Who’s Hot and Who’s Not heading into playoff cutoff race at Dover

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This weekend’s Apache Warrior 400 at Dover International Speedway marks the end of the first round of the Cup playoffs.

When the checkered flag falls, four of the 16 playoff drivers will be eliminated as things move on to the Round of 12.

Drivers in danger of being eliminated are: Richard Childress Racing teammates Austin Dillon (13th heading into Dover) and Ryan Newman (14th), Kurt Busch (15th) and Kasey Kahne (16th).

Points leader Martin Truex Jr. is the defending race winner, while Jimmie Johnson won this past spring’s race at Dover, his 11th victory at The Monster Mile.

Even though he’s struggled for many of the last 11 races, Johnson is still a threat to win at the 1-mile, concrete speedway.

But who can forget the 2015 race at Dover, when he suffered a mechanical failure, finished 41st and didn’t advance?

Johnson is in better shape this time, 32 points ahead of 13th in the points heading into Dover, but nothing’s guaranteed.

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)

  • Finished fifth at New Hampshire, was involved in the big one while leading
  • Won at Chicago after a speeding penalty and loose lugs
  • Finished in the top-10 19 times this season, the most of all drivers
  • Won 19 stages this season, the most of all drivers
  • 59 Playoff Points this season, includes 15 points for clinching the regular season
  • Five wins this season, most of all drivers and personal best
  • Led a series-high 1,835 laps in 2017, led the most laps in eight races
  • Two wins at Dover, the first of his career in 2007 and this race last year
  • Finished top 10 in six of the last seven Dover races, other finish was 11th
  • Led over 100 laps in three of the last five Dover races
  • Finished third at Dover in June, led 102 laps

No. 18 Kyle Busch (Hot)

  • Won at New Hampshire, third win in the last eight races
  • Won the pole for the last two races
  • Loose wheel and speeding penalty then lack of cautions caused his 15th-place finish at Chicago
  • Three wins this season (Pocono 2, Bristol, NH 2)
  • Two Dover wins, both in the Spring 2008 and 2010
  • Finished runner-up in the last two Fall Dover races,
  • Won the pole, finished 16th in June

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

  • Finished 12th at NH, worst finish in the last five races
  • Fifth in the standings, +44 to the cut line
  • Top-five finishes in 10 of the last 14 races including two wins
  • Best Dover finish is fourth, twice
  • Finished top 10 in the last three races at Dover including eighth in June

No. 44 Kevin Harvick (Hot, decent at Dover)

  • Finished 36th, DNF at NH, his worst finish since Las Vegas in March
  • Five fewer top fives and top 10s this year compared to last year
  • 10th in the standings, +25 of the cut line
  • One Dover win, this race in 2015 to advance
  • Finished 37th in this race last year but had won NH the week prior
  • Finished ninth at Dover in June

No. 48 Jimmie Johnson (All about the wins and he has lots at Dover)

  • 14th at NH, seven finishes outside the top 10 in the last nine races
  • Three top 5 finishes this season, all wins
  • Seventh in the standings, +32
  • 11 Dover wins in 31 starts (win percentage: 35%)
  • Won at Dover in June

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

  • Finished second at NH, eighth runner-up finish this season
  • Four wins in 2017, had one entering this season
  • Best finish at Dover in seven races is runner-up twice, including June
  • Finished top 10 in five of the last six races

No. 20 Matt Kenseth (sneaky Hot)

  • Finished third at NH, eight top-10 finishes in the last 10 races, all but Michigan, flat tire in OT while 
running third and an ambulance problem at Richmond
  • Three-time Dover winner but all in the Spring
  • Top 10 finishes in six of the last eight races at Dover

No. 24 Chase Elliott (Starting to turn things back around, Great at Dover)

  • Finished 11th at NH, his worst finish in the last four races is 11th, twice
  • Ninth in the standings, +26 to the cut line (includes 15 point penalty after Chicago)
  • Finished top five in all three series starts at Dover

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

  • Finished fourth at NH, only two top-10 finishes in the last seven races but both came in the playoffs
  • Locked into round 2 on at least points
  • One Dover win, this race in 2012
  • Finished top 10 in six of the last 10 races at Dover, 38th DNF accident in June

Cup – Who Is Not Hot

No. 1 Jamie McMurray (Decent)

  • 16th at NH, first finish outside the top 15 in the last seven races
  • Eleventh in the standings, +9 to the cut line
  • 14 top 10 finishes this season, five more than this point last year
  • Best Dover finish is second in 2006
  • Finished top 10 in three of the last five races at Dover including seventh in June
  • Finished last in this race last year, engine failure

