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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.

JGL Racing to honor Cale Yarborough with paint scheme at Darlington

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JGL Racing’s No. 28 will pay tribute to Cale Yarborough next month at Darlington Raceway as part of the track’s throwback weekend.

Dakoda Armstrong will pilot the car, which will mirror the paint scheme Yarborough had for the 1983 and ’84 seasons. Yarborough won the Daytona 500 both seasons. Yarborough became the first driver to run a qualifying lap at more than 200 mph at Daytona before crashing on the second lap. He came back to win the 500 in his backup car.

The NASCAR Hall of Famer won 83 races and three championships in his Cup career. Yarborough and Jimmie Johnson are tied for sixth on the career Cup victory list.

“Once again, we look forward to paying tribute to one of the icons of this sport,” said James Whitener, owner of JGL Racing, in a statement.  “We really look forward to this Darlington weekend every year and ways that we can make it bigger and bigger from our end.  Cale is one of the great champions in NASCAR history and to honor him at his home track of Darlington Raceway is pretty cool for me and everyone on this JGL Racing team.  We look forward to a fun-filled weekend in Darlington and a solid run in the No. 28 “Cale Yarborough Tribute” Toyota.”

Long: Sign of the times – Young drivers are in, veterans are on their way out

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Whether 19-year-old William Byron is ready for Cup doesn’t matter. He’ll be there next year for Hendrick Motorsports because he fills a need.

He’s young, talented and less expensive than a veteran driver.

So Kasey Kahne is out and Byron is in. That’s not the only such move for next season. Rookie Erik Jones will replace former Cup champion Matt Kenseth at Joe Gibbs Racing. Alex Bowman takes over Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s ride at Hendrick Motorsports.

Those mirror other moves made in the last few years, creating a seismic shift in the driver lineup — one that hadn’t been seen in nearly half a century.

With Byron’s move to Cup, there will be at least eight drivers 25 and under who are expected take the green flag in next year’s Daytona 500.

They are (with age they’ll be for next year’s 500):

William Byron (age 20)

Erik Jones (21)

Chase Elliott (22)

Ryan Blaney (24)

Alex Bowman (24)

Chris Buescher (25)

Ty Dillon (25)

Kyle Larson (25)

Only this year’s race with 11 drivers age 25 and under and last year’s race at nine have had more young drivers in the field than next year’s race looks to have. The record could be equaled or topped next year with 24-year-old Darrell Wallace Jr., looking for a ride and the possibility that smaller teams may go with young drivers. Nearly half the field for next year’s 500 could feature drivers in their 20s.

This shift toward youth has built since 2014 when there were eight drivers age 25 and under in the Daytona 500 starting lineup. The last time there had been so many young drivers in the “Great American Race” was 1962. That race saw 24-year-old Richard Petty finish second and 22-year-old Cale Yarborough place last in the 48-car field.

The latest changes come as young drivers replace veterans partly because of economics. It’s a shift for car owners, who responded during the recession a decade ago by cutting driver development programs and hiring veterans for lower salaries. The chance to run in Cup ended for many drivers. Those that did run, had little luck. Only one Cup Rookie of the Year from 2008-12 remains in the series (Joey Logano).

Now, as the sport goes through what some refer to as a correction, sponsors are cutting back more. Less money to teams means less money for drivers. Young racers are significantly cheaper.

“You’ve got a lot of young guys coming in being offered and accepting contracts that are a fifth to a tenth of what veterans are getting paid,’’ Earnhardt said last weekend at Watkins Glen International. “That’s money that can go into the team, you know? These sponsors aren’t giving teams the money that they used to. So, the owners and everybody’s got to take a little cut. Everybody’s got to dial it back.’’

Furniture Row Racing car owner Barney Visser puts it more succinctly: “I would think that there are going to be a lot of jets sold (by drivers). The money just won’t support what some of these guys have been making. The sponsorship just won’t carry it right now.”

