Who’s Hot and Who’s Not heading to New Hampshire

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One race down, nine to go to crown a champion. That’s where the NASCAR Cup playoffs stand heading into this weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Following the playoff opener at Chicagoland Speedway, four drivers below the cutoff line – Kurt Busch, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., Kasey Kahne and Ryan Newman – have races at New Hampshire and Dover to bounce back.

Kevin Harvick is the defending race winner. Matt Kenseth has won three of the last eight races at the 1.058-mile flat track. Denny Hamlin is a two-time winner there, including this past July.

Courtesy of Racing Insights, here’s this week’s Who’s Hot and Who’s Not:

Cup – Who Is Hot

No. 78 Martin Truex Jr. (Hot)

  • Won at Chicago after a speeding penalty and loose lugs
  • Finished in the top 10 a series-high 18 times
  • Won a series-high 18 stages
  • 58 Playoff Points includes 15 points for clinching the regular season
  • Five wins this season, most of all drivers and personal best
  • Led a series-high 1,723 laps in 2017, led the most laps in eight races
  • Started top three and led over 100 laps in the last three New Hampshire races
  • Won the pole finished third at New Hampshire in July

No. 18 Kyle Busch (Hot)

  • Finished 15th at Chicago, broke a streak of six straight top 10 finishes
  • Sat on the pole at Chicago by nearly three tenths of a second
  • Loose wheel and speeding penalty then lack of cautions caused his 15th-place finish at Chicago
  • Two wins this season (Pocono and Bristol)
  • Two NH wins, last was summer of 2015
  • Finished 12th at NH in July after leading 95 laps, speeding penalty
  • Finished top 10 in seven of the last nine NH races

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

  • Finished fourth at Chicago, fourth straight top-five finish
  • Top-five finishes in 10 of the last 13 races including two wins
  • Won at NH in July, third NH win (won in a backup car due to a practice crash)
  • Finished top two in nearly a third of his NH starts (7 of 23 or 30 percent)

No. 4 Kevin Harvick (Hot, good at NH)

  • Finished third at Chicago, first top-five finish in the last six races, led 59 laps, his most since Texas in April
  • Four fewer top fives and top 10s this year compared to last year
  • Two NH wins, including this race last year, led only eight laps
  • Top five finishes in five of the last six NH races including fifth in July

No. 48 Jimmie Johnson (All about the wins)

  • 8th at Richmond and Chicago, only the second time this season he has scored back-to-back top 10 finishes
  • Three top-five finishes this season, all wins
  • Three time NH winner but last was 2010
  • Has only led seven laps in the last 12 NH races
  • Finished 10th at NH in July after starting second

No. 20 Matt Kenseth (sneaky Hot)

  • Finished 9th at Chicago, seven top-10 finishes in the last nine races, all but Michigan, flat tire in OT while running third and an ambulance problem at Richmond
  • Three NH wins, all in the last eight races
  • Finished top six with two wins in the last five races including fourth in July

No. 2 Brad Keselowski (Warm, Good at NH)

  • Finished sixth at Chicago, first top 10 in the last six races
  • One NH win, summer 2014
  • Finished top 15 in the last 12 races at NH including ninth in July

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

  • Finished fifth at Chicago, never really a factor for the win
  • Four wins in 2017, had one entering this season
  • Finished second in seven races this year
  • Best finish at NH in seven races is runner-up twice, including July

No. 31 Ryan Newman (Pretty good lately, not so much at NH lately)

  • 23rd at Chicago, just did not run well, broke a four race top-10 streak
  • Three NH wins, last coming in 2011
  • Has led 722 laps at NH, but only two in the last 11 races
  • Finished 27th at NH in July
  • Seven top-five finishes at NH but only one in the last 12 races

No. 1 Jamie McMurray (Decent)

  • 10th at Chicago, sixth straight top-15 finish
  • 14 top-10 finishes this season, five more than this point last year
  • Best NH finish is third in 2010
  • Finished 17th at NH in July, only three top-10 finishes in the last 13 races at NH

Cup – Who is Not:

No. 21 Ryan Blaney (Not Lately)

  • Finished 11th at Chicago, third straight finish outside the top 10
  • Last top-five finish was his win at Pocono in June
  • Nine top-10 finishes this season but none have come in back-to-back races
  • Four NH starts, best finish of 11th in the summer of 2016, finished 19th in July

No. 41 Kurt Busch (Not, Mixed at NH)

  • Finished 19th at Chicago, broke a streak of three straight top five finishes
  • Speeding penalty at Chicago
  • Three-time NH winner, last time was 2008
  • Finished eighth at NH in July, only his third top-10 finish there in the last 12 races

