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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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Kevin Harvick’s rear tire changer sidelined by cancer treatment

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team, left a hospital Saturday afternoon after surgery this week as part of his cancer treatment.

Smith, who had the planned surgery Thursday, told NBC Sports through a team spokesperson that he should be back in four to six weeks. The Cup playoffs begin in four weeks at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

It was shortly before the Bristol night race last year that doctors discovered Smith had testicular cancer. He spent the day before that race undergoing scans, blood work and other tests to determine if the cancer had spread. Doctors found that the cancer had infected two lymph nodes in his lower abdomen and also saw a spot on his lung that was concerning.

Daniel Smith, rear tire changer for Kevin Harvick’s team, was released from a hospital Saturday afternoon. (Photo by Dustin Long)

Two days after last year’s Bristol night race, Smith had surgery to remove the tumor in his testicle. After a few weeks to heal, he began chemotherapy treatments. Each round consisted of one week in a hospital and two weeks of recovery. He had four rounds (12 weeks) of treatments. Smith returned to the track to watch Harvick compete in the championship race in Miami last year and then was back to changing tires at Daytona in February.

Thursday’s surgery is expected to be the final one Smith needs. Tonight’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is the first he’s missed this season. He stated through a team spokesperson that he walked a mile in the hospital Friday and again on Saturday before his release.

Harvick, who won last weekend at Michigan, starts eighth in tonight’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Matt DiBenedetto focused on winning as he looks for 2020 ride

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BRISTOL, Tenn. — Looking for a ride for next season, Matt DiBenedetto enters tonight’s Cup race at Bristol Motor Speedway focused on one goal.

“I want to win in Cup,” says the driver whose family moved from California to North Carolina when he was a teen to help his racing career, who ran start-and-parks at one time in the Xfinity Series to keep in the sport and who has 13 races left in what is the best ride of his five-year Cup career.

DiBenedetto found out this week that he would not return to Leavine Family Racing after this season. DiBenedetto said that “I don’t want to say I was blindsided” but said he held out hope that “my performance behind the wheel (would) do the talking and hope that that would prevail over everything.”

Instead, business matters prevailed. With Erik Jones near an extension to remain at Joe Gibbs Racing — keeping all four driver spots there filled — Toyota and JGR needed a place to move Christopher Bell from the Xfinity Series to Cup. Leavine Family Racing’s alliance with JGR makes it the natural spot for Bell. While Bell said this week nothing is set, all signs point to him driving the No. 95 car next year.

Despite his disappointment, DiBenedetto remains grateful to Leavine Family Racing for the chance to run the No. 95 this year.

“I want everyone to know, fans especially and social media and stuff, is to be easy on our team and Toyota and (Joe) Gibbs and everything because they’re all still great people and they gave me this opportunity,” he said. 

Still, about a year after DiBenedetto left his ride with Go Fas Racing and unsure of where he’d land, he’s again looking for a ride for the upcoming season.

“I don’t want to retire yet because I’m only 28 years old,” said DiBenedetto, who starts seventh in tonight’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). “Just getting started, but I want to win in the Cup Series. That’s what I’ve said and that’s my goal. I’m here to keep on climbing the ladder, not go backwards.”

As for what he might do next year, he’s not sure.

“I have no irons in the fire per se, yet, but this all just happened just this week,” he said.

One question is if it might be possible for him to drive for Joe Gibbs Racing’s Xfinity program — DiBenedetto made his Xfinity debut with JGR in 2009 as a development driver and he will drive the team’s No. 18 Xfinity car in the upcoming race at Road America.

“I don’t think there is that opportunity or as of now, there’s not,” he said. “Not that I’m aware of. I’ve talked to the Toyota folks and stuff and I don’t foresee any opportunities within the camp, I don’t think. Just going to have to really pursue everything, but the main goal is to keep proving myself behind the wheel, which I’ve shown I’m here to win and run up front.”

Maybe something good will happen to him tonight. Bristol is where he scored his first Cup top 10 in 2016, placing sixth for an underfunded BK Racing team. He and his family celebrated that finish on pit road after the race.

Alex Bowman, who also drove for underfunded teams before working his way up to a ride at Hendrick Motorsports, is rooting for DiBenedetto to remain in Cup next season.

“I think he does a really good job in the race car,” Bowman said. “Obviously, he has shown that he continues to deserve (a Cup ride). He’ll land on his feet. Everything happens for a reason. I was pretty bummed when I lost my gig. It all ended up working out for the better.”

Tonight’s Cup race at Bristol: Start time, lineup and more

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With the playoffs looming in a few weeks, the Cup Series returns its short-track roots tonight for a rumble under the lights at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The duo of Kurt and Kyle Busch have won the last four races in “Thunder Valley.” Who can claim the Bristol throne from the brothers?

Here’s all the info you need for tonight’s race.

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 7:41 p.m. by Johnny Morris, founder and CEO of Bass Pro Shops; Richard Childress; Bill Dance, legendary fisherman; Becky Humphries, National Wild Turkey Foundation CEO; Nick Wiley, Director of Conservation Ducks Unlimited; R. Joseph Hamilton, QDMA Founder and Senior Advisor; John Eastman, QDMA Senior Director of Operations. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 7:46 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage opens at 1:30 p.m. Driver/crew chief meeting is at 5:30 p.m. Driver introductions are at 7 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7:30 p.m. by Ronda Paulson, Founder and Executive Director of Isaiah 177 House. MRO Kids will perform the National Anthem at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile short 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 p.m. with NASCAR America. Countdown to Green begins at 7 p.m. The Performance Racing Network’s radio broadcast begins at 6:30 p.m and also can be heard on goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry PRN’s broadcast.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts clear skies, a temperature of 86 degrees with no chance of precipitation at the race start time.

LAST TIME: Kurt Busch won this race last year over Kyle Larson and Chase Elliott. Kyle Busch won in the spring over Kurt Busch.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for the starting lineup

Results, points after Xfinity race at Bristol

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Tyler Reddick capitalized on Justin Allgaier‘s misfortunes and led the final 11 laps to win Friday’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

It is his fourth win of the season.

The top five was completed by Chase Briscoe, John Hunter Nemechek, Jeremy Clements and Austin Cindric.

Click here for the results.

Points

Reddick keeps his lead in the standings with a 55-point advantage over Christopher Bell.

The top five is completed by Cole Custer (-139 points), Allgaier (-159) and Cindric (-193).

Click here for the point standings.