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Friday 5: How a few laps in March could impact the playoff race

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In a season that stretches from February to November, covers more than 13,000 miles and competes in 20 states, it often can be the moments easily overlooked that prove to be among the most important.

The race for points is becoming increasingly critical with only six winners — the fewest this deep into a season since 1996. If Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer continue to win (they’ve combined to win 13 of the first 15 races), that would mean several of the 16 playoff spots would be set by points.

If so, even the smallest moments could determine who makes the playoffs or how many playoff points, if any, a driver scores for finishing in the top 10 in the regular season, which ends Sept. 9 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott enters this off-weekend 14th in the playoff standings. He has a 31-point lead on what would be the final playoff position, held by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.

Even with the dominance of Harvick, Busch, Truex and Bowyer, it seems likely there will be at least two different winners before the postseason, meaning Elliott will need to climb higher in the points — if he’s not one of those winners — to secure a playoff spot.

Recall that he’s already lost 45 points this season because of penalties at Phoenix and Texas this season.

Then look back at the middle of that Phoenix race in March.

Elliott was fourth and in position to score seven points in the second stage until a late caution. He scored none.

Things changed for Elliott when Chris Buescher hit the wall to bring out the caution on Lap 147. The second stage ended at Lap 150. NASCAR cleared the track in time to run one green-flag lap before the stage ended.

Elliott pitted during that caution with many of the leaders, who were focused on positioning themselves to win the race instead of scoring stage points.

Six cars did not pit. That included Kurt Busch, who was behind Elliott in fifth, and Brad Keselowski, who was sixth.

Elliott restarted outside the top 10 and didn’t make it up there for the end of the stage. So seven points he looked to be in position to gain were gone. Elliott went on to finish third in the race.

Busch won that stage to earn a playoff point but would finish 10th in the race. Keselowski went on to finish 15th after finishing second in that stage.

One who gained points at Phoenix was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

He is four points out of what would be the final playoff spot at this moment.

Stenhouse was running 20th before the caution for Buescher’s incident. Stenhouse did not pit and lined up third for the one-lap run to end the stage. He finished third, gaining eight points that he wouldn’t have scored had Buescher’s accident not happened.

It can be simple decisions — pit or not — that can play a big factor in how the season goes for some teams. Lose too many points and one could miss the playoffs. Steal points and that could help a team be eligible for a run to the championship.

That’s why the end of the second stage at Michigan was critical for drivers such as Elliott and Stenhouse, who do not have a win and are battling for a playoff spot.

Had a winless driver remained on track through the caution — Kasey Kahne stayed out but then pitted the lap before the restart when it appeared that rain wouldn’t be arriving soon — then such a driver could have taken a playoff spot. It would have meant one less playoff spot based on points.

That Bowyer, who was already set in the playoffs with his Martinsville win, triumphed at Michigan allowed those racing for a playoff spot to breathe easier.

But with two road courses to go (Sonoma and Watkins Glen), a restrictor-plate race (Daytona) and possibly two races with the All-Star Race rules package (likely Michigan and Indianapolis) left in the regular season, there’s the chance that there could be some different winners taking playoff spots.

That would make the race for points even tighter and every decision more important.

2. Grassroots racing

With the Cup Series off this weekend, some drivers are taking the chance to race at local tracks.

Kyle Busch finished third to Brian Campbell in the Money in the Bank Super Late Model race Monday at Berlin (Michigan) Raceway.

Kyle Larson is set to run in six days of the nine-day Ohio Sprint Speedweek with the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions, the series owned by Tony Stewart.

Kasey Kahne also is scheduled to run a few of the Ohio Sprint Speedweek races.

Ohio Sprint Speedweek begins tonight at Attica Raceway Park. Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, hosts the second night of the series on Saturday. The series then goes to Waynesfield Raceway on Sunday night before continuing the following week.

3. A new winner?

The Xfinity Series has had 12 different winners in the first 13 races heading into Sunday’s event at Iowa Speedway.

