Upon Further Review: Don’t overlook these drivers in Sprint Cup Chase

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DOVER, Del. — As the focus remains with the Toyota teams entering the second round of the Sprint Cup Chase, don’t forget about others.

Kevin Harvick already has won a race in this Chase. Jimmie Johnson was “just as good” Sunday as Dover winner Martin Truex Jr.’s team, according to crew chief Cole Pearn.

Both Harvick, who has made it to Miami each of the past two years, and Johnson will continue to be teams to watch — along with rookie Chase Elliott — but don’t ignore the Team Penske duo of Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano.

Keselowski finished in the top five in each of the three opening-round races, and Logano had an average finish of 6.3 in those races.

“Consistency is just as important as winning in this format,’’ Keselowski said after his fourth-place finish at Dover. “I think sometimes that gets lost. You might even say that consistency is more important.’’

Keselowski and Logano both said Sunday that their teams still have some work to do compared to the Toyota teams.

“Our execution is there,’’ Logano said. “We’re doing what we’re supposed to do. We just want to continue to build a little bit faster race cars so we can race for the win.’’

It was this round a year ago when Logano swept all three races — Charlotte, Kansas and Talladega. Keselowski had an average finish of 5.3 at those tracks earlier this year, including a win at Talladega. He and Logano have combined to win three of the last four races at Talladega, which serves as the cutoff race in the second round and will trim the field of title contenders from 12 to eight.

While history doesn’t guarantee success, the Penske duo will be worth watching these next three races.

GROWING STRONGER

Martin Truex Jr.’s third win in the last five races comes as his team’s issues on pit road have disappeared.

Slow pit stops, wayward lug nuts, and other misfortune have made pit road a challenging place for Truex and his team throughout this season.

Twice this season a lug nut created issues — knocking off the inner valve stem when he led at Pocono in August, causing a flat tire and Truex to hit the wall, and getting stuck between the brake rotor and caliper at Richmond in April.

The pit crew has had few hiccups since Michigan, the race before Truex’s streak started. During that August event, Truex led when he came for a pit stop. The car fell off the jack and the left rear wheel wasn’t attached. When the car came down, it hit the wheel and damaged the quarter panel. Instead of challenging for the win, Truex finished 20th that race.

While he has had a speeding penalty (at Richmond) since the Michigan race, pit road has been error-free for his crew.

In that same Michigan race, Jimmie Johnson’s crew had a fueling issue that slowed a stop and hurt his chances of racing for the win. He finished sixth.

Johnson’s issues on pit road have continued since that race:

  • NASCAR penalized his team for an unapproved body modification during a pit stop in the Southern 500.
  • Johnson was caught speeding on pit road at Richmond, and his team was penalized for not having control of a tire in that race.
  • In the Chase opener at Chicago, Johnson was caught speeding on pit road.
  • NASCAR penalized Johnson’s team Sunday at Dover for going over the wall too soon. The stop’s timing was thrown off when Johnson slowed on his approach to his stall to let Aric Almirola exit his stall and drive by.

“I can tell you I’ve been on the other side of that throughout my career,’’ Truex told NBC Sports. “It hurts. I know how Jimmie is feeling. I’ve lost four or five races here on similar things. I know how he feels on that.

“Certainly the pit crew has worked really hard. Michigan was a huge, huge letdown for them. That’s really where it changed. They went to work, and they didn’t point fingers. They didn’t blame anybody. They said, ‘We need to get better and we know we can be better,’ and honesty since then, they’ve been flawless.’’

FOCUSED … AND CONFIDENT

Erik Jones was frustrated throughout Sunday’s Xfinity race with the handling of his car. Things got so bad he worried about abusing his right front tire and pitted on Lap 99, out of sequence  with the field. Turned out the tire was fine, the crew reported.

The way the rest of the 200-lap race went, Jones had to pit with less than 10 laps left for two seconds of fuel to make it to the finish. He placed 16th.

He heads into Friday night’s race at Charlotte — which will reduce the Xfinity Chase field from 12 to eight — 10th in the standings. He is four points behind Brennan Poole, who holds the final transfer spot.

Jones was not pleased after Sunday’s race, saying: “Just kind of an embarrassing day overall. We want to run a lot better than that. It’s pretty embarrassing to not even be in the Chase right now for the next round. Got a lot of work to do. Got to have a good run at Charlotte. It’s just something that I would have never saw coming. Pretty disappointed.

“Got a good team. Have to do it right. We just didn’t do it. We didn’t have the car and things didn’t work out. Hopefully, we’ll have a better car next week at Charlotte and go out and, hopefully, get in into the next round. It will be a lot of work and a lot of pressure, but I think we can do it.’’

Afterward, Jones tweeted his confidence that he’ll move on to the next round.

PIT STOPS

— Sunday’s Dover race marked the 11th time in 29 races that Toyotas combined to lead more than 70 percent of the laps. In the first round of the Chase, Toyotas combined to lead 624 of the 970 laps (64.3 percent)

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s 11th-place finish was his best result since he placed second at Bristol in August.

Clint Bowyer’s 24th-place finish ended his streak of four consecutive finishes of 22nd place.

— There were seven cautions for accidents or spins in the first round of the Chase. All were listed as single-car incidents in the NASCAR race reports.

Austin Dillon was the last driver to advance to the second round of the Cup Chase by points. He had an average finish of 12.7 in the opening round. Last year, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had the lowest average finish among those who advanced to the second round via points at 13.3. In 2014, Kasey Kahne advanced with an average finish of 18.7. Kevin Harvick has lowest average finish to advance to the second round at 21.3 last year but he moved on with a win.

