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Ryan: Why Goodyear hasn’t signed an extension . . . and more musings from Atlanta

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HAMPTON, Ga. – As the exclusive tire supplier of NASCAR for more than two decades, Goodyear always is in the news (or crosshairs) for its ubiquitous presence.

When tires mysteriously deflate (or don’t), Goodyear gets blamed.

When a track repaves its asphalt, Goodyear faces heat to maintain quality racing.

When NASCAR adjusts its rules, Goodyear feels the pressure to accommodate durability and handling.

What would happen, though, if there were no Goodyear to kick around anymore?

Actually, that remains a possible scenario for next season.

A month into the final season of their current contract, Goodyear and NASCAR finally have started negotiations on an extension – much later than the typical timeframe.

Consider its five-year deal that expires this season was signed in October 2011 – more than 15 months ahead of the end of its previous contract.

In an interview with ESPN.com and NBC Sports, Goodyear worldwide director of racing Stu Grant said the company had its first major negotiations meeting with NASCAR in mid-February.

With the past year being devoted to finding a Cup Series title sponsor, Goodyear understandably was less of a priority.

“The NASCAR guys had a lot on their plate,” Grant said. “We had early discussions with NASCAR and agreed to put our extension on the back burner, but now we’re having discussions in earnest. We’re committed to NASCAR. NASCAR is committed to us. Our negotiations are going well.

“I think we’re in good shape.”

Still, it is clear that Goodyear now has some leverage. If the negotiations were to hit a sticking point, NASCAR would seem to lack options. Finding a replacement would be difficult. Even if it had a suitor, it would be a very tall order with less than a year of prep time to construct and deliver tens of thousands of tires for the 2018 season.

So Goodyear, which spends much of its time deflecting criticism about its product, would seem to be in the catbird seat to call more of the shots for this contract. That could be significant given that many improvements made to the cars over the past decade adversely have affected the tires.

But there don’t seem to be any stumbling blocks so far. Grant expects a new deal to be finalized by the season’s midpoint.

“NASCAR was in for our first face to face half-day meeting,” he said. “We’ve had a couple of earlier discussions, but that was the first big dialogue we’ve had that was all good. So we’ve kind of really kicked off that process, and having been through a few of these in the past, once you agree on the deal points, then you get the fine points and so on.”

Other observations from Atlanta:

–Runner-up Kyle Larson has been passed for the lead with fewer than 10 laps remaining in the past three Cup races.

Miami (losing first because of an all-time move on the final restart by perhaps NASCAR’s all-time driver) was forgivable. So was Daytona (running out of fuel on the final lap).

But Atlanta might be harder to reconcile for car owner Chip “I Like Winners” Ganassi.

The explanation provided by Larson for why he chose the slower high lane to fend off winner Brad Keselowski ostensibly makes sense. Keselowski previously had shown speed in the high lane, and Larson is among the best in running against the wall.

But you can make a case that the No. 42 Chevrolet driver overthought the move. The lower lane seemed faster on the 1.54-mile oval throughout the weekend. Why not force Keselowski to beat you on the outside and hope for the best?

And when Keselowski swings high, why not throw a block as Denny Hamlin did to Keselowski on the last lap of The Clash? OK, maybe the outcome is the same, and neither car wins. So what? It’s for the win.

Larson is an immensely talented driver whose ethics have been highly praised by his peers (see: last year’s Dover finish when he also chose discretion over playing rough). That praise can be damning, though.

He should have more than one victory on NASCAR’s premier circuit. It might take an unpopular — and unnatural — change in his approach to get the next win.

–The sample size is only two races, but it should be at least noted that Ford is undefeated since adding powerhouse Stewart-Haas Racing (and that the Blue Oval led all but 12 of 325 laps Sunday between Keselowski and Kevin Harvick).

The uptick in performance for the Fusion brigade isn’t unexpected, but there’s one element that is. Team Penske, which typically is notorious for walling off other teams even when under the same manufacturer umbrella, seems to be embracing a greater spirit of camaraderie with SHR.

Team owner Roger Penske (who made “the unfair advantage” a thing in auto racing) even alluded to helping Stewart-Haas with its chassis over the offseason.

