Round of 12

Ryan Blaney returns to Kansas where win slipped away in May

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Ryan Blaney got into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs thanks to his first career win at Pocono Raceway in June.

But Blaney nearly got to victory lane three races earlier at Kansas Speedway in May.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver earned his first pole, won Stage 2 and led 83 laps in the Go Bowling! 400. But the No. 21 Ford was passed by Martin Truex Jr. with 19 laps to go and Blaney slipped back to fourth before the checkered flag.

Now the Wood Brothers crew returns to Kansas for this weekend’s Hollywood Casino 400, the elimination race for the Round of 12.

Blaney is currently inside the top eight that would advance to the next round, but he’s not safe. He is seventh in the standings, nine points above Kyle Busch in ninth place. Jimmie Johnson sits in the final transfer spot, seven points up from Busch.

Blaney comes into Sunday’s race after he earned 18 stage points at Talladega and one playoff point for winning Stage 2. But Blaney’s Sunday ended when he was involved in a five-car wreck with 10 laps to go.

“We saw how important stage points are last week at Talladega, and it’ll be the same this week at Kansas,” team co-owner Eddie Wood said in a press release. “The 18 points Ryan earned in the first two stages at Talladega allowed us to move up four spots in the standings even after wrecking out of the race.”

Blaney will be battling with the bubble drivers of Johnson, Kyle Busch and Matt Kenseth to advance at Kansas.

To advance, Blaney needs to either win the race or earn 54 points in the race according to Racing Insights. That competition for those points begins on Friday when teams qualify.

“The weekend starts for sure on Friday, of trying to qualify up front and staying up front for the first stage or second stage and trying to get those points,” Blaney said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint.” “They’re so valuable to your weekend and your playoff run. I don’t want to say it’s all about it. But they’re a really, really big part of the race on Sunday.”

Though Blaney trails the other four bubble drivers in regards to stage points earned through all five playoff races so far, he has the advantage when it comes to stage points earned in the Round of 12.

Blaney has earned 20 to Johnson’s 14, Kenseth’s 12 and Busch’s eight.

Blaney has an average of 7.1 stage points per race at 1.5-mile track this season. That trails Kenseth’s 7.3 and Busch’s 10.

A glaring disadvantage for Blaney is in playoff points. When he won Stage 2 at Talladega, Blaney garnered his ninth playoff point of the season.

That gives him the fourth fewest among the 12 remaining playoff drivers. The only drivers with fewer are Chase Elliott (six), Kenseth (five) and Jamie McMurray (three).

Blaney has made five starts at Kansas, including his first Cup start in 2014. With three top-10 finishes among them, his average finish is 11.4.

Blaney’s average finish on 1.5-mile tracks this season is 11.8. Of the four main bubble drivers, that is only bested by Kenseth’s average (10.1).

When it comes to points earned per race at 1.5-mile tracks, Blaney (32.4) is topped by Busch (33.4) and Kenseth (34.1).

Long: Dominant trio could put pressure on playoff drivers to advance to Miami (video)

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While this weekend’s focus turns to those seeking to advance to the Round of 12, the question could be if the field is actually racing for one spot in the championship race in Miami?

Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson have dominated this season and clinched spots into the next round, moving them one step closer to a potential championship showdown.

While the past doesn’t guarantee the future, the performance of Truex, Busch and Larson this year makes it easy to envision all three advancing to Miami.

Consider their achievements:

  • They’ve won 42.9 percent of the races (12 of 28), a total that could have been higher had Busch and Truex not had issues in some races they were strong and Larson won some of the eight races he’s placed runner-up.
  • They’ve won seven of the last eight races, including Busch’s win this past weekend in New Hampshire. The exception was the Southern 500. Denny Hamlin passed Truex in the final laps to win after Truex hit the wall.
  • They’ve won 35 of 57 stages (Truex has a series-high 19 stage victories).
  • They’ve combined to lead 55.5 percent of the 7,971 laps run this season.

If Truex, Busch and Larson avoid problems in the upcoming rounds and advance to Miami, that would leave one spot left among the 13 other drivers.

So who will it be?

Will it be Hamlin?

He finished 12th at New Hampshire, ending a streak of four consecutive top-five finishes. He’s placed in the top five in six of the last eight races.

