Pondering the Chase: Five questions about the playoffs

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Trust us, NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan and Dustin Long get along even though they don’t always see eye-to-eye about the upcoming Chase for the Sprint Cup.

With the playoffs set to begin Sunday at Chicagoland Speedway on NBCSN, Ryan and Long tackle some of the key issues and project what they think will happen.

Here’s how they see the Chase unfolding:

Which driver are you going to watch closely in this Chase?

NATE: Jimmie Johnson. Last season, the six-time series champion entered as the top seed. This year, some are picking him to exit in the first round for the second consecutive season. Johnson hasn’t seemed comfortable in the first two years of the revamped elimination playoffs, but reaching the championship round for the first time would signify more than just a sense of acclimation. It also might quell the speculation of whether he and crew chief Chad Knaus still can build a championship-caliber team as effortlessly as it annually seemed for the No. 48 from 2006-13.

DUSTIN: Kurt Busch. He started the season strong, scoring 14 top-10 finishes in the first 16 races. In the last 10 races, though, he’s had only three top-10 finishes. So which Busch will we see in the Chase? Will it be the one who was consistent and strong early in the season, or will it be the one that has struggled lately? 

First driver confrontation among Chase competitors will be between …

NATE: Brad Keselowski and Matt Kenseth. If Kenseth is several laps down, the odds are nil that he will wreck another Team Penske driver from the lead. But battles for position are fair game, and Kenseth has the bitter memory of the bump by Joey Logano at Kansas Speedway last year. Keselowski antagonized Kenseth at Richmond, the latest skirmish in a long-running feud that seems primed to flare again at Chicagoland, New Hampshire or Dover – all tracks where both drivers have wins.

DUSTIN: Nobody had Kevin Harvick and Jimmie Johnson last year at Chicagoland Speedway. Who would have guessed in 2014 that Matt Kenseth would have gone after Brad Keselowski at Charlotte? The point is friction develops between drivers running near the front or battling for the lead.

Harvick and Carl Edwards rank third and fourth respectively in laps led. They have a history (recall that shoving incident in 2008 at Charlotte). They’ve both gone to at least the third round in each of the past two Chases. Harvick made it to the championship round each time; Edwards did not. I’d watch these two because they’ll likely be around each other throughout the Chase.

Can Kevin Harvick win with his pit crew?

NATE: Yes. The Richmond race was a small sample size, yet there was marked improvement. This team has been off its game at some inopportune times this season, but Harvick has been the best driver on the circuit in more than two seasons at Stewart-Haas Racing. If crew chief Rodney Childers continues to prepare top-notch cars, Harvick can overcome any pit crew woes through sheer force of will at least once per round.

DUSTIN: Yes. Jimmie Johnson won the 2010 title after crew chief Chad Knaus changed the entire pit crew in the middle of a race. The pressure will be on Harvick’s crew, just as it has in the past. The challenge is keeping up with the Joe Gibbs Racing crews, who have been fast all season and not had many mistakes. This pit crew needs to focus on consistency. If it can do that, Harvick should have a fast enough car to stay near the front and that’s what one needs to advance in this format.

Who wins the championship?

NATE: Denny Hamlin. No other driver is more acutely aware of the many ways in which a championship can be lost. Hamlin, who has raced for a title in Miami three times since his rookie season a decade ago, is over the sting of 2010’s collapse. The lessons still remain fresh, though, and it’s been evident in his calm this season. He has been locked into the playoffs since his Daytona 500 victory, but there were many chances to panic when the No. 11 team got off to a slow start under new crew chief Mike Wheeler. Hamlin stayed steady as Wheeler found his footing, and that composure is indicative of why a battle-tested veteran finally will become a champion in his 11th season.

DUSTIN: Kevin Harvick. Even with questions about his pit crew, this team has consistently been the only one to challenge the Toyotas all season. Harvick also has been through the battles of the Chase — from needing to win at Dover to advance last year to fighting through to win the 2014 crown. Experience can’t keep a car part from breaking but it can help a driver in tough situations. Experience will lead Harvick to the final round for the third consecutive year.

Who is your dark horse to win the title?

NATE: Kyle Larson. After getting over the hump with the victory at Michigan, he motored through Darlington (third) and Richmond (second) with renewed vigor and a swagger that was striking for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver. Larson relishes his team being the underdog, but it won’t be if he reaches the title round. Homestead-Miami Speedway is his favorite track for good reason, and a championship would be a real possibility if he can scrape through the first three rounds.

