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Cup Playoff Grid: Denny Hamlin becomes 11th driver to qualify for Cup postseason

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After repeat winners at Daytona and Kentucky, Denny Hamlin became the latest driver to win his way into the Cup Series playoffs Sunday at New Hampshire.

Hamlin, with his first victory of the season, is the 11th driver to clinch a spot in the 16-car field for the playoffs.

He would be the 12th if not for Joey Logano‘s Richmond win being encumbered due to an inspection failure.

If the postseason began this weekend, the drivers getting into the 16-car field on points would be Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Jamie McMurray, Clint Bowyer and Matt Kenseth.

With his win, Hamlin has seven playoff points. That puts him eighth on the playoff grid among those who have clenched a playoff spot. He is ahead of Kurt Busch (five playoff points), Ryan Newman (five) and Austin Dillon (five).

In the graphic below, drivers in green are in the playoffs on wins. Drivers in yellow would be in on points and drivers in orange would not make the playoffs.

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Chris Buescher: Planning to be back with JTG Daugherty Racing next season

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Chris Buescher anticipates he will be back with JTG Daugherty Racing next season, which would remove his name from NASCAR’s free agent feeding frenzy that began this week.

While Matt Kenseth won’t return to Joe Gibbs Racing and Erik Jones will take his place next year, the driver of the No. 37 Chevrolet told “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that his own “silly season” should be stress free.

“It’s coming along,” Buescher said. “We’re in the process, we’re trying to get everything ironed out and be able to move forward. The plan right now is to try and do the same thing next year with JTG Daugherty. Obviously, it’s a little early and this has been one of the wilder silly seasons right off the bat that I can remember. I think for us it’s going to be a pretty easy one. I think we’re trying to get everything squared away on some detail stuff right now.”

Buescher, in his second full-time season in the Cup Series, is on loan to JTG Daugherty Racing from Roush Fenway Racing. Buescher has been with Roush since 2009 and won the 2015 Xfinity title with them. JTG Daugherty Racing, which also fields the No. 47 of AJ Allmendinger, leased a charter from Roush in order to run Buescher’s car.

The charter must be returned to Roush or purchased after this season. Roush does have charters for two other cars it could lease to the team as an option.

Buescher’s comments about his future come after Roush Fenway Racing president Steve Newmark said earlier this month it plans to stick with two Cup cars and one Xfinity car next season.

“Obviously, the way we’re structured right now Ricky (Stenhouse Jr.) and Trevor (Bayne) are the anchors of this organization,’’ Newmark said. “That’s going to be our focus. My hope is that five years from now those guys are the grizzly old veterans of the sport at that point.

“Chris has done a great job. We’re fortunate that he and Tad (Geschickter, owner of JTG Daugherty) have struck up a great relationship and he’s getting some great experience there.’’

Buescher is 26th in the points standings this season. He has one top 10, earned two weeks ago at Daytona when he placed 10th.

It was his second top-10 finish since winning last August’s fog and rain-shortened race at Pocono Raceway for Front Row Motorsports. He was on loan to that organization last year.

MORE: 2018 silly season scorecard

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Bump & Run: Examining race for final playoff spots, who raises most concern

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NBC Sports’ Steve Letarte Slugger Labbe, Nate Ryan and Dustin Long discuss this week’s hot topics.

Who are you most concerned about making the playoffs: Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth or Clint Bowyer?

Steve Letarte: I actually feel that it’s a coin flip between the three. It’s hard to believe that we’re this far in and Joey Logano, from the outside looking in, I don’t know what the summer funk that they’re in is, but it’s real. They seem to continue to struggle. Matt Kenseth, the news of just this last week of not coming back to the 20 car, I don’t know if that’s going to change the way he’s been driving or take the pressure off. He actually looked much better at Kentucky until the last-lap crash. Clint Bowyer has been kind of close but no cigar. I really don’t know. I think that’s going to be a fascinating race over the course of the summer. I think it just comes down to a few good decisions and a few fortunate breaks.

