Upon Further Review: New Hampshire

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Call it chaos, random luck or coincidence, but however you might term the jockeying of positions late in Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, it was just another day for Jamie McMurray.

He gained five positions in the final 30 laps of Sunday’s race to finish sixth. That helped him climb to 15th on the Chase grid and stretch his advantage on those behind him trying to make the playoffs.

“We are getting better at the right time,’’ McMurray said after the race. “Last year we made the Chase and we had a pretty good buffer going into Richmond, but we didn’t run very good in the first three Chase races. They have made our cars a lot better.’’

What McMurray did Sunday is not new for him this season. He ranks third in the Sprint Cup Series in positions gained in the final 10 percent of races. He’s gained 21 spots during that time in the last five races.

While McMurray excelled late at New Hampshire, Kasey Kahne and Kyle Larson — both behind McMurray in the Chase grid — were not as fortunate. They were involved in a crash with less than 20 laps to go. Kahne lost 13 spots and Larson lost three.

Heading into this weekend’s race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway on NBCSN, McMurray is 15th on the Chase grid with 474 points. Dale Earnhardt Jr. holds the final transfer spot after missing Sunday’s race. He has 461 points.

Trevor Bayne is the first driver outside a playoff spot with 447 points (27 behind McMurray) and is followed by Ryan Blaney (29 behind McMurray), Kahne (35 behind McMurray) and Larson (38 behind McMurray).

Those gaps are important because of the chances a non-winner could score a victory and earn a playoff spot. Another winner would leave four spots available for the Chase via points.

Last year marked the first time since 2008 there were not at least two first-time winners in the final seven races before the Chase began.

If that trend resumes after skipping last year, then a driver 15th in the Chase grid — as McMurray is now — would not be safe.

While every lap is important, what happens at the end of races becomes critical because there’s less time to make amends for a pit road penalty or getting collected in a crash. With seven races left before the playoff field is set, the intensity builds.

By avoiding such pitfalls throughout a race (and especially late), McMurray is in a position to contend for a second consecutive Chase spot.

Here’s a look at the drivers 12th to 20th on the Chase grid and how many positions they’ve gained or lost in the last 10 percent of races the past five events.

21 positions gained — Jamie McMurray

21 positions gained — Trevor Bayne

16 positions gained — Ryan Blaney

7 positions gained — Ryan Newman

6 positions gained — Dale Earnhardt Jr.

1 position lost — Austin Dillon

2 positions lost — Kasey Kahne

2 positions lost — Kyle Larson

24 positions lost — Chase Elliott

TONY TIME?

The joke in the Sprint Cup garage is that Tony Stewart runs on “Tony Time,’’ a time that does not always correlate to schedules or plans. So, after missing the first eight races of the season because of a back injury, might Tony Stewart be gaining momentum heading toward the Chase?

His runner-up finish marked his third top-five finish in the last four races. That equals the number of top fives he had in the 77 races before the current streak.

Stewart credited rookie crew chief Mike Bugarewicz with making the car better throughout the weekend. At Sonoma, a pit call by Bugarewicz put Stewart in the lead late to help Stewart score that victory.

Next on the schedule is Indianapolis Motor Speedway, Stewart’s home track. It will be his final time to race there in a NASCAR Sprint Cup car and possibly ever.

“I grew up my whole life in Indiana,’’ Stewart said. “I didn’t move to Indiana. I didn’t move away from Indiana. I’m the only NASCAR driver in the Cup Series that’s from Indiana that still lives in Indiana, and I’m proud of where I was born. I’m proud to be back.  I still live in the town I was raised in. I think the state of Indiana takes a lot of pride in that, and that’s why it makes it a big weekend. I’m representing a lot of people around me, and I’m proud to do that.

“It’ll be an emotional weekend for sure, but I’ve got a plan on how I’m going to approach the weekend, and I’m just going to stick to that plan and go about our work.’’

PIT STOPS

Joey Logano’s third-place finish marked the sixth consecutive race Team Penske has had a top-three result. Penske has won three of those races. The results: New Hampshire (Logano, third); Kentucky (Brad Keselowski, first); Daytona (Keselowski, first); Sonoma (Logano, third); Michigan (Logano, first); Pocono (Keselowski, third).

