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

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

This weekend, the series moves to the Track Too Tough To Tame, Darlington Raceway for the Bojangles’ Southern 500.

The 1.366-mile egg-shaped oval is considered by many drivers as the most difficult track on the NASCAR Cup circuit.

This will be the 114th NASCAR Cup race to be held at the track also nicknamed the Lady In Black.

Johnny Mantz won the first NASCAR Cup race at Darlington in 1950. Martin Truex Jr. won the most recent race there, last year’s Southern 500.

There have been 11 different winners in the last 11 races.

There are only two races left in the regular season for drivers to qualify for the 16-driver NASCAR Cup playoffs. Drivers below the playoff cutoff line are in must-win situations, including Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano, Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Here’s the hottest of the hot and, well, the not so hot:

Cup – Who Is Hot

No. 18 Kyle Busch (Hot)

  • Won the Trifecta at Bristol: Truck, NXS and Cup races
  • Two wins this season, both came in the last four races (Wins at Pocono and Bristol)
  • Finished top 10 in the last four races, best streak this season
  • One Southern 500 win, 2008
  • Worst finish in the last seven races at Darlington is 11th with five top 10s

No. 11 Denny Hamlin (Hot, Great at Darlington)

  • Third at Bristol
  • Top 4 finishes in seven of the last 10 races including a win at NH
  • One Darlington win, 2010
  • Nine top 10 finishes in 11 races at Darlington, average finish of 6.2, the best all-time among drivers with more than two starts there

No. 4 Kevin Harvick (Hot)

  • Finished 8th at Bristol
  • Finished top-10 in 13 of the last 18 races of 2017
  • One Darlington win, 2014 from the pole
  • Finished top five in the last four races at Darlington
  • Led over 200 laps in two of the last three races at Darlington

No. 77 Erik Jones (Hot but must win, points no longer an option)

  • Finished career best second at Bristol after winning his first career pole and leading 260 laps
  • Finished top 10 in the last four races, best streak of his career
  • One start at Darlington, NXS last year, finished sixth

No. 42 Kyle Larson (Hot in 2017, Good at Darlington)

  • Finished ninth at Bristol, second straight top 10 finish
  • Three wins in 2017, all came on 2.0 mile tracks
  • Finished second in seven races this year
  • Top 10 finishes in all three career Darlington starts, best finish of third last year

No. 19 Daniel Suarez (Hot)

  • Finished 15th at Bristol
  • Finished top-15 in five of last six races including four top-10s
  • Won the Open at Charlotte
  • Will be first Cup start at Darlington, finished top five in both NXS starts at Darlington

No. 78 Martin Truex Jr (Hot, Good at Darlington)

  • Finished 21stat Bristol, speeding penalty
  • Finished in the top-10 16 times this season, the most
  • Won 15 stages this season, the most
  • 35 Playoff Points this season
  • Wins at Las Vegas, Kansas, Kentucky and Watkins Glen
  • Led a series high 1372 laps in 2017, led the most laps in seven races
  • Won this race last year at Darlington, led 28 laps
  • Furniture Row Racing’s first career win came at Darlington with Regan Smith in 2011

No. 20 Matt Kenseth (Hot, Great at Darlington)

  • Finished 4th at Bristol, five top 10 finishes in the last six races, all but Michigan, flat tire in OT while 
running 3rd
  • Now 15th in the playoff standings, +61
  • One Darlington win, 2013
  • Finished top six in four of the last five races at Darlington

Cup – Who is Not

No. 3 Austin Dillon (Has a win but is NOT HOT)

  • 39th at Bristol, only one top 10 finish in the last 12 races
  • Won on fuel mileage at Charlotte
  • Only three top 10 finishes this season, had 10 at this point last year
  • Three Darlington starts, best finish of 11th in 2014

No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (Running out of time)

  • 23rd at Bristol, last top 10 was Sonoma in June (sixth)
  • Only two top-10s in the last 12 races
  • Finished top 10 in his last three Darlington starts including runner up in 2014. DNC in 2016 at Darlington

No. 5 Kasey Kahne (Not, Not, Not… won)

  • Finished 24th at Bristol, only one top 10 finish in the last 14 races, win at Indy
  • Six DNFs from accident this season
  • Won at Indianapolis ending a 102 race winless streak, took a super lucky timed caution and turned it 
into a win
  • Best finish at Darlington in 14 starts is third in 2005
  • Won the pole four times at Darlington
  • Two truck wins at Darlington

No. 22 Joey Logano (Reason for concern, Good lately at Darlington)

  • 13th at Bristol
  • 10 finishes outside the top 20 in the last 15 races
  • Won at Richmond in April but was encumbered
  • Now 117 points outside the bubble, he must win to make the playoffs
  • Finished top five in his last two Darlington starts including fourth in 2015, his best finish there

Race for final Cup playoff spot tightens at Kentucky

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Paul Menard’s 11th-place finish might be easy to overlook but it was one of the noteworthy performances Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Menard’s finish — along with Alex Bowman placing last — allowed Menard to gain 32 points on Bowman in the race for the final playoff spot.

