Upon Further Review: Pocono

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Is a revolution about to take place in the Sprint Cup Series?

As young drivers excel, it becomes more likely there could be multiple first-time winners this season — something that hasn’t happened since 2014 when A.J. Allmendinger and Aric Almirola each scored their first series victory.

Chase Elliott’s fourth-place finish Monday at Pocono marked the eighth time in the past 10 Cup races that a winless driver placed in the top five.

Elliott is one of five drivers seeking their first series win to score a top-five finish this season. The others are Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney, Austin Dillon and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. They are a part of a youthful rise as the series transitions from an era dominated by Jeff Gordon, Tony Stewart and others.

“There is a lot of competition out there right now between the group of young guys, who is going to win the first race, and you want to be a part of that and … prove yourself,’’ Dillon said.

Many will view Elliott as the favorite to score his first series win this year. His five top-five finishes is the most among drivers seeking their first Cup win and tied for most by a rookie after 14 races with Dale Earnhardt’s start in 1979. Elliott’s Hendrick Motorsports car has been strong at a variety of tracks from Pocono (fourth) and Texas (fifth) to Dover (third) and Bristol (fourth). With return trips to each this year, Elliott could be in position to win at any of those tracks, if not somewhere else.

Larson also has shown he’s close to winning in the last month. He teased fans with three runner-up finishes as rookie in 2014 but had struggled until earlier this year. He placed third at Martinsville and in the last month finished second at Dover and challenged for the win in the Sprint All-Star Race.

“We started the year off not great, but everybody stayed positive and kept digging,’’ Larson said recently. “Lately, we have been bringing really good stuff to the track. It’s been really cool just to see how hard work has been paying off and how we have been close.’’

Dillon has had his ups and downs this season but was third at Talladega, fourth at Martinsville and fifth Las Vegas, showing that he and his Richard Childress Racing team are moving closer to scoring a win.

“Hopefully I can keep proving myself on the track each and every weekend,’’ he told NBC Sports.

Blaney’s Wood Brothers Racing team benefits from its alliance with Team Penske. Blaney was fifth at Kansas. The Penske cars have shown more speed lately. Brad Keselowski won at Talladega and Logano won the Sprint All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

“The Penske organization has always been one of the best, I think, at being ahead of the game as far as rules changes and being prepared for it,’’ Blaney said last month. “That’s a great part about being kind of a satellite team to the Penske group. We get a lot of info from them and, hopefully, (can) be ahead of the ball with these new rules changes.”

Stenhouse has shown progress as the Roush Fenway Racing cars improved. He had a season-best finish of fifth at Auto Club Speedway.

While they will still have to beat Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards and others to win this year, should more than two first-timers do it, it would make the most prolific year for new winners since 2011 when five made their first trip to victory lane in the Cup series.

That year featured new winners Trevor Bayne (Daytona 500), Regan Smith (Southern 500), Paul Menard (Brickyard 400), David Ragan (July Daytona) and Marcos Ambrose (Watkins Glen).

When does the revolution begin? Will it be this week at Michigan International Speedway, later in the summer or further away? And who will lead it?

REPEAT PERFORMANCE?

After finishing sixth Monday at Pocono Raceway, a question for Kasey Kahne and his team is if they can score back-to-back top-10 finishes this week at Michigan.

It seems like an easy question. Why wouldn’t a Hendrick Motorsports car have consecutive top 10s? Especially at Pocono and Michigan where horsepower and aerodynamics mean so much and Hendrick cars often are good in both categories. Also, with a rule change this weekend that will reduce downforce and sideforce, shouldn’t that play to the top teams, including Hendrick, and be good for Kahne?

Maybe it will. Maybe for only the second time in the last 65 races — going back to Aug. 2014 — Kahne will score two top-10 finishes in a row this coming week.

Monday was a positive sign for Kahne despite a pit road speeding penalty. He radioed his team early in the race: “Car feels really good. Like really good.’’

Although the penalty during the competition caution dropped Kahne briefly to 37th, he worked his way into the top 10 before halfway in the 160-lap race. He bounced outside the top 10 for a spell before running the final 20 laps in sixth.

It’s these types of performances — and better — car owner Rick Hendrick had in mind when he signed Kahne to a contract in Aug. 2010, more than a year before Kahne would drive for the team, replacing Mark Martin in 2012.

Kahne finished fourth in the points in his first year for Hendrick. He made the Chase each of his first three years with the team. The performance earned Kahne a contract extension through the 2018 campaign.

Yet, there have been struggles. Kahne and his team have searched for better performances. Crew chief Keith Rodden replaced Kenny Francis before the 2015 season.

Since joining Hendrick Motorsports, Kahne has won five times in 158 races. Jimmie Johnson has 22 wins during that time, Dale Earnhardt Jr.  has eight and Jeff Gordon had eight before retiring last year.

Progress won’t come in giant steps but several small ones. A key for Kahne and his team will be to follow the Pocono performance with a top-10 result at Michigan.

DYNAMIC DUO

Only two drivers have each scored three top-five finishes in the past five races: Former champion Brad Keselowski and rookie Chase Elliott.

Keselowski won at Talladega, finished fifth in the Coca-Cola 600 and was third Monday at Pocono.

“It was a pretty strong weekend,’’ Keselowski said. “The last four or five weeks have been strong runs.’’

Elliott was fifth at Talladega, third at Dover and fourth at Pocono.

“We certainly had, I feel like, one of our best days of the year,’’ said Elliott, who led a career-high 51 laps Monday. “I thought for us to be able to contend and lead laps all day and have a car that could fight for the lead the majority of the day was great.’’

TROUBLING TURN

Kyle Busch’s 31st-place finish marked his third consecutive finish of 30th or worse.

He had not gone three consecutive races without a top-five finish in the last 24 races — the equivalent of two-thirds of a season.

Busch’s chances of winning ended when he was mired in traffic and clipped by Ryan Newman, who had moved up the track after Kasey Kahne went under him.

The contact sent Busch into the wall.

PIT STOPS

Josh Wise finished a season-high 27th at Pocono.

— Regan Smith’s 22nd-place finish was his best finish of the year in a non-restrictor-plate race (he was a season-best eighth in the Daytona 500).

— In the last five races, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has finished 16th (Talladega), 13th (Kansas), 14th (Dover), 15th (Coca-Cola 600) and 15th (Pocono).

—  After scoring one top-10 finish in the first eight races, Matt Kenseth has had five top-10 results in the last six races.

Kevin Harvick’s average finish on tracks 1.5 miles or larger (not including the restrictor-plate tracks of Daytona and Talladega) is 5.4.

— Tony Stewart lost 11 points on 30th in the points standings Monday after his crash at Pocono left him with a 34th-place finish. He’s 71 points out of 30th in the standings with 12 races to go. He needs to be in the top 30 in points should he win to be eligible for a Chase spot.

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”