A quiet moment among a chaotic scene

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JOLIET, Illinois — Amid the celebration, there was a moment of reflection for Martin Truex Jr.

A day after former NASCAR modified champion Ted Christopher died in a plane crash, Truex won the Cup playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway.

Christopher, 59, and a pilot were killed when their plane went down in a wooded area near Guilford, Connecticut. They were the only people onboard.

Truex, who is from New Jersey, raced against Christopher and credited Christopher with helping him.

“I definitely thought about him,’’ Truex told NBC Sports. “It was such shocking news to hear it. I initially thought back to the days racing with him and thought of the respect I had for him and what he means to short track racing in the Northeast where I grew up and where I cut my teeth.

“Racing with guys like him is what gave me the opportunity and skills to move to North Carolina and get hired to drive cars for a living. I flashed back to my Busch North days initially and remembered racing with him at Stafford and New Hampshire and Thompson and all those places we got to race with him.

“Even before I started racing, watching him race modifieds and knowing how much he meant to Northeastern motorsports and the kind of driver he was. He was definitely a hard-nosed driver and somebody you had to respect on the race track or he would show you. Definitely cool to win and say that we were thinking about his friends and family, and hopefully they can find some peace and celebrate him as a person.’’

STEADY AS THEY GO

While a number of playoff teams and drivers had mistakes or misfortune, reigning champion Jimmie Johnson drove a steady race and finished eighth.

It tied for his best finish since his June 4 win at Dover.

Johnson’s run Sunday was not spectacular but it wasn’t hurt by some sort of issue that plagued so many of his competitors (Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Austin Dillon had pit road penalties, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. hit the wall and had a commitment line violation, Jamie McMurray spun.) He ran between eighth and 12th much of the day and scored the finish he needed. For that, it was a win for Johnson, who is 20 points ahead of the cutoff with two races to go.

“Playoff pressure gets everybody at some point (but) we’re usually not as sensitive as others,’’ Johnson told NBC Sports.

His finish Sunday was his best at Chicagoland Speedway since a fifth-place result in 2013 — when he won the sixth of his seven titles. Johnson finished 12th last year on the way to winning the crown.

HALF FULL AND HALF EMPTY LOOK

Jamie McMurray said he thought he had a fifth-place car.

He finished 10th.

So a loss there, but McMurray spun after contact with Ryan Newman’s car with just under 100 laps left.

“The backstretch is curved here and I think I just didn’t leave Ryan enough room,’’ McMurray said. “I really wasn’t racing anybody. It was a restart and you’re just trying to get all situated. I knew he was there, I could see him. I guess I didn’t leave him enough room.’’

After falling back to 16th for the restart, McMurray scored his third top-10 result in the last five races.

So, it was a win in that sense.

It helped that there weren’t many cars on the lead lap after his spin and that McMurray said he had a good car on restarts.

By gaining six spots — and six points — McMurray is five points ahead of the cutoff with two races to go. He has 2,031 points. Austin Dillon and Kurt Busch each have 2,026 points after Chicagoland.

That’s significant for McMurray, who has never made it out of the first round of the playoffs and entered this year’s postseason with the fewest playoff points (three) of the 16 drivers.

PIT STOPS

Landon Cassill’s 20th-place finish was his first top-20 at a non-restrictor-plate track this season. In the last three races, Cassill has finished 21st (Darlington), 39th (Richmond) and 20th (Chicagoland) … Seven drivers were caught speeding on pit road Sunday: Corey LaJoie (twice), Martin Truex Jr., Austin Dillon, Erik Jones, Matt DiBenedetto, Kurt Busch and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

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NASCAR docks 15 Cup teams practice time for inspection issues

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JOLIET, Illinois — Fifteen Cup cars will be penalized time in today’s final Cup practice session at Chicagoland Speedway.

Final practice is from 2 – 2:50 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Eight teams will be docked time for inspection issues Friday. Seven will be docked time for issues last weekend at Richmond Raceway.

Five drivers will miss 30 minutes of practice. They are Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Daniel Suarez, Jimmie Johnson and Aric Almirola.

