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Cup qualifying headed to Saturday on more consistent basis in future?

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After two consecutive weekends of Cup teams qualifying shortly before they raced, are fans likely to see more of that next year?

Cup teams qualified on Saturday after the Xfinity race last month at Indianapolis. Cup teams qualified a few hours before they raced the past two weekends at Pocono and Watkins Glen.

The experiment is part of NASCAR shortening the weekend schedule. NASCAR has added a fan fest to compensate for one less day of track activity for the Cup Series. That could become more common next year.

“I think the key for us is to really create some fun activities for the fans with more driver access on Fridays if we can,’’ Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday.

“Tend to like the qualifying, if we’re going to move it, on Saturday. I think that is a really good experience for fans in terms of having that support race and being able to see the Monster Energy Series drivers qualify. So we’ll probably continue to look that way. The biggest thing for us is to creating those unique, fun fan experiences around the drivers and open up the access as much as we can.’’

Cup teams will qualify and race on the same day once more this year — at Martinsville in the playoffs. This weekend, Cup teams will qualify on Friday at Michigan and race on Sunday, the typical weekend schedule.

O’Donnell told “The Morning Drive” that there have been some questions raised by competitors about qualifying and racing on the same day.

“I think some of the feedback from some folks in the garage is that still is really tough to qualify, get ready for the race,’’ he said. “Folks like it, but I also think Saturday also gives you the opportunity maybe to plan a little bit more on race prep that you need for the car. It will be a balance as we look at both of those to see what is the best solution going forward for the teams.’’

Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday that he’s glad to go back to a schedule where qualifying and the race won’t be on the same day this weekend.

Gordon noted the “anxiety” in how much preparation has to be done to the backup car in case a driver crashes in qualifying.

“If you were to wreck in qualifying, you had two hours to get a car back together ready to race,’’ he said.

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Chase for playoff points looms larger with five races left in regular season

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As Kyle Busch and his team found so many ways to lose races, it wasn’t the lack of victories that proved worrisome but the loss of playoff points.

“It was a huge concern,’’ crew chief Adam Stevens said.

It’s not a stretch to believe Busch could have eight victories at this moment, giving him at least 40 playoff points and a path through part of the playoffs — if not all the way to the championship race in Miami.

Instead, he scored his first Cup win of the year Sunday at Pocono Raceway. He has 13 playoff points, trailing Martin Truex Jr. (29 playoff points) and Jimmie Johnson (16).

All those lost opportunities for Busch could impact the playoffs. Each stage victory is worth one playoff point. Each race win is worth five playoff points. Those points carry through the first three rounds as long as the driver remains in contention for the championship.

“I don’t think any of us truly understand how important (playoff points) are,’’ seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson said.

They’ll begin to find out when the playoffs open Sept. 17 at Chicagoland Speedway.

Stage racing and playoff points have created extra layers in the races this season. Those changes have forced crew chiefs to plot differing strategies and drivers to be more aggressive. It was evident at Pocono. 

Martin Truex Jr. pitted from the lead Sunday shortly before the end of the second stage. He and crew chief Cole Pearn were going for the race win instead of the stage victory. Many followed. Clint Bowyer stayed out to win the stage and collect the one playoff point and 10 bonus points. Bowyer, who is not in a playoff spot, needs all those bonus points.

While teams created models on what it might take to advance in the playoffs, no one knows for sure. It’s reminiscence of 2004 when NASCAR changed the way the championship was decided by implementing the 10-race Chase instead of having the title determined over the entire season. There were many theories of how to run the final 10 races but no one knew what strategy would work.

Drivers and teams that have lost races worry how their missed opportunities this season might impact their title hopes.

Brad Keselowski was the leader for the final restart at Indianapolis last month. He lost the race — and five playoff points — to Kasey Kahne. Could those points be the difference in Keselowski advancing another round in the playoffs?

He rues missed chances for more playoff points this season.

“I wouldn’t say that it was just Indy that I felt that way,’’ Keselowski said. “I felt that way at Richmond and Vegas where we finished second, had a shot of winning, were leading and it fell apart at the end.

“There’s other races where we won. Atlanta, Kevin (Harvick) was probably the best car there. Sometimes you win when you shouldn’t have and sometimes you don’t win where you probably should have. You hope to be on the better side of that. Steal more than you have stolen. Never feels like you are. That’s the bigger picture look that I have at.’’

Another key will be the bonus points the top 10 teams in points receive after the regular season ends next month. Barring a collapse or severe penalty, Truex is on pace to win the regular-season title and collect 15 playoff points. He has 29 playoff points and the regular-season title bonus would put him at 44 — and five races remain for him to score more playoff points.

To put those 44 points into context, when the playoffs start, every driver contending for the title will have their point total reset to 2,000 and have their playoff points added. It’s possible that Truex will lead some drivers by more than 40 points before the opening round begins.

That likely will help him advance to the second round (if he doesn’t win a race in the first round). He would then carry all those bonus points with him after the point totals are reset to 3,000 for the remaining title contenders. Truex still could have a big enough cushion over some title hopefuls that he could advance to the third round even if he struggles some in those three races.

While Truex appears to be in a good spot, these next five races could be critical to Kyle Larson.

He was leading the points after Daytona last month but a 35-point penalty and four finishes outside the top 25 in the last six races has dropped him to second in the season standings with Harvick and Busch closing. Should both pass Larson and he finishes the regular season fourth, he will have lost eight playoff points by fading from first (15 playoff points) to fourth (seven).

Those eight points could be significant in the playoffs.

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Eight Cup teams to lose practice time at Pocono

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Points leader Martin Truex Jr. will lose 45 minutes of the combined 1 hour, 45 minutes of practice time Cup teams have Saturday at Pocono Raceway.

