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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Drivers to watch in NASCAR Cup Series race at Charlotte Roval

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The lineup for the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs Round of 8 will be decided in Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Entering the race, the final event in the Round of 12, Austin Cindric, William Byron, Christopher Bell and Alex Bowman are below the cutline. Bowman will miss the race — and thus the cutoff — as he continues to battle concussion-like symptoms. Noah Gragson is scheduled to drive the No. 48 Chevrolet Sunday.

Cindric is tied with Chase Briscoe for the eighth playoff spot, but Briscoe would claim it on the tiebreaker. Byron is 11 points back, and Bell is 33. Hendrick Motorsports has appealed the penalty to Byron that dropped him below the cutline. That appeal is scheduled to be heard Thursday.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Any playoff driver who wins Sunday’s race and isn’t already qualified — Chase Elliott qualified for the Round of 8 by winning last week at Talladega Superspeedway — automatically advances to the Round of 8.

Drivers to watch Sunday at the Roval (2 p.m., ET, NBC), the final road-course race of the season:

FRONTRUNNERS

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 1st
  • Last three races: Won at Talladega, 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2019 and 2020

Elliott is the clear favorite to win a second championship. He won Sunday at Talladega to advance to the Round of 8 and can relax Sunday at Charlotte having punched his ticket. Relaxing isn’t likely, however, as Elliott will be among the favorites to win.

Ryan Blaney

  • Points position: 2nd
  • Last three races: 2nd at Talladega, 4th at Texas, 30th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2018.

Blaney continues along a path that could result in him winning the Cup championship without winning a race. He came within an eyelash of winning Sunday at Talladega but fell victim to Chase Elliott’s last-lap charge. He should be a threat Sunday at the Roval, where he has four straight top 10s.

Kyle Larson

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 18th at Talladega, 9th at Texas, 5th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Won in 2021

Larson’s last win — and his last top-four finish — came at Watkins Glen seven races ago. He is 18 points over the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Austin Cindric

  • Points position: 9th
  • Last three races: 9th at Talladega, 15th at Texas, 20th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Sunday will mark his first Cup race. Has three top threes in four Xfinity starts.

Cindric hasn’t won since the season-opening Daytona 500 and is one of five drivers still in the playoffs who own only one victory this year. His ninth-place run at Talladega ended a streak of four straight finishes of 12th or worse.

MORE: NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

Daniel Suarez

  • Points position: 7th
  • Last three races: 8th at Talladega, 12th at Texas, 19th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Best finish in four starts is 13th

Suarez is 12 points above the cutline entering Sunday’s race. He has never led a lap at the Roval and has never finished in the top 10.

Chase Briscoe

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 10th at Talladega, 5th at Texas, 14th at Bristol
  • Past at CMS Roval: Finished 22nd last year in his only Cup start

Briscoe is teetering on top of the cutline in search of a spot in the Round of 8. He hasn’t won since the fourth race of the year at Phoenix and had a poor performance at the Roval last year.

 

 

AJ Allmendinger to return to NASCAR Cup Series in 2023

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AJ Allmendinger is getting another shot at success in the NASCAR Cup Series.

Kaulig Racing announced Wednesday that Allmendinger, currently chasing the Xfinity Series championship, will drive full-time in Kaulig entries in the Cup Series next season.

Allmendinger raced in Cup from 2007 to 2018 but won only one time — at Watkins Glen International — across those years. He moved to the Xfinity Series part-time with Kaulig in 2019, winning on the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. He won twice in 2020 and five times in 2021 and is a favorite to win the Xfinity championship this year. He has won four Xfinity races this season, including last Sunday at Talladega.

MORE: Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

Allmendinger, 40, will drive Kaulig’s No. 16 car in Cup next year. Justin Haley will drive the team’s No. 31.

Chandler Smith will replace Allmendinger in the Xfinity Series next year.

“It’s crazy how the last five years of my life have gone,” Allmendinger said. “More than anything, I love this organization. I know the fans get tired of me talking about all the men and women of Kaulig Racing. This is not a race team. This is a huge family.

“There will be tough times and growing pains, for sure. But I love what they’re about, and they believe in me. I’ll be OK whether it’s good or bad.”

