Bump & Run: What driver to watch in Round of 12?

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What driver are you keeping a close eye on in this round?

Nate Ryan: Kyle Busch. Charlotte Motor Speedway isn’t a must-win for him (though he has made no secret he wants to win it so he can cross the last remaining active track off his list that he hasn’t conquered), but it’ll be important to get off to a good start because Talladega Superspeedway is forever an X factor, and he historically has struggled at Kansas in the playoffs (though he did break through for a win in May 2016). Playoff points should help ensure that Busch advances to the Round of 8 regardless, but this round would be his “weakest” if there is such a thing for one of NASCAR’s most talented stars.

Dustin Long: Kevin Harvick. I want to see how this team does on the 1.5-mile tracks (Charlotte and Kansas) in this round and if it can close the gap on the Toyotas and Kyle Larson. Don’t overlook this team.

Daniel McFadin: I’ll be looking at Chase Elliott. Did having another win slip through his fingers light a fire under him or take the air out of him and his team?

Jerry Bonkowski: Matt Kenseth. The second round of the playoffs could potentially be the sweet spot he’s been looking for. A win at Charlotte or Talladega puts him into the Round of 8. He needs to win either of the first two races because he doesn’t want to wait until the final race of the second round — at Kansas. Because of the uncertainty at Talladega, Kenseth’s best hope for a win comes Sunday at Charlotte.

What is a storyline you’ll be watching this round?

Nate Ryan: Talladega as the middle race for the first time instead of a cutoff (a smart move, by the way). Should eliminate any plans for sandbagging (unless it’s the winner of the Kansas race or someone such as Truex who might have enough points to make the race mostly meaningless).

Dustin Long: Pit strategy. It played a key role at Dover in helping Ricky Stenhouse Jr. advance to this round. I want to see which crew chiefs are willing to take chances to score stage points or put themselves on a different strategy than the leaders this round.

Daniel McFadin: Has Hendrick Motorsports gotten its groove back? Or was the case of three of its cars finishing in the top 10 just a blip due to Dover being one of Jimmie Johnson‘s and Chase Elliott’s best tracks?

Jerry Bonkowski: Can Jimmie Johnson come back? He looked much like the JJ of old at Dover. If his team is starting to peak, it couldn’t be at a better time in the second round. One win at Charlotte and he’s on to the third round. Johnson loves pressure, coming from behind and is one of the best when it comes to rallying. Frankly, he could be in a perfect position right now to start the stretch run to a record eighth Cup championship.

Who has a better chance of winning Talladega: Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who has won the past two restrictor-plate races or Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Nate Ryan: Based off recent history, Stenhouse is a slight favorite, but Earnhardt Jr. has been much better in plate races the past few seasons, and a win wouldn’t be a surprise (and also would be the best storyline NASCAR could desire).

Dustin Long: Provided Dale Earnhardt Jr. can get to the front and stay there, he has the experience in blocking both lanes and keeping the rest of the field behind him.

Daniel McFadin: While Ricky Stenhouse Jr. has the last two plate wins, Dale Jr. is always the biggest threat. He had the speed to run at the front in all three plate races this year before misfortune struck every time. I’ll put my money on Dale Jr. using every trick in the book to keep the field behind him one last time.

Jerry Bonkowski: From a sentimental standpoint, I’d love to see Dale Jr. win. What better place to earn the final Cup win of his career than at his most successful track. With two restrictor-plate wins this season, Stenhouse is definitely one of the top contenders. However, there’s a potential spoiler that I would not be surprised could steal away a win from both of them at ‘Dega: Brad Keselowski.

New Hampshire to add traction compound to racing surface

Photo: Dustin Long
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New Hampshire Motor Speedway officials will add the PJ1 traction compound to the racing surface before this weekend’s racing, a track spokesperson confirmed to NBC Sports.

Track officials are scheduled to put the traction compound on the track today and are expected to do so again Saturday and Sunday, pending NASCAR approval. The track reapplied the traction compound the morning of last July’s race.

The traction compound is to be applied to the first groove (lowest groove) and third grove (just outside the main groove) in all four corners. A track spokesperson said the traction compound would be applied on the 12 feet at the bottom of the track from the yellow line on up. Then there will be a 12-foot section that will not be applied (the main groove) and the traction compound is to be applied on another 12 feet above the main grove

The track used the PJ1 compound for both Cup weekends last year to help enhance the passing.

