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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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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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Long: A celebration worth savoring for Ryan Blaney, Wood Brothers

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Ryan Blaney wasn’t supposed to be here.

Neither were the Wood Brothers.

Yet, there they were celebrating Sunday at Pocono Raceway after a momentous win for a storied organization and a storied family.

The Wood Brothers trace their history to NASCAR’s early days when the only Petty racing was Lee (Richard’s dad) and the fastest siblings were the Flocks. The Woods later dominated with David Pearson driving the No. 21 Ford.

“Our dad and uncles back in the ’60s and ’70s, they were almost unbeatable and built those wins up,’’ co-owner Len Wood said.

The Woods’ success faded. There were special moments, such as Dale Jarrett’s first Cup win in 1991, Morgan Shepherd’s last win in 1993 and Elliott Sadler’s first Cup victory in 2001, but there were struggles between those special days.

The family’s darkest period was from 2008-10. The team failed to qualify for the 2008 Daytona 500, marking the first time since 1962 the “Great American Race” was held without the Woods.

They missed four of the first five races in 2008. The family business teetered.

It seemed as if Wood Brothers Racing would follow the fate of so many mom-and-pop businesses that were gobbled up by bigger competitors. Just these competitors weren’t Wal-Mart but Hendrick Motorsports and Joe Gibbs Racing.

After Petty Enterprises closed its shop at the end of 2008, the question became if the Wood Brothers would do the same.

With Ford’s support, the team survived, running select races. It wasn’t even half a season but it kept the family business alive.

“You just take it one day at a time and one situation at a time and one crisis at a time,’’ co-owner Eddie Wood said of the struggles. “There’s always something going on or changing in racing, and you just have to adapt and figure out a way to make it work. 

“You have a day like today, you don’t even remember the tough times.’’

The team provided a feel-good moment in 2011 when Trevor Bayne won the Daytona 500 but the Woods hadn’t won since. It seemed only a matter of time, though, with the team’s affiliation with Team Penske and 23-year-old driver Ryan Blaney.

While some might recall Blaney as the son of driver Dave Blaney, Ryan Blaney is actually a third-generation racer. His late grandfather, Lou, raced as early as 1958 and amassed more than 600 wins, driving sprint cars and modifieds.

Dave Blaney was inducted into the National Sprint Car Hall of Fame in 2014, joining Lou, who was inducted in 2013. Dave Blaney didn’t enjoy the success in NASCAR he did in sprint cars, winning one Xfintiy race, but the family’s racing gene was passed on to Ryan.

It was on a trip to watch his dad race in NASCAR when Ryan’s career began. He raced a quarter midget at age 8, making his debut at a dirt track not far from Pocono Raceway.

As Ryan Blaney’s success grew, he moved through the ranks and began gaining attention of Cup drivers.

In a 2012 marketing video, Tony Stewart said of Blaney: “I won’t try to sell him to anybody because I want him eventually. I want him in our organization. I think the world of him. I think he’s going to be the next great star.’’

Also providing a testimonial was Kevin Harvick, the driver Blaney held off in the final laps to win Sunday.

In that 5-year-old video, Harvick said: “Ryan just understands how this sport works. He understands how he’s supposed to be off the race track. In the race car, he’s just a great competitor and understands what he’s supposed to do. It’s very rare that you see somebody that far ahead of their time.’’

The youngster held off the 2014 Cup champion Sunday by not making any mistakes. Harvick never got to the rear bumper of Blaney’s car to make a move.

With that, Blaney became the 18th different driver to win for the Wood Brothers.

Blaney joined the family in 2015 and their time together was expected to be short.

“It was actually kind of understood that he was going to be moving on probably the next year, and then it didn’t happen,’’ Eddie Wood said.

Instead, Blaney is with the Wood Brothers, merging future with past.

In a serendipitous nod to when the Wood Brothers were among the dominant teams, Blaney’s radio malfunctioned and his crew couldn’t hear him. They had to resort to the hand signals used back when David Pearson drove the No. 21 for them. Hand to the roof meant the car was loose, hand on the door meant the car was tight.

