Who’s hot, who’s not, heading into Michigan

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Just four races remain for drivers to make – or miss – the upcoming NASCAR Cup playoffs.

This weekend, the series returns to Michigan International Speedway, which is the fastest track on the circuit. It’s a place where 200 mph-plus is the norm, not the exception.

This will be the 97th NASCAR Cup race to be held at the two-mile oval.

Kyle Larson has won the last two races there: last August and this June.

Drivers like Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch are among the hottest drivers going right now.

But other drivers are in big trouble, particularly Joey Logano and Dale Earnhardt Jr. If they hope to make the playoffs, they’ll have to do so with a win only.

So without further adieu, here’s the hottest of the hot and, well, the not so hot:

WHO IS HOT?

Martin Truex Jr.

Won at Watkins Glen, his series leading fourth of 2017

Finished in the top-10 15 times this season, the most

Won 14 stages this season, the most

34 Playoff Points this season, 18 more than anyone else

Wins at Las Vegas, Kansas, Kentucky and WG

Led a series high 1315 laps in 2017, led the most laps in seven races

Best Michigan finish is second, twice

Finished sixth in June at Michigan after leading 62 laps, victim of the outside line on restarts

Clint Bowyer

Finished 5th at Watkins Glen, top 10 in five of the last seven races this season

Finished runner up three times in 2017

10 top-10s in 2017, had only three in all of 2016

Only one top five finish at Michigan in 23 starts

Best finish at Michigan in the last four races is 23rd, finished top 10 in his nine previous races there

Kyle Busch

Finished 7th at Watkins Glen after multiple issues

Won from the pole at Pocono, first win of 2017 and at Pocono

Had four wins at this point in 2016

Won the pole for the last three races

One Michigan win, this race in 2011 (last on the old pavement), only two top 10s there since (six finishes of 31st or worse)

Denny Hamlin

4th at Watkins Glen, top 4 finishes in six of the last eight races including a win at NH

Two-time winner at Michigan but last came in 2011

Finished top 10 in three of the last four Michigan races including fourth in June

Kevin Harvick

Finished 17th at WG, heavy damage on pit road

Finished top-10 in 12 of the last 16 races of 2017

One Michigan win, this race in 2010

Finished top 5, including five runner ups, in seven of the last nine races at Michigan

Kyle Larson

23rd at WG, third straight finish of 23rd or worse

Finished second in seven races this year

Two wins this season, ACS and Michigan

Won the last three races on 2.0 mile tracks including the last two races at Michigan

Daniel Suarez

Finished third at WG, best career finish

Top 10 finishes in the last four races

Won the Open at Charlotte

First career NXS win came at Michigan last year

Finished 24th at Michigan in June, only Cup start there

WHO IS NOT?

Joey Logano

24th at WG, ninth finish outside the top 20 in the last 13 races

Won at Richmond but was encumbered

Now 95 points outside the bubble, he must win to make the playoffs

Top 10 finishes in the last nine races at Michigan including two wins

Dale Earnhardt Jr.

37th at WG, ninth finish of 30th or worse this season

Only two top-10s in the last 10 races

Two-time Michigan winner

Top 10 finishes in five of his last six starts at Michigan including ninth in June

Kasey Kahne

Finished 16th at WG, his three best finishes in the last 11 races have come in the last three races

Won at Indianapolis ending a 102 race winless streak, took a super lucky timed caution and turned it into a win

One Michigan win, 2006

Finished 13th or worse in the last six races at Michigan

Will not return to Hendrick Motorsports next season, likely to be replaced by William Byron.

Jimmie Johnson

29th at WG, ran out of fuel late

DNF accident in three of his last five races in 2017

One top-10 in his last seven races (10th at New Hampshire)

Three top 5 finishes this season, all wins

One Michigan win, June 2014

Only one top-five at Michigan in the last 10 races, his win in 2014

Kurt Busch

Sixth at Watkins Glen, his best finish in the last eight races

Three DNFs in the last six races of 2017

Just 10 top 10 finishes this season, had 16 after 22 races in 2016

Has not had back-to-back top 10 finishes since Richmond and Talladega

Three wins at Michigan, all came with different manufacturers

Finished 12th at Michigan in June

Austin Dillon

26th at WG, only one top 15 finish in the last eight races

Won on fuel mileage at Charlotte

Only two top 10 finishes this season, had nine at this point last year

Only two top 10 finishes in 10 Michigan starts but they both came in the last four races there

AJ Allmendinger

Five top-10s in 2017 three were in the last six races (ninth at Watkins Glen)

Best Michigan finish is 11th, twice

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Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).