— Hendrick Motorsports has led one lap in the last four races. That was the opening lap of Sunday’s race with Jimmie Johnson starting from the pole. He lost the lead on the second lap.

— Four of the top-five finishers Sunday were age 40 or older: Winner Matt Kenseth (44), runner-up Tony Stewart (45), fourth-place finisher Kevin Harvick (40) and fifth-place finisher Greg Biffle (46). The only driver younger than 40 in the top five was third-place finisher Joey Logano (26). Even with Logano’s age, the average age of the top five Sunday was 40.2.

— Matt Kenseth gave Joe Gibbs Racing its 136th career Sprint Cup victory Sunday, moving JGR past Roush Fenway Racing for fourth in all-time wins by teams. Junior Johnson is next with 153 wins.

Stage points crucial at Las Vegas in Round of 12

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Former champion Brad Keselowski views Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the “second most important” to win during the season after the championship race, “because these next two weeks are very difficult to prepare for.”

What’s so difficult about the two races after Las Vegas?

Two-thirds of the Round of 12 are made up of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval: a superspeedway known for its wild multi-car wrecks and a road course that can prove unpredictable.

“The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is the playoff bonus points and winning in Vegas,” Keselowski said. “The best thing we can do to control our own destiny is to go win Vegas and then Talladega just becomes what it is. It’s the same thing with the Roval, so we’re hopeful to just kind of not have to worry about it that way by scoring a win. If we’re not able to do that, I’d like to get a few more playoff bonus points with stages for those races and that would help a bunch, but, certainly, this round presents a lot of challenges for us.”

If anyone knows the importance of winning early in a round, it’s Keselowski. His victory two weeks ago at Richmond benefitted him in the cutoff race a Bristol when power steering issues resulted in a 34th-place finish.

Chase Elliott, who has won at both Talladega and the Roval in previous seasons, has a similar view to Keselowski.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver said “we would be messing up to already be looking ahead to Talladega,” later adding, “the way I kind of look at it is I’m probably going to crash – I think that’s just the odds.”

Were everything to go right for a driver, they can earn up to 20 stage points in the first two stages of a race.

“So, I think everybody knows how important stages are and what they can mean, especially stage wins,” Elliott said. “Getting that extra bonus point is a huge thing, too. I think everybody knows that and that’s certainly a game that’s been played. I don’t know that it was as much played that very first year that we had (playoff and stage points), but really ever since that first year, I think it has been known and everybody really gets that. And it’s just gotten more and more aggressive.”

Focusing on Vegas is key for Elliott because it’s been a “super hit or miss” track for him. In seven career starts, he has two top fives and four finishes of 26th or worse.

“We’ve crashed a bunch out there (three DNFs) and had some really bad finishes,” Elliott said. “That would be a fantastic opportunity, I think, to have a solid day.”

Kurt Busch noted that you could arguably view Las Vegas as “standard” when it comes to pit strategy and racing. But Busch provided a reminder of what happened earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway.

“A place like Vegas fits into a track like Texas, as well; where you can change just left side tires like we saw Austin Dillon do to win the Texas race earlier this year,” Busch said. “So, there are all the different strategies and different things playing out.”

The four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 – William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto – scored a combined six stage points. All of them were earned by Byron.

Busch observed that just because four teams have been eliminated from the playoffs doesn’t mean there’s four less cars in the field vying for points.

“There are two Hendrick cars now not in the playoffs, but they’re fast,” Busch said of Byron and Jimmie Johnson. “Same thing with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). You’ve got the No. 20 car, Erik Jones, not in the playoffs but he’s fast. Those are points that those guys could take away from the contenders that are still left in the situations they’re in. So, you’ve just got to race hard and race smart. There are three ways to get points each and every weekend: Stage 1, Stage 2, and the finish of the race. And, that happens at all the race tracks.”

Of the 12 remaining drivers left in the playoffs, here’s how many stage points they earned in the first round.

Most Stage Points Earned in 2020 Playoffs:

Chase Elliott  – 35
Kevin Harvick – 33
Martin Truex Jr.  – 32
Kyle Busch  – 31
Alex Bowman – 29
Joey Logano  – 28
Denny Hamlin  – 26
Kurt Busch – 22
Austin Dillon – 22
Brad Keselowski – 21
Aric Almirola – 7
Clint Bowyer – 4

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NASCAR fines
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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NASCAR has fined Hendrick Motorsports $100,000 for exceeding the amount of wind tunnel testing allowed this season.

