Who is hot and cold entering Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas

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The Cup Series playoffs have arrived and will get underway Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Here’s a look at five drivers who are hot and five drivers who are cold entering the South Point 400.

Who is Hot

Brad Keselowski
• Won at Indianapolis (6th in Stage 1, 7th in Stage 2, 9 laps led); contact with Ryan Blaney on pit road on Lap 32 damaged right rear of car.
• First back-to-back wins since 2016 (Daytona/Kentucky)
• Finished in Top 2 in 3 of last 4 races
• Seventh playoff appearance
• Finished 7th or better in 6 straight Las Vegas races, including 2 wins
• Started 8th, 6th in Stage 1, 6th in Stage 2, finished 6th at Las Vegas in March
• Finished Top 10 in 3 straight 1.5-mile races and 7 of last 9

Kevin Harvick
• Finished 4th at Indianapolis (12th in Stage 1, 21st in Stage 2, 22 laps led); penalized for uncontrolled tire on lap 10 pit stop; pit for a 2nd time on lap 32 after gun failed on lap 30 pit stop
• Won 7 of last 25 races
• Finished in Top 5 in 10 of last 13 races
• Finished in Top 10 in 8 straight races and 12 of last 13
• Twelfth playoff appearance
• Finished Top 10 in 4 of last 6 Las Vegas races, including 2 wins
• Started 2nd, swept every stage, 214 laps led, won at Las Vegas in March
• Won four of last nine 1.5-mile races
• Finished Top 10 in 19 of last 21 1.5-mile races

Denny Hamlin
• Finished 3rd at Indianapolis (3rd in Stage 1, 20th in Stage 2, 37 laps led)
• Finished in Top 10 in 2 straight races and 3 of last 4
• Twelfth playoff appearance
• Last 4 Las Vegas races: 2 finishes of 6th or better & 2 finishes of 17th or worse
• Finished 12th or worse in 5 of last 7 Las Vegas races
• Started 19th, 11th in Stage 1, 15th in Stage 2, finished 17th at Las Vegas in March; penalized for speeding entering pits on lap 122
• Finished 7th or better in 3 of last 4 races on 1.5-mile tracks

Kyle Busch
• Finished 8th at Indianapolis (5th in Stage 1, 24th in Stage 2, 27 laps led); penalized for pitting when pit road was closed on Lap 98; pit on Lap 119 with flat right rear tire while running 16th
• Won regular season championship
• Won 6 of last 20 races
• Finished in Top 5 in 10 of last 14 races
• Finished in Top 10 in 13 of last 15 races
• Finished in Top 5 in 17 of 26 races this season
• Eleventh playoff appearance
• Finished Top 5 in 3 of last 5 Las Vegas races
• Started 13th, 9th in Stage 1, 5th in Stage 2, 10 laps led, finished 2nd at Las Vegas in March
• Won 3 of last 5 races on 1.5-mile tracks
• Finished in Top 10 in 8 straight 1.5-mile races

Erik Jones
• Finished 2nd at Indianapolis (10th in Stage 1, 3rd in Stage 2)
• Finished Top 10 in 9 of last 11 races
• First playoff appearance
• 2 career Las Vegas starts: 15th in 2017, 8th in 2018
• Started 9th, 12th in Stage 1, 11th in Stage 2, finished 8th at Las Vegas in March
• Top 10 in five of seven races on 1.5 mile tracks in 2018

Who is Cold

Austin Dillon
• Finished 22nd at Indianapolis (17th in Stage 1, 12th in Stage 2)
• Finished 13th or worse in 7 of last 8 races
• Finished 12th or worse in 19 of last 21 races
• Finished outside Top 10 in 22 of 25 races since Daytona 500 win
• Third playoff appearance
• Finished 13th or worse in 5 of 6 career starts at Las Vegas
• Started 16th, 16th in Stage 1, 14th in Stage 2, finished 13th at Las Vegas in March
• Finished outside Top 10 in 13 straight 1.5-mile races

