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Bump & Run: Playoff sleepers and those trending down

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Give a driver not among your favorites who will be one to watch during the playoffs.

Dale Jarrett: I have to put Kurt Busch in that. He wasn’t someone until the last month that I was paying attention to, but they have seemed to have found something. Even though I still don’t put him really among the favorites to win the championship, they’ve run well enough to get high on my radar and to think with his experience, how he runs well at pretty much any type of track, that maybe they found something that other Fords haven’t been able to right now.

Steve Letarte: I think Ryan Blaney in the 21 is the sleeper pick for the playoffs. I know this is cold when I say this, but the fact is that Joey Logano missing the playoffs has increased the opportunities for Blaney and Brad Keselowski to go farther. I think it allows Penske to not distribute the effort and the manpower and divide it by three but now they get to divide it by two. I think that helps Ryan Blaney. While I don’t know if he has the firepower to go out and win in some of these rounds, but I do expect him to go past round one with just being consistent and crew chief Jeremy Bullins making good calls on top of the pit box.

Nate Ryan: Kurt Busch. He suddenly seems to have found another gear the past few weeks, and he has much to stay motivated about during the playoffs. Whether it’s his 2018 contract status, the future of crew chief Tony Gibson (who might be on his last hurrah) or the pride of proving the Daytona 500 victory wasn’t an anomaly, it’ll be easy to tap into a driving force over the final 10 races.

Dustin Long: Matt Kenseth. He’s in a Toyota, which is faster than the other manufacturers. He’s scored top-10 finishes in six of the last eight races. Don’t get hung up in that he hasn’t won yet this season. His time could be coming.

Which playoff driver is trending down for you entering the playoffs?

Dale Jarrett: I’m staying way from saying Jimmie Johnson because every time I do that he comes back and wins the next race and moves on to another round. As much as I talked about one Ford on the upswing with Kurt Busch, I think another is Ryan Blaney that is headed downward. I think the Fords, with what Brad Keselowski says, I don’t know that they’re at a disadvantage, but they’re just behind. It’s going to make it difficult for someone other than a Kevin Harvick or Kurt Busch type, and maybe Brad can work his way through there, but I think they’re going to have a difficult time of what I’ve seen recently of keeping up and accumulating enough points to move anywhere past two rounds.

Steve Letarte: Brad Keselowski has been trending a little down in playoff performance. I think he’s still a lock to make it past round one, but I’m waiting to see how much effort was being put into Joey Logano’s team to make the playoffs. I think that it definitely hurt the No. 2 in the last two or three weeks. I’m waiting to see if there is an instant uptick. I believe there will be, so I don’t have concern, but so far what I’ve seen on the race track I’d have to say Brad Keselowski is trending down.

Nate Ryan: Jamie McMurray. He still is enjoying one of the best and most consistent seasons of his career, but he seems slightly off the pace of teammate Kyle Larson and less of a weekly top-five threat as he was early in the season. The results were worthy of a playoff berth but might not be enough to reach the second round.

Dustin Long: Jimmie Johnson. The stretch just before the playoffs typically isn’t his best part of the season. He’s following form again this year. Even so, I just don’t see him as one of the four racing for the championship in Miami even though there are many good tracks for him. I expect him to be better in the playoffs than what he’s run lately, but I don’t know if he goes beyond the second round.

NASCAR has seen a decline in debris cautions this summer. After NASCAR called cautions too quickly in some cases at Richmond, how likely is it that officials will be more deliberate in calling cautions in the playoffs and how could that impact races and strategy?

Dale Jarrett: As much as competitors want it to be in their hands and we want it to be that, NASCAR can’t put them in a bad situation if there is a possibility of debris. The other night, that last caution there, there was nothing up there, nobody was going to get up in that and create a situation. That was just an overreaction. I would not go off of that as being the norm as to what’s going to happen here.

Steve Letarte: I think NASCAR will be more deliberate, and I think NASCAR must be more deliberate. The playoffs are high pressure for everyone involved. Drivers, crew chiefs, pit crews, sanctioning body, officials, broadcast partners and myself in the booth should and must feel the pressure of the playoffs to deliver the fan the experience they deserve. NASCAR has created a format where the champion will be crowned over a 10-week stretch. I love the format, but you must deliver top-notch performance within that format no matter what part of the NASCAR family you are a part of.

Nate Ryan: With debris yellows still at a 17-year low through 26 races, NASCAR will be more committed to letting races naturally unfold. Crew chiefs will be calling strategy accordingly. 

Dustin Long: There still will be cautions, so how strong a car is on a restart will still be priority. Short pitting, though, could come into play at some tracks during long green-flag runs and that could alter who wins and advances in the playoffs. 