Slugger Labbe: Joey Logano. Team Penske is lacking speed since the encumbered win at Richmond. NASCAR has tightened up the inspection process for the teams and this has seemed to have affected the Ford teams the most. The best chance for Joey to win will be this weekend at New Hampshire; otherwise this team will have a long road ahead to Richmond 

Nate Ryan: Matt Kenseth. Last week’s revelation that he isn’t returning to Joe Gibbs Racing could be a rallying cry for the team … but history shows it usually goes the other way for lame-duck drivers in their final seasons. Kenseth assuredly will give it his all, but the No. 20 Toyota already has lacked speed this year relative to teammate Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. It’s hard to see Kenseth securing a playoff spot in his final season at Joe Gibbs Racing as the internal atmosphere with this team figures to become more difficult, particularly the longer he remains without a ride for 2018.

Dustin Long: Joey Logano. The lack of speed from this team in recent weeks is worrisome. Without that speed, it will be hard to win races. With additional winners likely, that will mean fewer playoff spots via points and drop Logano further behind for the cutoff. This team has been in pressure situations before but it often had more speed in those cases. Let’s see what this team can do now.

What team not in the spotlight you are keeping an eye on?

Steve Letarte: This driver is going to be in the spotlight at some point, the driver of the No. 77, Erik Jones. I think he’s doing a tremendous job and is being overlooked because it’s easy. His teammate (Martin Truex Jr.) is so fast. He’s doing what a rookie should do, which is not make the news. I haven’t seen him wreck anyone. I haven’t seen him wreck himself. I haven’t seen a lot of rookie mistakes.

Slugger Labbe: AJ Allmendinger. AJ can send the playoffs into madness with a win at Watkins Glen but the team has to provide a solid race car and must eliminate the mechanical and pit road issues. New Hampshire marks the final race on a playoff track before the playoffs begin. What will you be looking for this weekend as you gauge playoff teams?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. It’s been an unusually quiet season, but the fourth place at Kentucky Speedway shows he’s poised for a breakout. Everyone is expecting Kyle Busch will end JGR’s winless drought, but Hamlin seems to stand just as good of a chance, particularly at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (where he has dominated before).

Dustin Long: Kevin Harvick. They’ve had some struggles in the switch to Ford this season but this is a seasoned team that knows how to win in pressure situations. Don’t overlook this team when the playoffs start. I want to see in the coming weeks if this team builds momentum and shows more speed.

New Hampshire marks the final race on a playoff track before the playoffs begin. What will you be looking for this weekend as you gauge playoff teams?

Steve Letarte: In years past, I think this was a very accurate question because there were not a whole lot of other things for the playoff teams to be racing for over the points, but I think the playoff points have almost nullified this question. I don’t think this race at New Hampshire is any more important to Kyle Larson or Martin Truex Jr. than next week’s race or at Watkins Glen or Bristol because of what’s at stake, those potential playoff points. Without a doubt, they’re going to want to leave New Hampshire with a good notebook but with this traction compound put down, I think that’s going to drive the storyline at New Hampshire more than what car is good or bad. This system is different. We’re learning as we go over the course of the summer.

Slugger Labbe: New Hampshire is a very hard race track to adapt to. Restarts and mechanical grip for the long run are very important. A lot of the teams already locked in the playoffs will use the first New Hampshire race as an experiment to find the best set up as they prepare for the fall race at New Hampshire, which is the second race of the playoffs. I’ll be watching for the teams that can maximize both keys to running well there. 

Nate Ryan: In the past, this race would have been a prime opportunity for qualified teams to gamble on setups (such as the No. 48’s aggressive experimentation with lower tire pressures in the July 2014 race). But with stage racing, that luxury is gone, so it should be a more accurate barometer of where teams are at the halfway point. It also has been five years since a Hendrick Motorsports car won at New Hampshire, and it bears watching if the team is any closer to ending that trend.

Dustin Long: I will keep an eye on Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. They both should be good this weekend and it will be important for them to be so, especially if they don’t win before the playoffs begin and enter with few playoff points. That will mean they will have little margin for error in the first round, which includes New Hampshire, to advance. If they struggle this weekend, that could be a troubling sign.

Who’s hot, who’s not heading into New Hampshire

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NASCAR begins the second half of the 36-race 2017 season with Sunday’s Overton’s 301 at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

But while 18 more races seem like a lot of time for teams that have struggled this season, that’s not truly accurate. Rather, we’re at a point in the season where teams have reached a sense of urgency: There are only eight races left to qualify for this year’s playoffs.

