With NASCAR rules in flux and Chase on the horizon, teams wrestle with how to adapt

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LOUDON, N.H. – Low downforce.

High drag.

Middle-of-the-road speculation.

Where will NASCAR land with its rules with the Chase for the Sprint Cup looming and myriad options to be assessed and evaluated over the final eight races of the regular season?

That was the pressing question hanging over the New Hampshire Motor Speedway garage Friday as teams prepared for Sunday’s 5-Hour Energy 301, which is among the last races remaining before the Chase that are run being under the original 2015 rules package.

In two of the next four races — at Indianapolis Motor Speedway and Michigan International Speedway — a high-drag aero package will be employed that essentially is the opposite approach than a lower-downforce package that made its debut (to mostly rave reviews from drivers and fans) at Kentucky Speedway.

A test was held Monday through Wednesday at Chicagoland Speedway, where reams of hard data were compiled, but few facts emerged about what might be the future direction for NASCAR’s premier series.

Though it certainly seems track-specific rules changes are the rage, the uncertainty about implementing them is challenging for teams trying to assemble a game plan for tackling the Chase for the Sprint Cup, which will begin Sept. 20 at Chicagoland.

NASCAR hasn’t said the rules will be altered for the 10-race title playoff – which will feature five 1.5-mile ovals that are in the cross-hairs for potential rules changes aimed at enhance passing (which happened at a 132% greater clip at Kentucky), particularly in swapping the lead.

But the sanctioning body also hasn’t ruled out tweaking tracks during the Chase, either.

Given that the Kentucky rules modifications were announced with only three weeks of lead time, it’s conceivable that much could change between now and when 16 teams begin dueling for the title in two months – making it virtually impossible to build an informed agenda that maximizes a rare test such as Chicagoland (13 of those were sessions slated for 2015).

“It’s hard to do that right now because we don’t know,” Team Penske’s Joey Logano said. “I don’t think anybody knows what we’re going to have.

“It could be the package we’ve been running all year.  If things work out, it could be the new low downforce package.  If things are great in Indy, who knows what happens?  You’d think that would just stay at Indy and Michigan, but who knows?  There are just so many unknowns right now that you’ve just got to focus on the things that you do know. There are parts on your car that are just going to make your car faster, no matter what aero package you’ve got.”

source: Getty ImagesIt still has made for some extreme cases of befuddlement and frustration for teams, namely Greg Biffle’s at Roush Fenway Racing.

His  No. 16 Ford tested at Kentucky Speedway for three days in mid-April … and yet when the circuit  returned to the 1.5-mile oval last week, the lower-downforce package made its debut.

At Darlington Raceway last month, Biffle tested for two days with the current rules package. But that approach since has been junked for the Southern 500, and the Sept. 6 race will feature the lower-downforce rules used at Kentucky.

Biffle was one of 13 drivers who tested Wednesday at Chicagoland. While some tried all three  packages, or focused on a combination of two, Biffle worked solely on the current rules.

“It’s hard for us considering the position we’re in as a team to manage that moving target, but, at the same time, we understand that this is changing around,” Biffle said. “Actually, I really like the package that we ran at Kentucky and what we’re going to run at Darlington, and maybe if we tweak on that, and that kind of continues to put on good racing, maybe that’s the package.

“So we (worked) on 2015 stuff,  and hopefully, it wasn’t the sixth day we’ve been (testing) on the race track that we’re going race something different, but we don’t know.”

If the goal is the greater good of improving the quality of racing by reducing the effect of aerodynamics, however, Biffle said his team gladly would take its lumps in the wake of what might have been the best race of the season.

“I’m game for all the changes they’re doing,” he said. “From the driver’s point of view, Kentucky was probably one of the best races that I’ve been in in a long time because we were able to do things we couldn’t do with the car before.

“You weren’t stuck behind that guy. You were stuck behind that guy because you always have been, but not like it was when the downforce was on it, it seemed like.  It seemed like it was a step in the right direction.  I thought it was much better.”

 

Kurt Busch wins Las Vegas Cup race in overtime

Kurt Busch
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After entering the Round of 12 last in the playoff standings, Kurt Busch won Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in an overtime finish, claiming his first win of the season and advancing him into the Round of 8.

Busch held off Matt DiBenedetto and Denny Hamlin to also claim his first Cup win at his home track.

The top five was completed by Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman.

The two-lap dash was caused by a incident involving William Byron, Christopher Bell and Corey LaJoie with seven laps to go. Bell cut a tire from contact with the wall and as he slowed Byron ran into the back of his car before going into a spin.

LaJoie received damage as he tried to avoid the incident.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Denny Hamlin

STAGE 2 WINNER: Chase Elliott

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Joey Logano finished 14th after he had to pit on Lap 91 to fix a left rear tire rub, a result of contact with Kyle Busch following Denny Hamlin’s three-wide pass for the lead on Lap 88Tyler Reddick finished 38th after he tagged the wall late in Stage 2 and went to the garage ending his day … After finishing sixth in the first two stages, Austin Dillon finished 32nd after an overheating problem forced him to pit road for repairs with 50 laps to go.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race at Talladega Superspeedway, 2 p.m. ET Oct. 4 on NBC

Check back for more

Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas: Start time, TV channel

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The second round of the Cup playoffs begins with the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The 1.5-mile track kicks off the Round of 12. Winning the race and stage points are a premium for playoff drivers before the races at Talladega and the Charlotte Roval.

