Five things to watch in Saturday’s NASCAR Sprint Cup race at Kentucky Speedway

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SPARTA, Ky. – And as NASCAR embarks on an untested and uncertain era of purpose-built progress, a child shall lead them.

OK, Kyle Larson is 22, but his youthful verve, stock-car innocence and dirt-track savvy are among the myriad reasons making him a fine choice to start first at Kentucky Speedway in Saturday’s Quaker State 400, which will plunge the Sprint Cup Series into a two-month wave of tailor-made rules changes.

It starts with a lower-downforce configuration (achieved through a vastly reduced spoiler) that is intended to de-emphasize aerodynamics and spice up the action at Kentucky, a 1.5-mile oval where lead changes have been in short supply since its Cup debut four years ago.

A “high-drag” approach will be applied with a megaspoiler at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (July 26) and Michigan International Speedway (Aug. 16), and then the low-downforce arrangement will return Sept. 6 with the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway.

It represents a major philosophical overhaul for NASCAR from implementing full-season rules (albeit with some frequent tweaking) for decades to tailoring the cars to the tracks.

With rain greatly curtailing practice at Kentucky, it’s virtually impossible to forecast what will happen Saturday night, and it would seem to tip the scales in favor of Larson, who mightily has struggled through a sophomore slump after a sublime rookie season hinted at the imminence of a breakthrough victory. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver also has a vast background in sprint cars, and that should help as the more ill-handling Cup cars are expected to slide around the weathered asphalt as if being raced on the slippery Midwestern clay.

source: Getty Images
NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Quaker State 400 Presented by Advance Auto Parts – Practice

All of these points matter little to Larson, however, whose nonplussed answers are indicative of the Millennial ambivalence that NASCAR is trying to shatter in hooking a younger audience with a more action-packed brand of racing.

“We’re on a pavement track, so it doesn’t take me anywhere close to back to my dirt roots at all,” Larson said. “So, stock cars are heavy. They’re sluggish in a way. It doesn’t really feel a whole lot different to me other than just a little bit looser in the corner, and you have to lift a little bit sooner and maybe use a little bit more brake. But other than that, it doesn’t drive too differently.”

The nonchalance has been indicative of his speed Friday.

While the radio channels of many veterans were filled with consternation while trying to solve the new package across two practices, Larson seemed the most adaptable. He paced both sessions in his No. 42 Chevrolet and turned a 182.537-mph lap in the first that was the quickest of the weekend.

If the Japanese-American driver (a graduate of the Drive For Diversity) were to capture his first victory in NASCAR’s premier series while heralding the dawn of a fresh sheen for stock-car racing, that would make quite a storyline for stock-car racing.

Here are others to watch Saturday night:

Break the bubbly? With his Friday win in the Xfinity Series, Brad Keselowski will enter Saturday’s race as a clear-cut favorite. He has won two of the four Cup races at Kentucky, and he was second in both practices Friday (Rodney Childers, crew chief for Kevin Harvick, said the Team Penske Fords of Keselowski and Joey Logano had everyone covered).

This also could be viewed as a statement race for the 2012 series champion, whose cars mostly have lacked speed to contend for victories. He is locked into the Chase for the Sprint Cup thanks to a victory at Auto Club Speedway, but Keselowski needs his team to start rounding into title form.

“When you get in this car and win, that confidence, that momentum, you just feel it in your soul, you feel it in your body and that energy that you have it just really feels special,” Keselowski said after the Xfinity win. “I’m very pumped about this win and feeling very much like we can carry it into (Saturday).  I honestly think my Cup car is just as good, so we’re ready.”

After needing several stitches in his right hand to close a wound sustained by breaking a bottle of champagne after last season’s Kentucky win, Keselowski also is prepared to celebrate. A fan recently educated him on proper bottle-opening technique – with a sword. “I haven’t quite got the guts up to open a bottle with a sword, but if I was going to try it this would be the weekend,” he joked.

–Completing the resume: It’s the last start at Kentucky for Jeff Gordon and thus the last chance for the four-time series champion to cap his illustrious career with an impressive achievement – winning at every track on the circuit. Of the 23 tracks in the series, Kentucky (which is holding only its fifth Sprint Cup race Saturday) is the only victory lane void for the Hendrick Motorsports driver. “It would mean a lot to accomplish that,” he said. “I love doing things that are hard to do and set those kinds of stats. It wouldn’t mean so much to me if I hadn’t won on all the other ones.  It would just mean a lot to win it.”

The odds are somewhat stacked against his 93rd career win, though: Gordon hasn’t led a lap yet at Kentucky, and there also hasn’t been a Chevrolet winner here yet in Cup.

Waterworld: Saturday’s forecast thankfully is dry, but wet conditions still could remain an unfortunate subplot to the racing at Kentucky, which was soaked this past week. Even when the rain stops, there have been interminable delays because of pesky “weepers” – water seeping through the cracks of the aged asphalt – and it apparently is happening while cars are at speed, too.

Jimmie Johnson speculated he hit a damp patch that caused his No. 48 Chevy to brush the wall in practice Friday, and Kyle Busch said the frontstretch developed many wet areas as Thursday’s Camping World Truck Series race unfolded. Referring to a track’s “character” is one of the great euphemisms in NASCAR driver vernacular, and Kentucky’s surface, already maligned as the circuit’s roughest, has endured a week of “character” development worthy of a Hollywood screenplay.

–Frontward focus: Since its inaugural event in 2011, there hasn’t been a lead change in the last 10 laps of a Sprint Cup race at Kentucky. The lower-downforce rules are aimed at changing that, and lead changes might be the most important metric NASCAR monitors in evaluating whether the new direction is a success.

But because Goodyear didn’t have time to build a tire to match the package (which will be the case at Darlington), many also have tried to manage expectations about the efficacy of the new rules package. If this race doesn’t deliver drama, no one will be hitting panic buttons. However if the outcome is in doubt as much as Friday night’s Xfinity duel between Erik Jones and Keselowski, there will be high-fives galore in the NASCAR tower.

 

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)