Ryan: Remembering the eight races that Kyle Busch could have won before Pocono

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NASCAR, as with any professional sport, is so often predicated on hyperbole, it sometimes distorts the ability to recognize real greatness.

So let’s appreciate the unrealized virtuosity that is Kyle Busch’s 2017 season.

Martin Truex Jr. has accumulated playoff points at an impressively prodigious rate. Kyle Larson has made innumerable charges through the field.

But Busch truly is about a half-dozen breaks from being 21 races into the greatest season of his career – and among the best of the modern era.

“I don’t think there’s a question in my mind that there literally are eight victories that have slipped our grasp,” Busch told NBC Sports after Sunday’s victory at Pocono Raceway.

This is the rare instance of a driver speaking the truth about lost opportunities rather than blithely exaggerating (“we were the fastest on track until that caution”) about how a race unfolded.

Busch has led one of every five laps he has completed in the No. 18 Toyota this season (second only to Truex’s top-ranked No. 78). Here are eight races that Busch could have won prior to Pocono (ranked in order of how close he was):

        Phoenix, March 19 – Busch led 113 laps until the final caution when he pitted and handed first to Ryan Newman. Busch restarted fifth but could gain only two spots in the final two laps. “It seems like every finish that’s destined for us it seems to end in a worse finish that day,” said Busch, who was mostly upbeat after his first top five of the season.

        Talladega, May 7 — Busch led 39 consecutive laps until the last circuit around the 2.66-mile oval, when Ricky Stenhouse Jr. got a push on the inside to capture the win. “I just never had enough help from behind and just never got together,” Busch said after finishing third. “We did all we could here today, and it’s all circumstantial on how you win these things. Unfortunately our circumstances didn’t quite go our way.”

        Michigan, June 18 – Busch led 35 straight laps until a debris caution with a scheduled 20 laps remaining set up a restart in which winner Kyle Larson took first. Busch faded to seventh over the final two restarts and didn’t talk to reporters after the race.

        Pocono, June 11 – A case of the best car but the wrong strategy, Busch started from the pole and led 100 laps but lost the lead to winner Ryan Blaney (who was on fresher tires) with nine laps remaining.

       Indianapolis, July 23 – Won the pole position and led a race-high 87 of the first 102 laps. Seemed headed toward a duel with Martin Truex Jr. before they crashed while racing for the lead on a Lap 111 restart. “That’s the way it goes, just chalk it up to another one that we figure out how to lose these things by,” Busch said. “It’s very frustrating and I hate it for my guys.”

        Charlotte, May 28 – Seemingly on the right fuel strategy this time, Busch runs down everyone but Austin Dillon to finish second in the Coca-Cola 600. His resulting frustration after passing victory lane on the way to the media center prompts one of the most memorable news conferences of the season.

        Martinsville, April 2 – Led a race-high 274 laps but finished second in a duel with race winner Brad Keselowski (who led the final 43). The most memorable moment for Busch came at the end of the second stage that he lost because of a battle with Stenhouse. Busch blamed a mediocre set of tires for his late-race fade and also said the Stenhouse move was “disrespectful,” hinting at payback while lamenting the loss of a playoff point. “It’s just like the rest of this year, too,” he said. “We’ve just thrown away points week in and week out.  We’ve just got to somehow get our luck better.  I don’t know what it is that just keeps knocking us back that we don’t have things kind of go our way.”

      New Hampshire, July 16 – Speeding penalties on the final two pit stops (on Lap 238 and 263 of 301) relegated a car that led 95 laps to a 12th-place finish. After winning the race, teammate Denny Hamlin said Busch had the better car, and car owner Joe Gibbs said, “Kyle is going to come roaring back from that. I think he feels like each and every weekend he’s got a chance.”

The above list doesn’t even include Richmond, where Busch was running second before a pit commitment violation with 40 laps remaining, and Dover, where he won the pole and led the first 18 laps before a pit stop mishap damaged his car.

So it isn’t far-fetched to suggest Busch could have 11 victories with 15 races remaining in the season.

Nor is it difficult to process that for Busch … if he can make amends over the rest of 2017.

“If we win the championship and have eight wins, that would kind of suffice for the eight wins that we missed out on earlier in the year,” he said. “But man, if you could only think what if and having 16 wins in this era, I mean, that would be just unprecedented. But obviously we just have to continue to work hard. We can’t count on what’s already been lost.”

