Getty Images

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

Leave a comment

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

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Las Vegas Winners and losers

Leave a comment

WINNERS

Kurt Busch Winless in 21 previous attempts at Las Vegas, Busch scored an emotional win at his hometown track. Busch took advantage of a strategy call by crew chief Matt McCall and a timely debris caution to take the point and led the final 26 laps. He earned his first win of the season. “This is 20 years of agony and defeat and now today with triumph,” Busch said after the race.

Matt DiBenedettoStill seeks his first career Cup win and the 100th series victory for Wood Brothers Racing, but DiBenedetto finished second in both Las Vegas races this season.

Alex BowmanHe finished fifth but scored more points (43)  than any driver except Denny Hamlin, who had 53 points. Bowman holds the final transfer spot to the next round.

Chris Buescher — His ninth-place finish is his second consecutive top 10 and third top 10 in the last five races.

Chase Briscoe Had a dominant car and scored the win in the playoff opener for the Xfinity Series at Las Vegas.

LOSERS

Austin DillonHis race was going well — he scored 10 stage points — until overheating problems sent him to pit road. He lost nine laps as his crew made repairs and went on to finish 32nd.  That drops him to last among the playoff drivers with two races left in this round.

Chase ElliottWas 10th on overtime restart but got shuffled back and finished 22nd.

Caution comes at wrong time for Denny Hamlin at Las Vegas

Leave a comment

Denny Hamlin said he knew it would happen. He just didn’t know when.

A debris caution during a green-flag cycle proved key to Kurt Busch winning Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Las Vegas and Hamlin finishing third despite leading a race-high 121 laps.

The caution on Lap 237 caught most of the playoff drivers a lap down, forcing them to wave around. Busch was the only playoff driver who had not made a pit stop.

Hamlin, who was leading, pitted on Lap 233. He came in a lap after Alex Bowman stopped. Bowman was running second to Hamlin before the stop.

“Our hand got forced by (Bowman) by him coming in early there,” Hamlin said of his team not wanting to have Bowman gain time with fresher tires. “We both had a lead over the field. I thought we could have run a little bit longer, but we had to answer their strategy because they were within one second of us. We didn’t want to just to kind of give them the lead and count on running them down at the end of the race. You have to keep yourself in front of them.”

Instead of possibly celebrating a win and advancing to the next round, Hamlin left Vegas frustrated with his third-place showing.

“I just hate getting burned by the same thing, that’s it, that’s all I’m saying,” Hamlin said on the radio to crew chief Chris Gabehart after the race. “It’s the same thing I get burned on. I know we had no choice because we were at.”

Gabehart responded to Hamlin on the radio: “The choice is I stay out another five or six laps and if the caution doesn’t come, we have no shot to win. I don’t know what I’d do different. The problem is there is no reason for the leaders to come early because you leave yourself vulnerable to that, but you can’t get all these goofballs to understand that. It’s what happens.”

Even after such a finish, Hamlin is 58 points ahead of Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, the first driver outside a transfer spot to the next round.

But that wasn’t enough to console Hamlin.

“I just hate missing out on victories,” he said of his playoff spot. “We’re so much better than the six victories that we’ve got. It’s just disturbing. I’ve never been so fast in so many races and not finish it like we feel like we should, but we’re up front. That’s what counts. That’s what’s going to get you to Phoenix, keep getting those wins and keep battling for race wins. You’ll get yourself to Phoenix (for the title race)  and hopefully you’’ll get a championship out of  it. That’s what we’re all here for. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Hamlin’s finish was his best in the playoffs and came after a first round that saw him score a stage win but not place higher than 12th.

Hamlin discounted the notion that putting together a new Cup team with Michael Jordan for next year and signing Bubba Wallace to drive for it had been a distraction earlier in the playoffs.

“I’ve been working for like 10 weeks on stuff, not just racing stuff, but stuff in general,” Hamlin said. “We’ve had bad breaks. Tonight was just another bad break like Darlington was, to be honest with you. Or Bristol. We led laps. We were, I thought, the best car.”

At Darlington, Hamlin missed pit road and had to go back around. Then a debris caution about 10 laps buried him outside  the top 10 with less than 50 laps left. He finished 13th.

At Bristol, Hamlin started at the rear because his car failed inspection twice before the race. He ran fifth when he had contact with teammate Martin Truex Jr. as Truex returned to the track after pitting. Hamlin finished 21st.

