Upon Further Review: Playoff mettle

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LOUDON, N.H. — In a race dominated by others, it wasn’t surprising that Kevin Harvick won Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

“It’s not like he came out of nowhere,’’ said Martin Truex Jr., who led a race-high 141 laps but finished seventh.

Although Harvick led only eight laps, he worked his way from his 19th starting spot and put himself in a position to win, which he has excelled at since the Chase went to the elimination format in 2014.

Sunday marked Harvick’s fifth win the Chase since the 2014 playoffs (Joey Logano also has as many wins in the Chase during that time). Nobody has as many top-two finishes in that stretch as Harvick with nine. That means he’s finishing first or second 40.9 percent of the time in the playoffs.

Just look at how many top-two finishes current Chase drivers have had in the 22 playoff races since 2014:

9 – Kevin Harvick (5 wins, 4 runner-ups)

6 – Joey Logano (5 wins, 1 runner-up)

4 – Brad Keselowski (2 wins, 2 runner-ups)

3 – Denny Hamlin (1 win, 2 runner-ups)

3 – Matt Kenseth (1 win, 2 runner-ups)

Harvick is most dangerous in the final three races — Texas, Phoenix and Homestead. In the previous two years in the Chase, Harvick has two wins, three runner-up finishes and a third-place finish in those six races.

“I think the whole team elevates itself and Kevin does a great job in the Chase races, he flips a switch and knows it’s time to rock and roll and the team is the same way,’’ crew chief Rodney Childers told NBC Sports about the team’s playoff success.

It’s also helps to score wins early in the year to all but assure a Chase spot. That helps the team prepare for the playoffs.

“We tried to do a lot of R&D work over the summer to try to get better,’’ Childers said. “We learned a little bit here and there and we also did some things that weren’t so good. We’ve had I guess a good string of being able to step up to the plate when we need to.’’

Said Harvick of his playoff success, which includes the 2014 series title: “It’s about people, preparation and organization. We’ve had fast cars, and we’ve had all the things that it takes to perform and really those are the three things it takes to get the most out of the Chase, and I think they’ve done that for three years.’’

HEAD OF THE CLASS

Two days after he won the Chase opener for the Camping World Truck Series, Liberty University freshman William Byron is taking a pair of tests today.

He was to have taken them Thursday but he was on his way to New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

The business communications major has tests in his U.S. history class that, according to the school “examines the political, social and economic developments of America,’’ and his biblical worldview class, a freshman class that the school states provides an “introduction to critical thinking, an evaluation of contemporary moral philosophies, and an affirmation of absolute truth.”

Byron has been on the Lynchburg, Virginia, campus about a month. He lives in a dorm and has classes on Tuesdays and Thursdays. That gives him time to return to Mooresville, North Carolina, to the Kyle Busch Motorsports shop on other days and to travel to the races.

“I think the funnest thing is having new friends and having people that you get to know,’’ Byron told NBC Sports of the college life. “The hardest thing is finding the time to get away from what everyone else is doing and study for the race. There’s a lot of preparation that goes into getting ready for a race weekend and getting your mindset right.’’

With the Chase beginning, he admits it has become more hectic with classes and the demands of racing for a championship. He normally doesn’t bring his books to the track but did this past weekend because of his tests today.

Which test is he most concerned about?

“Probably the history test because there’s so much information and material,’’ he said.

DEEP THOUGHTS

After his win in Saturday night’s Xfinity race at Kentucky Speedway, 41-year-old Elliott Sadler was asked what it would mean to win a series championship.

“I would be lying to you if I said I haven’t thought about it,’’ Sadler said. “I would love to win a championship. I felt like it was taken from me in 2012. I’ve had a big chip on my shoulder ever since. I felt like since that time I’ve worked really hard at being a race car driver, being a complete race car driver, what I mean by that, good by communication, a good teammate, a good leader, a good quarterback because I haven’t always been the best of one of those, but I don’t want to get too ahead of ourselves. We’ve got six more races to go to make that happen.

“If I can actually look my mom and my dad in the face after what they sacrificed for me as a kid, what they put on hold to give me good equipment as a kid to follow my dream and chase my dream will be the best feeling in the world.’’

Sadler’s angst with 2012 goes back to the race at Indianapolis when NASCAR ruled he jumped a late restart, costing him a chance at the win. He finished 15th and left that race one point ahead of Austin Dillon in the title race. He went on to lose the title by 23 points to Ricky Stenhouse Jr. It was the second of three consecutive years Sadler finished runner-up for the Xfinity title.

PIT STOPS

— Denny Hamlin’s 15th-place finish ended his career-high streak of nine consecutive top-10 finishes.

Kasey Kahne’s ninth-place finish was his fourth top 10 in a row.  The last time Kahne had four top 10s in a row was spring 2013.

— Austin Dillon finished 16th, the highest a Richard Childress Racing car — or car affiliated with RCR — finished Sunday. In the first two Chase races, no RCR car or car affiliated with RCR has finished better than 14th (Dillon at Chicagoland Speedway).

Tony Stewart’s 23rd-place finish Sunday marked his sixth consecutive finish of 16th or worse.

— Toyotas have led 56.1 percent of the 7,945 laps run this year in Cup. That’s 4,461 laps led for the manufacturer.

— Toyotas combined to lead 579 of the 601 laps run in the two New Hampshire Cup races this year. That’s 96.3 percent.

NASCAR releases Cup rules packages for 2021

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NASCAR announced Thursday its rules package slate for the 2021 Cup Series season, a day after next year’s schedule was unveiled.

For returning tracks to the 36-race schedule, the rules are largely unchanged save for Darlington Raceway.

Cup teams will use the 750 horsepower, low downforce race package at the 1.366-mile track. It’s the package that’s been used this season on road courses and short tracks. Nashville Superspeedway, the 1.333-mile track being added in 2021, will use the same package.

The packages for the other new race tracks – Road America, Circuit of the Americas and the Indy road course – have not been decided on.

“We constantly review the race packages to try to put on the best possible racing for our fans,” John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice Presiden of Innovation and Racing Development said in a media release. “When he brought in the short track / road course package this season, Darlington was not part of it due to its unique size. We’ve been evaluating data from both race packages, as well as feedback from drivers, teams and OEMs and feel that the 750 hp / low downforce package best fits the track.”

Other rule changes include:

  • Teams are restricted to 150 restricted computational fluid dynamics runs per calendar month.
  • Teams must compete in a minimum of 16 points events with a short block sealed engine (up from 13).

Click here for the rule packages for each Cup race in 2021.

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”