“Obviously (we) worked with Roush last year, they weren’t quite as competitive as maybe we were, but we knew coming in with Stewart‑Haas that they were going to be guys that could set a bar for us,” Penske said. “In fact, we built some chassis for them before Daytona, some center sections, and we had our cars in the wind tunnel and compared them.  So we know what they have and they know what we have.

“I felt that the camaraderie at Daytona was something we haven’t had for a number of years because we pretty much played by ourselves, and I think that that’s made us much stronger. But from a comparison standpoint, I think that we need that because if they’re better than we are, we’ve got to figure out why and vice versa, and we’ll shoot it out on the track there in the last lap or the last 10 laps.”

Toyota Racing Development made a shrewd move last year in aligning Furniture Row to the powerful Joe Gibbs Racing stable and effectively creating a six-car team. It can’t be that way with Stewart-Haas and Penske, but Ford definitely will get more championship contenders out of this arrangement. If Penske plays nice in a way it didn’t with many others in the past, it increases the title odds for Ford’s expanded field.

–Roughly nine hours before he would be celebrating his first win at Atlanta Motor Speedway, Keselowski was carrying his daughter, Scarlett, around the garage, giving the nearly 2-year-old a tour of his No. 2 team. After the win, he took a page from the Steph Curry playbook and briefly brought her on stage for the postrace news conference.

Keselowski delivered a typically thoughtful answer when asked about it:

I’m really lucky to be a race car driver, but it’s challenging to balance your work life and your professional life.  I’m no different than most everyone else.  I want to have a family and I want to do all the cool things and see all the cool things you get to see when you have kids and a wife and all that, but I also want to win. That means I have to be the best professional possible, and I have to put in hours that aren’t always going to be fun, right.  So part of that and trying to maximize my work‑life balance means trying to find the appropriate times and places to blend the two, and that was my opportunity, and I’m going to always look for those opportunities with my wife and daughter and family in general.

“It’s part of the challenge of doing what we do, but I’m still really lucky to live this life and to have an opportunity to race for a great team and travel around the country and see all kinds of cool things and meet all kinds of cool people and have fans and all that, but I feel lucky that I have a team that’s kind of letting me have some slack with all those things and try to find that right balance because I’ll never forget Roger’s son Greg told me, this is one of the first questions he asked me.  He said to me one day, he said, ‘How do you balance your work life and your home life?’

“For a lot of years, I had a terrible work‑to‑life balance with respect to just being all work. … I would say that my time with my family is my time to sharpen the axe, and believe me, when Scarlett wakes up at 7 a.m. and I’m still really tired, I really want to go to work.  I get some good reminders there how fun work is. But in general, I just enjoy the time, and I’m the happiest I’ve ever been in my life, and I feel like I’ve got the best balance I’ve ever had, and I feel very fortunate.

–It’s been a less than auspicious debut for the ballyhooed 2018 Camry that is running as a 2017 race car. Though Matt Kenseth (third) salvaged a decent day for JGR, Kyle Busch’s struggles were perplexing.

Las Vegas isn’t make or break yet, but TRD and Gibbs will want to make a statement about their new model on a 1.5-mile track.

–Regardless of where you come down on the DeLana vs. Dillon debate, there is no question that it has elements of the type of rivalries that have built NASCAR. There’s so much backstory over the past five years here, it’s hard to pick a spot to begin explaining Sunday night’s flare-up.

While feuding isn’t fun for drivers (or their significant others/wives), it’s compelling to follow.

–Good nugget from NBCSN analyst/NBC Sports.com columnist/occasional ace driver Parker Kligerman on NBCSN’s Monday Morning Donuts podcast about why two Richard Childress Racing cars had battery problems.

Kligerman noted that teams are employing batteries so powerful, there might not be a need for an alternator, which can add a few horsepower. Kligerman said many drivers toggle their alternator off for qualifying laps or on restarts for extra oomph. There could be some kinks to work out if teams are trying to employ that strategy for a 500-mile race.

