Previewing the Cup Series playoff field

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The 16-driver field for the 2018 Cup Series playoffs has been set following the Brickyard 400 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

The field includes six former champions and two first-time drivers in the playoffs (Alex Bowman and Erik Jones).

The 10-race playoff begins at 3 p.m. ET Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway on NBCSN.

Here’s a breakdown of the playoff field.

Kyle Busch

Points: 2,050 (1st)

Wins: 6 (Texas I, Bristol I, Richmond I, Coke 600, Chicago, Pocono II)

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Mild. Has two top threes and finishes of 20th, seventh and eighth since winning at Pocono.

Playoff wins: 5

Best playoff track: Richmond. Five wins, including in the spring this year. Avg finish of 7.2 in 26 starts.

Worst playoff track: Talladega. Just one win and six top fives in 26 starts. Avg finish of 20.5.

Why he’ll win the championship: Is a threat to win at every track.

Why he won’t win the championship: Anything could happen throughout the playoffs with races at Talladega, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville.

 

Kevin Harvick

Points: 2,050 (2nd)

Wins: 7 (Atlanta, Las Vegas I, Phoenix I, Dover I, Kansas I, New Hampshire, Michigan II)

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Warm. Has alternated 10th and fourth-place finishes in the races around his Michigan win.

Playoff wins: 12

Best playoff track: Phoenix. Nine wins, including seven in the last 10 races.

Worst playoff track: Martinsville. One win and just five top fives in 34 starts. Two top fives since 2012.

Why he’ll win the championship: He’s in the middle of his best career season 18 years in.

Why he won’t win the championship: He hasn’t exhibited his front-runner speed as much since winning at Michigan.

 

Martin Truex Jr.

Points: 2,035 (3rd)

Wins: 4 (Auto Club Speedway, Kentucky, Pocono I, Sonoma)

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Cold. Second-place finish at Watkins Glen is his only finish better than 11th in last five races.

Playoff wins: 6

Best playoff track: Richmond. Three wins in last seven starts there, career average finish of 10.3.

Worst playoff track: Talladega. Four DNFs in last five races there, career average finish of 28.3.

Why he’ll win the championship: Truex has Cole Pearn as his crew chief.

Why he won’t win the championship: Distraction of Furniture Row Racing shutting down after the season.

 

Brad Keselowski

Points: 2,019 (4th)

Wins: 2 (Darlington, Indianapolis)

Hot or Cold entering playoffs Hot. Coming off two consecutive wins, both in crown jewel races.

Playoff wins: 6

Best playoff track: Talladega. Five wins is most among active drivers.

Worst playoff track: Kansas. Despite two wins, he has his worst avg. finish there (18.1).

Why he’ll win the championship: Has at least one win at six of the nine playoff tracks he’s competed on (not counting Roval).

Why he won’t win the championship: General inconsistency that has plagued his season could return.

 

Clint Bowyer

Points: 2,015 (5th)

Wins: 2 (Martinsville I, Michigan I)

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Mild. Indianapolis was just his second top 10 since Pocono II.

Playoff wins: 5

Best playoff track: Richmond. Two wins in 25 starts and an avg. finish of 13.2.

Worst playoff track: Las Vegas. Only one top five and four top 10s in 13 starts. Avg. finish of 17.8.

Why he’ll win the championship: Four of his best tracks – Richmond, Martinsville, Talladega and Dover – await him in the playoffs.

Why he won’t win the championship: Despite enjoying his most success in years, it’s been a season of feast or famine with his two wins punctuating long stretches of mediocrity.

 

Joey Logano

Points: 2,014 (6th)

Wins: 1 (Talladega)

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Heating up. Two top fives in last three races after just one in previous 13 races.

Playoff wins: 7

Best playoff track: Talladega. Three wins and four top fives in last six starts.

Worst playoff track: Kansas. Despite two wins, he has his worst avg. finish there (18.1).

Why he’ll win the championship: Team Penske has stepped up at crunch time this year and he may be one of the few drivers looking forward to Talladega.

Why he won’t win the championship: Has never finished better than fourth at Miami.

 

Kurt Busch

Points:  2,014 (7th)

Wins: 1 (Bristol II)

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Medium. Outside Bristol win, he has three sixths and one ninth-place finish

Playoff wins: 3

Best playoff track: Richmond. Two wins and seven top fives in 35 starts.

