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Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s playoff chances may rely on if he can win a race

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CONCORD, N.C. — Even with 15 races remaining before the playoffs begin, car owner Rick Hendrick says he thinks Dale Earnhardt Jr. will have to win a race if the retiring driver hopes to have one last shot at a Cup championship.

Earnhardt is 25th in the points heading into this weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He’s 77 points behind Trevor Bayne, who holds the final playoff spot at this time. Drivers can earn up to 70 points this weekend with an extra stage. The maximum number of points is 60 for all other Cup races.

A win before the playoffs begin in September grants a driver, who starts every race, a chance to compete for the title. If there aren’t 16 winners by then, the rest of the playoff field is filled based on points.

Through the first 11 races, eight different drivers have won at least once. Martin Truex Jr., Jimmie Johnson and Brad Keselowski each have two wins, while five others have single victories: Kyle Larson, Joey Logano, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Ryan Newman and Daytona 500 winner Kurt Busch.

Stage points could play a key role in who fills the final playoff spots and that might not be good for Earnhardt. He has 19 stage points (teammate Chase Elliott has 94) but none in the last four races.

“I think we’ve got to win now,’’ Hendrick said last week. “A lot of people can start having problems. We’ve got to do the best we can and let it take care of itself. The cars are fast enough to win. I’m hopeful we can pull it off.’’

Said Earnhardt: “That makes it a lot easier when the boss man tells you what you’ve got to do.’’

Earnhardt wasn’t as confident after Saturday night’s All-Star Race. He finished 18th in the 20-car field and apologized to fans on Periscope after the race.

“It’s hard not to get down,” Earnhardt said. “I’ve been racing a long time and it’s hard not to get down. Right after that, it’s hard to keep your chin up, really hard. I’ll get my chin up again in a couple days.’’

That’s kind of how his season has been.

He was leading the Daytona 500 when Kyle Busch’s tire blew and Busch wrecked in front of Earnhardt, collecting him. Earnhardt finished 37th.

A pit road speeding penalty, flat tire and loose wheel contributed to a 30th-place finish at Atlanta.

A pit road speeding penalty dropped him to the rear at Martinsville and then he was collected in a crash. He finished 34th.

An oil cooler issue contributed to his crash at Bristol and a 38th-place finish.

Teammate Jimmie Johnson didn’t know Earnhardt was to his outside and slammed him into the wall at Richmond. Earnhardt finished 30th

A loose wheel forced him to pit late at Talladega. He finished 22nd.

He thought he had a loose wheel and pitted late at Kansas, giving up a top-10 spot. He finished 20th.

“I just know that in our notes over the last four years there we have tires that shake,’’ Earnhardt said. “Why there and why not other places? Don’t know. But at Kansas every third set might shake. It’s just something that I needed to remember before the race so when that happened, I didn’t freak out because we’ve had so many loose wheels so it’s in the back of my mind.

“I jumped the gun. It was my mistake. Full responsibility for costing us a lap and whatever else it costs us. Could have finished in the top 10. Car was real fast. It’s frustrating. If I had just talked to myself and said, ‘Be aware of those vibrations, it’s just what you have at that particular racetrack for some reason,’ then I might not have been so quick to jump on the loose wheel bandwagon like I was.’’

Even before the poor run in the All-Star Race, Hendrick said the team shouldn’t be overcome with dread.

“We just have to take a deep breath and do what we know how to do,’’ Hendrick said.

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NASCAR fines seven crew chiefs for lug nut violations at Las Vegas

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NASCAR announced Tuesday it has fined seven crew chiefs for lug nut violations from the Cup and Xfinity races this past weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway,

In the Cup Series, NASCAR issued fines to crew chiefs Matt McCall (Kurt Busch), Greg Erwin (Matt DiBenedetto) and Seth Barbour (John Hunter Nemechek) for having one lug nut not safe and secure on their cars. Each crew chief was fined $10,000.

In the Xfinity Series, NASCAR fined crew chiefs Bruce Schlicker (Ross Chastain), Dave Rogers (Riley Herbst), Ben Beshore (Harrison Burton) and Brian Wilson (Austin Cindric) for having one lug nut not safe and secure on their cars. Each crew chief was fined $5,000.

 

Chad Knaus to move off pit box for executive role at Hendrick

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Chad Knaus, whose success as a crew chief is nearly unparalleled in NASCAR, will step down from that role after this season and move into a leadership position at Hendrick Motorsports, the team announced Tuesday.

Knaus will become vice president of competition. He will oversee technical development for Hendrick Motorsports, including implantation of the Next Gen car in 2022. He also will be responsible for personnel for each of the four teams, including crew chiefs, pit crews, engineering, fabrication, assembly and other team-related staff.

