12 questions to ponder for Round of 12

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1. Will the Big 3 dominate this round?

They will at Dover. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex have combined to win four of the last six Dover races. Twice members of this group finished first and second at this track in that time. Truex has four consecutive top-five finishes there, including one win.

The question becomes Talladega, the middle race of the round. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined to win five of the last seven races there.

The round ends at Kansas. The Big 3 have combined to win each of the last five races there.

So expect to see a lot of Harvick, Truex and Busch running toward the front, particularly at Dover and Kansas.

2. Are we seeing the emergence of Team Penske as a title threat?

Ryan Blaney’s surprise win at the Charlotte Roval gives Team Penske four victories in the last five races.

To put that into perspective: Team Penske had four wins in the 58 races before its recent streak.

That’s a nice run for Team Penske but let’s see what Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Blaney can do against the Big 3 this weekend at Dover and later in the round at Kansas Speedway. Those will be key tracks. If Team Penske can beat the Big 3 there, than it might be time to say this group could crash the Big 3’s get together in Miami.

3. What will happen next to Kyle Larson?

Larson looked to be one of the main title contenders last year until this round when a blown engine at Kansas prevented him from advancing. He wasn’t strong in this round last year, placing 10th on the Charlotte oval (he finished behind seven of the other 11 playoff drivers) and 13th at Talladega.

In a year where he’s winless but been the runner-up six times, he needed a wild set of circumstances — Jimmie Johnson spinning while battling for the lead on the last chicane and Jeffrey Earnhardt being spun and unable to continue less than 100 yards from the finish line — to advance to the second round.

Larson has lamented in the past how luck has not gone his way, particularly in the playoffs.

Will last week’s remarkable finish lead this team deeper into the playoffs, or will fate strike a cruel blow to the team’s playoff hopes in this round?

4. What type of warning sign would be apropos for this round?

Be careful in the final stage. In the opening round, six of the 13 cautions that took place in the final stage at Las Vegas, Richmond and the Charlotte Roval involved at least one playoff contender.

5. What’s something to keep an eye on for the rest of the playoffs?

Pit road. Penalties could play a key role in who advances.

Uncontrolled tire violations have been called seven times in the playoffs. Five of those infractions have been committed by playoff teams.

“I feel like if they stay in the box, what’s the big deal? I think our fans want to see hard racing,” said Martin Truex Jr., whose team was penalized for an uncontrolled tire at Richmond. “They want to see the guys that are up front battling, not going to the rear once every two or three weeks for a tire sitting there with a guy that’s a foot too far away from it. I don’t agree with it. I think we should look at it, but I don’t make the rules.”

6. Stewart-Haas Racing had all four of its drivers advance. How many can get to the next round?

Kevin Harvick is among the favorites to go all the way to Miami. Kurt Busch has been consistent. His 39 stage points in the playoffs rank second to Martin Truex Jr.’s 45 stage points.

Clint Bowyer was outside the cutline going into the race at the Charlotte Roval and advanced. Aric Almirola advanced via a tiebreaker. Almirola’s team has had speed at times but not been able to put together a whole race often. He enters this round seeded 11th of the 12 drivers.

Odds are against all four advancing. With the expectation that the Big 3 — Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — advance, that leaves a small margin for error for SHR to have all four teams move into the third round.

7. What about Hendrick Motorsports?

Jimmie Johnson is gone, but Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman remain in the playoffs.

Both Elliott (ninth) and Bowman (12th) start the round outside the cutoff to advance to the next round.

Elliott has eight top-10 finishes in the last eight races and is a good candidate to advance. Bowman has three top-10 finishes in the last 10 races. That won’t be good enough to keep going.

8. Who could be an X factor?

It’s remarkable how Jeffrey Earnhardt has played a key role lately.

In the regular-season finale, he was involved in a late-race incident with Landon Cassill that caused the final caution and allowed Brad Keselowski to pass Denny Hamlin for the win.

At Richmond, a caution for Earnhardt was the only yellow other than the two stage breaks. He spun after he was hit by Matt Kenseth. The caution came after Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney had pitted, putting them two laps down with less than 80 laps to go. None of those three drivers finished in the top 15.

