Five things to watch in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway

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TALLADEGA, Ala. – David Ragan’s uniquely eventful season could take its most interesting turn yet Sunday.

Ragan will close out his nine-race stint in place of injured Kyle Busch in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota with Sunday’s Geico 500 at Talladega Superspeedway, and it’s prompted some curiosity about a scenario that Ragan already has experienced at the 2.66-mile oval known for unexpected endings and bizarre twists.

What if Ragan, who conquered Talladega in 2013, wins in his final start for JGR before moving to Michael Waltrip Racing’s No. 55 Toyota to finish out the 2015 season?

Start with the obvious – Ragan would become eligible for a spot in the Chase for the Sprint Cup, regardless of whose car he is piloting. Though his MWR team technically wouldn’t be in the Chase (unless he were to win in that car), it still would reap the PR benefits of having a driver compete for a championship in one of its Camrys.

But so would JGR.

A win for the No. 18 by Ragan would catapult the car into the owner’s championship, creating the possibility for the first split driver-owners title in NASCAR’s premier series since 1963. In that season, Joe Weatherly won his final driver title, and Wood Brothers Racing took the owners championship.

There has been only one other split title in Cup – Lee Petty (driver) and Herb Thomas (owner) finished the 1954 season as respective champions – but it’s been a common occurrence in the Xfinity Series, where JGR and Team Penske rotate drivers through top-caliber cars and Sprint Cup drivers can’t earn points. The past three seasons have featured split driver-owner champions on the Xfinity circuit.

Since the inception of the Chase in 2004, the field for the playoff (which started at 10 drivers, expanded to 12 in 2007 and grew to 16 last year) has featured no deviation between the eligible contenders and the cars they drive full time. The drivers competing for the title are mirrored by their teams vying for the owners championships.

But there always has been the possibility of “parallel” Chases for the driver and owner championship in which a driver might be racing for a title even though the car isn’t eligible.

And it’s more than semantics. There are millions at stake for each share of the championship. The championship driver and team roughly split the point fund money doled out by NASCAR and Sprint for winning the title. Last year, Kevin Harvick received a bonus check for nearly $5 million, bringing his total season winnings to $12.7 million.

When Chase Elliott won the Xfinity title last season, he picked up a bonus of nearly $1 million, and Team Penske (whose No. 22 Ford won the owners championship) earned a similar haul in bonus money.

In a season that perhaps has become best known for a spinning carousel of replacements for drivers sidelined by injuries and suspensions, it would seem fitting to have Ragan win before he hops into his third car in three months.

The Unadilla, Ga., native probably has a better shot at it than when delivered Front Row Motorsports’ underfunded No. 34 Ford to victory lane here in May 2013. That was the second of Ragan’s two career Sprint Cup wins at restrictor-plate tracks (he also won at Daytona International Speedway in July 2011), and he seems confident again.

“Man, I feel great,” he said after qualifying ninth Saturday. “I feel like we’ve got a car that can win this race. There are obviously a lot of really good cars, a lot of really good drivers, but at the end of the day, we’ve just got to execute. We’ve got to be perfect on pit road – no mistakes –and just have to be in contention.”

Other storylines to watch Sunday:

Strange bedfellows: Alliances often used to determine the outcome of restrictor-plate races before they even began as drivers, teams and manufacturers made deals to work together exclusively in the draft.

But that’s faded over the past two years with the Gen 6 car, which doesn’t allow partnerships so easily because it’s more difficult to maneuver.

The latest proof was Matt Kenseth pushing rival Brad Keselowski to a victory last October. After shoving Keselowski after the race a week earlier at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Kenseth would have preferred to help any other driver, but he said he had no choice – which has become common.

“It was so much easier to pass guys in the past and team up with people and make things happen, so you could pick and choose,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said Saturday. “You could say, ‘I don’t want to work with that guy. He’s going somewhere, but oh, he’s a Ford. I’m going to get over here with this Chevy, and we’re going to team-up and I’ll see him later. In another lap or two, we’ll go by him’. Today, you’ve got to take whatever you can get. Every significant run is so rare, that you might not like the guy, but you’ve got to do it and help people you don’t want to help.

“It’s difficult because a lot of times you’re helping people get by people you like, or your teammates, even. But you’ve got to do what you’ve got to do because these opportunities are few. You’ve got to be in the top three all day long to expect to be in the top three at the end when it counts. If you get shuffled out, it’s so hard to pass these people with this kind of car. So, we sit there in two lines: the bottom and the middle, and you aren’t going to jump out there by yourself and go around them. So, you’ve sort of got to sit there in line and hopefully some dummy pulls out, and he gets shuffled back. Hopefully, that happens a lot, and you end up toward the front.”

Big Mac: It’s hard to call Jamie McMurray a dark horse considering that four of his seven victories in Sprint Cup have occurred on plate tracks. But as the lesser heralded driver at Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson was the consensus preseason pick as 2015’s breakthrough star), McMurray quietly is putting together one of the best seasons of his career. A fourth last week at Richmond International Raceway (on a gamble by rookie crew chief Matt McCall) was McMurray’s fourth top 10, which has him a solid ninth in the points standings.

Though he will start 27th Sunday, McMurray has been strong at Talladega since making his Sprint Cup debut here in October 2002 (in place of injured Sterling Marlin), and he is less than two years removed from his last win at the 2.66-mile oval (in October 2013). A win would qualify McMurray for the Chase for the Sprint Cup, one of the only voids on a resume that includes victories in the Daytona 500 and Brickyard 400.

Dynamic duo: The past two plate races have been won by the Team Penske Fords of Keselowski and Joey Logano, who opened 2015 with a win in the Daytona 500. It isn’t by accident as Earnhardt and others have taken note of the prowess of the Penske drivers. Just as he did over 500 miles at Daytona International Speedway, Logano won Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega by making every right move in a 200-mph chess match where a mistake can drop a driver from first to 30th.

Faster horses: Hendrick Motorsports engines claimed five of the top six spots in qualifying, including a stunning gap of 0.3 seconds from pole-sitter Jeff Gordon to Hendrick teammate Kasey Kahne. Though NASCAR essentially equalizes what’s under the hood at a plate race, a significant edge can magnify the margin over the competition.

In his most impressive of six wins at Talladega, Gordon paced 139 of 194 laps and credited the engine for his dominance in the May 2005 race, in which he drove a Star Wars-sponsored Chevrolet. A decade later, a sequel could be brewing.

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.