Five things to watch in tonight’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kansas Speedway

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Tonight begins a key stretch for NASCAR Sprint Cup teams that could give a hint of what is to come.

The SpongeBob SquarePants 400 at Kansas Speedway is the first of three consecutive races on 1.5-mile speedways – tracks that comprise half of the Chase races. After tonight’s race, the series heads to Charlotte for the Sprint All-Star race and the Coca-Cola 600. Both Kansas and Charlotte host Chase races.

In two of the first three races on 1.5-mile tracks this season (Atlanta and Texas), the finishing order has been the same with Jimmie Johnson first, Kevin Harvick second, Dale Earnhardt Jr. third and Joey Logano fourth. Harvick won at Las Vegas in the only other race on a 1.5-mile track this season.

So can anybody break into what seems to be a relatively exclusive club over the next three races?

“These next three weeks I think are going to be very important,’’ said Carl Edwards, who has not finished better than 10th in the first three races on 1.5-mile tracks. “I think they’re going to tell us a lot about the season going forward. If in these next three weeks as a group, our (Joe Gibbs Racing) Toyotas can work on some of the things we have planned and they are successful. …’’

Then it could give teams the direction they need to head for the fall. After Charlotte, there is only one 1.5-mile track on the schedule (Kentucky on July 11) until the Chase for the Sprint Cup begins in September.

Here’s what else to watch for in tonight’s race:

Tires could be a factor. They were last fall at this track. Dale Earnhardt Jr. was leading when a tire went down and he hit the wall. Brad Keselowski also had a tire go down and he slammed the wall. Others also had problems.

Could it happen again?

“I think anytime we come to Kansas we are a little nervous about tires just because of what we’ve seen in the past and a lot of what happened here in the fall race where a lot of the fast cars were blowing right fronts out,’’ said Joey Logano, who won that race last fall and starts tonight’s race on the pole.

“It always makes you a little nervous, but at the same time we put our faith in Goodyear to make the right decisions and we feel fine about it. Our car didn’t have a problem last time, but I know we were on the verge of it because a lot of cars were.’’

Said Jeff Gordon about tire issues in last fall’s race: “I know Goodyear has made a slight adjustment to the tire to help with that. We saw a couple issues last year. We personally on Team 24 did not have issues, but you never know how close you are to the edge. Even with less downforce on the cars, the amount of power that’s been reduced has made the cars a lot faster through the center of the corner. We enter the corner slower and exit the corner slower, but going through the crucial part of the load on the tire and how we sustain that through the center of the corner is up, and that’s a reason for concern.’’

Could Martin Truex Jr. be a dark horse? It is hard to call the driver second in points a dark horse but don’t forget about him. While he enters tonight’s race with a 66-race winless drought, he scored his best finish of the season last year at this track when he placed fourth in the fall.

Truex has been strong this season with nine top-10 finishes in the first 10 races. At the 1.5-mile tracks this season, he’s placed sixth (Atlanta), second (Las Vegas) and ninth (Texas).

“The car has had good speed and it’s driven good,’’ Truex said after qualifying fourth. “This is a brand new car for us, and I feel like it’s another step as far as catching a few of those guys on speed.’’

Erik Jones makes his official Sprint Cup debut. While he replaced Denny Hamlin during the Bristol race last month, the records list Hamlin in the finishing order – as if Jones didn’t drive that race. That won’t be the case tonight. Jones, who had never driven at Kansas Speedway until this weekend, has been fast.

“We could knock off laps back and forth that were pretty good and that was nice,’’ Jone said. “Definitely confident in the race. I’m just excited to get going.’’

Could Jimmie Johnson have a rough night? He’s won two of the three races on 1.5-mile speedways this season but qualified 19th. He struggled some in practice with short-run speed. If there are a number of cautions – both Kansas races had eight last year – or cautions bunched toward the end of the race where short-run speed is necessary, Johnson could face a challenge.

“We have qualified much worse and finished pretty darn well, so directionally we are going the right way but we just wish we had the magic want to fix the short-run speed,’’ he said.

 

NASCAR fines seven crew chiefs for lug nut violations at Las Vegas

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NASCAR announced Tuesday it has fined seven crew chiefs for lug nut violations from the Cup and Xfinity races this past weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway,

In the Cup Series, NASCAR issued fines to crew chiefs Matt McCall (Kurt Busch), Greg Erwin (Matt DiBenedetto) and Seth Barbour (John Hunter Nemechek) for having one lug nut not safe and secure on their cars. Each crew chief was fined $10,000.

In the Xfinity Series, NASCAR fined crew chiefs Bruce Schlicker (Ross Chastain), Dave Rogers (Riley Herbst), Ben Beshore (Harrison Burton) and Brian Wilson (Austin Cindric) for having one lug nut not safe and secure on their cars. Each crew chief was fined $5,000.

 

Chad Knaus to move off pit box for executive role at Hendrick

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Chad Knaus, whose success as a crew chief is nearly unparalleled in NASCAR, will step down from that role after this season and move into a leadership position at Hendrick Motorsports, the team announced Tuesday.

Knaus will become vice president of competition. He will oversee technical development for Hendrick Motorsports, including implantation of the Next Gen car in 2022. He also will be responsible for personnel for each of the four teams, including crew chiefs, pit crews, engineering, fabrication, assembly and other team-related staff.