–Let’s not forget how Dale Earnhardt Jr. feels about splitters, both on his podcast and on Twitter. At this rate, #TeamValence could be trending nationally during a Cup race this season and continue to build the momentum for eliminating the front-end part. Until then …

Caution comes at wrong time for Denny Hamlin at Las Vegas

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Denny Hamlin said he knew it would happen. He just didn’t know when.

A debris caution during a green-flag cycle proved key to Kurt Busch winning Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Las Vegas and Hamlin finishing third despite leading a race-high 121 laps.

The caution on Lap 237 caught most of the playoff drivers a lap down, forcing them to wave around. Busch was the only playoff driver who had not made a pit stop.

Hamlin, who was leading, pitted on Lap 233. He came in a lap after Alex Bowman stopped. Bowman was running second to Hamlin before the stop.

“Our hand got forced by (Bowman) by him coming in early there,” Hamlin said of his team not wanting to have Bowman gain time with fresher tires. “We both had a lead over the field. I thought we could have run a little bit longer, but we had to answer their strategy because they were within one second of us. We didn’t want to just to kind of give them the lead and count on running them down at the end of the race. You have to keep yourself in front of them.”

Instead of possibly celebrating a win and advancing to the next round, Hamlin left Vegas frustrated with his third-place showing.

“I just hate getting burned by the same thing, that’s it, that’s all I’m saying,” Hamlin said on the radio to crew chief Chris Gabehart after the race. “It’s the same thing I get burned on. I know we had no choice because we were at.”

Gabehart responded to Hamlin on the radio: “The choice is I stay out another five or six laps and if the caution doesn’t come, we have no shot to win. I don’t know what I’d do different. The problem is there is no reason for the leaders to come early because you leave yourself vulnerable to that, but you can’t get all these goofballs to understand that. It’s what happens.”

Even after such a finish, Hamlin is 58 points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the next round.

But that wasn’t enough to console Hamlin.

“I just hate missing out on victories,” he said of his playoff spot. “We’re so much better than the six victories that we’ve got. It’s just disturbing. I’ve never been so fast in so many races and not finish it like we feel like we should, but we’re up front. That’s what counts. That’s what’s going to get you to Phoenix, keep getting those wins and keep battling for race wins. You’ll get yourself to Phoenix (for the title race)  and hopefully you’’ll get a championship out of  it. That’s what we’re all here for. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Hamlin’s finish was his best in the playoffs and came after a first round that saw him score a stage win but not place higher than 12th.

Hamlin discounted the notion that putting together a new Cup team with Michael Jordan for next year and signing Bubba Wallace to drive for it had been a distraction earlier in the playoffs.

“I’ve been working for like 10 weeks on stuff, not just racing stuff, but stuff in general,” Hamlin said. “We’ve had bad breaks. Tonight was just another bad break like Darlington was, to be honest with you. Or Bristol. We led laps. We were, I thought, the best car.”

At Darlington, Hamlin missed pit road and had to go back around. Then a debris caution about 10 laps buried him outside  the top 10 with less than 50 laps left. He finished 13th.

At Bristol, Hamlin started at the rear because his car failed inspection twice before the race. He ran fifth when he had contact with teammate Martin Truex Jr. as Truex returned to the track after pitting. Hamlin finished 21st.

Kyle Busch still below playoff cutline after ‘pretty dismal’ Las Vegas race

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Though he finished sixth Sunday night in the Cup playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch described his experience in the Round of 12 opener as “pretty dismal.”

The defending Cup champion now goes into the second race of the round, at Talladega Superspeedway, outside the transfer position to the next round. He trails Alex Bowman, who holds the final transfer spot, by nine points.

“Started a little up, went a little down and finished just kind of mediocre there,” Busch said. “We brought an okay M&M’s Camry. Just didn’t seem to have the overall speed that it needed, especially on the long runs early in the race. Then there late, just no overall speed. Nothing to go blitz anybody and try to make moves and get to the front. We just salvaged along and got what we got. We got lucky to get what we got for sure. It was looking like it was going to be a 12th- or 14th-place day, but came home sixth.”

