Five things to watch in today’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Auto Club Speedway

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Everything has ended with Kevin Harvick in NASCAR lately, so everything naturally starts there, too, when sizing up Sunday’s Auto Club 400.

The Bakersfield, Calif., native’s rarefied run continued Saturday at Auto Club Speedway, where he cruised to his second Xfinity Series victory in three starts (his other finish is a third).

The Stewart-Haas Racing star has been more dominant in NASCAR’s premier series, having won the past two races in the midst of a streak of seven consecutive top-two finishes. The last driver to accomplish that feat in Sprint Cup was Richard Petty, who rattled off 11 straight top twos in 1975.

Harvick still must cover many miles to match “The King,” but the defending series champion seems on track for more excellence in Fontana. He will start a career-best second on the 2-mile oval, where he scored a last-lap win over Jimmie Johnson in 2011.

And if Harvick can’t become the first Sprint Cup driver to win three straight Johnson in 2007, SHR still might keep its victory streak alive. Alongside teammate Harvick, Kurt Busch will start from the pole position in his second start since returning from a three-race suspension because of domestic violence allegations.

A win would cap a “perfect weekend” for Busch, who also has been fastest in every practice session this weekend. He hasn’t won at Fontana since April 2003 but has three consecutive top 10s at the track an hour outside of Los Angeles.

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

California redemption: A victory would deliver it for Toyota and one of its top drivers.

It’s been a year since Kyle Busch won his second consecutive at Auto Club Speedway, and Toyota hasn’t won an unrestricted race during the 35 races since then. The problem was horsepower in 2014, but it seemingly stems from aerodynamics, chassis and suspension problems this season.

Qualifying was encouraging as four Toyotas made the top 10 – including Denny Hamlin in sixth. The most recent Toyota winner (Talladega last May) missed the ’14 race at Fontana because he was sidelined on race morning by an eye injury, a year after he left the track on a stretcher with a broken back from a last-lap crash while racing Joey Logano for the lead.

Hamlin has shown a propensity for statement victories – witness his called shot at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in September 2012 – and Sunday certainly would qualify as an opportunity.

Tony Stewart: The results have been disappointing for “Smoke” this season, especially at the bigger, faster tracks such as Auto Club Speedway. The three-time series champion finished a season-best 30th at Atlanta Motor Speedway, where he was six laps down. It was just as bad at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where he settled for 33rd (five laps behind).

Stewart was running in the top 10 last Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway when he crashed while battling for position with Justin Allgaier. He can’t afford to keep making mistakes such as those, but of greater concern at Fontana is whether he will have the speed to challenge for a decent finish. His No. 14 Chevrolet will be scrutinized heavily from its starting position of 20th.

Tire wear: The asphalt at Auto Club Speedway dates to its June 1997 opening, making it the oldest on the circuit. The abrasive surface chews up rubber like a 200-mph cheese grater, and the 2014 race was marked by a rash of tire problems that affected more than a dozen drivers.

Even if there aren’t as many blown tires in this year’s event, tire wear is guaranteed to have an impact on strategy and also has made this track a first-half highlight. In three of the past four seasons since Fontana was reduced to playing host to a single annual NASCAR weekend, the winner of the track’s Sprint Cup race has emerged on a last-lap pass.

Roush Fenway Racing: “We’re dying a slow death,” is how Greg Biffle described the fortunes of his team Friday when it failed to advance from the first round of qualifying at Auto Club Speedway.

The struggles of RFR weren’t unexpected. During the preseason, team officials had warned it might take two months until its cars turned the corner after a dismal 2014 season. But there have been few glimmers of improvement, and few drivers speak the truth more bluntly than Biffle, who has been with the organization since 1998.

If Roush’s driving dean is sounding the alarm, it doesn’t bode well for a team that desperately needs a turnaround. It’s been six years since its last win in Fontana, but Roush once dominated the track (winning six of 12 from 2003-09). It will need to reclaim some of that magic Sunday with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. leading the team’s three-car charge from a starting spot of 27th.