Worst playoff track: Las Vegas. Only one top five in 17 starts at his home track.

Why he’ll win the championship: He has something to prove to the teams he could potentially race for in 2019.

Why he won’t win the championship: Lack of consistent success at most of the playoff tracks. Homestead-Miami Speedway represents his fifth worst average finish (18.4).

 

Chase Elliott

Points: 2,008 (8th)

Wins: 1 (Watkins Glen)

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Hot. The Brickyard 400 was his first finish outside the top 10 since New Hampshire.

Playoff wins: None

Best playoff track: Dover. Has top fives in four of five career starts.

Worst playoff track: Las Vegas. Avg. finish of 25th in three starts.

Why he’ll win the championship: Enters playoffs as arguably the most consistent driver over the summer.

Why he won’t win the championship: Chevrolet has lagged behind Toyota and Ford for the last year.

 

Ryan Blaney

Points:  2,007 (9th)

Wins: None

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Cold. Only one top five since Pocono II.

Playoff wins: None

Best playoff track: Kansas. Three top fives in seven career starts.

Worst playoff track: Richmond. No top fives or top 10s and an avg.. finish of 28.6.

Why he’ll win the championship: Team Penske is experiencing a resurgance entering the playoffs.

Why he won’t win the championship: Were he to make it Miami, it’s one of his worst tracks. He’s never finished better than 17th in three starts.

 

 

Erik Jones

Points:  2,005 (10th)

Wins: 1 (Daytona II)

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Hot. Just one finish outside top 10 since Pocono II.

Playoff wins: None

Best playoff track: Phoenix. One top five and three top 10s in his three starts.

Worst playoff track: Talladega. Hasn’t finished in any of his three starts due to wrecks.

Why he’ll win the championship: With just two finishes outside the top 10 since Sonoma, his quiet consistency could lead to a deep playoff run.

Why he won’t win the championship: He has only one Miami start. He placed 21st, two laps down.

 

Austin Dillon

Points: 2,005 (11th)

Wins: 1 (Daytona 500)

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Cold. Only two top-10 finishes since the July race at Daytona

Playoff wins: None

Best playoff track: Martinsville. Only playoff track with multiple top fives.

Worst playoff track: Texas. Avg. finish of 23.3 in 11 starts.

Why he’ll win the championship: Anything is possible.

Why he won’t win the championship: He has one top five since winning the Daytona 500.

 

Kyle Larson

Points: 2,005 (12th)

Wins: None

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Pretty warm. Placed 14th at Indy after two consecutive top fives at Bristol and Darlington, his only consecutive top fives of the year.

Playoff wins: None

Best playoff track: Homestead – best avg finish among playoff tracks (7.6). Richmond – Only playoff track where he has won.

Worst playoff track: Martinsville. Has avg finish of 22.8 in nine starts.

Why he’ll win the championship: If he can make it to the final four, he’ll be the man to beat at Miami.

Why he won’t win the championship: Team is winless since last year’s regular-season finale. Has been unable to put together a full race.

 

Denny Hamlin

Points: 2,003 (13th)

Wins: None

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Thawing. Despite three poles since Watkins Glen, he has finished better than eighth just once in that stretch (Indianapolis).

Playoff wins: 7

Best playoff track: Martinsville. Five wins in 25 starts.

Worst playoff track: Dover. Just three top fives in 25 starts. An avg. finish of 18th.

Why he’ll win the championship: As the winningest active driver without a title, he has to win it sometime, right?

Why he won’t win the championship: Hamlin has been unable to compete upfront for most of the season. Indianapolis was his first top-five finish since the Coca-Cola 600 in May.

 

Aric Almirola

Points: 2,001 (14th)

Wins: None

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Cold. Only one finish better than 14th since Pocono II.

Playoff wins: None

Best playoff track: Talladega. Two top fives and five tops 10s in 17 starts.

Worst playoff track: Las Vegas. Just one top 10 and an avg. finish of 26.2 in 10 starts.

Why he’ll win the championship: Anything seems possible for Almirola in his career-best year.

Why he won’t win the championship: Despite strong cars, the teams is consistently felled by mistakes on the track and in the pits.

 

Jimmie Johnson

Points: 2,000 (15th)

Wins: None

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Freezing. Just two top 10s since the spring Pocono race.