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The news of Kurt Busch’s contract option being declined by Stewart-Haas Racing came as a surprise to many, but it’s a case of simple economics and the current landscape of team sponsorship in NASCAR’s premier series. Simply put, it’s a tough time being a winning Cup driver over 30 without a major sponsor attached. This has been evidenced in 2017 with Busch, Matt Kenseth and Kasey Kahne.

Busch’s best option still might be returning to Stewart-Haas Racing in 2018 on a restructured deal, but everything seems to hinge on what sponsor Monster Energy decides on its future in NASCAR. If Monster, which has a longstanding relationship with Busch, decides to align with the driver, it’s conceivable he could go elsewhere.

It’s worth noting, though (as NBCSN analyst Jeff Burton said Tuesday on NASCAR America), that this news became public. While it doesn’t necessarily mean there is major friction between driver and team, it does change the dynamics of the negotiations.

From his June 29 comments at Daytona International Speedway, Busch clearly felt he was deserving of at least another season from the team regardless of whether the sponsor situation was settled. Now he will be permitted to test that belief on an open market that has become well aware of his availability.

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The Saturday-Sunday weekend schedule the past two weeks at Indianapolis and Pocono drew mostly rave reviews from teams and drivers pleased by an extra day off the road.

“That’s really what it’s about, it’s about quality of life for the team guys, giving them an extra day,” Kevin Harvick said. “If we can add that up (over) 10, 15, 20 weekends, that’s two or three weeks that you can keep those guys at home and let them spend some time with their families and kids and wives. Everybody is just gone so much, it is becoming harder and harder to hire people because it is such a grind.”

A mostly overlooked new facet of qualifying and racing on the same day (as occurred at Pocono and will again Sunday at Watkins Glen International) is that NASCAR prevented teams from having an engine in their backup cars (a spare engine still was allowed to be brought and kept in the hauler in a typical procedure).

NASCAR is considering this as a cost-savings measure at all tracks next year, helping engine builders reduce their long-term inventories (as their contracts typically call for supplying teams with three engines per weekend). The potential drawback would be the amount of time required to put an engine in a backup car if it becomes needed during the three-hour window between the start of qualifying and the green flag.

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Crew chief Cole Pearn’s decision to pit Martin Truex Jr. from the lead with three laps left in the second stage at Pocono – essentially giving up a playoff point and any second stage points – was the most calculated of gambles.

With 29 playoff points already secured (and another 15 likely coming at the end of the regular season as the points leader), Truex virtually is assured of advancing through at least the first round of the playoffs and probably the second. With that kind of cushion, why play it safe for a stage win if your car is fast enough for an overall victory?

“Five (playoff) points is a lot better than one bonus point,’’ Pearn told NBCSports.com’s Dustin Long after the race.

Said Truex: “If we didn’t pit there, we probably weren’t going to have a shot at winning the race. That was the gamble. That was our mindset before the race. We figured if we felt like we were good enough to possibly win the race, we’d have to pit before the end of that second stage.”

This is the equivalent of aiming for the pin instead of laying up with a lead of several strokes in a golf tournament. Or going for it on fourth and 3 instead of settling for a 58-yard field goal or a punt.

It was an aggressive call, but if Truex somehow fails to advance in the playoffs by a margin of less than five points, it will be perfectly sensible in retrospect.

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Could a recent management shake-up at Pocono Raceway hint at larger changes ahead for the track and possibly NASCAR’s premier series schedule?

In a revealing interview with the Associated Press’ Dan Gelston last weekend, new CEO Nick Igdalsky seemed to volunteer that playing host to two annual Cup races wasn’t a long-term certainty (while making the case for potentially moving a date to the road course).

“We’d love to continue having two” Cup races, he said. “But if one day, if that’s not the way the cards fall, so be it. We’d still be honored to be part of the show.”

Such an admission would have been anathema for Igaldsky’s grandfather, Joe Mattioli, who built the 2.5-mile track in 1971. Pocono held its first Cup race three years later and has had two annual races on the premier circuit since 1982, in part because of its founder’s oft bellicose defense of twin 500-mile races.

Mattioli died in January 2012, a few months after turning over day-to-day operations to his grandchildren. Brandon Igdalsky, Nick’s older brother, had been the track’s president and CEO for several years, overseeing multimillion-dollar renovations and the reduction of Pocono’s races to 400 miles apiece.

Brandon Igdalsky took a new job last month in NASCAR’s event marketing and promotion department (working primarily with tracks), handing the reins to his sibling and new track president Ben May.

Nick Igdalsky clarified his comments Monday to Gelston, saying he’d be willing to have a second race on a road course (a la Charlotte Motor Speedway) if that’s what it took to run two races.