No. 21 Ryan Blaney (Not Lately)

  • Finished ninth at NH after 11th at Chicago, best two consecutive finishes this season
  • Last top-five finish was his win at Pocono in June
  • Ten top-10 finishes this season but none have come in back-to-back races
  • Three Dover starts, best finish of eighth in the Spring of 2016, finished 32nd in June

No. 41 Kurt Busch (Two bad races, Not at Dover)

  • Finished 37th DNF accident at NH, tied his worst finish this season
  • 17 points below the cut line
  • Trouble during playoffs: Speeding penalty at Chicago, accident at NH
  • One Dover win, this race in 2011 driving for Team Penske
  • Only one top 10 finish in the last 11 races at Dover
  • Finished 37th, DNF accident at Dover in June

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

  • Finished 19th at NH, only two top-15 finishes in the last nine races
  • 13th in the standings, tied for the cut
  • Playoff problems: Speeding penalty at Chicago, caused the big one at NH
  • 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 eight Dover races was eighth in this race last year
  • Finished 13th at Dover in June

No. 5 Kasey Kahne (Not)

  • Finished 35th, broken track bar at NH, only one top 10 finish in the last 18 races, win at Indy
  • 16th in the standings, -21 to the cut line
  • 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
  • He has only finished on the lead lap in 54 percent of the races this season
  • Best Dover finish is fourth, three times
  • Finished 17th at Dover in June (accident)

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

  • 13th at NH, top 10 finishes in four of the last six races, all but the two playoff races
  • 14th in the standings, -1 to the cut line
  • Three Dover wins, last came in 2004
  • Finished fourth in June, only top-10 finish in the last five races at Dover

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

  • 15th at NH, last top 10 was his win at Daytona in July
  • 12th in the standings, 0 points ahead of the cut line, wins the tie breaker with a 15th place finish
  • Zero wins in first 157 starts, two wins in last 19 starts
  • Best Dover finish is eighth in this race in 2015, only top 10 finish at Dover
  • Finished 39th at Dover in June, accident

Others to Watch:

No. 14 Clint Bowyer (Disappointing 2017)

  • Finished seventh at NH, first top 10 in the last six races
  • Was 88 points out of a Playoff spot
  • Finished runner up three times in 2017
  • 11 top-10s in 2017, had only three in all of 2016
  • Best Dover finish is fourth in 2014, finished 31st in June

No. 22 Joey Logano (Disappointing season)

  • 10th at NH, finished top 10 in the last three races best streak since April
  • 10 finishes outside the top 20 in the last 19 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
  • Best Dover finish is third, twice
  • Finished top 10 in eight of the last 11 races at Dover, 25th in June

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

  • Finished sixth at NH, top 10 finishes in seven of the last eight races this season
  • Finished 15th at Dover in June, involved in last lap accident

No. 88 Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Not)

  • 34th at NH, involved in the big one, last top 10 was Sonoma in June (sixth)
  • Only two top 10s in the last 16 races
  • One Dover win, this race in 2001
  • Finished 11th at Dover in June

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Ryan: NASCAR’s stunning decision on drafting package sends some conflicting messages

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It’s coming to save the Brickyard 400 and Indianapolis Motor Speedway!

It’s coming to solve the strung-out, single-file conundrum at 1.5-mile speedways!

It’s coming to strengthen the underdog teams and give them a better chance at winning!

Actually, it’s not coming at all (at least not this season).

Huh?

That was the feeling for many Thursday morning when NASCAR punted the All-Star Race aero and horsepower rules (or “drafting package”) – after a month of incessant hints and indications that it would be used at least twice more during the regular season (at Michigan International Speedway and Indy).

Track owners supported it. NASCAR officials supported it. Even some team owners supported it.

Drivers were less supportive.

The pushback from some high-profile stars isn’t what killed the drafting package, though.

This was a startling and abrupt about-face because NASCAR couldn’t secure the necessary buy-in from team owners, who essentially have veto power on major competition decisions such as this one because of the charter system implemented in 2016.

NASCAR chief racing development officer and senior vice president of competition Steve O’Donnell said the critically acclaimed All-Star Race proved the drafting package was “something that could work … but in the end, we all felt like the best thing to do was to put some additional effort into some potential tweaks and focus on 2019 vs. a race or two this season.”

