Ford looks to party in Indianapolis like it’s 1999

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway was once a happy place for Ford’s NASCAR efforts.

In the early years of the Brickyard 400, the blue oval was a regular presence in Victory Lane at 2.5-mile track, winning three of four races thanks to Dale Jarrett (1996, 1999) and Ricky Rudd (1997).

Then the turn of the century happened.

Ford has gone winless in one of NASCAR’s biggest races in the 18 years since Jarrett last kissed the bricks (a tradition Jarrett started in 1996).

Since then, the full-time Cup careers of Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick have come and gone and Tony Stewart won all 49 of his Cup races.

In that time, four other manufacturers have triumphed in Indy, with Chevrolet running away with 14 victories over Toyota (two) and the departed Dodge and Pontiac, who claimed one win each.

But entering the 25th annual Brickyard 400 this weekend (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN), Ford is in a fairly happy place.

The manufacturer is coming off a win in the Southern 500 with Brad Keselowski and Team Penske, the team’s first Darlington Raceway victory since 1975.

Ford now has 12 wins through the season’s first 25 races. At this point in 2017 it had eight of an eventual 10 wins. In 2016, it had six of eight victories. In 2015, they had four of seven wins.

Entering the regular-season finale, the first time Indianapolis has hosted it, Ford’s dominance has been centered on one team: Stewart-Haas Racing.

The four-car team has 10 of the 12 wins, with Penske claiming the other two through Keselowski and Joey Logano (Talladega). Kevin Harvick has a series-leading seven wins.

But every current Ford team is looking for their first Brickyard win for the manufacturer.

Though Penske is the king of Indy in open-wheel racing, it has proved to be one of its worst tracks in NASCAR.

In 51 combined starts, Penske has 10 top fives, its fourth fewest on Cup’s active tracks. Its 20 top 10s are its third fewest. Its 316 laps led are only ahead of its totals at Watkins Glen (230) and Sonoma (273).

But like Ford’s improved overall success in the last three seasons, Penske has gained ground at Indy.

Logano has three top fives in his last four starts at Indy. Keselowski earned his first in eight starts last year with a runner-up finish in a race marred by late wrecks.

Stewart-Haas Racing has an Indy win, but that came in 2013 with Ryan Newman driving a Chevrolet. The team transitioned to Ford in 2017.

In 27 combined starts, SHR has five top fives (second fewest), 11 top 10s (third fewest) and 144 laps led, ahead of only its Watkins Glen total (78 laps).

Since joining SHR the year after Newman’s Brickyard win, Kevin Harvick has been the team’s leader at the track. He has four top 10s and one top five in his four starts.

Ford’s other major team is Roush Fenway Racing.

In 93 combined starts, the team has earned 16 top fives (fourth fewest), 30 top 10s (fourth fewest) and led 173 laps, which is only better than its total at Kentucky (38 laps).

Roush hasn’t placed in the top five at Indy since 2012 with Greg Biffle (third).

Matt Kenseth, who is competing part-time this year for Roush, will make his 19th Brickyard 400 start.

He has three runner-up results at IMS (2003, 2006, 2016) and has placed seventh or better in his last five starts there. Those starts came with Joe Gibbs Racing.

“There’s no other track we go to that compares to Indy,” Kenseth said in a press release. “It’s two-and-a-half miles, but it’s one of the flattest tracks on the circuit, and it has such long straightaways that you’re carrying a lot of speed going into those flat turns. It’s also pretty narrow and you need to find ways to get track position, because there’s just not a lot of room to pass.”

Kenseth’s first Indy start came in 2000, the year after Jarrett delivered Ford its last Brickyard win.

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Friday’s schedule for Kansas Speedway

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NASCAR’s race weekend at Kansas Speedway begins today with Cup qualifying and practice sessions for Cup and Xfinity.

Here’s the day’s full schedule with TV and radio info:

(All times are Eastern)

11 a.m. – 9 p.m. – Cup garage open

Noon – 8 p.m. – Xfinity garage open

2:05 – 2:55 p.m. – Cup practice (NBCSN, Motor Racing Network)

3:05 – 3:55 p.m. – Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

5 – 5:50 – Final Xfinity practice (NBCSN)

7:10 p.m. – Cup qualifying; multi-car/three rounds (NBCSN, MRN, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Friday 5: Kansas could be start of dominant run for Big 3

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas — The opening half of the playoffs, with its Roval and other schedule changes, saw five different winners but such parity may be replaced beginning this weekend at Kansas Speedway.

Three of the season’s final five races will be at 1.5-mile tracks — Kansas, Texas and Homestead. Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have dominated this season on the 1.5-mile tracks.

Consider what they’ve done this year on such tracks:

Atlanta — Harvick won, leading 181 of 325 laps; Truex was fifth.

Las Vegas — Harvick won, leading 214 of 267 laps; Busch was second and Truex was fourth.

Texas — Busch won, leading 116 of 334 laps; Harvick was second.

Kansas — Harvick won, leading 79 of 267 laps; Truex was second 

Coca-Cola 600 — Busch won, leading 377 of 400 laps; Truex was second.

Chicago — Busch won, leading 59 of 267 laps; Harvick was third and Truex was fourth.

Kentucky — Truex won, leading 174 of 267 laps; Busch was fourth and Harvick was fifth.

Las Vegas — Brad Keselowski won; Truex was third, leading 96 of 272 laps.

Also consider that Harvick, Busch and Truex combined to win 12 of the 17 stages at those tracks and one can see how difficult it could be for other drivers if this trend continues.