This weekend’s race will have three drivers who have won this year — Tyler Reddick at Daytona, Christopher Bell at Richmond and Justin Allgaier at Dover.

Ryan Preece, who won at Bristol, is not entered. Spencer Gallagher, who won at Talladega, remains under indefinite suspension for violating NASCAR’s Substance Abuse Policy. The other winners in the series are full-time Cup drivers.

The odds are in favor or another new winner this weekend in the Xfinity Series.

Points leader Elliott Sadler seeks to snap a 52-race winless streak, dating back to Kentucky in September 2016. Cole Custer is second in the points, and goes for his first win since last year’s season finale in Miami. Daniel Hemric, who is third in the points, seeks his first career series wins. Sunday will be his 47th Xfinity start.

4. No Cup drivers

Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race and Sunday’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway both will not have any Cup drivers entered.

This will be the fifth Xfinity race without a full-time Cup driver in it. Full-time Cup drivers were barred from the fourth Dash 4 Cash races and Iowa will be run with all the Cup drivers taking the weekend off from NASCAR.

5. Last break until …

After this weekend, Cup teams will have only one weekend off the rest of the season. Cup teams will race 21 of the next 22 weekends. The lone weekend off will be Aug. 19, the weekend between Michigan (Aug. 12) and Bristol (Aug. 26). The season ends Nov. 18 in Miami.

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NASCAR releases Cup rules packages for 2021

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NASCAR announced Thursday its rules package slate for the 2021 Cup Series season, a day after next year’s schedule was unveiled.

For returning tracks to the 36-race schedule, the rules are largely unchanged save for Darlington Raceway.

Cup teams will use the 750 horsepower, low downforce race package at the 1.366-mile track. It’s the package that’s been used this season on road courses and short tracks. Nashville Superspeedway, the 1.333-mile track being added in 2021, will use the same package.

The packages for the other new race tracks – Road America, Circuit of the Americas and the Indy road course – have not been decided on.

“We constantly review the race packages to try to put on the best possible racing for our fans,” John Probst, NASCAR’s Senior Vice Presiden of Innovation and Racing Development said in a media release. “When he brought in the short track / road course package this season, Darlington was not part of it due to its unique size. We’ve been evaluating data from both race packages, as well as feedback from drivers, teams and OEMs and feel that the 750 hp / low downforce package best fits the track.”

Other rule changes include:

  • Teams are restricted to 150 restricted computational fluid dynamics runs per calendar month.
  • Teams must compete in a minimum of 16 points events with a short block sealed engine (up from 13).

Click here for the rule packages for each Cup race in 2021.

Team Penske looks to extend Talladega dominance amid 2020 woes

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If there’s one thing Talladega Superspeedway is known for, it’s chaos.

But for as much chaos as the 2.66-mile track can provide, Talladega has another quality it produces: consistency in Victory Lane.

In the 2010s and up through the June Cup race, the consistency has been produced by Team Penske.

Since May 2012, Penske drivers have won nine of 17 races. Brad Keselowski has four of his five Talladega wins, Joey Logano has three and Ryan Blaney has won each of the last two races by .007 seconds.

The other eight races were won by Roush Fenway Racing (two wins), Hendrick Motorsports (two), Front Row Motorsports (one), Chip Ganassi Racing (one), Stewart-Haas Racing (one) and Joe Gibbs Racing (one).

When it comes to races like this weekend’s playoff event (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBC), one would expect even more chaos and less consistency among winners.

You’d be wrong on the latter.

Penske’s three drivers have combined to win five of the last six Talladega playoff races. The winner of the sixth race was Aric Almirola in the 2018 playoff race.

Last week Keselowski observed how races at superspeedways have “ebbs and flows” with them currently resembling “a MAVTV demo derby just a little faster.”

On Thursday, the 2012 Cup champion credited Team Penske having a “great” driver lineup with its ability to win in a form of racing that’s constantly evolving.

“I think we have the strongest driver lineup in Cup right now,” Keselowski said. “I know that’s probably arguable and it’s completely subjective. That’s played to our favorite tracks like the plate tracks and we’re going to continue to try and leverage it.”

