Dustin Long

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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?

Staff picks for tonight’s Cup race at Bristol

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win tonight’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Matt Kenseth. If it is the last time, he goes out in style.

Dustin Long

Kyle Busch. Get the brooms out.

Daniel McFadin

Kyle Larson picks up win No. 4 on the season with his first Cup victory at track shorter than two miles.

Jerry Bonkowski

Joey Logano survives the typical Bristol mayhem to win and roll into the playoffs (provided this win isn’t encumbered like Richmond was).

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.

Staff picks for today’s Cup race at Michigan

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Here’s a look at who the NBC Sports staff is picking to win today’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway.

Nate Ryan

Martin Truex Jr. He had the best car in June before circumstances intervened. They won’t this time.

Dustin Long

Kyle Larson. He makes it three in a row at Michigan.

Daniel McFadin

Michigan has served as a safe harbor for Dale Earnhardt Jr. during career low points before. The 2-mile track does so again today.

Jerry Bonkowski

Joey Logano. He gets his old Michigan mojo (2 wins, 5 top-5 and 12 top-10 in 17 starts) back — and makes the playoffs as a bonus.

Bump & Run: Is moving William Byron to Cup next year the right move?

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What do you think of William Byron’s move to Cup for 2018?

Dale Jarrett: I used to think that drivers needed more experience, a few years running in the Xfinity Series before they got into Cup because you kind of needed time to prove yourself there. A number of these young drivers, and William Byron being one of these, got an opportunity in a really good car right from the very beginning of his Xfinity career. He’s proven that he can race and win against the best out there, so why not? I would generally say that you need to stay there until you learn to win, and he already knows how to win against these guys. Go on and move. I’m all for it. Not that many are on that quick of pace to get there, but he’s certainly done it.

Kyle Petty: I think William Byron’s move to the Cup series is spot on! He’s won in every division he’s raced in, and not only won but contended each week. Why stay in a series if your ultimate goal is to race and win in Cup? My dad always said you learn habits racing in other divisions that don’t translate into the Cup series. His progress may take time, but ultimately the move now will pay off in wins and championships I believe.

Nate Ryan: Despite the comparisons to Joey Logano’s rookie season washout, Hendrick Motorsports is doing the right thing. If you think Byron is destined to win in Cup – and his performance in the Truck and Xfinity series the past two seasons certainly supports that belief – there is no point to delaying his promotion.

For every instance such as Logano’s (which really doesn’t apply because he unfairly was thrust into the untenable situation of replacing a champion with a high-profile sponsor and veteran team), there are several more that cast doubt on the importance of extra seasoning in the Xfinity Series.

Did staying an extra year in Xfinity after winning the championship as a rookie do much for Chase Elliott? Has Erik Jones suffered from only one full-time season? Did Xfinity experience mean anything to Ryan Newman, Jimmie Johnson or Kasey Kahne?

With two teammates in his age range and another who is a willing mentor (and a seven-time series champion), Byron will be nurtured at the correct pace for realizing his abundant talent.

Dustin Long: Byron’s overall experience can make one nervous, but he’s excelled in his limited time driving Trucks and in the Xfinity Series. He’s good enough that he made it worthwhile for Hendrick Motorsports to take Kasey Kahne out of the No. 5 car. It also doesn’t hurt that his salary likely will be a fraction what it is for a veteran driver such as Kahne. It’s understandable why Hendrick is making the move.

Considering how dominant Toyota has been lately, which would you take this weekend at Michigan – The field or Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott (who have two wins and three runner-up finishes in the last three Michigan races)?

Dale Jarrett: The field. I think things have changed. Both of those young guys have been outstanding there and proven to be the ones to beat. I just believe that the Toyotas have come too far. This might not be the type of track to where their engine combination shows up at its very best. I think it’s better whenever the RPMs get down a little bit lower, but I still think that they’ve just made such a huge gain with everything they’ve done. I think it’s the rest of the field, the Chevrolets and the Fords, trying to catch the Toyotas this weekend.

Kyle Petty: The field. I know Kyle can win. Chase has been close, and we all believe he can win. But Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. have shown in the last four weeks at different tracks that they can dominate! If they’re in the field, I’ll take them every time! 

Nate Ryan: The field. Even though Toyota has only one win in the past 11 races at Michigan, it feels as if Larson and Elliott are underdogs to the speed of Joe Gibbs Racing and Furniture Row Racing. Unless it comes down to fuel mileage or off-sequence strategies, it’s tough to envision a Chevy winning at Michigan.

Dustin Long: I’ll take Larson and Elliott. Yes, Toyotas have dominated lately but Michigan hasn’t been a track that has been great to them. Plus, Toyota’s run hasn’t to end sometime. Doesn’t it?

Where do you place the Kyle Busch-Brad Keselowski rivalry in the sport’s history?

Dale Jarrett: It’s turned into a nice little rivalry. It’s got a ways to go to get back to things that happened in the older days and a few others in the modern times. It’s certainly in there in the top 10. It’s entertaining to watch and listen to. I think if it happened on a little more regular basis, and that’s hard to come. Rivalries generally come when the two drivers are really competing for wins on a regular basis. The other day they weren’t even competing for the win at that time. I think it’s only going to continue to get better for us. At this point in time, it will be just inside the top 10 with the possibility with the two of them continuing that we could see this be full fledge and a lot of fun to cover.

Kyle Petty: The BK/KB rivalry in still in its early stages. I’ll have to wait and see how it grows. Right now for me it’s just a footnote on a few seasons.

Nate Ryan: It’s among the more fascinating in recent memory because of their endless parallels (ages, fatherhood and truck team ownership), but it remains a few notches below Petty-Pearson or Allison-Waltrip. All the elements seem to be there, though, for future conflicts (though it would help if Keselowski’s cars were faster).

Dustin Long: It’s got a ways to go to match Petty-Pearson but for this era — where competition is more balance, making it difficult for the same two drivers to race for the win week after week — this is one of the better ones. I’d say it’s probably the best rivalry since 2000.

Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty join Krista Voda from the NASCAR Hall of Fame for today’s NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET. Joey Logano is today’s guest.