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.

NASCAR Clash heat race lineups

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley, Kyle Busch, Christopher Bell and William Byron will start on the pole for their heat races Sunday at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. 

There will be nine cars in each of the four heat races. Here’s a look at each of the those heat races.

Clash heat race starting lineups

Heat 1

This heat has four drivers who did not make last year’s Clash: Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Chris Buescher and Ty Dillon. Almirola starts second, Bowman third, Buescher eighth and Dillon ninth. This heat also has defending Clash winner and reigning Cup champion Joey Logano, who starts fifth.

Heat 2

Richard Childress Racing teammates Busch and Austin Dillon start 1-2. This race has five former champions: Busch, Kyle Larson (starting third), Kevin Harvick (fourth), Martin Truex Jr. (fifth) and Chase Elliott (eighth).

Heat 3

Toyota drivers will start first (Bell), second (Denny Hamlin) and fifth (Tyler Reddick). Ryan Blaney starts last in this heat after his fastest qualifying lap was disallowed Saturday.

Heat 4 

Byron will be joined on the front row by AJ Allmendinger in this heat. The second row will have Ross Chastain and Bubba Wallace.

The top five in each heat advances to Sunday night’s Clash. Those not advancing go to one of two last chance qualifying races. The top three in each of those races advances to the Clash. The 27 and final spot in the Clash is reserved for the driver highest in points who has yet to make the field.

Justin Haley tops field in Clash qualifying

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LOS ANGELES — Justin Haley posted the fastest lap in Saturday’s qualifying for the Busch Light Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

Haley will start the first of four heats on the pole after a lap of 67.099 mph (13.413 seconds). The four heat races will be held Sunday afternoon, followed by two last chance qualifying races and then the Busch Clash on Sunday night.

Clash qualifying results

“I feel pretty confident about where we are,” Haley said. “I’m not sure why we’re so good here.”

The top four qualifiers will start on the pole for their heat race.

Kyle Busch, who was second on the speed chart with a lap of 66.406 mph, will start on the pole for the second heat. That comes in his first race with Richard Childress Racing after having spent the past 15 seasons at Joe Gibbs Racing.

Christopher Bell, third on the speed chart with a lap of 66.328 mph, will start on the pole for the third heat. William Byron, fourth in qualifying with a lap of 66.196 mph, will start on the pole in the fourth heat race.

The pole-sitters for each of the four heat races last year all won their heat. That included Haley, who was third fastest in qualifying last year and won the third heat from the pole.

Ty Gibbs was not allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments his team made while making repairs to his car after the door foam caught fire during practice. NASCAR deemed that the Joe Gibbs Racing team made adjustments to the car not directly related to the damage.

Ryan Blaney‘s fastest qualifying lap was disallowed after he stopped the car in Turn 4 and turned it around and to go back to the backstretch and build speed for his final lap. NASCAR disallowed the time from that final lap for the maneuver.

Section 7.8.F of the Cup Rule Book states: “Unless otherwise determined by the Series Managing Director, drivers who encounter a problem during Qualifying will not be permitted to travel counter Race direction.”

The top five finishers in each of the four 25-lap heat races advance to the Clash. The top three in the two 50-lap last chance races move on to the Clash. The final spot in the 27-car field is reserved for the driver highest in points not yet in the field.

Chase Briscoe, AJ Allmendinger in first on-track conflict of the season.

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LOS ANGELES — The first on-track conflict of the 2023 NASCAR Cup season?

Did you have Chase Briscoe and AJ Allmendinger?

They made contact during Saturday night’s practice session at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum for the Busch Light Clash.

Busch Clash practice results

Briscoe explained what happened from his point of view.

“(Allmendinger) was slowing down so much on the straightaway to get a gap (away from other cars),” Briscoe told Motor Racing Network. “I felt like I was beside him pretty far down the straightaway. I got in there a little hot for sure, but, honestly, I thought he was going to give it to me since we were in practice. Went into (Turn) 3 and he just drove me straight into the fence. Definitely frustrating. … Just unfortunate. We don’t have a single back-up car out there between the four of us at SHR. 

“Definitely will set us behind quite a bit. Just chalk it up in the memory blank.”

Asked what happened with Briscoe, Allmendinger told MRN: “He ran inside of me, so I made sure I paid him back and sent him into the fence.

“It’s practice. I get it, I’m struggling and in the way, but come barreling in there. I just showed my displeasure for it. That’s not the issue. We’re just not very good right now.”

Earlier in practice, Ty Gibbs had to climb out of his car after it caught on fire. Gibbs exiting the car safely. The Joe Gibbs Racing team worked on making repairs to his No. 54 car. NASCAR stated that the car would not be allowed to qualify because of unapproved adjustments, modifications not directly related to the damage.

NASCAR will not race at Auto Club Speedway in 2024

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LOS ANGELES — Auto Club Speedway will not host a NASCAR race next year because of plans to convert the 2-mile speedway into a short track.

It will mark only the second time the Cup Series has not raced at the Southern California track since first competing there in 1997. Cup did not race at the track in 2021 because of the pandemic.

Dave Allen, Auto Club Speedway president, also said Saturday that “it’s possible” that the track might not host a NASCAR race in 2025 because of how long it could take to make the conversion. 

MORE: Details for Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum 

NASCAR came to the Fontana, California, track during the sport’s expansion in the late 1990s that also saw Cup debut at Texas (1997), Las Vegas (1998) and Homestead (1999).

Auto Club Speedway begins the West Coast swing this season, hosting the Cup Series on Feb. 26, a week after the Daytona 500. The series then goes to Las Vegas and Phoenix the following two weeks.

Auto Club Speedway has been among a favorite of drivers because of its aging pavement that put more of the car’s control in the hands of competitors. 

Allen said that officials continue to work on the track’s design. It is expected to be a half-mile track. With NASCAR already having a half-mile high-banked track (Bristol) and half-mile low-banked track (Martinsville), Allen said that a goal is to make Auto Club Speedway stand out.

“It has to make a statement, and making sure that we have a racetrack that is unique to itself here and different than any of the tracks they go to is very important,” Allen said. “Having said that, it’s equally important … to make sure that the fan experience part is unique.”

Kyle Larson, who won last year’s Cup race at Auto Club Speedway, said that he talked to Allen on Saturday was told the track project likely will take about 18 months. 

“I don’t know exactly the extent of what they’re doing with the track, how big it’s going to be, the shape or banking and all that, and I love the 2-mile track, but I think the more short tracks we can have, the better off our sport is going to be,” Larson said.

With Auto Club Speedway off the schedule in 2024, it would mean the only time Cup raced in the Los Angeles area would be at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum. NASCAR has a three-year contract with the Coliseum to race there and holds the option to return.

Sunday’s Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum marks the second year of that agreement. Last year’s inaugural event at the Coliseum drew about 50,000 fans. NASCAR has not publicly stated if it will return to the Coliseum next year.