Austin Dillon has hill to climb in playoffs

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Austin Dillon did not have to wait long to punch his ticket into the Cup Series playoffs.

He just had to punch Aric Almirola‘s car out of his way on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

It’s been 25 races since the Richard Childress Racing driver won in Daytona, claiming his second-career victory.

But Dillon, in his fourth full-time season Cup, is not going into the first round of the playoffs with anything resembling momentum.

Ahead of Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Dillon has only two top 10s since the July race at Daytona. His peak came four races ago at Michigan, when he drove to a fourth-place finish, his first top five since the Daytona 500.

Dillon ended the regular season with a 22nd-place finish, tying his second worst result since the July Daytona race.

“I will take the dark horse role,” Dillon said Thursday at the Playoff Media Day. “Anything can happen. We show up at times and people least expect it.”

Dillon heads to Las Vegas, where he has one top five and top 10 (fifth in 2016) in six starts.

“It’s a good race track for me in the past,” Dillon said. “We’ve brought some speed to the race track as of late. That’s important. I’ll always enjoy the start of the playoffs. Everybody’s tense. Mistakes are made early and if you don’t make mistakes you probably move on to the first round.”

Here’s how Dillon’s numbers compare to his fellow playoff competitors.

Laps Spent in Top 15

Through 26 races Dillon has completed 6,986 out of a possible 7,189. Of those, Dillon ran in the top 15 for just 2,668 laps, or 37.1 percent.

That ranks 22nd overall and the lowest among the 16 playoff drivers. Six drivers who did not make the playoffs, including teammate Ryan Newman, rank ahead of him. The next closest playoff driver is Alex Bowman in 16th (3,470 laps – 48.3 percent).

Laps Led

Dillion also ranks 22nd in this category with 23 laps led. Jimmie Johnson is 21st with 29 laps led. Five non-playoff drivers separate them from Alex Bowman in 15th (67 laps led).

Percentage of Laps Run on Lead Lap

Dillon actually has the advantage over a fellow playoff driver here. Dillon was on the lead pace for 4,975 of 7,189 laps (69.2 percent). That’s 16th among drivers and one spot better than Bowman (4,965 laps for 69.1 percent). Newman is the lone non-playoff driver ahead of Dillon in 13th (5,733 laps for 79.75 percent).

Average Running Position

Dillon ranks 22nd here with an avg running spot of 18.505. The next best playoff driver is Bowman in 16th (16.598).

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kyle Busch back to No. 1, Kurt Busch to No. 3

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When it comes to this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, all we can say is, “Oh brother” … as in siblings Kyle and Kurt Busch.

Younger brother Kyle once again regained the top spot in this week’s rankings, knocking Joey Logano from the No. 1 perch after Logano held it the last two weeks.

And after not being ranked in the top 10 last week, older bro Kurt rockets up the rankings to No. 3 by virtue of his come-from-behind win last Saturday at Kentucky Speedway.

Also making a big move is Erik Jones, who goes from unranked last week to No. 4 this week. By contrast, six drivers from last week’s rankings dropped out of this week’s tabulations.

Here’s how this week’s rankings shape up:

1. Kyle Busch (39 points): Tenacious performance at Kentucky puts him back atop the rankings. Last week: 2nd.

2. Joey Logano (36 points): Car wasn’t wide enough to block all those behind him on the final restart. In his last three races on a 1.5-mile speedway, he’s finished seventh (Kentucky), third (Chicagoland) and second (Charlotte). Last week: 1st.

3. Kurt Busch (32 points): What a difference a win makes. But Busch’s ranking isn’t a total surprise. He’s been knocking at the door all season. Had he not pitted at Daytona two weeks ago, he may be riding a two-race win streak now. Last week: Unranked.

4. Erik Jones (23 points): Returns to playoff territory and seems to have momentum for a finishing kick. Third-place finish was his fourth top 10 in the last five races on a 1.5-mile speedway. That includes a third at Kansas and Kentucky and a fourth at Texas. Last week: Unranked.

5. Denny Hamlin (22 points): His pit crew has been called for an uncontrolled tire violation five times this year, tying the series high. That’s unacceptable. Despite the penalty at Kentucky, Hamlin finished fifth. Last week: 7th.

6. Kyle Larson (20 points): Top 10s in three of last four races – including a second (Chicagoland) and fourth (Kentucky) – have solidified his standing for the playoffs. Last week: Unranked.

7. Ryan Newman (16 points): Is in full grind-it-out mode for solid finishes exactly when he needs them. Finished ninth at Kentucky after starting at the rear because his car failed inspection. While he fell out of a playoff spot, he’s only two points away after scoring his fourth top-10 finish in the last five races. Last week: 8th.

8. Cole Custer (9 points): Kentucky victory in the Xfinity Series was his series-high fifth win of the year. Last week: Unranked.

9. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Ends four-race tailspin but still needs to work on amassing stage points. Last week: Unranked.

