Who is Hot/Not ahead of Coke Zero 400? In restrictor-plate races, Ford is very hot (VIDEO)

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In the last two seasons, restrictor-plate races have become playgrounds for teams powered by Ford.

Playgrounds full of chance, chaos and luck if the first two don’t end your day.

A combination of all three have resulted in Ford teams winning four of the last six Daytona races and the last five plate races overall dating back to the May 2016 event at Talladega. That race was the first of three straight won by Team Penske, as Brad Keselowksi won it and the Coke Zero 400 at Daytona. Joey Logano followed suit in October, winning his second fall Talladega race in a row.

The Ford parade continued in February. After Kevin Harvick led a race-high 50 laps, it was his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kurt Busch who won, leading only the final lap after a string of leaders ran out of gas in the closing laps.

It was only the second time in a non-qualifying race and the first time since July 1994 that a Daytona winner led only the final lap.

The last-lap heroics were again on display at Talladega, when pole-sitter Ricky Stenhouse Jr. took the lead from Kyle Busch heading into Turn 1. He held the field off for his first career Cup win.

Here is who is Hot and who is Not heading into the Coke Zero 400.

Who is Hot

Kyle Busch
• Busch is winless in the last 32 race, but after finishing fifth at Sonoma has top-10 finishes in six of the last seven races.
• Passed for the win on the final lead change five times this season.
• Led the most laps four times in first 16 races with total 746 laps led.
• One Daytona win in 2008 Coke Zero 400.
• Finished top three in two of the last three races at Daytona, crashed out of Daytona 500.

Kevin Harvick

• Coming off first win of season at Sonoma Raceway
• Finished top 10 in eight of the last 10 races (23rd at Talladega after being in wreck, 14th at
Michigan).
• Two-time Daytona winner but has three top-four finishes and three finishes of 22nd or worse in last six races.

Brad Keselowski

• Finished third at Sonoma. Has not had back-to-back top 10s since Talladega and Kansas.
• Nine top fives this season leads all drivers.
• Won this race last year at Daytona, only Daytona win and only finish better than 18th in the last six
races at Daytona.
• Five restrictor-plate wins, tied with Johnson for second most among active drivers

Kyle Larson
• Finished 26th, a lap down at Sonoma for worst finish of season outside of DNF in Coke 600.
• Two wins this season, at Auto Club and Michigan; leads the points after 16 races.
• Finished in the top two seven times this season.
• Best Daytona finish is sixth in 2016 Coke Zero 400.
• Finished top 12 in the five of last six plate races.
• Finished 12th in 2017 Daytona 500 after running out of fuel from the lead on the last lap.

Who is Not

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

• Finished 38th at Sonoma Raceway.
• Won at Talladega, but only one top-10 finish (Michigan) in the six races since.
• Finished fifth in this race last year for best finish at Daytona in 10 starts.

Kasey Kahne

• Finished 24th at Sonoma after wrecking on the last lap.
• Only one top-10 finish (Talladega) in the last 14 races.
• Best Daytona finish is second in 2010 Coke Zero 400.
• Only two top 10-finishes in the last nine races at Daytona, including seventh in February.

Austin Dillon

• Finished 18th at Sonoma.
• Despite Coke 600 win, has only two top-10 finishes this season after having seven at this point last year.
• Best Daytona finish is fifth in the 2014 July race.
• Finished top 10 in five of his eight Daytona starts, his most top 10s at a track in the Cup Series.
• Finished 19th in the 2017 Daytona 500.

Ryan Blaney

• Finished ninth at Sonoma Raceway and scored points in both stages.
• Scored his first career win at Pocono Raceway.
• Only three finishes better than 24th in the last nine races.
• Finished second in the 2017 Daytona 500, only finish better than 14th at Daytona in four starts.

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Cup Series playoff grid following Sonoma

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With the Coke Zero 400 set for 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBC, the race will mark the start of a 10-race sprint to the playoffs in September.

Only 16 Cup drivers can make the playoffs and following Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway, Kevin Harvick made it 10 drivers locked in based on wins. It could have been 11 if not for Joey Logano‘s encumbered finish for his win at Richmond in April.

Kyle Larson leads the way with his two wins – Auto Club, Michigan – and 13 payoff points. Martin Truex Jr. is second and leads all drivers with 11 stage wins and 21 playoff points.

With 10 races left until the playoffs begin at Richmond, all 10 qualified drivers are in the top 20 in points. But six of the top 12 on the playoff grid don’t have wins. That group is led by Kyle Busch, who is fourth in points but has not won since last July’s Brickyard 400.

Jamie McMurray is in eighth and is the highest driver on the grid who has not earned any playoff points through 16 races.

Below is the full playoff grid.

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Nothing to mull(et): Erik Jones seeks to balance fun and work

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As NASCAR transitions to its next generation, today’s younger drivers not only are asked to perform on the track but show personality off it.

