Upon Further Review: Michigan

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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s slide in the points could be worrisome to his fans, but how concerned should they really be?

Maybe not as much as they are.

Since placing second at Bristol in mid-April, Earnhardt has had one top 10 and three finishes of 30th or worse. He enters this off weekend 12th in the standings, 30 points ahead of Hendrick Motorsports teammate Kasey Kahne, the first driver outside a Chase spot.

With 10 different winners in the first 15 races, the question is how many more will there be before the playoffs being in September. That’s pivotal if Earnhardt doesn’t win a race. More winners means fewer spots to make the Chase via points.

Last year, five winless drivers made the Chase. In 2014, it was three.

Take a look at what this eight-race slide has done to Earnhardt’s position in the standings. Since Bristol, Earnhardt has scored 133 points (Brad Keselowski has scored a series-high 256 points during that time).

The four drivers behind Earnhardt in the standings who also are in a Chase spot all have closed on him. Austin Dillon has gained 35 points on Earnhardt in those eight races. Jamie McMurray has gained 42 points, Ryan Newman has gained 54 points, and Ryan Blaney has gained 57 points. On average they’re making up between four to seven points per race on Earnhardt. With 11 races left until the Chase field is set, they’d pass him at this rate.

Of course, one would question if Earnhardt’s struggles will continue and allow those drivers to catch him at that rate.

Among drivers outside a Chase spot at this time, Kahne has gained 35 points on Earnhardt in the last eight races, Trevor Bayne has gained 40 points, and Kyle Larson has gained 50 points. Again, can they continue to catch Earnhardt at the same rate if they don’t win a race?

Now, look at what has taken place on the track. Three times in the last eight races, Earnhardt has been eliminated by a crash (Talladega, Dover and Michigan). Dillon, McMurray, Newman and Blaney — all behind Earnhardt in a Chase spot — have been eliminated by an accident a combined three times in that stretch.

Do you think Earnhardt’s misfortune will continue? Better yet, do you think those four drivers will avoid being collected in accidents in the coming weeks?

Also, the six times in the last eight races that Earnhardt made it to the halfway mark, he’s gained a total of 40 spots from the start. In five of those races he’s been running between seventh and 11th at the halfway point.

That’s well enough to make the Chase if he can finish there.

Something else to consider is that with Sonoma next it would be easy for Earnhardt fans to fret because of how he used to run there, but he’s placed seventh and third in his last two races there. Not a guarantee he’ll do that again, but he’s been much better there than he was.

Now, all this isn’t to say there’s work to do. There is. Qualifying, as crew chief Greg Ives noted in a tweet after Sunday’s race at Michigan, must get better. Running between seventh and 11th won’t be good enough to win a championship. That’s the goal.

Earnhardt knows it and has said so in recent weeks.

Still, there’s time for this team to improve and be a title contender instead of an underdog.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

While much was made of young drivers Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson finishing second and third in Sunday’s Sprint Cup race at Michigan, the entire weekend showcased NASCAR’s youth movement.

Last Friday’s Camping World Truck Series race at Texas Motor Speedway was won by 18-year-old William Byron. Saturday’s Xfinity race was won by 24-year-old Daniel Suarez, and Sunday’s Sprint Cup race was won by 26-year-old Joey Logano.

Combined, the average age of those winners is 22.7 years — the youngest average age for winners in the same weekend in NASCAR’s top three series since last year’s season-opening races at Daytona.

The 2015 season started with Tyler Reddick, then 19 years old, winning the Truck race at Daytona. Ryan Reed, then 21, won the Xfinity race, and Logano, then 24, won the Daytona 500. Their combined average age was 21.3 years old.

“The future of NASCAR is present, and it’s going to be big,’’ Logano said after his win Sunday at Michigan in reference to being followed across the finish line by Elliott and Larson. “It’s amazing you see some of those guys that are coming in how good they are, and particularly with Chase today and Larson, as well, here recently how fast he’s been.’’

Sunday’s Cup race marked the ninth time in the last 11 points events that a driver seeking his first series win finished in the top five with Elliott and Larson doing so. It also marked the third time in the last six points races that two drivers seeking their first series win each finished in the top five in a  Cup race.

A GOOD SIGN FOR Tony Stewart

There’s still work to do, but Tony Stewart finally had a good weekend — weekend being the key point — since coming back after missing the first eight races of the season with a back injury.