Kyle Busch still below playoff cutline after ‘pretty dismal’ Las Vegas race

Leave a comment

Though he finished sixth Sunday night in the Cup playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch described his experience in the Round of 12 opener as “pretty dismal.”

The defending Cup champion now goes into the second race of the round, at Talladega Superspeedway, outside the transfer position to the next round. He trails Alex Bowman, who holds the final transfer spot, by nine points.

“Started a little up, went a little down and finished just kind of mediocre there,” Busch said. “We brought an okay M&M’s Camry. Just didn’t seem to have the overall speed that it needed, especially on the long runs early in the race. Then there late, just no overall speed. Nothing to go blitz anybody and try to make moves and get to the front. We just salvaged along and got what we got. We got lucky to get what we got for sure. It was looking like it was going to be a 12th- or 14th-place day, but came home sixth.”

Busch’s issues began at the start of Stage 2 after he earned the lead by getting off pit road first. As he raced Joey Logano for the lead on the Lap 87 restart, he was on the inside of Logano as they drove toward Turn 3.

That’s when Busch’s teammate, Denny Hamlin, dove to Busch’s inside to make it three wide and then take the lead.

But as Hamlin pulled even with Busch, Busch lurched to the right and made contact with Logano. The Team Penske driver would pit to repair a tire rub while Busch continued.

“I don’t know if (Logano) knew that was coming and didn’t adjust for it and didn’t plan for it,” Busch said. “It kind of seemed like he expected me to go to the bottom and run the bottom and he was gonna run my door.”

Logano said on the radio to his spotter he didn’t realize he was three-wide until it was too late.

Later, Busch pit from fourth on Lap 118 and fell to 28th when his front tire changer’s pit gun broke, resulting in a 22.5-second stop.

“We worked on it and I thought we were making some gains on it and then we got that damage and got way back in traffic,” Busch said. “Then there towards the end, was just able to get lucky on a couple of the last restarts in order to pick off a few spots with the M&M’s Camry and get ourselves in a better position for the finish. It was a pretty dismal day I guess.”

Busch heads to Talladega. He has one win in 30 Cup starts there. He has just one top 10 there in the last six races.

How does Busch plan to navigate the race as he faces his nine-point deficit to the playoff cutoff?

“I’ll just do what I’m told,” Busch said.

What drivers said after Las Vegas race

Leave a comment

Here is what drivers had to say after Sunday night’s Las Vegas race.

Kurt Busch — Winner: “This is what kids dream of when they grow up racing. You dream of winning at your hometown track. And for two decades it’s kicked my butt. And tonight, with this Monster Energy Chevy, I’m in awe. I knew the race would come to us. We needed to get to nightfall and one of those quirky Mac McCall (crew chief) pit sequences finally unfolded. We got lucky. You’ve got to be lucky. And you have to be lucky in any race, but we did it tonight with teamwork and pulling through and just not giving up. … Yeah, the No. 11 (Denny Hamlin) had a ton of speed. I was wide-open. And you just have to manipulate the draft. I pulled out some old drag racing skills on the restarts. I knew that was our strong suit. We just put ourselves in position and we held off. Chip Ganassi was up in the suite somewhere and I could feel him breathing over my neck, I want to win. And we did it.”

Matt DiBenedetto — Finished 2nd: “Two seconds at Vegas.  It’s tough to come that close, just wanted it so bad for this team. I love driving for the Wood Brothers.  I want that number 100 for them so bad and for Menards, the whole family and everything they do for us and the team, and having Duracell on the car this week, we’re keeping her charged up good. Our car was the best it had been at the end, just couldn’t get control on those restarts. The 1 car, Kurt, did a great job. We had completely different ratios for the restarts and once he gained control of the race, he played the right games on the restarts, knew what we had on our weakness there. Man, it’s tough to come that close. I just want it so bad, but I’m proud of the team. They did a great job. My pit crew did a great job tonight and really earned that one for us.”

