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 outlaws Ross Chastain Martinsville move

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NASCAR announced Tuesday that it will not permit drivers to run against the wall to gain speed as Ross Chastain did in last year’s Martinsville Cup playoff race.

NASCAR made the announcement in a session with reporters Tuesday at the NASCAR R&D Center.

Chastain drove into the Turn 3 wall and rode it around the track at higher speed than the rest of the field, passing five cars in the final two turns to gain enough spots to make the championship race. NASCAR allowed the move to stand even though some competitors had asked for a rule change leading into the season finale at Phoenix last year.

NASCAR is not adding a rule but stressed that Rule 10.5.2.6.A covers such situations.

That rule states: “Safety is a top priority for NASCAR and NEM. Therefore, any violations deemed to compromise the safety of an Event or otherwise pose a dangerous risk to the safety of Competitors, Officials, spectators, or others are treated with the highest degree of seriousness. Safety violations will be handled on a case-by-case basis.”

NASCAR stated that the penalty for such a maneuver would be a lap or time penalty.

NASCAR Power Rankings: 10 historic moments in the Clash

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NASCAR’s preseason non-points race, now known as the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum, was born in 1979 with the idea of testing the sport’s fastest drivers and cars on one of racing’s fastest tracks — Daytona International Speedway.

The concept was driver vs. driver and car vs. car. No pit stops. Twenty laps (50 miles) on the Daytona oval, with speed and drafting skills the only factors in victory.

Originally, the field was made up of pole winners from the previous Cup season. In theory, this put the “fastest” drivers in the Clash field, and it also served as incentive for teams to approach qualifying with a bit more intensity. A spot in the Clash the next season meant extra dollars in the bank.

The race has evolved in crazy directions over the years, and no more so than last year when it was moved from its forever headquarters, the Daytona track, to a purpose-built short track inside the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

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Over the decades, virtually everything about the race changed in one way or another, including the race length, eligibility requirements, format, calendar dates, sponsorship and title. From 1979-2020, the race was held on Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval and served as a sort of preview piece for the Daytona 500, scheduled a week later. In 2021, it moved to Daytona’s road course before departing for the West Coast last season.

Here’s a look at 10 historic moments in the history of the Clash:

NASCAR Power Rankings

1. 2022 — Few races have been as anticipated as last year’s Clash at the Coliseum. After decades in Daytona Beach, NASCAR flipped the script in a big way and with a big gamble, putting its top drivers and cars on a tiny temporary track inside a football stadium. Joey Logano won, but that was almost a secondary fact. The race was a roaring success, opening the door for NASCAR to ponder similar projects.

2. 2008 — How would Dale Earnhardt Jr. handle his move from Dale Earnhardt Inc. to Hendrick Motorsports? The answer came quickly — in his first race. Junior led 46 of the 70 laps in winning what then was called the Budweiser Shootout, his debut for Hendrick. The biggest action occurred prior to the race in practice as Tony Stewart and Kurt Busch tangled on — and off — the track. Both were called to the NASCAR trailer, where the incident reportedly accelerated. Both received six-race probations.

3. 2012 — One of the closest finishes in the history of the Clash occurred in a race that produced a rarity — Jeff Gordon’s car on its roof. Kyle Busch and Gordon made contact in Turn 4 on lap 74, sending Gordon into the wall, into a long slide and onto his roof. A caution sent the 80-lap race into overtime. Tony Stewart had the lead on the final lap, but Kyle Busch passed him as they roared down the trioval, winning the race by .013 of a second.

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4. 1984 — A race that stands out in Ricky Rudd’s career, and not in a fun way. Neil Bonnett won the sixth Clash, but the video highlights from the day center on Rudd’s 15th-lap crash. He lost control of his car in Turn 4 and turned sideways. As Rudd’s car left the track, it lifted off the surface and began a series of flips before landing on its wheels, very badly damaged. Safety crews removed Rudd from the car. He suffered a concussion, and his eyes were swollen such that he had to have them taped open so he could race a few days later in a Daytona 500 qualifier.

5. 1980 — The second Clash was won by Dale Earnhardt, one of Daytona International Speedway’s masters. This time he won in unusual circumstances. An Automobile Racing Club of America race often shared the race day with the Clash, and that was the case in 1980. The ARCA race start was delayed by weather, however, putting NASCAR and track officials in a difficult spot with the featured Clash also on the schedule and daylight running out. Officials made the unusual decision of stopping the ARCA race to allow the Clash to run on national television. After Earnhardt collected the Clash trophy, the ARCA race concluded.