At the Charlotte Roval, Earnhardt spun off the final turn of the final lap after contact from Daniel Hemric. Earnhardt was stalled less than 100 yards from the finish line but couldn’t get his car restarted. Kyle Larson, running well off the pace, blew a tire and hit the wall in Turn 4 of the oval and then hit the wall after exiting the final chicane before passing Earnhardt. That one position — and one point — was the difference in Larson advancing to this round.

9. An average of 15 cars was eliminated by accidents in the last three Talladega races. Do you take the over or under?

If it helps you decide, 24 cars were eliminated by accident in last year’s playoff race there. Take the over.

10. Will this round match the drama of the first round?

With Talladega coming up, it certainly could. No one expected Las Vegas to have such fireworks. Maybe that happens at Dover or Kansas in this round.

11. Who advances?

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.

12. Who is eliminated?

Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola.

NASCAR America: Dale Jr. Download with Mike Helton, 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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On today’s Dale Jr. Download, which runs from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBCSN, Dale Earnhardt Jr. welcomes NASCAR vice chairman Mike Helton.

Earnhardt has known Helton his whole life, and while the two consider each other good friends, Junior told one story where that friendship was tested a bit. 

Here’s a brief segment of what Junior had to say about Helton:

You can be an incredible friend, but the funny thing is when you need to chew somebody’s ass, you can get that done, too. There was one time you had to get after me pretty hard at Bristol Motor Speedway. … We had a car explode a brake rotor on the race track and threw brake parts all over the place.

There was about 15 laps to go and we were running under caution. Typically, NASCAR red flags the race and I was wanting them to do that, but they didn’t. I don’t see the brake stuff, everything’s great, I’m raising hell. This was in the Bud days. Tony (Eury) Sr. was on the radio and I think he was encouraging me a little bit. Our spotter came over and said they want you and Tony Sr. to come to the truck after the race. I stopped talking immediately.

That’s when I learned that Mike Helton and the guys in the booth listen to the drivers and I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, they heard me.’ … We go up in the hauler and me and Tony Sr. still feel like we’re in the right and that we’re going to tell ‘em this and tell ‘em that, and that we’re going in there thinking we’re going to tell Helton and he’s going to say ‘you’re right, we should have red-flagged the race.’

As soon as Helton’s head comes into the door jamb, Tony Sr. and I both started pleading our case. And Mike Helton said, ‘Both of y’all hush. Y’all aren’t going to talk, I’m going to talk.’ You were so mad, so angry, and when I realized how mad you were, I was so disappointed in myself for disappointing and angering him. … I realized now what I had done.’”

Tune in to hear the rest of the story on the Dale Jr. Download (the above portion starts around 51:00).

And then stick around for the following show, IndyCar Live, from Indianapolis Motor Speedway from 6-6:30 pm ET with Kevin Lee.

If you can’t catch either of today’s shows 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.

Missouri’s Lucas Oil Speedway heavily damaged by possible tornado

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Severe storms barreled through south central Missouri on Monday night, causing a number of injuries and heavy damage to the area, including significant damage to Lucas Oil Speedway in Wheatland, Missouri, about two hours southeast of Kansas City.

According to a media release from track officials, “The storm moved into the area shortly before midnight and damaged several buildings, destroyed the grandstands at the off-road track and also damaged some of the grandstands at the dirt track. There also was damage in the campground and debris was scattered throughout the facility. Several vehicles on-site were toppled, including some campers that had arrived for the weekend.”

There were several injuries reported at the RV park located nearby. Investigators were trying to determine if the storm actually spawned a tornado that caused the damage.

The storms left the track without power and forced officials to cancel this weekend’s Lucas Oil Show-Me 100, one of the its biggest races of the year.

Lucas Oil Speedway general manager Danny Lorton said in the media release that this weekend’s racing – which is considered part of the “Crown Jewel of dirt Late Models” – would be rescheduled at a future date. Lorton said the earliest some announcement may be made is Tuesday.

Also in the media release, track racing operations director Dan Robinson noted, “Our first thoughts are for the people of the Wheatland community and the area and we are thankful that there were no fatalities. Our thoughts and prayers go out to all who were affected.”

