gibbs Racing – 3

Hendrick Motorsports – 3

Chip Ganassi Racing – 2*

Richard Childress Racing – 2

Stewart-Haas Racing – 2

Furniture Row Racing – 1

Roush Fenway Racing – 1

Team Penske – 1

Wood Brothers Racing – 1*

*All Cars of Organization made the playoffs

Veteran NASCAR crew chief Slugger Labbe takes new role with Toyota Racing Development

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Veteran NASCAR crew chief and current NASCAR America analyst Slugger Labbe has a new job.

Labbe announced on this morning’s The Morning Drive on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that he has joined Toyota Racing and Toyota Racing Development as Manager of Teams and Vehicles Support.

Labbe’s duties will be stretch across all forms of Toyota’s racing involvement including NASCAR, NHRA drag racing, NASCAR K&N Pro Series, USAC, Rally Series and several other series.

“It’s going to be a challenge for me, working for an OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) after being in NASCAR for 32 years,” Labbe said. “But working with the various racing divisions of Toyota Motorsports through TRD is a very exciting challenge for me and I’m looking forward to it.”

Labbe’s duties will include technical support to Toyota teams across all the various motorsports series it supports.

“I’ll be a manager of some of that direction as for what the teams specifically need,” Labbe said.

Labbe won’t have to travel far for his first assignment: the suburban Charlotte resident will be at this weekend’s NHRA event at zMax Dragway, across from Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“I get to do something completely different than NASCAR to start this weekend and I’m looking forward to that challenge,” Labbe said. “It’s going to be a pretty cool opportunity for me.”

Labbe left Richard Childress Racing as crew chief for the No. 3 NASCAR Cup Chevrolet driven by Austin Dillon on May 22.

Labbe’s departure led to a shuffle of crew chiefs within its Cup and Xfinity teams that saw Justin Alexander replace Labbe and Randall Burnett took over as crew chief for the No. 2 Xfinity Series Chevrolet.

Labbe had been a Cup crew chief with RCR since 2010. He initially worked with Paul Menard, who won the 2011 Brickyard 400 with Labbe as crew chief. He had been with Dillon since midway through the 2015 season.

In 500 starts as a Cup crew chief, Labbe has five victories, also winning three times with Michael Waltrip and once with Jeremy Mayfield.

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Silly Season heats up with more driver moves

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Tuesday brought the news that Danica Patrick won’t be back with Stewart-Haas Racing after this season and that Aric Almirola also won’t return to Richard Petty Motorsports for 2018.

Neither driver announced their plans for next season. Other drivers who have not announced 2018 plans include Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne and former champion Matt Kenseth.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands as the Cup playoff are set to begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

ANNOUNCED RIDES FOR 2018

Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth (announcement made July 11)

Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. (announcement made July 20)

Brad Keselowski agrees to contract extension to drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske (announcement made July 25

Ryan Blaney moves to Team Penske to drive the No. 12 car and signs a multi-year contract extension (announcement made July 26)

Paul Menard moves to Wood Brothers Racing to drive the No. 21 car (announcement made July 26)

William Byron will drive the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Kasey Kahne (announcement made Aug. 9)

Matt DiBenedetto will remain with Go Fas Racing in the team’s No. 32 car (announcement made Aug. 12)

Chris Buescher signs a multi-year contract to remain at JTG Daugherty and drive the No. 37 car. (announcement made Aug. 18)

Ty Dillon signs a multi-year contract to remain at Germain Racing and drive the No. 13 car. Sponsor Geico also extends its deal with the team (announcement made Sept. 5)

OPEN/POSSIBLY OPEN RIDES

— No. 10: Danica Patrick is out after this season at Stewart-Haas Racing. No replacement has been announced. 

— No. 27: Richard Childress Racing states it will announce plans for a third Cup team at a later date with Paul Menard joining the Wood Brothers for next season.

— No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for next year on Aug. 1. Even so, the team tweeted that it expected Busch back with sponsor Monster Energy for next year. Busch told reporters Aug. 5 at Watkins Glen that “there are a couple of offers already, so we’ll see how things work out.’’  

