Five questions heading into Cup playoffs

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Can anyone catch the Toyotas?

That’s the challenge facing the field heading into Sunday’s playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. EST, NBCSN). Toyota drivers have won six of the last nine races and their speed has competitors worried.

After Richmond, Kevin Harvick said: “I think the Toyotas have run better than the rest of the field. In order to be where we need to be, we have to get the most out of our car and we haven’t done that the last couple of weeks. We’ve struggled in the race the last two weeks and got to get it figured out quick or we’ll be looking for something to do the last 10 weeks besides race for a championship.’’

While Martin Truex Jr. was in position to win the last two races — he was leading with five laps or less left and didn’t win at Darlington and Richmond — don’t overlook Kyle Busch.

When he won the title in 2015, he wasn’t the favorite. It was Harvick that year, but Busch scored enough points to advance through the first two rounds. He advanced to Miami after top-five finishes in each of the three third-round races.

“It’s really similar,’’ Busch said of how he feels he’s entering this year compared to that 2015 title season. “(Truex) is the car to beat week in and week out. (Kyle Larson) and myself are tossing it up for who is second best. Hopefully, we can do our job and execute and everybody does the right things and gets ourselves to Homestead to have a shot for the championship.’’

Is Hendrick Motorsports sandbagging?

We’ll find out. Since Kasey Kahne’s win at Indianapolis in July, Hendrick’s three playoff drivers — Jimmie Johnson, Chase Elliott and Kahne — have not finished better than eighth in a race.

Last year, questions were raised about Hendrick after some struggles entering the playoffs. Then Johnson led 118 laps before finishing 12th in the opener at Chicago, and Elliott led 75 laps before finishing third. Both advanced to the second round. Johnson moved to the third round after his Charlotte victory and advanced to Miami after his Martinsville win.

Then Johnson won in Miami for his record-tying seventh series championship.

The point is, it’s difficult to count out at least Johnson, if not the organization.

“My 10 best tracks are coming up,’’ Johnson said after Richmond. “So, I’m excited about that. I’m excited about Fall being right here right around the corner. We will just go racing. You never know. This format really keeps things up in the air. 

Is this Martin Truex Jr.’s title to lose?

He’s got a big advantage with 53 playoff points — 20 more than the next driver. That should get him through the second round and likely the third round.

Odds are he makes it to Miami, but the twist is that some might not view him the favorite in the season finale even for how dominant he has been this year. The reason would be if Kyle Larson, who was eliminated in the first round last year, makes it to Miami. Larson is exceptional at Homestead-Miami Speedway — provided he can avoid hitting the wall while running the high line — and would provide a worthy challenger for Truex in the title race.

“Cars have been just lightning fast and team’s been doing a great job,’’ Truex said after Richmond. “We’ve got a few little things we’ve got to work on, but all in all, I feel like we’re definitely one of the strongest teams. Hopefully, we can just continue to perform at the level we’re capable of, and hopefully we don’t need those bonus points, but it’s going to be nice to have them, that’s for sure.’’

Will youth be served?

Five of the 16 drivers entering the playoffs are 29 and under.

They are Chase Elliott (21 years old), Ryan Blaney (23), Kyle Larson (25), Austin Dillon (27), and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (turns 30 on Oct. 2).

The last driver under age 30 to win the title was Brad Keselowski in 2012. He was 28 years old. Kyle Busch turned 30 during his championship season in 2015.

Larson is the favorite of this group to win the championship and would be the youngest champ since 1995 when a 24-year-old Jeff Gordon won the first of his four series championships.

The average age of the last 10 champions when they won the championship is 34.9.

What’s the biggest storyline?

Admittedly there are so many from Jimmie Johnson going after a record-breaking eight series title to Martin Truex Jr. seeking his first crown after dominating so much of the season.

While Chip Ganassi Racing and Furniture Row Racing go for their first Cup title and Richard Childress Racing looks for its first Cup crown since 1994, it’s hard to top what the Wood Brothers seek.

The family team first competed in NASCAR in 1953 but has only won an owner’s title. That came in 1963, less than three weeks before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. The Wood Brothers often ran only partial schedules so the team never had the chance to win many championships. This is the team’s first time in the playoffs (the Woods never competed in the Chase).

While the victory lane celebration at Daytona after Trevor Bayne won the 2011 Daytona 500 remains memorable for the Wood Brothers, it would not compare to what the celebration would be like if Blaney drove the No. 21 to the series crown.

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Goodyear tire info for Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR Cup and Truck teams continue their respective playoffs this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

The Cup Series begins its Round of 8, while the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will contest its middle race of the Round of 6.

Cup and Truck teams will run the same tire setup at Martinsville, the same tires both series have run at the .526-mile bullring since 2017.

