Ryan: Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick could be turning playoff race into mad scramble

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Halfway to the playoffs, and two stories are emerging in NASCAR’s premier series with one common theme: Points.

There are the playoff points that Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick are accumulating at a rate quick enough that half of this year’s championship field might be sewed up by September.

And then there are the “regular” points that will become even more of a scramble over the next 13 races to snatch whatever berths remain in the 16-driver playoff field.

There have been six winners through the first 13 races, mostly because of Busch (four victories) and Harvick (five). If the two hottest drivers in NASCAR’s premier series can maintain their torrid pace, and if some combination of Martin Truex Jr., Joey Logano, Clint Bowyer and Austin Dillon also can repeat (which seems likely), there probably will be more spots available on points than ever in the five seasons the playoffs were reconfigured in 2014.

The playoff lineup is filled first by winners, and if there are fewer than 16, the remaining slots are awarded on points. The record for most points-eligible qualifiers was five in 2015 (Jamie McMurray, Jeff Gordon, Ryan Newman, Paul Menard and Bowyer), and there seems a good chance for at least as many or more this year.

As NASCAR grinds through the grueling summer stretch with slick racetracks and oppressive heat, the tension could ratchet up against the backdrop of a points race – particularly with a fresh 2018 schedule that includes another 1.5-mile track (Chicagoland) and a new cutoff race.

In the regular-season finale Sept. 9 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, NASCAR seems to be learning toward using the All-Star Race rules package that mixes restrictor plates and aero ducts to bunch the field.

The current championship standings should make it a no-brainer, given there is virtually no chance of having 16 playoff berths for 16 winners.

If there is a points battle of, say, more than a dozen drivers vying for the last six or seven playoff berths, it could turn the Brickyard into the free-for-all that the 2.5-mile track desperately needs to help reinvigorate dwindling crowds.

Though last year’s race was among the most memorable because of the three-wide battles for the lead at the front, it could be even more captivating to watch several drivers duel for positions within the pack in the waning laps if the racing resembles the action produced in the All-Star Race.

Thus, Busch and Harvick inadvertently could make the Brickyard a must-watch event this season – while simultaneously turning the playoffs into a frenzied scrum of 14 drivers for two spots in Miami.

While it isn’t a foregone conclusion that they will be in the championship finale, Busch (25 playoff points) and Harvick (24) are tracking ahead of where defending series champion Truex was last season (16 after 13 races). At this rate, both will claim mega-bonuses from their regular-season standings and would enter the playoffs as co-favorites.


Kyle Busch has won at Charlotte Motor Speedway, which means he has won at every track on the Cup circuit.

This STILL will be true Sept. 30 when the first race is run on Charlotte’s road course. Yes, the track will carry a “Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval” designation on the schedule, and its debut will mean that he won’t have won at every Cup layout.

But Busch still will have won at every track for several reasons.

Start with the fact that the “Roval” course will use all but 400 feet of the 1.5-mile oval that Busch finally conquered Sunday night in the Coca-Cola 600.

And let’s remember that many famous ovals also have road courses that hold races, and there is little distinction made in designating them.

Jeff Gordon and Michael Schumacher are both five-time winners at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Will Power became a first-time winner of the Indianapolis 500 but is a four-time winner at IMS. Mario Andretti, A.J. Foyt and Jamie McMurray have multiple signature victories at Daytona International Speedway – in the Daytona 500 and Rolex 24.

NASCAR apparently will be recognizing the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval as a “new” track, which opens a Pandora’s box of questions about retrofitting its record books.

Tracks rarely are given such reclassifications after repaves or reconfigurations that change the complexions of their races. The Roval layout might be on a different level, but so is Richmond Raceway’s 65-year evolution.

It started as a half-mile dirt track before being paved in 1968. Two decades later, it was torn down and rebuilt as the current 0.75-mile track.

None of this is abundantly obvious (unless you have an eagle eye for varying distances) on Racing-Reference.info, the deservedly respected bible of NASCAR historical information. Richard Petty has 13 wins at Richmond – not 10 on pavement and three on dirt (which should count as much as a “new” track as turning a 1.5-mile oval into a road course).