— No. 43: Richard Petty Motorsports announced Sept. 12 that Aric Almirola will not return to the team. Smithfield also is not returning. Smithfield and Richard Petty Motorsports exchanged terse statements about their parting. RPM is selling Darrell Wallace Jr. to prospective sponsors.  

— No. 77: With Erik Jones returning to JGR, team owner Barney Visser is looking to fill that seat. The first concern, though, is sponsorship. Visser told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Aug. 9: “We’ve got no sponsorship right now for the 77,” for next season. “So we’ve got to find something. We don’t want to give up that car, but if we don’t get sponsorship, we’ll have to.” Sponsor 5-Hour Energy has an option to return. The company can’t go to any other Cup team with Monster Energy as series sponsor.

AVAILABLE DRIVERS

Matt Kenseth: Out of the No. 20 after this season. Doesn’t have anything announced for next year at this point. At Bristol, Kenseth was asked about his plans for 2018. He said: “I’ll be honest with you … I’m not worried about (2018) even really one percent anymore to be honest with you. I’m just not concerned about it.’’  

Kurt Busch: With Stewart-Haas Racing declining to pick up his option for next year, Busch is a free agent. Even with Stewart-Haas Racing’s action, there’s still a good chance Busch signs a deal to remain with the organization.

Kasey Kahne: The 2017 Brickyard 400 winner is available after Hendrick Motorsports announced it had released him from the final year of his contract. Rick Hendrick said Aug. 9 that he’s working to help Kahne land a ride for next season and hinted it could be through an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. 

Danica Patrick: She will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after this season. Patrick has not announced any plans for next season. She’s not looking for a ride in the Xfinity Series. “Cup only,’’ she said.  

Aric Almirola: Won’t return to Richard Petty Motorsports, team announced Sept. 12.

GMS Racing/Spencer Gallagher: GMS Racing confirmed on Aug. 30 that it will not have a full-time Cup entry in 2018. The organization, which fields teams in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series, had looked into moving to Cup.

Darrell Wallace Jr.: Richard Petty Motorsports is selling Wallace to prospective sponsors for the No. 43 car for next season. He gained interest from RPM after driving in four races for the team while Aric Almirola was injured. Wallace said Aug. 4 that he’s focused on finding a ride for next year with so few options left for this year.

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Matt Kenseth wins pole for Cup regular-season finale at Richmond

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Matt Kenseth won the pole for Saturday’s Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway, giving him a sweep of this season’s poles at the track.

Kenseth, who is looking to lock himself into the playoffs with a win in the regular-season finale, scored the pole with a speed of 122.421 mph.

“I didn’t think I was going to have enough speed, I didn’t think that was a fast enough lap time to get the pole,” Kenseth told NBCSN. “We’ve been running pretty good the last few months. We haven’t been able to break through and get a win like we’d like to have, we got crashed out at Michigan. But other than that we’ve been up there in the mix. We just haven’t been able to get it to line up and get the victory.”

It is Kenseth’s 20th Cup pole. Before this year he had never won a Cup pole at Richmond. Kenseth led 164 laps in the April race before finishing 23rd after a flat tire.

Completing the top five are Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson and Martin Truex Jr.

The winners of the last six Richmond races all started in the top five.

The top five drivers starting outside the top 12 are Clint Bowyer, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Daniel Suarez.

“We just got too loose,” Suarez told NBCSN. “For whatever reason we just lost a lot of grip in the second round. I don’t why. We had the same thing in practice. The first round was very, very good and the second round on tires wasn’t as good. We’re missing something there.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr. will start 21st in his last Cup start at Richmond Raceway.

Richard Childress Racing had a poor qualifying performance with all three cars failing to advance out of the first round.

Paul Menard will start 26th followed by Ryan Newman in 27th. Austin Dillon qualified 31st.

“We have a good long-run car,” Dillon told NBCSN. “We kind of travel in a group when we struggle. When we run good, we run good. Like at Darlington last week with a fourth and a seventh. It’s good to know we can turn the ship around by the end of the weekend.”

Click here for the starting lineup.