Who is hot, who is not in Cup heading to Darlington

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It’s time to throwback this weekend with the NASCAR Cup Series competing at Darlington Raceway for Sunday’s Southern 500 (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Here’s a look from Racing Insights at those drivers who are hot and those who are not heading into the next-to-last regular season race of the season.

HOT

Kevin Harvick

• Finished 10th at Bristol (2nd in Stage 1, 21st in Stage 2, 8 laps led)

• Won 7 of the last 23 races

• Won 12 stages in 2018 (had 6 in all of 2017)

• Finished in Top 5 in 8 of last 11 races

• Finished in Top 10 in 6 straight races and 10 of last 11

• 24 races in 2018: 20 finishes of 10th or better (including 7 wins) & 4 finishes of 19th or worse

• Finished 9th or better in 5 straight Darlington races, including win in 2014

• Finished in Top 5 in 4 of last 5 Darlington races

Chase Elliott

• Finished 3rd at Bristol (4th in Stage 1, 2nd in Stage 2, 112 laps led)

• Top-10 in the last five races of 2018

• Finished in Top 10 in 8 of last 11 races

Finished 7th at Bristol (1st in Stage 1, 5th in Stage 2, 121 laps led)

• Finished 7th or better in the last two races and 4 of last 6

• Finished 12th or better in 6 straight races

Erik Jones

• Finished 5th at Bristol (8th in Stage 1, 7th in Stage 2)

• Top 5 in 3 of last 4 races

• Top 10 in 7 of last 9 races

Joey Logano

Finished 4th at Bristol (9th in Stage 1, 1st in Stage 2, 95 laps led)

Finished in Top 10 in last two races and 4 of last 6

• Finished in Top 5 in 2 of last 3 Darlington races

Kurt Busch

• Won at Bristol (7th in Stage 1, 9th in Stage 2, 24 laps led)

• Ended 58-race winless streak

• Finished top 10 in 6 straight races (first time since 2004)

• Finished 6th or better in 2 of last 3 Darlington races, but 14th or worse in 5 of last 7

NOT

Jamie McMurray

• Finished 29th at Bristol (33rd in Stage 1, 33rd in Stage 2)

• Finished 12th or worse in 8 of last 9 races

• Finished 15th or worse in 19 of 24 races this season

• Finished 14th or worse in 5 of last 6 Darlington races

Brad Keselowski

• Finished 16th at Bristol (13th in Stage 1, 19th in Stage 2)

• Finished 16th or worse in 4 of last 5 races

• Finished outside Top 30 in 3 of last 7 races

• Finished top 10 in 2 of last 3 Darlington races, but 15th or worse in 4 of last 6

Austin Dillon

Finished 13th at Bristol (16th in Stage 1, 18th in Stage 2)

Finished 13th or worse in 5 of last 6 races

Finished 12th or worse in 17 of last 19 races

Finished outside Top 10 in 20 of 23 races since Daytona 500 win

Matt Kenseth

• Finished 13th or worse in 8 starts in 2018 (22.5 avg. finish)

• Finished 6th in 2 straight Darlington races and 6th or better in 5 of last 6 Darlington races

Aric Almirola

Finished 31st at Bristol (5th in Stage 1, 4th in Stage 2, 2 laps led)

Finished 22nd or worse in 3 of last 4 races (worst 4-race stretch of season)

Never finished better than 11th in 6 career Darlington starts

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Finished 24th at Bristol (29th in Stage 1, 25th in Stage 2)

Finished out of the top 10 in 13 of last 14 races and 14th or worse in 11 straight races

Finished 14th or worse in 20 of 24 races in 2018

Never finished better than 18th in 5 career Darlington starts

Paul Menard

Finished 36th at Bristol (35th in Stage 1, 36th in Stage 2)

Finished outside the top-10 in 9 straight races in 2018

Never finished better than 13th in 11 career Darlington starts

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).