Still, if only the radio had worked. Blaney wanted to go back in time in a special way.

“I wanted to pick Eddie and Len up,’’ Blaney said. “I wanted to find them and pick them up.’’

And drive them to Victory Lane. Just as they used to do back when the Wood Brothers won so often.

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What drivers said after Pocono 400

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Here’s a sampling of what drivers had to say after Sunday’s Cup race at Pocono Raceway:

Ryan Blaney – Winner: “Kyle (Busch) stayed out and he was on a little bit older tires and it looked like he was getting pretty tight, especially off of (Turn) 1 and that’s where new tires really seemed to come alive because you could hold the line and get runs on him, downshift and get next to him. I had a big run on him off of (Turn) 3 and he did a good job blocking, and we were able to get under him, but then I had to hold (Kevin Harvick) off. He was super-fast. I can’t thank Kevin enough for racing me clean.  That was really cool of him, but it was definitely hectic. Hopefully the fans liked it. It was really cool.”

KEVIN HARVICK – Finished 2nd: “I got behind a couple times and had a fast enough car to make it back up. And then I missed a shift from third to second. I just have to thank the Roush Yates engine shop for building a pretty sturdy engine because it should have blown up and it never blew up. I think there at the end I just couldn’t get into the corner like we needed to all day and I couldn’t stop like I needed to. (Blaney) could charge the corner, so I needed for him to make a mistake and try to get up underneath him on the exit of the corner. He never made a mistake and did a great job and ended up winning the race.”

Erik Jones – Finished 3rd: “It’s just gratifying. You stick with it and stick to your guns and know what you have and keep doing the same thing week in and week out and sometimes it’s tough to do that. You hope it’s going to come back around and I got the finish I felt like we deserved.”

Kurt Busch – Finished 4th: “It was warm and we battled really hard today and had a nice, consistent run. I just didn’t have any special speed, but we ran good lap times, so I’m really proud of our Haas Automation/Monster Energy guys. It’s great to see a Ford in victory lane, so congratulations to the Wood Brothers. They deserve this. To see Ryan Blaney win, he’s gonna be a superstar in this sport. NASCAR loves him. We love him. He’s a good kid and I’m gonna keep pushing hard, though. We’re chiseling away at this and we’re gonna get in good position.”

Brad Keselowski – Finished 5th: “I just didn’t get enough go on the restart, which was a bummer. I don’t know, I feel like I probably could have won it if I had just gotten that launch. Kyle (Busch) got a great launch. He went a tiny bit before the line, but not enough to where NASCAR was gonna call it, and I didn’t get the launch I needed.”

Martin Truex Jr. – Finished 6th: “It was a tough day, but we battled hard after having to start at the back due to an engine change after Saturday’s practice. This team never quits, fought right to the end and did have a shot of winning this thing. But when the race restarted for the final time we weren’t in the preferred outside lane. We wanted to be fourth instead of fifth and have the inside lane. But (Ryan) Blaney got that spot by just beating us off pit road.”

Kyle Larson – Finished 7th: “It was a decent day. I would have liked to finish better, obviously; I just didn’t get the best restarts. It seemed like if I was on the top I was behind guys that were on no tires and they’d be three-wide into (Turn) 1 and I’d be on the very top. And, when I’d restart on the bottom, I’d just get slowed down too much and then I couldn’t have a very good run off the corners. So, my restarts weren’t great. But, our car was a lot better than I thought it would be after practices.”

Chase Elliott – Finished 8th: “I wasn’t real pleased with it. That’s not a comforting feeling if your brakes are going away. But, mine weren’t bad enough. I could manage it. I could kind of keep them in check. I knew kind of when I was pushing them the pedal would fade, but if I took it easy on them they’d come back. So, it was on the edge but manageable.”