DUSTIN: Tony Stewart. Look, no one figured Stewart had a chance to win the 2011 title and he did. Certainly, this is a different time and the five years since have aged Stewart, but he’s wise enough and shrewd enough not to give a darn about any of that. In his final 10 races, he’ll just go race. This team will have to pick up its performance, but what a ride it could be for Stewart.

Preliminary entry lists for Richmond Raceway

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The NASCAR playoffs continue this weekend at Richmond Raceway for two of the national series.

The Cup Series holds the second race of its opening round while the Xfinity Series kicks off its postseason.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for each race.

Cup – Federated Auto Parts 400 (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN)

There are 38 entries for the race.

Quin Houff is entered in Premium Motorsports’ No. 27 Chevrolet.

Austin Theriault is entered in Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet.

Garrett Smithley is entered in RWR’s No. 52 Ford and Spencer Boyd is in the team’s No. 53 Chevrolet.

Martin Truex Jr. won the spring race at Richmond over Joey Logano and Clint Bowyer. Kyle Busch won this race last year over Kevin Harvick and Truex.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Go Bowing 250 (7:30 p.m. ET Friday on NBCSN)

There are 38 entries for the race.

Harrison Burton is entered in Joe Gibbs Racing’s No. 18 Toyota for the fourth time this season.

Zane Smith is entered in JR Motorsports’ No. 8 Chevrolet.

Hermie Sadler is entered in Ryan Sieg Racing’s No. 38 Chevrolet. It will be his first Xfinity start since this race in 2016.

Joe Graf Jr. is entered in Richard Childress Racing’s No. 21 Chevrolet.

There is no driver attached to Rick Ware Racing’s No. 17 Chevrolet.

Cole Custer won at Richmond in the spring over Austin Cindric and Justin Allgaier. Christopher Bell won this race last year over Ross Chastain and Daniel Hemric.

Click here for the entry list.

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Speedway Motorsports, Inc. becomes privately owned

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Speedway Motorsports, Inc. and the Sonic Financial Corp. announced Tuesday that Sonic Financial has completed its acquisition of all outstanding shares of SMI, meaning SMI will become a privately owned company with no presence on the New York Stock Exchange.

By going private, the company is no longer beholden to investors and no longer has to publicly report its finances, including how much money it brings in from admissions and the TV contract and the seating capacity of each of its tracks.

Bruton Smith and his family own and control Sonic Financial Corp. Smith is the founder and majority stakeholder in Speedway Motorsports Inc. SMI operates eight tracks that host Cup races, including Charlotte Motor Speedway, Las Vegas Motor Speedway and Texas Motor Speedway.

The deal closed with each outstanding share being valued at $19.75 per share in cash. There were 11,434,595 outstanding shares, putting the deal at more than $225 million.

The deal comes as International Speedway Corp. in the process of reaching an agreement to have its outstanding shares sold to NASCAR. The France family owns both ISC and NASCAR. The NASCAR-ISC deal is expected to close this year.

Bump and Run: Will Joe Gibbs Racing’s dominance continue?

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Who you got this weekend at Richmond? Joe Gibbs Racing or the field?

Nate Ryan: Joe Gibbs Racing. Any of its four drivers can win. Kyle Larson is a decent dark horse, though.

Dustin Long: I’ll take the field. Give me Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and others vs. JGR this weekend.

Daniel McFadin: I’ll take JGR, given their six wins there in the last eight races. Driver specific: Martin Truex Jr. He’s led in five of the last six visits to Richmond and each time he’s led at least 121 laps. Hard to believe his win in the spring was his first there.

Jerry Bonkowski: This could be one very difficult race for the field. Erik Jones has something to prove after the mechanical issues he suffered in Las Vegas, Kyle Busch has something to prove after his disappointing 19th-place finish, and Denny Hamlin has something to prove to show he truly is one of the best championship contenders. Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. can basically coast through having secured his spot in Round 2 of the playoffs with his Las Vegas win. Good luck to the field because they’re going to need it. Joe Gibbs Racing is going to dominate Richmond.

 

In 2007, Hendrick Motorsports won 18 of 36 Cup races. Joe Gibbs Racing has won 14 of 27 Cup races this season. Will JGR top what Hendrick did in 2007?

Nate Ryan: Yes, you could argue JGR already has topped it because of the balance among its four drivers. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson accounted for 16 of Hendrick’s 18 victories.

Dustin Long: JGR won’t tie or top Hendrick mark.