MORE: Chase Elliott atop NASCAR Power Rankings

Team owner Matt Kaulig said Allmendinger is “one of the best in the world at every type of track. He’s done so much for Kaulig Racing and our program. He’s a gigantic part of what we’re building.”

Team officials said Allmendinger has a multi-year contract.

 

 

 

 

 

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Charlotte Roval

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Sunday provides a final chance for drivers to advance to the Round of 8 and keep their Cup championship hopes alive.

Talladega winner Chase Elliott is the only driver who has advanced to the next round. That leaves seven spots available going into Sunday’s race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe holds the final transfer spot by a tiebreaker over Austin Cindric. At least for now.

William Byron is 11 points behind both drivers, but Hendrick Motorsports will appeal Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas on Thursday. Should Hendrick win and Byron get those points back, he would move into a transfer spot.

There’s just part of what to watch for in Sunday’s race.

Favorites to be No. 20

This season remains tied for the most different winners in series history at 19, but there are a few candidates who could become the 20th different winner this year on Sunday.

Among the favorites to do so:

Ryan Blaney, who came close to winning last week at Talladega, won the inaugural Cup race at the Roval in 2018.

Martin Truex Jr., who has four career Cup wins on road courses, still seeks his first victory of the season.

Michael McDowell, who is coming off a third-place finish at Talladega, has had a career-high 12 top-10 finishes this season, including top 10s in each of the last four road course events this year.

Will history repeat?

Last year, the four drivers eliminated after the Roval were Kevin Harvick, Alex Bowman, Christopher Bell and William Byron.

Harvick was eliminated in the first round this year, but Byron (-11 to the cutline) and Bell (-33) are in jeopardy of being eliminated in this round again. Bowman stated Tuesday that he will miss his second consecutive race because of continued concussion symptoms. He will be among the four eliminated from title contention.

Bowman missed last weekend’s race because of concussion-like symptoms suffered at Texas. A decision on if he’ll be able to race at the Roval will come later this week.

Will chaos continue?

Consider what some of the former Roval winners have endured on their way to the checkered flag:

In 2019, Chase Elliott drove into the Turn 1 wall on a restart while the leader. He recovered to win.

In 2020, Elliott overcame a loose wheel to win for the second year in a row.

In 2021, Kyle Larson won after his team changed batteries and put the alternator belt back on.

Could a similar fate be in store for this year’s winner? Or will they have a cleaner day?

Entry lists

Thirty-nine drivers are entered including IndyCar driver Conor Daly, former Formula 1 driver Daniil Kvyat, former 24 Hours of Le Mans winner Mike Rockenfeller and former 24 Hours of Daytona winner Joey Hand. JJ Yeley will drive the No. 51 for Cody Ware, who stated that he would skip this event because of his ankle injury at Texas the footwork needed on a road course.

Charlotte Roval Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are IndyCar driver Marco Andretti and former F1 driver Daniil Kvyat.

Charlotte Roval Xfinity entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Saturday, Oct. 8

Forecast: Partly cloudy with a high of 66 degrees. No chance of rain during the Xfinity race.

  • 10 – 10:30 a.m. — Xfinity practice (NBC Sports App)
  • 10:30 – 11:30 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying (NBC Sports App)
  • 12 – 1 p.m. — Cup practice (NBC Sports App, USA Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m.)
  • 1 – 2 p.m. — Cup qualifying (USA Network, NBC Sports App)
  • 3 p.m. — Xfinity race (67 laps, 155.44 miles; NBC, Peacock, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 9

Forecast: Sunny with a high of 64 degrees. No chance of rain during the race.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup race (109 laps, 252.88 miles; NBC, Performance Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

Hailie Deegan to make Xfinity debut at Las Vegas

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Hailie Deegan announced Tuesday that she will make her Xfinity Series debut Oct. 15 Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBC and Peacock.

The 21-year-old Deegan is in her second full-time season in the Camping World Truck Series. She finished a career-high sixth in that series last weekend at Talladega Superspeedway.

She will drive the No. 07 car for SS Green Light Racing with Jeff Lefcourt.