RICKY STENHOUSE JR – Finished 11th: “I’m really proud of my team. We struggled all weekend with the handling of our car so to leave Pocono with an 11th – place finish is a true testament of the strength of our team. Our focus this year is to be consistent. We definitely learned some things for next time.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 13th: “The balance felt good for most of the race, but would tighten up in Turn 3 every now and then, so I had to really focus on my entry and exit in that corner. One of the biggest challenges was the heat. By lap 28, it felt like my A/C unit overheated or something and from there I had no air conditioning. I was alright during most of the race, but that red flag was just miserable. I was able to make it through and started dumping water on my face when I could, which helped a little bit. But we battled through the challenges; that’s what this team does. We were able to hang on and grab a 13th-place finish.”

Ryan Newman — Finished 14th: ”Unfortunately we had overheating issues with trash and then we sustained an exhaust leak that made my driver’s seat extremely hot during the race. It’s a shame. It’s like we never had the chance to show our muscle. We were just tending to issues that kept creeping up, instead of focusing on getting our car better to contend with the front-runners.” 

Danica Patrick – Finished 16th: “All in all, it was a clean day for the Aspen Dental Ford team. We didn’t make any mistakes at all and ended up with a solid finish. I wish we’d had more grip there at the end, but overall it was a good day for our team.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 17th: “I thought we had a pretty good car on long runs today, but we got into the wall and that ruined our race. We got a lap down but battled back. Our guys didn’t give up and we got an OK finish.”

Ty Dillon — Finished 18th: “There was so much strategy in today’s race at Pocono. Once we got close to what we needed, we started playing with a strategy to make up track position in the final two stages. It’s so important at this track, but so hard to get once the field spreads out. It worked how we needed it to, and our car really started to come around there at the end. I took off on that last restart and picked off a couple other cars in the short amount of time that I had. Now I’ll focus on our plan for Michigan next weekend.’’

Paul Menard — Finished 20th: “Matt (Borland, crew chief) and the team did a really good job finding the right balance. The pit crew did a great job. We were able to race around the top 15 for a majority of the day and had some really good speed in the final segment. Our fuel strategy worked and by the time the final pit stop came around, we were in position to score a top-10 finish. I’m not really sure what happened on that last restart, but I didn’t get the best restart and messed up shifting gears into Turn 1.”

Trevor Bayne — Finished 21st: “We just kept getting tighter throughout the day. We made adjustments all day long but our Ford Fusion was still tight on the exit of the corners. We’ll regroup and get after it next week in Jack’s (Roush) backyard in Michigan.”

David Ragan – Finished 25th: “We had good strategy by Derrick Finley and our 38 team. We had one weak run – the second-to-last run when we were racing for the lucky dog. I don’t know if we had a funny set of tires or if we went a little too far on an adjustment, but that was our weakest run. All in all, we made improvements on the car. We just have to start a little bit better at the beginning of these races, but I’m proud of this Overton’s team. They had good strategy and a good day on pit road and we were able to salvage a decent finish.”

Darrell Wallace Jr. — Finished 26th: “I’m just so bummed out and frustrated with myself. I know my family is going to be hard on me after this, not to be so hard on myself, but I’m competitive and I want to win races and I want to lead laps. Just wanted to have a good showing, and to speed four, five times, same segment, that was pretty tough to swallow, and then this race just going green the whole time … it was just not our day.”

Landon Cassill – Finished 27th: “We got it better later, but we just didn’t have a very good first half of the race and we never had a chance to fight back.”

Kasey Kahne – Finished 34th: “I was going down the front stretch about halfway and the right front popped. I had been fighting serious brake problems for a while. So, I’m guessing it had something to do with that.  But it happened in the middle of the front stretch so I just kind of rode the wall, blew my brakes off, rode the wall to the backstretch, which actually was a very easy ride for where it happened. Just disappointed that happened, that is three weeks in a row we have had issues.” 

Jimmie Johnson – Finished 36th: “No, (the brake pedal) went right to the floor and I saw a replay inside the medical center. The smoke, I think, is the brake fluid coming out of wherever failed and onto the rotors. I can only speculate that I got the brakes too hot and when I went to the brakes they just traveled straight to the floor. I didn’t even have a pedal to push on. At that point, I threw it in third gear and I was just trying to slow it down. I was heading to the grass and I was wondering why I didn’t turn right and get to the wall sooner, but I’m fine. Certainly, a big scare. I haven’t had a scare like that since 2000 at Watkins Glen.” 

