Long: Dominant trio could put pressure on playoff drivers to advance to Miami (video)

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While this weekend’s focus turns to those seeking to advance to the Round of 12, the question could be if the field is actually racing for one spot in the championship race in Miami?

Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Kyle Larson have dominated this season and clinched spots into the next round, moving them one step closer to a potential championship showdown.

While the past doesn’t guarantee the future, the performance of Truex, Busch and Larson this year makes it easy to envision all three advancing to Miami.

Consider their achievements:

  • They’ve won 42.9 percent of the races (12 of 28), a total that could have been higher had Busch and Truex not had issues in some races they were strong and Larson won some of the eight races he’s placed runner-up.
  • They’ve won seven of the last eight races, including Busch’s win this past weekend in New Hampshire. The exception was the Southern 500. Denny Hamlin passed Truex in the final laps to win after Truex hit the wall.
  • They’ve won 35 of 57 stages (Truex has a series-high 19 stage victories).
  • They’ve combined to lead 55.5 percent of the 7,971 laps run this season.

If Truex, Busch and Larson avoid problems in the upcoming rounds and advance to Miami, that would leave one spot left among the 13 other drivers.

So who will it be?

Will it be Hamlin?

He finished 12th at New Hampshire, ending a streak of four consecutive top-five finishes. He’s placed in the top five in six of the last eight races.

Hamlin said he and his team have more work to do to challenge for a title.

“Our best race tracks are at the end of the season,’’ Hamlin said after Sunday’s race. “But I think if we’re going to win the championship, listen we can get ourselves to Homestead the way we’re running, but if we want to win we’ve got to get faster in certain parts of the run, for sure.’’

Will it be seven-time champion Jimmie Johnson? It’s hard to count him out regardless how strong others are. 

“When you look at fast laps, laps led, those guys are on it,’’ Johnson said at New Hampshire of the Toyota drivers. “I’ve been there before. Didn’t want anybody to take away from what we had and was frustrated when people said we had some kind of unfair advantage. When you do your hard work and got everything right and your manufacturer has got everything right, man, you’ve got to enjoy those days because they don’t come very often.

“They’re very fast in a lot of areas. It’s not just one thing. We won the championship last year with the fourth-fastest car at Homestead. If we’ve got a chance down there, we’ll make it happen.’’

Or could it be Matt Kenseth, adding another Toyota in the title hunt at Miami? Kenseth’s third-place finish at New Hampshire marked his eighth top-10 in the last 10 races. Although he’s not won this season, his team has progressed since July and become a factor in races.

Or could it be a Ford driver — Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Ryan Blaney or Kurt BuschWhile Keselowski has stated that Toyotas have a speed advantage, the fastest car doesn’t always win.

The scary proposition for the field is if Truex, Larson and Kyle Busch don’t have issues that keep them from advancing, there will be just one spot left for Miami to race for the championship.

WHO IS SAFE?

So who can breathe and who will need to be careful this weekend at Dover to make sure they advance to the next round?

Only once in the previous three years has a driver gone to Dover with a double-digit lead on the first driver outside a transfer spot and failed to advanced.

In 2015, Jimmie Johnson had a 27-point lead on 13th in the points going into Dover. Johnson finished 41st because of a mechanical issue and failed to advance to the second round of the playoffs. Kyle Busch entered Dover 13th but climbed into a transfer spot and used that to begin his run to the championship.

Those with leads of 27 points or less on the first driver outside a transfer spot entering Dover are Ryan Blaney (26 points ahead of 13th-place Austin Dillon), Chase Elliott (26 points), Kevin Harvick (25 points), Jamie McMurray (nine points) and Ricky Stenhouse (tied with Dillon but owns the final transfer spot at this point based on a tiebreaker)

“You’re never really comfortable with your position, unless you have a win,’’ Blaney said.

Each of the previous three years a driver not in a transfer spot entering the Dover cutoff race advanced to the next round.

Last year, Kyle Larson held the final transfer spot by five points entering Dover and failed to advance after finishing 25th. Austin Dillon finished eighth to advance.

In 2014, AJ Allmendinger had a one-point advantage on the final transfer spot entering Dover but was knocked out by Denny Hamlin.

BATTLE HEATING UP?

Ryan Blaney finished ninth Sunday at New Hampshire but his focus was on another issue with rookie Daniel Suarez.

Asked about the racing, Blaney said: “It was good racing until (Suarez) just about took us out coming to the white for eighth. I don’t know why he did that. That’s twice in two weeks he’s done that to me. That wasn’t very cool, but, other than that, the race was really good. The people we were racing with in the playoffs seemed to race each other with respect, which is nice to see.” 

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NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC)

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).