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Dale Earnhardt Jr. opens up on why he hid his smoking and how he quit

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For the first 15 years or so of his high-profile NASCAR career, Dale Earnhardt Jr. had a secret that he kept from fans, media and sponsors.

But most importantly he kept it from his father.

There had been times that Dale Earnhardt had entered his son’s house unannounced and seen the ashtrays full of cigarette butts.

And while his mother, uncle and grandparents also indulged in smoking, Earnhardt’s seven-time champion father didn’t, nor did he approve of it.

“When I was a kid, everyone seemed to be smoking except for dad for whatever reason. He just never did,” Earnhardt Jr. told NBCSports.com in a phone interview Tuesday morning during a round of media appearances in which he spoke about his former habit in-depth publicly for the first time. “He knew I did, and I never, ever would have let him see me holding a cigarette. He hated it. We never had a conversation about it. He might have said a few times, ‘You need to effing quit that.’ Or something like that real short.

“I know that was something that extremely disappointed him.”

Ultimately, it was another family member who helped Earnhardt Jr. snap the habit about eight years ago.

Earnhardt’s wife, Amy, put up with his smoking the first few months after they began dating.

“I was trying to quit and tried a couple of times and failed, and it was so disappointing for her,” he said. “Eventually she said to me, ‘Look man, are you really going to get this done? Are you really going to eventually quit?’ And I said, ‘I don’t know if I can.’ And she goes well, ‘Honestly, that could be a dealbreaker for me.’ And I said, ‘Damn, really?’

“She said, ‘Yeah, if you’re not sure, and this is something that is going to be part of our relationship going forward, I just don’t know. So that was a tough conversation that had to be had, and I finally figured out how to get it out of my system when I truly wanted to quit. You have to have that conviction to do it, but it was really, really hard.”

Earnhardt, who just launched a video campaign with Nicorette to help promote its new coated ice mint lozenge that helps smokers quit, said he wanted to help be a coach on the journey for other people trying to quit.

“I figured it wasn’t a super-duper secret that I was a smoker, but maybe it might be worth exposing that little lie and secret to see if I can convince other people to quit because honestly, once I decided to quit, I didn’t realize all the things that smoking was affecting in my life,” he said. “And I was super insecure about it.

“Obviously I didn’t want anybody to know about it, but I worried about whether my car smelled, my clothes smelled, my breath smelled, and then I worried about my long-term health. I had a doctor that’s pretty straightforward, and he’s hammering on me all the time that, ‘Like, dude, you’ve got to quit.’ I seemed to get a lot of sore throats and a lot of colds more frequently than other people that weren’t smokers.

In addition to feeling much healthier, Earnhardt said it changed him for the better socially as well.

“I realized how much control (smoking) had over me,” said the NASCAR on NBC analyst, who also has been open about the impact Amy and Steve Letarte had on him getting out more. “The decisions I made every day were based around smoking. It sort of encouraged that hermit mentality that I had before me and Amy met. Where I wouldn’t go anywhere, do anything. You wouldn’t hardly see me leave the bus on a race weekend. I would shorten visits with family on holidays and just avoid activity.

“I’d just sit in the house and play video games because I could smoke. Then I realized once I got done how much that was dictating my day and predicting the choices I made every day. It was all based around my habit of smoking, and that’s pretty stupid, but it’s true.”

Earnhardt said he picked up smoking in his early 20s, just before he began running in the Xfinity Series, while being around friends who did it.

He hid the vice in public because of the worries about his persona (which already had been associated in his youth with wild partying at the “Club E” makeshift nightclub in his basement). While NASCAR also was affiliated with tobacco through having R.J. Reynolds as the title sponsor of its top series for more than 30 years, Earnhardt said there was a “negative stigma that was building” about smoking when he took it up.

“It wasn’t popular, cool or trendy,” he said. “I wasn’t so much worried about sponsors as just worried about disappointing people. I just tried not to really push it in front of anyone’s face. I wouldn’t walk up and down pit road holding a cigarette. I just thought that would be a mess.

