Ryan: Meet him in Miami? Kevin Harvick makes big push to title berth

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Maybe nobody wants to talk about this amidst rear-window violations, drivers “racing too hard” and installing betting windows adjacent to the garage stalls.

But can we discuss how much clearer the playoff picture seems a third of the way through the season for at least one contender?

The chances of Kevin Harvick winning the 2018 Cup championship have become exponentially greater over the last two months. The odds still are probably less than 50-50, but it is creeping up quickly toward one in four.

Wait, you say, that would mean the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is on the verge of being a lock for the four-driver championship finale Nov. 18 at Homestead-Miami Speedway?

If Harvick stays on this pace, or just close to approximating it, the answer is yes.

Absolutely.

Just look at last year’s series champion.

When he scored his second win of the season at Kansas Speedway on May 13, 2017, Martin Truex Jr. had 15 playoff points.

After winning Saturday night at Kansas for his fifth victory this year, Harvick has 24 playoff points (and would have 31 if his Las Vegas Motor Speedway stage win sweep weren’t nullified by a rear-window penalty).

It took Truex until the 18th race to amass that many playoff points (he went from 21 to 28 points with his July 8, 2017 sweep of Kentucky Speedway). He entered the playoffs with a 53-point bulge (the maximum possible in a race is 60) and added 16 to the total over the six races before the Round of 8. It made for a virtual walkover to Miami.

That cushion mattered because it allowed Furniture Row Racing to spend several weeks preparing the No. 78 Toyota that carried Truex to a victory (and the championship) in the Nov. 19 finale.

After opening the Round of 12 with a victory at Charlotte Motor Speedway on Oct. 8, 2017, Truex’s team could turn the bulk of its attention to the championship race. It would have taken an epic collapse to blow a 69-point lead through Martinsville Speedway, Texas Motor Speedway and Phoenix International Raceway.

At his current pace, there is a solid chance Harvick could have an even bigger playoff points total entering the Round of 8 this year.

Crew chief Rodney Childers is among the best in Cup (along with Cole Pearn for Truex) at using simulations to set up a car.

Give Childers that much time to build a supersonic No. 4 Ford for Harvick at Miami, where he won in 2014 and has finished second, third and fourth since. It’s abundantly obvious whom the heavy favorite would be in this year’s championship.

It might seem absurd to suggest that after 12 of 36 races, Harvick is a surefire bet for Miami in a playoff system with three elimination rounds and points resets.

But one of the nuances about the stage racing/playoff points structure (and an improvement because it rewards seasonlong performance) is that it neutralizes some of the randomness.

Harvick might be on the cusp of carving out some impressive immediate history by notching two three-race winning streaks in one season.

But in the long game, he is setting himself for an even greater slice of significance.

(Thanks for indulging us. We can now return to discussing myriad topics unconnected to the somehow undercovered story of this year’s championship battle.)


William Byron said he was “thankful to be walking” after the fiery wreck at Kansas Speedway, which had us thinking.

Does it seem as if there have been an inordinate amount of heavy wrecks at this 1.5-mile speedway?

–Dale Jarrett sustained the worst concussion of his career there (with effects that lasted several years afterward) in the Sept. 30, 2001 debut race.

Sterling Marlin broke his neck and missed the last seven races of the season after a vicious crash on Sept. 29, 2002.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. suffered a concussion in a wicked Turn 1 wreck during an August 2012 test session.

–The cars of Kyle Busch and Joey Logano got crumpled in an April 21, 2013 crash (damage that was similar to what Byron sustained last Saturday night).

–Last year, Aric Almirola missed seven races after suffering a compression fracture in a violent impact that left Danica Patrick shaken.

Most of this is likely just happenstance and not a byproduct of track design (though Kansas is among the last of the “real” triovals, lacking the dogleg of many 1.5-mile layouts).

But it is curious that Kansas has established a reputation as perhaps the most treacherous and unforgiving 1.5-mile track for wrecks (particularly when Texas and Charlotte often are mentioned most often when this category arises).


