Daytona provided a chance for drivers often overlooked to shine

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. — They walked away with smiles but couldn’t shake one thought.

If only.

If only they had made a different move, put the car elsewhere or just had everything come together, they could have been in victory lane instead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. on Saturday night at Daytona International Speedway.

Still, a number of drivers who had not won this season posted their best finishes of the season.

  • Paul Menard, who has one career Cup win, placed a season-best third.
  • Michael McDowell, who has never won a Cup race, finished a career-best fourth.
  • David Ragan, who has two career wins, was a season-best sixth.
  • Brendan Gaughan, who races full-time in the Xfinity Series, was seventh for his best Cup finish since 2004.
  • Corey LaJoie recorded a career-best 11th-place result.

They were survivors in a race that had an event-record 14 cautions. Twenty-seven of the 40 drivers were involved in accidents, including Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Austin Dillon and Dale Earnhardt Jr.

That’s what restrictor-plate racing can do — shake up the results and give teams and drivers a better chance of winning than they would have at many other tracks.

Ragan, who has two restrictor-plate wins, was in position for Front Row Motorsports to score his first victory since 2013 at Talladega.

He led on the final restart in overtime but Stenhouse charged by to lead the final two laps.

“I missed my mark a bit coming to the white,’’ Ragan said. “I zigged when I should have zagged. It’s tough to block two or three lanes coming to the white flag. I missed it on that run. I’m just disappointed that I couldn’t close the deal.

“I should have moved to get (Ty Dillon) a little bit of a block and get down in front of (Stenhouse). Over the years, if you’re in those situations more, you just make better decisions on the fly. That’s the first time I’ve been leading like that in a green-white-checkered at a plate race in several years. I was probably a little slow to be looking in my mirrors good enough. I just didn’t know that (Stenhouse) and (McDowell) had that good of a run.’’

With that charge, McDowell scored a top-five finish. That was big because the team needs sponsorship. The sponsor on the car, WRL General Contractors is a company owned by team owner Bob Leavine and his wife.

“It’s nice to do this week after week,’’ said McDowell, who has five top-20 finishes in the last seven races. “We’ve been putting together solid runs. At the same time, coming to the line second, I thought I had a shot at (Stenhouse) but just they had such a big run behind I couldn’t hold them off.”

For as fast as Menard was with Clint Bowyer pushing him on the final lap, it wasn’t enough.

“I really did think I was going to win for a little while,’’ Bowyer said.

“I knew you were going to win if I didn’t,’’ Menard said.

Dillon looked to be in the right position when he restarted second but fell back and finished 16th.

“I wanted to do it so bad for (team owner) Bob Germain who gave me this opportunity,” Dillon said. “That is two close ones, and if you keep getting these close ones, you will get one eventually. We work hard every week, but not every week are we contending for wins. When it’s our chance, we make the most of it. So I am proud of the way we are growing as a team and we are leading a lot of laps any way we can.

“I just feel disappointed. Nobody went with me (at the end) and so that is kind of the pains of being a rookie, but I would have been mad at myself if I didn’t make a move right there. The move cost me a good finish but didn’t really determine what our day was.”

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Chase Briscoe wins Xfinity race at Bristol Motor Speedway

Chase Briscoe
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Chase Briscoe took the lead with six laps to go and won Friday night’s Xfinity Series race at Bristol Motor Speedway, which marked the end of the regular season.

Briscoe passed Austin Cindric to assume the lead and went unchallenged to the checkered flag. The victory is his series-leading seventh of the season.

“I was so mad after last week (at Richmond),” Briscoe told NBCSN. “I told all the guys there ain’t no way we’re getting beat today. I was so mad after how we ran last week and I get on the internet all the time and see guys count us out after one bad race and I know what this team is capable. … I finished second here the last two races and I wanted to win here so bad and it’s awesome that I can actually celebrate it with all these race fans.”

The top five was completed by Ross Chastain, Cindric, Harrison Burton and Justin Allgaier.

Allgaier dominated the early portion of the race, leading 126 laps and winning the first two stages. But he lost the lead for good in the pits during the Stage 2 break.

Brandon Brown finished 12th and clinched the 12th and final playoff spot.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

STAGE 2 WINNER: Justin Allgaier

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ross Chastain led three times for 117 laps, but had to settle for his fifth runner-up finish of the season without a win … Austin Cindric earned his 13th top-10 finish in the last 14 races … Harrison Burton earned his 13th top five of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Brett Moffitt finished 27th after he had to pit three times in the opening laps and was penalized for taking fuel before the competition caution … BJ McLeod finished 34th after he was eliminated in a multi-car wreck that began when he made contact with teammate Jeffrey EarnhardtMichael Annett finished 31st and Joe Graf Jr. placed 27th after they were involved in an incident on Lap 120.

WHAT’S NEXT: The Xfinity playoffs open at Las Vegas Motor Speedway at 7:30 p.m. ET on Sept. 26 on NBCSN.

Check back for more

Fans not allowed at Las Vegas races

Fans not allowed
Photo by Michael Allio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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Spectators will be not be allowed for any of the NASCAR playoff races next weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, the track announced Friday night.

A press release said only essential personnel will be allowed to attend the Cup, Xfinity and Truck playoff races there.

“To say we’re disappointed that we will conduct the South Point 400 playoff weekend without fans would be a gross understatement,” said Las Vegas Motor Speedway President Chris Powell. “Our staff has been working – many of them remotely – since the February Pennzoil 400 to prepare the speedway for our playoff tripleheader.

