Ryan: Dale Jr. substitution shows Jeff Gordon remains a team player at Hendrick Motorsports

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INDIANAPOLIS – Jeff Gordon’s return to NASCAR this weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway deservedly will draw all of the comparisons to legendary athletes who returned from retirements of varied brevity.

Michael Jordan. Brett Favre. Michael Schumacher.

There’s an important distinction with Gordon, though.

He never really left the team for which he played his entire career anyway.

If you’re looking for the best parallel, it’s probably Mario Lemieux, who took three years off from the NHL but actually bought the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1998 before returning to play for his team in 2000.

While Gordon moved into the FOX Sports booth as an analyst this season, he remains an equity owner of Hendrick Motorsports, which has listed him as the co-owner of Jimmie Johnson’s No. 48 Chevrolet since its 2002 inception. Though Gordon has no official role or title (and though he vowed to be objective at FOX and make his multiyear contract with the network a priority), he has remained privy to the team’s inner workings.

He won’t be returning to Hendrick at the Brickyard. The four-time champion just happens to be sliding behind the wheel again Friday.

His allegiance to the team hardly has waned since he exited the No. 24 Chevrolet last November at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Wednesday’s announcement that he would replace Dale Earnhardt Jr. was further evidence Gordon remains virtually as integral to Hendrick as during his 23-year career behind the wheel.

It’s the subtext to why Brad Keselowski was miffed at Gordon’s comments after a Team Penske pit stop last month at Pocono Raceway. Keselowski is among many in the NASCAR industry who believe a larger role eventually could await Gordon at Hendrick – perhaps even running the organization for team owner Rick Hendrick, who recently turned 67 and has hinted at scaling back his presence in the future.

The ease in which Gordon was named as Earnhardt’s standby for Indianapolis– via general manager Doug Duchardt’s deadpan delivery and rapid-fire answer to a question in a news conference last Friday — caught many by surprise, but it was indicative of how Gordon’s strong ties to the team make it seamless to execute the kind of driver swap that often is fraught with inherent complications.

There was no haggling over contractual obligations or salary as there might have been if Hendrick was in the market for an available veteran. It was as simple as Hendrick calling Gordon and asking him to bring his firesuit to Indy just in case.

Given how invested he is at Hendrick, it’s overly simplistic to view Gordon’s return as merely a superstar hopping back into a car.

Think of this more akin to a company manager backfilling for an ailing employee’s absence.

In the July 9 race at Kentucky Speedway, the last started by Earnhardt before stepping out of the No. 88 Chevy with concussion symptoms, Gordon sat atop Johnson’s pit box during the 400-mile race.

While further proving his commitment to Hendrick, it also served as subtle affirmation that Earnhardt and the team had nary a clue he might miss time behind the wheel until he visited a neurologist last week after the Kentucky race.

If there had been an inkling that Earnhardt had been feeling so ill that he couldn’t answer the bell at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, would Gordon have departed on a vacation in the south of France?

Or might we be talking about the Brickyard as Gordon’s second consecutive start in the No. 88?

“Jeff’s a team player,” Hendrick said in a Wednesday release.

For one team in particular, Gordon always has been. Wednesday’s news further proved he always will be.

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1 after quiet Vegas

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Kevin Harvick didn’t have a flashy night Sunday in Las Vegas, but it didn’t keep him from retaining the No. 1 spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

After winning the Bristol night race, Harvick finished in the top 10 in the first two stages in Vegas before placing 10th at race’s end.

Kurt Busch’s win at his home track vaulted him into the top 10 as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Las Vegas

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): In the last eight races he’s won three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 5): Placed fourth for his 11th top-five finish in the last 14 races.

3. Alex Bowman (Last week unranked): Finished fifth for his second top five and fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

4. Denny Hamlin (Last week unranked): Left Vegas with a third-place finish to snap a three-race streak of finishing outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (Last week unranked): Snapped a 46-race winless streak with his victory and advanced to the Round of 8.

6. Kyle Busch (Last week No. 3): Finished sixth after a “dismal” night. He has four consecutive top 10s.

7. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): Finished 13th to give him two finishes outside the top 10 since he won at Richmond.

8. Chase Briscoe (Last week unranked): Opened the Xfinity playoffs with his second consecutive win.

8. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 2): Led 73 laps, but had to settle for a 22nd-place finish in Vegas.

8. Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Finished 14th for his second straight finish outside the top 10.

Also receiving votes: Erik Jones and Chris Buescher.

NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

 

Xfinity Series playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Chase Briscoe opened the Xfinity Series playoffs by earning his second consecutive win.

His victory Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway gives him 57 playoff points and an automatic spot in the Round of 8.

Harrison Burton holds the final transfer spot. He has a two-point advantage over Ross Chastain.

Behind Chastain below the cutline are Michael Annett (-10 points), Riley Herbst (-14) and Brandon Brown (-20).

Below is the full Xfinity Series playoff standings going into Saturday’s race at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance. Drivers in yellow are in the remaining playoff spots.

Xfinity Series playoff standings

Cup playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Kurt Busch flipped the script on the Cup playoff standings with his win Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He entered the Round of 12 as the last driver in the playoff standings, but is the first driver to clinch a spot in the Round of 8.

Replacing Busch in the bottom spot of the playoff standings is Austin Dillon. He is 32 points behind Alex Bowman, who holds the final cutoff spot.

Behind Bowman is Kyle Busch (-9 points), Clint Bowyer (-20), Aric Almirola (-27) and Dillon.

“Obviously, the 1 car (Kurt Busch) was not a car that we needed to win a race,” Clint Bowyer said after Sunday’s race. “It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse as far as points-wise. (Kurt Busch) winning changes that landscape quite a bit, but we’re only 20 points out.”

Here is the full playoff standings entering Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance to the Round of 8. Drivers in yellow hold the remaining available playoff spots.

Cup playoff standings