Based on his in-race radio chatter and brief comments afterward, Matt Kenseth surely had steeled himself for the possibility that his debut weekend would be as challenging as it was. His cautious outlook about his return to Roush Fenway Racing underscored that Kenseth understood the scale of the undertaking.

But the 2003 series champion already made his presence felt in his first competition meetings with the team last week, and he’s been given the full support of team owner Jack Roush to effect changes he feels are needed to return the No. 6 Ford to top-caliber results.

Kenseth probably won’t stomach running outside the top 25 on a consistent basis for more than a couple of races, but it’s reasonable to expect his patience for witnessing demonstrable improvements will last through at least the Coca-Cola 600.


Of the five rear-window penalties this season, the manufacturer breakdown is two Fords, two Chevrolets and one ToyotaDaniel Suarez at Dover.

The top three Toyotas in the standings haven’t been penalized, while two of the top three Fords (Harvick and Clint Bowyer) and the top Chevrolet (Larson) have been dinged.

This might provide context to why Denny Hamlin (seventh in the standings behind Joe Gibbs Racing teammate and points leader Kyle Busch and just ahead of fellow Camry driver Truex in eighth) grew animated on his team radio during the Kansas race, noting that “Larson’s roof is pushed in 2 feet! Two feet, his roof is pushed in!”

While the next rear-window penalty might draw harsher punishment from NASCAR … it also might draw a round of louder sniping from peers.


The loss of Larson’s playoff point from his second stage victory at Kansas raises the question of whether NASCAR should award playoff points to the next eligible contender after penalties.

In this instance, that would be Harvick. He also finished second in the first stage to Ryan Blaney, so his rivals are fortunate that Harvick doesn’t enter Charlotte Motor Speedway with an even bigger playoff points bulge.

Between the penalties to Harvick and Larson, that’s eight playoff points that have “disappeared” into the ether this season in Cup.


Remember the shove that Blaney delivered to Harvick last fall after the Martinsville Speedway race?

Maybe those embers still were smoldering when Blaney made this comment about falling from third to fifth on a restart with 25 laps remaining Saturday: “I got about spun out in (turns) 1 and 2 on the restart, getting sucked around.”

Without naming him, that was an obvious reference to Harvick using the outside to side-draft off Blaney and into the lead over Larson.

Six laps later, Blaney would crash with Larson and finish 37th after leading 54 laps and winning the first stage.

It wasn’t the first time the Team Penske driver has failed to close out a win with a strong car. He led a race-high 118 laps at the Daytona 500, 100 laps at Bristol Motor Speedway and 145 at Martinsville, and he also crashed at Talladega Superspeedway after contending for the victory. He’s led the most laps (418) among winless drivers in 2018.

Some of those were on the driver, some were just circumstantial. But even though he took full blame for the Kansas incident with Larson, it’s natural to wonder if Blaney holds Harvick partly responsible for putting him in that position.

Top 10 in Charlotte Xfinity race ‘dream come true’ for Kaz Grala

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CONCORD, N.C. — Darius Grala did what any proud father would do after seeing his son do something “amazing” and “absolutely ridiculous.”

With a large grin plastered across his face, he stood on Charlotte Motor Speedway’s pit road and captured the image of Kaz Grala helping push his No. 61 Ford toward the garage.

In his first Xfinity race for Fury Race Cars, the race car building company his father formed in 2016 and that was making its first NASCAR start, Kaz Grala placed 10th.

“That 10th feels like a win to us. No joke,” Darius Grala told NBC Sports. “It’s not like we didn’t dream of having a top 10 when we loaded up to head to the race track. But I got to tell you, that was a tall order and to deliver on it is nothing short of a dream.”

The dream started with a text message from Darius Grala to crew chief Shane Wilson on May 9, formally beginning the process of putting the No. 61 team together after Kaz Grala learned he would be without his ride at JGL Racing after 10 starts.

MORE: JGL Racing owner diagnosed with liver failure.

Seventeen days later, the 19-year-old rookie earned his best result since placing fourth in the season opener at Daytona. It’s his second top 10 through 11 races.

