Who’s Hot, Who’s Not entering Chicagoland — NASCAR Cup playoff edition

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As the 10-race NASCAR Cup playoffs begin, attention turns to the 16 playoff drivers and what type of momentum they have going into this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway.

Martin Truex Jr. is the defending winner of this race. Brad Keselowski and Kevin Harvick are both two-time winners there, while Ryan Newman, Dale Earnhardt Jr., Kyle Busch, Matt Kenseth and Denny Hamlin have single wins there.

Cup – Who Is Hot

No. 78 Martin Truex Jr. (Hot)

  • Finished 20th at Richmond, wrecked in OT while running top 5, led 198 laps
  • Passed for the win within 3 to go in three of the last four races
  • Finished in the top-10 17 times this season, the most
  • Won 18 stages this season, the most
  • 53 Playoff Points this season, includes 15 points for clinching the regular season
  • Wins at Las Vegas, Kansas, Kentucky and Watkins Glen
  • Led a series high 1646 laps in 2017, led the most laps in eight races
  • Won this race last year, only finish better than ninth in 11 races
  • Only driver to finish top 10 in all six 1.5 mile races this season, winning three of them

No. 42 Kyle Larson (Hot in 2017, Decent at Chicago)

  • Won at Richmond, first win NOT on a 2.0 mile track
  • Four wins in 2017, had one entering this season
  • Finished second in seven races this year
  • Finished top 10 in two of his three starts at Chicago, best of third in 2014

No. 18 Kyle Busch (Hot)

  • Finished ninth at Richmond, sixth straight top 10 finish
  • Two wins this season, both came in the last six races (Wins at Pocono and Bristol)
  • Won at least one stage in six of the last eight races of 2017
  • One Chicago win, 2008
  • Finished top 10 in the last five races at Chicago
  • Finished top five in the last three 1.5 mile races

No. 20 Matt Kenseth (Hot)

  • Finished 38th at Richmond, six top-10 finishes in the last eight races, all but Michigan, flat tire in OT 
while running 3rd and an ambulance problem at Richmond
  • One Chicago win, 2013
  • Finished top 10 in the last four races at Chicago (his only starts there with JGR)

No. 2 Brad Keselowski (Warm, Great at Chicago)

  • Finished 11th at Richmond, fifth straight result outside the top 10
  • 11 top fives, tied for the most in 2017
  • Two Chicago wins, 2012 and 2014
  • Finished top 10 in the last six races at Chicago

No. 48 Jimmie Johnson (All about the wins)

  • 8th at Richmond, broke a streak of six races without a top 10 finish
  • Two top 10s in his last 11 races (10th at New Hampshire, 8th at Richmond)
  • Three top 5 finishes this season, all wins
  • Best Chicago finish is second, three times
  • One of three active winless tracks (Kentucky and Watkins Glen)
  • Only two finishes worse than 12th in 15 Chicago starts

No. 77 Erik Jones (Hot, Good in NXS at Chicago)

  • Finished 6th at Richmond
  • Finished top 10 in the last six races, best streak of his career
  • First Cup start at Chicago
  • Two NXS wins at Chicago

No. 11 Denny Hamlin (Hot, Good at Chicago)

  • Finished fifth at Richmond, third straight top-five finish (longest ever streak of top-fives is four races)
  • Top-five finishes in nine of the last 12 races, including two wins
  • One Chicago win, 2015
  • Finished top 6 in the last three Chicago races

No. 4 Kevin Harvick (Hot, struggled lately at Chicago)

  • Finished 15th at Richmond
  • Five fewer top fives and top 10s in the regular season this year compared to last year
  • Two Chicago wins, the first two races in 20o1 and 2002
  • Finished 20th and 42nd the last two years at Chicago

No. 41 Kurt Busch (Hot, Ok at Chicago)

  • Finished 4th at Richmond, third straight top five finish
  • First time he has scored three straight top 5s since 2015 (career longest streak if four races)
  • Best Chicago finish in 16 races is third in 2015, finished top 10 in three of the last four races there

No. 17 Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (Has two wins this season)

  • 19th at Richmond, last top 10 was his win at Daytona
  • Zero wins in first 157 starts, two wins in last 17 starts
  • Only one finish better than 17th at Chicago, eighth in 2013

No. 31 Ryan Newman (Pretty Good lately)