Kevin Harvick, who won at Bristol, starts from the pole.

Here is all the info for the Sunday Cup race at Las Vegas:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given by Las Vegas Raiders owner Mark Davis at 7:07 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup garage opens at Noon. Drivers report to their cars at 6:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7 p.m. by Motor Racing Outreach Chaplain, Billy Mauldin. The national anthem will be performed by Sierra Black at 7:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400.5 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

COMPETITION CAUTION: Lap 25

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 6:30 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for sunny skies with a high of 96 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Kevin Harvick beat Kyle Busch to win at Bristol and claim his ninth win of the season.

LAST POINTS RACE AT LAS VEGAS: Joey Logano beat Matt DiBenedetto and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. in February.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the lineup.

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win but without hometown fans

Michael Jordan excited for NASCAR future with Denny Hamlin

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

Charlotte Roval to host limited number of fans

Friday 5: Team’s departure adds to ‘extremely stressful’ time

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NTSB releases final report on Dale Jr. plane crash

Bubba Wallace to receive Stan Musial award for extraordinary character

Long: 100 days left in 2020, what else can happen?

Kurt Busch seeks first Las Vegas win, but without hometown fans

Kurt Busch
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A win by Kurt Busch in tonight’s Cup race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) couldn’t come under more bittersweet circumstances for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Should Busch claim the victory on the 1.5-mile track, he’d go from being the last driver on the playoff grid (3,001 points entering the race) to the first driver to advance to the Round of 8.

While it would be his first victory of the year, it would also be his first NASCAR win at his home track in 23 starts across the Cup and Xfinity Series.

More: Stage points critical at Vegas

“The Vegas track has definitely been one of the tough ones for me over the years with results and finishes not where I would have expected them to be,” Busch said this week. “And the teams that I’ve raced for just have never quite found that right magic set-up or combination. And then for me, it’s a track that I just have that trouble with.

“There are a few tracks like Indianapolis and Martinsville; those are a few places where I struggle. And so with Vegas, I always put that little extra hometown pressure on myself and I would love to win there.”

The 42-year-old Las Vegas-native rolls off ninth on the 1.5-mile track. It’s his fourth while driving for Ganassi.

In his 21 Cup starts in Las Vegas, Busch’s best result is third in 2005 when he competed for Roush Fenway Racing. He has just one other top five. That came in last year’s spring race when he drove a throwback paint scheme to his 1999 NASCAR Southwest Series championship.

That day he led 23 laps. It was only the seventh time he’d led laps there and just the third time he’d totaled more than six laps led.

In February, Busch finished 25th.

If Busch were to finally make it to Vegas’ Victory Lane, the celebration would be somewhat muted.

It was announced last weekend that fans would not be allowed to attend the races at Las Vegas due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I would love to win through the spirit of the camera and everything on NBC Sports; and I know the fans there, local, will be watching and cheering on the Busch brothers,” Busch said. “So, that’s where I would connect. And hopefully do it through the TV side of it. We’ll get fans back one day and we’ll come back and race.”

Busch enters the Round of 12 having earned just one top 10 in the first round, an eighth-place finish at Darlington. He finished 13th at Richmond and 15th at Bristol.

“What I like is we have had better lap times at all three races so far compared to maybe the five or six races leading into the playoffs,” Busch said. “We know that our cushion is gone. We ended Bristol with 33 points to the good. And now we start Vegas minus four (points behind Austin Dillon in the cutoff spot). So that’s just part of the system and now we have to be perfect. We have to get every point possible that we’re able to get on our own at Vegas, Talladega, and the Roval. And, that should help us advance.”

Carolina Blue: Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan bonded by NASCAR

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Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan were teammates from 1982-84 at the University of North Carolina and Eastern Conference rivals throughout the 1980s and ’90s in the NBA.

But their friendship was about more than just hoops. While growing up on opposite ends of the Tar Heel State, Daugherty and Jordan both developed a passion for following NASCAR.

Tobacco Road meant fast cars and hard-driving heroes for these two North Carolina natives.

LIFELONG FAN: Michael Jordan explains why he’s partnering with Denny Hamlin

In a NASCAR on NBC feature, Daugherty recalls how NASCAR impacted his life and Jordan’s and led both into team ownership. Michael Jordan and Denny Hamlin announced they will form a team to field cars for Bubba Wallace next season.

Daughterty notes in the feature that Wallace “has led a dynamic transformation as NASCAR banned Confederate flags and recommitted to inclusion amidst times of great unrest. This is a huge moment for NASCAR, a cultural momentum shift. This is people of all colors coming together to create an all-American race team already with championship lineage.

“With proper funding, equipment and crewmembers, this will be the best chance ever for a Black driver to win – and while driving for a Black owner. An opportunity to shock the world like Muhammad Ali once did.”

Watch the feature above on Brad Daugherty and Michael Jordan or by clicking this link.