Even for as talented as the new generation is, it’s taken them time to succeed for various reasons. Ty Dillon, Bowman, Elliott and Jones have yet to win a Cup race. Buescher won in his 27th career start. Blaney scored his first victory in his 68th series start. Larson didn’t win until his 100th series start. Austin Dillon’s first win came in his 133rd series start.

“It’s just such a big step altogether that there’s nothing in the Truck or Xfinity Series I think that fully prepares you for what it takes to really be successful at the Cup level,’’ said Jones, whose best finish is third in 25 career Cup starts. “I think it’s been just really a whole year of relearning for me, not really relearning but just learning more about the Cup Series and what it takes and how to race these guys.’’

It’s not as much what happens on the track and what happens off it that has been an adjustment for Jones to Cup.

You get to the Cup Series, your week is slammed, and you don’t really ever experience that when you’re in the Xfinity or the Truck Series,’’ Jones said. “I wish I would have learned to study and prepare more for the weekend because I never really did when I was in Xfinity and Truck. I just kind of learned more about that and still am trying to learn more about that as the year goes on.’’

That’s led to questions about Byron because of his lack of experience — even with the success he’s had. He ran 24 Truck races (winning seven) and he’s run 20 Xfinity races (three wins) so far.

“William, he has surprised us every time he gets in a car,’’ Hendrick said. “My goal is to not to let too much pressure be on him, to let him go out and have fun and learn and we’ll try to get better as an organization. We’ve got Jimmie Johnson … he will be a mentor to all three of them (Byron, Elliott and Bowman). We still have Jeff Gordon involved and Dale Earnhardt is going to be involved.

“They’ve got a lot of coaches. The main thing is just not putting too much pressure on them and let them go out and learn. If William continues to do what he’s done in every series he’s been in, he’ll adapt fine and he’ll learn. You might as well let him learn in what he’s going to be driving for years to come.’’

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Kevin Harvick: Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s lack of success played ‘big part’ in stunted ‘growth of NASCAR’

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Kevin Harvick believes the popularity of 14-time most popular driver Dale Earnhardt Jr. has played “a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR” in recent years.

Harvick’s comments came Tuesday night on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show “Happy Hours” when the topic of fan attendance during Earnhardt’s farewell season was raised.

“I’ve been totally shocked by the vibe of Dale’s last year,” Harvick said. “I really thought it was going to be tons of fans showing up to the race track, buying crazy amounts of souvenirs and the souvenir sales aren’t up for the sales that he has in his last year so far. The crowds really haven’t changed. In my opinion, it’s been from his lack of performance. He hasn’t performed well in the race car.”

Earnhardt has failed to finish better than 12th in the last six races. Through 22 races he has only one top five (Texas). He also has nine finishes of 30th or worse.

But it’s Earnhardt’s overall record that drove Harvick’s comments about the health of the sport.

“It’s a funny situation when you talk about his last year and what you thought it would be,” Harvick said. “It’s the strangest situation that we have. In my opinion, this is where I think some of the growth in our sport has not reached the levels that it should’ve because our most popular driver hasn’t been our most successful driver. Dale Earnhardt Jr. has won the most popular driver (award) for however many years (14) in a row … But he hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver.”

Earnhardt’s reign as NASCAR’s most popular driver began in 2003, a season after Bill Elliott won the award for the 16th and final time. In Earnhardt’s Cup career, he has 26 wins and no championships. Since joining Hendrick Motorsports in 2008, he has nine wins but none since 2015.

Harvick believes the popularity of an athlete should be directly tied to their success, citing LeBron James and Steph Curry in the NBA and Peyton Manning in the NFL. Harvick said it is “confusing” how that doesn’t seem to matter in NASCAR.