Busch’s issues began at the start of Stage 2 after he earned the lead by getting off pit road first. As he raced Joey Logano for the lead on the Lap 87 restart, he was on the inside of Logano as they drove toward Turn 3.

That’s when Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, dove to Busch’s inside to make it three wide and then take the lead.

But as Hamlin pulled even with Busch, Busch lurched to the right and made contact with Logano. The Team Penske driver would pit to repair a tire rub while Busch continued.

“I don’t know if (Logano) knew that was coming and didn’t adjust for it and didn’t plan for it,” Busch said. “It kind of seemed like he expected me to go to the bottom and run the bottom and he was gonna run my door.”

Logano said on the radio to his spotter he didn’t realize he was three-wide until it was too late.

Later, Busch pit from fourth on Lap 118 and fell to 28th when his front tire changer’s pit gun broke, resulting in a 22.5-second stop.

“We worked on it and I thought we were making some gains on it and then we got that damage and got way back in traffic,” Busch said. “Then there towards the end, was just able to get lucky on a couple of the last restarts in order to pick off a few spots with the M&M’s Camry and get ourselves in a better position for the finish. It was a pretty dismal day I guess.”

Busch heads to Talladega. He has one win in 30 Cup starts there. He has just one top 10 there in the last six races.

How does Busch plan to navigate the race as he faces his nine-point deficit to the playoff cutoff?

“I’ll just do what I’m told,” Busch said.

What drivers said after Las Vegas race

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Here is what drivers had to say after Sunday night’s Las Vegas race.

Kurt Busch — Winner: “This is what kids dream of when they grow up racing. You dream of winning at your hometown track. And for two decades it’s kicked my butt. And tonight, with this Monster Energy Chevy, I’m in awe. I knew the race would come to us. We needed to get to nightfall and one of those quirky Mac McCall (crew chief) pit sequences finally unfolded. We got lucky. You’ve got to be lucky. And you have to be lucky in any race, but we did it tonight with teamwork and pulling through and just not giving up. … Yeah, the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) had a ton of speed. I was wide-open. And you just have to manipulate the draft. I pulled out some old drag racing skills on the restarts. I knew that was our strong suit. We just put ourselves in position and we held off. Chip Ganassi was up in the suite somewhere and I could feel him breathing over my neck, I want to win. And we did it.”

Matt DiBenedetto — Finished 2nd: “Two seconds at Vegas.  It’s tough to come that close, just wanted it so bad for this team. I love driving for the Wood Brothers.  I want that number 100 for them so bad and for Menards, the whole family and everything they do for us and the team, and having Duracell on the car this week, we’re keeping her charged up good. Our car was the best it had been at the end, just couldn’t get control on those restarts. The 1 car, Kurt, did a great job. We had completely different ratios for the restarts and once he gained control of the race, he played the right games on the restarts, knew what we had on our weakness there. Man, it’s tough to come that close. I just want it so bad, but I’m proud of the team. They did a great job. My pit crew did a great job tonight and really earned that one for us.”

DENNY HAMLIN — Finished 3rd: “We had a dominant car today and I’m proud of the whole FedEx team for giving me such a great car. By far the best car I’ve had in Las Vegas in a long time. It was really, really good. Happy with it and this new tire here. We’ll run that a few more times this year. Really encouraged by the way we ran, but very disappointed that we didn’t get a win. It’s just been the way that the playoffs have gone. Whoever stays out the longest puts themselves in a great spot to win. … I feel good about it. I certainly had a great day. It’s something I’m happy about, it’s about how we ran and how fast we were. We restarted 13th there with just a few laps and then the top got shuffled and we were able to make some ground on the bottom. If either one of the cautions don’t happen, we’re still in great shape, but it took them like seven laps to get a piece of debris off and then we had debris right in the fuel window.

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 4th: “We were right there in the hunt coming down after the last pit stop there under green. We were third and we were tracking them down just a little bit at a time. Felt like we were maybe going to have a three-way race for the win and then that caution came out and put us all the way to the back. To be able to battle through that and ended up pitting again for tires because we weren’t going anywhere and restarted like 24th there on not the last caution, but the one before that. To be able to drive back up to fourth is really something. The Bass Pro Toyota was really strong tonight. We needed just a little bit to be as good as the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and maybe the 88 (Alex Bowman), but we were a third-place car, no question. Just missed it a tiny little bit. Decent night. Just needed a little bit more, but happy with the team and the job they’re doing. See what we can do next week at Talladega.”