TV, Snapchat, podcasts and other forms of social media are viewed by some as intently as lap times. Social media elements have gained importance as fans look for someone to cheer with Jeff Gordon and Tony Stewart having retired, Dale Earnhardt Jr. doing so at the end of this season and several other popular drivers likely not racing within the next five years.

To help his fans, Earnhardt recently listed 10 drivers they should consider following once he retires.

The youngsters on the list included Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon, Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Daniel Suarez.

Each has showcased their personality.

Blaney has a podcast and has shared various adventures with Darrell Wallace Jr. on social media

— Dillon is the sports fan who wears the cowboy hat.

— Elliott, while more reserved, is well-known to fans who have followed the sport for years and watched him grow.

— Larson has said he’s the last true racer and lamented the frayed connection between NASCAR and grassroots racing.

— Stenhouse, although known more to some as Danica Patrick’s boyfriend, also has shown his love of sprint car racing and his fun side on social media.

— Suarez’s effusive manner makes it easy to see his personality.

One young driver on Earnhardt’s list who could be a mystery to some is Erik Jones.

Yes, fans have seen him since 2013 — when he won a Truck race at Phoenix at age 17 and became the youngest winner in series history at the time. He won the 2015 Truck title and become the youngest series champion at age 19. He was the rookie of the year last season in the Xfinity Series and vies for that title this year in Cup.

Yes, he’s been around, but who is Erik Jones? That’s a question Earnhardt would like to see Jones reveal.

“Super fast, raw speed — he’s got it,’’ Earnhardt said on his podcast, the Dale Jr. Download. “Great talent … He’s wearing this mullet so he kind of knows how to pick on himself and doesn’t take himself too seriously. I think he has a great personality. I would encourage him to show that more.

“When I’m around him at the race track, you do see a very, very focused, game-face kind of guy. But there is a side of him that’s the complete opposite that I think he could probably show the fans more to give them an opportunity to get to know him. But I think there’s going to be great things for Erik Jones in his future.”

Coming off a career-best third-place finish last weekend at Pocono, Jones is starting to show more of his personality. He recently tweeted a picture of his growing mullet.

“Why did I choose to grow it? I don’t know,’’ Jones said. “That’s a good question. It’s not something that was thought out. It was more spontaneous. I just didn’t feel like getting a hair cut for a long time. I guess I feel like it’s kind of a waste of time. It takes a lot of time for some reason to get your hair cut.’’

A cousin, who cuts hair, was at his recent birthday party. He asked her to cut it into a mullet and she did.

So, he’s trying.

But while Earnhardt would like to see more personality from Jones, the driver admits it’s difficult.

“When I’m with my friends and families, I’m hanging out and having a good time and laughing and joking, but when you get to the race track, I’ve always been pretty focused,’’ he said. “It’s been a little bit hard for me to relax when I’m here because I don’t feel it is a time to relax, but a time to get to work. I think there’s a time and place for it. I’m trying to find that balance.’’

While he does, he’s also looking for better results. In a season that has seen Blaney, Dillon and Stenhouse each score their first career Cup win, Jones searches for his.

The Michigan native has scored two top-10 finishes in the last three Cup races heading into Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway.

Such performances could put him closer to his first career Cup victory.

“We took a big leap in that direction of getting closer to being able to do it (at Pocono),’’ Jones said. “I think once you kind of get up there and run in that position, hopefully, it comes a little bit easier as time goes on.’’

And then maybe he’ll feel comfortable displaying more of that personality Earnhardt praises.

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Austin Dillon makes one of most meaningful swaps in his life

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The phrase “hand in glove” has new meaning for NASCAR Cup driver Austin Dillon.

Dillon recently received a letter from U.S. Air Force pilot Lt. Colonel W. Philip Pearsall that included a rather unique gift – the aviator’s gloves that he wore on countless flight missions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

“To the outsider, they look like dirty, smelly and meaningless gloves,” Pearsall wrote to Dillon. “To me and now to you, they are more than that. I wore these gloves on every single mission I flew over Iraq and Afghanistan from 2003-2006 … across 50-plus sorties.

“The reason I am giving them to you is simple … it represents sacrifice, sweat, dedication and hard work. All of those things are exactly what led you to your inevitable first Cup Series win (last month at Charlotte in the Coca-Cola 600).

“So, I’d like to offer you a trade. My gloves for yours. I’m not asking for your race win gloves but I have a Dow driver’s suit of yours that I won during your 3-on-3 auction last year and I’d love to have some gloves or shoes to hang in my office with the suit.”

Dillon didn’t hesitate. He’s sending Pearsall a set of his race gloves in return, as requested.

Here’s part of Dillon’s response on Instagram:

“One of the coolest things I’ve ever received came through the mail today. Hope you guys read the letter. It’s so awesome knowing that our true heroes that defend our country are the biggest @nascar fans. My gloves are headed your way my friend. #nascarsalutes

While he may not be in the military, Dillon is obviously a big supporter — and deserves a big salute himself.

