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Analyzing Sprint Cup’s top 10 after the first five races of 2016 season

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While NASCAR enjoys its first off-weekend of the season, we here at NASCAR Talk thought it would be a good time to analyze how the top 30 drivers have fared in the first five races.

Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards, Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Brad Keselowski and Austin Dillon make up the top 10 drivers we’ll feature today.

We’ll feature drivers ranked 11th through 20th on Saturday and wrap things up on Sunday with drivers ranked 21st through 30th.

Here’s how the top 10 have fared thus far in 2016:

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Kevin Harvick

Points position: 1

Best finish: 1st (Phoenix)

Worst finish: 7th (Las Vegas)

Laps led: 413

Nate Ryan’s analysis: Just as good as he has been since joining Stewart-Haas Racing, but the inability to close dominant performances is becoming a headache. That will loom larger the longer Harvick’s contract future remains cloudy.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Can he beat Jimmie Johnson head-to-head? In the last nine times they’ve finished first and second, Johnson won. Good news is this team has plenty of time to work toward rectifying that.

 

FONTANA, CA - MARCH 20: Jimmie Johnson, driver of the #48 Lowe's / Superman Chevrolet, celebrates in victory lane after winning the NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Auto Club 400 at Auto Club Speedway on March 20, 2016 in Fontana, California. (Photo by Jonathan Moore/Getty Images)

Jimmie Johnson

Points position: 2nd (-11 points behind Harvick)

Best finish: 1st (Atlanta, Auto Club)

Worst finish: 16th (Daytona)

Laps led: 171

Nate Ryan’s analysis: This is the best the No. 48 Chevrolet has performed since its sixth championship. The downforce reduction suits Johnson, and crew chief Chad Knaus seems more comfortable with strategy than in years.

Dustin Long’s analysis: That Chad Knaus said last weekend he doesn’t feel the team is running as strong as what they need and already has two wins could be a scary proposition for foes. This is the fourth time Johnson has had two wins in the first five races. He won the title the other three times.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Carl Edwards

Points position: 3rd (-24 points)

Best finish: 2nd (Phoenix)

Worst finish: 18th (Las Vegas)

Laps led: 75 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: He has improved with new crew chief Dave Rogers, but the sting from the runner-up finish at Phoenix will linger. Edwards still seems to be trying too hard in his second season with Joe Gibbs Racing, causing unforced errors.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Just missed making the final round last year in Miami, but is showing signs that the belongs there this year and doing it with a new crew chief.

 

Las Vegas Motor Speedway - Kobalt 400 Practice

Denny Hamlin

Points position: 4th (-25 points)

Best finish: 1st (Daytona 500)

Worst finish: 19th (Las Vegas)

Laps led: 107 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: He seems back on his game after a two-race blip following his Daytona 500 breakthrough victory. New crew chief Mike Wheeler, whom Hamlin immensely reveres, has a six-month jump on the playoffs.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Scored back-to-back third-place finishes heading into next weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway, one of his best tracks. Could be the start of something big.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Kyle Busch

Points position: 5th (-25 points)

Best finish: 3rd (Daytona, Atlanta)

Worst finish: 25th (Auto Club)

Laps led: 134 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: Aside from finding victory lane, the defending series champion hasn’t lost a beat from last season. He actually seems faster, and he will enter Martinsville Speedway overdue for a win on a short track where he excels.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Which Kyle is this, I forget? New Kyle? Old Kyle? New old Kyle? Old old Kyle? However you define him, he’s fast. Just like last year.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Joey Logano

Points position: 6th (-30 points)

Best finish: 2nd (Las Vegas)

Worst finish: 18th (Phoenix)

Laps led: 77 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: All he needs is a win to start looking ahead to the playoffs with crew chief Todd Gordon. The speed of the No. 22 Ford is there, and Logano remains at the top of his game, even if he is angering his rivals.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Teammate Brad Keselowski showed one doesn’t have to have many friends to win a championship. Maybe this is the year for Logano to follow that.

 

NASCAR Sprint Cup Series Good Sam 500 - Qualifying

Kurt Busch

Points position: 7th (-47 points)

Best finish: 4th (Atlanta)

Worst finish: 30th (Auto Club)

Laps led: 93 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: The 30th at Fontana was unusually disappointing (just ask Dustin, who boldly predicted the No. 41 to win). Is it a portentous sign … or just a slight stumble after opening 2016 with two poles and four consecutive top 10s?

Dustin Long’s analysis: Yes, was shocked at his Fontana flameout. Have liked the speed of this car – at least until Fontana.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Points position: 8th (-50 points)

Best finish: 2nd (Atlanta)

Worst finish: 36th (Daytona)

Laps led: 49 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: Remove the Daytona 500 crash, and this is one of the strongest starts yet for NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver. He still needs another gear to reach teammate Jimmie Johnson’s level, but so do most drivers on the circuit.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Run through the field from the back at Phoenix was impressive and shows how well the car is handling. Qualifying performance is confounding. He’s failed failed to advance beyond the first round the past two events.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Brad Keselowski

Points position: 9th (-53 points)

Best finish: 1st (Las Vegas)

Worst finish: 29th (Phoenix)

Laps led: 25 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: The fire is back for the 2012 champion, who is aggressive on the track and outspoken away from it. That’s good for buttoned-up Team Penske, which needs Keselowski to embrace his wild child despite the contrast.

Dustin Long’s analysis: One area this team needs to improve is qualifying. Has started 14th or better just once in the first five races.

 

Auto Club Speedway - Auto Club 400 practice

Austin Dillon

Points position: 10th (-56 points)

Best finish: 5th (Las Vegas)

Worst finish: 24th (Auto Club)

Laps led: 3 

Nate Ryan’s analysis: The pole position at Fontana validated the progress for this third-year team, which opened the season with four finishes of 11th or better. With this consistency, Dillon could qualify for championship eligibility on points.

Dustin Long’s analysis: Showing speed. Now he and team have to keep up with the car’s performance and avoid mistakes to get the results they deserve each week.

 

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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)

 

Xfinity Series playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Chase Briscoe opened the Xfinity Series playoffs by earning his second consecutive win.

His victory Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway gives him 57 playoff points and an automatic spot in the Round of 8.

Harrison Burton holds the final transfer spot. He has a two-point advantage over Ross Chastain.

Behind Chastain below the cutline are Michael Annett (-10 points), Riley Herbst (-14) and Brandon Brown (-20).

Below is the full Xfinity Series playoff standings going into Saturday’s race at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance. Drivers in yellow are in the remaining playoff spots.

Xfinity Series playoff standings

Cup playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Kurt Busch flipped the script on the Cup playoff standings with his win Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He entered the Round of 12 as the last driver in the playoff standings, but is the first driver to clinch a spot in the Round of 8.

Replacing Busch in the bottom spot of the playoff standings is Austin Dillon. He is 32 points behind Alex Bowman, who holds the final cutoff spot.

Behind Bowman is Kyle Busch (-9 points), Clint Bowyer (-20), Aric Almirola (-27) and Dillon.

“Obviously, the 1 car (Kurt Busch) was not a car that we needed to win a race,” Clint Bowyer said after Sunday’s race. “It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse as far as points-wise. (Kurt Busch) winning changes that landscape quite a bit, but we’re only 20 points out.”

Here is the full playoff standings entering Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance to the Round of 8. Drivers in yellow hold the remaining available playoff spots.

Cup playoff standings