NASCAR America: Breaking down championship chances for remaining Cup contenders

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With four races left, eight drivers remain with a shot at the Cup championship.

On Tuesday’s NASCAR America, analysts Parker Kligerman, Nate Ryan and Steve Letarte gave their take on the eight still in contention.

Each driver was given a tag line that best describes their championship bid.

Check out some of what our analysts had to say, the tag line for all eight drivers.

Martin Truex Jr. – “Domination on track … adversity off track”

Letarte: “They dominate every category, but I want to know with that huge lead and the Round of 8 almost secure, the question for me is will the pressure build, knowing that Miami is four weeks away. That can be great for preparation but can also just break your nerves down.”

Ryan: “It’s just been a very tumultuous year. But I think what gets forgotten sometimes is Martin Truex Jr. is no stranger to adversity. This is a guy who, in 2013 with Michael Waltrip Racing, had his ride taken away by one of the biggest scandals in NASCAR history. He weathered that with so much class, very admirably, that I think he emerged a changed man after that … and we’ve seen that this year.”

Kyle Busch – “If you ain’t first, you’re last”

Kligerman: “This driver cares only about one thing, and that is winning. He wants to win every time he steps in a race car, whether it’s a Super Late Model, an Xfinity car or a Cup car. If he wants to go on to win his second championship, it’s about winning. … He can most definitely win at Martinsville. He told Marty Snider after Kansas, ‘I want to win Martinsville, so I don’t have to worry’ (about earning berth into the Championship 4 at Miami).”

Letarte: “For the 18 to be good in the next round, it’s very important for them to look back. They should feel reborn coming out of the Round of 12 because it was a disaster and started with the driver making a mistake from Charlotte and it just tumbled from there.”

Brad Keselowski – “Legacy”

Ryan: “He feels as if he needs a second championship to validate the first one (2012). He’s heard whispers around the Cup garage that people think his 2012 title was a fluke. Until he wins another one, he feels like he’s not going to put his doubters to rest.”

Letarte: “That’s how Brad is. If you look at him, we’re going to know very quickly. His best shot to advance to Miami starts at Martinsville this weekend. He said Talladega was a must-win and he did it. I wouldn’t say Martinsville is a must-win … but he must run well. He has to be in the top two or three at Martinsville to feel good about Miami.”

Kevin Harvick – “Relentless”

Ryan: “I think (that tag line) is very fitting. His and crew chief Rodney Childers’ goal is to win everything, and not just races, but qualifying, practice sessions, it’s lead every lap. They want to be completely dominant. If that sounds like an unrealistic goal for a team that likes challenges, that IS Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers.”

Letarte: “He has the nickname of ‘The Closer’ because he does a great job of fighting through the races and being there at the end. … I expect Kevin Harvick to be his normal self, to be relentless. He will be there inside the top two or top three. If he doesn’t have a good enough car to take the lead, he’s going to put the pressure on the leader to make sure they execute correctly.”

Jimmie Johnson – “#Chasing8”

Kligerman: “He’s chasing that record eighth championship. They need to find speed. He’s confident they can find that speed and go to Miami and compete. Remember, they went into last year’s Championship 4 and not a lot of people had them going on to win it, but they found a way to win it. They’re a clutch team and that’s what it’s going to take.”

Letarte: “Waiting for Miami or needing it to happen at Miami, the odds go against them, the probability goes down. Somehow, they have to find a moment in the next three races to give themselves a little momentum and put themselves on the radar to make other competitors concerned.”

Denny Hamlin – “Redemption”

Letarte: “He’s been waiting for that chance to kind of emerge and get back on that stage. All year long, we’ve been talking about the 78 and 18 … while Denny Hamlin has been very quietly putting together what I consider a very good season. When you look at the tracks coming up, there’s no reason why he can’t win and that’s what it will take. Denny’s my sleeper. You get him into Miami, he has a lot to prove. Thirty-one wins without a championship. This is a Hall of Fame career. The only way to silence the critics is to win the championship.”

Ryan: “A driver like him is like what it was like for NBA stars competing against Michael Jordan. Clyde Drexler, who never won an NBA championship because he faced off against Michael Jordan. Denny Hamlin doesn’t want to be that person in NASCAR. Having raced in the Jimmie Johnson era, he needs to seize the opportunity to get that first title.”

Ryan Blaney – “Win it for the Wood Brothers”

Letarte: “It’s all about the race team he drives for, win it for the Wood Brothers. They believed him, gave him the opportunity, he got them win No. 99. … He’d love to win a championship for the Wood Brothers.”

Ryan: “He has a little bit of a chip on his shoulder. He’s listening to what people said about him advancing out of the Round of 12 … that he wasn’t going to make the Round of 8, which makes it all the more special (that Blaney did).”

