Rule change hasn’t kept Cup drivers from dominating Xfinity Series – yet

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A rule change intended to help Xfinity Series drivers compete for more wins, particularly in the playoffs, has not diminished the domination of Cup drivers so far this season.

Twelve of the first 16 Xfinity races have been won by Cup regulars — the most since 2011 when they won 13 of the first 16 races. 

But they aren’t just taking the checkered flag.

Full-time Cup drivers have collected 48 top-five finishes this season — a 25 percent increase from this point last year and a 33 percent increase from this point in 2015.  The top six finishers in the Kentucky Xfinity race were all full-time Cup drivers.

A key reason for the sharp increase is NASCAR’s rule limiting Cup driver participation.

NASCAR announced last year that Cup drivers with more than five full-time seasons in that series would be limited to 10 Xfinity races this year.

NASCAR stated that those drivers— Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano, among others — cannot compete in the final eight Xfinity races of the season and the four Dash 4 Cash races.

That means of the 33 Xfinity races, veteran Cup drivers are not allowed to compete in 12 events. That leaves 21 races for them to compete in up to 10.

With fewer opportunities, veteran Cup drivers have been running — and excelling — in more of the same Xfinity races this season. That’s left Xfinity drivers with limited chances to score a top-five finish.

That trend likely will continue.

Logano (six Xfinity starts this year) and Busch (five) both are scheduled to run 10 series races each. Keselowski (six starts) is scheduled to run three more races. Kevin Harvick (four starts) is set to run two more races.

They cannot compete in the Xfinity Series after the Sept. 8 race at Richmond International Raceway, giving Xfinity regulars a better chance to win in the playoffs. But those Xfintiy drivers still will have to beat some Cup competitors.

Cup drivers with less than five full-time seasons in that series are allowed to race in the Xfinity playoffs. That means that Kyle Larson (three wins this year), Erik Jones (two), Ryan Blaney (one), Austin Dillon, Ty Dillon, and Daniel Suarez will be able to race until the finale in Miami.

The Xfinity Rule Book states that any driver who scores points in the Cup series is not eligible to run in the Xfinity championship race in Miami.

Even with the Cup veterans limited, Xfinity rookies William Byron and Cole Custer say they are learning when they race them.

“We have a great opportunities to go out there and succeed,’’ Byron said. “I’ve got good race cars, everyone is in good equipment, so when you have that you have to make the most of it and be around some veteran guys and not make mistakes and make a fool out of yourself. Just try to do the most and … learn from all the guys out there.’’

Byron has won two races, scoring victories at Iowa Speedway, a standalone race that did not have any Cup drivers in the field, and at Daytona International Speedway, which had four Cup regulars in the field.

Custer seeks his first win but has finished 11th or better in five of the last seven races.

“We all have really unbelievable opportunities to try to run good and make a name for ourselves,’’ he said. “You’re just trying to learn every single weekend, learn from the veteran guys.’’

Those lessons should prove helpful in the Xfinity playoffs, which begin Sept. 23 at Kentucky Speedway.

With Busch, (two wins this year), Logano (one), Keselowski (one), Denny Hamlin (one) and Aric Almirola (one) all among those ineligible to run in the playoffs, there could be more chances for Xfinity regulars to win.

Suarez won the season finale and the championship last year with many Cup drivers ineligible to compete.

“We talked about it for a long time,’’ NASCAR Chairman Brian France said last year of limiting Cup drivers in Xfinity races. “I’m glad we did it. It got a very worthy champion in Daniel Suarez.’’

 

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Denny Hamlin hopes teams don’t shoot selves in feet with pit guns

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Denny Hamlin is the hottest driver on the Cup circuit. He has two wins – including Saturday night at Bristol – as well as two runner-ups, and a third- and fifth-place finish in the last six races. He’s also moved up to third in the rankings in that string.

But Hamlin isn’t taking anything to chance, particularly some of the smallest details – such as loose lug nuts and wheels.

Hamlin appeared Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On-Track” show and was asked about how not only his team, but also other Cup teams, can overcome the loose lug nuts and wheels issues.