Noah Gragson wins Xfinity race at Texas Motor Speedway

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Noah Gragson opened the NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs the same way he has run much of the season.

Gragson sidestepped a web of issues plaguing playoff drivers and won Saturday’s 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway, tying a decades-old Xfinity record by winning for the fourth consecutive race. Sam Ard, formerly a series mainstay, won four in a row in 1983.

Gragson, continuing to establish himself as the championship favorite, took the lead with 11 laps to go from Jeb Burton as most of the day’s leaders were running different tire and fuel strategies over the closing laps.

Gragson, 24 and set to jump to the Cup Series next season, led 85 laps. He won by 1.23 seconds.

“This number 9 team, man, they’re on fire,” Gragson told NBC Sports. “Luke Lambert (crew chief) and the boys executed a great race.”

MORE: Texas Xfinity results

The win was Gragson’s seventh of the year. Following in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

The victory pushed Gragson into the second round of the playoffs.

A big crash at the front of the field on lap 117 changed the face of the race. John Hunter Nemechek lost control of his car on the outside and was clipped by Justin Allgaier, starting a wreck that scrambled most of the field. Damages forced playoff drivers Daniel Hemric, Brandon Jones and Allgaier from the race.

“The 7 (Allgaier) chose the top behind me, and I haven’t seen the replay of it, but the 7 chose the top behind me and started pushing,” Nemechek said. “The 21 (Hill) made it three-wide on the 9 (Gragson), and I was three-wide at the top, and I think we ended up four-wide at one point, which doesn’t really work aero-wide in the pack.”

Pole winner Jones, a playoff driver taken out in the crash, said Nemechek “was pushing a little too hard. Nothing to fault him there for, but probably a little early to be going that far. It is what it is.”

Six laps earlier, another multi-car crash scattered the field and damaged the car of playoff contender and regular season champion Allmendinger.

The wreck started when Brandon Brown slipped in front of Allmendinger and went into a slide, forcing Allmendinger to the inside apron. Several cars scattered behind them trying to avoid the accident.

Allmendinger’s crew repaired his car and he later had the race lead.

Playoff driver Jeremy Clements had a tough day. He parked with what he called mysterious mechanical issues about halfway through the race.

Below the cutline after the first race are Herbst, Hemric, Jones and Clements.

Stage 1 winner: Daniel Hemric

Stage 2 winner: AJ Allmendinger

Who had a good race: Noah Gragson is threatening to turn the final weeks of the Xfinity season into a cakewalk. He clearly had the day’s dominant car Saturday in winning for the fourth race in a row. … AJ Allmendinger’s car was damaged in a wreck in heavy traffic, but his crew taped parts of the car and gave him an opening to finish fourth.

Who had a bad race: Jeremy Clements, in the playoff field, finished 36th after parking with mechanical trouble near the race’s halfway point. … Jeffrey Earnhardt crashed only 17 laps into the race and finished last.

Next: The second race in the first round of the Xfinity playoffs is scheduled Oct. 1 at 4 p.m. ET (USA Network) at Talladega Superspeedway in Alabama.

Cup drivers are for changing Texas but leery about making it another Atlanta

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Some Cup drivers are concerned that a reconfigured Texas Motor Speedway could create racing similar to Atlanta, adding another type of superspeedway race to the NASCAR calendar.

While Texas officials have not stated publicly any plans to make changes, some competitors feel Sunday’s playoff race (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network) could be the final event on this track’s current layout. 

With the All-Star Race moving from Texas to North Wilkesboro next year, Texas Motor Speedway’s lone Cup race will take place Sept. 24, 2023. That could provide time for any alterations. Work on changing Atlanta began in July 2021 and was completed by December 2021. 

Reigning Cup champion Kyle Larson said work needs to be done to Texas Motor Speedway.

