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Bump & Run: Are Chevrolet teams in trouble with playoffs looming?

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Is Chevy in trouble after hardly contending at Pocono and scoring the fewest top-10 finishes in the last four races among the manufacturers?

Jeff Burton: Chevy lost a major asset when Stewart-Haas Racing left. I think it would be unrealistic and look at their numbers and expect their numbers to be as good as last year. The other problem I have is if you look at the number of wins that have come from Hendrick Motorsports, by far the majority of those wins have come from one team. That’s no disrespect to any other team, but the facts don’t lie. The facts are that the 48 team has carried Hendrick Motorsports and Stewart-Haas last year helped carry Chevrolet. They don’t have the number of teams and the teams they have, they don’t have as many good teams as they had last year.

Steve Letarte: My concern is, not to get too technical, but with the shifting at Pocono and the RPM range that used to be a Chevrolet track. For some reason it is going away. When I look at the teams they support, it looks really fragmented. They have Hendrick Motorsports, they have Chip Ganassi Racing, they have Richard Childress Racing. RCR, while they’ve won two races, we don’t see them leading many laps and competing for wins week in and week out. Hendrick and Ganassi’s production has just been average. I do think that Chevrolet has to go to the drawing board with their approach and decide whether it’s time to condense some of their efforts and by efforts I purely mean financial dollars. Would they be better to support less cars and put more money behind them?

Nate Ryan: It isn’t too late, but there definitely are some portentous signs that a tough playoffs could loom. Richard Childress Racing has been erratic (and mostly down) since the wins by Ryan Newman and Austin Dillon. Hendrick Motorsports has victories and consistent top-10 speed, but Dale Earnhardt Jr. detailed its recent deficiencies after Pocono. Chip Ganassi Racing seemed on the upswing until the past two races, which again have been critical barometers. There still is time to get things righted, but it’s been a tougher summer than anticipated.

Dustin Long: Not liking how Chevrolet teams have run lately, but they still have time to get things turned around and have multiple teams challenge for a championship.

Has Kyle Busch replaced Kyle Larson as being the co-championship favorite with Martin Truex Jr.?

Jeff Burton: Temporarily. These are moving targets. If I had to put my money today on somebody, yes, it would be Kyle Busch. As good as Kyle Larson and his team were when they were their best, he still won only two races. To win this championship, you’re going to have to beat people that have won a lot of races. I still wonder when you get into that pressure-filled, playoff-winning championship time, it’s different. I wonder where they are  compared to those other teams that have been there and done that.

Steve Letarte: Here’s the truth. What I’ve learned after breaking down the last two or three seasons is I’m not going to tell you the championship favorite until about race four of the playoffs because it doesn’t matter who is good now. It truly matters who finds the right package in the last four or five races. Right now, Martin Truex Jr. has to be the favorite. Kyle Busch has got to be on the list. My four are very simple: Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson.

Nate Ryan: Definitely. He has one fewer win, but Busch is matching Larson in most major Loop Data categories, and his No. 18 team has been top notch the past three races at a critical juncture of the season when many teams begin rolling out their best cars.

Dustin Long: Yes, but it doesn’t matter at this point. The championship four won’t be set for three months. Kyle Larson’s team has dipped a bit lately and it is concerning, but they still have time to recover. Also, at this point a year ago, many viewed Martin Truex Jr. as the title favorite and he didn’t even make it to the championship race.

Will Joey Logano make the playoffs?

Jeff Burton: It’s hard for me to say that Joey Logano is not going to make the playoffs. The evidence says he won’t, but my racing intellect tells me that they’ll find a way. If I look at the numbers and I look at how they’re running and the things they’re going to have to do, I would say no but I don’t believe that they’re out of it. I don’t think they have to win a race. I still think there’s enough turmoil in the tracks coming up that it only takes one of those teams ahead of them to have a couple of bad races and if they can run well, I still think they can get themselves in. You think about the races coming up, Watkins Glen, Bristol, Darlington, there’s some very difficult races coming up.

Steve Letarte: No. Because they’re not fast enough. They’re not executing enough. They’re not scoring enough points. The only way the 22 makes the playoffs is to win Richmond. That was way easier in years past when 15 drivers didn’t care where they ran at Richmond. When you go to Richmond right now, those 15 other drivers care where they won. So winning the last race at Richmond is nowhere as near as easy as it used to be.

Nate Ryan: He has been so good on road courses the last few years, it’s feasible Logano could carry his No. 22 Ford to a win at Watkins Glen (where he won in 2015). He might be able to wrestle the car to wins at Bristol and Richmond the same way. But a victory seemingly would require a swing for the fences by Logano’s lagging team, which seems better suited to improving by getting the basics right.

Dustin Long: Don’t see it happening. Not enough speed. With the new format giving drivers incentive to race harder with so many playoff points available, his path won’t be easy.

Ryan: NASCAR’s stunning decision on drafting package sends some conflicting messages

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It’s coming to save the Brickyard 400 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway!