Stewart was solid throughout the weekend. He was 20th in the opening practice, qualified third, ran 16th in the first practice Saturday, 19th in the final practice and finished seventh in Sunday’s race.

Not spectacular numbers some could argue, but Sunday marked only his seventh race with new crew chief Mike Bugarewicz. Compare it to what he did at Charlotte two weeks ago. Stewart was 28th, 15th and 26th in the three practice sessions, qualified 21st and finished 24th.

“That is the kind of weekend I’ve been looking for all year out of this group,’’ Stewart said after the Michigan race. “Today is proof that we can do it. I would rather have this than win a race and run 15th to 20th the next week. From start to finish all weekend, it’s been solid, and that is what we are looking for right now. I’m tickled to death.”

Stewart’s result moved him to within 45 points of 30th in the season standings. He needs to be in the top 30 in points to be eligible for a Chase spot should he win one of the remaining 11 races before the playoffs begin.

OH WOE IS JOE (GIBBS RACING)

For the first time since last May and June, Joe Gibbs Racing failed to score a top five in back-to-back races.

The team’s top finisher Sunday at Michigan was Carl Edwards, who was sixth. He was the team’s only driver in the top 10.

Reigning champion Kyle Busch scored his fourth consecutive finish of 30th or worse after an engine issue. Denny Hamlin placed 33rd after an incident. Matt Kenseth finished a quiet 14th. No Gibbs cars led a lap.

Of course, many teams would like to have the problem of being noted for not scoring back-to-back top-five finishes.

PIT STOPS

— The last seven Cup points races each have had a different winner: Carl Edwards (Richmond), Brad Keselowski (Talladega), Kyle Busch (Kansas), Matt Kenseth (Dover), Martin Truex Jr. (Charlotte), Kurt Busch (Pocono) and Joey Logano (Michigan). It’s the longest streak of different winners since there were eight from the 2013 season finale to the first seven races of the 2014 season.

— Kurt Busch remains the only driver to have completed all 4,664 laps this season. The last time a driver had completed every lap this late in the season was 2012 with Dale Earnhardt Jr. He ran every lap through the first 20 races that season.

— Hendrick Motorsports has gone 10 races since its last victory (Jimmie Johnson at Auto Club Speedway). The team went 15 races between wins last year. In the last 36 races (equivalent to one season), Hendrick cars have won six races. Joe Gibbs Racing leads the way with 18 victories during that stretch. Team Penske has won eight races in the time, followed by Stewart-Haas Racing (three wins) and Furniture Row Racing (one). No other team won during that stretch.

Bump and Run: Should NASCAR ditch the yellow line rule?

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Does NASCAR need to keep the yellow line rule at Daytona and Talladega? Or would a solution be to have the rule until the final lap of a race and just let anything be in play?

Nate Ryan: The only out of bounds lines at oval racetracks should be the walls. The point of the rule was to reduce the crashes that were resulting from cars that disjointedly shot from the apron back up the banking. As Sunday proved yet again, races at Daytona and Talladega always will feature large pileups. Trying to micromanage driving to reduce those risks is an exercise in futility.

Dustin Long: NASCAR needs to keep the rule for every lap but if the series officials want that line to be considered like a wall than change the rule: Any time anyone for whatever reason goes below the yellow line they will be penalized. And any time anyone forces someone below the yellow line they will be penalized. Put teeth into the rule.

Daniel McFadin: I think the rule needs to be kept in place. It’s there in an effort to keep the racing on superspeedways from getting out of hand. Making a rule apply to all but the final lap doesn’t make sense.

Jerry Bonkowski: The yellow line rule was implemented — at least in part — for safety reasons. So yes, the rule needs to be kept in place as it is. Taking it away for the final lap is a guarantee for chaos and greatly heightened unsafe conditions for drivers and fans.

 

The bottom four — Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and William Byron — each likely need to win to advance in the playoffs. Which one of those four do you give the best chance of winning this weekend at Kansas?

Nate Ryan: Alex Bowman; he should have won there in May.

Dustin Long: Chase Elliott.

Daniel McFadin: I give the edge to Alex Bowman, he’s been the most consistent in the playoffs and was running well Monday before his wreck. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Any of the four can win at Kansas, but if I were a betting man, I’d put my money on Clint Bowyer. Kansas is his home track but he’s had a mediocre record there. It’s time for the odds to turn around in his favor.

