Bump & Run: Examining race for final playoff spots, who raises most concern

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NBC Sports’ Steve Letarte Slugger Labbe, Nate Ryan and Dustin Long discuss this week’s hot topics.

Who are you most concerned about making the playoffs: Joey Logano, Matt Kenseth or Clint Bowyer?

Steve Letarte: I actually feel that it’s a coin flip between the three. It’s hard to believe that we’re this far in and Joey Logano, from the outside looking in, I don’t know what the summer funk that they’re in is, but it’s real. They seem to continue to struggle. Matt Kenseth, the news of just this last week of not coming back to the 20 car, I don’t know if that’s going to change the way he’s been driving or take the pressure off. He actually looked much better at Kentucky until the last-lap crash. Clint Bowyer has been kind of close but no cigar. I really don’t know. I think that’s going to be a fascinating race over the course of the summer. I think it just comes down to a few good decisions and a few fortunate breaks.

Slugger Labbe: Joey Logano. Team Penske is lacking speed since the encumbered win at Richmond. NASCAR has tightened up the inspection process for the teams and this has seemed to have affected the Ford teams the most. The best chance for Joey to win will be this weekend at New Hampshire; otherwise this team will have a long road ahead to Richmond 

Nate Ryan: Matt Kenseth. Last week’s revelation that he isn’t returning to Joe Gibbs Racing could be a rallying cry for the team … but history shows it usually goes the other way for lame-duck drivers in their final seasons. Kenseth assuredly will give it his all, but the No. 20 Toyota already has lacked speed this year relative to teammate Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. It’s hard to see Kenseth securing a playoff spot in his final season at Joe Gibbs Racing as the internal atmosphere with this team figures to become more difficult, particularly the longer he remains without a ride for 2018.

Dustin Long: Joey Logano. The lack of speed from this team in recent weeks is worrisome. Without that speed, it will be hard to win races. With additional winners likely, that will mean fewer playoff spots via points and drop Logano further behind for the cutoff. This team has been in pressure situations before but it often had more speed in those cases. Let’s see what this team can do now.

What team not in the spotlight you are keeping an eye on?

Steve Letarte: This driver is going to be in the spotlight at some point, the driver of the No. 77, Erik Jones. I think he’s doing a tremendous job and is being overlooked because it’s easy. His teammate (Martin Truex Jr.) is so fast. He’s doing what a rookie should do, which is not make the news. I haven’t seen him wreck anyone. I haven’t seen him wreck himself. I haven’t seen a lot of rookie mistakes.

Slugger Labbe: AJ Allmendinger. AJ can send the playoffs into madness with a win at Watkins Glen but the team has to provide a solid race car and must eliminate the mechanical and pit road issues. New Hampshire marks the final race on a playoff track before the playoffs begin. What will you be looking for this weekend as you gauge playoff teams?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin. It’s been an unusually quiet season, but the fourth place at Kentucky Speedway shows he’s poised for a breakout. Everyone is expecting Kyle Busch will end JGR’s winless drought, but Hamlin seems to stand just as good of a chance, particularly at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (where he has dominated before).

Dustin Long: Kevin Harvick. They’ve had some struggles in the switch to Ford this season but this is a seasoned team that knows how to win in pressure situations. Don’t overlook this team when the playoffs start. I want to see in the coming weeks if this team builds momentum and shows more speed.

New Hampshire marks the final race on a playoff track before the playoffs begin. What will you be looking for this weekend as you gauge playoff teams?

Steve Letarte: In years past, I think this was a very accurate question because there were not a whole lot of other things for the playoff teams to be racing for over the points, but I think the playoff points have almost nullified this question. I don’t think this race at New Hampshire is any more important to Kyle Larson or Martin Truex Jr. than next week’s race or at Watkins Glen or Bristol because of what’s at stake, those potential playoff points. Without a doubt, they’re going to want to leave New Hampshire with a good notebook but with this traction compound put down, I think that’s going to drive the storyline at New Hampshire more than what car is good or bad. This system is different. We’re learning as we go over the course of the summer.

Slugger Labbe: New Hampshire is a very hard race track to adapt to. Restarts and mechanical grip for the long run are very important. A lot of the teams already locked in the playoffs will use the first New Hampshire race as an experiment to find the best set up as they prepare for the fall race at New Hampshire, which is the second race of the playoffs. I’ll be watching for the teams that can maximize both keys to running well there. 

Nate Ryan: In the past, this race would have been a prime opportunity for qualified teams to gamble on setups (such as the No. 48’s aggressive experimentation with lower tire pressures in the July 2014 race). But with stage racing, that luxury is gone, so it should be a more accurate barometer of where teams are at the halfway point. It also has been five years since a Hendrick Motorsports car won at New Hampshire, and it bears watching if the team is any closer to ending that trend.

Dustin Long: I will keep an eye on Kyle Busch and Denny Hamlin. They both should be good this weekend and it will be important for them to be so, especially if they don’t win before the playoffs begin and enter with few playoff points. That will mean they will have little margin for error in the first round, which includes New Hampshire, to advance. If they struggle this weekend, that could be a troubling sign.

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

”By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green,” Miller said.

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”