It’s coming to solve the strung-out, single-file conundrum at 1.5-mile speedways!

It’s coming to strengthen the underdog teams and give them a better chance at winning!

Actually, it’s not coming at all (at least not this season).

Huh?

That was the feeling for many Thursday morning when NASCAR punted the All-Star Race aero and horsepower rules (or “drafting package”) – after a month of incessant hints and indications that it would be used at least twice more during the regular season (at Michigan International Speedway and Indy).

Track owners supported it. NASCAR officials supported it. Even some team owners supported it.

Drivers were less supportive.

The pushback from some high-profile stars isn’t what killed the drafting package, though.

This was a startling and abrupt about-face because NASCAR couldn’t secure the necessary buy-in from team owners, who essentially have veto power on major competition decisions such as this one because of the charter system implemented in 2016.

NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president of competition Steve O’Donnell said the critically acclaimed All-Star Race proved the drafting package was “something that could work … but in the end, we all felt like the best thing to do was to put some additional effort into some potential tweaks and focus on 2019 vs. a race or two this season.”

A NASCAR.com story described the hopes of using the drafting package again as a “Herculean undertaking” and “one that could have resulted in a rushed output.”

Actually, rushing has produced some decent results before.

NASCAR announced a lower-downforce rules package barely a month ahead of a July 11, 2015 race at Kentucky Speedway, and the race was wildly successful.

This was less about a time crunch and more about cash flow.

Teams always can adapt to the rules in front of them. But the best also will adapt by busting their budgets to optimize their cars, and that prompts a difficult question.

Are the changes worth it?

Even if the quality of racing (which is mostly subjective) improves, the majority of teams didn’t view the drafting package as a valid investment, particularly if attendance remains flat (and if more tickets are sold, the tracks still reap the rewards).

Millions were spent developing and optimizing competitive cars for a new inspection system this season.

Is it fair to say “too bad about all that R&D work” and change on the fly?

There also is an eye-of-the-beholder argument. Though Kevin Harvick won the All-Star Race and Kyle Busch led 19 laps and contended, would Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing approve a change to the rules that have allowed their champion drivers to dominate the 2018 season?

And as shown by the low-downforce package, whose luster faded after that smashing debut at Kentucky, the teams with the deepest pockets will burn money in wind tunnels to figure out the package and undermine its efficacy without compunction.

Privately, many team owners are tired of “fixing” the racing and want a greater emphasis on marketing and promoting NASCAR rather than trying to retrofit the competition (which has seemed a mostly pyrrhic exercise for the past decade).

So, is there any common ground?

Well …

“Everyone is aligned on doing what’s best for the fans,” O’Donnell said.

That might be true, but there’s an obvious lack of alignment on how to achieve what’s best for the fans.

For all the platitudes tossed around about the spirit of collaboration and cooperation with councils and committees of drivers, manufacturers and team owners, it’s clear the NASCAR industry isn’t on the same page with some critical topics – namely, on the usage of the drafting package.

Mixed messages aren’t new in NASCAR, a sanctioning body that once leaned on its stars to speak their minds while also fining them for having opinions.

But mixed messages color every part of the decision on the drafting package, which had become a daily topic of uplifting SiriusXM satellite radio discussion for gleeful fans.

–NASCAR spent the better part of the past month mulling the new rules — presumably because it wanted to upgrade its racing … but now it also will claim (according to O’Donnell in the NASCAR.com story) that “we’re really happy with the racing on track.”

–After the juxtaposition at 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway of the drafting package at the All-Star Race (38 green-flag lead changes, up from zero last season) with the current rules a week later at the Coca-Cola 600 (which had single-digit lead changes for the second time in three years ), the latter package now will be used at two 1.5-mile tracks in the next three weeks.

–The Cup Series racing at Indianapolis, the track whose action is most frequently identified as needing major improvements, will remain the same for a Sept. 16 regular-season finale that might feature a record number of playoff spots up for grabs on points. A day earlier, the Xfinity Series race at the Brickyard will feature the same drafting package that was a hit last year on the 2.5-mile oval infamous for monotonous stock-car races with a lack of passing.

Does that seem hard to reconcile? That’s the problem with mixed messages.

The most consistent message delivered Thursday?

Say hello to the status quo for the rest of the 2018 season.

Maybe the news wasn’t so surprising after all.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Cup not using All-Star package again in 2018

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Today’s NASCAR America airs from 5-5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and leads into the debut episode of the Dale Jr Download at 5:30 p.m. ET.

Carolyn Manno hosts today’s NASCAR America from Stamford, Connecticut, and is joined by Steve Letarte from Burton’s Garage.

On today’s show:

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it 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 at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Sonoma in last three years

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The last nine races at Sonoma have been won by a different driver each time. Only one driver enters the weekend with back-to-back top-fives on this track and three others have consecutive top 10s. Given the importance of strategy and track position, repeating at this track is incredibly difficult.

