Face-off: NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan and Dustin Long debate the season and what is to come

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As the Sprint Cup Series heads for a weekend off, NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan and Dustin Long note what’s stood out to them in the season’s first 15 races and look ahead to what you might see later this year.

Here’s how they answered these questions about the season:

Who is more likely to win first — Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Ryan Blaney or Austin Dillon — and where do you think they’ll win?

NATE: Chase Elliott, Indianapolis Motor Speedway: There would be a certain symmetry to the No. 24 Chevrolet returning to the winner’s circle at the Brickyard. This isn’t a sentimental pick, though. A case can be made for Elliott being NASCAR’s hottest drivers for the past three months. He was two rookie mistakes on restarts from winning at Pocono Raceway and Michigan International Speedway, two fast superspeedways that share a few characteristics with Indy, and the third time will be the charm for Elliott, whose predecessor, Jeff Gordon, won a record five Brickyards starting with the 1994 inaugural.

DUSTIN: Ryan Blaney, Kentucky Speedway. He won the most recent Xfinity race there last year, was a part of this week’s test there and the ties to Team Penske will help with the way the Penske cars have run well there before.

Which driver has stood out the most in the first 15 races?

NATE: Chase Elliott. He is having the greatest rookie season in a decade (11 top 10s rank third in the series behind Kevin Harvick and Kurt Busch), and it was virtually impossible to predict. Though he stepped into a championship-caliber ride, he was coming off a disappointing defense of his 2014 Xfinity Series title and shouldering enormous expectations and pressure. Yet against stiffer competition, he has raised his game and raced with the poise and adaptability of teammate and six-time series champion Jimmie Johnson. Elliott, 20, keeps proving little fazes him.

DUSTIN: Kevin Harvick. He’s still fast and still one of the few that has shown the ability to regularly challenge the top Toyota cars. That he and crew chief Rodney Childers have been able to remain among the strongest cars since working together in 2014 says much for both.

What’s three things that have stood out to you so far this season?


1. The suddenly forceful youth movement in the Sprint Cup Series.

2. The direction of rules changes aimed at lowering downforce that are making an impact on improving passing.

3. Tony Stewart’s turbulent farewell tour that – much like the three-time champion’s mercurial career – seemingly has turned on a dime from sputtering to promising.


1. Chase Elliott’s performance. There was a lot of hype but he’s doing things few rookies have.

2. Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s inconsistency. He has four runner-up finishes, four finishes of 30th or worse, had handling issues in both restrictor-plate races and is 11th in the points — the worst he’s been at this point in the season since 2010.

3. Tony Stewart’s year. It started with his incident with a fan at the Chili Bowl in January to his sand dunes accident a couple of weeks later, missing the first eight races, his complaints about teams not securing all five lug nuts, which led to a fine and a rule change, and his quest to climb into the top 30 in points to have a chance at the Chase. It makes one wonder what is to come.

Name one driver outside the top 16 who you think will make the Chase.

NATE: Kyle Larson. A win is the safest route, but his team’s uptick in performance over the past month opens the possibility of making the playoffs on points if Larson can maintain consistency.

DUSTIN: Kyle Larson is the easy pick based on how he’s run in recent weeks.

Who is one driver people should be paying more attention than they might.

NATE: Trevor Bayne. The results indicate he is among the most improved drivers of 2016, but it will take a victory to slough off the nagging legacy of his 2011 Daytona 500 win as a one-hit wonder. Talladega showed he could erase that unwanted label.

DUSTIN: Kurt Busch. He’s run in that fifth-to-10th spot often, but his Pocono win shows he’s building speed to contend for more victories. With a series-high 13 top-10 finishes in 15 races, don’t ignore him.

Based on what you’ve seen so far this year, who would be your way-too-early pick to make it to the championship round in Miami.

NATE: Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Jimmie Johnson, Carl Edwards

DUSTIN: Chase Elliott, Kurt Busch, Carl Edwards and Kyle Busch

Is Joe Gibbs Racing losing its grip on being the dominant team in the series?

NATE: It’s only a two-race sample size, but there could be some warning signs in Joe Gibbs Racing failing to record a top five in consecutive races after a year long streak of 35 straight. It was around this time last season that Hendrick Motorsports began a midseason swoon that lasted for nearly two months after winning six of the first 17 races. It’s also notable that JGR didn’t lead a lap at Michigan with a new rules package that could chart the course of teams’ fortunes through 2017. A familiar refrain in NASCAR is that success is cyclical, and sometimes the dominance can dip just as quickly as it arrived. Consider that JGR has won 18 of the past 36 races … but prior to that, had won only three of the previous 36.

DUSTIN: Yes, but it still is the strongest team in the garage. The team’s strength is shown in how it was newsworthy that JGR did not have a top-five finish in back-to-back races for the first time in a year. Teams are gaining, but Gibbs is still No. 1 at this point.

Which two drivers are most likely to butt heads?

NATE: Who has the most at stake and the most run-ins with rivals? Ryan Newman’s future at Richard Childress Racing remains uncertain, he is clinging to a provisional spot in the playoffs, and there have been recent flashes of his ornery side (namely with Joey Logano at Pocono). Keep an eye on Newman and any of the winless drivers he is battling with to make the Chase.

DUSTIN: I’ll take Ryan Newman and Denny Hamlin. Two hard-nosed racers looking to improve performance in the coming races. Newman needs it to assure a spot in the Chase; Hamlin needs to be more of a title contender.

NASCAR Power Rankings: William Byron, Kyle Busch rank 1-2


Kyle Busch moved closer to the top spot after his win Sunday at WWT Raceway, but William Byron keeps hold of No. 1 after another top-10 run.