Busch apparently was told less than an hour after becoming the first driver of the modern era to win at every track that (because NASCAR is counting the Charlotte roval as a “new” track) the record would last for four months .

How about letting him enjoy it for much longer than that? As in, until the next time a new track actually is added to the schedule?


There’s always annual talk about which NASCAR driver might be the next to attempt the Indianapolis 500-Coca-Cola 600 doubleheader.

But how about IndyCar drivers coming the other direction?

Power’s Indy 500 win, coupled with his 2014 championship, should allow him to write his own ticket with team owner Roger Penske, who has IndyCar and NASCAR teams under the same roof in Mooresville, North Carolina. Power has expressed a desire to race a stock car, as have teammates Simon Pagenaud and Josesf Newgarden (who also have IndyCar titles).

“Hell, yes,” Newgarden said last week. “I love NASCAR. I think it’s awesome. Open wheel cars captured me as a kid. That doesn’t mean I don’t like stock cars. But I also like this resurgence of drivers who say they want to do everything. I think there’s a lot of guys who do want to do everything and always have.

Joked Pagenaud: “I’m very French but could do it. I can drink coffee while I drive, no problem. I can do it.”

Newgarden is frustrated by how segmented racing has become for drivers in the 21st century. “You have to have a side,” he said. “You have to choose one. I think it’s so stupid. I like it all. I watch everything. I watch NASCAR stuff. We all do. We all follow that stuff. We’d all love to try it.

“When you drive for Roger, you have to first focus on what you’re hired for, and you’re hired to win the Indianapolis 500 and the championship, and if you do a great job at that, maybe one day you’ll get an opportunity to try a stock car. I hope that happens.”

The growth of road courses in both the Xfinity (Road America is a longtime IndyCar venue) and Cup series also could offer more opportunities. James Hinchcliffe is among the IndyCar drivers who reportedly has been exploring one-off road-course rides in NASCAR.

And based how he handled single-file restarts Sunday in Indy, we wouldn’t mind seeing Alexander Rossi getting a shot, too.


For the second time this season, four Chevrolet drivers (Jimmie Johnson, Jamie McMurray, Kyle Larson and Alex Bowman) finished in the top 10 at Charlotte. It also happened at Bristol Motor Speedway, but accomplishing the feat at a 1.5-mile track is an encouraging sign for a new Camaro that has seemed to lack the aerodynamic advantage of Ford and Toyota.

The impact of NASCAR’s new Optical Scanning Station certainly seems to have helped Ford drivers, who have been hinting since the preseason that the new inspection system would benefit their Fusions with more rear downforce.

But the OSS also might have had an opposite effect on the Camaro, whose design and development was initiated before teams saw the system in action for the first time last fall (in demonstration mode during the playoffs).

Hendrick Motorsports recently acquired an OSS for its shop, joining several powerhouse teams that purchased theirs before the season. NASCAR managing director of competition and innovation John Probst said as many as 10 teams have OSS systems.

That isn’t unusual given that teams would have their own sets of templates when NASCAR used the metal silhouettes for measurements, but Probst said the efficiency and accuracy of the OSS (which relies on two dozen high-definition cameras and projectors) makes it a more attractive option for teams.

Though NASCAR offers an OSS for teams’ use at its R&D Center in Concord, North Carolina, many rely on OSS in their shops because they take measurements throughout the car-building process.

“I think we anticipated teams would buy this,” Probst said on last week’s episode of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Teams measuring (cars) multiple times as it goes throughout the shop, that’s a very reasonable thing to do.

“There are a lot of reasons to buy the technology. It’s relatively simple, the results are fairly quick and accurate. It’s relatively cheaper compared to many other solutions. It’s a more efficient system in general.”

Listen to Probst on the podcast via the embed below or on Apple Podcasts, Stitcher, Spotify or Google Play.