But that this topic even was broached naturally raises some eyebrows about what’s next, particularly given the family owned track’s new relationship to NASCAR management.

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Add “driver participation guidelines” (as described in a NASCAR release Tuesday) to “encumbered” as the latest in the scourge of NASCAR euphemisms that undermine honest discussion and explanation.

These aren’t “guidelines”, which (by definition) aren’t mandatory.

They are rules.

If they were actual guidelines, Kyle Busch might enter every truck and Xfinity race next season just for spite.

“New rules for entering national series” works better.

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One of the goals of NASCAR’s new rules for entering national series is to help increase exposure and opportunity for younger drivers, which also is a goal of the NASCAR Next program.

Though more drivers fail than succeed in reaching the top level (15 of 46 NASCAR Next drivers have made a Cup start), there have been many recent successes for the initiative, which is designed to put marketing and promotion behind future stars.

Recently named No. 88 driver Alex Bowman is a NASCAR Next alum, as are the top two finishers (Ryan Preece and Kyle Benjamin) in last Saturday’s Xfinity race at Iowa Speedway, and Gary Klutt will make his Monster Energy Cup Series debut this weekend at Watkins Glen.

Other graduates of NASCAR Next: Kyle Larson, Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Daniel Suarez, Erik Jones, Darrell Wallace Jr., William Byron, John Hunter Nemechek, Cole Custer, Corey LaJoie, Ben Rhodes and Matt DiBenedetto.

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Target’s decision to leave Chip Ganassi Racing after the 2017 season exemplifies the retrenchment of retail sponsorship in auto racing that stems from a confluence of reasons (many of which were well documented in this analysis by Yahoo! Sports’ Nick Bromberg).

The Great Recession triggered a new era of companies becoming much more discriminating about how marketing dollars are spent, and the rise of social media in the intervening years has altered philosophies on what are the most cost-effective strategies for reaching consumers.

“The traditional model (of just) being a consumer brand sponsor that just wants to see a car out there with their name out it will go extinct in the next couple years,” Brad Keselowski said last weekend at Pocono. “That’s not always a bad thing. There’s other models that work and have proven to be successful.

“And the teams, although the owners may not agree with it, are still relatively healthy. So, time will tell what the true model is 10 years from now. I don’t think anybody really knows. I don’t we have it as bad as we say we do.”

The most effective sponsorship model guarantees a return for the millions being invested via business-to-business relationships, e.g. ShellPennzoil agrees to sponsor Team Penske’s No. 22 Ford in return for Roger Penske’s automotive dealerships using its motor oil.

The problem is that most teams can’t offer the ancillary businesses (and global breadth) of Penske.

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Busch’s win at Pocono marked the 10th consecutive race with a different winner in the Cup Series. This comes on the heels of eight races in a row being won by different teams (the longest stretch since a 10-race run in 2001-02).

While Truex’s massive lead in playoff points makes him the championship favorite, this season still feels as wide open as any in recent memory.

It’s driven by the fact that every manufacturer has at least one bona fide title contender on more than one team — Ford, Stewart-Haas Racing (Kevin Harvick) and Team Penske (Brad Keselowski); Toyota, Furniture Row Racing (Truex) and Joe Gibbs Racing (Busch); Chevrolet, Hendrick Motorsports (Jimmie Johnson) and Chip Ganassi Racing (Kyle Larson).

Michigan Truck race results

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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Zane Smith scored his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win, securing a playoff spot with a last-lap pass in double overtime Friday night at Michigan International Speedway.

Christian Eckes finished second and was followed by Tanner Gray, Tyler Ankrum and Todd Gilliland.

Click here for race results

Todd Gilliland stretched his lead to 29 points over Tyler Ankrum for the final playoff spot after Friday’s race. Gilliland gained seven points on Ankrum. Gilliland in 10th in the standings. He’s one point behind Derek Kraus. Austin Hill continues to lead the points.

Click here for driver points  

Zane Smith uses overtime charge to score first Truck win

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Zane Smith passed Christian Eckes on the last lap of double overtime to score his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race Friday night at Michigan International Speedway.

Eckes finished second. Tanner Gray placed third.

Smith is 21 years old, Eckes is 19 and Gray is 21.

MORE: Race results

“I wish I was here to celebrate with my parents and my girlfriend,” an emotional Smith told FS1 after the race.

Grant Enfinger led on the restart but came down from the top lane and came down on Austin Hill and John Hunter Nemechek and spun. That allowed Eckes to take the lead and put Smith third. Smith passed Gray for second in Turn 4 coming to the white flag.