 

What’s your take on the manufacturer involvement that has become even more prevalent in Cup at Talladega and Daytona?

Nate Ryan: It’s fine and perfectly understandable … provided it doesn’t reach the point of in-race meetings to chastise drivers about racing three wide for the lead. And it wasn’t necessarily a bad thing that it reached that point Sunday because it caused NASCAR and its fan base to air some righteous grievances about the diminishment of driver autonomy in Cup and why that’s bad.

Dustin Long: I understand why the manufacturers do it, but I don’t like it, particularly when it reaches the levels it did this past weekend at Talladega. Those in the garage noted to me that some drivers seemed to make curious moves at times if only to remain in good graces with their manufacturers. That’s not racing. That’s a puppet show.

Daniel McFadin: I get the that manufacturers want to work together to ensure their best chance at winning a race, especially Chevy since they haven’t had a car in the Championship 4 in the last two years. But dictating how drivers should race and possibly threatening consequences if they don’t fall in line feels wrong on multiple levels. The drivers are the ones in control of the car on the track, not manufacturer executives. Only the drivers know what’s best for them at any given moment.

Jerry Bonkowski: The manufacturers play such a key and pivotal part in the sport that if they want their respective teams and drivers to work together more at Talladega and Daytona, that should be their prerogative. It would be very difficult for NASCAR to try and rule against manufacturers in this instance, as it could severely damage relationships between the sanctioning body and manufacturers. Frankly, this appears to be a no-win situation where there is no answer or way to police against it.

Ross Chastain to race full-time for Kaulig Racing next season

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Kaulig Racing announced Tuesday that Ross Chastain will return to the team to run a full-time Xfinity Series schedule in 2020.

Chastain, 26, will drive the No. 10 Chevrolet. He will be sponsored by Nutrien Ag Solutions for 23 races. Joining Justin Haley in the No. 11 Chevrolet, it will mark the first season Kaulig Racing has fielded two full-time cars.

The crew chief for Chastain’s team and the 23 selected Nutrien Ag Solutions events will be announced at a later date.

Four of Chastain’s 17 Xfinity starts this year have been with Kaulig Racing, including July’s race at Daytona where he earned his second career Xfinity win and gave the team its first ever victory. He is set for his fifth start with Kaulig Racing Saturday at Kansas Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Two of the most important things in my life are agriculture and racing,” Chastain said in a press release. “Nutrien Ag Solutions is the best sponsor I could have ever asked for as it pertains to my family’s long history of farming. (Team owner_ Matt (Kaulig), (president) Chris (Rice) and all of Kaulig Racing gave me the opportunity to race this year when I really wasn’t sure I would ever get another winning opportunity in the NASCAR Xfinity Series. And, we won. Now, next year, we get to try to win more races and also compete for the championship.”
Said Matt Kaulig: “Ross Chastain has it all – he’s competitive, he’s marketable, he’s all-around a great, blue-collar guy. As a team, we couldn’t be more honored to land a driver like Ross. In just four races already this season, he’s not only helped advance our program, but he brought home this team’s very first win. Having him at Kaulig Racing next season, driving full-time, is a great gain for our organization.”

Kaulig Racing made the Xfinity playoffs this year with Justin Haley, who was eliminated after the first round.

Chastain’s news comes a little over 11 months after the last time he had a full-time Xfinity Series ride announced. After he made three Xfinity starts and earned one win for Chip Ganassi Racing last year, Chastain was tapped in November to take over its No. 42 car full-time in 2019.

But that fell apart in the wake of the December raids by the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Internal Revenue Service on the headquarters of CGR primary sponsor DC Solar and the home of its CEO. In January, CGR shut down its Xfinity operation due to a lack of sponsorship.

As a result, this year has seen Chastain make 67 starts across all three national series, including all 20 Truck Series races with Niece Motorsports. After a wreck in Saturday’s Talladega Truck race, Chastain is last in the playoff standings with two races left in the Round of 6. He is two points back from the cutoff spot held by Matt Crafton.

As for NASCAR national series races outside of Xfinity next year, Chastain said in a Tuesday teleconference he plans to compete in “as many as I can” but didn’t provide any details.

“I want to race anything and everything,” Chastain said. “There’s an Xfinity off-week next year and I’m talking about going to run a front-wheel drive four-cylinder race with some buddies. I don’t know. … Anybody that drives a race car, works in racing, none of us have to do this. We all are in racing and motorsports because we love it for one reason or another. That’s truly my reasoning. It’s not just what I tell people. That’s the real reason. It’s not for the glamorous lights or the paycheck, because I’m not there still. I will race anything that I can get my hands on.”

