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Top three Xfinity drivers separated by three points entering New Hampshire

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Things have gotten pretty tight at the top of the food chain in the Xfinity Series.

Following last weekend’s race at Kentucky Speedway, the point standings are not led by just one driver.

Through 17 races, the standings are led by both Elliott Sadler and Daniel Hemric, who are tied with 608 points.

To add to an already close situation, they have Cole Custer breathing down their necks is only three points behind them heading into Saturday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

How did this situation arise considering none of the drivers have claimed a win this year?

Consistency. It’s disappeared for Sadler while Hemric and Custer have used it to catch the JR Motorsports driver.

Following the June 2 race at Pocono Raceway, Sadler had a 62-point lead over second in the standings. His lead slipped away over the next five races thanks to finishing 12th or worst three times.

He placed 30th at Michigan, 28th at Iowa and 12th at Kentucky.

That was after entering Michigan with top-10 finishes in the first 12 races of the season.

In the five races since Pocono, Hemric hasn’t finished worse than eighth and has three top-three finishes. Custer has four top fives and a DNF (wreck, Daytona).

Compared to this point last year, Sadler has more top fives (10 to seven in 2017), the same number of top 10s (14) and his average finish is 7.9 compared to 8.8.

Sadler, is mired in a 56 race winless streak that began in October 2016. And this season he’s been the best finishing Xfinity regular just once and the best finishing JR Motorsports driver only seven times.

Hemric and Custer are each in their second full-time seasons in Xfinity and have shown significant improvement over this same point in their rookie campaigns.

Through 17 races, Hemric has two poles (one in 2017), nine top fives (two in 2017), 13 top 10s (six in 2017) and no DNFs (three in 2017).

Custer has four poles (none in 2017), seven top fives (two in 2017), 13 top 10s (seven in 2017) and two DNFs (three in 2017).

Over the last eight races Hemric and Custer are tied for the most top fives with six. In that stretch, Hemric leads the series in top 10s (eight), average finish (4.13) and race points earned (311).

The point standings would be even narrower if not for two penalties dealt out by NASCAR this season to two of the three Xfinity regulars who have won races.

Christopher Bell and Justin Allgaier enter New Hampshire in fourth (-17 points) and fifth (-39).

Bell lost 10 points after the Charlotte race for a post-race heights violation.

Allgaier was dealt a 25-point penalty following his win at Dover for a post-race inspection violation.

The two drivers would be in the same spot in the standings without the penalties.

Among Sadler, Hemric and Custer, it may be Custer who is the favorite to leave New Hampshire with points lead.

Custer is the only one of the trio with any success at the 1-mile track.

He’s won there in the K&N Pro Series East (2013) and in the Camping World Truck Series (2014).

He placed ninth in his first Xfinity start there last year.

“I think we’ve had really good cars in the past at short tracks and I think it’s more natural to me than a mile-and-a-half,” Custer said in a media release. “It’s probably like that for most guys. We just grew up running short tracks and didn’t have to deal with aero as much. We took a lot of good notes from New Hampshire last year that we’ll build on.”

Meanwhile, in 14 career starts at New Hampshire, Sadler has only led 26 laps and he hasn’t finished better than sixth since he returned to full-time Xfinity competition in 2011.

“We’re bringing the car we ran in Richmond, which is one of my favorites,” Sadler said in a media release. “We know it’s fast and is capable of a top-three finish. The end of the regular season isn’t too far away, so we’ve got to stick to our strategy, earn stage points and ultimately get ourselves and our partners a win.”

Sadler led 30 laps and finished third at Richmond.

Hemric placed 12th in his first Xfinity start in Loudon last year. In two Truck Series starts, he placed sixth and 28th (DNF).

“New Hampshire is always a place I look forward going to each year, especially how our company is on the short tracks right now,” Hemric said in a media release. “I feel like I know what I want in terms of speed when I get to a place like New Hampshire, it’s just a matter of getting our race car where we want it. I feel good headed to New Hampshire this weekend.”

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Roger Penske was ready for his close-up in popular commercial

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MONTEREY, California – Roger Penske is the only team owner in auto racing history who has 18 “Baby Borg” Trophies in his possession for his team’s record 18 wins in the Indianapolis 500.

Perhaps his next trophy should be an Emmy.

Penske took part in a commercial along with 103rd Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud and one of his NASCAR Cup drivers, Ryan Blaney. The commercial was shot at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sept. 7 while NASCAR was in town for the Brickyard 400.