Hamlin said he and his team have more work to do to challenge for a title.

“Our best race tracks are at the end of the season,’’ Hamlin said after Sunday’s race. “But I think if we’re going to win the championship, listen we can get ourselves to Homestead the way we’re running, but if we want to win we’ve got to get faster in certain parts of the run, for sure.’’

Will it be seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson? It’s hard to count him out regardless how strong others are. 

“When you look at fast laps, laps led, those guys are on it,’’ Johnson said at New Hampshire of the Toyota drivers. “I’ve been there before. Didn’t want anybody to take away from what we had and was frustrated when people said we had some kind of unfair advantage. When you do your hard work and got everything right and your manufacturer has got everything right, man, you’ve got to enjoy those days because they don’t come very often.

“They’re very fast in a lot of areas. It’s not just one thing. We won the championship last year with the fourth-fastest car at Homestead. If we’ve got a chance down there, we’ll make it happen.’’

Or could it be Matt Kenseth, adding another Toyota in the title hunt at Miami? Kenseth’s third-place finish at New Hampshire marked his eighth top-10 in the last 10 races. Although he’s not won this season, his team has progressed since July and become a factor in races.

Or could it be a Ford driver — Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney or Kurt BuschWhile Keselowski has stated that Toyotas have a speed advantage, the fastest car doesn’t always win.

The scary proposition for the field is if Truex, Larson and Kyle Busch don’t have issues that keep them from advancing, there will be just one spot left for Miami to race for the championship.

WHO IS SAFE?

So who can breathe and who will need to be careful this weekend at Dover to make sure they advance to the next round?

Only once in the previous three years has a driver gone to Dover with a double-digit lead on the first driver outside a transfer spot and failed to advanced.

In 2015, Jimmie Johnson had a 27-point lead on 13th in the points going into Dover. Johnson finished 41st because of a mechanical issue and failed to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Kyle Busch entered Dover 13th but climbed into a transfer spot and used that to begin his run to the championship.

Those with leads of 27 points or less on the first driver outside a transfer spot entering Dover are Ryan Blaney (26 points ahead of 13th-place Austin Dillon), Chase Elliott (26 points), Kevin Harvick (25 points), Jamie McMurray (nine points) and Ricky Stenhouse (tied with Dillon but owns the final transfer spot at this point based on a tiebreaker)

“You’re never really comfortable with your position, unless you have a win,’’ Blaney said.

Each of the previous three years a driver not in a transfer spot entering the Dover cutoff race advanced to the next round.

Last year, Kyle Larson held the final transfer spot by five points entering Dover and failed to advance after finishing 25th. Austin Dillon finished eighth to advance.

In 2014, AJ Allmendinger had a one-point advantage on the final transfer spot entering Dover but was knocked out by Denny Hamlin.

BATTLE HEATING UP?

Ryan Blaney finished ninth Sunday at New Hampshire but his focus was on another issue with rookie Daniel Suarez.

Asked about the racing, Blaney said: “It was good racing until (Suarez) just about took us out coming to the white for eighth. I don’t know why he did that. That’s twice in two weeks he’s done that to me. That wasn’t very cool, but, other than that, the race was really good. The people we were racing with in the playoffs seemed to race each other with respect, which is nice to see.” 

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Logano wins at Talladega; Keselowski, Truex, Elliott, Dillon out of Chase

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With teammate Brad Keselowski’s day done early due to a blown engine, Joey Logano roared back to carry the torch for Team Penske, winning Sunday’s Hellmann’s 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Logano earned the 16th win of his career and second of 2016. It also was Logano’s second straight Chase win at the 2.66-mile superspeedway, having won there last October.

The race, which went four laps into overtime, four more than the scheduled 188, was the elimination race of the Round of 12.

Drivers who were eliminated from the Round of 8 in the Chase that begins next week at Martinsville Speedway are Martin Truex Jr. (engine blew up on Lap 41) and Brad Keselowski (engine failure, Lap 144), while Austin Dillon and Chase Elliott fell short on points.

“It’s definitely disappointing, but what else can you say,” Truex told NBCSN. “We had a team capable of competing for the championship and unfortunately we’re not going to be able to show that.”

