Ryan: The Stewart-Haas Racing saga continues at Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. – The familiar Midwestern twang, wisecracking as always, cut through the glum haze of a brief interview with an understandably dejected Rodney Childers.

“All right, guys, I need him,” Tony Stewart said, lightheartedly breaking up a session between Kevin Harvick’s crew chief and two reporters who were wedged between the haulers for the Nos. 4 and 41 Chevrolets. “Come on, come on.”

Moving swiftly and with a smile, Stewart — who isn’t even a month removed from surgery on his fractured back — motioned Childers back toward the side door of the team’s truck.

Thus, another eventful day ended for the most intriguing team in NASCAR’s premier series.

During an oft-controversial yet wildly successful run in Sprint Cup since its 2009 rebranding, Stewart-Haas Racing has been tabbed by some as Team Tumult (because of its mix of charismatic and combustible drivers) but also could be called Team Triumph (because of its two championships in the past five years).

The past six days illustrated the dichotomy well.

Wednesday, the team stunned NASCAR by announcing an impending move to Ford in 2017 – severing a fruitful relationship with Chevrolet and Hendrick Motorsports. Friday, it captured the pole position at Atlanta with Kurt Busch. Saturday, the organization collectively held its breath as Clint Bowyer, who will replace Stewart next season, took a header off a dirt bike on national TV (but hey, he won the race!).

All of it occurred against a backdrop of lingering questions about Harvick, whose Friday began with being trailed by reporters asking about his contract status for next season (which he cagily addressed with a series of definite maybes and nary a mention of Ford).

His Sunday ended the same way, with a pack of microphones and cameras chasing in search of answers for how he finished sixth despite leading a race-high 131 of 330 laps.

So how did the No. 4 team handle the recent whirlwind?

“I’m just glad we got our lame-duck season started the right way,” Childers deadpanned.

There at least was plenty of upside for Harvick, who effectively kicked off the 2016 season (the restrictor-plate randomness of the Daytona 500 doesn’t count for much, sorry) with the same blinding speed of the past two seasons.

For most of 500 miles, the 2014 series champion controlled the pace and tone of the Folds of Honor QuikTrip 500, deftly wheeling his Chevy as many peers wrestled with a lower-downforce rules package that had them sliding all over the 1.54-mile oval.

But – just as it has many times in a frustrating pattern since Childers and Harvick were paired two years ago – the wheels began to come loose late in the race.

Harvick began struggling with handling on his final three green-flag runs. Jimmie Johnson took the lead with a short pit on his final green-flag stop and opened up a massive gap because Harvick’s stop was slower by 4 seconds.

He emerged in second for an overtime restart but starting on the outside on Atlanta’s rough pavement will neutralize even the strongest of cars. Harvick helplessly watched as Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet motored away to its 76th career win – tying Dale Earnhardt.

“We just didn’t execute today,” Harvick said. “The outside just didn’t go. I just had to drive it too hard and got loose. Just got way behind on a pit stop.”

After the brief round of interviews, he didn’t seem perturbed as he made his way to the back gate of the garage to the motorhome lot. Bowyer ran up to Harvick for an animated and friendly discussion. A fan asked for an autograph; another yelled, “Good race!”

The scene was decidedly more somber back at his hauler.

“It sucks to have that good of a car and not win for sure,” Childers said. “I didn’t feel like we could pit when (Johnson) pitted. I just didn’t think our tires would last that long. Then we had the mishap on pit road and lost a bunch of time, and then we were just too loose that last run.

“It’s one of those things you don’t want to beat yourself, but we definitely did it today.”

The frustration was extremely familiar. Atlanta marked the 14th time in the previous 74 races that Harvick led the most laps but didn’t win.

Childers still found some solace in his car’s speed, though, as the team adjusts this year to a new race engineer (who had been ill with flu at Atlanta).

“I feel good about the speed we had all weekend,” he said. “The car drove good. It’s nice to get everyone in a rhythm. Everybody did a great job all weekend. Nothing seemed to change a whole lot from what we had last year.

“You want to win them, sure. But that’s not the way you want to lose them, either. But there’s a lot more we can win.”

Win some. Lose some. It’s the story of Stewart-Haas Racing.

And, in part, it probably is what the team’s namesake stuck around to remind his winningest crew chief as the Atlanta garage hastily emptied Sunday night.

William Byron’s title hopes end in Bristol incident

title hopes end
Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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William Byron‘s playoffs ended when he ran into the back of a car shortly before halfway in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Byron was running 10th and in position to advance to the second round after Saturday’s elimination race before the incident.

Byron told NBCSN’s Marty Snider that Joey Gase‘s car slowed on a straightaway and Byron ran into the back of Christopher Bell‘s car.

“I literally had nowhere to go,” Byron said. “Just ridiculous that’s what takes us out.”

Byron said he was running behind Bell, who was behind Gase, on the high side. Byron said he had Aric Almirola on his inside and could not move down there.

Byron entered the race the first driver outside the final transfer spot to the second round. He entered the race trailing Clint Bowyer by three points.

 

 

 

Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars going to rear for inspection violations

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The cars of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones will start at the rear after each car failed inspection twice before Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Busch enters the race 18 points above the cutline to transfer to the second round of the Cup playoffs. Saturday’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Busch was to have started ninth.

This is the second playoff race in a row that Busch’s team has failed inspection twice before the race and had to start at the rear. Busch started at the rear last weekend at Richmond. He finished sixth.

Hamlin has already advanced to the second round via points. He was to have started seventh.

“We’ve got 500 laps,” he said. “If we’re good enough, we’ll get to the front. Not really too worried about it in that sense.”

Jones is not in the playoffs. He would have started 20th.