DENNY HAMLIN — Finished 3rd: “We had a dominant car today and I’m proud of the whole FedEx team for giving me such a great car. By far the best car I’ve had in Las Vegas in a long time. It was really, really good. Happy with it and this new tire here. We’ll run that a few more times this year. Really encouraged by the way we ran, but very disappointed that we didn’t get a win. It’s just been the way that the playoffs have gone. Whoever stays out the longest puts themselves in a great spot to win. … I feel good about it. I certainly had a great day. It’s something I’m happy about, it’s about how we ran and how fast we were. We restarted 13th there with just a few laps and then the top got shuffled and we were able to make some ground on the bottom. If either one of the cautions don’t happen, we’re still in great shape, but it took them like seven laps to get a piece of debris off and then we had debris right in the fuel window.

Martin Truex Jr. — Finished 4th: “We were right there in the hunt coming down after the last pit stop there under green. We were third and we were tracking them down just a little bit at a time. Felt like we were maybe going to have a three-way race for the win and then that caution came out and put us all the way to the back. To be able to battle through that and ended up pitting again for tires because we weren’t going anywhere and restarted like 24th there on not the last caution, but the one before that. To be able to drive back up to fourth is really something. The Bass Pro Toyota was really strong tonight. We needed just a little bit to be as good as the 11 (Denny Hamlin) and maybe the 88 (Alex Bowman), but we were a third-place car, no question. Just missed it a tiny little bit. Decent night. Just needed a little bit more, but happy with the team and the job they’re doing. See what we can do next week at Talladega.”

ALEX BOWMAN – Finished 5th: “I guess it is good to be disappointed in a fifth-place finish. We did not need that caution to come out in the middle of the pit cycle like that. I thought it was going to be ok for us, but we just couldn’t get through traffic as well as we needed to. Our program is continuing to improve and I just feel like this is another Vegas race that go away from us. At least it was a good points day, which is what we need.”

Kyle Busch — Finished 6th: “We weren’t great early on and didn’t quite have the long run speed. We worked on it and I thought we were making some gains on it and then we got that damage and got way back in traffic. Then there towards the end, was just able to get lucky on a couple of the last restarts in order to pick off a few spots with the M&M’s Camry and get ourselves in a better position for the finish. It was a pretty dismal day I guess. I looked like it was going to be about 12th or 14th if we didn’t have some good moves on that last restart there to get us a sixth-place finish.”

Ryan Blaney — Finished 7th: “Overall it was a decent night. We had to start mid pack and were able to drive up through there pretty quick. I thought our Mustang was good and we made good adjustments on it throughout the night. By the second stage I thought we were really strong, we just needed to kind of restart with the leaders and stay in touch with them. That caution that trapped a bunch of us a lap down was unfortunate. I think we were running fourth or fifth at the time. That stunk. We were able to rebound alright and we started third on that last restart and tried to push Matt (DiBenedetto) and get there but the top just kind of trained up on us. It was unfortunate to run seventh but we had a good car and really good adjustments all night. I thought we were right there, it just didn’t all work out. I thought our car was really fast though, so I am proud of that effort.”

Erik Jones — Finished 8th: “It was kind of an up-and-down day. We started off and I didn’t think that our Toyota Camry was really where it needed to be. We were struggling with rear grip in the heat and couldn’t really get the thing going in the right direction. Towards the end, got some track position and had some good restarts and got the car a lot better. We got caught a lap down with the pit cycle and had some contact there with another car trying to avoid (John Hunter Nemechek) and had to come in and pit and fix some damage. It put us behind there with six laps to go, but still good to come home eighth. Top 10, we will take that and move on.”

Kevin Harvick — Finished 10th: “We just missed everything tonight. The car just didn’t drive good. We were slow on pit road and that was pretty much it. We just got buried in the field there.”

Clint Bowyer — Finished 12th: “I was more worried about this race than I am the next two. We didn’t get out of here as good as I wanted to. Obviously, the 1 car was not a car that we needed to win a race. It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse as far as points-wise. Him winning changes that landscape quite a bit, but we’re only 20 points out. It wasn’t near as bad as it could have been. The car was nuclear meltdown and I was lucky to finish, so 20 points is pretty easy to overcome at a track like Talladega that’s for sure.”

Brad Keselowski — Finished 13th: “It just wasn’t the night we wanted. It’s a good thing we had a little bit of a points cushion to lean on and we’ll run our best the next two weeks. It could have been a lot worse. It is frustrating but we are certainly not out of it. We still have a pretty good points cushion so we will try to get through these next two weeks and put up a good race and build ourselves a cushion.”