The premise of the commercials is a takeoff on the 2006 comedy, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” with Blaney playing the Ricky Bobby role and Pagenaud playing the Jean Girard role.

The commercial was shot by NBC to promote its coverage of the NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series and concludes with Penske stepping in between the two drivers, demanding them to, “Go out there and win races.”

Penske delivered the line perfectly and in just three takes.

“It took me about five minutes,” Penske told NBCSports.com. “They made it very easy for me. We let the guys do all of the hard work. It was fun for me to do. I saw it, and I didn’t make a fool out of myself.

“I’m ready for the next commercial.”

Penske’s ability to deliver his lines perfectly impressed NBC Sports Group President of Programing Jon Miller.

“I assume he’s got his SAG card,” Miller told NBCSports.com. “He has certainly been in front of the camera enough, and he’s quite an ambassador for the sport, so we were not at all surprised by that.”

NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood was also highly impressed with Penske’s ability to turn into an actor in front of the camera.

“We were thrilled that he agreed to do it,” Flood told NBC Sports.com. “It’s one of those special things and the kind of guy he is to jump on board and make it even bigger because we had a ‘Plan B’ if Roger couldn’t do it, and when we got the confirmation, we knew we had something special that was going to happen.

“Roger Penske did the ad with two of his drivers that we shot at the Brickyard last week that got out there. A lot of fun, a lot of great response to it, and that’s things we couldn’t have done in the past. I think that’s part of us leaning in as NBC in trying to grow all of motorsports, and it’s important that every form of racing gets attention, and that’s what we’re pushing, as you know all too well.”

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden, who will take a 41-point lead over Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi into Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix, also was complimentary of his team owner.

“Wow, I was impressed,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “First of all, how did they get him to do a cameo? That was cool. And he nailed it.

“The pressure on Simon and Blaney to nail it, after Roger does it in only three takes? Wow, the pressure was really on them to deliver their lines.”

Pagenaud thought Penske’s first take was the best.

“It didn’t take long for Roger to deliver his line, he was on top of it,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com. “NBCSN was very excited about the idea. IndyCar CEO Mark Miles made sure we were able to get into Gasoline Alley early that day. It was the Saturday of the Brickyard 400 and it was early, but Roger was probably up since 2 a.m. I’m sure, so it wasn’t early for him.

“It was good, the script was fun and well done. I forced my French and Blaney being the perfect American NASCAR driver and Roger just being himself was just perfect. It shows personality between NASCAR and INDYCAR. NBC is doing such a great job showing both fans on both sides what is going in and it helps everybody get interested in both sports.”

Penske was asked if that is how he normally talks to his drivers in a prerace situation to fire them up.

“That’s not the normal, daily message, but that’s how it helped those two guys get going,” Penske said. “I think NBC has done a great job in all cases on IndyCar. The continuity of having the same partner has made a huge difference. The talent knows the drivers. They know the situation. Guys like Paul Tracy and the experience of Leigh Diffey and the whole group has done a great job.

“It’s about good racing. We have good teams. Lots of competition, new drivers and date equity. And it’s attracting young people.”

Penske believes the addition of NBC Sports to the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule, including the season’s final race on the NBC, has been a big boost to the series.

“Any time you are on network is great,” Penske said. “It’s great for the sponsors, the notoriety for the team and the drivers is very important for all of us as we finish up the season. It’s going to be a great weekend, and I hope we can continue the movement we’ve had and the momentum we’ve had coming up to the last weekend.”

Richmond winners and losers

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WINNERS

Joe Gibbs Racing — It was a 1-2-3-4 finish until Erik Jones’ car failed inspection. Still the team scored a 1-2-3 finish and claimed its fourth consecutive win on a short track with Martin Truex Jr.’s triumph. Don’t forget, the organization also won Friday’s Xfinity race with Christopher Bell.

Ryan Newman His fifth-place finish tied his best result of the year and was his third consecutive top-10 showing. He was encouraged by the team running toward the front and noted: “You take away those four Gibbs cars, we were racing for the win. I know it doesn’t work that way, but if they would have had one bad meeting (incident) we would’ve been in the hunt.” Still, Newman moved into a transfer spot heading into this coming weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Brad KeselowskiHe finished fourth and was the only driver outside of Joe Gibbs Racing to lead Saturday’s race.

Bubba Wallace His 12th-place finish was his third top-15 result in the last five races. He had one top-15 finish in the first 23 races of the season.