Smith dived under Eckes in Turn 2 on the final lap and pulled away to win.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brett Moffitt

STAGE 2 WINNER: Johnny Sauter

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Zane Smith was eighth with three laps to go and went on to win and secure a playoff spot. … Christian Eckes finished second for the third consecutive race. … Tanner Gray finished a career-high third.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Johnny Sauter spun and hit the wall while racing teammate Grant Enfinger for the lead with 16 laps to go. Sauter entered the race 63 points out of the final playoff spot after a 10-point penalty for an inspection issue before the race. … Stewart Friesen was eliminated in a crash on Lap 50  after contact with Christian Eckes. Friesen finished last in the 39-truck field. … Chandler Smith was eliminated in a crash on Lap 60 after contact with Ben Rhodes. Smith finished 38th.

NOTABLE: The combined age of the top three finishers (61) was just short of the series record for the youngest three finishers. That record of 55 was set in  June 2016 at Iowa when William Byron (then 18), Cole Custer (then 18) and Cameron Hayley (then 19) went 1-2-3.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race on the Daytona road course, Sunday, Aug. 18 at Noon ET on FS1.

Brandon Brown wants to reward father with a special celebration

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A week after he begged his father to let him race a go-kart, the 9-year-old finished last and in tears. He complained that the loaned go-kart was not fast enough.

Jerry Brown saw a passion he had not seen from his son when Brandon played soccer, baseball or did any other activity. Jerry didn’t know much about racing but he bought a go-kart, beginning a father-son journey that took them to races across the country and all the way to the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“It’s been my dad and I every single weekend since the age of nine,” Brandon Brown told NBC Sports.

It was that way until this year.

MORE: Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America: Start time, forecast, TV channel

Jerry attended this season’s first four Xfinity races before the COVID-19 pandemic paused the sport. Father and son were together in an Atlanta hotel in March when NASCAR announced it would not race there that weekend.

While much of the world stopped, Jerry’s life changed.

A simple procedure in April led to a cancer diagnosis. His routine now includes “aggressive” cancer treatments. Jerry, 60, isolates to avoid the coronavirus. If he were to be infected, his treatments would have to stop until he recovered from the virus.

Brandon, 27, admits his father’s condition was a key point in moving from Virginia, where the family resides, to the Mooresville, North Carolina area and being closer to the sport’s hub. Traveling each week to races, Brandon didn’t want to take the chance he could catch COVID-19 and infect his father. So it was better to be apart, something they’ve rarely been.

“It’s been quite the emotional roller coaster,” said Brandon, who talks with his father daily. “I haven’t really opened up to anyone … it’s a feeling of fear constantly just because I keep seeing posts about people that have passed away from (the coronavirus), people without health issues that are getting it and things are going bad.”

“Joy and the hugs”

Jerry Brown looks back to all those days driving to races with Brandon and the trips that also included wife Valorie and son William. Jerry says buying that first go-kart and getting into racing was the “best decision we ever made” because of the time spent with family.

Valorie Brown with son Brandon, husband Jerry and son William. (Photo: Brandon Brown)

“You actually get to be with your kids as they are growing up and doing what they love to do,” he told NBC Sports.

“The gleam that you get to see on their faces when they’re 10-11 years old and going out and competing against 20 karts and winning and the joy and the hugs you get to give right there, you just can’t beat that.”

It’s not just the good times that are memorable.

“You also got to be with them in the heartaches, when things didn’t go right,” Jerry said. “The first national race (Brandon) won, a plug in the carburetor had fallen out, so at post-tech we got disqualified. … It’s not the best memory, but it’s one of those things that when you’re a father, you want to be there for your sons for the good and the bad.”

As Brandon climbed from Late Models to the NASCAR Truck Series and then Xfinity Series, Jerry was there. The journey hasn’t been easy for Brandon, who last won a race in 2012 in Late Models. He went to college, graduating in 2018 from Coastal Carolina. He ran a partial schedule while in school with the family team, Brandonbilt Motorsports.

“When you’re here racing this type of competition, you’re not going to win when you are a part-timer,” Jerry said. “He understood that.”

Brandon ran his first full Xfinity Series season last year. Competing against organizations such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig Racing, is formidable for any team, let alone a family team with eight full-time employees.

Brown finished 15th in the points last year. He holds the final playoff spot entering Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America (noon ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App).

“I’m not going to give up,” Brandon said. “That was something my dad has preached to me, among other things, thousands and thousands of times over. When you get a goal, you put your mind to it and get it done. Do the important things first and goof off later. I heard that a lot growing up.