A NASCAR.com story described the hopes of using the drafting package again as a “Herculean undertaking” and “one that could have resulted in a rushed output.”

Actually, rushing has produced some decent results before.

NASCAR announced a lower-downforce rules package barely a month ahead of a July 11, 2015 race at Kentucky Speedway, and the race was wildly successful.

This was less about a time crunch and more about cash flow.

Teams always can adapt to the rules in front of them. But the best also will adapt by busting their budgets to optimize their cars, and that prompts a difficult question.

Are the changes worth it?

Even if the quality of racing (which is mostly subjective) improves, the majority of teams didn’t view the drafting package as a valid investment, particularly if attendance remains flat (and if more tickets are sold, the tracks still reap the rewards).

Millions were spent developing and optimizing competitive cars for a new inspection system this season.

Is it fair to say “too bad about all that R&D work” and change on the fly?

There also is an eye-of-the-beholder argument. Though Kevin Harvick won the All-Star Race and Kyle Busch led 19 laps and contended, would Stewart-Haas Racing and Joe Gibbs Racing approve a change to the rules that have allowed their champion drivers to dominate the 2018 season?

And as shown by the low-downforce package, whose luster faded after that smashing debut at Kentucky, the teams with the deepest pockets will burn money in wind tunnels to figure out the package and undermine its efficacy without compunction.

Privately, many team owners are tired of “fixing” the racing and want a greater emphasis on marketing and promoting NASCAR rather than trying to retrofit the competition (which has seemed a mostly pyrrhic exercise for the past decade).

So, is there any common ground?

Well …

“Everyone is aligned on doing what’s best for the fans,” O’Donnell said.

That might be true, but there’s an obvious lack of alignment on how to achieve what’s best for the fans.

For all the platitudes tossed around about the spirit of collaboration and cooperation with councils and committees of drivers, manufacturers and team owners, it’s clear the NASCAR industry isn’t on the same page with some critical topics – namely, on the usage of the drafting package.

Mixed messages aren’t new in NASCAR, a sanctioning body that once leaned on its stars to speak their minds while also fining them for having opinions.

But mixed messages color every part of the decision on the drafting package, which had become a daily topic of uplifting SiriusXM satellite radio discussion for gleeful fans.

–NASCAR spent the better part of the past month mulling the new rules — presumably because it wanted to upgrade its racing … but now it also will claim (according to O’Donnell in the NASCAR.com story) that “we’re really happy with the racing on track.”

–After the juxtaposition at 1.5-mile Charlotte Motor Speedway of the drafting package at the All-Star Race (38 green-flag lead changes, up from zero last season) with the current rules a week later at the Coca-Cola 600 (which had single-digit lead changes for the second time in three years ), the latter package now will be used at two 1.5-mile tracks in the next three weeks.

–The Cup Series racing at Indianapolis, the track whose action is most frequently identified as needing major improvements, will remain the same for a Sept. 16 regular-season finale that might feature a record number of playoff spots up for grabs on points. A day earlier, the Xfinity Series race at the Brickyard will feature the same drafting package that was a hit last year on the 2.5-mile oval infamous for monotonous stock-car races with a lack of passing.

Does that seem hard to reconcile? That’s the problem with mixed messages.

The most consistent message delivered Thursday?

Say hello to the status quo for the rest of the 2018 season.

Maybe the news wasn’t so surprising after all.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Cup not using All-Star package again in 2018

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Today’s NASCAR America airs from 5-5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and leads into the debut episode of the Dale Jr Download at 5:30 p.m. ET.

Carolyn Manno hosts today’s NASCAR America from Stamford, Connecticut, and is joined by Steve Letarte from Burton’s Garage.

On today’s show:

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Sonoma in last three years

Photo by Daniel Shirey/Getty Images
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The last nine races at Sonoma have been won by a different driver each time. Only one driver enters the weekend with back-to-back top-fives on this track and three others have consecutive top 10s. Given the importance of strategy and track position, repeating at this track is incredibly difficult.

Those stats should predict a fresh face in Victory Lane, right?

Unfortunately a brief glance at the drivers with the best average finishes over the past three years reveals that the two dominators of 2018 – Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – head up the list. If a fantasy player thought this was going to be a good week to vary their NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster, it’s time to rethink that position.

There are a couple of surprises among recent top performers, but the cream tends to rise to the top of NASCAR events. Anchor this week’s team with solid marquee drivers and use dark horses as a way to differentiate those selections from the competition.

1. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 3.67)
Harvick won last year’s edition of this race, but it is not the first time he has run well at Sonoma. He finished fourth in 2015 and was sixth the following year. Making those runs even more impressive is the fact that he has started outside the top 10 in each event and had to drive his way through the field.

2. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 4.33)
Along with Harvick, Busch is the only other driver with a current three-race streak of top 10s at Sonoma. He won there in 2015, followed by a seventh and fifth in his last two outings. He may be a better value than Harvick this week, however, because he has an equally impressive record at Watkins Glen International with a second in 2015, a sixth in 2016 and a seventh last year.

3. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 6.33)
It has been three years since Busch scored a top five at Sonoma, but what he lacks in raw power is made up for in consistency. In his last seven attempts on this track, he has finished outside the top 10 only once and that was a 12th in 2014. He won on this track in 2011 and finished second in 2015.

4. Joey Logano (three-year average: 6.67)
It appeared Logano had found the handle on this track. He scored his first top five in 2015 when he crossed under the checkers fifth. That was followed by a third in 2016. Last year was difficult for the driver of the No. 22; he qualified poorly in 18th and managed to climb only to 12th at the checkers.

5. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 8.00)
Sometimes a switch seems to flip for a driver on a given track. That is what happened to Hamlin in 2016 when he was on his way to Victory Lane before contact from Tony Stewart in the final corner. He hung on to finish second – snapping a six-race streak of results outside the top 15 – and backed that up with a fourth last year.

6. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 10.67)
Newman’s consistency has aided in his making the top 10 list a few times this year and the same is true at Sonoma. Without a top five to his credit in the past five years, he has swept the top 15. That makes him a good utilitarian pick. He will probably not score maximum points, but is also unlikely to lose a lot at Sonoma.

6. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 10.67)
There are so many different things that can go wrong on a road course and Johnson has had too many disappointments in 2018 to make him a fantasy favorite. Sonoma and Watkins Glen reward skill behind the wheel over raw horsepower and handling, however, so there is still a chance that he could earn a top five if the team is mistake-free.

8. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 12.33)
Keselowski makes the top-10 list despite having a 19th-place finish in his three-year average. That indicates just how difficult it is to sustain momentum on road courses given the various strategies that play out in a given race. The good news for Keselowski fans is that he finally earned his first career top five in eight starts last year with a third.

9. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.67)
McMurray has been consistent recently at Sonoma, but that is a fairly new trait. In his first 12 starts on this track, he had two top fives and no other top 10s. His average finish before 2015 was 16.7 despite finishing fourth in the 2014 race. He was 11th in 2015, 17th in 2016, and 10th last year – so he could be a good value if he practices and qualifies well this weekend.

10. Paul Menard (three-year average: 13.33)
Some of Menard’s earliest racing experience came in the Trans-Am series and that seems to have stuck with him. While he barely makes the top-10 list this week, he is perhaps the most consistent driver in recent years with four results of 11th through 16th in the last five races. Now that Team Penske is supporting his effort with the Wood Brothers, he should easily contend for a top 10.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: This is a good week to go out on a limb where the pole sitter is concerned. McMurray has won two of the last five poles on this track, while his teammate Kyle Larson took the top spot last year. Two JTG-Daugherty Racing drivers also have recent poles with Marcos Ambrose securing one in 2012 and AJ Allmendinger leading the field to green in 2015.

Segment Winners: There is absolutely no way to determine who is going to take the segment wins this week because it will all come down to strategy at the close of each stage. Since Harvick and Kyle Busch have scored the most segment wins, however, you may as well keep riding that momentum.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Dale Jr. Download debuts today at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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The Dale Jr Download podcast with Dale Earnhardt Jr. comes to TV beginning today. The show debuts at 5:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN, following NASCAR America.

“Dale Jr. Download” will air every Thursday the rest of the season after NASCAR America.

The 30-minute show will provide a condensed version of the Dirty Mo Radio podcast that is found online and features Earnhardt, NBC Sports’ newest NASCAR analyst, with Mike Davis and Matthew Dillner.

“Our approach with the TV show will be no different than our approach with the podcast – buddies hanging out, talking racing, sharing life stories, and telling jokes that may or may not be funny only to us,” Earnhardt said. “I’m having a lot of fun with the podcast, and we are excited to be bringing it to TV. If we have a guest join us, it’s only because they’re relevant to whatever has my attention that week. It could be a NASCAR driver, or it could be my plumber – depends on who’s more important to me that week. The Download is as transparent as I can be when it comes to my life and thoughts.”