Aric Almirola
• Finished 23rd at Indianapolis (7th in Stage 1, 31st in Stage 2); penalized for speeding on pit road on Lap 95
• Finished 14th or worse in 3 straight races and and 7 of last 10
• Second playoff appearance
• Finished 14th or worse in 9 of 10 career Las Vegas starts
• Started 29th, 15th in Stage 1, 13th in Stage 2, finished 10 at Las Vegas in March
• Finished in Top 10 in 3 of last 6 races on 1.5-mile tracks

Jimmie Johnson
• Finished 16th at Indianapolis (19th in Stage 1, 10th in Stage 2)
• Finished 16th or worse in 2 straight races and 5 of last 6
• Only two top 10s in the last 12 races
• Currently on a 49 race winless streak (longest of career)
• Fifteenth playoff appearance, won 7 championships – only driver to make every playoff
• Finished outside the Top 10 in 3 of last 4 Las Vegas races
• Started 14th, 27th in Stage 1, 19th in Stage 2, finished 12th at Las Vegas in March; started in the rear after multiple failures in pre-race inspection
• Finished outside the Top 10 in 9 of last 10 1.5-mile races

Martin Truex Jr.
• Finished 40th at Indianapolis (40th in Stage 1, 40th in Stage 2); DNF – started in rear after failing inspection multiple times; broke left front brake rotor on lap 41
• Finished outside Top 10 in 4 straight races and 5 of the last 6
• Won 3 of last 13 races
• Finished in the Top 5 in 10 of last 16 races
• Sixth Playoff appearance
• Finished 4th or better in 3 of last 4 Las Vegas races, including win in 2017
• Started 4th, 2nd in Stage 1, 7th in Stage 2, 6 laps led, finished 4th at Las Vegas in March
• Won 8 of last 17 races on 1.5-mile tracks
• Finished 4th or better in 4 straight 1.5-mile races
• Finished 8th or better in 17 of last 18 races on 1.5-mile tracks.

Alex Bowman
• Finished 33rd at Indianapolis (15th in Stage 1, 36th in Stage 2); wrecked with AJ Allmendinger on Lap 67 while battling for 16th
• Finished 23rd or worse in 2 straight races and 14th or worse in 4 of last 5
• First Playoff appearance
• Never finished better than 16th in 3 career Las Vegas starts
• Started 20th, 19th in Stage 1, 18th in Stage 2, finished 16th at Las Vegas in March
• Finished in Top 10 in 2 of last 3 races on 1.5-mile tracks
• Finished 13th or worse in 7 of last 9 races on 1.5-mile tracks

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.

 

 

Winners and losers from the Clash at the Coliseum

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the non-points race that opened the NASCAR season:

WINNERS

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex limped through a frustrating 2022 season, going winless and contemplating writing “finish” to his driving career. But he decided late in the year to make another run, and that choice paid big dividends Sunday as he put Joe Gibbs Racing in victory lane.

Richard Childress Racing — RCR opened the season with power, putting Austin Dillon in second and newcomer Kyle Busch in third. The new teammates even enjoyed some late-race collaboration, Busch backing off a second-place battle to give Dillon a chance to make a run at eventual winner Truex.

Ryan Preece — Preece, given a shot in the offseason at a full-time ride in Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing, showed strength in his first outing, leading 43 laps before electrical issues dropped him to seventh.

Bubba Wallace — Wallace held the lead at the halfway point and totaled 40 laps in first but was drop-kicked by Austin Dillon late in the race and finished 22nd.

LOSERS

Chase Elliott — It was a lost weekend for the former Cup champion. Elliott was lapped during the race, failed to lead a lap and finished 21st.

Ty Gibbs — Suspension problems parked Gibbs after 81 laps, and he finished next-to-last a day after his car caught fire in practice.

Michael McDowell — McDowell was involved in several on-track incidents during the evening and finished 24th after running out of fuel, along with teammate Todd Gilliland.