NASCAR also announced that the cars of Corey LaJoie and Bubba Wallace will start at the rear for unapproved adjustments. JJ Yeley will go to the rear for a driver change since he was not listed on the preliminary entry list for the No. 15 car.

Wallace was to have started 27th. LaJoie was to have started 30th. The No. 15 was to have started 32nd with Brennan Poole as the driver.

 

Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, TV channel

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Four drivers will be eliminated from the Cup playoffs after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This marks the first time the track has been in the playoffs. The Saturday Cup race at Bristol will end the first round. The 16-driver field will be cut to 12.

William Byron (3 points behind the cutline), Cole Custer (-8), Matt DiBenedetto (-25) and Ryan Blaney (-27) are the four drivers out of a playoff spot. Clint Bowyer holds the final transfer spot.

Here is all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Bristol:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines is at 7:38 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:45 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup haulers enter the garage (screening and equipment unload) at 10:30 a.m. Garage access health screening begins at 12:30 p.m. Garage opens at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:10 p.m. Driver introductions will be at 7:15 p.m. The invocation is at 7:30 p.m. The national anthem will be performed by Joe Nichols, three-time Grammy nominee, at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 7 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6:30 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 partly cloudy skies with a high of 62 degrees and a 3% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski won at Richmond. Martin Truex Jr. finished second. Joey Logano placed third for the second race in a row.

LAST POINTS RACE AT BRISTOL: Brad Keselowski won in May after Denny Hamlin lost the lead when he hit the wall. Chase Elliott ran into Joey Logano as they battled for the lead late in the event.

TO THE REAR: Denny Hamlin (two inspection failures), Kyle Busch (two inspection failures), Erik Jones (two inspection failures), Corey LaJoie (unapproved adjustments), Bubba Wallace (unapproved adjustments), JJ Yeley (driver change).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Cup starting lineup

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars going to the rear for inspection violations

Bubble drivers brace for Bristol battle

Pit crew change for teams of Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson

Friday 5: The thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney seek NASCAR history to advance

What upcoming Cup playoff races NASCAR fans can attend

Trevor Bayne says the fire remains to run more races

Cup playoff clinching scenarios to make Round of 12

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The first elimination race of the Cup playoffs has arrived in the form of Bristol Motor Speedway.

Tonight’s 500-lap race on the short track will determine which drivers make up the Round of 12.

Three drivers have locked themselves into the second round. Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski earned their spots via race wins at Darlington and Richmond. Denny Hamlin clinched a spot via points.

More: Brad Keselowski on pole for Bristol

That leaves nine spots for 13 drivers to compete for.

If there is a new winner, the following drivers could clinch by being ahead of the 10th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano – would clinch with 7 points: 51 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Logano has finished third in the last two playoff races (at Darlington and Richmond). Has made 23 starts at Bristol posting one pole, two wins, six top fives and 10 top 10s. Logano’s average finish is 15.3.

Martin Truex Jr. – would clinch with 20 points: 38 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Earned 22nd-place finish at Darlington and second-place finish at Richmond. Has made 29 series starts at Bristol posting two top fives and three top 10s. His average finish is 20.6.

Austin Dillon – would clinch with 21 points: 36 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Dillion has a runner-up finish at Darlington and a fourth-place result last weekend at Richmond. Has 13 starts at Bristol posting one top five and three top 10s. His average finish is 17.3.

Chase Elliott – Would clinch with 30 points: 28 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Elliott finished 20th at Darlington and fifth at Richmond. Has made nine starts at Bristol and has one pole, three top fives and four top 10s. Average finish is 12.6.

Alex Bowman – would clinch with 31 points: 27 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Bowman placed sixth at Darlington and ninth at Richmond. Has made nine series starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 22.6.

Kyle Busch – would clinch with 40 points: Just 18 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Has seventh-place finish at Darlington and a sixth-place finish at Richmond. Has made 30 Cup starts at Bristol posting two poles and a series-leading eight wins among active drivers.

Aric Almirola – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Finished ninth at Darlington and eighth at Richmond. Has made 22 starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 25.0.

Kurt Busch – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the cutoff sport. Almirola holds the tiebreaker of best finish in the current playoff round. Busch has finished eighth at Darlington and 13th at Richmond. Has 39 Cup starts at Bristol with one pole, six wins, 12 top fives and 21 top 10s. Average finish is 14th.

Clint Bowyer – would clinch with 55 points: Three points over cutoff. Finished 10th at Darlington and Richmond. Bowyer has made 29 Cup starts at Bristol with eight top fives and 16 top 10s. Average finish is 13.6.

William Byron (-3 points from cutoff; would need help to clinch): Finished fifth at Darlington and 21st at Richmond. Five Cup starts at Bristol with one top 10. Average finish of 17.2.

Cole Custer (-8 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 12th at Darlington and 14th at Richmond. Finished 25th in lone Bristol Cup start.

Matt DiBenedetto (-25 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 21st at Darlington and 17th at Richmond. Eleven Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and one top 10. Average finish of 19.1.

Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney is last on the 16 driver playoff grid heading into Bristol. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney (-27 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 24th at Darlington and 19th at Richmond. Ten Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and three other top 10s. Average finish of 20.7.

More: Blaney and DiBenedetto seek history to advance to second round

Should there be a repeat winner Saturday – Harvick or Keselowski – the following drivers would advance to the next round by being ahead of the 11th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano: Would clinch with 4 points

Martin Truex Jr.: Would clinch with 17 points

Austin Dillon: Would clinch with 18 points

Chase Elliott: Would clinch with 27 points

Alex Bowman: Would clinch with 28 points

Kyle Busch: Would clinch with 37 points

Aric Almirola: Would clinch with 48 points

Kurt Busch: Would clinch with 48 points

Clint Bowyer: Would clinch with 52 points

William Byron: Would clinch with 55 points

Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney: Could only clinch with help