Erik Jones had a miserable night in the pits with a magnificent car Sunday at Charlotte, and it was the pit stop between Stages 3 and 4 that really had to hurt.

Jones’ No. 20 Toyota entered in second place but left in 19th because of a stop that went several seconds longer because his front tire changer switched to a backup pit gun.

The reason? Kasey Kahne ran over the primary gun’s hose while entering his stall just ahead, ripping it from changer Houston Stamper’s hands.

It would seem unfair to suffer because of the actions of a rival driver who faces no repercussions at all. But there are two important rules of thumb to consider.

–A driver entering his stall has every right to enter as sharply and swiftly as desired (without intentionally and blatantly violating the boundaries of another car’s pit box).

–Each pit crew is responsible for keeping its equipment out of harm’s way.

The only feasible way that NASCAR could have penalized Kahne would be if he’d gone out of his way to affect Jones’ stop.


In two of the past three seasons, the Coca-Cola 600 has been a runaway in which the winner has led at least 94 percent of the laps.

The record for highest percentage of laps led in the previous 55 years of NASCAR’s longest race was 83 percent (Jim Paschal in 1967).

How is this dominance possible in a race that historically has demanded constant adjustments to keep up with a temperature-sensitive surface that can vary wildly over the course of four hours in the transition from blazing hot sun to a cool evening?

The simplest explanation might be that the Charlotte reigns of Truex in 2016 and Busch this year underscore the importance of being in clean air on an aerodynamic superspeedway.

Crew chiefs Cole Pearn and Adam Stevens can tune the car better with their championship-caliber stars able to provide the best feedback in static conditions. And with teams running high-fidelity simulations nonstop, there is more information on making strong setup calls than ever.


Sunday’s race sadly marked the third time in four years that a fan has climbed a catchfence during a Cup race. While it thankfully didn’t necessitate a race stoppage at Charlotte (unlike an infamous incident at Richmond and similar to one at Dover last year) because it was defused so quickly, it still begs the question: Why is this still happening?

We’ve written this before, but having a fan fall onto a hot track on national TV would be a really bad thing, not just for the event but racing in general. Whatever tracks have to spend to rectify this so that fans stay off the chain link in the future, it’s worth it.

Ryan Blaney thankful for support after Daytona 500 incident

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Ryan Blaney said he didn’t want to talk to many people the night of the Daytona 500 after contact with Ryan Newman triggered Newman’s horrific last-lap crash.

But when Blaney got home, his parents were there.

“That was nice of them to be there,” Blaney said Friday at Auto Club Speedway, the first time he’s talked to the media about the Daytona 500 since that night.  

Blaney was ashen when he spoke briefly to the media after the season-opening Daytona 500. As he spoke, an ambulance drove by on the frontstretch, taking Newman to the hospital.

Blaney was intent on pushing Newman, a fellow Ford driver, to the victory when it became clear to Blaney he could not win the race. But as he pushed Newman coming to the finish, the contact unsettled Newman’s car and it turned right into the outside wall. Newman’s car went airborne and was slammed in the driver side area while upside down by Corey LaJoie.

Newman walked out of a Daytona Beach hospital two days later. Newman said last weekend in a statement that he suffered a head injury but did not disclose any details. He has since been to Roush Fenway Racing to see team members and also did a video for one of the team’s sponsors that day. Newman will not race this weekend, missing his second consecutive race but said in his statement he looks forward to racing again.

MORE: Ryan Blaney talks to Ryan Newman, looks forward to seeing him at track

Blaney said several people helped him in the aftermath of Newman’s accident. All that was known the night of the race was that Newman was in serious condition with a non-life-threatening injury.

Blaney said close friend Bubba Wallace spent time with him the day after the Daytona 500.

“We talked about some stuff,” Blaney said Friday of what he and Wallace did. “I stayed off social media and all that stuff. You have people that aren’t even involved and have never even watched the sport that have their own opinion on bad things.

“The outreach I got from the calls from former drivers and current drivers that week was pretty remarkable. Their support was good. Even though it is unintentional and it is racing, it still takes a toll on you when it is off of your nose. You never want to see anyone get hurt in this sport. We are all competitors, but we are also a big family.