Dale Jarrett and Steve Letarte join Krista Voda on NASCAR America from 5-6 p.m. ET today on NBCSN.

Bump & Run: Will Hendrick struggles continue into playoffs?

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What’s your take on the performance of Hendrick Motorsports with the playoffs two weeks away?

Nate Ryan: Darlington was disappointing for the team, but it still is too early to tell. Hendrick didn’t lead any laps in the 2016 Southern 500, either, but when the playoffs opened at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks later, Chase Elliott and Jimmie Johnson led 193 of 270 laps. It’s conceivable the team will flip the switch again.

Dustin Long: I’m with Nate. The performance has been disappointing, but then you look at what Jimmie Johnson and Chase Elliott did last year at Chicagoland Speedway and Johnson’s overall record and it’s hard to count this organization out. Still, it is troubling to see all of its cars struggling to find speed.

Daniel McFadin: HMS has 13 top fives this year —but none since Kasey Kahne pulled out a win at the Brickyard six races ago. They haven’t had the speed to be a consistent presence in the top 10 for months. At this point I’ll be surprised if Jimmie Johnson, who hasn’t finished higher than 10th since he won at Dover in June, is able to make a lot of noise in the first round outside of Dover.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though there will likely be at least three HMS drivers to start the playoffs, it doesn’t mean that any of them will reach the final round. Sure, Jimmie Johnson has three wins, but no other top fives — and just four other top 10s. Frankly, I wouldn’t be surprised to see two, if not all three, HMS drivers fail to advance past the first round. 

Martin Truex Jr. has accumulated 52 playoff points with one race left before the postseason – a total far better than any other driver. Does this make him a sure bet to advance all the way to Miami and race for the championship?

Nate Ryan: It would be virtually impossible for him to avoid advancing to the second round, making the third round should be a top-25 cinch, and advancing to Miami shouldn’t be a tall order for this team. A poor finish in the third round probably still knocks out Truex, but he could average a top 10 and easily be racing for a championship for the second time in three years.

Dustin Long: Not a sure bet, but it will give him enough of an advantage to get to at least to the third round. I would be shocked not to see the No. 78 team racing for the championship in Miami.

Daniel McFadin: Truex should be able to waltz through at least the first two rounds, especially with his strong tracks Dover, Charlotte and Chicago waiting for him. But as the final four laps at Darlington showed, it doesn’t matter how good you’ve been in the first 3/4 of race. Anything could trip you up between Chicago and Miami.

Jerry Bonkowski: Truex has had an outstanding regular season and is definitely one of the favorites going into the playoffs. But, if he stumbles in the first round, he could make an early exit like Jimmie Johnson did in 2015. No one is a sure bet in this format, even Truex.

Sunday’s Southern 500 finished with more than 100 laps of green-flag racing. What’s your take on NASCAR being more selective on when it calls debris cautions?

Nate Ryan: It’s commendable. NASCAR should holster the yellow flag for debris whenever possible. Sunday’s finish was a good example of how a track with high tire wear naturally produces drama over the course of a long run without the necessity of re-racking the field with restarts.

Dustin Long: I like that NASCAR has been more selective. It changes the dynamics and strategy. You can still have chaotic finishes (Indy), but by letting the race go green, you can also get a finish like Sunday at Darlington with Denny Hamlin chasing down Martin Truex Jr. for the win.

Daniel McFadin: The lack of mysterious debris cautions is commendable, even if it may or may not have taken criticism from Dale Earnhardt Jr. in a post-race Periscope session (and other complaints) after the June Michigan race for NASCAR to take stock of what it throws cautions for.

Jerry Bonkowski: On the one hand, I like that NASCAR is being more selective with debris cautions. But on the other hand, more than 100 laps of green-flag racing can be a detriment, as fans’ attention spans are short. Plus, it’s hard to beat a late-race restart for excitement and how the race ultimately plays out.

Bump & Run: Taking stock of the NASCAR season

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What has surprised you the most about this season?

Jeff Burton: My biggest surprise is that there really hasn’t been a flaw in the new stage racing format. I believed that something would happen that revealed a flaw that no one had anticipated but we have yet to see it.

Nate Ryan: Martin Truex Jr.’s emergence as the championship favorite. It was expected he would run well and be a playoff contender and winner, but Furniture Row Racing regularly outrunning Joe Gibbs Racing as the best-in-class Toyota team has been a surprise – as has Truex’s runaway lead in the playoff points standings. He and crew chief Cole Pearn have become the crew chief-driver combination that is setting the pace in every way possible, whether it’s lap speeds, setup decisions or strategy calls.

Dustin Long: That there have been 14 different Cup winners (13 eligible for the playoffs) at this point in the season, which is already the most number of winners in an entire Cup season since 2013.

What driver has impressed you the most this season?

