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Cup drivers uncertain what to expect at untamed Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — For as wild as Talladega Superspeedway can be, Brad Keselowski has less of an idea what to expect Sunday “even for Talladega standards.’’

An offseason rule change has altered restrictor-plate racing and left drivers guessing.

This will be the track’s first race with no rule regulating ride height. The result is that cars are lower to the ground and run faster — but have less downforce, making them less stable.

“Right now with the ride height balance and the handling on the cars, I have never really seen this much uncertainty going into a plate race before,’’ said Kurt Busch, who starts second and is making his 70th start in a Cup plate race.

MORE: Starting lineup

Shortly after running a lap of 203.9 mph, Jamie McMurray’s left rear tire lost air and his car spun, was hit and went airborne in practice Friday. NASCAR reacted by reducing the size of the holes in the restrictor plate to shave some speed. Even so, Kevin Harvick’s pole-winning lap of 194.448 mph Saturday was nearly 4 mph faster than Dale Earnhardt Jr.’s pole speed at Talladega in October.

Sunday’s race is a riddle for drivers after how fussy cars were at Daytona in February. A particular problem was when the air was taken off the left rear quarter panel.

“I think that’s still going to be a key area, I don’t think there’s anything you can really do as a team to help that,’’ said Kyle Busch, vying to become the first driver since 2007 to win four consecutive races. “It is what it is and it’s just based off the air that’s on the nose of these cars and the buffer zone where the air is.

“Then it gets packed up on that big rear quarter panel of the car in front of you and also that shark fin that’s right there on the deck lid, and it just sort of pushes that car out a little bit and takes some side force away from the right side. It’s an aero thing and it’s certainly a situation you have to be ready for when you’re in competition when guys are … doing that to you.”

Even with all that, Talladega remains the best chance for some teams to win and make the playoffs. They see how there are only five different winners this year because of how Busch and Harvick have dominated. They know that unless there is a string of different winners, there could be several playoff spots determined by wins. For some teams, that path is less likely, so why not gamble in a restrictor-plate race?

Austin Dillon won the Daytona 500 to earn a playoff spot. Rookie Darrell Wallace Jr. finished second in that race for his best career result. He’s had one top-10 finish since.

Wallace is ready to see if he can finish one spot better.

I’m excited to get back in the race car and go back at it again,’’ he said. “Just from the experience we had at Daytona does bring a little bit of confidence.’’

But before the end, there are two stages and points to grab. An accident just before the end of the first stage of the Daytona 500 eliminated four cars, including Jimmie Johnson.

“If you don’t have a win, the stage points are pretty valuable,’’ said Ricky Stenhouse Jr., won this race a year ago and starts Sunday’s race seventh.

“I am going to be aggressive and try to keep our Fifth Third Ford up front and get as many points as possible. I can’t speak for everybody else, but I like driving hard and giving fans something good to watch. The fans really enjoyed when we were all racing hard at Daytona, and I think they get pretty frustrated when we get in single-file. If you are the leader, you don’t mind it, but for the most part, I would like for everybody to race all day long.”

After a Daytona 500 that saw 14 cars eliminated by accidents, aggression might not always be the best strategy. The question is who can make that ploy work and make it to the end.

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NBC Sports Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin remains No. 1 after Kansas

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For the second consecutive week, Denny Hamlin is atop this week’s NBC Sports’ NASCAR Power Rankings.Hamlin was selected unanimously.

Making the biggest jump in the rankings was Kyle Busch (from tied for seventh last week to No. 2 this week).

Falling the most was Ryan Blaney, who dropped from second last week to a tie for ninth this week.

Here are the power rankings ahead of the Round of 8 playoff race at Martinsville Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC):

1. Denny Hamlin (40 points): Kansas win is his fifth of the season, tying for his most victories in a season since 2012. The question grows louder: Is this the year he finally wins a Cup title? Last week: First.

2. Kyle Busch (34 points): While he remains mired in one of the longest winless streaks of his career, it’s hard to imagine him not rising to the occasion in the next three races to assure his spot at Miami. Last week: Tied for seventh.

3. Chase Elliott (33 points): He just barely avoided elimination at Kansas. He needs to win one of the next three races if he’s to be assured of racing for the championship. The question is, can he? Last week: Third.

4. Martin Truex Jr. (29 points): Slow pit stop late hurt him but still finished sixth. Has five finishes of seventh or better in the last six races. Last week: Tied for seventh.

5. Kevin Harvick (23 points): It’s time for “the Closer” to reemerge in the next three races to lock himself into a championship berth at Miami. Don’t be surprised if he wins at Texas or Phoenix – or both. Last week: Sixth.

