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Long: Kyle Larson’s playoff exit significant to title contenders

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Lost among questions about rules, confusion on pit road and chaos on the track Sunday was just how significant Kyle Larson’s departure from the playoff is.

The owner of four wins this season, Larson was one of the few drivers who typically could race with Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch on the 1.5-mile tracks and some even considered Larson the championship favorite if he made it to Miami.

“I think Kyle Larson was going to be the car to beat, and still will be the car to beat at Homestead,’’ said Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch. “Now that he’s not in the (playoff) mix anymore, it probably opens it up for the rest of us.’’

Said Kevin Harvick: “I think you eliminated the best car at Homestead. That’s a big deal. For everybody.’’

Larson entered Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway with a 29-point cushion before his title hopes ended when his engine blew with nearly 200 laps left. He finished 39th.

“It’s crazy,’’ Cole Pearn, crew chief for Martin Truex Jr., said of Larson’s playoff exit. “You can’t ever be safe, for sure.’’

Sunday marked the first time since 2013 that Larson failed to finish a race because of an engine failure. His first two career Cup races ended early because of engine issues that season.

Larson’s departure was as shocking as Busch’s exit in 2014 when he entered the elimination race at Talladega second in the standings with a 25-point cushion to advance to the next round.

Now a spot many presumed would be taken by Larson is open for someone else.

WORK REMAINS

Jimmie Johnson overcame two spins to finish 11th and advance to the Round of 8, moving a step closer to an eighth championship.

Crew chief Chad Knaus, though, wasn’t pleased after Sunday’s race.

On the radio afterward, Knaus said: “That was a pitiful performance.’’

Knaus had more to say after the race, telling NBC Sports:

“We ran like (expletive deleted). It was a bad weekend. We managed to capitalize on some other people’s misfortune, which was great for us. We’ve got some work to do. I don’t know what’s going on. We definitely don’t have the speed that we need.

“Good news is we’ve got three really good race tracks coming up for us, at least historically. Very optimistic heading into Martinsville and going to Homestead this week to test, so hopefully we can hit on some stuff there to take to Texas. We obviously have run well there in the past. Phoenix has been a really good race track for us as well. We’ve got three great opportunities. Just got to do the best.’’

Knaus is right to be concerned. The second round was mistake-riddled for the team.

The pit crew failed to tighten all the lug nuts late in the race at Charlotte, forcing Johnson to back up partially into his stall to remedy the issue, costing him time and positions.

An error by the team’s spotter led to the crew working on Johnson’s damaged car before the red flag period had ended, leading to the team being parked. The team had hoped to run one more lap after being collected in a crash to gain at least one more point.

Then came Kansas’ woes with the lack of speed, an ill-handling car and a seven-time champion causing back-to-back cautions.

“It’s no real surprise that mile-and-a-halves have been a little bit of a struggle for us this year,’’ Johnson said. “We’re putting in the effort. These guys are working around the clock. I’m looking under every stone I can to try to find something as well. We just don’t have the speed yet.

“We’ve got a real opportunity at Martinsville. If we’re able to win there … it sets us up for Homestead.’’

COMMUNICATION WOES

The communication issues Matt Kenseth’s team had Sunday wasn’t the first time for that team and crew chief Jason Ratcliff in the playoffs.

In the penultimate race of the 2013 season, Kenseth struggled all weekend and then had a disastrous pit stop when there was confusion on if the team would change two or four tires. After the call was made for four tires, Kenseth had to back up because the car was on the air hose.

The result was a 23rd-place finish that left Kenseth so far behind Johnson needed only to finish 23rd or better in Miami to win the title. Ratcliff apologized to his crew on the radio after the race for the effort.

Sunday’s scenario was different but communication again proved key and a miscue will keep the team from having a chance to race for a title.

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ Ratcliff said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully, we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.’’

So what happened?

“Two of them were holding tires (over the wall),’’ Ratcliff said of crew members. “We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically, it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

When Kenseth was told on the radio that he was being parked for having too many crew members work on his car while under the five-minute clock for crash damage, the former champion sounded incredulous that his — last? — chance to win a title ended in such a way.

With no plans announced for next year, there’s no guarantee Kenseth will be racing for a championship again. Now the goal becomes a win.

“We’ve had some great runs at Martinsville and there would be nothing greater than going there and finally getting that win with Matt,’’ Ratcliff said. “That would be special. Would it make up for not having a shot at Homestead? No, but it would be sweet to have that happen with just a few races to go in the season.’’

PIT STOPS

The final eight Cup playoff contenders include four former champions — Jimmie Johnson, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick. There has been a first-time champion in three of the last five years, which could be a good sign for playoff drivers Denny Hamlin, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney and Martin Truex Jr. … With winning the pole at Kansas, Truex Jr.’s team earned the first pick of pit stalls also at Martinsville this weekend because qualifying is on the same day as the race there.

Stewart-Haas Racing to partner with Biagi-DenBeste Racing in Xfinity Series in 2018

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Stewart-Haas Racing will partner with Biagi-DenBeste Racing in the Xfinity Series beginning with the 2018 season, the team announced Monday.