New Hampshire is also the last playoff track that teams will be able to gather data for the upcoming 10-race playoffs. Nine weeks later, New Hampshire will host the second race of the playoffs on Sept. 24.

Sunday’s race will be the 45th time the Cup series has raced at the one-mile short track. NHMS hosted one race per year from 1993 to 1996 and two races from 1997 through this season.

It will revert back to hosting just one race per season in 2018, as its annual second race date will move to Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Here is a look at some of the drivers who are hot and those who are not heading into Sunday’s Overton’s 301, to be televised on NBCSN.

WHO IS HOT:

Martin Truex Jr.

Won at Kentucky, sweeping both stages

Finished in the top-10 12 times this season, most of all drivers

Won 13 stages this season

Wins at Las Vegas, Kansas, and Kentucky

Has led a series high 1,115 laps in 2017, including over 100 in four of the last eight

Best New Hampshire finish is third in 2007

Only one finish outside the top 12 at New Hampshire since joining Furniture Row Racing (six races)

Led 264 of the 601 laps raced at New Hampshire in 2016 (44 percent) finished 16th and 7th

Kyle Larson

Finished 2nd at Kentucky, sixth runner up finish this season

Two wins this season, ACS and Michigan, leads the points by one

Finished top 2 eight times this season

Finished top 3 in his first two starts at New Hampshire in 2014, best finish since is 10th last September

Brad Keselowski

Finished 39th at Kentucky, accident; has had DNFs in four of last seven races this season due to accidents (five total in 2017)

Has not had back-to-back top 10 finishes since Talladega and Kansas

Nine top-fives in 2017, the most of all drivers

Won this race in 2014

Worst finish in the last 11 races at NH is 15th with eight top 10 finishes

Led at least one lap in the last 11 NH races

Kyle Busch

Finished 5th at Kentucky; top 10 finishes in seven of the last nine races this season

Been passed for the win five times this season

Led the most laps four times this season but is still winless

858 laps led in 2017, second most

Had three wins at this point in 2016

Two time winner at New Hampshire, this race in 2006 and 2015

Finished top 3 five of the last eight races at New Hampshire including a win

Kevin Harvick

Finished 9th at Kentucky, top 10 finishes in six of the last eight races

Won at Sonoma

Two New Hampshire wins, Fall race in 2006 and Fall race in 2016

Led only eight laps in NH win last year

Finished top five in both NH races last year

WHO IS NOT:

Joey Logano

Finished 8th at Kentucky, only his second finish better than 12th in the last nine races

Six top five finishes in the first nine races this season, only one in the last nine

Finished better than 12th only twice in the last nine races of 2017

Won at Richmond but was encumbered

Two time winner at New Hampshire including his first career win in 2009

Finished top five in four of the last five New Hampshire races

Kurt Busch

Finished 28th at Daytona, accident and 30th at Kentucky (engine), the last time he had back-to-back DNFs was April 2014

Just eight top 10 finishes this season, had 15 after 18 races in 2016

Has not had back-to-back top 10 finishes since Richmond and Talladega

Three New Hampshire wins but last was in 2008

Finished fifth at New Hampshire last Fall, only his second top 10 in the last 11 races

Austin Dillon

Finished 19th at Kentucky, best finish since his Charlotte win (six races) is 13th

Won on fuel mileage at Charlotte

Only two top 10 finishes this season, had eight at this point last year

One top 10 finish in six starts at New Hampshire, eighth in 2015

Won truck race at New Hampshire in 2015

Kasey Kahne

Finished 38th at Kentucky, accident

DNF accident in five of the last seven races this season

Only one top 10 finish in the last 16 races

Won this race in 2012 at New Hampshire, it was his second of five wins while driving for HMS

Two top 10 finishes in the last eight NH races

AJ Allmendinger

Finished 20th at Kentucky; only one finish better than 18th in the last 12 races

Only one top 10 finish at New Hampshire, 10th in 2010 driving the #43

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What drivers said after Daytona race

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RICKY STENHOUSE JR — Winner: “Wow, these guys. I kept my Talladega car and told them to build a new one. We won the Firecracker 400! This is awesome! I have been coming here since 2008. I actually came in 2006 one time with Bobby Hamilton Jr. and it is cool to put it in victory lane and get our second win this year. I love it!’’

