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.

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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.

 

NASCAR entry lists for Las Vegas

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The Round of 12 begins this weekend for the Cup Series and NASCAR’s entry lists for Las Vegas Motor Speedway are out.

All three national series will compete at the 1.5-mile track as the Xfinity Series begins its playoffs and the Truck Series holds its second playoff race.

More: Bristol winners and losers

Here are the preliminary entry lists for Las Vegas:

Cup – South Point 400 (7 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

Thirty-nine cars are entered for the first race of the Round of 12.

Joey Logano won at Las Vegas in the spring over Matt DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. This race was won last season by Martin Truex Jr. over Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski.

Click here for the Cup entry list.

 

Xfinity – Alsco 300 (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

Thirty-four cars are entered in the Xfinity playoff opener.

Daniel Hemric is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Austin Hill is entered in Hattori Racing Enterprises’ No. 61 Toyota.

Chase Briscoe won at Las Vegas in February over Austin Cindric and Ryan Sieg. This race was won last year by Tyler Reddick over Christopher Bell and Brandon Jones.

Click here for the Xfinity entry list.

 

Trucks – World of Westgate 200 (9 p.m. ET Friday on FS1)

Thirty-six trucks are entered.

Ryan Truex is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 40 Chevrolet.

IndyCar driver Conor Daly will make his Truck Series debut in Niece Motorsports’ No. 42 Chevrolet.

Travis Pastrana is entered in Niece Motorsports’ No. 45 Chevrolet for his second start of the season.

Kyle Busch won at Las Vegas in February over Johnny Sauter and Austin Hill. Austin Hill won this race last year over Ross Chastain and Christian Eckes.

Click here for the Truck entry list

Silly Season: Ross Chastain to drive No. 42 Ganassi Cup car in 2021

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Another puzzle of Silly Season has been set with Ross Chastain headed to Chip Ganassi Racing to drive the No. 42 Cup car for next season.

Chastain has been a development driver for the team since 2018. He drove three Xfinity races for Ganassi in 2018, winning once. Chastain was to drive a full Xfinity season in 2019 for the team until D.C. Solar’s sponsorship ended after its offices were raided by the FBI. The company later declared bankruptcy.

Chastain is competing for the Xfinity championship this season for Kaulig Racing. He is winless this season but has five runner-up finishes, including this past weekend at Bristol.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 10: Aric Almirola extends deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2021 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through 2022.

No. 42: Ross Chastain takes over Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 ride for the 2021 season.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 13: Ty Dillon is in a contract year at Germain Racing. The team is considering putting itself up for sell.

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto said Sept. 17 that the team has an option to pick up his contract for next year and the deadline is the end of September.

No. 32: Ride is open with Corey LaJoie announcing he will not return to Go Fas Racing in 2021.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, the team confirmed on Sept. 10.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Spire Motorsports purchased the charter and assets of Leavine Family Racing and will be a two-car operation in 2021.

No. 96: Daniel Suarez and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Sept. 15 that they would part ways after this season.

 

Ross Chastain to drive for Chip Ganassi Racing in 2021

Ross Chastain
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Ross Chastain will return to Chip Ganassi Racing next season and drive the No. 42 Cup car, the team announced Monday morning.

The news was first reported by motorsport.com.

Chastain replaces Matt Kenseth, who was hired in April to take over the car after Kyle Larson was fired.

“I can’t thank Chip enough for this opportunity,” Chastain said in a statement from the team.  “The faith he and the organization showed me back in 2018 was a real turning point in my career, and I am extremely happy for the chance to join the team again. Racing in the Cup Series with a serious contender has always been my goal, and I’m looking forward to joining what is a very strong team.

“I know I have my work cut out for me, but I’m ready to get to work and help bring more success to the organization.”

Chastain has been a development driver for the tea since 2018. He drove three Xfinity races for Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team in 2018, winning at Las Vegas. He was to drive a full Xfinity season for the team in 2019 before sponsorship went away after DC Solar’s offices were raided by the FBI and the company later declared bankruptcy.

“In three races with our organization in 2018 and watching ever since, he showed me and everyone else that he is a tenacious driver who wants to win,” car owner Chip Ganassi said in a statement. “We believe that Ross will give our team the opportunity to be competitive each week and our sponsors someone to build a program around. Additionally, his racing background has him well-suited to make the move to the Cup Series.”

The 27-year-old Chastain has been among the sport’s busiest drivers the past three years in NASCAR.

He drove in 77 of 92 Cup, Xfinity and Truck races last year. He’s competed in 194 of 256 Cup, Xfinity and Truck races (75.8%) run since 2018.

Chastain’s Cup rides primarily have been with underfunded teams. He drove three races this season for Roush Fenway Racing. Chastain filled in for Ryan Newman as Newman recovered from the head injury he suffered in the Daytona 500.

Chastain is competing for the Xfinity championship this season for Kaulig Racing. He is winless this season but has five runner-up finishes, including this past weekend at Bristol.

Clint Bowyer: ‘Getting back to our consistency’ ahead of next round

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After entering Saturday’s Cup race at Bristol in the final transfer spot to the Round of 12, Clint Bowyer can rest easy for now.

Bowyer is one of the 12 drivers left to fight for the Cup title after his sixth-place finish Saturday. He goes into next weekend’s race at Las Vegas 11th in the standings.

Now, Bowyer says it’s time for his No. 14 team to “live up to our capabilities.”

“I just feel comfortable, we’re getting back to our consistency,” Bowyer said Saturday night. “I guess for a long time in my career I was kind of Steady Eddie, and that’s what it takes in these playoffs, to go the rounds, you can’t make mistakes. I said that going into these playoffs. For our team, we’ve got to live up to our capabilities, and if we can do that and race to our capabilities and not make the mistakes we were making through the summer months, we can contend and move forward rounds in this playoff system, and that’s what we’re doing.”

Bowyer, who was the last driver to finish on the lead lap at Bristol, goes to Las Vegas with three consecutive top 10s to start the playoffs.

Before the playoffs opened, he had gone 11 races with just two top 10s.

“Looking forward to getting out to Sin City and having some fun out there,” Bowyer said. “Hopefully we can double down, get some stage points and continue to march forward up through this playoff system and the points. We’re definitely starting behind again, there’s no question about that.”

Bowyer will start the second round with 3,004 points, tied with Kyle Busch. Kurt Busch is 12th with 3,001 points.

MORE: Points entering second round

“We’ve got to get out there and swing for the fence,” Bowyer said. “These are the playoffs; you don’t base hit it. Steady Eddie got us through this round, but from here on you’ve got to get up to the plate and swing for the fence every time, and every decision, and that’s in the car and out of the car, we’ve got to lay it on the line and go for it, and that’s why these playoffs are fun.

Bowyer has just one top-five finish in 17 Las Vegas starts (2009) and the most recent of his four top 10s there came in 2017.

Then comes the “crapshoot” know as Talladega and the “fun” Charlotte Roval.

“I like it. I’m ready,” Bowyer said. “Things can happen. At the end of the day I’ve had a different approach to the whole thing this year. This whole damned year has been chaotic and everything else, and you’ve just got to go out there and do the best you can do and not worry about or panic about anything else. That’s all you can do anyway.”