“Ryan and I have gotten along really well and that was just a bad circumstance and it is great that it worked out for the best. It was nice to have the friends and family and drivers and teams (offer their) support. That really helped me out.”

Blaney cited a couple of former drivers whose calls were impactful.

Jeff Burton and Bobby Labonte called me, people that I looked up to a lot as a kid,” Blaney said. “It was neat that they called me and gave me their peace of mind. That was good.”

Friday also marked the first time for Blaney to speak publicly since last weekend’s race at Las Vegas. Blaney led but a late caution changed the race. He and Alex Bowman, running second, were among drivers who pitted. Joey Logano, running third, did not pit, inherited the lead and went on to win. Blaney finished 11th.

Blaney said Friday it took him 10 minutes to get over how that race ended.

“Yeah, it was over,” Blaney said. “Moving on. I went and stayed in a teepee and forgot about it.”

About his experience staying in a teepee, Blaney said:

“I already had that planned no matter what happened. I like camping. I was out on a ranch in the middle of the desert for a couple days and just hanging out and all that stuff. It was fun.”

As for what he did, Blaney said: “Go hiking a little bit. Cook by the fire. Clear your head. It is just relaxing. I have always kind of been that way. It was nice to get out there. I was out there. I had to be out there for Tuesday night anyway and figured I would stay somewhere other than the (Las Vegas) Strip. I can’t do the strip for very long. I wanted to stay somewhere opposite to the Strip.”

Alex Bowman fastest in final Cup practice at Auto Club Speedway

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Alex Bowman completed a sweep of Friday’s Cup Series practice sessions at Auto Club Speedway by posting the top speed in final practice. He was also fastest in first practice.

Bowman’s top speed was 176.626 mph. He recorded 32 laps in the session.

The top five was completed by Ryan Blaney (176.186 mph), Bubba Wallace (176.177), Kurt Busch (175.816) and Christopher Bell (175.695).

Bowman also had the best 10-lap average at 175.317 mph.

Kurt Busch recorded the most laps with 47.

The only incident in the session was defending race winner Kyle Busch brushing the wall in Turn 3 after his car got away from him on the bumps in the corner. Repairs were made to the car and Busch returned to the track with 17 minutes left in the session.

Click here for the speed chart.

 

Alex Bowman tops field in opening Cup practice at Auto Club

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Alex Bowman posted the fastest lap in opening Cup practice Friday at Auto Club Speedway. Bowman ran a top lap of 179.439 mph.

Bowman was followed by Kyle Larson (177.703 mph), Tyler Reddick (177.607), Kurt Busch (177.375) and Matt DiBenedetto (176.609).

Click here for full practice report

There were no incidents in the session.

Final Cup practice is scheduled from 5:35-6:25 p.m. ET today. Qualifying will be Saturday.

Xfinity practice report at Auto Club Speedway

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Harrison Burton was fastest in the final Xfinity Series practice session Friday at Auto Club Speedway.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver recorded 22 laps and posted a top speed of 174.474 mph in the 25-minute session.

The top five was completed by Noah Gragson (173.779 mph), Austin Cindric (173.775), Chase Briscoe (173.578) and Brandon Jones (173.578).

Burton also had the best 10-lap average at 170.422 mph.

Gragson recorded the most laps in the session with 25.

There were no incidents in the session.

Click here for the practice report.

First practice

Noah Gragson led the way for the Xfinity Series in the opening practice session that saw more than half the 50-minute period under caution at Auto Club Speedway

Gragson ran a top lap of 177.139 mph. He was followed by Austin Cindric (176.022), Daniel Hemric (175.400), Brandon Jones (175.366) and Harrison Burton (175.187).

Click here for full practice report

Alex Labbe brought out the caution when an oil line came loose and he put oil down on the track. The cleanup took about 20 minutes.

Tommy Joe Martins brought out the caution late in the session with smoke coming from the car and then a small fire in the right front of the car.