In June, Chastain switched his points declaration from Xfinity to the Gander Outdoor Truck Series after eight races had already been run in the Truck Series, including a race won by Chastain at Kansas Speedway.

But with the points switch, Chastain started from zero points and had eight races to qualify for the playoffs. To do so he had to win again and then be in the top 20 in points by the end of the regular season. He won two of those eight races (had a third stripped due to an inspection failure) and finished in the top 10 five times, ensuring a playoff spot.

Jeb Burton to compete in Truck Series race at Martinsville with Niece Motorsports

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Jeb Burton will compete for Niece Motorsports in the Oct. 26 Gander Outdoors Trucks Series playoff race at Martinsville Speedway, the team announced Tuesday.

He will drive the No. 44 Chevrolet.

It will be Burton’s second start of the year for the team after he competed at Kentucky Speedway on July 11. He finished ninth.

The son of former Cup driver Ward Burton, it will be his 55th career start in the Truck Series. Martinsville is the home track for the Virginia-native.

“I’m excited to get back behind the wheel of one of these Niece Motorsports Chevrolets again,” Burton said in a press release.  “Martinsville is certainly a very special track to me, and a place that I have a lot of experience, so I’m confident that we can turn that into a strong result.”

Burton has made eight national series starts this year, including five with JR Motorsports in the Xfinity Series. His best finish was fourth at Indianapolis Motor Speedway in September.

 

Where Cup playoff drivers stand heading to Kansas

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The tumult of Talladega is behind and that final lap changed things significantly.

Had Ryan Newman won the phone finish instead of Ryan Blaney, then Blaney would not have secured a spot in the next round and it would have changed the cutline, putting Alex Bowman in the final transfer spot.

Instead, Blaney won, secured a spot in the next round and moved the cutline up, creating a gap between Joey Logano, who holds the final spot, and those behind.

Now, the focus turns to Sunday’s elimination race at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

DRIVERS WHO CAN ENJOY THE WEEKEND

Ryan Blaney (Talladega) and Kyle Larson (Dover) don’t have to worry about anything this weekend because their wins in this round have put them into the Round of 8. Enjoy it now before the next round begins the following week and the pressure intensifies.

 

FEW WORRIES INDEED

Denny Hamlin is 56 points ahead of Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the next round. It would take quite a series of circumstances for Hamlin not to advance to the next round.

 

SEE YOU DOWN THE ROAD

Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch, also are in a good spot to advance to the Round of 8. Truex is 48 points ahead of Bowman and Busch is 41 points ahead of Bowman.

 

DON’T FORGET ABOUT ME

While Kevin Harvick didn’t have a memorable Talladega — few playoff drivers did — his 17th-place finish left him 36 points ahead of Bowman. Harvick also should be in good shape to advance provided nothing catastrophic happens to his car at Kansas.

 

JUST AVOID TROUBLE

Team Penske teammates Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano hold the final two transfer spots entering this weekend. Keselowski is 20 points ahead of Bowman. Logano is 18 points ahead of Bowman. Keselowski won at Kansas in May.

“Brad and I are l looking OK,” Logano told NBC Sports after the race. “It’s better than being 18 behind. We’ve just got to be smart (at Kansas) … and no crashing.”

 

NO HOLDING BACK

Bowman, Chase Elliott, Clint Bowyer and William Byron are the four drivers outside a transfer spot heading to Kansas.

Bowman trails Logano, who holds the final transfer spot by 18 points. Elliott trails Logano by 22 points. Bowyer is 24 points behind Logano. Byron trails Logano by 27 points.

All can get in via points but realistically, it’s going to take a win.

“I think we need to go and try to win,” Elliott said after Monday’s race at Talladega Superspeedway.

POINTS STANDINGS

3114 — Denny Hamlin

3106 — Martin Truex Jr.

3099 — Kyle Busch

3094 — Kevin Harvick

3078 — Brad Keselowski

3076 — Joey Logano

3069 — Kyle Larson (Dover win moves him to next round)

*3058 — Alex Bowman

3056 — Ryan Blaney (Talladega win moves him to next round)

*3054 — Chase Elliott

*3052 — Clint Bowyer

*3049 — William Byron

* Outside a transfer spot to the Round of 8