Jeff Burton: Martin Truex Jr. Speed and consistency is hard to achieve. He has been the guy that seems to be in the battle every single week. 

Nate Ryan: William Byron. His promotion to the Cup Series is well deserved, because he has proven the past two years to be an absolute prodigy with his acclimation to Xfinity and trucks. It makes one wonder if he already would have been a Cup winner if he had started his racing career in earnest before becoming a teenager.

Dustin Long: I’m amazed what William Byron has done for his relative lack of experience compared to drivers who started before they hit first grade. His ability to handle pressure situations has been noteworthy. While the challenges will increase next year, I’m already interested to see how he will do in Cup.

What storyline most intrigues you for the coming weeks?

Jeff Burton: I’m intrigued about the playoffs. There will be a big time driver and team that doesn’t advance into the playoffs. Watching who can take control and who can’t step up will be very interesting to witness.

Nate Ryan: The impact of playoff points on the championship race and how it affects who advances in each round. The suspicion here is that there will be much second-guessing and re-examination of decisions made during the regular season that had unanticipated repercussions months later.

Dustin Long: I’m intrigued to see if Kyle Busch and his team can finally eliminate the mistakes that have plagued them throughout the season and prevented Busch from possibly an epic season. With two wins in the last four races, he’s on the verge of a breakout that will lead to a dominating title run. Will it happen?

Bump & Run: Should NASCAR be doctoring tracks to add grip?

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NASCAR is expected to use traction compound or drag tires at a number of tracks there the rest of the season. Are you OK with this action or should NASCAR not do such things to tracks?

Nate Ryan: As long as the drivers are on board, let’s start ordering the sticky stuff by the truckload. 

Dustin Long: Why shouldn’t NASCAR try to find ways to create the best possible racing for fans?

Daniel McFadin: The spring Bristol race was the most enticing Bristol race in my adult memory, so I’m going to say try it wherever you think you need it. Because if you’re a track that’s even considering using it, you probably need to try.

Jerry Bonkowski: I understand why NASCAR is using the PJ1 compound or dragging tires to improve the racing. And while both are used to enhance grip and widen or bring in additional grooves on certain tracks, the purist or traditionalist in me does not like artificial means to be used. I feel that perhaps the use of softer tires may bring better grip, but at the same time, softer tires typically wear out quicker. It’s kind of a Catch-22 situation for NASCAR and its drivers. They want better grip for better racing, but having to resort to an artificial method to do so just kind of rubs me the wrong way. 

Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez and Trevor Bayne are the first five drivers outside a playoff spot with three races left before the playoffs are set. Will any of these drivers make the playoffs?

Nate Ryan: It seems as if the rookies Suarez and Jones have the most momentum lately. Bowyer still seems most likely to get a win and also could claw his way into a points spot. But a realist wouldn’t bet that any of these drivers qualifies. The playoff window virtually has closed already.

Dustin Long: No. Have to wait until next year.

Daniel McFadin: Erik Jones. He’s the only one of the group consistently running up front, at least in the last three races, and getting to the front of the pack without pit strategy.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even with the problems he’s had over the last several races, I think Logano will still make the playoffs. Bowyer will need at least top-10 finishes in the three remaining races to make a serious run at Matt Kenneth — and may still come up short. While Jones and Suarez are having a strong battle for Rookie of the Year, I don’t think either will make the playoffs, unless they win one of the next three races.

Did Kyle Larson’s win at Michigan show you that the team is back in form after recent struggles?

Nate Ryan: It’s back in form on strategy and execution, which were flawless in positioning Larson to win at Michigan. But the No. 42 Chevrolet still lacked the blinding speed from earlier in the season. 

Dustin Long: I need to see more. It’s a good start and changes the momentum for the team, which is important. Still, I want to see this team lead more laps and be higher on the speed chart. One race doesn’t turn a team’s season around but one race can be the start of something big. Let’s see what this team does next.

Daniel McFadin: As dramatic and fun as the final restart was Sunday, Larson’s win wasn’t a result of a superb performance. After the “worst start of my career” (starting ninth and falling to 15th) Larson spent all of Stage 1 outside the top 10 and then had an average running spot of 8.8 in the race. He was in a position to win solely because of two late cautions and a willingness to use his bumper.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’d like to think so, but Larson has been very cyclical this season. He won at Michigan in June and had finishes of 26th and 29th in the next two races at Sonoma and Daytona. He had back-to-back runner-up finishes at Kentucky and New Hampshire, only to have three straight finishes of 23rd or worse in the next three races (which occurred before Sunday’s race at Michigan). If anything, he can somewhat be less aggressive in the next three races, knowing he’s locked into the playoffs — and he can ratchet up the aggressiveness when the playoffs begin.

