Did Austin Dillon find a playoff gear at Michigan?

2 Comments

BROOKLYN, Mich. – A break away from pouncing on his second victory of the season, it was Austin Dillon whose No. 3 Chevrolet suffered the break in Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway.

Running second to Kevin Harvick with two laps remaining, the Richard Childress Racing driver picked up a vibration that cost him two spots but didn’t prevent him from scoring his second top five – and his first since winning the season-opening Daytona 500.

“We’re kind of one of the smaller teams out here, truthfully,” Dillon said. “I feel like I have one of the biggest hearts out here in this garage as a driver and can get it done when we put great cars on the track. So we put a great car on the track today, and I showed what we can do. Huge momentum; we want to carry it forward.”

Aside from two mediocre practice sessions, it was a strong weekend overall for Dillon, who qualified fifth. Though he drifted outside the top 10 in the first stage, Dillon finished fifth in the second stage and steadily climbed forward during the final 70 laps.

He led five laps after making his final stop behind Harvick’s under green, and he then hung onto second with a two-tire stop. He was a few seconds behind Harvick’s No. 4 Ford when trouble struck (which he speculated was a loose wheel or a tire unraveling), prompting an animated but joyful conversation with his grandfather and car owner Richard Childress in the pits.

“It was great; I wished he could have got that second,” Childress said. “All of a sudden, he just shot up the racetrack, and he pulled over and just let him go. Which was a smart thing. Better to do that than to hit the wall.”

The Daytona win locked Dillon into the playoffs 22 races ago, but the team’s recent struggles partly are because it’s been leveraging the guarantee of contending for the title against experimenting with unconventional setups.

“That’s what we’re working on right now,” Childress said. “Everything we’re doing. We just missed it a few times because of trying stuff for the playoffs.”

On Sunday, the team finally seemed to hit on it. Dillon proclaimed his car as a legitimate second fastest behind Harvick’s, and that he outran the Toyotas of Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. in the second half was evidence of that.

“It was incredible to see those guys run good,” said Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick. “Those guys have worked really hard, and I think (Dillon) and (RCR teammate Ryan Newman) both had good speed.  They had good motors.  It’s cool to see the hard work pay off that those guys have done and hopefully they keep getting better.”

Said runner-up Brad Keselowski: “I was really impressed with how well Austin and Ryan Newman ran this weekend.  Yeah, you’d be foolish to keep something great in your pocket.  It’s time to bring it out and make sure it’s ready to go.

Crew chief Justin Alexander said Dillon’s team brought a new car for Michigan, which is often a proving ground for the 10-race stretch that determines the championship.

“It seems like when we’ve had fast cars, we’ve maybe not executed right,” he said. “We’ve executed good but had not as good of cars. Today we just put it all together.

“Speed like this, we’ll take that. We were able to run up front with them guys again, so it’s a breath of fresh air.”

Dillon notched only his fourth top 10 this season. He said he needs top-10 consistency to make a deep run for the championship, and Michigan might show he is hitting his stride at the right time.

“I think it just all came together,” he said. “This is one of my best tracks.  We have been working hard.  We had spurts of speed in qualifying at the last couple of big mile-and-a-half tracks.

“You should be able to keep that speed into practice and (the) race. We haven’t been able to do it, and today we did.”

Cup starting lineup at New Hampshire has Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch on front row

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Rivals Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch will share the front row for Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Keselowski won his 15th career pole – and first since August 2017 – on Friday. He will have Busch start next to him.

MORE: Cup starting lineup

The rivals have had numerous run-ins throughout the their career.

Kurt Busch, who won last weekend at Kentucky, qualified third and is followed by Erik Jones and Ryan Blaney.

Three drivers will start at the rear: Denny Hamlin (backup), Alex Bowman (backup) and Ryan Newman (backup).

Brad Keselowski wins Cup pole at New Hampshire

Leave a comment

Brad Keselowski scored his first Cup pole since 2017, taking the top spot Friday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Keselowski topped the field with a lap of 136.384 mph. This is Keselowski’s 15th career Cup pole and first since Michigan in August 2017, a span of 68 races.