Keselowski (-18 points), Ryan Blaney (-22), Kyle Larson (-26 with his team appealing his Talladega penalty) and Alex Bowman (-68) enter this weekend’s race below the cutoff line. Bowman must win or he’ll be eliminated. Larson, Blaney and Keselowski will need to win or hope others have problems to advance. Scoring a victory won’t be easy against Harvick, Busch and Truex, who have combined to win the last five Kansas races.

Don’t be surprised if the Big 3 dominate the second half of the playoffs.

2. The value of playoff points

Martin Truex Jr. enters Sunday’s race (2 p.m. ET on NBC) in the last transfer spot.

He holds that position because of the 38 playoff points he’s accumulated this season. His advantage would be much less without having scored so many playoff points.

Brad Keselowski trails Truex by 18 points for that transfer spot. Keselowski has scored 13 fewer playoff points than Truex.

Ryan Blaney trails Truex by 22 points. Blaney has scored 25 fewer playoff points than Truex.

All the points matter throughout the season.

3. Kind words about Kyle Busch from a competitor

At a media event Thursday to promote the upcoming Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, Kevin Harvick was asked about competing against Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr.

“I love racing against Kyle Busch,” Harvick said. “I think Kyle is one of the best drivers that is ever going to come through this sport. The things that he does in the car are great, but he knows a lot about the car, too.

“And Martin (Truex Jr.) and those guys have run well over the last few years, so racing with those two teams, we’ve been around each other in the garage a lot. There’s a lot of respect amongst the three teams, but we all want to beat each other.”

4. What’s at stake …

Jimmie Johnson has five races left to score a victory this season and continue his streak of seasons with at least one win.

He’s gone 16 seasons with at least one victory, tying him with Ricky Rudd and Rusty Wallace for third on the all-time list.

Richard Petty holds the record at 18 consecutive seasons with at least one victory. David Pearson had at least a victory in 17 consecutive seasons.

5. How much does testing matter?

Kansas was one of three tracks NASCAR held organizational tests this season, allowing one car per organization to test.

In the previous two organizational tests this season (Las Vegas and Richmond), the winner did not test.

Kyle Larson was the fastest both days of the Las Vegas test on Jan. 31-Feb. 1. He finished third, highest among those who tested.

Kevin Harvick took part in the organizational test at Richmond on Aug. 27-28. He went on to finish second, highest among those who tested.

The organizational test at Kansas Speedway was Sept. 24-25. Here’s who tested:

Playoff drivers: Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr.

Drivers eliminated or didn’t make playoffs: Austin Dillon, Chris Buescher, Cole Custer, Ty Dillon, Matt Kenseth, Jamie McMurray and Paul Menard.

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Dale Jr. Download: Talladega’s wild weekends

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A mostly uneventful race at Talladega last week turned wild in Turn 1 of the white-flag lap. A multi-car crash might have ended the race if not for the fact that NASCAR judged all the drivers in the accident were safe. Some drivers – notably Kurt Busch, who ran out of gas in Turn 4 of that same lap – were not happy.

But NASCAR was in a no-win situation.

“If NASCAR throws the yellow, they’re going to get criticized for not letting it play out; if NASCAR doesn’t throw they yellow, they’re going to get criticized for not throwing the yellow,” Dale Earnhardt Jr. said on this week’s edition of the Dale Jr. Download.

Earnhardt then recalled some other controversial calls when NASCAR threw the caution to this disapproval of the fans.

In April 2004, Jeff Gordon beat Earnhardt when the field was frozen due to a yellow flag. Afterward, irate fans hurled cans of beer at Gordon’s car.

“Jeff had just gotten up toward the front,” Earnhardt said. “And we’d been doing well all day long – and this would have been five in a row. So down the back straightaway going into [Turn] 3, Jeff side-drafted me and got ahead and I was side drafting him back and was starting to go back by him. And that motion as I’m starting to go back by him … another couple of hundred yards and I’d be back out front. And the 25 car [Brian Vickers] spun in the middle of the corner. NASCAR’s precedent at the time was the field was froze as soon as the car started to spin.”

Earnhardt was frustrated that Gordon, who had led significantly fewer laps in the race, was going to win.

We’re riding around and those beer cans are flying across the racetrack,” Earnhardt continued. “I got up against the wall behind the fence so I’m not getting many beer cans. Jeff goes further and further down toward the apron. … They were like throwing full beer cans. Now you know you’ve got some pissed off Alabama fans when they’re willing to throw a full can of beer.”

For more, watch the video above.

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NASCAR America: Aric Almirola replaces grim Kansas memories with fond ones

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The 2017 crash in the spring Kansas Speedway that seriously injured Aric Almirola and kept him from competing in seven races that season continues to define his career.

“Breaking my back was obviously not in the plan,” Almirola said in an interview on NASCAR America. “I didn’t anticipate ever being injured in a racecar. Everybody always thinks, ‘that’s not going to happen to me.’ ”

But it did and each time Almirola returns to Kansas – like he will Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC) – he is met with memories of the accident that will not go away. That’s because his crash continues to be part of the highlight reel for this track as one of its most dramatic moments.

As it turns out, his thoughts about the track have become fond ones.

Later in 2017, Almirola finished ninth in the fall Kansas race after finishing fifth the week before at Talladega. He finished ninth again this spring.

“Something that really stuck out to me there is how his perception has changed,” Parker Kligerman said on Thursday’s edition of NASCAR America. “Sometimes you have drivers who ascend to the top very quickly and they don’t have, maybe, a respect for what they’re doing and what they’re getting to do week in and week out. And when they’re … forced to watch the sport from another angle and … just observe, a lot of time they come away being faster, better, more appreciative.”

This week, Almirola goes to the track with an even better feeling after winning last week’s race at Talladega.

For more, watch the video above.

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