His team is among eight that will lose practice time because of inspection issues last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Truex will miss 15 minutes in the opening practice for being late to inspection before last weekend’s race . He also will miss 30 minutes of the 50-minute final practice session for failing inspection before the race at Indy three times.

Truex’s teammate, rookie Erik Jones, will miss 15 minutes of the final practice for failing pre-race inspection twice at Indy.

Rookie Daniel Suarez will miss a combined 30 minutes of practice Saturday. He’ll miss 15 minutes in the opening practice for being late to pre-race inspection at Indy. He’ll miss 15 minutes of the final practice for failing pre-race inspection twice at Indianapolis.

Also missing 15 minutes of practice in Saturday’s opening session for being late to inspection at Indy are: Clint Bowyer, Corey LaJoie, Landon Cassill, Cole Whitt and Michael McDowell.

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Kyle Larson says he ‘wasn’t happy’ with Jimmie Johnson’s block at Indy

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LONG POND, Pa. — Kyle Larson‘s duels with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson are growing more intense as the playoffs loom.

That was clear last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway when Larson went to pass Johnson and Johnson blocked him nearly down to the grass on the backstretch.

After the block, Larson said on his team’s radio: “He hates us. Forty-eight can’t handle it.”

“I wasn’t happy with the block,’’ Larson said Friday night at Pocono Raceway. “Everybody blocks, I guess, at Indy. I didn’t mean to move him either into (Turn) 3. I was just glued to his bumper so I couldn’t really see when we were getting into the corner. I don’t mind blocking, but when you’re going that fast and (they) run you all the way to the grass or all they way to the inside wall, I think there is a line for that type of stuff.’’

The battles between Larson and Johnson are one of the fascinating subplots this season, a duel of young and old, champion and the driver viewed as the heir apparent. They raced for the win at Dover. Johnson beat Larson on a late restart to win there earlier this season. 

Run together enough and there will be little incidents that can grow.

Johnson let his feelings be known after the All-Star Race when Larson passed him on the final lap for second place.

“Yeah, I slid Jimmie into (Turn) 3 there on the last lap,’’ Larson said that night. “He was a little upset with me after the race.’’

Johnson stuck a hand out the his window toward Larson after the race.

Larson admitted Friday that last lap was a bit of a flash point,

“I would say that was, in his eyes, when it got serious,’’ Larson said.

Larson also notes another incident they had earlier in the year.

“We were battling at the end of a stage at Martinsville and he blocked me into (Turn) 1 and made contact and then was running into the back of me under yellow,’’ Larson said. “It’s been kind of all season. It’s been little stuff. Nothing serious. We just race hard with each other and it’s competitive and fun and frustrating at time.’’

So where do they stand heading into Sunday’s race at Pocono Raceway?

“We’ve been racing hard,’’ Larson said. “I think I’ve done some things, or in his eyes, I’ve done some things that he doesn’t like, and I think it goes vice versa a little bit. It’s a fun little battle, for sure, to be able to battle Seven-Time like that. I think it’s fun. I don’t think he thinks it’s fun.’’

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Martin Truex Jr. says suspension of tire changers is ‘a big impact’ to his team

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LONG POND, Pa. — Points leader Martin Truex Jr. says he’s hopeful that a crash with Kyle Busch and an incident between their teams don’t tarnish the relationship Furniture Row Racing has with Joe Gibbs Racing.

“It’s a tough situation for us to be in,’’ Truex said Friday night at Pocono Raceway. “There’s no doubt about that. I’m obviously not happy with how it all went down. I’m disappointed that I made a mistake and it kind of got us in this position. It is what it is. We’ll deal with it the best we can.’’

Furniture Row Racing is aligned with JGR and receives equipment and personnel as part of that deal. Furniture Row Racing’s pit crew members are Joe Gibbs Racing employees.

After Truex and Busch wrecked while racing for the lead last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Furniture Row Racing tire changers Chris Taylor and Lee Cunningham each had a confrontation with Busch’s crew chief, Adam Stevens, in Furniture Row Racing’s pit box.

“Obviously you never want to see guys get in a confrontation,’’ Truex said. “I think it shows their passion for what they’re doing. It shows their passion for our team. Honestly, I didn’t see the incident. I literally left the race track and haven’t looked at anything all week. Just proud of our guys and we’ll get through it.’’

Joe Gibbs Racing announced this week that it was suspending Taylor and Cunningham three races each for their actions. Stevens was not punished.

“It’s a big impact when they’re two of the best out there,’’ Truex said of losing Taylor and Cunningham for races at Pocono, Watkins Glen and Michigan. “Our pit crew has been amazing this  year, putting us in position to win multiple races. Not making mistakes. Those two guys are unbelievable at what they do. We’re obviously at a disadvantage without them.’’

That’s led some to question JGR suspending the two pit crew members — instead of issuing some sort of internal penalty — since the action could hinder Truex. That, some argue, could help JGR as the playoffs loom.

Truex sought to downplay any rift between the teams.

“We’ve been working together for a year and a half plus and things have gone really well,’’ Truex said. “This is just a little bump in the road. Lot of good people involved, lot of smart people. We’ll get it all figured out. It’s not a big deal.’’

Truex also said he and Busch talked Monday. Both restarted on the front row. Previously, they had worked together to get into Turn 1 safely. With about 50 laps left, Busch and his team decided it was time to race. Truex was on the inside and got loose in Turn 1. He slid up and hit Busch. Both hit the SAFER barrier, ending their race.

“Things are fine,’’ Truex said of he and Busch. “It’s a racing deal. We raced really hard. We’ve restarted next to each other on the front row 15-plus times this year probably and never had an issue. It’s just one of those deals. We were both racing hard. We were both wanting to win that race. I made a mistake. I think he understands. We’ll get through it.’’

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