NASCAR also announced that it had deducted 10 hours of wind tunnel testing from the organization for the 2020-21 amount allowed.

Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty. The team reported the violation to NASCAR.

The Cup Rule Book states in section 5.3.e that organizations are allocated 150 hours to be used on cars through Dec. 31, 2021 with a maximum usage of 70 hours in 2020 and a maximum usage of 90 hours in 2021. NASCAR states that testing hours are defined as billable hours reported by the wind tunnel to NASCAR. The minimum test period is four hours. Wind tunnel testing of Next Gen cars by individual organizations will not be permitted.

The L2 penalty comes with a fine of at least $100,000 and no more than $200,000.

NASCAR also announced two fines for lug nut violations last weekend at Bristol.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chief Bruce Schlicker was fined $5,000 for the No. 10 car of Ross Chastain having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

In the Truck Series, crew chief Kevin Bellicourt was fined $2,500 for the No. 19 truck of Derek Kraus having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

 

Carson Hocevar to run full Truck schedule in 2021

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Niece Motorsports has signed Carson Hocevar to run the full NASCAR Truck schedule in 2021, the team announced Thursday.

Hocevar, who turns 18 in January, has run five races for the team this season. His best finish this year is 12th at Dover. He’s scheduled to run at Martinsville on Oct. 30.

“I’m so excited to get the opportunity to race fulltime next year with the Niece Motorsports group,” said Hocevar in a statement. “We’ve had some really strong runs in the few starts that we’ve had this season and I am grateful for the chance to continue that next year. I’ve learned so much already this year and know that we will keep improving next year too.”

“Carson has really impressed us this season,” said team owner Al Niece in a statement. “He’s proven his talent – getting into the truck with no track time and really holding his own. We’re thrilled to have him with us fulltime next season and look forward to contending for wins together.”

TikTok to sponsor Ryan Vargas in six Xfinity races

TikTok
JD Motorsports
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TikTok is coming to NASCAR.

The popular video sharing app will break into the sport next month as a sponsor of Ryan Vargas in the Xfinity Series.

TikTok has partnered with JD Motorsports to sponsor the 20-year-old Vargas in the final six races of the season, beginning with the Oct. 3 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

“TikTok has provided me with an incredible outlet to reach new fans and demographics through fun and creative content, and I’ve seen the highest growth in followers on TikTok over my other social channels,” Vargas said in a press release. “The opportunity to run the No. 6 TikTok Chevrolet Camaro in the NASCAR Xfinity Series for the rest of the season is an absolute dream come true. Johnny Davis and the whole JD Motorsports with Gary Keller team took a chance on me last year and I’m excited to bring this amazing TikTok partnership their way. I wouldn’t want to make this partnership a reality anywhere else.”

Vargas has made three Xfinity Series starts this year. His best finish was 13th at Pocono.

The sponsor deal is part of TikTok’s Latinx Heritage Month programming.

A native of La Mirada, California, Vargas joined TikTok last year. He is a former member of NASCAR’s Drive 4 Diversity programming and a winner of the Wendell Scott Trailblazer award, which is given to a minority or female driver who displays exceptional on-track performance, sportsmanship, and community service.

The partnership and paint scheme were inspired by a concept scheme by graphic designer Ryan Pistana, a friend of Vargas’.

“Creators of all sizes and backgrounds show up to TikTok with their genuine, authentic selves,” Nick Tran, TikTok’s Head of Global Marketing, said in a press release. “Partnering with an iconic brand like NASCAR to sponsor Ryan Vargas on his racing journey is a way for us to continue to support, celebrate and elevate the diverse creators that make our TikTok community what it is today. Ryan is an incredible athlete, and we’re looking forward to cheering him on alongside the rest of the TikTok community!”

According to CNBC in August, TikTok has roughly 100 million monthly users, up nearly 800% from January 2018.

TikTok, a Chinese-owned company, has been in national headlines recently after President Donald Trump threatened to ban the app in the United States for national security reasons if it was not sold to an American company. On Sept. 19 he approved a deal for its U.S operations to be operated by Oracle and Walmart.