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Entry lists for Talladega playoff weekend

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NASCAR’s playoffs continue this weekend on its largest oval track, Talladega Superspeedway.

All three national series will be competing on the 2.66-mile track.

More: Las Vegas winners and losers

Here are the preliminary entry lists for Talladega:

Cup – YellaWood 500 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC)

Thirty-nine cars are entered.

Brendan Gaughan is entered in Beard Motorsports’ No. 62 Chevrolet for his final start of the year and his NASCAR career.

Ryan Blaney has won the last two Cup races at Talladega.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Xfinity – Ag-Pro 300 (4:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-five cars are entered.

AJ Allmendinger is entered in Kaulig Racing’s No. 16 Chevrolet.

No driver is listed on SS Green Light Racing’s No. 07 Chevrolet.

Justin Haley won at Talladega in June over Ross Chastain and Jeb Burton.

Tyler Reddick won this race last year over Gray Gaulding and Christopher Bell.

Click here for the entry list.

 

Trucks – Chevrolet Silverado 250 (1 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

Thirty-nine trucks are entered.

Natalie Decker is on the entry list after she missed Friday’s Las Vegas race due to not being medically cleared.

Trevor Bayne is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 45 truck for the fourth time this season.

Spencer Boyd won this race last year over Todd Gilliland and Riley Herbst.

Click here for the entry list.

Las Vegas Winners and losers

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WINNERS

Kurt Busch Winless in 21 previous attempts at Las Vegas, Busch scored an emotional win at his hometown track. Busch took advantage of a strategy call by crew chief Matt McCall and a timely debris caution to take the point and led the final 26 laps. He earned his first win of the season. “This is 20 years of agony and defeat and now today with triumph,” Busch said after the race.

Matt DiBenedettoStill seeks his first career Cup win and the 100th series victory for Wood Brothers Racing, but DiBenedetto finished second in both Las Vegas races this season.

Alex BowmanHe finished fifth but scored more points (43) than any driver except Denny Hamlin, who had 53 points. Bowman holds the final transfer spot to the next round.

Chris Buescher — His ninth-place finish is his second consecutive top 10 and third top 10 in the last five races.

Chase Briscoe Had a dominant car and scored the win in the playoff opener for the Xfinity Series at Las Vegas.

LOSERS

Austin DillonHis race was going well — he scored 10 stage points — until overheating problems sent him to pit road. He lost nine laps as his crew made repairs and went on to finish 32nd. That drops him to last among the playoff drivers with two races left in this round.

Chase ElliottWas 10th on the overtime restart but got shuffled back and finished 22nd.

Caution comes at wrong time for Denny Hamlin at Las Vegas

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Denny Hamlin said he knew it would happen. He just didn’t know when.

A debris caution during a green-flag cycle proved key to Kurt Busch winning Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Las Vegas and Hamlin finishing third despite leading a race-high 121 laps.

The caution on Lap 237 caught most of the playoff drivers a lap down, forcing them to wave around. Busch was the only playoff driver who had not made a pit stop.

Hamlin, who was leading, pitted on Lap 233. He came in a lap after Alex Bowman stopped. Bowman was running second to Hamlin before the stop.

“Our hand got forced by (Bowman) by him coming in early there,” Hamlin said of his team not wanting to have Bowman gain time with fresher tires. “We both had a lead over the field. I thought we could have run a little bit longer, but we had to answer their strategy because they were within one second of us. We didn’t want to just to kind of give them the lead and count on running them down at the end of the race. You have to keep yourself in front of them.”

Instead of possibly celebrating a win and advancing to the next round, Hamlin left Vegas frustrated with his third-place showing.

“I just hate getting burned by the same thing, that’s it, that’s all I’m saying,” Hamlin said on the radio to crew chief Chris Gabehart after the race. “It’s the same thing I get burned on. I know we had no choice because (where) we were at.”