Playoff wins: 29. Leads active drivers

Best playoff track: Dover. Career-best 11 wins.

Worst playoff track: Talladega. Only two top fives since his last win there in 2011.

Why he’ll win the championship: He’s won seven championships. You just can’t count him out.

Why he won’t win the championship: In the worst season of his career, he’s shown few signs of being able to contend.

 

Alex Bowman

Points:  2,000 (16th)

Wins: None

Hot or Cold entering playoffs: Cold following his wreck and 33rd-place finish at Indianapolis.

Playoff wins: None

Best playoff track: Phoenix. Led a career-best 194 laps and finished sixth in the fall 2016 race.

Worst playoff track: Texas. In his two starts there for Hendrick Motorsports, he has finishes of 13th and 28th.

Why he’ll win the championship: Bowman could surge at the short tracks in the playoffs and Talladega.

Why he won’t win the championship: Hasn’t been a contender at the front all season.

Goodyear tire info for Pocono, Iowa

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All three NASCAR premier national series are in action this weekend, with the Cup Series and Gander Outdoors Truck Series at Pocono Raceway and the Xfinity Series will be at Iowa Speedway.

Although Pocono is 2 ½ times larger than last weekend’s race at New Hampshire’s “Magic Mile,” both tracks share similarities, including relatively little banking, and teams often use left-side air pressures as a tuning tool to gain grip as the cars transition from the corners to back on the throttle onto Pocono’s long straightaways.

And because Cup teams just raced at Pocono eight weeks ago on the same tire set-up and downforce package, there will not be any changes in the tires and teams should have plenty of data from the previous June 2 race at the Tricky Triangle.

Pocono is always a challenge on both the teams and the tires,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing. “Being pretty flat with long, fast straightaways and three distinct corners, teams will try to gain grip however they can, including going below our recommended air pressures, most specifically on the left-side of the car.

We integrated construction updates on both the left- and right-side tires for the June race, so since the Cup cars have already run at Pocono with this higher downforce package, they have a head start on what to expect with their set-ups this weekend.”

Cup cars will run the same combination of left- and right-side tires that they ran at Pocono in June. For the Trucks, these are two new Goodyear tire codes, featuring construction updates on both sides of the truck compared to what was run at Pocono in 2018. As on all NASCAR ovals greater than one mile in length, teams are required to run inner liners on all four tire positions at Pocono. Air pressure in those inner liners should be 12-25 psi greater than that of the outer tire.

Here’s the Cup and Truck tire info for the weekend.

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Speedway Radials

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying and 7 sets for the race (6 race sets plus 1 set transferred from qualifying or practice); Truck: 4 sets for the event.

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4870; Right-side – D-4876

Tire Circumference: Left-side — 2,227 mm (87.68 in.); Right-side — 2,241 mm (88.23 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 18 psi; Left Rear — 18 psi; Right Front — 41 psi; Right Rear — 37 psi

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As for Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Iowa, this is the same tire set-up that the Xfinity cars previously ran at Iowa in June. The left-side tire code is the same that Xfinity teams ran at Phoenix in March.

To prepare for the 2019 season, Goodyear held a tire test with Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick at Iowa on April 16-17. Also, as on most NASCAR ovals one mile or less in length, teams will not run inner liners in their tires at Iowa.

Here’s the Xfinity tire info for the weekend.

Tire: Goodyear Eagle Speedway Radials

Set limits: 6 sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side — D-4864; Right-side – D-4884

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front — 16 psi; Left Rear — 16 psi;

Right Front — 36 psi; Right Rear — 34 psi

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Ryan: Why pit strategy still isn’t so simple in the year of track position

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LOUDON, N.H. – It was a track position race held at a notorious track position-dependent oval during a season that has been dominated by incessant discussions about track position.

Yet when the outcome of Sunday’s Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway essentially was decided when the yellow flag flew for the last time, only three of 18 lead-lap cars made the ultimate track position move – skipping a pit stop to gain positions or at least avoid losing them.

It put Kevin Harvick in the lead for good. It put Erik Jones in second.

And it stunned their crew chiefs, who both were borderline incredulous about their brilliant calls.

“Is no one watching these races and seeing how this is going?” Chris Gayle, crew chief for Jones, asked rhetorically after the No. 20 Toyota driver hung on for a third place that solidified his playoff bid. “That’s what I’m thinking (while watching the last pit stops). Everybody’s scared to make that mistake it seems like.