6. Jimmie Johnson (11 points): While his strong performance in the last five races – four top-10s and one 11th-place finish – has come a little too late, Johnson could really shake up the playoffs with a win in the third round. He’s capable and has been building towards it. Will it happen? Last week: Unranked.

7. Kyle Larson (10 points): Not a clean day at Kansas. He and his team need to step up in the Round of 8. Last week: Tied for fourth.

8. William Byron (9 points): After a strong Kansas showing, could be a dark horse in the final four races. While eliminated from the playoffs, he still has the potential to win a race, particularly at a short track like Martinsville or Phoenix. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 9. Joey Logano (8 points): Yes, Joey is right, every point matters. That attitude is why he’s still alive in these playoffs. Last week: Tied for fourth.

(tie) 9. Ryan Blaney (8 points): See Kyle Larson. It’s pretty much the same story for Blaney. Last week: Second.

Others receiving votes: Clint Bowyer (6 points), Kurt Busch (3 points), Ryan Preece (3 points), Brandon Jones (2 points), Matt DiBenedetto (1 point).

Goodyear tire info for Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR Cup and Truck teams continue their respective playoffs this weekend at Martinsville Speedway.

The Cup Series begins its Round of 8, while the Gander Outdoors Truck Series will contest its middle race of the Round of 6.

Cup and Truck teams will run the same tire setup at Martinsville, the same tires both series have run at the .526-mile bullring since 2017.

It’s getting later in the fall and we are likely to have cloudy conditions and temperatures in the 60-degree range at Martinsville this week, so track temps will be low, making it more difficult for the track to take rubber,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Because of the time of year we run at Martinsville, we’ve worked hard over the past several years to come up with a tread compound that will lay rubber in the concrete corners, even in cool temperatures.

Generally, Martinsville has produced some of the best racing on the circuit and that only seems to have been enhanced by the track consistently taking rubber and having multiple racing lines. We continue to work on keeping up with Martinsville and making adjustments where needed, holding a test there this past summer and looking ahead to 2020 when we will have a full fledged night race at the track.”

According to wunderground.com, the forecast calls for a temperature of 58 degrees with a 40 percent chance of rain at the scheduled 1:30 p.m. ET start time for Saturday’s Truck race, and a temperature of 66 degrees with a 19 percent chance of green flag at the 3 p.m. ET scheduled start time for Sunday’s Cup race.

Here is the tire information for this weekend’s races at Martinsville:

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Short Track Radials

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying/start of race and 9 sets for race (8 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Truck: 5 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4588; Right-side – D-4722

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,221 mm (87.44 in.); Right-side — 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 10 psi; Left Rear — 10 psi; Right Front — 23 psi; Right Rear — 22 psi

As on most NASCAR ovals 1 mile or less in length, teams will not run inner liners in their tires at Martinsville.

NASCAR penalty report after Kansas

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NASCAR issued one penalty from this past weekend’s racing action at Kansas Speedway.

Chris Gayle, crew chief for the No. 20 Joe Gibbs Racing NASCAR Cup Toyota driven by Erik Jones, has been fined $10,000 for lug nut(s) not properly installed following Sunday’s race.

There were no penalties assessed to the teams of Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick stemming from the altercation following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

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Ron Hornaday Jr., Bobby Labonte to take part in Martinsville Truck race activities

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Martinsville Speedway will honor one NASCAR Hall of Famer and one inductee before Saturday’s NASCAR Hall of Fame 200 Truck Series race.

Hall of Famer Ron Hornaday Jr. will serve as grand marshal for the race, while Bobby Labonte, who will be inducted into the Hall in January, will serve as the honorary starter.

Bobby Labonte. Photo: Getty Images.

We are honored to have 2018 NASCAR Hall of Fame inductee Ron Hornaday Jr. as Grand Marshal and 2020 inductee Bobby Labonte as Honorary Starter at the first NASCAR Hall of Fame 200,” NASCAR Hall of Fame executive director Winston Kelly said in a statement. “Ron is the series’ only four-time champion. As the 2000 premier series champion and 1992 Xfinity champion, Bobby is one of only 31 drivers who has won races in all three NASCAR national series with his lone truck series win coming at Martinsville.”

Said Clay Campbell, president of Martinsville Speedway: “We appreciate the NASCAR Hall of Fame making it possible to have two great NASCAR champions available to meet our fans Saturday morning before the NASCAR Hall of Fame 200. Having Ron and Bobby be a part of our race weekend is special for everyone at Martinsville Speedway.”

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