Bump & Run: Are Chevrolet teams in trouble with playoffs looming?

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Is Chevy in trouble after hardly contending at Pocono and scoring the fewest top-10 finishes in the last four races among the manufacturers?

Jeff Burton: Chevy lost a major asset when Stewart-Haas Racing left. I think it would be unrealistic and look at their numbers and expect their numbers to be as good as last year. The other problem I have is if you look at the number of wins that have come from Hendrick Motorsports, by far the majority of those wins have come from one team. That’s no disrespect to any other team, but the facts don’t lie. The facts are that the 48 team has carried Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas last year helped carry Chevrolet. They don’t have the number of teams and the teams they have, they don’t have as many good teams as they had last year.

Steve Letarte: My concern is, not to get too technical, but with the shifting at Pocono and the RPM range that used to be a Chevrolet track. For some reason it is going away. When I look at the teams they support, it looks really fragmented. They have Hendrick Motorsports, they have Chip Ganassi Racing, they have Richard Childress Racing. RCR, while they’ve won two races, we don’t see them leading many laps and competing for wins week in and week out. Hendrick and Ganassi’s production has just been average. I do think that Chevrolet has to go to the drawing board with their approach and decide whether it’s time to condense some of their efforts and by efforts I purely mean financial dollars. Would they be better to support less cars and put more money behind them?

Nate Ryan: It isn’t too late, but there definitely are some portentous signs that a tough playoffs could loom. Richard Childress Racing has been erratic (and mostly down) since the wins by Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon. Hendrick Motorsports has victories and consistent top-10 speed, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. detailed its recent deficiencies after Pocono. Chip Ganassi Racing seemed on the upswing until the past two races, which again have been critical barometers. There still is time to get things righted, but it’s been a tougher summer than anticipated.

Dustin Long: Not liking how Chevrolet teams have run lately, but they still have time to get things turned around and have multiple teams challenge for a championship.

Has Kyle Busch replaced Kyle Larson as being the co-championship favorite with Martin Truex Jr.?

Jeff Burton: Temporarily. These are moving targets. If I had to put my money today on somebody, yes, it would be Kyle Busch. As good as Kyle Larson and his team were when they were their best, he still won only two races. To win this championship, you’re going to have to beat people that have won a lot of races. I still wonder when you get into that pressure-filled, playoff-winning championship time, it’s different. I wonder where they are  compared to those other teams that have been there and done that.

Steve Letarte: Here’s the truth. What I’ve learned after breaking down the last two or three seasons is I’m not going to tell you the championship favorite until about race four of the playoffs because it doesn’t matter who is good now. It truly matters who finds the right package in the last four or five races. Right now, Martin Truex Jr. has to be the favorite. Kyle Busch has got to be on the list. My four are very simple: Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.

Nate Ryan: Definitely. He has one fewer win, but Busch is matching Larson in most major Loop Data categories, and his No. 18 team has been top notch the past three races at a critical juncture of the season when many teams begin rolling out their best cars.

Dustin Long: Yes, but it doesn’t matter at this point. The championship four won’t be set for three months. Kyle Larson’s team has dipped a bit lately and it is concerning, but they still have time to recover. Also, at this point a year ago, many viewed Martin Truex Jr. as the title favorite and he didn’t even make it to the championship race.

Will Joey Logano make the playoffs?

Jeff Burton: It’s hard for me to say that Joey Logano is not going to make the playoffs. The evidence says he won’t, but my racing intellect tells me that they’ll find a way. If I look at the numbers and I look at how they’re running and the things they’re going to have to do, I would say no but I don’t believe that they’re out of it. I don’t think they have to win a race. I still think there’s enough turmoil in the tracks coming up that it only takes one of those teams ahead of them to have a couple of bad races and if they can run well, I still think they can get themselves in. You think about the races coming up, Watkins Glen, Bristol, Darlington, there’s some very difficult races coming up.

Steve Letarte: No. Because they’re not fast enough. They’re not executing enough. They’re not scoring enough points. The only way the 22 makes the playoffs is to win Richmond. That was way easier in years past when 15 drivers didn’t care where they ran at Richmond. When you go to Richmond right now, those 15 other drivers care where they won. So winning the last race at Richmond is nowhere as near as easy as it used to be.

Nate Ryan: He has been so good on road courses the last few years, it’s feasible Logano could carry his No. 22 Ford to a win at Watkins Glen (where he won in 2015). He might be able to wrestle the car to wins at Bristol and Richmond the same way. But a victory seemingly would require a swing for the fences by Logano’s lagging team, which seems better suited to improving by getting the basics right.

Dustin Long: Don’t see it happening. Not enough speed. With the new format giving drivers incentive to race harder with so many playoff points available, his path won’t be easy.