Race for final Cup playoff spot tightens at Kentucky

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Paul Menard’s 11th-place finish might be easy to overlook but it was one of the noteworthy performances Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway.

Menard’s finish — along with Alex Bowman placing last — allowed Menard to gain 32 points on Bowman in the race for the final playoff spot.

“We are right in the thick of the points stuff, so we can’t afford this,” Bowman said after his crash that left him with a 39th-place finish. “This will hurt us quite a bit.”

The result hurt him but maybe not as much as he feared.

Bowman has 427 points. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. is next at 418 and Menard has 404.

With seven winners this season and seven races left, at least two of the 16 playoff spots will be determined by points.

If the current domination by Kentucky winner Martin Truex Jr., Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch continues, there could be a record number of drivers who make the playoffs by points. The most who made the playoffs via points was five in 2015. That seems likely to fall.

While Menard made up many points on Bowman, it still didn’t make up for all the ground Menard lost to Bowman the previous three races. Bowman finished in the top 10 at Sonoma, Chicagoland and Daytona and gained 51 more points than Menard in those races.

Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky. Stenhouse had contact with Jamie McMurary’s car that led to a tire rub and forced Stenhouse to pit on Lap 23 and then again on Lap 27 under green. Stenhouse fell three laps down. He gained two laps back and finished 26th on what could have been a bigger night for him with Bowman’s misfortune.

“I’m not really sure what happened, but the No. 1 got into us, which cut our left rear tire,” Stenhouse said. “We were able to cut our deficit in the point standings. We will focus on the next seven weekends and getting the No. 17 team in the playoffs.”

While Stenhouse gained 10 points on Bowman at Kentucky, it didn’t overcome what he had lost the three previous races to the Hendrick Motorsports driver. Bowman had scored 15 more points during that stretch.

With Bowman having problems, it created an opening for drivers further back but Richard Childress Racing teammates managed to make only modest gains.

Newman gained 15 points on Bowman and is 79 points back. Dillon gained 14 points on Bowman and is 65 points back. Both Dillon and Newman had vibrations early in the race and that forced them to pit in the first 31 laps under green. Newman was later penalized for removing equipment from the pit stall.

“We definitely improved our qualifying effort, but ultimately it comes down to where we finished and we still have some work to do,” Newman said. “Our car wasn’t that bad, but getting track position after that first run and a pit road penalty were too tough to overcome.”

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Bristol Motor Speedway issues statement on fan confronting Kyle Busch (video)

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Bristol Motor Speedway issued a statement Monday in regards to a fan confronting Kyle Busch after Saturday night’s race.

The track stated:

“Our security team has investigated a post-race incident where a guest repeatedly confronted Kyle Busch verbally and physically while he was signing autographs for fans. As Busch then prepared to leave in his golf cart, the individual struck the driver across the chest, and at that time, Busch confronted the individual. The two were separated quickly and a uniformed officer pulled the individual to the side, allowing Busch to depart.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports that the sanctioning body was aware of the incident and discussed it with police.

NASCAR America at 6 p.m. ET: Bristol recap, Robert Wickens injury update

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 6-7 p.m. ET on NBCSN and reviews all the big stories from the weekend at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Carolyn Manno hosts with Dale Jarrett and Parker Kligerman from Stamford, Connecticut. They will be joined by Nate Ryan via phone.

On today’s show:

  • This past weekend, all the buzz was around the Busch brothers – Kurt for snapping a 58-race winless streak, and Kyle for enduring a season’s worth of events in one crazy night. We’ll cover all the angles from the memorable Bristol night race. Plus: With Chase Elliott continuing his hot run with a third-place finish, has he become the top challenger to NASCAR’s “Big 3”?
  • The countdown to Throwback Weekend at Darlington continues! Check out Denny Hamlin’s vintage look for the upcoming Southern 500, which draws on his own history in the sport.
  • And we’ll have the latest updates on injured IndyCar driver Robert Wickens, who was hospitalized in a brutal crash that overshadowed Alexander Rossi’s victory Sunday at Pocono.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 6 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

Denny Hamlin throwing way back to his short track days for Southern 500

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Denny Hamlin will join the ranks of Cup drivers who will drive their own throwback paint schemes in this year’s Southern 500 (Sept. 2 on NBCSN).