Jamie McMurray – Finished 37: “I didn’t really even see the No. 48 (Jimmie Johnson) car wrecking until I just went down and I got on the brake pedal and my pedal started to go to the floor and I had a little bit that I could kind of pump it and I thought I was going to be okay.  And then, I don’t know if I got into some oil or what happened, but I just started spinning and didn’t have any brakes.  So, it was really weird that we kind of both had the same thing happen at the same point on the racetrack, but fortunately, we are both okay and yeah, move on.” 

Dale Earnhardt Jr. – Finished 38th: “It’s just my fault. I wish I could say that the shifter is different and something is out of line or not something I was doing last year as far as where we had the shifter mounted for Pocono. This really concerns me coming back here and the road courses you know. But, we haven’t had any problems all year long, but at places where we do a lot of shifting I don’t know what is going on, what I’ve got to do or why this is really happening out of nowhere. We don’t really have an answer to it other than me just having to pay more attention, but I mean I’ve been doing this all my life and this isn’t a common issue, but it has been this weekend.”

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Kyle Busch takes pole for Sunday’s NASCAR Cup race at Pocono Raceway

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Kyle Busch earned his second straight pole of the season and 28th of his NASCAR Cup career during Friday’s qualifying for Sunday’s Pocono 400 at Pocono Raceway.

Busch topped the speed charts with a best lap of 179.151 mph, faster than outside polesitter Martin Truex Jr. (178.543 mph). Busch did so without crew chief Adam Stevens, who started a four-race suspension today for last week’s tire mishap at Dover.

“Any week that you’re able to qualify first and get the No. 1 pit selection is hopefully a good omen,” Busch told Fox Sports 1. “It’s all about the speed that our guys have bringing to the racetrack. We’ve been really fast. Our cars have been showing good speed the last few weeks, so it’d be nice to show speed through 400 miles on Sunday.”

Truex, who for the second straight week also qualified alongside Busch at Dover, joked about the outcome, telling FS1, “Damn him. What else can you say? It was a good day for us. We had a lot of issues with the car. … Just one of those days that really tested us and we came out with second. It was a good day.”

Third through 12th were Matt Kenseth (178.108 mph), Ryan Blaney (177.897), Kurt Busch (177.799), Brad Keselowski (177.792), Kyle Larson (177.557), Jamie McMurray (177.368), Joey Logano (177.256), Ryan Newman (177.026), Michael McDowell (176.918) and Kevin Harvick (176.561).

McDowell’s effort was impressive, his highest start ever at Pocono (previous best was 27th in 2013).

“That’s a big jump, going from 27th to 11th,” McDowell told FS1. “We unloaded with a good car and just made it better every run. We haven’t been great in qualifying, but we’re coming off three straight top-20s, so we’ve had good cars and good speed and today we put it all together.”

It was also his best qualifying effort this season and equaled his 11th qualifying spot last summer at Watkins Glen.

Hendrick Motorsports struggled during the session, with Dover winner Jimmie Johnson being the highest qualifier – albeit 19th.

Chase Elliott qualified 25th, Kasey Kahne 26th and Dale Earnhardt Jr. 28th.

However, Earnhardt’s run will essentially not count as he blew an engine in practice earlier in the day and then had to replace it, meaning he will start Sunday’s race from the back of the 39-car field.

Earnhardt tweeted that even though he’ll start at the back of the pack, NASCAR preferred that he make at least one qualifying attempt.

This is the second time this season that Hendrick Motorsports failed to place one of its four cars in the final round of qualifying. The other time was Texas, when the cars of Earnhardt, Elliott and Kahne did not make an attempt because they couldn’t get their cars through pre-qualifying inspection in time.

Jimmie Johnson was the only car to get through inspection then, qualified 24th and then won the race.

Click here for full qualifying results.

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