Long: Drivers make their point clear on Clash at the Coliseum

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LOS ANGELES — So what to do with the Clash at the Coliseum?

The second edition of this exhibition race at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum showcased beating, banging and 16 cautions in a 150-lap race won by Martin Truex Jr. on Sunday night.

A year remains on NASCAR’s three-year contract with the Coliseum — NASCAR holds the option for next year — and it seems all but certain Cup cars will be back next year.

With Auto Club Speedway President Dave Allen saying Saturday that his track will not host a NASCAR event in 2024 while being converted from a 2-mile speedway to a half-mile track, the Los Angeles area would be without a NASCAR race if the Clash did not return.

NASCAR is not likely to leave the nation’s No. 2 TV market without a race. 

A question this weekend was if the Clash would become a points race next year to replace the Auto Club Speedway date and allow NASCAR to have a new venue for the Clash.

“I think they should put (the Coliseum race) in the playoffs, personally. That would be perfect,” Denny Hamlin said straight faced after Sunday’s race before breaking into a smile to show he was speaking sarcastically.

Two-time Cup champion Joey Logano was emphatic in his response.

“No,” Logano said, shaking his head Sunday night. “We can’t do that.”

Why?

“You’re going to fit 40 cars out there? We can’t even make a caution lap without the pace car bumping the last-place car.”

Logano smiled as he spoke — then again he often smiles as he talks. He was not speaking sarcastically as Hamlin showed with his smile. Logano’s grin was part of a passionate defense.

“No. You can’t do that,” Logano continued of why a points race at the Coliseum is a bad idea. “That’d be dumb.”

Even in a celebratory mood after his first victory in NASCAR in more than a year, Truex was clear about his feelings of making the Clash a points race.

“Why would you screw it up,” he said, “and make it a points race?”

Just because drivers don’t like something doesn’t mean it won’t happen. 

But much would have to happen to make this event a points race.

Those familiar with the charter agreement between teams and NASCAR told NBC Sports that they weren’t sure that the language in the agreement would permit a points race at such a venue. With the charter system guaranteeing all 36 teams a spot in a race, it’s not feasible to run so many cars on this small track. Only 27 cars ran in Sunday’s Clash. That almost seemed too many.

Should there be a way to make this event a points race without all 36 running in the main event, there are other issues. 

The purse would have to significantly increase. NASCAR stated that the purse for Sunday’s Clash was $2.085 million. Last year’s championship race at Phoenix had a purse of $10.5 million. The purse for last year’s Cup race at Watkins Glen was $6.6 million. The purse for last year’s race at Nashville Superspeedway was $8.065 million.

If NASCAR made the Clash a points race, then the purse would be expected to fall in line with other points races. Of course, there still would be the logistics. 

But is it worth it to try to make an event something it doesn’t need to be?

While the attendance appeared to be a little less than the estimated 50,000 for last year’s race, it wasn’t enough of a drop to warrant abandoning this event. Is a points race at the Coliseum going to increase the attendance significantly? No.

Just bring this event back next year as is.

“I think it’s good for what it is,” Logano said. “It’s a non-points race. I think we need to go back to maybe only four cars (instead of five) transferring from the heat (races) … there’s just too many cars (on the track). I think that’s part of the issue as well.”

Then, to make sure he got his point across about if next year’s Coliseum race should be a points race, Logano said: “A points-paying race. No. I’ll be the first to raise my hand that’s a very bad idea.” 

But it’s possible 2024 could be the final year for this event at the Coliseum. 

If Auto Club Speedway’s conversion to a short track can be done in time to be on the 2025 schedule, then the Los Angeles region would have a short track and NASCAR could move the Clash to a new area to reach more fans.

That’s part of the goal this new dynamic NASCAR, which has moved Cup races to different venues in the last couple of years and will run its first street course race in July in Chicago. 

While NASCAR has made such changes, making the race at the Coliseum a points race serves no purpose. Just listen to the drivers.