“But we must adhere to Nevada Gov. Steve Sisolak’s directive that limits gatherings due to COVID-19.  While we disagree with this policy, we have no choice but to oblige.  We certainly regret this situation for the thousands of race fans who won’t be able to attend our NASCAR-weekend events.”

Nevada’s re-opening plan does not permit fans at sporting events, concerts. Groups are limited to 50 or fewer people.

The Las Vegas Raiders announced last month that they would not have fans at any of the team’s home games in its inaugural season there.

The Truck playoff race will be at 9 p.m. ET Sept. 25 on FS1. The Xfinity playoff opener will be at  7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 26 on NBCSN. The Cup playoff race will be 7 p.m. ET Sept. 27 on NBCSN.

Fans holding tickets for those events will be contacted by the speedway ticket services department to discuss credits for future races or refunds.

Pit crew change for Alex Bowman, Jimmie Johnson teams

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Hendrick Motorsports teammates Alex Bowman and Jimmie Johnson each will have a pit crew change for Saturday night’s playoff race at Bristol.

The change is the result of an injury to one pit crew member.

Dustin Lineback, jackman for Bowman’s team is out with an injury, the team stated. Kyle Tudor, who has been Johnson’s jackman, moves over to that role for Bowman’s team. Eric Ludwig, a backup for Hendrick Motorsports, moves up to be the jackman for Johnson.

MORE: Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, forecast, lineup

Bowman enters the elimination race 27 points ahead of teammate William Byron, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the second round. Bowman opened the playoffs by finishing sixth in the Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. He followed that by placing ninth at Richmond. Bowman was collected in a crash and finished 37th in the May Bristol race.

Johnson, who is in his final full-time Cup season, seeks his first victory of the season. He finished third at Bristol in May.

 

Cup bubble drivers brace for Bristol battle

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Plenty of attention will be paid to the likes of Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney during Saturday’s Cup elimination race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

But it’s good to remember that they, along with Cole Custer and William Byron below the cutline, are not the only drivers whose playoff hopes are in danger at the half-mile track.

Above the cutoff on the playoff grid are three drivers who will try to stay there over the course of the 500-lap race.

While Clint Bowyer is three points ahead of Byron, the first driver outside the final transfer spot, Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola are each seven points ahead of Byron.

Busch, the only driver among the bottom seven in the playoff standings with a Cup win at Bristol, is “ready to rip” at Thunder Valley to keep his title hopes alive.

“I feel like anytime you can go to a track that you’ve had past success at, it lends to just better feelings, it lends to going through the checklist items in an easier fashion,” Busch said earlier this week. “Our confidence is high going into the race. We have our homework done and now we go and race. … We’ve got seven points to the plus and that’s just kind of how we’ve been all year – we’ve been right around that 10th-place position all year.”

Busch has six Cup wins at Bristol with the last coming in the 2018 night race. He finished seventh in May to give him four consecutive top 10s there.

Bristol Motor Speedway
Kurt Busch will try to earn his seventh Bristol Cup win Saturday night. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver discussed the “little weird things” one must account for with each visit to the short track.

Busch said there’s aspect about the track “(owner Speedway Motorsports) might not tell NASCAR, (and) NASCAR might not tell SMI.

“Then there’s the Goodyear tire that shows up with different stager values, even though it’s the same tire code. So, there’s a lot of little things at Bristol all the time. But with this being a cutoff, you have to just go in there and do it. Get the job done, don’t shy away from the pressure.”

For Almirola, who admits his career experience at Bristol has been “feast or famine,” his No. 10 team “just (has) to go race” and “score the most points.

“It is really just about racing and scrapping and getting every point you can get in each stage and then fighting for every spot you can get in the race,” said Almirola, who has one top-five finish in 22 Cup starts at Bristol. “Certainly once the race is happening and once you get through the first two stages, you will know kind of where you stack up points-wise.

“If I am sitting there running seventh, I am probably not going to stuff it in the fence trying to get to sixth if I know I have a decent gap in points back to where I need to. On the flip side of that, if we need that spot or a couple spots, then you are going to be super aggressive and do whatever you can to go get those points.”

This is the first time Bristol will be the site of a Cup playoff race.

Busch’s 2018 Bristol win is the only one he’s earned there in the stage-format era.

“In years past, to win Bristol you would set-up for Lap 250, you would set-up for halfway,” Busch said. “And you would just try to get through the first half of the race the best that you could. But you can’t do that anymore with it being the playoffs and with stage points. So, you’ve got to go hard right away, but you’ve got to build in that adjustability to be able to be that guy at the end that can win as well.”

The lack of practice this year due to the COVID-19 pandemic also changes preparation for teams.

“We’re staying on top of it the best way that we can,” Busch said. “I even asked the shock department yesterday to have shocks that can have compression and rebound adjustable shocks in case we are off on our setup and we have to go aggressive with changes. And the only time that you’re able to really do that is if you’re the last car on the lead lap on a pit stop or something. You’ve got to be ready for all case scenarios right now.”

For Clint Bowyer’s No. 14 team, crew chief Johnny Klausmeier said they’ll be on offense all night.

“We will definitely be paying attention to those guys within 30 points of us, for sure, to dictate our strategy, but, at the end of the day, you have to go be on the offense and that’s only gonna get you so far is trying to hinge off of others,” Klausmeier said. “You don’t want to put yourself in a bad position that’s gonna hurt you later in the race, either. So, you kind of have to balance that and see how you’re doing on speed, see how the car is handling and what you’re fighting and how you’re doing and then go from there.”