“And I’m sure being aggressive, we can make a mistake, so I don’t want to be too cocky about it because it can bite you at any time. Because a lot of the strategy works or doesn’t work depending on how many guys do it with you.”

Rodney Childers, crew chief for Harvick, figured his call would fall in line with several lead-lap cars. He was astonished when the No. 4 Ford inherited the lead when Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Brad Keselowski all pitted.

“When we went green with 80 to go, we had already decided if there’s another caution we’re not going to pit unless we get shuffled back to eighth or ninth,” Childers said. “When I told him to stay out, I honestly thought we would restart somewhere in the first two rows, and then everybody pulled in and we’re sitting there the leader when he comes into sight, and I’m like, ‘What in the world?’

“But anyway, you just don’t ever know when that’s going to work out.”

In this case, though, there was 265 laps of evidence to support the call by Childers and Gayle.

To the chagrin of drivers who fell back with strong cars such as Kyle Busch (watch this video) and Hamlin (“Track position, holy cow. It’s just amazing how much we’re talking about track position on short tracks”), passing was as much at a premium as ever on New Hampshire’s flat 1.058-mile oval, whose slick surface already had put five drivers in backup cars before the race.

While staying on track might have been less of a gamble with a car as fast as Harvick’s, strategy calls for track position had been working throughout the race – starting with Gayle’s decision to vault Jones into the lead with two tires on his first pit stop under yellow on Lap 48.

Only one other driver (Ricky Stenhouse Jr.) opted for two tires. That again surprised Gayle, who had studied how well two right-side tires had worked in the race last season (when passing arguably had been easier).

“I expected to see 10 guys come take right sides with me,” Gayle said. “At the end, I was on the fence with the last call. I had in my mind, less than 20 (laps) to go, I’m definitely staying out. I was in that middle zone where tires might matter, but in the end, I kind of left it up to Jones. We were talking for a little bit on the radio. I’m 50-50, but if we get in the front row, I’ll stay.”

The third driver to stay on track was Martin Truex Jr., who vaulted from 10th to third and hung on for sixth.

Why weren’t there more takers when conventional wisdom suggests doing the opposite of the leader on pit strategy during a yellow flag with a late short run on a shorter track such as NHMS?

It seems as if there is a trend toward conservatism among the current group of crew chiefs, perhaps driven by the fact that more than half of them have engineering degrees and largely empirical worldviews. New Hampshire was reminiscent of the April 16, 2018 race at Richmond Raceway, where all 16 lead-lap cars pitted during a yellow with 10 laps remaining.

Tire wear factored heavily into those decisions, which is what made Sunday in Loudon even more perplexing. Hamlin alluded to wishing “tires actually meant something. They don’t right now.”

But that apparently doesn’t make the strategy much easier because it causes greater divergence on pit sequences.

“These races are the hardest to call of any of my career,” said Childers, a 15-year veteran of Cup. “The tires don’t seem to wear as much. They don’t seem to fall off as much.  It gives everybody a lot of opportunity to do different things.

“So even when you think that you’ve got it right and you put four tires on, you think you’re in the right spot and then a caution comes out and somebody else can put two on or somebody can stay out, it just keeps shuffling.”


Two days before Harvick delivered the first victory of 2018 to Stewart-Haas Racing, teammate Clint Bowyer offered an intriguing analogy for why the organization had struggled with adapting to the lower-horsepower, high-downforce rules after enjoying its best season yet with the 2018 debut of the Mustang (all four SHR drivers won last year).

“The game’s changed – literally,” Bowyer said. “It would be like taking a baseball game and making the fence shorter and use a different bat and different ball size. The game has changed.

“You have to adjust to that game. When those rules change drastically the way they do, look at the timeframe of when it happened. You spend the better part of two years developing a Mustang for a certain game, and all of a sudden that game changes, and it’s, ‘Oh, we built that bat for that ball!’”

After Harvick’s win, SHR vice president of competition Greg Zipadelli said, “I don’t think anybody should think that we’re where we need to be.

“I think it’s been a humbling year for all of us, and I think it’s been a frustrating year, obviously after the Cinderella year that we had last year. Our stuff fired off really good the beginning of the year, and we honestly didn’t anticipate anything less than that this year. But you know, in sports that’s not always the case.”