Jones was docked because his car failed qualifying inspection three times Friday.

Johnson and Almirola each were docked 15 minutes for failing qualifying inspection twice Friday. They each previously were to serve 15 minutes for failing qualifying inspection twice at Richmond.

Kenseth will lose 30 minutes because his car failed inspection before last weekend’s race three times. Suarez will miss 30 minutes because his car failed qualifying inspection twice and failed inspection before the race twice last weekend.

Serving 15-minute penalties will be Dale Earnhardt Jr., Ty Dillon, Kasey Kahne, Michael McDowell, Kevin Harvick, AJ Allmendinger, Kurt Busch, Joey Logano, Martin Truex Jr. and Matt DiBenedetto.

McDowell, Harvick, Allmendinger, Busch, Logano, Truex and DiBenedetto were docked time for failing qualifying inspection twice Friday.

Earnhardt and Dillon will lose practice time because their cars failed qualifying inspection twice at Richmond.

Kahne will lose 15 minutes because his car failed inspection before last weekend’s race twice.

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Silly Season heats up with more driver moves

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Tuesday brought the news that Danica Patrick won’t be back with Stewart-Haas Racing after this season and that Aric Almirola also won’t return to Richard Petty Motorsports for 2018.

Neither driver announced their plans for next season. Other drivers who have not announced 2018 plans include Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch, Brickyard 400 winner Kasey Kahne and former champion Matt Kenseth.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands as the Cup playoff are set to begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

ANNOUNCED RIDES FOR 2018

Erik Jones will drive the No. 20 at Joe Gibbs Racing, replacing Matt Kenseth (announcement made July 11)

Alex Bowman will drive the No. 88 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Dale Earnhardt Jr. (announcement made July 20)

Brad Keselowski agrees to contract extension to drive the No. 2 car for Team Penske (announcement made July 25

Ryan Blaney moves to Team Penske to drive the No. 12 car and signs a multi-year contract extension (announcement made July 26)

Paul Menard moves to Wood Brothers Racing to drive the No. 21 car (announcement made July 26)

William Byron will drive the No. 5 at Hendrick Motorsports, replacing Kasey Kahne (announcement made Aug. 9)

Matt DiBenedetto will remain with Go Fas Racing in the team’s No. 32 car (announcement made Aug. 12)

Chris Buescher signs a multi-year contract to remain at JTG Daugherty and drive the No. 37 car. (announcement made Aug. 18)

Ty Dillon signs a multi-year contract to remain at Germain Racing and drive the No. 13 car. Sponsor Geico also extends its deal with the team (announcement made Sept. 5)

OPEN/POSSIBLY OPEN RIDES

— No. 10: Danica Patrick is out after this season at Stewart-Haas Racing. No replacement has been announced. 

— No. 27: Richard Childress Racing states it will announce plans for a third Cup team at a later date with Paul Menard joining the Wood Brothers for next season.

— No. 41: Stewart-Haas Racing declined to pick up the option on Kurt Busch’s contract for next year on Aug. 1. Even so, the team tweeted that it expected Busch back with sponsor Monster Energy for next year. Busch told reporters Aug. 5 at Watkins Glen that “there are a couple of offers already, so we’ll see how things work out.’’  

— No. 43: Richard Petty Motorsports announced Sept. 12 that Aric Almirola will not return to the team. Smithfield also is not returning. Smithfield and Richard Petty Motorsports exchanged terse statements about their parting. RPM is selling Darrell Wallace Jr. to prospective sponsors.  

— No. 77: With Erik Jones returning to JGR, team owner Barney Visser is looking to fill that seat. The first concern, though, is sponsorship. Visser told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Aug. 9: “We’ve got no sponsorship right now for the 77,” for next season. “So we’ve got to find something. We don’t want to give up that car, but if we don’t get sponsorship, we’ll have to.” Sponsor 5-Hour Energy has an option to return. The company can’t go to any other Cup team with Monster Energy as series sponsor.

AVAILABLE DRIVERS

Matt Kenseth: Out of the No. 20 after this season. Doesn’t have anything announced for next year at this point. At Bristol, Kenseth was asked about his plans for 2018. He said: “I’ll be honest with you … I’m not worried about (2018) even really one percent anymore to be honest with you. I’m just not concerned about it.’’  