10. Chris Buescher (5 points): If all the tracks on the circuit were 1.5-milers, he’d likely be ranked higher. All four of his top 10s this year have come at 1.5-mile tracks. He’s been sixth at Charlotte, ninth  at Atlanta and 10th at Kansas and Kentucky. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Christopher Bell (4 points), Martin Truex Jr. (4 points), Tyler Ankrum (3 points).

Clint Bowyer looking for some of his old magic at the ‘Magic Mile’

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While the next race on the NASCAR Cup schedule is Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, Clint Bowyer is already thinking four months and 17 races ahead to mid-November’s season-ending race at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Winning a championship is the reason we are in this sport,” the Stewart-Haas Racing driver said in his weekly media release. “It’s why everyone puts in these long hours during a long season.

Winning a championship is what we dreamed about ever since we started racing. It was a great feeling to win the Xfinity title in 2008, and I can’t imagine the feeling of satisfaction you would get by winning a Cup title.”

But Bowyer also knows all too well that to make it to the four-driver, winner-take-all championship-deciding race in South Florida, he has a bit of work to firm up his position just to make the playoffs, which begin Sept. 15 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Clint Bowyer hopes to be smiling and partying after winning what would be his third career triumph this Sunday at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Photo: Stewart-Haas Racing.

Heading to New England, Bowyer is tied for 14th place with seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson. They’re eight points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones, who holds the final playoff spot. Ryan Newman, the first driver outside a playoff spot, is 10 points behind Bowyer and Johnson. Daniel Suarez is 12 points behind the duo.

A win would lock Bowyer into the playoffs. That’s why Sunday’s Foxwoods Resort Casino 301 (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) is so important to the Kansas native.

Of Bowyer’s 10 career Cup wins, two have been at New Hampshire’s “Magic Mile.” He won there in 2007 and 2010. He also has four top fives and nine top 10s in 25 career starts at that track.

I love New Hampshire,” Bowyer said. “That place just fits my driving style.

We don’t get up to that part of the country a lot, so it’s good to see the race fans there. They have so many tracks and they love their racing, from Modified to Late Models to our stuff. The support races they put on at New Hampshire are some of the best of the year. Man, do they like to party there.”

Bowyer will be partying himself if he can win Sunday’s race. Still, it’s not been a bad season for Bowyer to date, either. He has five top fives and four other top-10 finishes.

Bowyer is coming off a sixth-place finish at Kentucky last Saturday, a marked improvement from what he suffered through in three of the four previous races with finishes of 35th (Michigan), 37th (Chicagoland) and 34th (Daytona).

We dug ourselves a hole in June and we are trying to climb out of it,” Bowyer said. “We aren’t a 16th-place team. I know we are better than that.”

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NASCAR America: Dale Jarrett on Dale Jr. Download, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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They have the same first name, they have famous racing fathers and they’re both on today’s edition of the Dale Jr. Download on NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomes NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett to this week’s show.

The pair kick back and have swap stories. One of the most notable tales: Jarrett talked about his father Ned’s friendship with Dale Jr.’s grandfather, Ralph Earnhardt.

Jarrett related how the relationship between his father and Ralph hit a rough patch after they had a dust-up in a Sportsman race. The normally mild-mannered Ned was so angry at Ralph that he refused to attend his wife’s baby shower for Dale Sr. because Ralph would also be in attendance.

Ned Jarrett dutifully drove his wife to the shower, but stayed in his car the entire time.

Catch the outcome of that story, as well as many others on today’s edition of NASCAR America.

If you can’t catch today show on TV, watch online at http:/nascarstream.nbcsports.com. If you plan to stream the show on your laptop or portable device, be sure to have your username and password from your cable/satellite/telco provider handy so your subscription can be verified.

Once you enter that information, you’ll have access to the stream.

Click here at 5 p.m. ET to watch live via the stream.

 

Danielle Trotta new host of NBCSN’s Victory Lap post-race show

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Danielle Trotta will join NBC Sports’ NASCAR coverage as host of the “Victory Lap” post-race show for select Cup Series races this year.

Trotta made the announcement Tuesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track,” the show she began co-hosting this year with Larry McReynolds.

Trotta has also been with NBC Sports Boston since 2018.

As part of “Victory Lap,” which begins Sunday at 7 p.m. on NBCSN after the Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway, fans will be able to call in with questions about the race. Trotta will be joined by AJ Allmendinger and Parker Kligerman this weekend.

“It’ll be fun to continue the conversation,” Trotta said after making the announcement on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “I think after the race ends and you hear the driver’s post-race comments and we see the highlights, as a race fan on so many Sundays, I would sit on my couch and want more. I would want more coverage, more conversation, more conjecture and I think that’s exactly what NASCAR “Victory Lap” has always been and will continue to be, and then we take the next step of really wanting the conversation to be interactive and having people call live into the show.”

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