  • Third at Richmond, top-10 finishes in the last four races, his best streak since Spring 2015
  • One Chicago win, 2003
  • Top-10 finishes in four of the last six at Chicago

No. 24 Chase Elliott (Starting to turn things back around)

  • Finished 10th at Richmond, only three top 10s in the last six races
  • One series start at Chicago, finished 3rd last year
  • Won Xfinity race at Chicago in 2014

 

Cup – Who Is Not

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

  • Finished 21st at Richmond
  • Won on fuel mileage at Charlotte
  • Only four top-10 finishes this season, had 10 at this point last year
  • Best Chicago finish is 14th in three starts

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

  • Finished 12th at Richmond, only one top-10 finish in the last 16 races, win at Indy
  • Six DNFs because of accidents this season
  • Won at Indianapolis, ending a 102-race winless streak
  • Best Chicago finish is third, twice
  • Finished seventh at Chicago last year, only top 10 in the last four years there

No. 21 Ryan Blaney (Mixed)

  • Finished 18th at Richmond
  • Nine top-10 finishes this season but none have come in back-to-back races
  • Only two top-10 finishes in the last eight races
  • One Cup start at Chicago, finished fourth last year

No. 1 Jamie McMurray (Decent)

  • 14th at Richmond, fifth straight top-15 finish
  • 13 top-10 finishes this season, four more than this point last year
  • One top 10-finish in the last six races at Chicago

Even though they failed to make the playoffs, there are three other drivers that fans will likely be watching as potential playoff spoilers:

No. 14 Clint Bowyer (Disappointing 2017)

  • Finished 24th at Richmond, contact behind an ambulance
  • Was 88 points out of a playoff spot
  • Finished runner-up three times in 2017
  • 10 top-10s in 2017, had only three in all of 2016
  • 11 Chicago starts, best of fourth in 2010

No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Not)

  • 13th at Richmond, last top 10 was Sonoma in June (sixth)
  • Only two top 10s in the last 14 races
  • One Chicago win, 2005
  • Did not run at Chicago last year (concussion symptoms)

No. 22 Joey Logano (Disappointing season, good at Chicago)

  • Second at Richmond, only fourth top-10 finish since encumbered win at Richmond in April
  • 10 finishes outside the top 20 in the last 17 races
  • First time he missed the playoffs with Team Penske
  • Top-10 finishes in four of the last five races at Chicago including Chicago best 2nd last year

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Talladega’s tale of two drivers: One celebrates, one laments

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — It’s dangerous to forecast what is going to happen next in these playoffs in a Cup season unlike any other. 

So keep that in mind, but Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega moves him one step closer to returning to the championship race for a third consecutive season.

It’s easy to overlook that beyond earning a spot in the Round of 8 with his win Sunday, Elliott scored six playoff points. That gives him 46 playoff points. He has the opportunity to score seven more playoff points this weekend at the Charlotte Roval — an event he has won twice — before the next round begins.

Once the current round ends, the points will be reset to 4,000 for each of the remaining playoff drivers and they’ll have their playoff points added. 

At this point, Elliott would have a 21-point lead on his nearest competitor and a 31-point lead the first driver outside a transfer spot to the championship race.

The next round opens at Las Vegas, goes to Homestead and ends with Martinsville. 

A key for Elliott, though, is to avoid how he has started each of the first two rounds. A crash led to a 36th-place finish in the playoff opener at Darlington. He placed 32nd after a crash at Texas to begin this round.

The up-and-down nature of the playoffs, though, hasn’t taken a toll on the 2020 Cup champion.

“I feel like I’ve been doing this long enough now to understand the roller coaster that is racing,” said Elliott, who is advancing to the Round of 8 for the sixth consecutive season. “It’s going to roll on, right? You either learn to ride it during the good days, during the bad days, too, or you don’t. That’s just part of the deal.

“So, yeah, just try to ride the wave. Had a bad week last week, had a good week this week. Obviously great to move on into the next round, get six more bonus points. All those things are fantastic, we’re super proud of that.

“This deal can humble you. We can go to the Round of 8 and crash again like we did the first two rounds, or you can go in there and maybe have a really good first race. I don’t know. You show up prepared, do the best you can, figure it out from there.”

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Joey Logano has always been one who wants to race at the front in a superspeedway event instead of riding at the back.

When asked last month about the idea of Texas Motor Speedway being reconfigured to provide superspeedway-type racing — as Atlanta Motor Speedway was before this season — Logano questioned the value of that type of racing.