Clint Bowyer — Finished 2nd: “We finished second two weeks in a row, so that’s a huge confidence booster for our team, but nonetheless, the pressure cooker is turning up. You’re sitting there looking up there that green‑white‑checker coming to the green there, and you’re thinking, ‘Oh, no, somehow, some way, I’ve got to get up there and keep one of those guys that are going to be first time winners out of this thing.’ That’s real, it’s alive, and it’s something you’re going to have to pay attention to. You hope you keep riding this wave and turn one of those seconds into a win.’’

Paul Menard — Finished 3rd: “We wanted to race hard all night long, but I forget who wrecked up in 1 and 2 but we got in the wall pretty hard and had to work on some damage so that put us back right at the end of the first stage and couldn’t go anywhere. So kind of bailed out of the stages and was a bunch of attrition obviously, and we kind of passed some cars that way, but got some really big runs toward the end and made up a lot of ground and Bowyer pushed the hell out of me the last lap. I just couldn’t get a run off Turn 4 coming to the checkered. I guess I used it all the lap before.’’

Michael McDowell — Finished 4th: “It’s nice to do this week after week. This isn’t our first good run. We had a good run the last three or four weeks, and we’ve been putting together solid runs. At the same time, coming to the line second, I thought I had a shot at him but just they had such a big run behind I couldn’t hold them off.”

Ryan Newman – Finished 5th: “I don’t want to say we got lucky, but we got lucky.  We did not dominate tonight by any means.  We rode around in the back for most of the race and it played out between everybody but Austin. It was a little bit of luck, but it was calculated and it was good enough for a top-five tonight.

David Ragan — Finished 6th: “I’m certainly proud of our effort tonight. We had a great day on pit road. Our car fast and it drove really good. I give us an ‘A’ for the night. I missed my mark a bit coming to the white line. I zigged when I should have zagged. It’s tough to block two or three lanes coming to the white flag. I missed it on that run. If I couldn’t win I’m glad another Ford is is victory lane. Ricky (Stenhouse) is a good guy and I’m proud for that team. I’m just disappointed that I couldn’t close the deal.”

AJ Allmendinger – Finished 8th: “We had a plan that we weren’t going to race until 40 to go, and it all worked out.  It was crazy back there. You are kind of hanging on. I thought the Quick Lube Chevy had good speed and handled really well. That has always been our strength here and it was again. The guys did such a great job. It was our backup car. I kind of crushed the roof of the primary car at Talladega.  They got it ready and it had decent speed in it.  You just wish you could re-do it.  I thought I was doing everything right.  On that first restart I had a big push there on David (Ragan) and thought we were going to get clear that second restart. I couldn’t get to Ty’s (Dillon) bumper as good as I wanted to. I was going to shoot the gap, and Ty went high and the 38 went low and I got pinned in the middle and lost our chance to win.”

Erik Jones — Finished 9th: “It was an up-and-down night. We were up front at a few points and back at a few points – just learning and trying to figure everything out. I don’t know exactly what happened when we got spun around. I think I got up inside of somebody or somebody came down on me and just got spun around unfortunately. Still got a decent finish out of it – top 10 at a superspeedway so that’s a good finish and some momentum for next week.”

Chris Buescher – Finished 10th: “Really nice to finish Daytona. We tried to have a smart race and just hang out there in the back so we could have a good piece at the end. The team did a great job on giving me a good race car all weekend. We knew qualifying would be what it was, but the car raced and handled really well and we got a top-10 out of it.”

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 12th: “It is nice when you are rewarded with good points and important championship points – points that carry into the bonus rounds with our wins and stage win last week.  I really thought we were in a great position and I got smashed into the wall by the No. 95  (Michael McDowell) off of two. But to come back and have the car tore up still in 12th, decent day for us. Excited about that, but really looking forward to the summer stretch. We have some great tracks coming. 

Jamie McMurray – Finished 14th: “So we had probably the best plate car tonight that we have had in four or five years. We got caught up in that wreck and obviously it killed a lot of speed in the car.  I didn’t choose good lanes at the end and I got hung out one time and went from a fourth or fifth place finish to 14th.”