It’s getting later in the fall and we are likely to have cloudy conditions and temperatures in the 60-degree range at Martinsville this week, so track temps will be low, making it more difficult for the track to take rubber,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Because of the time of year we run at Martinsville, we’ve worked hard over the past several years to come up with a tread compound that will lay rubber in the concrete corners, even in cool temperatures.

Generally, Martinsville has produced some of the best racing on the circuit and that only seems to have been enhanced by the track consistently taking rubber and having multiple racing lines. We continue to work on keeping up with Martinsville and making adjustments where needed, holding a test there this past summer and looking ahead to 2020 when we will have a full fledged night race at the track.”

According to wunderground.com, the forecast calls for a temperature of 58 degrees with a 40 percent chance of rain at the scheduled 1:30 p.m. ET start time for Saturday’s Truck race, and a temperature of 66 degrees with a 19 percent chance of green flag at the 3 p.m. ET scheduled start time for Sunday’s Cup race.

Here is the tire information for this weekend’s races at Martinsville:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Short Track Radials

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying/start of race and 9 sets for race (8 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Truck: 5 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4588; Right-side – D-4722

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,221 mm (87.44 in.); Right-side — 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 10 psi; Left Rear — 10 psi; Right Front — 23 psi; Right Rear — 22 psi

As on most NASCAR ovals 1 mile or less in length, teams will not run inner liners in their tires at Martinsville.

NASCAR penalty report after Kansas

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NASCAR issued one penalty from this past weekend’s racing action at Kansas Speedway.

Chris Gayle, crew chief for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Cup Toyota driven by Erik Jones, has been fined $10,000 for lug nut(s) not properly installed following Sunday’s race.

There were no penalties assessed to the teams of Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick stemming from the altercation following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

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Ron Hornaday Jr., Bobby Labonte to take part in Martinsville Truck race activities

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Martinsville Speedway will honor one NASCAR Hall of Famer and one inductee before Saturday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 Truck Series race.

Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. will serve as grand marshal for the race, while Bobby Labonte, who will be inducted into the Hall in January, will serve as the honorary starter.

Bobby Labonte. Photo: Getty Images.

We are honored to have 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday Jr. as Grand Marshal and 2020 inductee Bobby Labonte as Honorary Starter at the first NASCAR Hall of Fame 200,” NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelly said in a statement. “Ron is the series’ only four-time champion. As the 2000 premier series champion and 1992 Xfinity champion, Bobby is one of only 31 drivers who has won races in all three NASCAR national series with his lone truck series win coming at Martinsville.”

Said Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway: “We appreciate the NASCAR Hall of Fame making it possible to have two great NASCAR champions available to meet our fans Saturday morning before the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200. Having Ron and Bobby be a part of our race weekend is special for everyone at Martinsville Speedway.”

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NASCAR entry lists for Martinsville

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Eight drivers remain in the playoffs for Sunday’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

In addition to the Cup Series, the Gander Outdoors Truck Series is also in action this weekend at Martinsville, on Saturday. The Xfinity Series is off this weekend.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for both series:

Cup – First Data 500 (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

There are 38 cars entered.

Two cars do not have drivers listed yet on the entry list:

* The No. 51 Petty Ware Racing Chevrolet.

* The No. 52 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

JJ Yeley is in the No. 53 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

Joey Logano won this race last fall. Denny Hamlin finished second and Martin Truex Jr. was third.

In this year’s spring race, Brad Keselowski won, followed by Chase Elliott and Kyle Busch.

Click here for the entry list.

Trucks – NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 (1:30 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

There are 32 Trucks entered in the middle race of the Round of 6 of the Truck playoffs.

One Truck does not have a driver listed yet: The No. 0 Jennifer Jo Cobb Racing Chevrolet.

Tanner Gray, who won the 2018 NHRA Pro Stock championship, makes his Truck Series debut in the No. 15 DGR-Crosley Toyota.

Sam Mayer makes his second start of the season in the No. 21 GMS Racing Chevrolet.

Danny Bohn makes his first career Truck Series start in the No. 30 On Point Motorsports Toyota.

Carson Ware makes his first career Truck Series start in the No. 33 Reaume Brothers Racing Chevrolet.

Dawson Cram makes his first Truck Series start of the season and fourth of his career in the No. 34 Reaume Brothers Racing Toyota.

Jeb Burton makes his second Truck Series start of the season in the No. 44 Niece Motorsports Chevrolet.

Also, one week after clinching the ARCA championship, Christian Eckes will make his seventh Truck start of the season, once again piloting the No. 51 Kyle Busch Motorsports Toyota.

Johnny Sauter won this race last fall. Brett Moffitt was second and Myatt Snider was third.

Kyle Busch won this year’s spring race, followed by Ben Rhodes and Brett Moffitt.

Click here for the entry list.

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