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

  • Finished 16th at Chicago, speeding penalty
  • Won on fuel mileage at Charlotte
  • Only four top-10 finishes this season, had 10 at this point last year
  • Only top-10 finish in seven NH races was eighth in summer of 2015
  • Finished 15th at NH in July

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

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

  • Finished 21st at Chicago, only one top-10 finish in the last 17 races, win at Indy
  • Six DNFs accident this season
  • Won at Indianapolis ending a 102-race winless streak, took a super lucky timed caution and turned it into a win
  • One NH win, summer 2012 (last win by HMS there)
  • Finished 28th at NH in July, it was his seventh finish outside the top 10 in the last nine NH races

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

  • 25th at Chicago , last top 10 was his win at Daytona in July
  • Zero wins in first 157 starts, two wins in last 18 starts
  • Two top-10 finishes in nine NH starts, best of ninth in 2014
  • Finished 14th at NH in July

Others:

No. 14 Clint Bowyer (Disappointing 2017)

  • Finished 13th at Chicago
  • 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
  • Two-time winner at NH, finished seventh in July

No. 22 Joey Logano (Disappointing season)

  • Seventh at Chicago, finished top 10 in back-to-back races for the first time since April
  • 10 finishes outside the top 20 in the last 18 races
  • Won at Richmond but was encumbered after starting in the rear due to a transmission change
  • First time he missed the playoffs with Team Penske
  • Two-time NH winner
  • Finished 37th in July after a flat tire and suspension issues

No. 77 Erik Jones (Hot, ?? at NH)

  • Finished 33rd at Chicago, multiple issues, broke a streak of six straight top 10 finishes
  • Finished 39th at NH in July, accident after 40 laps, it was his first Cup start there

No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr (Not)

  • 17th at Chicago, last top 10 was Sonoma in June (sixth)
  • Only two top-10s in the last 15 races
  • Best NH finish is third in 2004
  • Finished 18th at NH in July, it was his first start there since 2015

Travis Pastrana ‘taking a chance’ at Daytona

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In so-called “action” sports, Travis Pastrana is a king. He is well-known across the spectrum of motorsports that are a bit on the edge — the X Games, Gymkhana, motorcross and rally racing.

Now he’s jumping in the deep end, attempting to qualify for the Daytona 500 and what would be his first NASCAR Cup Series start.

Pastrana, who is entered in the 500 in a third Toyota fielded by 23XI Racing, will be one of at least six drivers vying for the four non-charter starting spots in the race. Also on that list: Jimmie Johnson, Conor Daly, Chandler Smith, Zane Smith and Austin Hill.

MORE: IndyCar driver Conor Daly entered in Daytona 500

Clearly, just getting a spot on the 500 starting grid won’t be easy.

“I love a challenge,” Pastrana told NBC Sports. “I’ve wanted to be a part of the Great American Race since I started watching it on TV as a kid. Most drivers and athletes, when they get to the top of a sport, don’t take a chance to try something else. I like to push myself. If I feel I’m the favorite in something, I lose a little interest and focus. Yes, I’m in way over my head, but I believe I can do it safely. At the end of the day, my most fun time is when I’m battling and battling with the best.”

Although Pastrana, 39, hasn’t raced in the Cup Series, he’s not a stranger to NASCAR. He has run 42 Xfinity races, driving the full series for Roush Fenway Racing in 2013 (winning a pole and scoring four top-10 finishes), and five Craftsman Truck races.

“All those are awesome memories,” Pastrana said. “In my first race at Richmond (in 2012), Denny Hamlin really helped me out. I pulled on the track in practice, and he waited for me to get up to speed. He basically ruined his practice helping me get up to speed. Joey Logano jumped in my car at New Hampshire and did a couple of laps and changed the car, and I went from 28th to 13th the next lap. I had so many people who really reached out and helped me get the experience I needed.”

Pastrana was fast, but he had issues adapting to the NASCAR experience and the rhythm of races.

“It was extremely difficult for me not growing up in NASCAR,” he said. “I come from motocross, where there’s a shorter duration. It’s everything or nothing. You make time by taking chances. In pavement racing, it’s about rear-wheel drive. You can’t carry your car. In NASCAR it’s not about taking chances. It’s about homework. It’s about team. It’s about understanding where you can go fast and be spot on your mark for three hours straight.”

MORE: Will Clash issues carry over into rest of season?

Pastrana said he didn’t venture into NASCAR with the idea of transferring his skills to stock car racing full time.

“It was all about me trying to get to the Daytona 500,” he said. “Then I looked around, when I was in the K&N Series, and saw kids like Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson. They were teenagers, and they already were as good or better than me.”

