Will Joe Gibbs Racing’s rules of engagement spark more feuding at Phoenix?

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Denny Hamlin grinned. Kyle Busch did not.

Would they move a teammate on the last lap if it meant advancing to next weekend’s championship race in Miami?

“No, I would not,’’ Hamlin said Friday at Phoenix International Raceway.

After a pause, he said: “That’s my answer today.’’

A few minutes later, Busch was asked the same question. His response?

“Absolutely.’’

There’s no way all three of Joe Gibbs Racing’s drivers can join teammate Carl Edwards and Jimmie Johnson in the title race next weekend in Miami.

That likely means at least one JGR driver will not be happy after Sunday’s race on NBC — maybe more.

Two spots remain to be filled for the title race. JGR’s Matt Kenseth, Busch and Hamlin are among those not yet guaranteed a spot.

“All three of us can be disappointed when we leave here,’’ Kenseth said Friday at Phoenix International Raceway. “You never know what’s going to happen Sunday.’’

Well, you might.

Kevin Harvick, who has not clinched a spot in the title race, has won five of the last six Cup races at Phoenix and would earn a spot by winning again. He’s never been eliminated since this format debuted in 2014.

If one figures on Harvick winning — and Hamlin said “off their track record … you would always just assume they’re going to win’’ — then only one spot remains for the three Gibbs drivers.

“I think there’s a very good chance that no matter what … at least two Gibbs cars will be in the final four, which would be good,’’ Hamlin said.

That would mean that Joey Logano and Kurt Busch wouldn’t make it. Busch has struggled in this round and not shown the speed needed to run with the leaders lately, but Logano has been fast and been good at Phoenix.

Yet, it could come back to racing teammates for a chance to vie for the championship for the Joe Gibbs drivers. If so, one could be upset with another.

It’s happened before. Edwards bumped Busch out of the way to win at Richmond in April. Two weeks ago, Busch was upset that Hamlin, running third at the time, fought Kenseth and Busch so hard late in the race at Martinsville. By doing so, though, Hamlin has the highest finish in this round so far among Busch and Kenseth. Should they tie, that could be what advances Hamlin.

With the chance that a Gibbs driver might not be happy with a teammate Sunday, how will the team repair any wounds?

“We have to communicate with each other,’’ Hamlin said. “That’s the main thing, you can’t keep feelings bottled up for years and years and all of a sudden, it all explodes. I think I have a great working relationship with all my teammates, and if one of them wrecks me this weekend, I’ll be mad for a couple days, and I’ll get over it. It’s just part of it.

“I respect them all enough to understand that we’re all competitors, but we’re also teammates, so it’s a fine line. You’re going to have hurt feelings here and there, we’re battling each other, which is what we all wanted to do. If we had four cars at Homestead racing for the championship, then there would be three guys pissed off. That’s what we all want to accomplish. There’s only going to be one champion, so sometimes it’s your time and sometimes it’s not.”

Even with what is at stake, Kenseth said he and his teammates shouldn’t change how they approach this weekend.

“I think that we work better together as a group than anything I’ve ever been part of,’’ he said. “So far that hasn’t changed at all over the four years that I’ve been there. So, I wouldn’t think that it would change this weekend, and I wouldn’t think it would change next weekend.

“Certainly, once the race starts, obviously, we’re all trying to get the best finishes we can for our respective teams, but I think during the weekend we all share everything we learn throughout practice, bounce ideas off of each other and try to as a group come up with the best setups that we can for Sunday.” 

Career Average Finish at Phoenix

10.3 — Kevin Harvick (eight wins)

11.1 — Denny Hamlin (one win)

13.4 — Kyle Busch (one win)

13.4 — Kurt Busch (one win)

14.0 — Joey Logano (zero wins)

16.3 — Matt Kenseth (one win)

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).