The series heads to Sonoma Raceway this weekend, the second race of the season on a road course.


(Previous ranking in parenthesis)

1. William Byron (1) — He goes into Sonoma with six consecutive top-10 finishes after his eighth-place result at WWT Raceway. Byron has led a series-high 717 laps this season.

2. Kyle Busch (4) — Recorded his third win of the season Sunday. He is tied with Byron for most wins this year. Busch scored 59 of a maximum 60 points and won his first stage of the year Sunday. He has 16 playoff points. Only Byron has more with 17 this season.

3. Kyle Larson (3) — His fourth-place finish continued his up-and-down season. In the last nine races, Larson has two wins, four top fives, a 20th-place result and four finishes of 30th or worse. He has led 588 laps this season, which ranks second this year to Byron.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (2) — His fifth-place finish is his sixth top 10 in the last eight races. He ranks third in laps led this year with 383.

5. Denny Hamlin (7) — Runner-up result at WWT Raceway is his fourth top 10 in the last seven races.

6. Ryan Blaney (10) — Followed Coca-Cola 600 win with a sixth-place run at WWT Raceway. He had an average running position of 2.6 on Sunday, second only to winner Kyle Busch’s average running position of 1.9.

7. Joey Logano (9) — Third-place finish is his second top 10 in the last four races.

8. Kevin Harvick (NR) — His 10th-place finish is his fourth consecutive finish of 11th or better.

9. Ross Chastain (6) — Lost the points lead after placing 22nd, his third consecutive finish outside the top 20.

10. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (NR) — Headed for his eighth top 15 in a row until he was collected in a crash after the contact between Austin Cindric and Austin Dillon late in Sunday’s race.

Dropped out: Chase Elliott (5th), Tyler Reddick (8th)

NASCAR will not penalize Austin Cindric for incident with Austin Dillon


Despite Richard Childress and Austin Dillon saying that Austin Cindric intentionally wrecked Dillon late in Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway, NASCAR will not penalize Cindric.

Elton Sawyer, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that there would be no penalty to Cindric after reviewing the contact.

Dillon and Childress were upset about the incident, which brought out the caution on Lap 220 of the 243-lap race. Dillon said NASCAR should suspend Cindric for the contact, just as NASCAR suspended Chase Elliott one race for hooking Denny Hamlin in the Coca-Cola 600.

Contact between the left front of Cindric’s car and the right rear of Dillon’s car sent Dillon up the track into Ricky Stenhouse Jr. Dillon finished 31st. Cindric continued and placed 13th.

Dillon told Frontstretch.com: “I was wrecked intentionally by (Cindric), hooked right just like Chase and Denny and Bubba’s deal (in wrecking Kyle Larson at Las Vegas in 2022). He better be suspended next week.”

Childress said: “(Dillon) had drove up to about 10th until (Cindric) wrecked him in there on purpose, sort of a payback.”

Sawyer said a review of the incident included viewing video and data.

“We didn’t see anything — and haven’t seen anything — that really would rise to a level that would be a suspension or a penalty,” Sawyer said. “It looked like hard racing. One car coming up a little bit and another car going down.

“As we said last week, we take these incidents very serious when we see cars that are turned head-on into another car or head-on into the wall. I spent a lot of time (Monday) looking at that, looking at all the data, looking at TV footage and just deemed this one really hard racing.”

Sawyer said NASCAR plans to talk to both Cindric and Dillon “to make sure we’re all in a good place as we move forward to Sonoma.”



Seven Cup drivers entered in Xfinity race at Sonoma


Kyle Larson is among seven Cup drivers entered in Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Sonoma Raceway.

The race marks the first time the Xfinity Series has competed at the California road course. Teams will get 50 minutes of practice Friday because this is a new event on the schedule. That additional time will give those Cup drivers more laps on the 1.99-mile road course.

MORE: Sonoma Xfinity entry list

Here is a look at what Xfinity rides the Cup drivers will pilot this weekend:

The race is scheduled to start at 8 p.m. ET Saturday.

The ARCA Menards Series West also is competing this weekend at Sonoma Raceway. Cup driver Ryan Preece is entered in that event. Xfinity drivers Cole Custer, Riley Herbst, Sammy Smith and Parker Retzlaff also are entered in that race, which will be held at 6:30 p.m. ET Friday.


Winners and losers at WWT Raceway


Winners and losers from Sunday’s Cup race at WWT Raceway:


Kyle BuschWins the pole, leads the most laps and holds the field off over the last five restarts to win the race. He scored six playoff points, giving him 16 on the season, second only to William Byron’s 17. Busch left Joe Gibbs Racing after last season for Richard Childress Racing. Busch’s three wins this year equals what JGR has done so far.

Ryan BlaneyHis sixth-place finish moved him into the points lead. He last led the points after the spring 2022 Richmond race. Blaney also won a stage Sunday to collect another playoff point. He has seven this season.

Kyle LarsonFourth-place finish was a big turnaround after struggles earlier in the race. It has not been easy for this team the last few weeks. He has three top-five finishes and four finishes of 20th or worse in the last seven races.

Daniel SuarezHis seventh-place finish moved him up two spots to 16th in the standings, the final playoff transfer spot at this time.


Ross ChastainHe finished 22nd for his third consecutive result outside the top 20. He entered the weekend leading the points and fell to fifth afterward. He is 29 points behind new series leader Ryan Blaney with 11 races left in the regular season.

Tyler ReddickRebounded from an early spin to lead but had his race end after a brake rotor failed. He was one of four drivers eliminated by brake rotor failures. The others were Carson Hocevar, Bubba Wallace and Noah Gragson.