Joey Logano — Finished 14th: “Unfortunately, we got a little damage there and had to pit for the left-rear tire. You can’t afford to blow a left-rear tire in the playoffs and back the thing in the fence and shoot yourself in the foot. We had to pit and then just no cautions, and then the one time I had a shot at it the 48 just got me, so that was a little unfortunate. Eventually, we got the lucky dog and went around with our Pennzoil Mustang and drove back to 14th. I felt like that second stage, not scoring any stage points there hurts, but we’re still above the cutline and we’ll head on to Talladega and see how that one goes.”

Cole Custer — Finished 16th: “We just didn’t have the restarts we needed tonight. Obviously, the caution that came out in the middle of the green-flag pit stop cycle hurt us. The guys did a good job tonight and were good on pit road too.”

Aric Almirola — Finished 17th: “Our mile-and-a-half stuff has been really good lately. We ran really good at Kentucky, Texas and we’ve just been solid, so I came in here with a lot of confidence. I thought we would come here and run good. The guys have been working really hard on the cars back at the shop and we just missed it tonight. We were off in speed, off in handling, we were not very good at all on pit road. We didn’t do a lot of things right myself included, so it was just a bad night. Nothing went the way it was supposed to go. We’ve got to be better than that. You can’t transfer through these rounds running that poorly, so we’ll go to Talladega and see if we can’t pull one out of our hat.”

JOHN HUNTER NEMECHEK — Finished 20th: “Man, that was a heartbreaker. Our No. 38 Speedy Cash Ford Mustang was on the free side to fire off and we were bouncing on the splitter pretty bad. Seth (Barbour) and the crew did a fantastic job on pit road getting the handling to where we were comfortable, and we fought our way up into the top five. Unfortunately, we had a tire go down towards the end of the final stage and then made contact a few laps later trying to avoid a wreck. Definitely not the finish my guys deserved today.”

Michael McDowell — Finished 21st: “That was definitely a tough finish to what was a much stronger performance by our No. 34 Love’s Travel Stops | Delo team all race long. We ran inside of the top 20 for basically the entire race, getting as high as fifth or sixth at one point; but unfortunately the handful of late-race cautions and multiple restarts just got us shuffled back to where there weren’t enough laps to drive back towards the front.”

William Byron — Finished 25th: “Just a bummer of a result tonight. We really had a good car. We needed to keep adjusting to keep up with the track but we were running inside the top 10 before that caution during green-flag pit stops. Then we could never rally back unfortunately. Being stuck back there, we then got caught up with two laps to go and couldn’t recover.”

Ty Dillon – Finished 26th: “Our GEICO Military team battled all night long. At the start of the race, the car didn’t have enough rear grip to charge and make speed, but Matt (Borland) kept chipping away at it. Our Chevrolet continued to get better throughout the race. The caution came at the wrong time after our green flag pit stop there at the end, which trapped us a lap down. You can’t control those things though. I’m looking forward to Talladega next week. It is important to our Germain Racing team to finish these final six races strong and we will keep working hard to do that.”

Bubba Wallace – Finished 28th: “Awful. Just missed it. On to Talladega.”

Austin Dillon — Finished 32nd: “We were doing what we needed to do. We were a solid, top-five car in Stage 1 and Stage 2 and were able to earn some points during the end of each of the first two stages. We weren’t so fortunate in Stage 3. We were issued a safety violation on pit road with less than 80 laps to go and had to restart at the tail end of the field. We shook it off because we knew that we work well under pressure. We made our way up to 20th and we were in pretty good shape because we were three cars behind the No. 1 car and we were going to run long, probably. But then I suddenly lost all steering and the water pressure gauge pegged at 400 degrees. We made quick repairs but lost nine laps on pit road and that pretty much did us in. I’m proud of this team for continuing to fight. We’ve got two races left in the Round of 12 and we’re not giving up. It’s on to Talladega Superspeedway where anything can happen, and our goal is to win.”

Tyler Reddick — Finished 37th: “We just didn’t really have any luck on our side tonight. I was a little tight to fire off, but we had good overall speed in our car. Unfortunately after our first pit stop of the night, we had a loose right rear tire so we had to make a second stop to fix that and fell a lap down. It’s frustrating to have a car as fast as the one we had and be trapped a lap down, but as a team, we knew we still had a lot of time to get back on the lead lap and into the mix before the race was over. On the final lap of Stage 2, I got into the wall pretty hard and it ended our night early.”