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Crew chiefs for Kurt Busch, Daniel Suarez fined for unsecured lug nuts

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The crew chiefs for Kurt Busch and Daniel Suarez have each been fined for having one lug nut unsecured following Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Busch’s crew chief, Tony Gibson, and Suarez’s, Scott Graves, were each fined $10,000 by NASCAR.

There were no other penalties issued from the New Hampshire race weekend.

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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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Even in victory, frustration prevailed for some with Joe Gibbs Racing at New Hampshire (VIDEO)

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For as much as Joe Gibbs Racing celebrated Denny Hamlin scoring the organization’s first Cup win of the season and Daniel Suarez tying his career high with a sixth-place finish Sunday at New Hampshire, there was much to lament.

Matt Kenseth saw his chances to win end with a questionable pit call late. Kyle Busch’s hopes of victory faded when he was caught speeding twice in the final 65 laps.

Without the missteps from Busch and Kenseth’s team, Hamlin likely doesn’t win.

That’s the type of season it has been for Busch, who has found numerous ways to lose Cup races, allowing five drivers to score their first win of the season.

Consider Busch’s season of frustration:

  • He pits from the lead during a late caution at Phoenix. Ryan Newman stays out and leads the final six laps — the only laps he leads — to win. Busch finishes third.
  • Ricky Stenhouse Jr. passes Busch on the final lap of overtime to win at Talladega. Busch finishes third.
  • Austin Dillon gambles on fuel to win the Coca-Cola 600. Busch finishes second and follows it with his mic drop in the media center.
  • Ryan Blaney passes Busch with 10 laps to go to win at Pocono. Busch, on older tires, falls back to ninth.
  • Busch starts on the front row for the final restart at Kentucky. He has two fresh left-side tires, while Martin Truex Jr., the leader, did not pit. Truex wins. Busch finishes fifth after starting on the pole
  • Busch leads 95 laps at New Hampshire but two late speeding penalties on pit road end his chances to win. He finishes 12th.

“This is another one I threw away for us,’’ Busch said on the radio to his team after the race Sunday.

Crew chief Adam Stevens replied: “We win as a team and lose as a team.’’

Busch is winless in his last 35 Cup races heading into this weekend’s event at Indianapolis Motor Speedway — site of his last Cup win.

There’s no doubt his car is fast enough to win. He’s led at least 95 laps in seven races since his Indy triumph a year ago but has yet to return to victory lane.

While Kenseth hasn’t had as many close calls, he can relate to miscues hurting him. He finished third at Atlanta despite two speeding penalties. He placed fourth at Bristol despite a speeding penalty.

Then came the pit call that cost Kenseth the win at New Hampshire and extended his winless drought to 36 races, a full season. When the caution came out on Lap 263, most of the lead field pitted. Kenseth led. Ratcliff called for a two-tire change. That got Kenseth off pit road first but the rest of the cars behind him took four tires. 

Kenseth restarted alongside Dale Earnhardt Jr., who did not pit. Kenseth took the lead after the restart but could not hold off Hamlin, who quickly passed with his four fresh tires. Kenseth never had a chance at the lead the rest of the 301-lap race and finished fourth.

“I let you down,’’ Ratcliff said on the radio after the race. “We should have won.’’

The Gibbs teams are getting closer to winning. Just as Hamlin forecasted in April at Richmond.

“I think we are slowly getting better, we’re gaining more knowledge trying to figure out what it is that we need to work on,’’ Hamlin said at the time. “I think we’ve identified some areas where we need to work. It’s not going to happen overnight, it’s not going to happen this week, it won’t happen in a month. Some things are going to take a long time for us to get better at, but I’m very confident that when push comes to shove, we’re in September starting the (playoffs), we should be hopefully back where we were, if not better.’’

Hamlin notes that even with his win at New Hampshire, more work remains.

“I think we’re there except for two cars,’’ Hamlin told NBC Sports on Sunday. “(Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Larson) are the only ones that continually beat us on speed. As far as the rest of the field, I feel we’re there on speed. Our teammate (Busch) has been like the third-fastest car and we’ve been the fourth consistently just about every week. We’re there where we need to be, but I still feel like for speed-wise, we need more to catch those two.’’

As the Gibbs cars contend for more wins, the difference will come down to execution and not making mistakes.

“There’s a lot of things we can do to be better,’’ Hamlin said. “We have a championship-caliber team. We just have to get our cars a little bit faster. I’m running laps out there as good as I feel that I can do. My car is doing everything that I need it to do but (Truex) is just faster.