Gabehart responded to Hamlin on the radio: “The choice is I stay out another five or six laps and if the caution doesn’t come, we have no shot to win. I don’t know what I’d do different. The problem is there is no reason for the leaders to come early because you leave yourself vulnerable to that, but you can’t get all these goofballs to understand that. It’s what happens.”

Even after such a finish, Hamlin is 58 points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the next round.

But that wasn’t enough to console Hamlin.

“I just hate missing out on victories,” he said of his playoff spot. “We’re so much better than the six victories that we’ve got. It’s just disturbing. I’ve never been so fast in so many races and not finish it like we feel like we should, but we’re up front. That’s what counts. That’s what’s going to get you to Phoenix, keep getting those wins and keep battling for race wins. You’ll get yourself to Phoenix (for the title race) and hopefully you’’ll get a championship out of  it. That’s what we’re all here for. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Hamlin’s finish was his best in the playoffs and came after a first round that saw him score a stage win but not place higher than 12th.

Hamlin discounted the notion that putting together a new Cup team with Michael Jordan for next year and signing Bubba Wallace to drive for it had been a distraction earlier in the playoffs.

“I’ve been working for like 10 weeks on stuff, not just racing stuff, but stuff in general,” Hamlin said. “We’ve had bad breaks. Tonight was just another bad break like Darlington was, to be honest with you. Or Bristol. We led laps. We were, I thought, the best car.”

At Darlington, Hamlin missed pit road and had to go back around. Then a debris caution about 10 laps buried him outside the top 10 with less than 50 laps left. He finished 13th.

At Bristol, Hamlin started at the rear because his car failed inspection twice before the race. He ran fifth when he had contact with teammate Martin Truex Jr. as Truex returned to the track after pitting. Hamlin finished 21st.

Kyle Busch still below playoff cutline after ‘pretty dismal’ Las Vegas race

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Though he finished sixth Sunday night in the Cup playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch described his experience in the Round of 12 opener as “pretty dismal.”

The defending Cup champion now goes into the second race of the round, at Talladega Superspeedway, outside the transfer position to the next round. He trails Alex Bowman, who holds the final transfer spot, by nine points.

“Started a little up, went a little down and finished just kind of mediocre there,” Busch said. “We brought an okay M&M’s Camry. Just didn’t seem to have the overall speed that it needed, especially on the long runs early in the race. Then there late, just no overall speed. Nothing to go blitz anybody and try to make moves and get to the front. We just salvaged along and got what we got. We got lucky to get what we got for sure. It was looking like it was going to be a 12th- or 14th-place day, but came home sixth.”

Busch’s issues began at the start of Stage 2 after he earned the lead by getting off pit road first. As he raced Joey Logano for the lead on the Lap 87 restart, he was on the inside of Logano as they drove toward Turn 3.

That’s when Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, dove to Busch’s inside to make it three wide and then take the lead.

But as Hamlin pulled even with Busch, Busch lurched to the right and made contact with Logano. The Team Penske driver would pit to repair a tire rub while Busch continued.

“I don’t know if (Logano) knew that was coming and didn’t adjust for it and didn’t plan for it,” Busch said. “It kind of seemed like he expected me to go to the bottom and run the bottom and he was gonna run my door.”

Logano said on the radio to his spotter he didn’t realize he was three-wide until it was too late.

Later, Busch pit from fourth on Lap 118 and fell to 28th when his front tire changer’s pit gun broke, resulting in a 22.5-second stop.

“We worked on it and I thought we were making some gains on it and then we got that damage and got way back in traffic,” Busch said. “Then there towards the end, was just able to get lucky on a couple of the last restarts in order to pick off a few spots with the M&M’s Camry and get ourselves in a better position for the finish. It was a pretty dismal day I guess.”

Busch heads to Talladega. He has one win in 30 Cup starts there. He has just one top 10 there in the last six races.

How does Busch plan to navigate the race as he faces his nine-point deficit to the playoff cutoff?

“I’ll just do what I’m told,” Busch said.