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.

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