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.

Grant Enfinger wins Truck pole at Gateway

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With a speed of 138.867 mph, Grant Enfinger scored his second career Camping World Truck Series pole and will lead the field to green tonight for the Eaton 200. His first pole came on the restrictor plate Daytona International Speedway in February 2016.

Noah Gragson set a track record in round two of qualification with a speed of 139.035 mph. He slipped to third in the running order during round three.

Enfinger beat Christian Eckes (138.594 mph) by .064 seconds. Eckes is making only his second start in the Truck series. Last week he started ninth and finished eighth at Iowa Speedway.

Gragson (138.402), Justin Haley (138.325) and Ben Rhodes (138.211) rounded out the top five.

Johnny Sauter (137.358) failed to advance to the final round of qualification and will start 13th.

Camden Murphy and BJ McLeod failed to qualify.

Click here for the complete lineup.

Starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race at Sonoma

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Kyle Larson won his second consecutive pole at Sonoma and will lead the field to the green flag for Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350 at Sonoma Raceway.

Martin Truex Jr. will line up alongside Larson on the front row.

Chase Elliott qualified third, the best of three Hendrick Motorsports drivers who advanced to the top 12. Jamie McMurray qualified fourth to place both Chip Ganassi Racing on the first two rows.

AJ Allmendinger rounded out the top five.

Click here for full qualification results.

 

Kyle Larson wins pole for Sonoma Cup race

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Kyle Larson posted a lap of 94.597 mph to win the pole for Sunday’s Toyota/SaveMart 350. It was his second consecutive pole at Sonoma and the sixth of his career.

Larson beat Martin Truex Jr. (94.484 mph) by .090 seconds.

Chase Elliott (94.461), Jamie McMurray (94.227) and AJ Allmendinger (93.925) rounded out the top five. He was fastest in round one of qualification with a speed of 94.477 mph.

Hendrick Motorsports placed three of their drivers in the final round. Jimmie Johnson (93.824) qualified seventh. William Byron (93.756) qualified eighth. Alex Bowman (93.267) qualified 17th.

In his first race back since Matt Kenseth took over the No. 6 Roush Fenway Racing Ford, Trevor Bayne barely missed advancing to the final round. With a speed of 93.455 mph, he qualified 13th.

Clint Bowyer (93.252) was unable to back up his time from Friday’s practice and will roll off the grid 19th.

Click here for full qualification results.

For Clint Bowyer, Sonoma Raceway is a lot like Martinsville

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Clint Bowyer didn’t grow up road racing; he cut his teeth on dirt tracks in the Midwest. And yet, he had an immediate affinity for Sonoma Raceway. In his second start there, while driving for Richard Childress in 2007, he finished fourth.

In fact, Bowyer enters the Toyota/SaveMart 350 with seven top-five finishes in 12 starts that includes a runner-up finish in last year’s Sonoma race. If not for a couple of misfortunes (crash damage in 2010 and an electrical problem in 2016), he might well have swept the top 10 since scoring that first top five as a sophomore.

Perhaps the reason for that immediate success is that he considers Sonoma to be a twisted version of Martinsville Speedway – a track on which he won this March to snap a 190-race winless streak.

“I think you embrace this track and road racing in general just like you do Martinsville,” Bowyer said on Friday before heading out to put his No. 14 Ford at the top of the first practice speed chart. “Nobody shows up at Martinsville and goes to the top of the board and is fast and has success and navigates traffic to win that race right off the bat. It just doesn’t happen and it doesn’t happen here either.”

His Sonoma success has not translated to road courses in general, however.

Yes, Bowyer swept the top five on NASCAR’s two road courses last year, but the fifth-place finish he scored at Watkins Glen International was only the second of his career on a track that many drivers consider to be less technical than Sonoma. In 12 starts there, he has earned only five top 10s.

“Watkins Glen is so fast. It is just dive-bombs and you are really carrying a lot of speed at a place like Watkins Glen.

“Here, it is like that short track. It is like being at Martinsville. Did you see my car at the end of the race last year? It was destroyed. I drove up through and passed the field twice because of mistakes that we made and got spun out once. It was a wild race to be able to finish second. You can’t do that at Watkins Glen. That car wouldn’t have ran in the top 10 at Watkins Glen.”

Nine different drivers have won at Sonoma in the last nine races. Given the dominance of Harvick (who won last year) and Kyle Busch (the 2015 winner), many think they are the most likely to end that streak. But Bowyer also has an opportunity to end the streak of unique winners. He won the 2012 edition of this race by holding off Tony Stewart – the driver with the second-most road course wins in NASCAR history.

“You have to be able to have fun on this race track,” Bowyer said. “It is a challenge. Each and every corner is different. There is no perfect setup or perfect line. It is literally one of the only tracks you go to where you are out there racing and have a smile on your face. You might even get a chuckle.”