While Blaney has enjoyed recent success at Talladega with his two victories, Keselowski looks to re-establish his winning ways at the track he has five victories, the most among active drivers.

After winning the 2017 playoff race, he has five consecutive finishes of 13th or worse, including two DNFs for wrecks.

“It’s been up and down for me,” Keselowski said. “The last few races have probably been down. Last fall I thought we were going to win the race with two or three (laps) to go. We were making the pass for the lead and the next thing I know we’re all wrecked. It’s a love-hate affair with that track for sure and hopefully we’ll love it. I feel like we’re due for a good finish there.”

Keselowski enters Sunday’s race after miserable outings in the last two playoff races. He finished 34th at Bristol (power steering problems) and 13th at Las Vegas.

Talladega could be the relief Keselowski’s teammates are looking for as well.

Blaney, who was eliminated from the playoffs after the Round of 16, hasn’t had a top-five finish in the last nine races. Logano, while he has two top fives in the playoffs (third at Darlington and Richmond), hasn’t won since the March race at Phoenix. That was the last race before the COVID-19 shutdown.

Keselowski said “it is a bit strange” that Team Penske can view Talladega as a track where it can turn its season around.

“We haven’t been where we want to be on the mile-and-a-halfs, there’s no doubt about that,” Keselowski said. “The mile-and-a-halfs and road courses have been a weak spot for us. The superspeedways and short tracks have been a strong spot for us. Thankfully we have the superspeedway this weekend and couple of short tracks coming up in the next round (Martinsville).

“We need to kind of maximize out strengths and minimize our weaknesses. This weekend is certainly looking like a strength for us. We have high expectations.”

Kaz Grala subs for Natalie Decker in Talladega Truck race

Kaz Grala
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Natalie Decker has not been medically cleared to compete in Saturday’s Truck Series race at Talladega (1 p.m. ET on FS1) and will be replaced by Kaz Grala in Niece Motorsports’ No. 44 Chevrolet the team announced Thursday.

Decker withdrew from last weekend’s race at Las Vegas after she was not medically cleared shortly before the race. She was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker tweeted Saturday that she was flying home where “more tests (would be) run so they can further evaluate and diagnose.”

No further details about Decker’s condition have been announced.

“We are thankful that Kaz is able to fill in for Natalie this weekend and appreciate him working with our team,” team general manager Cody Efaw said in a press release. “We wish Natalie the best as she works to be as healthy as possible to return to racing.”

Grala will make his first Truck Series start since 2017. He has 32 career starts in the series, including one win in the 2017 season-opening race at Daytona.

He drove in Austin Dillon’s place earlier this year in the Cup race on the Daytona road course after Dillon tested positive for COVID-19.

“My thoughts will be with Natalie this weekend as I wish her a quick recovery,” Grala said in a press release. “I know she loves the restrictor-plate races, so I feel bad that she’ll have to miss this one, but I hope I can give her something to cheer for on Saturday. 

“It’s been a few years since I’ve been in a Truck, but the superspeedway races have been very good to me in the past, so I’m really hoping to be able to go grab a win for Niece Motorsports at Talladega.”

FanVision closes due to impact of COVID-19 pandemic

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FanVision Entertainment, the company that produces video devices used by race fans at NASCAR events, has ceased operations due to the financial impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.

The news was announced in a statement from Racing Electronics, the company which sold and supported FanVision devices at NASCAR tracks through a license with FanVision Entertainment.

Racing Electronics, which is owned by NASCAR, can no longer sell or support the devices.

“We recognize this news will be met with disappointment by motorsports fans across the country who utilized FanVision’s products as part of their at-track experience,” Racing Electronics president Chad Willis said in a statement.

“To help fans and industry members transition to Racing Electronics products, we are working with existing FanVision device owners to solve their race day needs. When Racing Electronics returns to the track, fans and industry members will have access to all the sounds that make racing so special.”