Keselowski’s run denied Toyota its first pole of the season. Keselowski will be joined on the front row by Kyle Busch (136.311 mph).

MORE: Cup qualifying results

Kurt Busch, who won last weekend at Kentucky, will start third after a lap of 136.238 mph. Erik Jones qualified fourth with a lap of 136.189 mph.

Jones’ performance is part of a promising week for him. He stated Friday that he is “close” to signing an extension with Joe Gibbs Racing. Jones’ contract expires after this season.

Ryan Blaney completed the top five with a lap of 136.116 mph. Martin Truex Jr. qualified sixth at 136.082 mph, and Matt DiBenedetto qualified a career-best seventh at 135.990 mph. DiBenedetto’s previous best Cup start was ninth in this year’s Daytona 500.

Alex Bowman had a driveshaft failure on his qualifying run and did not complete a lap. He will start at the rear of the field.

“Just a big boom going down the front straightaway and smoke and oil everywhere,” Bowman told NBCSN.

Bowman will go to a backup car.

Denny Hamlin and Ryan Newman also will start at the rear of the field because they both went to backup cars after separate incidents late in Friday’s only Cup practice session.

Andy Seuss (qualified 35th) and Austin Theriault (36th) both will be making their Cup debut Sunday.

Daniel Hemric qualified 19th. HIs car failed inspection twice before qualifying and a crew member was ejected.

 

Erik Jones ‘close’ to re-signing after meeting with Joe Gibbs this week

Chris Graythen/Getty Images
Leave a comment

LOUDON, N.H. – After meeting with team owner Joe Gibbs this week, Erik Jones believes he finally is “close” to signing an extension with the team after a few months of negotiations.

“We’ve had some good meetings, positive meetings, so we’re moving in the right direction,” Jones said during Friday afternoon’s qualifying session at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I’d love to get it done here soon. We’ve had good meetings between my guys and JGR. I’ve had good meetings with Coach talking about it and moving forward. I know I keep saying it, but I feel like we’re pretty close to getting it done.”

The uncertainty for the 2020 season seemingly has been no distraction in 2019 for Jones, who believes he is close to ending a yearlong winless streak. He has notched six top 10s in the past nine races to move into the 16th and final provisional spot for the playoffs with seven races remaining in the regular season.

The Byron, Michigan, native said he told Gibbs “I want to get (the extension) done. We both want to get it done and move forward and stop worrying about it and stop focusing on it, but we’re close. Hopefully here soon.”

An extension for Jones would mean JGR has a full lineup of four drivers signed for 2020 and shift the focus to what is next for Xfinity driver Christopher Bell, who is under contract to JGR next season.

“I think you know as much as I do,” Bell said Friday morning when asked about what series he will race next year. “Actually, you probably know a little bit more than I do. Ultimately, it’s not up to me. I can’t make the decisions, so I’m just along for the ride.”

Bell indicated his desire to move to Cup last season, and a Leavine Family Racing Toyota could be an option if JGR wants to farm him out for 2020 in NASCAR’s premier series.

“I learned early on in my career that a race car driver is only as good as the equipment,” Bell said. “I definitely want to make sure that I’m in equipment that can win.”

Jeffrey Earnhardt releases his remaining races for 2019

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
Leave a comment

Jeffrey Earnhardt announced his schedule for the rest of the season Friday.

He is scheduled to run six Xfinity races and one Cup race the rest of this season.

His Xfinity races will be Mid-Ohio (Aug. 10), Bristol (Aug. 16), Road America (Aug. 24), Darlington (Aug. 31), ISM Raceway (Nov. 9) and Miami (Nov. 16). He’ll drive the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Xfinity car at Mid-Ohio, Road America, ISM Raceway and Miami. He’ll drive the No. 81 Xtreme Concepts Racing car at Bristol and Darlington.

He’ll also drive the No. 81 Xtreme Concepts Racing Cup car at Talladega on Oct. 13.