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What a long strange trip this season already has been for Kyle Busch

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At this rate, it won’t be long before someone comes up with a parody version of “12 Days of Christmas” for Kyle Busch.

A little more than a third of the way through the Cup season, Busch is accumulating quite a list to count down. Consider:

Seven top-10s finishes.

A six-word press conference.

Five top-five finishes.

Four-race suspensions (for his crew chief, rear tire changer and rear tire carrier).

Three races lost (in the final 10 laps).

Two catchphrases (“Everything is great’’ and “I’m not surprised about anything.’’)

And a memorable mic drop … or punch thrown … or bloody forehead … or commitment line violation … or All-Star win.

The former champion has packed more into 14 races than some drivers do in a year. Or two.

Despite the hurdles, Busch is fourth in the points heading into this weekend’s race at Michigan International Speedway.  Of concern, though, is that Busch’s woes have left him with only four playoff points. Nine drivers have more playoff points — earned through stage wins or race victories — than Busch.

While Busch was challenged to make the Chase after missing the first 11 races of the 2015 season, he went on to win the title. The challenge this year is different.

This isn’t about his body healing but his mind.

What’s happened to Busch this season can only add to the frustration from last year. He’s gone 30 races since his last Cup victory. For a driver who knows how close he is to 200 total wins in Cup, Xfinity and the Camping World Truck Series (he’s at 173), a winless drought of more than 10 months in Cup can be aggravating.

It’s not just him. His three Joe Gibbs Racing teammates also have yet to win a points race this season. Busch has been close with multiple near-misses and leading 703 laps, second only to Martin Truex Jr. (876 laps led).

Many in the sport say momentum can play a key role in a team’s success. Strong runs can prove uplifting to team members and carry them and their driver through the tasks they face. Poor or frustrating results can wear on a driver and team.

That’s the challenge for Busch and his team in what has been a season full of lowlights and soundbites of frustration.

It started in the Daytona 500 when a tire issue caused Busch to spin and collect Dale Earnhardt Jr., Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth and Ty Dillon.

“Obviously, Goodyear tires just aren’t very good at holding air,’’ Busch told Fox.

Two weeks later, Busch was in a bigger controversy. A last-lap duel with Joey Logano led to contact that spun Busch and cost him a top-five spot (he finished 22nd). Afterward, Busch walked up pit road to Logano and immediately swung at his competitor. Busch missed. In the ensuing melee, he fell to the ground and cut his forehead. With blood trickling down his forehead, he was led away.

“I got dumped,” Busch told Fox. “Flat out wrecked me. That’s how Joey races. He’s going to get it.”

The following week, Logano made Busch miserable again, but in a more indirect way. Logano blew a tire and crashed to bring out the final caution with Busch leading. Busch gave up the lead to pit for two tires. Ryan Newman stayed out, inherited the lead and held it the final six laps.

It was one of three times that Busch has lost the lead in the final 10 laps. He lost the lead on the last lap at Talladega and watched Ricky Stenhouse Jr. celebrate his first career Cup win. Busch lost the lead with 10 laps to go to Ryan Blaney last weekend at Pocono. Blaney went on to score his first career Cup series win.

Busch finished second in the Coca-Cola 600 but walked away upset with that result. Austin Dillon scored his first career Cup victory, winning on a fuel gamble. A frustrated Busch performed his now-famous mic drop in the media center after that race.

“Different people show their emotions in different way,’’ Busch said five days later at Dover. “Unfortunately for me, mine has never been very gracious, and I don’t know if it will ever be.’’

Busch won the pole at Dover but saw his race change dramatically on Lap 18 of the 400-lap race. The jackman dropped the jack, signaling Busch to exit his pit stall, but the left rear wheel had not been attached. Busch sped away and the tire rolled off. The Cup Rule Book states that a wheel coming off a car is a four-race suspension for the crew chief, along with the tire changer and tire carrier responsible. They’ll be able to return for the July 8 race at Kentucky Speedway.

Other issues include his runner-up finish at Martinsville after he lost a duel with Brad Keselowski. Earlier in that race, Stenhouse moved Busch out of the way on the final lap of the second stage. Busch moved up the track, allowing Chase Elliott to slip by to win the stage and the playoff point.

Richmond also was frustrating for Busch. Running second, Busch followed Logano on to pit road on Lap 378 of the 400-lap race. Logano turned late on to pit road and just crossed the commitment line. Busch followed but his right side tires ran over the orange box at the end of the commitment line. The rule states that a driver must have all four tires below the box. NASCAR penalized Busch, who had to start at the tail end of the field. Instead of vying for the win, he finished 16th.

In this season of chaos, Busch did win but it doesn’t count as an official victory since the All-Star Race is a non-points event.

“Hopefully this is a little bit of momentum, a little bit of wind in our sails, something we can build on,’’ crew chief Adam Stevens said at the time.

The only thing they’ve been able to build on the past two races is disappointment. The question is how much longer will it last?

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