The Xfinity team will be called Stewart-Haas Racing with Biagi-DenBeste.

The team will field the No. 00 for Cole Custer with sponsorship from Haas Automation. SHR’s No. 41 car, which ran a partial schedule this year, will become the No. 98. Kevin Harvick will drive a part-time schedule in that car with sponsorship from Hunt Brothers Pizza and FIELDS.

“We’re always looking to improve our performance and find ways to make our teams more efficient,” said Tony Stewart, who co-owns Stewart-Haas Racing with Haas Automation founder Gene Haas, in a statement. “While we’ve been in NASCAR for nine years, this was our first year in the Xfinity Series. Partnering with Biagi-DenBeste Racing gives our Xfinity Series program added depth as we prepare for next season.”

Biagi-DenBeste, which first competed in the series in 2001, has three Xfintiy wins. Aric Almirola won for the team at Talladega in May.

“Racing is our passion and to ensure our presence in this sport for years to come, it made sense to partner with an established team that also fields entries in the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup Series,” said Fred Biagi, co-owner of Biagi-DenBeste Racing with Bill and Lori DenBeste, in a statement. “We look forward to competing for wins and defending our victory at Talladega.”

NASCAR explains why only Martin Truex Jr. was penalized on restart

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — A NASCAR executive said that series officials clarified a rule on starts and restarts after drivers came to them with concerns before Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

The result was Richard Buck, managing director of the Cup Series, telling competitors in the drivers meeting: “A reminder to stay in your lane until you cross the start-finish line. The front row establishes the lanes and the inside lane must be established above the inside painted line.’’

Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn admitted they missed the directions in the meeting. Truex was penalized on a restart when he went below the white line. Kevin Harvick followed Truex below the white line but was not penalized.

Steve O’Donnell, executive vice president and chief racing development officer for NASCAR, explained the rule Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio and why Truex was penalized and Harvick wasn’t.

“We had some discussions early on with some of the competitors on Sunday morning about the fact that not necessarily just the inside lane, but if the inside car dropped below the white line it would force, potentially, the outside row or one of the drivers in the outside row to change lanes and the fear of being penalized,’’ O’Donnell said.

“We were asked to see if we could clarify that. That was why the language was put in place in the drivers meeting. Clearly communicated by Richard (Buck) to stay above the while line. It was really the first row of drivers that set that line so anyone who is following them was going to be put in a tough position because they had to stay in line, so that was why the penalty was called on (Truex) and not the drivers that dropped below behind (Truex).’’

Harvick, who said he didn’t realize he went below the white line following Truex on the restart, said Buck’s order stood out to him.

“I’ve been to a lot of drivers meetings, and I listen and watch it every week, and when you hear something different, it sticks out like a sore thumb,’’ Harvick said. “When I heard them say that you have to establish a lane above the white line, that was new to me. Usually it’s you can’t beat the leader on the original start and all the normal stuff. That was different. I’ve never heard that before.’’

O’Donnell also addressed the penalty that ended Matt Kenseth’s race.

After suffering crash damage, Kenseth was on the five-minute clock for repairs. Section 10.9.9.h of the Cup Rule Book states: “In addition to the five-minute time limit described above, six or fewer crew members are permitted in the vehicle’s assigned pit box for repairs to a damaged vehicle. An additional person (i.e. seventh crew member) is only permitted to service the driver and clean the windshield. If a vehicle exceeds the crew member limit, the vehicle will not be scored or permitted to return to the Race.’’

O’Donnell explained on “The Morning Drive” the situation with Kenseth’s team.

“It’s one of those that obviously we hate to have to make that call, but it is an established rule,’’ O’Donnell said. “It’s one that we worked with all the race teams at the beginning of the year to put in place. The reason for it was if we didn’t put some parameters around it, I think the industry collectively knew you would have potentially 30 or 40 people over the wall, especially around a championship scenario where a car had to get back in. That was the situation we wanted to avoid and why the rule was put in place. In this case, we try to give everybody the benefit of the doubt. It was unfortunate that seven were identified working on the car and that’s an automatic end of the race for a driver unfortunately.’’

Jason Ratcliff, Kenseth’s crew chief, stated what happened:

“That’s one thing about that pit stall (closest to pit entrance), makes it difficult,’’ he said. “You get to pit road really quick. You have a little less time to communicate. Thankfully we don’t fall under the damaged vehicle policy that much. Other than last week at Talladega we did. We missed a head count there.

“Two of (the crew members) were holding tires (but were over the wall). We have a gameplan. We have a gameplan that has worked really good for us all year and … I don’t know if someone missed the call there or I didn’t communicate properly. Typically it boils down to communication and that’s what happened there.’’

But Ratcliff said it might be time to look at changing the penalty on that rule.