Front Row Motorsports — All three of its cars placed 21st or better, the first time the team has accomplished that feat this season. David Ragan was 19th, rookie Matt Tifft placed 20th and Michael McDowell was 21st.

LOSERS

Erik Jones He was feeling good about his fourth-place finish that put him within three points of the final transfer spot to the next round only to later find out that his car was disqualified for failing inspection after the race. Now he’s 45 points out of the final transfer spot and is essentially in a must-win situation. He faces being eliminated from the first round of the playoffs for a second year in a row.

William Byron Got lapped in the final circuits before the end of each stage and also had a pit road speeding penalty. That led to a season-worst 25th-place finish. He holds the final transfer spot to the second round by two points on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman heading to the Roval.

Brad Keselowski bumped up to fourth, but JGR domination still ‘not good news’

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Brad Keselowski ended Saturday’s NASCAR Cup playoff race at Richmond Raceway with what he thought was a fifth-place finish.

About an hour later though, Keselowski was moved up one position to fourth place after original fourth-place finisher Erik Jones was disqualified after his car failed post-race inspection.

Still, gaining one extra finishing position didn’t make the 2012 NASCAR Cup champion happy because of Joe Gibbs Racing’s domination in the second race of the playoffs – even with Jones’ DQ.

(How JGR finished is) definitely not good news,” Keselowski said. “We’ve got work to do. (JGR is) really strong and we’re not where we need to be to be able to beat them heads-up, but we threw everything we had at them.

We put down a great qualifying lap, got the first pit stall, had great pit stops and got to the lead, but just didn’t have the raw speed to keep it.”

MORE: Martin Truex Jr. completes Richmond sweep with playoff win

MORE: Results, points after 2nd race of Cup playoffs at Richmond

MORE: NASCAR disqualifies Erik Jones’ car for failing inspection

Keselowski tweeted a few hours after the race that he didn’t “take no pleasure & seek no treasure from another man’s loss,” referring to Jones’ DQ.


Even so, Keselowski took some consolation from his overall performance.

We led 80-some laps, so it’s not a bad day but just not nearly fast enough to dominate the race and win,” he said.

Keselowski mistakenly said in a post-race interview that he had joined Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in advancing to the Round of 12 two weeks from now due to his points in the standings.

Yeah, we’re locked into the next round,” Keselowski said. “That feels good. I’m proud of that effort.”

Actually, Keselowski left Richmond two points shy of being locked into the next playoff round. That will have to come next Sunday at Charlotte’s Roval.

There’s still work to do not only for Keselowski’s car, but also those of his teammates — Joey Logano finished 11th and Ryan Blaney 17th — to counter JGR’s domination.

But what exactly has to be done is a question mark, Keselowski said.

Honestly, I don’t know,” Keselowski said. “They’ve got all the secrets so we need to find some more secrets.”

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Kyle Busch sees progress in runner-up finish at Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. — After his fiery comments last week led some to be critical of his attitude toward slower drivers, Kyle Busch was calmer after his runner-up performance to Martin Truex Jr. on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Busch led a race-high 202 of 400 laps but lost the lead to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate with 26 laps to go and had to settle for second place.

“We put up a valiant effort,” Busch said.

MORE: NASCAR disqualifies Erik Jones’ fourth-place finishing car

While his winless drought starched to 14 races, Busch noted that the performance was a step forward for the No. 18 Toyota team.

“I know we’re capable of it, the team is capable of it,” said Busch, who clinched a spot in the second round with his 54-point night. “Just stupid things have been biting us this year and we put it all together tonight. I didn’t speed on pit road, pit crew did a good job, our car was fast and we made the most of our effort.”

Whether it was Busch hitting the wall (or another car) at Las Vegas, an engine failure at Indianapolis, the pit crew losing the lead at Darlington or a speeding penalty at Watkins Glen (and hitting cars), Busch and the team have been off in recent races despite often having the speed to challenge for wins. In the process, Busch has lost the chance to collect many more playoff points.

He was strong enough Saturday night to win the second stage, giving him his third stage win in the last seven races.

But Busch didn’t have enough at the end to keep Truex behind him.

“We ran OK,” Busch said. “(Truex) could follow closer than I could, and he was better on the long run than I was. Why? Maybe I pushed my tires too hard there at the last stint at the beginning trying to stay ahead of (Denny Hamlin), which gave (Truex) the opportunity to kind of save his stuff and roll around and attack later.”