ALEX BOWMAN – Finished 5th: “I guess it is good to be disappointed in a fifth-place finish. We did not need that caution to come out in the middle of the pit cycle like that. I thought it was going to be ok for us, but we just couldn’t get through traffic as well as we needed to. Our program is continuing to improve and I just feel like this is another Vegas race that go away from us. At least it was a good points day, which is what we need.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 6th: “We weren’t great early on and didn’t quite have the long run speed. We worked on it and I thought we were making some gains on it and then we got that damage and got way back in traffic. Then there towards the end, was just able to get lucky on a couple of the last restarts in order to pick off a few spots with the M&M’s Camry and get ourselves in a better position for the finish. It was a pretty dismal day I guess. I looked like it was going to be about 12th or 14th if we didn’t have some good moves on that last restart there to get us a sixth-place finish.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 7th: “Overall it was a decent night. We had to start mid pack and were able to drive up through there pretty quick. I thought our Mustang was good and we made good adjustments on it throughout the night. By the second stage I thought we were really strong, we just needed to kind of restart with the leaders and stay in touch with them. That caution that trapped a bunch of us a lap down was unfortunate. I think we were running fourth or fifth at the time. That stunk. We were able to rebound alright and we started third on that last restart and tried to push Matt (DiBenedetto) and get there but the top just kind of trained up on us. It was unfortunate to run seventh but we had a good car and really good adjustments all night. I thought we were right there, it just didn’t all work out. I thought our car was really fast though, so I am proud of that effort.”

Erik Jones — Finished 8th: “It was kind of an up-and-down day. We started off and I didn’t think that our Toyota Camry was really where it needed to be. We were struggling with rear grip in the heat and couldn’t really get the thing going in the right direction. Towards the end, got some track position and had some good restarts and got the car a lot better. We got caught a lap down with the pit cycle and had some contact there with another car trying to avoid (John Hunter Nemechek) and had to come in and pit and fix some damage. It put us behind there with six laps to go, but still good to come home eighth. Top 10, we will take that and move on.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 10th: “We just missed everything tonight. The car just didn’t drive good. We were slow on pit road and that was pretty much it. We just got buried in the field there.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 12th: “I was more worried about this race than I am the next two. We didn’t get out of here as good as I wanted to. Obviously, the 1 car was not a car that we needed to win a race. It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse as far as points-wise. Him winning changes that landscape quite a bit, but we’re only 20 points out. It wasn’t near as bad as it could have been. The car was nuclear meltdown and I was lucky to finish, so 20 points is pretty easy to overcome at a track like Talladega that’s for sure.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 13th: “It just wasn’t the night we wanted. It’s a good thing we had a little bit of a points cushion to lean on and we’ll run our best the next two weeks. It could have been a lot worse. It is frustrating but we are certainly not out of it. We still have a pretty good points cushion so we will try to get through these next two weeks and put up a good race and build ourselves a cushion.”

Joey Logano — Finished 14th: “Unfortunately, we got a little damage there and had to pit for the left-rear tire. You can’t afford to blow a left-rear tire in the playoffs and back the thing in the fence and shoot yourself in the foot. We had to pit and then just no cautions, and then the one time I had a shot at it the 48 just got me, so that was a little unfortunate. Eventually, we got the lucky dog and went around with our Pennzoil Mustang and drove back to 14th. I felt like that second stage, not scoring any stage points there hurts, but we’re still above the cutline and we’ll head on to Talladega and see how that one goes.”