Moving on to the Round of 8 are Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Kevin Harvick, Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Carl Edwards.

MORE: Race results of Hellmann’s 500 at Talladega

MORE: Chase for Sprint Cup points after Sunday’s race

After race winner Logano, Brian Scott finished second (his best career Sprint Cup showing), followed by Hamlin, Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kyle Larson, Harvick, Aric Almirola, Dillon and AJ Allmendinger.

Surprisingly, there was no “Big One” in the race, although there were a few minor mishaps:

  • On Lap 114, Greg Biffle, Jeffrey Earnhardt and Casey Mears were involved in the first wreck of the race. Biffle and Earnhardt suffered minor damage to their cars and were able to return to the track, but damage was heavier on Mears’ car and he never returned to the race.
  • With six laps remaining in the race, Kasey Kahne spun in front of Jamie McMurray and Trevor Bayne, bringing out the caution.
  • Then, Alex Bowman, driving for Dale Earnhardt Jr., spun into the grass with two laps left in regulation, sending the event into overtime.

HOW LOGANO WON: When teammate Brad Keselowski went out with an engine failure, Logano moved to the front, took over the lead for good on Lap 148 and held on for the remaining 44 laps. Logano, who led a total of 45 laps, overcame an earlier issue when the jack became stuck underneath his car and he went one whole lap around the track with it attached before returning to pit road to have it detached.

WHO ELSE HAD A GOOD RACE: Denny Hamlin needed a finish of at least fifth place and did so by finishing third, tying Austin Dillon but advanced to the Round of 8 over Dillon because of a better overall round performance.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Martin Truex Jr. saw the best season of his career and his championship hopes go up in smoke when his engine expired on Lap 41, ending his chances to advance to the Round of 8 in the Chase … Brad Keselowski led a race-high 90 laps, but like Truex, saw his day and Chase advancement hopes come to an end due to an engine failure. It marked the second straight DNF in the Chase (he finished 38th last week at Kansas) for the first time in Keselowski’s career.

NOTABLE: It’s probably not much consolation, but this was the third consecutive restrictor plate race that Keselowski has led the most laps in … A Joe Gibbs Racing pre-race strategy call to have Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and defending series champion Kyle Busch drop to the back of the field protected all three as they advanced to the Round of 8. Kenseth finished 28th, Edwards 29th and Busch 30th.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “We came here to win, we’re doing what we needed to do, but it didn’t play out. It’s a frustrating way to go out. I want to finish the season with the most wins and we have a great shot at that.” – Brad Keselowski on NBCSN after his day and Chase hopes ended early due to engine failure.

WHAT’S NEXT: The start of the Round of 8 begins on Sunday, Oct. 30, in the Goody’s Fast Relief 500 at Martinsville Speedway (green flag 1 pm ET on NBCSN).

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Keselowski leads at midpoint of Chase cutoff race at Talladega; Truex out

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Brad Keselowski is the leader at the halfway point – Lap 94 of the scheduled 188 laps – in Sunday’s Hellmann’s 500 NASCAR Sprint Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway.

Keselowski, who is seeking his fifth career win at Talladega, has led 53 laps.

Ryan Blaney is second, followed by Kurt Busch, Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

One of the 12 Chase drivers fighting to move on to the Round of 8 after today’s race will not do so, as the engine on pole sitter Martin Truex Jr.’s Furniture Row Racing Toyota Camry blew up on Lap 41.

Truex’s engine issue brought out the only caution thus far in the race (for five laps). Truex will finish last in the 40-car field and will join three other drivers to be eliminated from the Chase.

Other issues that have occurred that could impact Chase drivers:

* On Lap 39, Joey Logano left pit road with the jack still under his car and drove one full lap around the track before coming back to have it removed and serve his penalty. But Logano has regained the lost time and is on the lead lap.

* Also on Lap 39, Denny Hamlin was caught speeding entering pit road.

* Other drivers who have led laps: Greg Biffle (13 laps), Chase Elliott (9 laps), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Michael Annett (6 laps apiece), Truex and Hamlin (2 laps apiece), and one lap each by Kyle Busch, Carl Edwards and Matt Kenseth.

Follow @JerryBonkowski