“(Earnhardt) hasn’t been anywhere close to being our most successful driver,” Harvick said. “For me I believe Dale Jr. has had a big part in stunting the growth of NASCAR because he’s got these legions of fans, this huge outreach of being able to reach these places none of us have the possibility to reach. But he’s won nine races in 10 years at Hendrick Motorsports and hasn’t been able to reach outside of that. I know those aren’t the most popular comments but those are real life facts that you look up and see on the stat sheet.”

The Stewart-Haas Racing driver said Jimmie Johnson, Earnhardt’s teammate who has won seven championships, should be the most popular driver.

“It’s really confusing to me,” Harvick said. “In my opinion Jimmie Johnson should be our most popular guy because he’s won seven championships. You look at the souvenir sheet every week and he’s (ranked) three, four, five coming off a championship year of what he sells in souvenirs. That part to me is a little bit confusing.”

While Harvick said Earnhardt “deserves that fanfare” he is receiving in his final Cup season, he followed that up by saying: “Imagine how popular he would be if he had won two or three championships?

“His dad was popular because he became Dale Earnhardt because of the fact he won seven championships and he was out there grinding every week. That hasn’t happened.”

Dale Earnhardt Sr. only won Most Popular Driver once, in 2001 after he was killed on the final lap of the Daytona 500.

Elliott’s 16 Most Popular Awards came despite only one championship but 44 wins in his Cup career. Only four of those wins came in his last nine seasons as a full-time driver.

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Keep track of busy Silly Season with this scorecard (video)

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William Byron will move up to Cup next year for Hendrick Motorsports, filling a void left by the departure of Kasey Kahne.

With the news last week that Stewart-Haas Racing had declined to pick up the option for next year for Kurt Busch, it leaves the reigning Daytona 500 winner (Busch) and Brickyard 400 winner (Kahne) without an announced ride for next season.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands as the Cup series heads to Michigan International Speedway this weekend.

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 No. 12 car and signs multi-year contract extension (announcement made July 26)

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

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

OPEN/POSSIBLY OPEN RIDES

— No. 10: Sponsorship has yet to be announced for next season, and Danica Patrick could be out. Patrick told USA Today on Aug. 5 that there’s “no buyout needed. I don’t have a sponsor. It’s contingent on the sponsor.’’  

— No. 27: Richard Childress Racing states it will announce its 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. 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 for next year at this point. Key could be what kind of salary he’s willing to take next year. On his future, Kenseth said last weekend at Watkins Glen: “Believe it or not, it’s really not at the front of my mind.’’  

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 chance Busch could sign a new 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 through an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. 

Danica Patrick: Sponsorship uncertainty leaves her status murky for next year.

Aric Almirola: Hasn’t been announced yet as returning to Richard Petty Motorsports next season. He’s tied closely to sponsor Smithfield, which also is in its final year with the team, but Richard Petty has said he’s confident Smithfield will return.

Chris Buescher: He said previously he plans to be back at JTG Daugherty with Roush Fenway Racing expecting to remain a two-car team with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Trevor Bayne. That leaves no room there for Buescher, who was loaned to JTG this season. No deal is in place yet. “We are working on next year, trying to get everything in place,’’ Buescher said last month at Indianapolis. “We should have more information in the next couple of months.’’

GMS Racing/Spencer Gallagher: This could be one of the wildcards. This Xfinity team is exploring a move to Cup if it makes financial sense. Some in the garage believe this team will move and could be a two-car team with Spencer Gallagher and a veteran driver. GMS already has an engine deal in the Xfinity Series with Hendrick Motorsports but would need to upgrade that for a Cup effort and possibly add a technical alliance (it has one with JR Motorsports). It also would need to get at least one charter, if not two.

Darrell Wallace Jr.He continues to look for an opportunity after his Xfinity ride with Roush Fenway Racing went away in June because of lack of sponsorship and Aric Almirola returned to the No. 43 earlier this month from injury after Wallace filled in for a few races. Wallace showed well in Almirola’s ride. Key is to find sponsorship. 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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