“People would be like, ‘What the hell are you doing? Get your head on straight. You’re supposed to be this race car driver,’ and I already had people questioning my focus and my determination. If I’m walking around smoking a cigarette on Saturday between practices, I’m sure that was going to just feed into that.”

Goodyear tire info for Charlotte

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NASCAR returns for its second consecutive weekend of racing at Charlotte Motor Speedway with Saturday afternoon’s Alsco 300 Xfinity race and Sunday night’s Coca-Cola 600, the longest race in NASCAR.

According to this week’s Goodyear media release, “Monster Energy NASCAR Cup teams will be running the same tire set-up for the Coca-Cola 600 that they ran during All-Star weekend at Charlotte. Based on the racing last weekend, tires will be a factor. First, All-Star teams that took four tires overcame the track position of those that did not. Second, with 12 race sets of tires for NASCAR’s longest race, the pit crews will play a big part in a team’s success, and those that master all those four-tire pit stops will help their car gain valuable spots on pit road.”

Added Greg Stucker, Goodyear director of racing, “The Coca-Cola 600 is the longest race on the schedule and it is held on one of the more temperature sensitive tracks upon which we compete, as the race starts in daylight and ends at night. We saw that fresh tires mattered last weekend during the All-Star race. Four tire pit stops should be the order of the day and teams have 12 sets of tires for the 400-lap race, so the team aspect of the sport will be on full display as the pit crews will be kept busy all night.”

According to the Goodyear media release, "Goodyear will debut a special “Honor and Remember” sidewall at Charlotte: Since 2010, for one weekend per NASCAR season, Goodyear has changed the branding on the sidewall of its racing tires in a show of support for the United States military and fallen heroes. This being the 10th year of that program, the official tire supplier to NASCAR’s top three series will work with a new organization and replace the standard “Eagle” with “Honor and Remember” for both the Monster Energy NASCAR Cup and NASCAR Xfinity Series races.

"Honor and Remember is a national organization based out of Virginia that has a mission to “perpetually recognize the sacrifice of America’s military fallen service members and their families,” according to its website. The organization recognizes fallen military personnel from all wars or conflicts, and with those from all branches of service. They do so primarily by dedicating the specially designed Honor and Remember flag, which is intended to fly continuously as a tangible and visible reminder to all Americans of the lives lost in defense of our national freedoms."

NOTES – Cup cars on same tire set-up as All-Star weekend: Teams in both the NASCAR Cup and Xfinity Series will run the same tire set-up at Charlotte this week . . . this is the same combination of left- and right-side tires that Cup teams ran during All-Star weekend last week . . . for the Cup cars, this is the same right-side tire code they ran in last year’s Coca-Cola 600 and the same left-side tire they have run the last three weeks – Dover, Kansas and All-Star . . . for the Xfinity cars, this is the same right-side tire they ran on the Charlotte oval in 2018, combined with their 2019 Dover left-side tire . . . compared to what was run at Charlotte last year, this left-side features a construction update to align it with what is run at other speedways . . . this tire set-up came out of a test on the 2019 rules package that was run at Charlotte last October . . . teams (drivers) participating in that test were Richard Childress Racing (Daniel Hemric), Joe Gibbs Racing (Erik Jones), Hendrick Motorsports (William Byron) and Stewart-Haas Racing (Aric Almirola) . . . as on all NASCAR ovals greater than one mile in length, teams are required to run inner liners in all four tire positions at Charlotte . . . air pressure in those inner liners should be 12-25 psi greater than that of the outer tire.

Here’s the tire info for this weekend’s races:

Tire: Goodyear “Honor and Remember” Speedway Radials for both Cup and Xfinity

Set limits: Cup: 3 sets for practice, 1 set for qualifying and 12 sets for the race; Xfinity: 7 sets for the event

Tire Codes: Left-side -- D-4868; Right-side – D-4736

Tire Circumference: Left-side -- 2,227 mm (87.68 in.); Right-side -- 2,251 mm (88.62 in.)

Minimum Recommended Inflation: Left Front -- 19 psi; Left Rear -- 19 psi; Right Front -- 52 psi; Right Rear -- 50 psi

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