The team, which includes most of the crew who worked on Kaz Grala’s No. 24 car at JGL Racing through the first 10 races, showed up at Charlotte on Thursday without a backup car.

Without any owner points to guarantee a starting spot, Kaz Grala was cautious in practice and Saturday’s qualifying session, which was threatened by rain. But the track was dry when the time came to qualify and the the No. 61 wound up 16th on the board.

Caution was forgotten with the green flag.

“I was aggressive as much as I could be,” Kaz Grala told media at his car afterward. “Really going for it cause I knew these guys deserved a good run. I didn’t want to be the reason they didn’t get it. I was driving my guts out out there. I think I asked for six different water bottles during that race. I was literally leaving nothing on the table. That’s the way you gotta race in the Xfinity Series. Everybody’s too freaking good to not go all out every single lap. I’m really proud of everybody. I can’t thank everyone enough. This is a dream come true.”

He was 11th when a one hour rain delay occurred with 28 laps to go.

On the restart, he lost a few spots before positioning himself for a top 10 in overtime.

“Each additional lap was an additional opportunity to pick up another position,” Darius Grala said. “On that last (run) though, we gained a couple and lost a couple and pretty much ended up where we were. But that’s OK. Top 10 is literally the best we could have possibly hoped for.”

Now the Xfinity team that didn’t exist nearly three weeks ago gets another chance to overachieve. The series heads to Pocono Raceway for a race that will see the restrictor plate package that was used last year at Indianapolis.

“I don’t know how to feel,” Kaz Grala told NBC Sports. “Pocono was one of my favorite race tracks last year. I love it. But we’ve got this weird aero package next week, which I’ve never driven with. My crew chief and most of my crew only has experience with it once, Indy last year. I don’t think they know much of what to expect and I know I definitely don’t. No expectations for us, we’re going to be learning every lap in practice. Hopefully we can have a run to follow this one up. This one’s going to be tough to follow. That’s a good problem to have.”

 

Results, points after Xfinity race at Charlotte

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Brad Keselowski won the Alsco 300 at Charlotte Motor Speedway, becoming the first repeat Xfinity winner of the season.

Keselowski won from the pole, beating Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler.

Click here for results.

Points

Elliott Sadler leaves Charlotte with a 38-point lead over Christopher Bell.

Sadler is the only driver to finish in the top 10 all 11 races this season.

The top five is completed by Tyler Reddick (-55), Daniel Hemric (-57) and Cole Custer (-62).

Click here for the standings.

Brad Keselowski wins Xfinity race at Charlotte in overtime finish

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CONCORD, N.C. — Brad Keselowski won the Xfinity Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway in an overtime finish, claiming his second win in as many starts this season.

Keselowski, who started on the pole, led 77 laps and won over Cole Custer, Christopher Bell, Ty Dillon and Elliott Sadler.

Keselowski also won at Phoenix. He is the first repeat Xfinity winner this season.

He rebounded from pit penalty on Lap 128 for crew going over the wall too soon.

The overtime finish was setup by a debris caution with two laps left in the original 200-lap distance.

The final 28 laps were ran following a one hour rain delay.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Kyle Busch

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

MORE: Race results and point standings

WHO HAD A GOOD DAY: Cole Custer started and finished second after also leading 29 laps. It’s his second top five of the season … Ty Dillon placed fourth for his first top five in nine Charlotte starts. It’s also his first top five and top 10 of the season .. Elliott Sadler is the only driver with top 10s in all 11 races this season. Heplaced fifth after battling mechanical issues – including a faulty cooling unit – and a speeding penalty.

WHO HAD A BAD DAY: After winning the first two stages, Kyle Busch finished eighth after he spun on a restart with 39 laps to go. He had restarted 10th after pitting and got loose trying to pass Dylan Lupton into Turn 1 … Lupton was then eliminated in a wreck with Ty Majeski on the following restart … Chase Elliott placed 37th after experiencing transmission issues on the Stage 3 restart … Tyler Reddck finished 23rd after begin involved in two wrecks, including one during the overtime restart … Justin Allgaier and Jamie McMurray were eliminated in a wreck with 20 to go.