Darrell Wallace Jr. — Finished 15th: “That was fun. Probably the most fun that I’ve had at the Speedway. I missed three, four wrecks. Just a big chess game. Way different than Xfinity race. Just trying to plan out my attacks. I hate that we got in that wreck late and put us in the back. A good rally to get to 15th. We keep improving.” 

Ty Dillon – Finished 16th: “I wanted to do it so bad for Bob Germain who gave me this opportunity. That is two close ones and if you keep getting these close ones, you will get one eventually. We work hard every week but not every week are we contending for wins, but when it’s our chance we make the most of it. So I am proud of the way we are growing as a team and we are leading a lot of laps any way we can.  I just feel disappointed. When it’s the white flag you go for it. Nobody went with me and so that is kind of the pains of being a rookie, but I would have been mad at myself if I didn’t make a move right there. The move cost me a good finish but didn’t really determine what our day was.”

DANIEL SUÁREZ — Finished 17th: “The race was good and we ran definitely much better than where we finished. Just all the starts and restarts, those last two restarts we were on the bottom and it wasn’t going anywhere. Just a little bad luck there at the end of the race.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 21st: “We were really fast and made our way up through there on a few occasions. But we were just never in the right place at the right time.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 26th: “I am not sure what happened. I saw (Kyle Larson) get turned and get up in the air a little bit. I just couldn’t miss him. I was already on the top and I hate that I T-boned him. I just couldn’t get out of the way. I thought we had a really good car. We were racing hard. Everyone was racing hard. We got kind of shuffled out. I didn’t pick a very good lane. We were working our way back forward when that happened.’’

Matt Kenseth — Finished 27th: “It’s been really hard to get a finish. Jason (Ratcliff, crew chief) had a great strategy tonight and had us out front. Obviously I should’ve got down in front of the 17 (Ricky Stenhouse). He made up a lot more ground through three and four than I thought. I should’ve got to the bottom and tried to get by the 5 (Kasey Kahne) there. I thought we were still in OK shape and then the 5 got real loose into one and something happened and it checked our whole lane up and then, as luck would have it, as soon as we lost those 10 spots the wreck happened. Just nowhere to go. Disappointing end.”

KYLE LARSON — Finished 29th: “I’m fine. I was just up front there and doing what I could to stay up front. The 38 (David Ragan) got to my inside, and I saw that in my mirror and I kind of felt it a little bit because you can feel the air. I was just trying to leave him a little bit of room and I just moved up too high and ran across Ricky’s (Stenhouse, Jr.) nose and I hate that I caused that wreck and I feel pretty bad about. It was going to be an extremely good points day and we hurt that a little bit.”

Dale Earnhardt Jr., – Finished 32nd: “The attention and the reaction from the fans makes me feel great.  Hopefully we are able to turn that around and back on them for the rest of the season and thank them for all they had done. I wish we had had a good finish tonight if not a win. We were working up in there and having a good time and being aggressive and wearing out the sides of that race car.  It just wasn’t to be.’’

Kevin Harvick — Finished 33rd: “We just blew a tire. That’s the way it goes. It just blew out right in the middle of the corner. I hate to wreck half the field. That’s a part of what we do.”

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 34th: “I just tried to slow down, but you know you get hit from behind, you hit the guy in front of you – there’s nothing you can do. When you’re going 190 something and everybody stops in front of you, it’s kind of hard to do anything. This July race, man, I don’t think I’ve finished it in like five years. It’s just – it’s been a tough one every time. Every time we feel like we’re doing something okay we get in a big wreck, so it’s been a tough one for sure but rebound and go to Kentucky and hopefully go for some more wins.”

Joey Logano — Finished 35th: “I saw four our five laps before the wreck that the 95 (Michael McDowell) got into the side of the 18 (Kyle Busch). I didn’t see any smoke off the 18, just a near miss. Then four or five laps later I think the left rear popped on the 18 and around he started going and we were there. Wrong place at the wrong time again for us. It’s superspeedway racing. Sometimes you’re on the good side of it, sometimes you’re on the wrong side of it. That was the bad one. We’ll just move and head to the next race.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 36th: “I didn’t see and am not sure.  I tried to slow down, I downshifted and it wasn’t enough. We knocked the oil cooler and radiator out.  I should have been smarter and rode around like half of the others in the field, but we were trying to get some bonus points there coming to the end of the stage. It didn’t work out.”