Knaus won seven championships as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. Only Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman won more titles. Inman won eight, scoring seven with Richard Petty and one with Terry Labonte. Knaus has 82 career Cup wins. All but one came with Johnson. William Byron scored his first career Cup win in August at Daytona with Knaus as his crew chief. Byron was eliminated from the playoffs last weekend. The 49-year-old Knaus is the only crew chief to have competed in NASCAR’s postseason all 17 years.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus before the 2005 Coca-Cola 600. They combined to win that event four times.  (Photo by Harold Hinson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

“When I started at Hendrick Motorsports (in 1993) working for Ray Evernham, my goal was to be a crew chief,” Knaus said in a statement from the team. “Starting at a young age, I wanted to win every race we entered and battle for every championship.

“Mr. (Rick) Hendrick has given me the chance to do exactly that, and I could not be more thankful to him. After all these years, my competitive desire has not changed at all, but now I have a family that deserves my attention. This new executive role will allow me to compete in a different way with all four of our teams while spending more time with my wife and two young children.

“I appreciate the company supporting my decision, and I’m truly excited about the challenge ahead of me to help us grow and win. I’m also looking forward to working closely with Jeff (Andrews), who I admire and have great respect for. I owe so much to Mr. Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, and I’m ready for the next chapter.”

Knaus and his wife Brooke welcomed a baby girl July 30. Vivienne Mae Knaus is the couple’s second child. Son Kipling was born in 2018.

A new crew chief for Byron will be announced at a later date.

Chad Knaus, car owner Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson displaying their rings after Johnson claimed the 2013 Daytona 500. (Photo by John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“In life, it’s rare to witness true excellence first-hand, but that’s precisely what we’ve been treated to with Chad,” Hendrick said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is bittersweet because, in my opinion, he is the finest crew chief our sport has ever seen.

“Although we’re going to miss him atop the pit box, I’m heartened that Chad has made this decision for himself and his growing family and that he is energized about the opportunity to move us forward in a new capacity. There is no one with higher standards or a stronger passion for winning. He will continue to elevate Hendrick Motorsports and instill his championship mentality throughout the company.”

Knaus served two races as crew chief for Casey Atwood in 2000 and then did one race for Stacy Compton that season. In 2001, Knaus was paired with Compton. Knaus rejoined Hendrick Motorsports to be Johnson’s crew chief in 2002. They remained together until 2019 when Knaus moved to Byron’s team.   

Knaus will report to Andrews, 55, who has been promoted to executive vice president and general manager, effective immediately.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus celebrate their seventh NASCAR Cup championship after winning the 2016 season finale in Miami. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Andrews joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1992 and most recently served as vice president of competition. He had held that role since 2017.

Previously, Andrews held a leadership position in the team’s engine department, including director of engine operations. In his expanded role, Andrews will oversee all competition-related departments, including powertrain, manufacturing and racing operations. He will continue to support the organization’s technical relationship with Chevrolet and remain its primary liaison with NASCAR’s competition group. Andrews reports to Hendrick Motorsports president Marshall Carlson.

“In my almost 29-year NASCAR career, I’ve been fortunate to work for just one organization,” Andrews said in a statement from the team. “Mr. Hendrick is a racer and a fierce competitor. His drive to win is contagious, and I’m grateful to have a team of like-minded people who share that passion. Racing is all I have ever done professionally. When I left my home and my family 33 years ago to pursue this dream, I never could have imagined the opportunities that have been provided by so many people, most importantly Mr. Hendrick.”

Said Hendrick in a statement: “As we look to the years ahead, Jeff and Chad are going to play significant roles in our success. They’re tremendous leaders who are respected within our organization and across the entire auto racing world. In addition, they each bring unique strengths and skillsets that will complement each other extremely well and benefit all of Hendrick Motorsports. We’re in the business of winning, and this combination is going to help us do just that.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1 after quiet Vegas

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Kevin Harvick didn’t have a flashy night Sunday in Las Vegas, but it didn’t keep him from retaining the No. 1 spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

After winning the Bristol night race, Harvick finished in the top 10 in the first two stages in Vegas before placing 10th at race’s end.

Kurt Busch’s win at his home track vaulted him into the top 10 as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Las Vegas

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): In the last eight races he’s won three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 5): Placed fourth for his 11th top-five finish in the last 14 races.

3. Alex Bowman (Last week unranked): Finished fifth for his second top five and fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

4. Denny Hamlin (Last week unranked): Left Vegas with a third-place finish to snap a three-race streak of finishing outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (Last week unranked): Snapped a 46-race winless streak with his victory and advanced to the Round of 8.

6. Kyle Busch (Last week No. 3): Finished sixth after a “dismal” night. He has four consecutive top 10s.

7. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): Finished 13th to give him two finishes outside the top 10 since he won at Richmond.

8. Chase Briscoe (Last week unranked): Opened the Xfinity playoffs with his second consecutive win.

8. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 2): Led 73 laps, but had to settle for a 22nd-place finish in Vegas.

8. Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Finished 14th for his second straight finish outside the top 10.

Also receiving votes: Erik Jones and Chris Buescher.

NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)