NOTABLE: Alex Labbe had to be replaced in his No. 36 Chevrolet midway through the race by Josh Williams. He was then taken to a local hospital for an undisclosed reason … Kaz Grala placed 10th in his first start for Fury Race Cars, a team co-owned by his father. It’s his best result since placing fourth at Daytona for JGL Racing … Kyle Busch is winless in his last four Xfinity starts, his longest stretch since 2014 (eight races).

POST-RACE INSPECTION: Christopher Bell’s No. 20 Toyota failed post-race height inspection. Tommy Joe Martins had one loose lug nut. Any penalties will be announced next week.

QUOTE OF THE DAY: “I was just heartbroken whenever I saw that piece of debris fly off those lapped cars.”- Christopher Bell on the debris caution which kept Bell from making a run at Brad Keselowski.

WHAT’S NEXT: Pocono Green 250 at Pocono Raceway at 1 p.m. ET on June 2 on Fox Sports 1.

What’s next for Danica Patrick after the Indy 500? Dreams, downtime and waffles

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INDIANAPOLIS – When Danica Patrick was a 14-year-old growing up in Roscoe, Illinois, she had a firm idea of what she’d be doing 20 years later.

A reporter from her hometown newspaper recently reminded her of that in a recent interview when he brought a prescient artifact from those teenage years – an essay that she crafted as an up and coming go-kart driver about her racing accomplishments.

“I’m breezing through it, and then at the end, it said, ‘I wanted to race Indy cars,” Patrick, 36, said Thursday at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. “I was 14. I told him, ‘See? If this isn’t an example of “Write that shit down,” nothing is.’

“This is manifesting. You have write it down and you have to imagine what you want. So I do that as much as I can.”

Heading into the final start of her career in Sunday’s Indianapolis 500, Patrick already seems to have a solid idea of the next 20 years — in part, because of having some glimpses into her post-racing life.

There has been plenty of downtime since her final NASCAR start in the Daytona 500 three months ago. She has taken vacations (including an India trip to meet the Dalai Lama with boyfriend Aaron Rodgers) and created several new routines on her suddenly free from racing weekends.

“I make waffles on Sundays now,” she said. “That’s pretty fun.  In the summer, there’s like farmers market.  I can’t wait for that.  I mean, there’s going to be probably some new stuff that I don’t know yet.

“The one thing that I am definitely looking forward to less of is less stress.  Last weekend was awesome at the end of it all because it went well with qualifying, but I was nervous for 95% of that weekend. That’s uncomfortable.”

But testing her comfort zone is appealing to Patrick, who has spent most of her adult life testing the boundaries of gender norms in her profession. Though the pressure of race weekends might disappear, her incessant quest for challenges probably will remain.

Now that racing is over, Patrick still has a winery, a clothing line, a cookbook and a fitness manual to promote – and more is on the way.

“I just have a habit for pushing myself to uncomfortable spaces, making them comfortable for me,” she said. “At least just making them comfortable enough to be able to manage.

“As an example, I went bungee jumping a long while back, like 10 years.  I’m super scared of heights.  I’m still scared of heights.  But I just like to know that if I want to do something, I am brave enough and confident enough to do it.  That doesn’t mean I’m not still scared.  That doesn’t mean it’s not still something that’s easy to me afterward. I just like to know I can get past the fear if I have to.

“I’m OK with transitioning into other things, finding a little bit of happiness and joy each day, less colorization of emotions. I’m ready for that.”

So what specifically is on tap? Talk shows? Another book?

Patrick demurs when pressed.

“I think I have definitely big dreams and aspirations for myself, for all my companies, for the kind of emotion I want to have on a day-to-day basis,” she said. “I’m looking forward to a good, easy, happy, calm, joyful, exciting, adventurous life.  If I say I want it, there’s a very good chance that’s what I’ll get.”

In the short-term, there’s hosting an ESPN awards show that will keep her busy through July.

And after that, her schedule will free up just as Green Bay Packers training camp begins for Rodgers, the two-time MVP quarterback.

“I’m thinking I’m going to have plenty of time to write a cookbook in Green Bay,” she said.