“I would like them to demolish this place first and then start over from scratch,” Larson said Saturday. “For one, they did a very poor job with the reconfiguration, initial reconfiguration. 

“I would like to see them change it from a mile-and-a-half to something shorter. I don’t know if that means bringing the backstretch in or whatever. 

“If I could build a track, it’d be probably a three-quarter mile Bristol basically, pavement and progressive banking. But I don’t know if that’s even possible here. I’m not sure what they have in mind, but anything would be better than what they did.”

Former Cup champion Joey Logano worries about another superspeedway race with such events at Daytona, Talladega and now Atlanta. 

“Do we need more superspeedways?” Logano asked Saturday. “Is that the type of racing fans want to see? Because when you look at the way that people have finished up front in these superspeedways lately, (they) are the ones that are riding around in the back. 

“Do you believe that you should be rewarded for not working? Because that’s what they’re doing. They’re riding around in the back not working, not going up there to put a good race on. They’re riding around in the back and capitalizing on other people’s misfortune for racing up front trying to win. I don’t think it’s right. That’s not racing. I can’t get behind that.”

Logano said he wants to have more control in how he finishes, particularly in a playoff race. 

“I want to be at tracks where I can make a difference, where my team can make a difference, and we’re not at the mercy of a wreck that happened in front of us that we couldn’t do anything about,” he said.

Discussions of changing the track follow complaints about how tough it is to pass at this 1.5-mile speedway.

“Once you get to the top, it’s almost like the bottom (lane) is very, very weak,” Daniel Suarez said.

Suarez has mixed feelings about the idea of turning Texas into another Atlanta-style race.

“Atlanta was a very good racetrack, and then they turned it into a superspeedway and it’s a lot of fun,” Suarez said. “I see it as a hybrid. I don’t think we need another racetrack like that, but it’s not my decision to make. Whatever they throw out at us, I’m going to try to be the best I can be.”

Suarez hopes that Texas can be like what it once was.

“Maybe with some work, we can get this race track to what it used to be, a very wide race track, running the bottom, running the middle, running the top,” he said.  

“As a race car driver, that’s what you want. You want that ability to run around and to show your skills. In superspeedways … everyone is bumping, everyone is pushing, and you can not show your skills as much.”

Chase Briscoe would be OK with a change to Texas, but he wants it to be more like a track other than Atlanta.

“If we’re really going to change and completely start from scratch, I would love another Homestead-type racetrack,” Briscoe said. “The problem is any time you build a new race track, it’s not going to be slick and worn out for a while. It’s trying to figure out what’s best to maximize those first couple of years to get it good by the end. 

“I think Homestead is a great model, if we’re going to build another mile and a half. I think we’re going to have to look at what they have, the progressive banking, the shape of the race track is different. I just think it’s a really good race track, and I think it always puts on really good racing. Anything we could do to try to match that, that would be my vote.”

Denny Hamlin just hopes some sort of change is made to Texas.

“I’d rather have another Atlanta than this, honestly,” Hamlin said. “Anything will be better than kind of what we have here.”

NASCAR shares prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer

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FORT WORTH, Texas — The NASCAR garage is sharing its prayers for Stewart-Haas Racing engineer DJ VanderLey, who was injured Thursday night in a crash during a micro sprint Outlaw race at the Texas Motor Speedway dirt track.

He suffered several fractured vertebrae and has a spinal cord injury, according to a post from his wife Jordan on her Facebook page. 

Two GoFundMe accounts have been set up to help the family with medical costs. 

VanderLey was Chase Briscoe’s engineer for four years, and they are good friends.

“I hate that it happened to anybody,” Briscoe said Saturday at Texas Motor Speedway, “but for it to hit close to home has definitely been tough for me.”

Briscoe said he planned to visit VanderLey in the hospital on Saturday and that “I just hope that everybody continues to pray. That’s really all we can do at this point, trying to hope he gets better.”

Christopher Bell calls VanderLey among his best friends. VanderLey was Bell’s engineer at Kyle Busch Motorsports in 2016. 

Bell spent the night at the hospital and also picked up Jordan VanderLey at the airport when she arrived. 

Stewart-Haas Racing had a decal for VanderLey on Riley Herbst‘s No. 98 Xfinity car for Saturday’s race.