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Denny Hamlin salvages day for Joe Gibbs Racing with third-place finish

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First, Matt Kenseth led the opening 164 laps with ease. But his day was ruined by a cut tire and the No. 20 Toyota finished 23rd.

Kyle Busch later challenged for the lead. But the four-time Richmond winner was left simply stating “balls and strikes” after a commitment line violation relegated him to 16th.

Rookie Daniel Suarez was never a factor, finishing 12th.

That left Joe Gibbs Racing’s best chances for winning its first race this season to Virginia native Denny Hamlin.

Hamlin led three times for 59 laps in the Toyota Owners 400, but the last time the No. 11 Toyota led Sunday was 38 laps from the race’s conclusion.

Hamlin wound up third after a series of late-race restarts, earning his first top five of the year.

“We optimized our day,” Hamlin said. “It’s the best we could do. We finished right where we should have.”

Though Kenseth earned the pole and led the most laps and Hamlin earned his best result through nine races, Hamlin cautioned this doesn’t mean JGR has pulled out of its early season “short falls.”

“I think that some of the issues that you might have with speed is masked just a little bit on a short track, so by no means does this indicate that we’ve fixed anything,” Hamlin said. “When I’m running out front, my balance is very, very good, where I need it to be, and we just don’t have a car that was quite fast enough. Aerodynamics matter, skew matters, things like that, and we’re just a little behind. So we’ve got to just take solace in some small wins and goals, and today was a good finish.”

On Friday, Hamlin had warned that JGR’s woes wouldn’t be fixed “overnight” or in “a month.” That remained the case 48 hours later, even though Kenseth led his first laps of the season and won a stage.

The team was unable to defend its three-race win streak at the .75-mile track. Hamlin delivered the last win there in  September 2016 race. That was also the last win by an active JGR driver (Carl Edwards, who is not racing this year, won at Texas in November with the team).

“We know where we need to get better,” Hamlin said. “That’s the tough part. At least if you know why, then you can go to work on those areas.”

Through nine races, JGR’s four drivers have combined for five top-five finishes.

“We haven’t gotten better,” Hamlin said. “We’re really right where we were. I mean, if we go to a mile-and-a-half (track) next week, we’re just as far off as what we were a week ago.

“You’ve still got to have raw speed. You cannot just have a better setup than those guys and go out and beat them. You have to have a faster car, and we just ‑‑ you know, I’m optimistic. I hate to be pessimistic about today, but we’ve got to be real about it and realize, hey, it’s just a short track. We still have a lot of work to do to catch up.”

If short tracks like Richmond help even out the competition, the series heads to the epitome of even competition in Talladega Superspeedway.

Hamlin has two points wins in restrictor-plate races since 2014, including last years’ Daytona 500. He placed third in the fall race at the 2.66-mile speedway.

“Definitely looking forward to it,” Hamlin said. “Our Superspeedway program has been great at JGR. …  It’s honestly probably the best chance I have at winning until a few months from now. Everything is pretty level. I’m optimistic we’re going to have a car that can win, and I’ll do the best I can to fight for every position.”

William Byron’s title hopes end in Bristol incident

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William Byron‘s playoffs ended when he ran into the back of a car shortly before halfway in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Byron was running 10th and in position to advance to the second round after Saturday’s elimination race before the incident.

Byron told NBCSN’s Marty Snider that Joey Gase‘s car slowed on a straightaway and Byron ran into the back of Christopher Bell‘s car.

“I literally had nowhere to go,” Byron said. “Just ridiculous that’s what takes us out.”

Byron said he was running behind Bell, who was behind Gase, on the high side. Byron said he had Aric Almirola on his inside and could not move down there.

Byron entered the race the first driver outside the final transfer spot to the second round. He entered the race trailing Clint Bowyer by three points.

 

 

 

Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars going to rear for inspection violations

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The cars of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones will start at the rear after each car failed inspection twice before Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Busch enters the race 18 points above the cutline to transfer to the second round of the Cup playoffs. Saturday’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Busch was to have started ninth.

This is the second playoff race in a row that Busch’s team has failed inspection twice before the race and had to start at the rear. Busch started at the rear last weekend at Richmond. He finished sixth.

Hamlin has already advanced to the second round via points. He was to have started seventh.

“We’ve got 500 laps,” he said. “If we’re good enough, we’ll get to the front. Not really too worried about it in that sense.”

Jones is not in the playoffs. He would have started 20th.

NASCAR also announced that the cars of Corey LaJoie and Bubba Wallace will start at the rear for unapproved adjustments. JJ Yeley will go to the rear for a driver change since he was not listed on the preliminary entry list for the No. 15 car.

Wallace was to have started 27th. LaJoie was to have started 30th. The No. 15 was to have started 32nd with Brennan Poole as the driver.

 

Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, TV channel

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Four drivers will be eliminated from the Cup playoffs after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This marks the first time the track has been in the playoffs. The Saturday Cup race at Bristol will end the first round. The 16-driver field will be cut to 12.

William Byron (3 points behind the cutline), Cole Custer (-8), Matt DiBenedetto (-25) and Ryan Blaney (-27) are the four drivers out of a playoff spot. Clint Bowyer holds the final transfer spot.