Generational strife was a major theme of the weekend at New Hampshire, punctuated by the terse conversation between Paul Menard and Harrison Burton after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race.

But it also tied into Harvick’s notable quote that “if you drove like this 10 years ago, you’d have a fist in your mouth.” He meant the blocking and side-drafting necessitated by this season’s mostly full-throttle racing (which keeps cars more tightly bunched together).

A case could be made, though, that the shifting styles also have been borne of the new attitudes and philosophies from Millennial-age drivers and younger.

As Denny Hamlin told The Athletic’s Jeff Gluck, he sees the current era of aggressive driving beginning with Brad Keselowski, who drew the ire of many Cup veterans by refusing to yield during his first partial season in Cup 10 years ago and stayed true to being anti-establishment as the north star of his NASCAR career. When he won the championship in 2012, Keselowski was accused by Tony Stewart of “having a death wish” for racing Jimmie Johnson too hard at Texas Motor Speedway (which Keselowski recalled during this 2014 interview).

Between Keselowski and Joey Logano (see the 2015 playoffs and his 2018 win at Martinsville over Martin Truex Jr.), Team Penske’s longtime duo have done as much to reshape the mores of hard driving over the past decade – and it’s mostly been for the good.


Speaking of young drivers, kudos to the trio of early 20something Xfinity championship contenders who persistently field questions about their futures with a cheery attitude.

Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick still have no clarity on their rides for the 2020 season, and they will continue being asked about it (as they were last Friday at New Hampshire) until their plans are finalized.

It seems increasingly likely that all three of them will advance to Cup next season (“it would be a hell of a rookie battle,” Bell said). Based on the manner in which they have deftly handled speculation that can be annoying (at best) and distracting, Bell, Custer and Reddick seem ready for the leap.


Though he still might lack a Cup championship, Hamlin has his NASCAR peers beaten in another department: Candor.

It’s hard to imagine another modern-era driver second-guessing himself as much as Hamlin did while speaking to reporters for 10 minutes after New Hampshire in a richly detailed and insightful explanation of how he gave away the win to Harvick.

It was a fascinating window into the thought process of an elite driver, and it wasn’t the first time that Hamlin has been willing to be so forthright about a topic that another star might find too emotionally charged or personally humiliating to address (his breathtaking honesty about the No. 11 team giving the best pit stall to a teammate last year also comes to mind).

As much as the last-lap battle with Harvick was compelling, it also was Hamlin’s unflinching dissection that gave it major legs for Monday morning analysis – even if it came at his own expense.

NASCAR penalty report after New Hampshire

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Two Xfinity Series crew chiefs were fined for rules violations in this week’s NASCAR penalty report.

Mike Shiplett, crew chief for the No. 00 Stewart-Haas Racing Ford driven by Cole Custer, was fined $5,000 for improperly installed lug nuts.

Also Jason Burdett, crew chief for the No. 7 JR Motorsports Chevrolet driven by Justin Allgaier, was also fined $5,000 for improperly installed lug nuts.

There were no other penalties assessed in either the Xfinity or NASCAR Cup series.

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Know NASCAR? Try the NBC Sports Predictor app

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Chase some money on the NBC Sports Predictor app as you enjoy NASCAR racing on the NBC Sports networks this season.

Just last week a fan made all the right predictions for the New Hampshire Cup race and won $30,000.

Download the app, sign up and then play each week the rest of the season. Need a little help? Watch the video above where Nate Ryan, Steve Letarte and Kyle Petty ID their picks for which drivers will finish in the top 10 at Pocono.

Here’s how to play NASCAR Pick ‘Em:

  • For each race stage, pick the driver that will have the best finish from a group of four drivers.
  • Then, out of the entire field, pick which drivers will finish the race in 1st, 2nd, and 3rd place – in exact order.

Fans who earn a perfect score will win (or split if multiple users) the jackpot. If there are no perfect scores one week, the $10,000 jackpot rolls over to the next race, making that jackpot $20,000, then $30,000, and so on. Once a jackpot is won, the jackpot will reset to $10,000 for the following contest. In addition, each week there will be $1,000 in guaranteed prizes split among users with the top scores.

This is the third game to be released on the NBC Sports Predictor app. In February, NBC Sports debuted “Golf Pick ‘Em,” after launching the app with “Premier League Pick ‘Em in December.

Each player must be at least 18 years or older. Other restrictions may apply.