“We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this,” Bowman said after his crash that left him with a 39th-place finish. “This will hurt us quite a bit.”

The result hurt him but maybe not as much as he feared.

Bowman has 427 points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is next at 418 and Menard has 404.

With seven winners this season and seven races left, at least two of the 16 playoff spots will be determined by points.

If the current domination by Kentucky winner Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch continues, there could be a record number of drivers who make the playoffs by points. The most who made the playoffs via points was five in 2015. That seems likely to fall.

While Menard made up many points on Bowman, it still didn’t make up for all the ground Menard lost to Bowman the previous three races. Bowman finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, Chicagoland and Daytona and gained 51 more points than Menard in those races.

Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky. Stenhouse had contact with Jamie McMurary’s car that led to a tire rub and forced Stenhouse to pit on Lap 23 and then again on Lap 27 under green. Stenhouse fell three laps down. He gained two laps back and finished 26th on what could have been a bigger night for him with Bowman’s misfortune.

“I’m not really sure what happened, but the No. 1 got into us, which cut our left rear tire,” Stenhouse said. “We were able to cut our deficit in the point standings. We will focus on the next seven weekends and getting the No. 17 team in the playoffs.”

While Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky, it didn’t overcome what he had lost the three previous races to the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Bowman had scored 15 more points during that stretch.

With Bowman having problems, it created an opening for drivers further back but Richard Childress Racing teammates managed to make only modest gains.

Newman gained 15 points on Bowman and is 79 points back. Dillon gained 14 points on Bowman and is 65 points back. Both Dillon and Newman had vibrations early in the race and that forced them to pit in the first 31 laps under green. Newman was later penalized for removing equipment from the pit stall.

“We definitely improved our qualifying effort, but ultimately it comes down to where we finished and we still have some work to do,” Newman said. “Our car wasn’t that bad, but getting track position after that first run and a pit road penalty were too tough to overcome.”

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Long: Martin Truex Jr.’s dominant win doesn’t discourage competition

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SPARTA, Kentucky — On a night when Martin Truex Jr. exerted his dominance, led nearly two-thirds of the laps, won both stages and then the race, his competitors left Kentucky Speedway with …

Hope.

Even crew chief Cole Pearn’s eyes bulged at the notion.

Truex’s third victory in the past six events should be a sign that his Furniture Row Racing team is primed to repeat last year’s surge when it won six of the final 19 races on the way to winning the championship.

Truex, who started from the pole Saturday, called the weekend his team’s most complete of the season. About the only thing that didn’t go as plan was when Truex needed to jump from his car as it rolled down the frontstretch banking, shortening his victory celebration in front of the fans.

That Truex had such a dominant performance throughout the weekend should be scary to every team that does not employ Kyle Busch or Kevin Harvick.

Yet runner-up Ryan Blaney, while disappointed he didn’t win, could be upbeat about his team’s run. So was teammate Brad Keselowski. And Kyle Larson, who has been one of the toughest foes to the triumvirate of Truex, Busch and Harvick, also could walk away with some good feelings despite a ninth-place finish.

It would be easy to suggest that they’re merely fooling themselves. Truex, Harvick and Busch finished 1-2-3 in the first stage. Truex won the second stage with Busch second and Harvick fourth. Truex’s victory marked the 13th consecutive race either he, Busch or Harvick have won at a 1.5-mile track.

In a sport where the rules are meant to keep the field close, Truex, Harvick and Busch have separated themselves from everyone else.

But Blaney sees the gap closing.

I wouldn’t say we’re frustrated or defeated,” he said. “I mean, I might be a little down just because I wanted to win the race, but you go back and you realize that you’ve made gains and you’ve just got to keep making those.”

Keselowski, who finished third, interjected: “We can see the end of the tunnel, and we’re just 20 yards away. It’s just a matter of getting there, not taking a step back and taking a step forward.”

Of course, those final steps are the most difficult.

Keselowski is heartened based on how far his team has come.

“We’ve been right in that fifth‑ to six‑place range, but I feel like when they drop the green, the leaders just drive away from us, and this week, at least at the start of the race, we were able to run with Martin,” Keselowski said. “ As the race progressed we couldn’t stay with him, but all in all, that’s still as fast as we’ve been on a mile‑and‑a‑half this year, and that’s something commendable for my team.”

The closer one believes they are to the leaders, the more hope grows.

Larson was encouraged that he passed Truex for second with about 90 laps to go before his trackbar failed and his handling went away.

“I felt like I was better than (Harvick),” Larson said of the fifth-place finisher. “I passed (Busch, who placed fourth) a couple of times, passed (Truex) there before that second to last run. I passed him and kind of drove away from him for a few laps until right when our trackbar broke. Like I said, it’s hard to say if I would have had a shot to win. You never know how these races will play out, but I would have loved to have had a shot.”

Larson’s crew chief, Chad Johnston, was buoyed by his driver’s run until the mechanical issue.

“Those guys are fast, so we’ve just got to keep working hard and try to figure out how to get faster and get faster twice as fast as they do because they’re not stopping,” Johnston told NBC Sports. “But I feel like we’ve closed that gap throughout the year.”