“Is that the type of racing fans want to see?” Logano said. “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 sought to race at the front as much as possible Sunday at Talladega, even after his car was damaged in an early incident, but he took a different tack on the final restart. He restarted 24th and dropped back, finishing 27th.

“We just wreck all the time, so we thought, ‘Boy, we’ve got a big points lead, let’s just be smart and don’t wreck and we’ll be able to get out of here with a top 10, assuming they would wreck because they always do,’” Logano said after the race. 

“That was the only time I’ve ever stayed in the back, ever, was today and they didn’t wreck. We gave up a bunch of our points lead. We’re still plus-18, which is a decent spot to be, but, the goal was to race for stage points and then drop to the back and wait for the crash. I hate racing that way. I’ve gotten beat many times from people that do that, then I tried it and it didn’t work.”

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Michael McDowell’s third-place finish continues his strong season. 

McDowell’s finish extended his career-high of top-10 finishes to 12. He has five finishes of 11th or better in the last seven races. 

“I’m proud of the season we’ve had and the run that we put together,” McDowell said. “Everyone did a great job on pit road executing and getting us track position when we needed it. It’s good to be there at the end and have a shot at it, just disappointed.”

Front Row Motorsports teammate Todd Gilliland finished seventh. 

“Race car drivers are greedy,” Gilliland said. “I wish I could have gotten a couple more there, but it was still a really good day. We ran up front most of the day and my car handled really well, so, overall, there are definitely a ton of positives to take out of this.”

Sunday marked the second time this season both Front Row Motorsports cars finished in the top 10. They also did it at the Indianapolis road course. 

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NASCAR confirms that the Hendrick Motorsports appeal of William Byron’s 25-point penalty from Texas will take place Thursday.

Should Hendrick lose that appeal, the team could then have a hearing before the Final Appeals Officer. That session would need to take place before Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

“Twenty-five points in the playoffs is a ton,” car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday of Byron’s penalty. “I mean, in the regular season if you got a bunch of races, you can make it back up.

“I’ve seen other cars under caution hit each other. In that situation, (Byron) wasn’t trying to spin him, but they got a tower full of people, they could have put him in the back, could have done something right then rather than wait till Monday or Tuesday, then make a decision.”

Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega.

Talladega jumbles Cup playoff grid heading to elimination race

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In an unpredictable season and topsy-turvy playoffs, it only made sense that Talladega would deliver a wildcard result.

A playoff driver won a playoff race for the first time this season. How about that?

Chase Elliott’s victory moves him to the next round, the only driver guaranteed to advance heading into Sunday’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric are tied for the last transfer spot, but Briscoe owns the tiebreaker based on a better finish in this round. At least for now.

Hendrick Motorsports will have its appeal this week on the 25-point penalty to William Byron from the Texas race. Byron is 11 points below the cutline after Talladega, but if the team wins the appeal and he gets all 25 points back, Byron would be back in a transfer spot and drop Briscoe below the cutline.

 

XFINITY SERIES

AJ Allmendinger became the second driver to advance to the next round, winning at Talladega.

Ryan Sieg finished fourth and holds the final transfer spot heading into the elimination race at the Charlotte Roval (3 p.m. ET on NBC and Peacock). Reigning series champion Daniel Hemric is six points behind Sieg. Riley Herbst and Brandon Jones are each 10 points behind Sieg. Jeremy Clements is 47 points behind.

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

Matt DiBenedetto’s first career Camping World Truck Series victory didn’t impact the playoff standings after Talladega since DiBenedetto is not a playoff driver.

Reigning series champion Ben Rhodes holds the final transfer spot. He leads Christian Eckes and Stewart Friesen by three points each. John Hunter Nemechek is five points behind Rhodes, while Grant Enfinger is 29 points behind Rhodes. Ty Majeski is the only driver guaranteed a spot in next month’s championship race.

The Truck Series is off this weekend. The next Truck race is Oct. 22 at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

 

Winners and losers at Talladega Superspeedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s NASCAR Cup Series playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway:

WINNERS

Chase Elliott — After a rough race at Texas, Elliott returned to the role of championship favorite Sunday with a victory. He takes the point lead to Charlotte and, with Sunday’s win, is locked into the Round of 8.