Kurt Busch: With Stewart-Haas Racing declining to pick up his option for next year, Busch is a free agent. Even with Stewart-Haas Racing’s action, there’s still a good chance Busch signs a deal to remain with the organization.

Kasey Kahne: The 2017 Brickyard 400 winner is available after Hendrick Motorsports announced it had released him from the final year of his contract. Rick Hendrick said Aug. 9 that he’s working to help Kahne land a ride for next season and hinted it could be through an alliance with Hendrick Motorsports. 

Danica Patrick: She will not return to Stewart-Haas Racing after this season. Patrick has not announced any plans for next season. She’s not looking for a ride in the Xfinity Series. “Cup only,’’ she said.  

Aric Almirola: Won’t return to Richard Petty Motorsports, team announced Sept. 12.

GMS Racing/Spencer Gallagher: GMS Racing confirmed on Aug. 30 that it will not have a full-time Cup entry in 2018. The organization, which fields teams in the Xfinity and Camping World Truck Series, had looked into moving to Cup.

Darrell Wallace Jr.: Richard Petty Motorsports is selling Wallace to prospective sponsors for the No. 43 car for next season. He gained interest from RPM after driving in four races for the team while Aric Almirola was injured. Wallace said Aug. 4 that he’s focused on finding a ride for next year with so few options left for this year.

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Cup drivers with most speeding penalties during regular season

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Trevor Bayne and Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied for the most speeding penalties with seven each during the regular season, which ended last weekend at Richmond.

Matt Kenseth was the playoff driver with the most speeding penalties with six.

The Monster Energy Cup Series playoffs start Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m., NBCSN).

Here’s a look at the most speeding penalties this season:

All Drivers

7 — Trevor Bayne

7 — Dale Earnhardt Jr.

6 — Matt Kenseth

5 — Kyle Busch

5 — Michael McDowell

5 — Reed Sorenson

4 — Aric Almirola

4 — Clint Bowyer

4 — Matt DiBenedetto

4 — Timmy Hill

4 — Joey Logano

4 — Ryan Newman

3 — Austin Dillon

3 — Denny Hamlin

3 — Kasey Kahne

3 — Corey LaJoie

3 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

3 — Darrell Wallace Jr.

3 — Cole Whitt

Playoff drivers

6 — Matt Kenseth

5 — Kyle Busch

4 — Ryan Newman

3 — Austin Dillon

3 — Denny Hamlin

3 — Kasey Kahne

3 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

2 — Ryan Blaney

2 — Kurt Busch

2 — Chase Elliott

2 — Kevin Harvick

2 — Jimmie Johnson

2 — Brad Keselowski

2 — Kyle Larson

2 — Martin Truex Jr.

1 — Jamie McMurray

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Report: Smithfield leaving Richard Petty Motorsports after this season

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Smithfield will leave Richard Petty Motorsports after this season, according to a report Sunday morning by Motorsport.com.

Richard Petty Motorsports had no comment about the report. Smithfield has been a sponsor of the team since 2012.

The news comes two months after team owner Richard Petty said he was looking forward to having Smithfield back for the 2018 season.

Richard Petty Motorsports has been the center of talk in the garage this season but made it known Sept. 5 that it had no plans to merge with any teams at the time. Also, Richard Petty Motorsports will be looking for a new home. It will not renew the lease on its shop and vacate the building after this season.

Aric Almirola is in the final year of his contract with the team, and his status for next season has not been announced. Almirola finished 17th Saturday night at Richmond Raceway. He has not finished better than 12th in the eight races back with the team since he was injured in a crash in May and missed seven events.

The team has expressed an interest in Darrell Wallace Jr., who filled in for Almirola in four races.

The organization’s first priority, though, is to find sponsorship. It has two charters, leasing one this season to Go Fas Racing for the No. 32 of Matt DiBenedetto. That charter must return to RPM or be sold. If it is returned, RPM could lease the charter for the No. 43 and remain a one-car team next season.

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