Chase Elliott – “Youngest ever”

Kligerman: “He has been great through the playoffs here. If he were to win a championship at 21 years old, he’d be the youngest Cup series champion ever, which would be incredible. But there is an elephant in the room with the 24 team, and that is they’ve not won a race. … I look at Texas for the 24 team. This could be the best chance for them to get that elusive first victory and then propel themselves to fight for a championship.”

Letarte: “Could you think of a bigger win? What would be a bigger first career win then to do a walk-off at Miami for the first championship. … When the playoffs started, this team has risen up and have raised to the level of a championship-style race team.”

And don’t forget, on Wednesday’s NASCAR America on NBCSN, we’ll have special guest Joe Gibbs join us for a full hour from the NASCAR Hall of Fame. The show airs from 5-6 p.m. ET.

Today’s Cup race at Kansas: Start time, lineup and more

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — The playoff field will be whittled to eight drivers today at Kansas Speedway, where the second-round cutoff race of the 2019 Cup playoffs will occur over 400 miles.

Kyle Larson and Ryan Blaney are locked into the third round, and Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick seem strong bets to advance. Team Penske drivers Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano (plus 18 points in the final transfer spot) also have a cushion on the cutoff.

That puts Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer and William Byron in virtual must-win situations to advance to the third round.

Here is the information for today’s race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: Actor Jensen Ackles will give the command to start engines at 2:37 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 2:48 p.m.

PRERACE: The Cup garage will open at 10:30 a.m. The driver/crew chief meeting will be at 12:30 p.m. Driver introductions are at 1:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 2:30 p.m. by Lt. Col Randy Croft, Whiteman Air Force Base. The National Anthem will be performed at 2:31 p.m. by Eric Roosevelt.

DISTANCE: The race is 267 laps (400 miles) around the 1.5-mile oval.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

TV/RADIO: NBC will televise the race. Coverage will begin with NASCAR America at 1 p.m. on NBC. Countdown to Green follows at 1:30 p.m. on NBC, leading into race coverage. The postrace show will be on NBCSN at 6 p.m., followed by Victory Lap at 6:30 p.m.

Motor Racing Network’s radio broadcast will begin at 1 p.m. and also can be heard on mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast.

STREAMING ONLINE: Click here for NBC’s live stream of the race.

FORECAST: Wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy conditions with a temperature of 63 degrees and a 15% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: A year ago, Chase Elliott led the final 44 laps for his third and final victory of the season. Brad Keselowski won the May 11 race here, outdueling Alex Bowman in the closing laps. 

STARTING LINEUP: Click here

Garrett Smithley calls wreck with leaders a career low point

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Garrett Smithley said he felt “probably the lowest of my career” Saturday after causing the leaders to wreck late in the Xfinity Series playoff race at Kansas Speedway while he was five laps down.

Smithley said he wasn’t aware the leaders were behind him when he exited Turn 4 and moved up toward the wall. Chase Briscoe, who was leading, and Christopher Bell, who was second, made contact as Briscoe tried to avoid Smithley.

Briscoe finished third. Bell 12th.

“I just didn’t get the memo that he was coming,” Smithley said of the leaders. “(Spotter) Freddie (Kraft) usually does a good job, he always does a good job. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. Something didn’t get transmitted or what. I glanced up. David Starr was back there. I was just riding. We were on like 70-lap tires just riding not even pushing hard. I hated it.”

Asked about the line he ran, going from the bottom in the corners to high on exit, Smithley said:

“I was running my line. If I had known he was back there, I wouldn’t have even done that. I was just riding. I was on 70-lap tires, not even pushing it. Just stupid mistake. I hate that it happened. I hate it for everybody that got involved. I do not want to be that guy by any means. I’ve never been that guy. I hate that that happened.”

It’s the second time in about a month that Smithley has been hit by a faster car while running laps down in a race.

In the Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, Kyle Busch ran into the back of Smithley’s car and criticized Smithley’s credentials.

Asked if he feared people would start associating him with those incidents, Smithley said:

“No. What happened at Vegas happened. People spoke and most people were on my side. It was a mistake. People forget how hard this stuff is. Things happen in a split-second decision. Like I said, I didn’t know he was up there. I glanced up and didn’t see him and ran my line and that was it.”

Briscoe demurred on being overly critical of Smithley, saying “I still haven’t seen a replay” when he talked to reporters.

“It is frustrating even without that lap car, just in general,” Briscoe said. “I totally understand lap cars are obviously off the pace and that makes it tough for them. At this place, the fast guys are running the top and there were a lot of guys that would run the top in front of you.

“We are literally racing for our lives trying to lock into a championship. I haven’t seen the replay so it is hard to say. I know I got tagged in the left rear by Bell but at the same time it felt like (Smithley) was going to put me in the fence regardless.”