6. 1994 — Twenty-two-year-old Jeff Gordon gave a hint of what was to come in his career by winning the 1994 Clash. Gordon would score his first Cup point win later that year in the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte, but he also dazzled in the Clash, making a slick three-wide move off Turn 2 with two laps to go to get by Dale Earnhardt and Ernie Irvan. He held on to win the race.

7. 2006 — Upstart newcomer Denny Hamlin became the first rookie to win the Clash. Tony Stewart, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, had the lead with four laps to go, but a caution stacked the field and sent the race into overtime. Hamlin fired past Stewart, who had issues at Daytona throughout his career, on the restart and won the race.

8. 2004 — This one became the duel of the Dales. Dale Jarrett passed Dale Earnhardt on the final lap to win by .157 of a second. It was the only lap Jarrett led in the two-segment, 70-lap race.

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9. 1979 — The first Clash, designed by Anheuser-Busch to promote its Busch beer brand, drew a lot of attention because of its short length (20 laps) and its big payout ($50,000 to the winner). That paycheck looks small compared to the present, but it was a huge sum in 1979 and made the Clash one of the richest per-mile races in the world. Although the Clash field would be expanded in numerous ways over the years, the first race was limited to Cup pole winners from the previous season. Only nine drivers competed. Buddy Baker, almost always fast at Daytona, led 18 of the 20 laps and won by about a car length over Darrell Waltrip. The race took only 15 minutes.

10. 2020 — This seemed to be the Clash that nobody would win. Several huge accidents in the closing miles decimated the field. On the final restart, only six cars were in contention for the victory. Erik Jones, whose car had major front-end damage from his involvement in one of the accidents, won the race with help from Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Denny Hamlin, who was one lap down in another damaged car but drafted behind Jones to push him to the win.

 

 

 

SunnyD to sponsor Kevin Harvick in two races, Riley Herbst in Daytona 500

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Kevin Harvick has picked up a sponsor for the new season, and Riley Herbst has picked up a ride in the Daytona 500.

Stewart-Haas Racing announced Tuesday that orange drink SunnyD will be the primary sponsor for Harvick’s No. 4 Ford at Darlington Raceway (May 14) and Kansas Speedway (Sept. 10).

SunnyD also will be the sponsor for Herbst as he joins the entry list for the Daytona 500 in the No. 15 Rick Ware Racing car. The orange drink also will be an associate sponsor for Herbst in the No. 98 Xfinity car fielded by Stewart-Haas Racing in the Xfinity Series.

The 2023 season will be Harvick’s final year as a full-time Cup driver.

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The Daytona 500 will mark Herbst’s first Cup Series start. The 24-year-old native of Las Vegas has made 109 Xfinity Series starts.

“It’s great to have Riley making his first NASCAR Cup Series start with RWR and be a part of the next step in his career,” said team owner Rick Ware in a statement released by the team.

“As a kid you always dream of being able to race in the Daytona 500, and I’m able to accomplish that with Rick Ware Racing,” Herbst said. “It’s such a big event and for it to be my first Cup start will be a crazy experience.”

 

 

RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing, Hendrick Motorsports announce sponsors

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RFK Racing, Trackhouse Racing and Hendrick Motorsports each announced primary sponsorship deals Monday.

King’s Hawaiian, which served as a primary sponsor in three races last year, returns to RFK Racing and Brad Keselowski’s No. 6 car this year. King’s Hawaiian will expand its role and be a primary sponsor for nine races. 

The first race with the sponsor will be this weekend’s Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. King’s Hawaiian also will be the primary sponsor on Keselowski’s car for Atlanta (March 19), Bristol Dirt (April 9), Kansas (May 7), World Wide Technology Raceway (June 4), Sonoma (June 11), Pocono (July 23), Daytona (Aug. 26) and Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Jockey returns to sponsor the Trackhouse cars of Ross Chastain and Daniel Suarez for three races each this season with its Made in America Collection.

Jockey will be on the No. 99 car for Suarez at this weekend’s Busch Light Clash, the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9) and  Martinsville (Oct. 29).

Chastain’s No. 1 car will have Jockey as the primary sponsor at Richmond (April 2), Dover (April 30) and Michigan (Aug. 6).

Hooters returns to Hendrick Motorsports and will be the primary sponsor on the No. 9 car of Chase Elliott for the Bristol Dirt Race (April 9), the Chicago street course event (July 2) and Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 22).