Knaus won seven championships as Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief. Only Hall of Fame crew chief Dale Inman won more titles. Inman won eight, scoring seven with Richard Petty and one with Terry Labonte. Knaus has 82 career Cup wins. All but one came with Johnson. William Byron scored his first career Cup win in August at Daytona with Knaus as his crew chief. Byron was eliminated from the playoffs last weekend. The 49-year-old Knaus is the only crew chief to have competed in NASCAR’s postseason all 17 years.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Chad Knaus before the 2005 Coca-Cola 600. They combined to win that event four times.  (Photo by Harold Hinson/Sporting News via Getty Images via Getty Images)

“When I started at Hendrick Motorsports (in 1993) working for Ray Evernham, my goal was to be a crew chief,” Knaus said in a statement from the team. “Starting at a young age, I wanted to win every race we entered and battle for every championship.

“Mr. (Rick) Hendrick has given me the chance to do exactly that, and I could not be more thankful to him. After all these years, my competitive desire has not changed at all, but now I have a family that deserves my attention. This new executive role will allow me to compete in a different way with all four of our teams while spending more time with my wife and two young children.

“I appreciate the company supporting my decision, and I’m truly excited about the challenge ahead of me to help us grow and win. I’m also looking forward to working closely with Jeff (Andrews), who I admire and have great respect for. I owe so much to Mr. Hendrick and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports, and I’m ready for the next chapter.”

Knaus and his wife Brooke welcomed a baby girl July 30. Vivienne Mae Knaus is the couple’s second child. Son Kipling was born in 2018.

A new crew chief for Byron will be announced at a later date.

Chad Knaus, car owner Rick Hendrick and Jimmie Johnson displaying their rings after Johnson claimed the 2013 Daytona 500. (Photo by John Harrelson/NASCAR via Getty Images)

“In life, it’s rare to witness true excellence first-hand, but that’s precisely what we’ve been treated to with Chad,” Hendrick said in a statement. “Today’s announcement is bittersweet because, in my opinion, he is the finest crew chief our sport has ever seen.

“Although we’re going to miss him atop the pit box, I’m heartened that Chad has made this decision for himself and his growing family and that he is energized about the opportunity to move us forward in a new capacity. There is no one with higher standards or a stronger passion for winning. He will continue to elevate Hendrick Motorsports and instill his championship mentality throughout the company.”

Knaus served two races as crew chief for Casey Atwood in 2000 and then did one race for Stacy Compton that season. In 2001, Knaus was paired with Compton. Knaus rejoined Hendrick Motorsports to be Johnson’s crew chief in 2002. They remained together until 2019 when Knaus moved to Byron’s team.   

Knaus will report to Andrews, 55, who has been promoted to executive vice president and general manager, effective immediately.

Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus celebrate their seventh NASCAR Cup championship after winning the 2016 season finale in Miami. (Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

Andrews joined Hendrick Motorsports in 1992 and most recently served as vice president of competition. He had held that role since 2017.

Previously, Andrews held a leadership position in the team’s engine department, including director of engine operations. In his expanded role, Andrews will oversee all competition-related departments, including powertrain, manufacturing and racing operations. He will continue to support the organization’s technical relationship with Chevrolet and remain its primary liaison with NASCAR’s competition group. Andrews reports to Hendrick Motorsports president Marshall Carlson.

“In my almost 29-year NASCAR career, I’ve been fortunate to work for just one organization,” Andrews said in a statement from the team. “Mr. Hendrick is a racer and a fierce competitor. His drive to win is contagious, and I’m grateful to have a team of like-minded people who share that passion. Racing is all I have ever done professionally. When I left my home and my family 33 years ago to pursue this dream, I never could have imagined the opportunities that have been provided by so many people, most importantly Mr. Hendrick.”

Said Hendrick in a statement: “As we look to the years ahead, Jeff and Chad are going to play significant roles in our success. They’re tremendous leaders who are respected within our organization and across the entire auto racing world. In addition, they each bring unique strengths and skillsets that will complement each other extremely well and benefit all of Hendrick Motorsports. We’re in the business of winning, and this combination is going to help us do just that.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick still No. 1 after quiet Vegas

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Kevin Harvick didn’t have a flashy night Sunday in Las Vegas, but it didn’t keep him from retaining the No. 1 spot in this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings.

After winning the Bristol night race, Harvick finished in the top 10 in the first two stages in Vegas before placing 10th at race’s end.

Kurt Busch’s win at his home track vaulted him into the top 10 as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Las Vegas

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): In the last eight races he’s won three times and finished outside the top 10 only twice.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 5): Placed fourth for his 11th top-five finish in the last 14 races.

3. Alex Bowman (Last week unranked): Finished fifth for his second top five and fifth top-10 finish in the last six races.

4. Denny Hamlin (Last week unranked): Left Vegas with a third-place finish to snap a three-race streak of finishing outside the top 10.

5. Kurt Busch (Last week unranked): Snapped a 46-race winless streak with his victory and advanced to the Round of 8.

6. Kyle Busch (Last week No. 3): Finished sixth after a “dismal” night. He has four consecutive top 10s.

7. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): Finished 13th to give him two finishes outside the top 10 since he won at Richmond.

8. Chase Briscoe (Last week unranked): Opened the Xfinity playoffs with his second consecutive win.

8. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 2): Led 73 laps, but had to settle for a 22nd-place finish in Vegas.

8. Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Finished 14th for his second straight finish outside the top 10.

Also receiving votes: Erik Jones and Chris Buescher.

NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)