MORE: Talladega Cup results

MORE: Talladega Cup driver points

Ryan Blaney — Despite another tough race day and a second-place finish in a race he could have won, Blaney remains in good shape in the playoffs, even without a points win. He is second in points to Elliott, only two behind.

Denny Hamlin — Hamlin took some time off from leading the charge for changes in the Next Gen car to run an excellent race. He led 20 laps, finished fifth and is the only driver to finish in the top 10 in all five playoff races. He gained a spot in points to fourth.

LOSERS

Christopher Bell — Bell zipped onto pit road with too much speed during a round of pit stops and slid to a stop, earning a speeding penalty. He is 11th in points.

Kyle Larson — Larson led eight laps Sunday but was not a part of the drafting mix at the front at the finish. He was 18th and fell three spots in points to sixth.

Joey Logano — Logano held the point lead entering Sunday’s race. At day’s end, he had a 27th-place finish and had fallen four spots to fifth.

 

 

End of stages at Talladega could have lasting impact in playoffs

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A spot in the next round of the Cup playoffs could have been determined in just a few laps Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway.

They weren’t the final laps of the race, but the final laps of Stage 1 and Stage 2. 

The end of the first stage saw a big swing for a couple of drivers that could impact on who advances and who doesn’t after next weekend’s elimination race at the Charlotte Roval.

MORE: Chase Elliott wins at Talladega 

With six laps left in the opening stage, William Byron was second to Denny Hamlin.

Byron was in need of stage points because of the uncertainty of his place in the standings. NASCAR docked him 25 points for spinning Hamlin under caution last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway.

Hendrick Motorsports is appealing the decision and will have the hearing this week. While car owner Rick Hendrick said Sunday that he felt the penalty was too severe in a three-race round, there’s no guarantee the appeal board will change the penalty or reduce it. 

With such unknowns, Byron’s focus was scoring as many points as possible since he entered the race eight points below the cutline. Sitting second in that opening stage put him in position to score the points he needed.

But when the the stage ended, Byron came across the line 11th — 0.036 seconds behind Erik Jones in 10th — and scored no stage points.

“I was working well with (Hamlin),” Byron said. “I tried to work to the bottom and he stayed at the top and the top seemed to have momentum.

“I just made a wrong decision there that kind of got me in a bad position further. I was still leading the inside lane, but the inside lane wouldn’t go forward. That was just kind of weird. That was kind of the moral of our day — was just not being able to advance forward.”

Byron wasn’t in position to score points in the second stage, finishing 13th. That left him as one of two playoff drivers not to score stage points (Christopher Bell was the other).

“It was frustrating the whole time,” Byron said. “I felt like the race was just going away from us. We couldn’t make anything happen. We were just kind of stuck. I don’t know what we need to do next time.”

When Byron failed to score points in the second stage, it only added to a challenging day and put more pressure on a better finish.

He managed only to place 12th. Byron finished with 25 points. He outscored only three playoff drivers.

The result is that Byron is 11 points below the cutline.

While the first stage was a harbinger of Byron’s woes Sunday, that stage proved critical for Austin Cindric.

The Daytona 500 winner was 15th with six laps to go in the stage. He finished fourth, collecting seven points — despite suffering some nose damage in an incident earlier in that stage.

“Stage points are a big deal,” Cindric said. 

He got those with quick thinking.

“I think when everybody tries to scatter to do what’s best for them, it’s very important to be decisive,” Cindric said. “I was able to make some good moves and be able to be in some lanes that moved. I’d call it 50-50 decisiveness and 50 percent luck. 

“It certainly puts us in a good spot to race for a spot in the Round of 8 at the (Charlotte) Roval.

Cindric entered the race seven points out of the last transfer spot. While he didn’t score any points in the second stage, his ninth-place finish led to a 35-point day. 

That gives him the same amount of points as Chase Briscoe, who owns the last transfer spot because he has the tiebreaker on Cindric in this round.

For Briscoe, he earned that tie by collecting one stage point. 

In the first stage, he was running outside the top 10 when he sensed a crash was likely and “decided to bail” to protect the car and avoid being in a crash.

That crash didn’t happen and he was left without stage points. In the second stage, Briscoe was 14th with two laps to go. He beat Ricky Stenhouse Jr. across the finish line by 0.035 seconds to place 10th and score that one stage point.

“You don’t think that one (point) is important until you see that you are tied,” Briscoe said. “One point could be really, really important for us next week.”