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Weekend schedule for Cup, Xfinity at New Hampshire

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The NASCAR Cup and Xfinity teams will make their lone visit of the year to New Hampshire Motor Speedway this weekend. Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch combined to win 14 of the first 19 races. Will their dominance continue? In Xfinity, there have been six different winners in the last seven races. Will that streak continue.

Here’s a look at the track schedule for the weekend:

(ALL TIMES ARE EASTERN)

FRIDAY, JULY 20

8:30 a.m. – 6:30 p.m. — Cup garage open

10 a.m. – 6 p.m. — Xfinity garage open

Noon – 12:50 p.m. — Cup practice (NBCSN)

1:05 – 1:55 p.m. — Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. — Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

4:45 p.m. — Cup qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (NBCSN, Performance Racing Network)

SATURDAY, JULY 21

7 a.m. — Xfinity garage opens

8:30 a.m. – 4 p.m. — Cup garage open

10:05 – 10:55 a.m. — Cup practice (CNBC)

11:05 a.m. — Xfinity qualifying; multi-vehicle/three rounds (CNBC)

12:35 – 1:25 p.m. — Final Cup practice (NBCSN)

1:30 p.m. — Xfinity driver/crew chief meeting

3:30 p.m. — Xfinity driver introductions

4 p.m. — Lakes Region 200 Xfinity race; 200 laps/211.6 miles (NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

SUNDAY, JULY 22

8:30 a.m. — Cup garage opens

Noon — Cup driver/crew chief meeting

1:20 p.m. — Cup driver introductions

2 p.m. — Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 Cup race; 301 laps/318.46 miles (NBCSN, PRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch believes Martin Truex Jr. is his biggest competition

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Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. have been so strong in 2018 that many believe the championship will come down to them – and only them.

Busch has five wins, Harvick matches him with five and Truex earned his fourth win last week on the 1.5-mile Kentucky Speedway.

Who is Busch’s greatest competition? Busch does not think the other five-time winner will be the driver to beat. Instead, he picked Truex as the top contender at Homestead-Miami Speedway on Wednesday’s NASCAR America.

“If you had to choose just one, I’d have to say Martin,” Busch said. “Just with the successes that they’ve had on mile-and-a-halves. Even though Harvick’s been just as good at mile-and-halves.”

Last year, Truex dominated the 1.5-milers – including a win in the final race that crowned him champion.

“Overall, the 78’s just so strong and they certainly know how to turn up the wick when it matters most,“ Busch said.

Busch is not ready to concede the title to Truex, however.

“I think you’ve seen the 78’s dominance of last year toned back,” he said. “They’re third, they’re fourth, they’re fifth – they’re still competitive, They’re still right there, but they’re not nine seconds out front. So I think the field has been closed up. … But they still have that little bit of edge when they need it.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter.

NASCAR America: Kyle Busch would have accepted Ricky Stenhouse Jr.’s call on Friday

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If Ricky Stenhouse Jr. had called Kyle Busch as late as Friday morning before the Quaker State 400 at Kentucky Speedway, none of last week’s verbal conflict between the two would have happened.

At least that is Busch’s opinion of the situation.

“If he would have made the call: Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday – even Friday morning still counts,” Busch said. “He could have talked about how I hurt his feeling for the things I said over the radio when I blasted him because I was mad over knocking a wall down.

“He could have said, ‘Hey man I’m sorry I got into you – you know I pushed up,’ or whatever happened … and ‘Hey, by the way, those things that you said after the crash were pretty rough.’ And I would have been, like ‘Ricky, you’re totally right. That was over the top.’

Then, when the question was posed about whether they the two had talked, the answer would have been “yeah, we’re all fine.”

And that would have been the end of the story.

“I learned, after making that mistake a few times that it’s just easier to make the call,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said. “Sometimes you don’t even think you’re in the wrong. … But it’s just easier to go ahead and make the call, because that guy’s annoyed. It goes into the next week – and then, like (happened with) you guys, y’all had it play out in front of everybody at Kentucky.”

For more, watch the video above.

Follow Dan Beaver on Twitter.