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Friday 5: No panic for Chase Elliott in battle for playoff spots

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Chase Elliott is quick to point out that he doesn’t feel helpless, but he knows that he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates face challenges to secure playoff spots in the final eight regular-season races.

Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Elliott and Alex Bowman hold what would be the final three playoff positions, heading into Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson has a 54-point lead on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — the first driver outside a playoff spot. Elliott leads Stenhouse by 37 points and Bowman leads Stenhouse by 19 points.

“I think that we certainly have room to improve, and I think we have improved from where we started the season,” Elliott said earlier this week after unveiling the tribute throwback scheme he’ll run in the Southern 500.

“There’s been some weeks where we end practice on Saturday and we’re not in the same league as some people. What you have to do is go make the most of what you got. At the end of the day that’s sometimes the best thing. It’s easy to overreach sometimes and get yourself in more trouble than what you could have done if you just had done what you had in front of you.”

That could be an easy trap to fall in.

Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that measures success by championships, has gone nearly a year since its last Cup victory.

Jimmie Johnson is on a career-long winless streak of 41 races and Elliott seeks his first career Cup win as he nears 100 career starts. Teammate Alex Bowman makes his 100th start this weekend and looks for his first Cup win, although many of his starts were with underfunded teams, and William Byron is in his rookie season.

Elliott had scored eight consecutive finishes of 12th or better before he placed 19th at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago and then finished 34th at Daytona after he was eliminated by an accident.

“You can’t wig out over it,” Elliott said. “It is what it is. I had no control over the crash on Saturday night. Chicago, yes I thought I could have done a better job at the end of that race to improve our finish, sure, but this past Saturday night I don’t know what I would have done to keep that from happening. That stuff happens. Once we fall out of a  race I can’t control anything beyond that.”

2. Class by themselves

Moments after exiting a boiling car at the completion of 400 miles at Chicagoland Speedway, Brad Keselowski sat on the pit wall and wiped sweat from his face with a towel as Kyle Busch celebrated another victory.

Busch’s win two weeks ago continued a trend that has seen Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. dominate. They have won 13 of the first 18 Cup races this season and the last 12 races on 1.5-mile speedways, dating back to last year.

“It’s like there’s an A, B, C, D group,” Keselowski said of ranking the teams. “We’re in the B group. We want to go from good to great.”

He noted then that they were behind Truex, Busch and the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“I think the difference, as you look at those cars, they have more speed and you don’t see their mistakes because they’ve got speed to recover from it,’’ Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, said after the Chicago race. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to find more speed in our cars.

Busch admitted his car was awful the first two stages at Chicagoland before hitting on the right changes and taking the lead on pit road.

Clint Bowyer showed how fast the Stewart-Haas cars are — Gordon said Bowyer’s car at Chicago was “stupid fast” — by finishing fifth after two speeding penalties and a third trip down pit road when he did not serve a stop-and-go penalty on his second speeding infraction.

That’s not a luxury most of the field has. They have to be perfect.

That’s the challenge Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Kentucky Speedway for many teams.

3. Ruh-roh

That seems to be the common theme about the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway (or Roval as some call it) after some teams tested there Tuesday.

Tight turns, minimal run-off areas before hitting walls or tire barriers, and the race being the cutoff event in the first round of the playoffs, should make for a wild afternoon of racing.

What that race will do, though, is put more pressure on teams to do well in the first two races — Las Vegas and Richmond — in the opening round. Have poor finishes at either of those races and be toward the bottom of the playoff standings will only add pressure on drivers at Charlotte in the Sept. 30 event.

Another key factor will be how many playoff points drivers have. That could make the difference in advancing from the first round if the race is as chaotic as some forecast.

The rest of the Cup field is scheduled to test on the Charlotte road course Tuesday.

4. Gauntlet thrown

After Ben Rhodes’ Camping World Truck Series win Thursday night at his home track of Kentucky Speedway, ThorSport Racing General Manager David Pepper had a warning to competitors.

“With five races to go in the regular season, leading into the playoffs,” Pepper said, “the rest of these teams need to look out for ThorSport. We’re going to be a factor.”

Along with Rhodes giving the team its first win of the year Thursday, ThorSport’s Matt Crafton finished third and Grant Enfinger placed sixth. ThorSport’s Myatt Snider crashed in qualifying and never had a chance to do much in his backup.

GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter has won a series-high four times and Hattori Racing Enterprises’ Brett Moffitt has three wins.

5. Drivers to get their first win while at Joe Gibbs Racing

Erik Jones is the fifth driver to score his first career Cup victory while at Joe Gibbs Racing. He joins Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

Labonte’s first win came in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600. Stewart’s first win was in the September 1999 Richmond race. Hamlin’s first win was in the June 2011 Pocono race. Logano’s first victory came in June 2009 at New Hampshire.

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Truck results, point standings after Miami

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Brett Moffitt beat Grant Enfinger to the checkers by two seconds to take his sixth race of the season.

Playoff contender Noah Gragson finished third.

Stewart Friesen was fourth with Sheldon Creed rounding out the top five.

Click here for complete results.

Moffitt’s victory earned him the championship. This is the first time since 1999 that the champion won the final race of the season.

With his third-place finish, Gragson finished second in the standings.

Justin Haley finished eighth in the race and third in the standings.

Johnny Sauter finished 12th in the race and fourth in the standings.

Grant Enfinger rounded out the top five.

Click here for the complete points report.

Brett Moffitt wins Truck race at Miami, takes championship

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Brett Moffitt beat Grant Enfinger by two seconds Friday night to win the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series race and the championship.