“He’s running me down, and he’s passing and putting a straightaway on me. I’m thinking (crew chief Mike Wheeler) there’s nothing else I can give you. I don’t want to screw up our car and finish sixth. Just leave it where it is and hope those guys make mistakes.’’

Sunday, it was his teammates who made the mistakes and Hamlin took advantage.

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Rule change hasn’t kept Cup drivers from dominating Xfinity Series – yet

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A rule change intended to help Xfinity Series drivers compete for more wins, particularly in the playoffs, has not diminished the domination of Cup drivers so far this season.

Twelve of the first 16 Xfinity races have been won by Cup regulars — the most since 2011 when they won 13 of the first 16 races. 

But they aren’t just taking the checkered flag.

Full-time Cup drivers have collected 48 top-five finishes this season — a 25 percent increase from this point last year and a 33 percent increase from this point in 2015.  The top six finishers in the Kentucky Xfinity race were all full-time Cup drivers.

A key reason for the sharp increase is NASCAR’s rule limiting Cup driver participation.

NASCAR announced last year that Cup drivers with more than five full-time seasons in that series would be limited to 10 Xfinity races this year.

NASCAR stated that those drivers— Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, among others — cannot compete in the final eight Xfinity races of the season and the four Dash 4 Cash races.

That means of the 33 Xfinity races, veteran Cup drivers are not allowed to compete in 12 events. That leaves 21 races for them to compete in up to 10.

With fewer opportunities, veteran Cup drivers have been running — and excelling — in more of the same Xfinity races this season. That’s left Xfinity drivers with limited chances to score a top-five finish.

That trend likely will continue.

Logano (six Xfinity starts this year) and Busch (five) both are scheduled to run 10 series races each. Keselowski (six starts) is scheduled to run three more races. Kevin Harvick (four starts) is set to run two more races.

They cannot compete in the Xfinity Series after the Sept. 8 race at Richmond International Raceway, giving Xfinity regulars a better chance to win in the playoffs. But those Xfintiy drivers still will have to beat some Cup competitors.

Cup drivers with less than five full-time seasons in that series are allowed to race in the Xfinity playoffs. That means that Kyle Larson (three wins this year), Erik Jones (two), Ryan Blaney (one), Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, and Daniel Suarez will be able to race until the finale in Miami.

The Xfinity Rule Book states that any driver who scores points in the Cup series is not eligible to run in the Xfinity championship race in Miami.

Even with the Cup veterans limited, Xfinity rookies William Byron and Cole Custer say they are learning when they race them.

“We have a great opportunities to go out there and succeed,’’ Byron said. “I’ve got good race cars, everyone is in good equipment, so when you have that you have to make the most of it and be around some veteran guys and not make mistakes and make a fool out of yourself. Just try to do the most and … learn from all the guys out there.’’

Byron has won two races, scoring victories at Iowa Speedway, a standalone race that did not have any Cup drivers in the field, and at Daytona International Speedway, which had four Cup regulars in the field.

Custer seeks his first win but has finished 11th or better in five of the last seven races.

“We all have really unbelievable opportunities to try to run good and make a name for ourselves,’’ he said. “You’re just trying to learn every single weekend, learn from the veteran guys.’’

Those lessons should prove helpful in the Xfinity playoffs, which begin Sept. 23 at Kentucky Speedway.

With Busch, (two wins this year), Logano (one), Keselowski (one), Denny Hamlin (one) and Aric Almirola (one) all among those ineligible to run in the playoffs, there could be more chances for Xfinity regulars to win.

Suarez won the season finale and the championship last year with many Cup drivers ineligible to compete.

“We talked about it for a long time,’’ NASCAR Chairman Brian France said last year of limiting Cup drivers in Xfinity races. “I’m glad we did it. It got a very worthy champion in Daniel Suarez.’’

 

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Kyle Larson has narrow lead over Martin Truex Jr. on playoff grid following Kentucky

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With eight races left in the regular season, there are still only 10 drivers qualified for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs based on wins.

Only 16 teams qualify for the playoffs.

The last two races at Daytona and Kentucky were won by repeat winners, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Martin Truex Jr.

The last new driver to qualify was Kevin Harvick for his win at Sonoma Raceway. Joey Logano has a win at Richmond, but it was encumbered due to his No. 22 Ford failing post-race inspection.

Kyle Busch is third on the grid and leads all drivers who are winless at this point.

If the regular season ended today, Erik Jones, Daniel Suarez, Trevor Bayne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. would be the first four drivers out of the playoffs based on points.

Though Kyle Larson has a one-point lead over Truex on the playoff grid, Truex leads all drivers with 28 playoff points after his Kentucky win. Jimmie Johnson is next with 16.

Below is the full playoff grid through 18 races this season.

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