Now he hopes to be in the mix with Elliott, Larson and the rest of the field when the green flag falls on the 500.

He will get in some bonus laps driving for Niece Motorsports in the Craftsman Truck Series race at Daytona.

“For the first time, my main goal, other than qualifying for the 500, isn’t about winning,” Pastrana said. “We’ll take a win, of course, but my main goal is to finish on the lead lap and not cause any issues. I know we’ll have a strong car from 23XI, so the only way I can mess this up is to be the cause of a crash.

“I’d just love to go out and be a part of the Great American Race.”

 

Front Row Motorsports adds more Cup races to Zane Smith’s schedule

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Reigning Craftsman Truck Series champion Zane Smith, who seeks to qualify for the Daytona 500, will do six additional Cup races for Front Row Motorsports this season, the team announced Tuesday. Centene Corporation’s brands will sponsor Smith.

The 23-year-old Smith will drive the No. 36 car in his attempt to make the Daytona 500 for Front Row Motorsports. That car does not have a charter. Chris Lawson will be the crew chief. 

Smith’s remaining six Cup races will be in the No. 38 car for Front Row Motorsports, which has a charter. Todd Gilliland will drive the remaining 30 points races and All-Star Open in that car. Ryan Bergenty will be the crew chief for both drivers this year.

Smith’s races in the No. 38 car will be Phoenix (March 12), Talladega (April 23), Coca-Cola 600 (May 28), Sonoma (June 11), Texas (Sept. 24) and the Charlotte Roval (Oct. 8). 

He also will run the full Truck season. 

Centene’s Wellcare, which offers a range of Medicare Advantage and Medicare Prescription Drug Plans will be Smith’s sponsor for the Daytona 500, Phoenix, Talladega and Sonoma. Centene’s Ambetter, a provider of health insurance offerings on the Health Insurance Marketplace, will be Smith’s sponsor at Texas and the Charlotte Roval. 

Smith’s sponsor for the Coca-Cola 600 will be Boot Barn. 

The mix of tracks is something Smith said he is looking forward to this season.

“I wanted to run Phoenix just because the trucks only go to Phoenix once and it’s the biggest race of the year,” Smith told NBC Sports. “I wanted to get as much time and laps as I can at Phoenix even though it’s in a completely different car. I wanted to run road courses, as well, just because I felt road course racing suits me.”

Smith also will be back in the Truck Series. Ambetter Health will be the primary sponsor of Smith’s Truck at Homestead (Oct. 21). The partnership with Centene includes full season associate sponsorship of Smith’s Truck and full season associate sponsorship on the No. 38 Cup car. 

NASCAR Camping World Truck Series Lucas Oil 150
Zane Smith holding the Truck series championship trophy last year at Phoenix. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Smith’s connection to Centene Corporation, a St. Louis-based company, goes back to last June’s Cup race at World Wide Technology Raceway near St. Louis. Smith made his Cup debut that weekend, filling in for Chris Buescher, who was out with COVID-19. Smith finished 17th.

“It’s cool to see how into the sport they are,” Smith said of Centene Corporation. “It started out with an appearance I did for them (at World Wide Technology Raceway). I’ve gotten to know that group pretty well.”

Centene also is the healthcare partner of Speedway Motorsports and sponsors a Cup race at Atlanta and Xfinity race at New Hampshire. 

Smith’s opportunity to run select Cup races, including major events as the Daytona 500 and Coca-Cola 600, is part of the fast trajectory he’s made.

In 2019, he made only 10 Xfinity starts with JR Motorsports and didn’t start racing full-time in NASCAR until the 2020 season. Since then, he’s won a Truck title, finished second two other times and scored seven Truck victories.

“I feel like I’ve lived about probably three lifetimes in these four years just with getting that part-time Xfinity schedule and running well and getting my name out there,” Smith said.

He was provided an extra Xfinity race at Phoenix in 2019 with JRM and that proved significant to his future.

“That happened to be probably one of my best runs,” he said of his fifth-place finish that day. “We ran top four, top five all day and (team owner) Maury Gallagher happened to be there. He watched that.”

He signed with Gallagher’s GMS Racing Truck truck.

“It was supposed to be a part-time Truck schedule and (then) I won at Michigan and it was like, ‘Oh man, we’re in the playoffs, we should probably be full-time racing.’ I won another one a couple of weeks later at Dover.”

His success led to second season with the team and he again finished second in the championship. That led to the drive to a title last year.

The championship trophy sits in his home office and serves as motivation every day.

“First thing you see is when you come through my front door is pretty much the trophy,” Smith said. “It drives me crazy now thinking I could have two more to go with it and how close I was. … Really just that much more hungrier to go capture more.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”