It was his sixth victory of the season.

Moffitt’s first win of the season came at Atlanta in the season’s second race but even then he was unsure if the team would have the financing to go to every race and be eligible for the playoffs.

“It’s unreal,” Moffitt said on FoxSports 1 from victory lane. “I didn’t know if I was going to get the opportunity to compete for a championship even after I got my first win.

“Everyone pulled together hard here. Back at Chicago (in June) we didn’t know if we were going to make it to the racetrack.”

Chicago was another race won by Moffitt.

Friday night, Enfinger finished second to Moffitt.

Fellow playoff contender Noah Gragson finished third. Stewart Friesen finished fourth with Sheldon Creed rounding out the top five.

MORE: Brett Moffitt seeks to join pantheon of NASCAR ‘stache champions

Moffitt achieved the title in just 36 starts – the fewest since Mike Skinner won the inaugural championship in 1995 in 20 races.

Moffitt’s championship comes with an uncertain future. He announced Thursday that he does not have a contract for next year.

Playoff contender Justin Haley finished eighth.

“We just struggled.” he said. “I don’t know why.”

Former champion Johnny Sauter battled handling problems for most of the race and was not a factor.

“It was awful,” he said. “Just no grip. We laid an egg tonight. I don’t know why.

“When you suck that bad, it’s whatever, you just go home and go what the hell happened? I’ll ask myself that for three months.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Grant Enfinger

STAGE 2 WINNER: Brett Moffitt

MORE: Click here for complete results.
MORE: Click here for the complete points report.

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Jesse Little tied his career best finish of sixth (which he first scored at Iowa this June). … Tyler Dippel finished 15th to score his fourth top 15 in five Truck starts.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Robby Lyons slapped the wall on Lap 78; he finished 29th. … Chris Windom started 10th but hit the wall with a handful of laps remaining to finish 24th. 

QUOTE OF THE RACE: “We were just too tight there (at the end). Needed to make better adjustments on pit road and that’s where it comes down to me,” Noah Gragson told FS1 after the race. “This one is going to hurt for a while.”

ROOKIE OF THE YEAR: Myatt Snider scored three top fives and eight top 10s on his way to rookie honors. Snider’s best finish this season was runner-up at Talladega. His best unrestricted finish was a third at Martinsville.

NOTABLE: This is the first time since 1999 that the champion won the season finale.

WHAT’S NEXT: Nextera Energy Resources 250 on Feb. 15, 2019 at Daytona International Speedway.

Should Denny Hamlin’s team take No. 1 pit stall or leave it for Kyle Busch?

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. – Denny Hamlin’s pole-winning effort Friday night made for an emotional moment in his final Cup race with close friend Mike Wheeler as his crew chief.

Hamlin’s pole also created a quandary.

With the pole, Hamlin’s Joe Gibbs Racing team has the first pick of pit stalls. Any other race, it’s an easy call: The team takes the No. 1 pit stall at the exit of pit road.

MORE: Denny Hamlin will have a new crew chief in 2019

But things are complicated because Hamlin is not in the title race and teammate Kyle Busch, who qualified second and whose team has second pick of pit stalls, is racing for a championship Sunday at Homestead-Miami Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBC).

If Hamlin’s team takes a different pit stall, it would allow Busch to have the No. 1 stall, which is viewed as the best on pit road. That could be the difference in having the lead off pit road and could impact who wins the championship.

So, what will Wheeler do when crew chiefs make their pit stall selection Saturday morning?

“We’re paid to win races for JGR and (sponsor) FedEx,” Wheeler told NBC Sports. “It’s definitely on my mind and my heart to be aware of that for Denny and our team. Obviously, we want to win a championship for JGR, too. That’s one of the biggest goals, a bigger goal this weekend. There’s some chatter going on about that.”

In one sense, it could be an easy call — let Busch have the No. 1 pit stall. The focus in any organization at this point is on the team racing for a championship. So why not give that team that advantage?

On the other hand, Hamlin is winless this year and could have one of his best chances to score a victory and extend his streak of consecutive seasons with a win to 13. He won this race in 2013 to keep that streak alive. 

“I think everything is earned,” Hamlin said. “Nothing is given. With us having the No. 1 pit stall, nobody else — none of the other competitors will have it. I don’t know. It’s a discussion. I mean, certainly I would think that (Wheeler), with the pressure always to win, you’ve got to do everything you can to win. We’ll have that discussion.”

The pit stalls at Homestead-Miami Speedway are 30-feet, 8-inches long. The camera at the end of pit road is about 40 feet from the No. 1 pit stall. That’s closer than some other tracks. That means a driver in that stall can fire out of the pit stall and surge ahead of those coming down pit road.

Last year, Hamlin’s team faced a similar issue but it was an easier call. Hamlin, who was not in the title race, won the pole. Martin Truex Jr., a title contender, qualified second last year. Truex’s team — which has a technical alliance with Joe Gibbs Racing — asked if Hamlin’s team could take another pit stall so Truex could have the No. 1 stall. Hamlin’s team declined.

Cup starting lineup at Miami

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Denny Hamlin posted a lap of 173.863 mph to win his second consecutive pole at Miami and his third in the past four years.

He edged teammate Kyle Busch (173.622 mph) by .043 seconds.

Martin Truex Jr. (173.539), Brad Keselowski (173.433) and Joey Logano (173.366) rounded out the top five.

Kevin Harvick posted a lap of 171.942 mph to line up 12th on Sunday. This is the furthest back he has been at Miami since 2015 when he qualified 13th and finished second.

Click here for the complete starting lineup.