Told that Smithley said he wasn’t aware Briscoe was behind, Briscoe said: “I feel like he should have general awareness of what is going on. I totally get where he is coming from. It is tough in those situations. I don’t know. I don’t want to comment on it because I have not been in his position, so I am sure it is tough but it is frustrating to say the least on my end. We go from 15 to go thinking we are going to win the race and lock into Homestead and then you are two points back. It is frustrating. I am sure he will reach out and I appreciate that, but it doesn’t much help the fact.”

Said Bell: “I haven’t seen (a replay) so it’s hard for me to say. Obviously I didn’t mean to wreck the 98. It sucks that we tore up two race cars.”

While Bell and Briscoe were judicious in their words, some Cup drivers expressed their feelings on Twitter:

Smithley took responsibility on Twitter:

 

 

Xfinity results, points after Round of 8 begins at Kansas

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Brandon Jones may have been eliminated from advancement in the Xfinity Series playoffs after the cutoff race at Dover two weeks ago, but on Saturday he lived up to his promise that he’d still win a race in the remainder of the playoffs as the Round of 8 kicked off.

It was Jones’ first win in 134 career Xfinity Series starts. It also was his 14th top-10 finish of 2019.

MORE: Brandon Jones rallies late to earn first career Xfinity win at Kansas

Tyler Reddick finished second, followed by Chase Briscoe, Michael Annett and Justin Allgaier.

Click here for the race results.

POINTS:

Even though he finished 12th after being involved in a late race wreck with Briscoe and Garrett Smithley, Christopher Bell still maintains his lead at the top of the heap of the Xfinity Series point standings.

Bell holds an 11-point lead over Cole Custer and is 12 points ahead of Tyler Reddick and 47 points ahead of Justin Allgaier.

Fifth through eighth are Chase Briscoe (-49 points), Michael Annett (-59 points), Noah Gragson (-64 points) and Austin Cindric (-77 points).

Click here for the updated point standings.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Cole Custer, Tyler Reddick have physical confrontation after Kansas race

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KANSAS CITY, Kan. – Xfinity Series championship contenders Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick got involved in a heated confrontation that quickly turned physical after Saturday’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Custer, who was angry about Reddick making contact with him, approached his rival after they parked in the pits. Custer put a hand on the shoulder of Reddick, who responded by grabbing Custer with both hands (watch the video above).

The drivers both fell to the ground as they were swarmed by members of both teams. Neither driver seemed to be hurt, though Reddick had a red mark above his right eye.

“I was just frustrated that he can’t keep his car on the bottom and then runs us up into the wall,” Custer told NBC Sports. “If he wants to wreck cars and put them in the wall, that’s fine, but when it affects me, I’m not going to be very happy with him.

“I don’t know. I just went over to talk to him and say that and put my hand on him, and he just went berserk. I thought we had a good car and a shot to win.”

As he approached Reddick, Custer addressed him with “You can be a dumb (expletive).”

“I understand Cole’s frustration 100 percent,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “We’re trying to lock ourselves into Homestead, and he came up to talk after the race. He put a hand on me, I put a hand on him back, and that’s just how it’s going to be if we’re going to have a conversation that way.

“I’m out of breath. Had a fight there with some people, and it was a little bit of fun. I think a lot of Cole and his driving ability.”

Reddick finished runner-up Saturday to Brandon Jones, who won but already had been eliminated from the playoffs and wasn’t eligible to advance to the championship round. Custer finished 10th.

With two races remaining in the Xfinity playoffs at Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix Raceway, Reddick and Custer both are comfortably in position to reach the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Custer is 38 points ahead of the cut line, and Reddick is plus-37. Christopher Bell, who crashed with leader Chase Briscoe when he ran into the rear of the lapped car of Garrett Smithley, remained the championship leader at 49 points ahead of Briscoe, who is two points behind fourth-ranked Justin Allgaier

“It was just heat of the moment,” Reddick said of the scuffle. “We’re pissed off. I’m sure we’ll talk about it here soon, maybe today, tomorrow.

“I hate that it happened to him, but we’ll try and move forward. Both of us have a lot left to lose in this deal, and if we take each other out, neither one of us get to Homestead, and I feel we both deserve to be there.”

A Stewart-Haas Racing spokesman said Reddick and Custer talk led later in the garage as their cars went through postrace inspection.

There also were postrace tweets from Custer and from Reddick.

Custer also was involved in a notable altercation after a truck race three years ago at Canadian Tire Motorsport Park, where he tackled John Hunter Nemechek in anger after they collided on the last lap while racing for the lead.

Nemechek made light of that situation while Custer did postrace interviews Saturday (see the :50 mark of Dustin Long’s Twitter video below).