But unlike Kurt Busch, Jimmie Johnson, Kasey Kahne and Derrike Cope, Hamlin’s paint scheme has never been run in Cup.

Joe Gibbs Racing unveiled Hamlin’s scheme Monday, revealing that his No. 11 Toyota will look like the No. 11 mini-stock Hamlin drove in 1997 when he competed on short tracks in his home state of Virginia.

MORE: Southern 500 paint schemes

MORE: Denny Hamlin’s Xfinity scheme for Darlington

On the car will be the logo for Chesterfield Trailer & Hitch, the company his parents owned and that helped keep his racing dreams alive.

Hamlin is the defending winner of the Southern 500.

Watch the video below to learn more about the scheme and Hamlin’s early days of racing.

Kurt Busch: ‘I haven’t decided’ about NASCAR future

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Where will Kurt Busch race in 2019?

Busch’s current co-owner, Gene Haas, claims to be in the dark about the future of one of his four Cup drivers.

“I really think you need to talk to Kurt Busch and Chip Ganassi and Jamie McMurray. I think they know more than we do,” Haas told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio Saturday night, not long after Busch’s first win of the season and a week after it was reported that the 40-year-old driver would leave Stewart-Haas Racing for Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 1 car next year.

After claiming his 30th Cup Series win, Kurt Busch said he hasn’t made any commitments to where he’ll be racing in 2019.

“I haven’t decided and there’s time, that’s in our favor,” Busch told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Busch, the 2004 Cup champion, has driven for SHR since 2014 and accumulated six wins, including the 2017 Daytona 500. Saturday night’s win snapped a 58-race winless streak for the No. 41 Ford and secured Busch a spot in the playoffs with teammates Kevin Harvick and Clint Bowyer.

“Drivers have a right to do what they want,” Haas said. “We have expectations, they have expectations and sometimes you can’t all make them meet up to have a favorable outcome. I’ve been doing this a long time. It’s not that it’s personal or anything, it’s just that this is racing. Kurt’s been with us for (five) years. It’s been an interesting time and we’ve had a lot of good time. We won Daytona last year. There’s a lot of good that came out of it. Just like you make changes to cars, sometimes you make changes to crews, sometimes drivers change. I don’t read a lot into it. I don’t have any animosity. Who knows? There’s the possibility he could be driving with us next year. At the moment, the rumor mill knows all.”

It’s the second year in a row Busch’s future in the No. 41 Ford has been in doubt.

Last year, Busch signed a one-year deal in December after SHR declined to pick up his option in August. Busch said then that he also was exploring rides with other teams and that he had offers.

Following the report about his potential departure for Ganassi, Busch said the week leading up to the Bristol race “was tough.”

“There’s not anything to announce or anything to do,” Busch said. “So we’re going to go enjoy this off week and that’s what I’ve asked everybody to do and we just have to have clarity as we move forward. They know I’m a winner. I know they’re a winner. We’ll see how it all plays out.”

Busch’s Bristol win was significant personally, not just because it ended a long winless streak and got him into the playoffs.

He reached a goal he set for himself 19 years ago at the start of his Cup career.

“I always wanted to get to 30 (wins),” Busch said. “This is a big win for me. I grew up at Roush Racing watching a guy named Mark Martin help me. He was a great mentor. I looked up to him as a racer. He had 33, 34 wins (at the time). I think he might have ended his career with 40. Early on, before I won my first ever race, (I thought) If I can get to 30, that’s a pretty special career. Made it tonight. I’m choked up about it. I really love this win tonight. To have six Bristol trophies is special.”

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