— If you missed it, Xfinity driver Ryan Ellis said he was taking a precaution by going to a local hospital to be further evaluated after his crash in Sunday’s race left him with a headache. He tweeted after being examined.

Results, point standings after Truck race at Las Vegas

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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his second win of 2020.

He beat Sheldon Creed for the victory.

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

IndyCar driver Conor Daly finished 18th and Travis Pastrana was 21st.

Click here for the race results.

Point Standings

With his win, Austin Hill is the first driver to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Todd Gilliland is last in the playoff standings with 2,050 points. He is 13 points behind Ben Rhodes.

Click here for the standings.

Austin Hill wins Las Vegas Truck race

Austin Hill
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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading the final 39 laps to score the victory.

Hill took the lead on a restart and held off charges from Sheldon Creed over the final 20 laps.

Creed’s progress was slowed with 11 laps to go when he got loose and scraped the wall in Turn 1. He was never able to get close enough to Hill to make a challenge.

Creed dominated the early portion of the race, leading 89 laps before he struggled to get going on the final restart and briefly fell to seventh.

The win is the second of the year for Hill. He’s the first playoff driver to win in the postseason and it come after he finished 25th at Bristol.

“We didn’t have the best truck tonight by no means,” Hill told FS1. “Pit crew did a hell of job on that last pit stop getting me into the position I needed to. I just had to go out there and get it. … Sheldon was definitely way faster than me. … I was probably looking in my mirror more than I was our front. I knew he was better than we were.”

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

More: Race results and point standings

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith all matched their best results of the season … While he was the first driver to finish one lap down, IndyCar driver Conor Daly placed 18th in his first career Truck Series start … Travis Pastrana placed 21st in his second start of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Rachael Lessard finished 20th after he had to pit early in the race following contact with the wall … Ben Rhodes finished 23rd after he spun from contact with Stewart Friesen and hit the inside wall on Lap 84 … Jordan Anderson’s engine expired on the ensuing restart. He finished 32nd.

NOTABLE: Natalie Decker, who was not medically cleared to compete Friday night, was treated and released from the infield care center.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race at Talladega Superspeedway, 1 p.m. ET Oct. 3 on FS1

 

Natalie Decker not medically cleared for Las Vegas Truck race

Natalie Decker
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NASCAR announced right before Friday night’s Truck Series race that Natalie Decker hadn’t been medically cleared to compete.

No details were provided about the issue that prevented Decker from being cleared. During the final stage of the race, NASCAR announced she had been treated and released from the infield medical center.

The Niece Motorsports driver would have started 23rd. Due to her No. 44 truck having cleared inspection and having been placed on the starting grid she was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker has made 11 starts this year. She missed the June 28 race at Pocono after she was hospitalized due to bile duct complications related to her gallbladder removal in December.

Brandon Brown hopes to shed underdog role in Xfinity playoffs

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Brandon Brown knows the odds are against him advancing beyond the first round of the Xfinity playoffs.

“If I went out and we did a survey and we asked 1,000 NASCAR fans to create a playoff bracket, I guarantee that 90 to 99 percent of them have me getting eliminated in the first round,” he told NBC Sports.

But that’s not stopping him.

Brown is in the Xfinity playoffs for the first time, earning the final spot last weekend with his family-run team. He enters Saturday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) last in the 12-driver field. Brown has 2,000 points and is 10 points behind Ross Chastain, who holds the final transfer spot, entering the first round.

MORE: Saturday’s Xfinity race start time, lineup, forecast

Regardless where he is in the standings, Brown still met the team’s preseason goal of making the playoffs.

“It’s hard to put it into words,” the 27-year-old said of making the playoffs. “It’s so exciting and so thrilling. We’re just happy. Life is good. We’re seeing the fruits of our labor.”

Much of the Xfinity playoff focus will be on Chase Briscoe, who enters with a series-high seven wins. Or Austin Cindric, who won the regular-season title. Or Justin Allgaier, who has won three of the last seven races and could be the favorite if he makes it to the championship race at Phoenix Raceway.

Brown, who is in his second full season in the series, has four consecutive top-20 finishes going into this weekend. He knows the challenge he faces.

He said a key for this weekend is to have no mistakes, be running at the end and try to take advantage of any mistakes other playoff drivers have.

Then, he’ll look to Talladega. He’ll have an upgraded Earnhardt Childress Racing engine for that race, the team spending the extra money for the engine upgrade.

“I go into that track with confidence,” he said. “I need to go out there and make it happen, go win and make an name and go ahead and punch my ticket.”

While Brown knows most look at him as the underdog of these playoffs, he hopes to drop that title someday.

“The goal will be to get rid of that underdog title and to build that program that is going to be looked on as a powerhouse of the NASCAR Xfinity Series,” he said. “I enjoy the ride (as underdog), but now I’m ready to advance past it.”

Points entering Xfinity playoffs 

2,050 – Chase Briscoe

2,050 – Austin Cindric

2,033 – Justin Allgaier

2,025 – Noah Gragson

2,020 – Brandon Jones

2,018 – Justin Haley

2,014 – Harrison Burton

2,010 – Ross Chastain

2,002 – Ryan Sieg

2,002 – Michael Annett

2,001 – Riley Herbst

2,000 – Brandon Brown

First Round races

Sept. 26 – Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Oct. 3 – Talladega Superspeedway (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

Oct. 10 – Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (3:30 p.m. ET on NBC)