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.

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).