Daniel McFadin: I think there’s a good chance JGR will tie that number but not exceed it. The only tracks I would make them locks for wins are Richmond and Phoenix. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I think JGR could potentially tie HMS’s record, but asking for five or more wins in the last nine playoff races is a bit of a stretch. You know that Stewart-Haas, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Roush Fenway Racing are going to do all they can to stop the JGR Express and continue to ratchet up the pressure and performance with each passing race. I can see JGR winning maybe three or even four more playoff races, but not more than that.

 

The Xfinity playoffs begin this weekend at Richmond. Who are you picking to win the championship?

Nate Ryan: Leaning toward Tyler Reddick back-to-back after his impressive fuel-mileage win at Las Vegas. He is learning to beat the field in many ways.

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell triumphs in Miami.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with Tyler Reddick to repeat. He’s shown a knack for being able to find multiple ways to win when he doesn’t have the outright best car on a given race day. Also, it’s hard to bet against the guy who has 20 top fives through 26 races.

Jerry Bonkowski: As much as Tyler Reddick would make a great repeat champion, the title this year goes to Christopher Bell. But don’t be surprised if this deal isn’t finished until the final turn on the last lap. This has the potential to be the most exciting championship finish in Xfinity history.

Garrett Smithley rebukes Kyle Busch to ‘tell my story and defend myself’

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Garrett Smithley took to Twitter again on Monday to rebuke Kyle Busch about their contact in Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff-opening race in Las Vegas. While Smithley said he understands Busch’s frustration, he insisted he did nothing wrong and chided Busch for not understanding the road Smithley has had to travel to get to where he is today as a race car driver.

I figured given the events of the race Sunday I would quickly tell my story and defend myself (and the sport for that matter),” Smithley tweeted Monday.

MORE: Kyle Busch calls out ‘guys who have never won late model races in Cup’

Here’s Smithley’s tweet Monday, which we have transcribed in its entirety:

Hey everyone, I figured given the events of the race Sunday I would quickly tell my story and defend myself (and the sport for that matter). Starting tomorrow, we’re focused on Richmond!

I didn’t grow up in a racing family, and we certainly didn’t have the funds to race. The only race car my parents ever bought was a used Bandolaro race car when I was 15. I didn’t think I had a chance starting that late. We won enough that a local golf cart shop owner sponsored me and bought me a Legends car. I raced Legends cars in the southeast and won more races & championships.

When I decided to move to Charlotte to pursue a career as a professional driver there is no doubt I had to basically give up the chance to win races in order to ‘fund’ getting the opportunity to race.

You see, I am one of only a handful of drivers that actually has never spent any of my own money to race. So spending money to go win in a late model was never an option, because the only way I can afford to race is if someone else pays for it. Companies & sponsors have a hard time justifying money to run a competitive late model or even truck, when for the same or often much less they can sponsor a NXS or Cup car. The truth is for many of these companies, they know unless they spend the money it takes to sponsor someone like Kyle, they more than likely will not get the marketing value to justify that spend. However, they can justify a spend to be involved in the ‘big show’ to entertain guest(s), etc., for much, much less. The sponsors you see on my cars, Victory Lane Quick Oil Change, Trophy Tractor, FAME … they are real companies supporting NASCAR, and seeing the value of its 65+ million fans. I sell my own sponsorship to afford me the opportunity to do this.

So about last night …

1. I am not mad at Kyle and I get his frustration. I wish that situation would’ve turned out differently but what happened happened.

2. Nobody that is considered ‘in the way’ wants to be. We are simply doing the best we can.

3. Even though sometimes we ALL feel like this ‘sucks’ so bad or why won’t NASCAR ‘fix’ it, we have to remember, it’s not that easy. NASCAR is making positive changes but this is a multi-billion-dollar industry. It all takes time.

4. I do think I can be competitive in the right equipment and I will even go a step further and say, with time and equal funding my teams with Rick Ware Racing, Johnny Davis Motorsports can be competitive too.

5. As my friend Ross would say, ‘The Sun will come up in the morning!

Thanks for all the support – Garrett.”

As of 7:35 p.m. ET, Busch had not replied to Smithley’s latest missive.

On Monday’s edition of NASCAR America, analysts Kyle Petty, Steve Letarte and Nate Ryan discussed Busch’s reaction to the Smithley incident.

Here are a couple of the initial exchanges between Smithley and Busch after Sunday’s race:

Follow @JerryBonkowski