Hendrick Motorsports’ recent run, Jimmie Johnson’s win has competitors on notice

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CONCORD, N.C. — Competitors saw this coming, yet there was nothing they could do to stop it.

After a lackluster summer that led some people to question how far Jimmie Johnson would advance in the Chase, Hendrick Motorsports has returned to prominence.

Johnson’s win Sunday at Charlotte Motor Speedway moves him into him into the Round of 8 and alters the feeling of this Chase.

“I think people would probably rate them as probably the favorite,’’ said car owner Joe Gibbs, whose teams have won a series-high 11 of 30 races this year.

Even as David Wilson celebrated Martin Truex Jr.’s win last weekend at Dover, the president and general manager of Toyota Racing Development, said he knew a challenge was coming from Johnson’s team.

“What struck me as much as winning the race (at Dover) was how good (Johnson) was,’’ Wilson said Sunday.

Johnson didn’t contend for the win at Dover because of a pit road penalty. A speeding penalty prevented him from racing for the win at Chicagoland Speedway to open the Chase last month. Johnson’s team had no issues Sunday, leading 155 of the 334 laps to score his first win since March.

Johnson and his team have been mistake-prone this summer because they’ve been pushing to try to catch up to the Toyotas. But with the cars better, Johnson and his team showed that they no longer have to operate within a razor-thin margin of error.

“The easiest way to describe it would be I don’t have to scare myself to put up a good lap time,’’ Johnson said of what’s changed with his car since this summer.

Earlier this season, Johnson couldn’t make the car comfortable. The result was a 14-race stretch where he did not lead more than five laps in any race.

Now, he can.

“To have the car as consistent and stable as it is has really allowed us to be competitive, work through traffic, work through changing track conditions, and then if I do need to go out there and scare myself and pull away from (Matt Kenseth) or pull away from (Denny Hamlin), I can do it and get rewarded for it,’’ Johnson said.

That was no more apparent than the final restart. Kenseth led and had the preferred line. When the green waved, they went through Turns 1 and 2 side by side and drag raced down the backstretch, a mano-a-mano battle between Chevrolet and Toyota with Johnson’s Chevrolet pulling ahead and then pulling away.

“We were just a little off,’’ Kenseth said. “I just couldn’t run (Johnson) on a short run. I don’t think I could have done anything different there.’’

Kenseth wasn’t the only one searching for more speed Sunday. Brad Keselowski finished seventh — his lowest finish in the first four Chase races — but crew chief Paul Wolfe wasn’t thrilled.

“I feel like the Gibbs cars, we’re close to those guys, but it’s like the Hendrick cars and (Truex) have had the raw speed,’’ Wolfe said. “I feel like we’ve kind of been tit-for-tat with the Gibbs cars, depending on track position or balance. We’re just off right now.

“We could not get the speed to maintain in the top five once we got that track position.

Wolfe said that if he can’t find the speed, he’ll have to be more aggressive to make up for the deficit.

It isn’t just Johnson who has been fast for Hendrick. Chase Elliott led at least 75 laps for the second time in four races Sunday before he was collected in a crash on a restart. Kasey Kahne’s third-place finish was his fifth top-10 result in the last six races — his best stretch all season.

“Nobody ever gave up, and you know, we know what a champion Jimmie is,’’ car owner Rick Hendrick said. “We were good here in the May race. We’ve been good on the mile‑and‑a‑halves, and we’ve been better than we’ve finished. But this feels good.’’

To all but the competition.

Now Johnson in set for the Round of 8 and the rest of the Chase field has two races to determine who will join him.

After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.

William Byron rallies to score top 10 in first Cup playoff race

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LAS VEGAS — William Byron called his first Cup playoff race “crazy.”

Contact with Ryan Blaney, a spin after a tire went down, help from a teammate to stay on the lead lap and a different pit strategy were all events in Byron’s seventh-place finish Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He was one of three Hendrick Motorsports drivers to finish in the top 10. Chase Elliott was fourth and Alex Bowman placed sixth.

Byron’s day allowed him to gain four spots in the points — most among the playoff drivers — and go from 13th, outside a cutoff spot, to ninth with two races left in the opening round. The series races at Richmond next.

But Byron’s top 10 wouldn’t have happened had he and his Chad Knaus-led team not persevered during an up-and-down night.

“You think about all the things that can go wrong in a race,” Byron said. “It’s tough. You’ve got to really manage the whole race and recover through things that happen. It seems like every car had something happen during this race. You’ve got to recover from it.”

Byron had been running in the top 10 when he had contact with Blaney on the restart to begin the final stage.

“I’ll be honest with you, I just heard about it,” Blaney said after finishing fifth. “I didn’t even know that I touched him. It must have been barely. Obviously, it wasn’t intentional. I was just trying to slow him down. I didn’t know that I got him. I feel bad for it. Obviously I didn’t  mean to get him. Just trying to sidedraft hard. That’s definitely not what I meant to do.”

Even so, the contact led to a tire rub. While Byron continued to run, the situation got worse and the tire went flat. He spun just before entering pit road to bring out the caution on Lap 182.

Byron quickly made it down pit road after the spin. Knaus had the team change the two left side tires to keep Byron on the lead lap. It helped that Elliott was leading. Elliott backed off behind the pace car down the frontstretch, giving Byron a cushion to exit the pits and remain on the lead lap. That allowed Byron to return to the pits on the next lap and change four tires and add fuel.

“I definitely owe him a big thank you,” Byron said of Elliott. “It was great that we were able to stay on the lead lap there.”

With a caution a few laps later, Byron was 22nd. Knaus brought Byron down pit road to add fuel and change four tires. Few cars stopped then. Knaus’ strategy allowed Byron to stay out longer than most cars and lead six laps before pitting on Lap 236 of the 267-lap race. Needing less fuel, the team only changed two tires for a quicker stop and that helped Byron score his second consecutive top 10.

It also helped how well the Hendrick cars ran, something Elliott, sixth in the points, noted afterward.

“I felt like we were closer today than we have been in the past few weeks,” said Elliott, who overcame contact on a restart that forced him to pit to fix a tire rub. “That was nice. Hopefully we can have cars like that the next nine weeks.”

Bowman said his car improved after early struggles.

“We just didn’t fire off very good,” he said. “As the race ran, we got our car much better. I think kind of the in-between from day to night was the best we were. When it grouped up there at the end, it helped out some of the other cars. But, proud of my guys. I wish we would have gotten some more stage points, but we’ll take sixth.”

Bowman fell to 11th in points. He’s 10 points ahead of Ryan Newman in 13th. The top 12 after the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval in two weeks will be eliminated.