Cole Custer — Finished 16th: “We just didn’t have the restarts we needed tonight. Obviously, the caution that came out in the middle of the green-flag pit stop cycle hurt us. The guys did a good job tonight and were good on pit road too.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 17th: “Our mile-and-a-half stuff has been really good lately. We ran really good at Kentucky, Texas and we’ve just been solid, so I came in here with a lot of confidence. I thought we would come here and run good. The guys have been working really hard on the cars back at the shop and we just missed it tonight. We were off in speed, off in handling, we were not very good at all on pit road. We didn’t do a lot of things right myself included, so it was just a bad night. Nothing went the way it was supposed to go. We’ve got to be better than that. You can’t transfer through these rounds running that poorly, so we’ll go to Talladega and see if we can’t pull one out of our hat.”

JOHN HUNTER NEMECHEK — Finished 20th: “Man, that was a heartbreaker. Our No. 38 Speedy Cash Ford Mustang was on the free side to fire off and we were bouncing on the splitter pretty bad. Seth (Barbour) and the crew did a fantastic job on pit road getting the handling to where we were comfortable, and we fought our way up into the top five. Unfortunately, we had a tire go down towards the end of the final stage and then made contact a few laps later trying to avoid a wreck. Definitely not the finish my guys deserved today.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 21st: “That was definitely a tough finish to what was a much stronger performance by our No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops | Delo team all race long. We ran inside of the top 20 for basically the entire race, getting as high as fifth or sixth at one point; but unfortunately the handful of late-race cautions and multiple restarts just got us shuffled back to where there weren’t enough laps to drive back towards the front.”

William Byron — Finished 25th: “Just a bummer of a result tonight. We really had a good car. We needed to keep adjusting to keep up with the track but we were running inside the top 10 before that caution during green-flag pit stops. Then we could never rally back unfortunately. Being stuck back there, we then got caught up with two laps to go and couldn’t recover.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 26th: “Our GEICO Military team battled all night long. At the start of the race, the car didn’t have enough rear grip to charge and make speed, but Matt (Borland) kept chipping away at it. Our Chevrolet continued to get better throughout the race. The caution came at the wrong time after our green flag pit stop there at the end, which trapped us a lap down. You can’t control those things though. I’m looking forward to Talladega next week. It is important to our Germain Racing team to finish these final six races strong and we will keep working hard to do that.”

Bubba Wallace – Finished 28th: “Awful. Just missed it. On to Talladega.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 32nd: “We were doing what we needed to do. We were a solid, top-five car in Stage 1 and Stage 2 and were able to earn some points during the end of each of the first two stages. We weren’t so fortunate in Stage 3. We were issued a safety violation on pit road with less than 80 laps to go and had to restart at the tail end of the field. We shook it off because we knew that we work well under pressure. We made our way up to 20th and we were in pretty good shape because we were three cars behind the No. 1 car and we were going to run long, probably. But then I suddenly lost all steering and the water pressure gauge pegged at 400 degrees. We made quick repairs but lost nine laps on pit road and that pretty much did us in. I’m proud of this team for continuing to fight. We’ve got two races left in the Round of 12 and we’re not giving up. It’s on to Talladega Superspeedway where anything can happen, and our goal is to win.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 37th: “We just didn’t really have any luck on our side tonight. I was a little tight to fire off, but we had good overall speed in our car. Unfortunately after our first pit stop of the night, we had a loose right rear tire so we had to make a second stop to fix that and fell a lap down. It’s frustrating to have a car as fast as the one we had and be trapped a lap down, but as a team, we knew we still had a lot of time to get back on the lead lap and into the mix before the race was over. On the final lap of Stage 2, I got into the wall pretty hard and it ended our night early.”

Las Vegas race results, driver points

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Kurt Busch scored his first career Cup victory at his hometown track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, and is the first driver to advance to third round of the playoffs.

Busch led the final 26 laps, taking advantage when a caution came out in the middle of a green-flag pit cycle. Busch was the only playoff driver who had yet to pit before the caution.

Matt DiBenedetto finished second and was followed by Denny Hamlin, Martin Truex Jr. and Alex Bowman.

Click here for Cup race results

DRIVER POINTS

Alex Bowman holds the final transfer spot to the next round. Kyle Busch trails Bowman by nine points. Clint Bowyer trails Bowman by 20 points. Aric Almirola trails Bowman by 27 points. Austin Dillon trails Bowman by 32 points.

Click here for driver points