Here is all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Bristol:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines is at 7:38 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:45 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup haulers enter the garage (screening and equipment unload) at 10:30 a.m. Garage access health screening begins at 12:30 p.m. Garage opens at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:10 p.m. Driver introductions will be at 7:15 p.m. The invocation is at 7:30 p.m. The national anthem will be performed by Joe Nichols, three-time Grammy nominee, at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 7 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 62 degrees and a 3% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski won at Richmond. Martin Truex Jr. finished second. Joey Logano placed third for the second race in a row.

LAST POINTS RACE AT BRISTOL: Brad Keselowski won in May after Denny Hamlin lost the lead when he hit the wall. Chase Elliott ran into Joey Logano as they battled for the lead late in the event.

TO THE REAR: Denny Hamlin (two inspection failures), Kyle Busch (two inspection failures), Erik Jones (two inspection failures), Corey LaJoie (unapproved adjustments), Bubba Wallace (unapproved adjustments), JJ Yeley (driver change).

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Cup starting lineup

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Three Joe Gibbs Racing cars going to the rear for inspection violations

Bubble drivers brace for Bristol battle

Pit crew change for teams of Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson

Friday 5: The thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney seek NASCAR history to advance

What upcoming Cup playoff races NASCAR fans can attend

Trevor Bayne says the fire remains to run more races

Cup playoff clinching scenarios to make Round of 12

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The first elimination race of the Cup playoffs has arrived in the form of Bristol Motor Speedway.

Tonight’s 500-lap race on the short track will determine which drivers make up the Round of 12.

Three drivers have locked themselves into the second round. Kevin Harvick and Brad Keselowski earned their spots via race wins at Darlington and Richmond. Denny Hamlin clinched a spot via points.

More: Brad Keselowski on pole for Bristol

That leaves nine spots for 13 drivers to compete for.

If there is a new winner, the following drivers could clinch by being ahead of the 10th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano – would clinch with 7 points: 51 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Logano has finished third in the last two playoff races (at Darlington and Richmond). Has made 23 starts at Bristol posting one pole, two wins, six top fives and 10 top 10s. Logano’s average finish is 15.3.

Martin Truex Jr. – would clinch with 20 points: 38 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Earned 22nd-place finish at Darlington and second-place finish at Richmond. Has made 29 series starts at Bristol posting two top fives and three top 10s. His average finish is 20.6.

Austin Dillon – would clinch with 21 points: 36 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Dillion has a runner-up finish at Darlington and a fourth-place result last weekend at Richmond. Has 13 starts at Bristol posting one top five and three top 10s. His average finish is 17.3.

Chase Elliott – Would clinch with 30 points: 28 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Elliott finished 20th at Darlington and fifth at Richmond. Has made nine starts at Bristol and has one pole, three top fives and four top 10s. Average finish is 12.6.

Alex Bowman – would clinch with 31 points: 27 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Bowman placed sixth at Darlington and ninth at Richmond. Has made nine series starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 22.6.

Kyle Busch – would clinch with 40 points: Just 18 points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Has seventh-place finish at Darlington and a sixth-place finish at Richmond. Has made 30 Cup starts at Bristol posting two poles and a series-leading eight wins among active drivers.

Aric Almirola – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the Round of 12 cutoff. Finished ninth at Darlington and eighth at Richmond. Has made 22 starts at Bristol with one top five and two top 10s. His average finish is 25.0.

Kurt Busch – would clinch with 51 points: Seven points ahead of the cutoff sport. Almirola holds the tiebreaker of best finish in the current playoff round. Busch has finished eighth at Darlington and 13th at Richmond. Has 39 Cup starts at Bristol with one pole, six wins, 12 top fives and 21 top 10s. Average finish is 14th.

Clint Bowyer – would clinch with 55 points: Three points over cutoff. Finished 10th at Darlington and Richmond. Bowyer has made 29 Cup starts at Bristol with eight top fives and 16 top 10s. Average finish is 13.6.

William Byron (-3 points from cutoff; would need help to clinch): Finished fifth at Darlington and 21st at Richmond. Five Cup starts at Bristol with one top 10. Average finish of 17.2.

Cole Custer (-8 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 12th at Darlington and 14th at Richmond. Finished 25th in lone Bristol Cup start.

Matt DiBenedetto (-25 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 21st at Darlington and 17th at Richmond. Eleven Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and one top 10. Average finish of 19.1.

Ryan Blaney
Ryan Blaney is last on the 16 driver playoff grid heading into Bristol. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Ryan Blaney (-27 points; would need help to clinch): Finished 24th at Darlington and 19th at Richmond. Ten Cup starts at Bristol with one top five and three other top 10s. Average finish of 20.7.

More: Blaney and DiBenedetto seek history to advance to second round

Should there be a repeat winner Saturday – Harvick or Keselowski – the following drivers would advance to the next round by being ahead of the 11th winless driver in the standings.

Joey Logano: Would clinch with 4 points

Martin Truex Jr.: Would clinch with 17 points

Austin Dillon: Would clinch with 18 points

Chase Elliott: Would clinch with 27 points

Alex Bowman: Would clinch with 28 points

Kyle Busch: Would clinch with 37 points

Aric Almirola: Would clinch with 48 points

Kurt Busch: Would clinch with 48 points

Clint Bowyer: Would clinch with 52 points

William Byron: Would clinch with 55 points

Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney: Could only clinch with help