The progress these teams have made has gained the attention of Harvick’s crew chief, Rodney Childers.

Harvick won five of the first 12 races but has seen his advantage slip. He finished fourth at Pocono last month but placed behind Truex, Larson and Busch. Harvick was second to Truex at Sonoma and third to Busch and Larson at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago.

Childers told NBC Sports that he’s been “trying to be as safe as we can” with the car since the team was docked 20 points and all seven playoff points for its stage wins and race victory at Las Vegas in March. NASCAR penalized the team because the rear window did not remain rigid throughout that race.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said.

While he said he felt Harvick was faster than Truex most of Saturday night at Kentucky — the key difference was track position — Childers acknowledged that he might have to adjust his thinking on the car’s setup in the coming weeks.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, (Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been.

“The thing I see with (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

If not, others might pass his car. There’s a group that believes they’re coming.

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Even after Kevin Harvick’s first Kentucky top five, team might ‘ramp it back up’

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Kevin Harvick, who entered Saturday’s Quaker Stage 400 with three wins on 1.5-mile tracks this season, placed fifth at a track he admitted is “definitely not my favorite place.”

Harvick, who started third, earned his 14th top five through 19 races and his first at Kentucky in eight starts.

But Harvick failed to lead a lap for the second time this season in seven races at 1.5-mile tracks. Both instances have been since his last points win in May at Kansas Speedway.

“We just never got all the way to the front and on the last run we got too loose and that was our worst run of the night and I hit the wall and that pretty much ended it,” Harvick told NBCSN. “We’ve never dominated here, so I don’t pay much attention to this place.”

Harvick said “it’s hard to make anything happen” at the track passing wise.

Though Harvick has only placed outside the top five once this year at mile-and-a-half tracks (Charlotte, wreck) crew chief Rodney Childers said his team “might have to ramp it back up” with increased performances recently from race-winner Martin Truex Jr, Team Penske and Kyle Larson.

Childers told NBC Sports the No. 4 team has been as “safe as we can with everything right now” in terms of car preparation.

The Stewart-Haas Racing team has been cautious after a 20-point penalty for a failed window brace following its Las Vegas win. The penalty also cost Harvick seven playoff points.

“We don’t need any stupid things happening during the races or points taken away or anything,” Childers said. “We’re trying to be smart with our racing, but still trying to be competitive and run up front.”

Harvick remains tied with Kyle Busch for wins at five. He’s finished outside of the top 10 just four times.

“I feel like the Toyotas and the Gibbs cars have learned a lot and made their cars better,” Childers said. “Obviously, the 42 (Kyle Larson) is making his a little bit better. The Penske cars, they’re slowly making progress and trying to catch up to where we’ve been. It’s all part of that thing and people figuring it out. The thing I see with the (Optical Scanning Station) though is you’re locked. We knew how to build the best stuff that we could at the end of the year and it seemed like nobody else did. Now we’re in a position where we’re not really making much for gains and they’re probably making a little bit bigger gains. Like I said, we’re trying to be safe too and not do anything stupid. We might have to ramp it back up.”

Kyle Larson left to ponder what might have been after mechanical failure

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Kyle Larson climbed from his Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, which was parked on pit road far away from the top five finishers and from victory lane.

A ninth-place result left the top-finishing Chevy driver to wonder what if Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

A trackbar failure dramatically changed the car’s handling late in the race and a car that had run toward the front struggled to finish in the top 10.

“It’s hard to say if I would have had anything to win,” Larson said. “I drove by (winner Martin Truex Jr.) and then right after that we had our trackbar issue there and went plowing tight. Then we had to crutch it with wedge there the last run … (and it was) really tight at the last 25 laps or so. So, yeah, it’s hard to say if I would have won or not, but I would have at least liked to have had the shot.”

Crew chief Chad Johnston said his options were limited when the trackbar failed.

“We know that the trackbar fell to the lowest position it could,” he said. “Why that happened, we’re still trying to figure out. Obviously when it fell, it tightens the car up and then we had to asses the situation if we could have fixed it. I don’t think we could have without losing a lap. So then we just adjusted the car around the trackbar being that low. At that point, we lost too much track position and way too late to overcome it.”

It was part of a challenging race for Larson, who relinquished his 18th starting spot and had to take the opening green flag from the rear of the field. He was penalized for missing driver introductions. Larson was running to the stage when he was called.

“A little miscommunication and was late to intros,” Larson said.

Even with that mishap, he was 18th by the 20th lap and was in the top 10 before the first stage ended. He finsihed eighth in the first stage and fifth in the second stage.

Larson was able to cut through the field at times by using an outside line most didn’t.

“I was surprised how quickly (Turns) 3 and 4 moved up,” Larson said. “I knew it would move up a little bit, and I didn’t know it would move up that far. So, I was happy about that. You could kind of roll a little more speed on exit. Was surprised that the track widened out.  (Turns) 1 and 2 I thought had potential to, but it kind of just stalled out and got too tight.  A lane off the bottom was just a little too tight. But yeah, it was a decent track.”