“It’s a shame that that’s a rule that takes competitors out of an opportunity for a championship,’’ he said Sunday. “I think it’s one rule that needed to be implemented this year as far as damage vehicle policy, but I think it really needs some restructuring and some work now that its been in place. I don’t think it’s doing what they intended it for it to do. I think today is a perfect example of that.’’

Will NASCAR possibly change this rule for next season?

“We always look after the end of the season, we look at what happened and different rules,’’ O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “In this case, Scott Miller (senior vice president of competition), I think, personally had conversations with all the teams that were still a part of the championship again reminding everyone every race that this is part of it and don’t put yourself in that position. We get the frustration. You wouldn’t be a competitor if you weren’t frustrated in this situation.

“Certainly something we can look at, but I think it was a rule that was established by the industry so we look at that collectively.’’

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Ryan Blaney advances in playoffs after best result in four months

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Ryan Blaney‘s day started with his No. 21 Ford in last and uncertainty surrounding his chances of advancing in the Cup playoffs.

Blaney started 40th after his car failed post-inspection qualifying Friday.

The day ended with the Wood Brothers Racing driver earning his first top five since June and securing a spot in the Round of 8.

Blaney placed third, his best result since winning at Pocono Raceway on June 11.

“We had a good car right off the bat,” Blaney told NBCSN. “We weren’t the great at the end before the competition caution (on Lap 30).”

Blaney went from 40th to 17th by the time the competition caution waved. Following another caution on Lap 48, Blaney kept his car on track and only fell to fourth by the end of the first 80-lap stage. He placed eighth in the second stage.

“Then there was a mixup with some strategy stuff and pit calls and it felt like we were kind of at the back part of that but we were able to recover and miss that (14-car) wreck (on Lap 198) which was big for us,” Blaney said. “We ran strong enough all day that we should have been in with where we ran. I am really proud of my team for the effort and we will move on to the next round and Martinsville.”

Blaney’s result is also just his third top 10 in the last eight races. The result keeps hope alive for the Wood Brothers, who are seeking their first Cup championship since winning the 1963 owners title.

He heads to Martinsville Speedway seeded seventh in the eight-driver field with 4,009 points.

Long: Tears turn to cheers for Furniture Row Racing

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — Among his final acts alive, James “Jim” Watson texted his wife Saturday night and told her what a great time he was having with his Furniture Row Racing teammates at a local go-kart track.

Soon after, the 55-year-old father suffered a fatal heart attack.

“I take a little bit of solace in that he was happy in his last moments,’’ said a misty-eyed Cole Pearn after Martin Truex Jr. rallied to win Sunday’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway.

Pearn was on the way to the hospital Saturday night when he was told Watson died. The team later gathered at their hotel to grieve.

“We just all looked at each other and shed some tears and some hugs,’’ Pearn told NBC Sports.

No Cup team has faced so much personal adversity in such a public way this year as Furniture Row Racing. Its greatest season on the track has been offset by tragedy and tribulation.

Truex’s longtime girlfriend, Sherry Pollex, had surgery in July for a recurrence of cancer. She was diagnosed with ovarian cancer in August 2014 and announced she was cancer-free in January 2016. Her ovarian cancer returned this summer. Truex won at Kentucky Speedway and brought her home from the hospital the next day. Her chemo treatments continue.

After the Kentucky race, Pearn’s closest childhood friend suddenly died after he caught a bacterial infection from a cut. Truex won that weekend at Watkins Glen to cap what Pearn called then “the hardest week of my life.’’

After Truex won at Charlotte two weeks ago, Pearn said “my wife and I put our dog down … that we’ve had for 13 years.

“It’s just like, man, I don’t know if regular life is supposed to be like this.’’

Then came Saturday night.

Watson had been with the team since February, joining as a fabricator, who worked on both the cars of Truex and Erik Jones. Watson was a longtime racer from Wisconsin.

“James was a friend to everybody,’’ said Joe Garone, president of Furniture Row Racing. “It’s hard to talk about.’’

Truex said both teams helped each other work through the pain while preparing for the race Sunday morning. Truex’s seventh victory of the season continued his dominance and is the most wins by a Cup driver in a season since Matt Kenseth won seven races in 2013.

Pearn called it “kind of overwhelming” to see Truex cross under the checkered flag ahead of the field less than 24 hours after Watson’s death. 

“I was doing OK and then I started seeing the faces on other guys,’’ Pearn told NBC Sports. “It just hits you like a ton of bricks.’’

When Truex won in the past, it had just been the No. 78 crew that gathered in Victory Lane. Sunday, the No. 77 crew also joined Truex’s team to celebrate a win and a life.

“Chris (Gayle) and I came to it … that if either one of us were fortunate enough to win, we’d both go to Victory Lane because Jim worked on both of our cars and was a part of both of our teams,’’ Pearn said of the crew chief for the No. 77 team.

It proved a fitting honor for Watson.

“He always wanted when we won to celebrate as a group,’’ Pearn said. “I just couldn’t think of any better way to pay tribute to him and know that he would have been happy with that call.’’

Tough night but the result was some solace we all needed. So proud of the team. For you Wildman RIP

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