Hamlin said a significant part of the problem – particularly at a place like Bristol Motor Speedway – is pit guns, which are allocated and issued in a pre-race lottery by NASCAR, rather than have teams use their own guns.

MORE: Denny Hamlin earns hard-fought win over Matt DiBenedetto at Bristol

Hamlin does not like that system and explained why:

“(Bristol) puts probably some of the biggest loads we have on our tires. Truth be told, over the last two years since we’ve had these guns issued to us, they’re not capable of getting all the wheels tight, they really aren’t.

“It’s a lottery whether you get a gun that’s good enough to get ‘em tight. Through JGR, Stewart-Haas and other teams that have documented it, in the spring race there were over 20 loose wheels. This is not just a team thing. It’s just that the equipment is not quite up to par as far as what it’s capable of.

“We keep track of all the guns and how good they are and how bad they are. It’s a lottery system of whether you’re going to get (a good or bad one). It doesn’t matter how fast you go, you can hold the gun on there and it’s just not going to get the torque quite tight enough.”

Hamlin experienced a loose wheel that forced him to pit under green on Lap 186 of Saturday night’s race at Bristol, leaving him two laps behind the leaders. Hamlin had another loose wheel on Lap 374 and pitted while running 10th.

Thus far this season, in addition to several loose wheels in races, Hamlin’s team has also been penalized four times for loose lug nuts after races: Fontana, Bristol spring race, Chicagoland and the July race at Pocono.

This isn’t the first time Hamlin has publicly complained about pit guns and loose lug nuts and wheels.

NBC Sports has reached out to NASCAR for comment.

Check out what Hamlin said about that after Saturday night’s race in the video above (Hamlin talks about this issue starting around the 6:00 mark).

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Preliminary entry lists for Xfinity, Trucks this weekend

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While the NASCAR Cup Series will be off this weekend, that doesn’t mean there won’t be any racing.

On the contrary, the Xfinity Series will be racing Saturday at Road America and the Truck Series will compete Sunday at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park.

Here are the entry lists for both series:

Xfinity – CTECH Manufacturing 180 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

There are 39 cars entered.

Regan Smith will be in the No. 8 J.R. Motorsports Chevrolet.

A.J. Allmendinger will drive the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet.

Saturday’s Cup runner-up, Matt DiBenedetto, will drive the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

There is no driver listed yet for the No. 117 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

Click here for the entry list.

Trucks – Chevrolet Silverado 250 (2:30 p.m. ET FS1)

There are only 28 Trucks listed for the entry list.

All seats are filled.

Click here for the entry list.

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. thanks all who have ‘lifted us up’ since plane crash

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. issued his first public comments Monday since he and his family survived a plane crash last Thursday afternoon at Elizabethton (Tennessee) Municipal Airport.

Earnhardt offered thanks to “everyone who has lifted us up with phone calls, messages and prayer since last Thursday. We are truly blessed that all on board escaped with no serious injuries, including our daughter, our two pilots and our dog Gus.”

Earnhardt also thanked the pilots, emergency personnel, law enforcement and hospital staff.

He stated that wife “Amy and I continue to be very appreciative of the privacy extended to us to process everything. It has been important to do that together and on our own time.”

Earnhardt stated that because of the ongoing investigation “we will not be speculating or discussing the cause of the accident.”

A preliminary report from the National Transportation Safety Board is expected this week. Ralph Hicks, a senior investigator for the NTSB said in a briefing last Friday that “the airplane basically bounced at least twice before coming down hard on the right wing landing gear. You can actually see the right wing landing gear collapsing on the video (from nearby buildings). The airplane continued down the runway, off to the end, through a fence and came to a stop … on highway 91.”

Both pilots have been interviewed and Hicks stated that what they said was “very consistent” with what the video showed. Hicks also said investigators had talked to the Earnhardt family.

NASCAR America 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN: Recapping Hamlin’s Bristol win

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs on NBCSN at a special time, from 6-7 p.m. ET, and will recap Denny Hamlin’s win at Bristol.

Steve Letarte will be joined by NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett and A.J. Allmendinger to discuss Hamlin’s win and other storylines.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here for the special start time at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.