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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

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch back to No. 1, Kurt Busch to No. 3

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When it comes to this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, all we can say is, “Oh brother” … as in siblings Kyle and Kurt Busch.

Younger brother Kyle once again regained the top spot in this week’s rankings, knocking Joey Logano from the No. 1 perch after Logano held it the last two weeks.

And after not being ranked in the top 10 last week, older bro Kurt rockets up the rankings to No. 3 by virtue of his come-from-behind win last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway.

Also making a big move is Erik Jones, who goes from unranked last week to No. 4 this week. By contrast, six drivers from last week’s rankings dropped out of this week’s tabulations.

Here’s how this week’s rankings shape up:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Tenacious performance at Kentucky puts him back atop the rankings. Last week: 2nd.

2. Joey Logano (36 points): Car wasn’t wide enough to block all those behind him on the final restart. In his last three races on a 1.5-mile speedway, he’s finished seventh (Kentucky), third (Chicagoland) and second (Charlotte). Last week: 1st.

3. Kurt Busch (32 points): What a difference a win makes. But Busch’s ranking isn’t a total surprise. He’s been knocking at the door all season. Had he not pitted at Daytona two weeks ago, he may be riding a two-race win streak now. Last week: Unranked.

4. Erik Jones (23 points): Returns to playoff territory and seems to have momentum for a finishing kick. Third-place finish was his fourth top 10 in the last five races on a 1.5-mile speedway. That includes a third at Kansas and Kentucky and a fourth at Texas. Last week: Unranked.

5. Denny Hamlin (22 points): His pit crew has been called for an uncontrolled tire violation five times this year, tying the series high. That’s unacceptable. Despite the penalty at Kentucky, Hamlin finished fifth. Last week: 7th.

6. Kyle Larson (20 points): Top 10s in three of last four races – including a second (Chicagoland) and fourth (Kentucky) – have solidified his standing for the playoffs. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Newman (16 points): Is in full grind-it-out mode for solid finishes exactly when he needs them. Finished ninth at Kentucky after starting at the rear because his car failed inspection. While he fell out of a playoff spot, he’s only two points away after scoring his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races. Last week: 8th.

8. Cole Custer (9 points): Kentucky victory in the Xfinity Series was his series-high fifth win of the year. Last week: Unranked.

9. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Ends four-race tailspin but still needs to work on amassing stage points. Last week: Unranked.

10. Chris Buescher (5 points): If all the tracks on the circuit were 1.5-milers, he’d likely be ranked higher. All four of his top 10s this year have come at 1.5-mile tracks. He’s been sixth at Charlotte, ninth  at Atlanta and 10th at Kansas and Kentucky. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Christopher Bell (4 points), Martin Truex Jr. (4 points), Tyler Ankrum (3 points).

Clint Bowyer looking for some of his old magic at the ‘Magic Mile’

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While the next race on the NASCAR Cup schedule is Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Clint Bowyer is already thinking four months and 17 races ahead to mid-November’s season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Winning a championship is the reason we are in this sport,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said in his weekly media release. “It’s why everyone puts in these long hours during a long season.

Winning a championship is what we dreamed about ever since we started racing. It was a great feeling to win the Xfinity title in 2008, and I can’t imagine the feeling of satisfaction you would get by winning a Cup title.”

But Bowyer also knows all too well that to make it to the four-driver, winner-take-all championship-deciding race in South Florida, he has a bit of work to firm up his position just to make the playoffs, which begin Sept. 15 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Clint Bowyer hopes to be smiling and partying after winning what would be his third career triumph this Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Photo: Stewart-Haas Racing.

Heading to New England, Bowyer is tied for 14th place with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. They’re eight points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones, who holds the final playoff spot. Ryan Newman, the first driver outside a playoff spot, is 10 points behind Bowyer and Johnson. Daniel Suarez is 12 points behind the duo.

A win would lock Bowyer into the playoffs. That’s why Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is so important to the Kansas native.

Of Bowyer’s 10 career Cup wins, two have been at New Hampshire’s “Magic Mile.” He won there in 2007 and 2010. He also has four top fives and nine top 10s in 25 career starts at that track.

I love New Hampshire,” Bowyer said. “That place just fits my driving style.

We don’t get up to that part of the country a lot, so it’s good to see the race fans there. They have so many tracks and they love their racing, from Modified to Late Models to our stuff. The support races they put on at New Hampshire are some of the best of the year. Man, do they like to party there.”

Bowyer will be partying himself if he can win Sunday’s race. Still, it’s not been a bad season for Bowyer to date, either. He has five top fives and four other top-10 finishes.

Bowyer is coming off a sixth-place finish at Kentucky last Saturday, a marked improvement from what he suffered through in three of the four previous races with finishes of 35th (Michigan), 37th (Chicagoland) and 34th (Daytona).

We dug ourselves a hole in June and we are trying to climb out of it,” Bowyer said. “We aren’t a 16th-place team. I know we are better than that.”

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NASCAR America: Dale Jarrett on Dale Jr. Download, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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They have the same first name, they have famous racing fathers and they’re both on today’s edition of the Dale Jr. Download on NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomes NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett to this week’s show.

The pair kick back and have swap stories. One of the most notable tales: Jarrett talked about his father Ned’s friendship with Dale Jr.’s grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt.

Jarrett related how the relationship between his father and Ralph hit a rough patch after they had a dust-up in a Sportsman race. The normally mild-mannered Ned was so angry at Ralph that he refused to attend his wife’s baby shower for Dale Sr. because Ralph would also be in attendance.

Ned Jarrett dutifully drove his wife to the shower, but stayed in his car the entire time.

Catch the outcome of that story, as well as many others on today’s edition of NASCAR America.

If you can’t catch today show on TV, watch 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.

 

Danielle Trotta new host of NBCSN’s Victory Lap post-race show

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Danielle Trotta will join NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage as host of the “Victory Lap” post-race show for select Cup Series races this year.

Trotta made the announcement Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track,” the show she began co-hosting this year with Larry McReynolds.

Trotta has also been with NBC Sports Boston since 2018.

As part of “Victory Lap,” which begins Sunday at 7 p.m. on NBCSN after the Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, fans will be able to call in with questions about the race. Trotta will be joined by AJ Allmendinger and Parker Kligerman this weekend.

“It’ll be fun to continue the conversation,” Trotta said after making the announcement on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think after the race ends and you hear the driver’s post-race comments and we see the highlights, as a race fan on so many Sundays, I would sit on my couch and want more. I would want more coverage, more conversation, more conjecture and I think that’s exactly what NASCAR “Victory Lap” has always been and will continue to be, and then we take the next step of really wanting the conversation to be interactive and having people call live into the show.”

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