Those stats should predict a fresh face in Victory Lane, right?

Unfortunately a brief glance at the drivers with the best average finishes over the past three years reveals that the two dominators of 2018 – Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – head up the list. If a fantasy player thought this was going to be a good week to vary their NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster, it’s time to rethink that position.

There are a couple of surprises among recent top performers, but the cream tends to rise to the top of NASCAR events. Anchor this week’s team with solid marquee drivers and use dark horses as a way to differentiate those selections from the competition.

1. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 3.67)
Harvick won last year’s edition of this race, but it is not the first time he has run well at Sonoma. He finished fourth in 2015 and was sixth the following year. Making those runs even more impressive is the fact that he has started outside the top 10 in each event and had to drive his way through the field.

2. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 4.33)
Along with Harvick, Busch is the only other driver with a current three-race streak of top 10s at Sonoma. He won there in 2015, followed by a seventh and fifth in his last two outings. He may be a better value than Harvick this week, however, because he has an equally impressive record at Watkins Glen International with a second in 2015, a sixth in 2016 and a seventh last year.

3. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 6.33)
It has been three years since Busch scored a top five at Sonoma, but what he lacks in raw power is made up for in consistency. In his last seven attempts on this track, he has finished outside the top 10 only once and that was a 12th in 2014. He won on this track in 2011 and finished second in 2015.

4. Joey Logano (three-year average: 6.67)
It appeared Logano had found the handle on this track. He scored his first top five in 2015 when he crossed under the checkers fifth. That was followed by a third in 2016. Last year was difficult for the driver of the No. 22; he qualified poorly in 18th and managed to climb only to 12th at the checkers.

5. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 8.00)
Sometimes a switch seems to flip for a driver on a given track. That is what happened to Hamlin in 2016 when he was on his way to Victory Lane before contact from Tony Stewart in the final corner. He hung on to finish second – snapping a six-race streak of results outside the top 15 – and backed that up with a fourth last year.

6. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 10.67)
Newman’s consistency has aided in his making the top 10 list a few times this year and the same is true at Sonoma. Without a top five to his credit in the past five years, he has swept the top 15. That makes him a good utilitarian pick. He will probably not score maximum points, but is also unlikely to lose a lot at Sonoma.

6. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 10.67)
There are so many different things that can go wrong on a road course and Johnson has had too many disappointments in 2018 to make him a fantasy favorite. Sonoma and Watkins Glen reward skill behind the wheel over raw horsepower and handling, however, so there is still a chance that he could earn a top five if the team is mistake-free.

8. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 12.33)
Keselowski makes the top-10 list despite having a 19th-place finish in his three-year average. That indicates just how difficult it is to sustain momentum on road courses given the various strategies that play out in a given race. The good news for Keselowski fans is that he finally earned his first career top five in eight starts last year with a third.

9. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.67)
McMurray has been consistent recently at Sonoma, but that is a fairly new trait. In his first 12 starts on this track, he had two top fives and no other top 10s. His average finish before 2015 was 16.7 despite finishing fourth in the 2014 race. He was 11th in 2015, 17th in 2016, and 10th last year – so he could be a good value if he practices and qualifies well this weekend.

10. Paul Menard (three-year average: 13.33)
Some of Menard’s earliest racing experience came in the Trans-Am series and that seems to have stuck with him. While he barely makes the top-10 list this week, he is perhaps the most consistent driver in recent years with four results of 11th through 16th in the last five races. Now that Team Penske is supporting his effort with the Wood Brothers, he should easily contend for a top 10.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: This is a good week to go out on a limb where the pole sitter is concerned. McMurray has won two of the last five poles on this track, while his teammate Kyle Larson took the top spot last year. Two JTG-Daugherty Racing drivers also have recent poles with Marcos Ambrose securing one in 2012 and AJ Allmendinger leading the field to green in 2015.

Segment Winners: There is absolutely no way to determine who is going to take the segment wins this week because it will all come down to strategy at the close of each stage. Since Harvick and Kyle Busch have scored the most segment wins, however, you may as well keep riding that momentum.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Dale Jr. Download debuts today at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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The Dale Jr Download podcast with Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes to TV beginning today. The show debuts at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, following NASCAR America.

“Dale Jr. Download” will air every Thursday the rest of the season after NASCAR America.

The 30-minute show will provide a condensed version of the Dirty Mo Radio podcast that is found online and features Earnhardt, NBC Sports’ newest NASCAR analyst, with Mike Davis and Matthew Dillner.

“Our approach with the TV show will be no different than our approach with the podcast – buddies hanging out, talking racing, sharing life stories, and telling jokes that may or may not be funny only to us,” Earnhardt said. “I’m having a lot of fun with the podcast, and we are excited to be bringing it to TV. If we have a guest join us, it’s only because they’re relevant to whatever has my attention that week. It could be a NASCAR driver, or it could be my plumber – depends on who’s more important to me that week. The Download is as transparent as I can be when it comes to my life and thoughts.”