“His push, his drive, his sacrifice, his determination is kind of in the back of my mind pushing me the entire time. It’s one of those things where I don’t want to fail.”

Brandon Brown’s best finish in the Xfinity Series is sixth at Daytona in 2019. His best finish this year is seventh at Daytona and Bristol. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Shocking phone call

Jerry went to the doctor’s office April 7 to have a swollen lymph node checked.

The node had to be removed and tested. After the procedure, the doctor told Jerry that he didn’t think the lymph node was cancerous.

Tests confirmed it was.

“Getting that call was devastating,” Jerry said.

Then came a series of tests to find the source before treatment could be set. Doctors determined that Jerry needed proton treatment, which is a new type of radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

He has had treatments every weekday since July 13. When he talked to NBC Sports on Thursday, he had completed treatment 19 earlier in the day. Jerry is scheduled to have 33 treatments, the last one set for Aug. 26.

“The chemo knocks you out really bad,” he said.

A special celebration

As his father goes through treatment, Brown goes to the track, seeking to make the Xfinity playoffs for the first time.

He goes to Road America 32 points ahead of Jeremy Clements but Clements scored his lone Xfinity win at this track in 2017. Nine races remain before the playoffs, including one race on the Daytona oval, two races on road courses and three on short tracks. There are many obstacles between Brown and a playoff spot. 

Brandon Brown holds the final Xfinity Series playoff spot heading into Saturday’s race at Road America. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“We can’t afford to make mistakes,” he said. “Jeremy is an excellent road course racer and also he’s run very, very strong at the short tracks. Just as he is going to have to give 110%, we’re going to have to give 111% just to keep that points buffer.”

Brown has built that margin on Clements and those behind him with consistent finishes. Brown has placed between 10th and 13th in five of the last seven races.

“Our goal is to show up, run all the laps, stay clean, finish the race,” he said. “With that mindset, we push to be right there in the 10th, 11th, 12th mark. We want to be be there to capitalize on if top-tier programs have incidents or wreck out or whatever, we have the ability to take advantage of the situation.”

Brown’s best Xfinity finish is sixth in 70 starts. He’s scored four of his five career top-10 finishes this season. The closer he gets to the front, the closer he gets to his first NASCAR win. 

“I’ve said if we win a race and dad is not there, I think it would be a bittersweet moment,” he said. “It would feel so good to finally win again and also prove to myself that I’m supposed to be here. It does get a little defeating when you’re best is some of those guys’ OK races. It can get a little defeating, but it would feel so good to climb that hurdle.”

And if he wins soon, he admits the “trophy would not leave my sight … I will throw it in the front seat of my truck and I will drive my butt to Virginia and I will do donuts in the cul-de-sac and celebrate with dad there.”

Jerry can’t wait.

“That would be awesome.”

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Saturday Cup race at Michigan: Start time, TV channel, lineup

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The Cup Series is set to hold its second doubleheader weekend of the year as it journies to Michigan International Speedway.

A few weeks after holding back-to-back races at Pocono, the series does so on the 2-mile speedway.

Saturday sees the first race of the doubleheader, with Joey Logano starting from the pole.

Here’s all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Michigan:

(All times are Eastern)

START: WWE Superstar The Big Show will give the command to start engines at 4:08 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 9 a.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. by Father Geoff Rose, OSFS President St. Francis De Sales School in Toledo, Ohio. The national anthem will be performed by 12-time Grammy winner CeCe Winans at 4:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 156 laps (312 miles) around the 2-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 40. Stage 2 ends on Lap 85.

PACE LAP: At the direction of race control, NASCAR will run the entire field down pit road during one of the pace laps for pit road speed verification. If a car stops anywhere on pit road for any reason, the car will start at the rear of the field.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 3:30 p.m. and the race broadcast. Motor Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the link.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for mostly sunny skies with a high of 81 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski triumphed over Denny Hamlin to win at New Hampshire.

LAST RACE AT MICHIGAN: Kevin Harvick beat Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

STARTING LINEUP: Cup starting lineup Saturday at Michigan

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Joey Logano draws the pole for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Up to 8,000 fans approved to attend Southern 500

Silly Season Scorecard: Erik Jones splits with Joe Gibbs Racing

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief makes a simple request

Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after 2020

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

Truck Series driver Spencer Davis tests positive for COVID-19

NASCAR announces remaining 2020 schedule

Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski remain 1-2

Chip Ganassi Racing makes crew chief change

Leavine Family Racing announces it has been sold

Greg Zipadelli to serve as Clint Bowyer’s interim crew chief

Brad Keselowski signs contract extension with Team Penske