Long: Cinderella is a Disney movie, not a Cup championship contender

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AVONDALE, Ariz. —  After a topsy-turvy Sunday that saw championship hopes fluctuate much like the highs and lows of the season, NASCAR fans are left with the best Cup championship field in Miami since the elimination format began in 2014.

For most of the season, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — the Big 3 — have dominated and they all advanced to race Joey Logano for the Cup title.

“I would predict this is the best four, the closest four that have been in our sport in a long time,” Kyle Busch said after winning at Phoenix.

Busch wasn’t boasting. He was just telling it like it is.

Busch (eight wins), Harvick (eight), Truex (four) and Logano (two) have combined to win more than 60 percent of the races this season. Never have the Championship 4 drivers won more than 50 percent of the races that season.

“You always want to go up against the best of the best, and the strength of the season has kind of been the top three guys, the best three, which has been (Harvick), us and (Truex), and (Logano),” Busch said. “(Logano) has been solid. He’s been consistent, and he’s been good, especially these last nine weeks, eight weeks, I guess.

“So I think that this is a good group of four that we’re going to race for a championship with.”

One can argue about the playoff format and say that it rewards only those who get hot late, but Busch, Harvick and Truex did what was expected by advancing. They showed the value of dominating the regular season and building a treasure trove of playoff points that proved valuable.

Even with those advantages, they still had to squirm in this round.

Harvick celebrated his berth in the Championship 4 last weekend after winning at Texas only to find out three days later that NASCAR had taken it away because of a violation so egregious that series officials also suspended Harvick’s crew chief and car chief for the rest of the playoffs and penalized Harvick 40 points.

Instead of being assured a spot in Miami, Harvick entered Sunday’s race three points ahead of teammate Kurt Busch for the final transfer spot.

As he often does when under pressure, Harvick thrived, winning the pole and showing he had the fastest car in Saturday’s final practice. Nothing changed Sunday when he led the opening 72 laps before what a Goodyear official said was “quite possibly” a puncture that caused Harvick’s right front tire to deflate. Harvick had to pit before the end of first stage on Lap 75 and did so when pit road was closed. He lost a lap and the penalty meant he couldn’t take the wave-around on that caution to get back on the lead lap.

“My main job was to try to get it back to the pits without crashing into the wall or having a tire blow out and rip the fenders off,” Harvick said after placing fifth. “I felt it go down going into Turn 1 and just kind of tried to nurse it into Turn 3 and back around. 

“I couldn’t get down over there, and I just drug everything all the way around. I drug the splitter off. It never really handled as good after that, but we made some adjustments to our car and got ourselves back in contention there in the second stage staying out, and it worked out okay.”

Harvick was back on the lead lap less than 30 laps later when Logano had a left rear tire go down and spun.

With less than 80 laps left, Harvick led Busch by only one point. That would change when Busch wrecked after contact from Denny Hamlin as they raced for the lead with 44 laps to go.

That incident nearly ended Truex’s day. Truex has not been as strong recently as he was in the middle of the year. He was 10th on that restart and nearly hit Alex Bowman’s spinning car amid the smoke and chaos.

“There was cars, smoke everywhere,” Truex said after finishing 14th. “I just basically stopped going into Turn 3 and was lucky to find a hole to get through. Just a little bit of good fortune, a little bit of the right place, right time, and the rest of the day we just battled and got what we could out of the car and did what we had to.”

Busch was steady all day. He wasn’t spectacular but put himself in a position to win and did just that.

Now, the focus turns to Miami where the four best race for a title.

And Cinderella is nowhere to be found.

NASCAR America: Daytona 500 ‘Turning Point’ came on Stage 2 pit stop

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The moment that set up Denny Hamlin‘s Daytona 500 win on Sunday came on Lap 108, according to NASCAR America’s Steve Letarte.

That’s when Hamlin made a pit stop near the end of Stage 2.

“(Crew chief Chris) Gabehart calls his car to pit road,” Letarte said. “He doesn’t care about stage points. He cares about four fresh tires on a hot, slick Daytona track.”

Then on Lap 122, during the stage break pit stop, Gabehart decided to only put fuel in the No. 11 Toyota when he was 21st.

“On Lap 163 he got six seconds of gas, that’s it, no tires,” Letarte said. “That gave him track position (eighth) in front of all of those accidents. The turning points to this race was before Stage 2 even ended.”

Watch the above video for more.

Garrett Smithley in Spire Motorsports car at Atlanta as entry lists released

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Garrett Smithley is listed as the driver of Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet for Sunday’s Cup race at Atlanta Motor Speedway.

Smithley, a native of Peachtree City, Georgia, competes in the Xfinity Series with JD Motorsports and made three Cup starts last year.

Spire purchased Furniture Row Racing’s charter after the team closed at the end of last season. It fielded Jamie McMurray in the Daytona 500 in the No. 40 in a partnership of Chip Ganassi Racing.

Quin Houff also will compete for Spire this season.

Click here for the preliminary Cup entry list.

Click here for the preliminary Xfinity entry list.

Click here for the preliminary Truck Series entry list.

NASCAR America at 5 p.m. ET: Daytona 500 recap

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN and recaps all the action from Sunday’s Daytona 500.

Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett will discuss all the major storylines from the race that saw Denny Hamlin claim his second 500 win.

If you can’t catch today’s show on TV, watch it 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.

‘Bizarre’ Daytona 500 marks Jamie McMurray’s likely final Cup start

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If Sunday’s Daytona 500 turns out to be Jamie McMurray‘s 583rd and final Cup start, then the race threw all it could at him as a going away present.

McMurray finished 22nd in what the Chip Ganassi Racing driver called a “bizarre” Daytona 500.

The 43-year-old driver had to start his 17th “Great American Race” at the rear due to a rear gear change. By Lap 19 in he was in 19th.

His day was complicated on Lap 50 when he was caught up in a six-car wreck, which damaged his right front fender. With repairs made to his No. 40 Chevrolet, the 2010 Daytona 500 winner continued.

Even with the damage, McMurray managed to navigate his way up to 10th by Lap 84.

He then led the field from Laps 164-169, with just the last two laps under green.

Then chaos reigned.

The final 20 laps saw three multi-car wrecks, but McMurray managed to avoid the ones that caught 21 and seven cars.

“Certainly, a bizarre 500 to have so much green-flag racing and then so many wrecks at the end,” McMurray said. “It’s incredible to me how many times we were able to crash in the last 10 laps. It’s part of it. You were able to get big runs. It seemed like as the sun went down those runs happened more often. When the Daytona 500 is on the line, people are willing to take big risks. They just all waited to the end.”

But McMurray couldn’t avoid the last major wreck. While running eighth he was ensnared in a nine-car melee that resulted in the overtime finish. 

“I’m thrilled I made it as long as I did,” said McMurray. “I made it through two or three wrecks I should have been in and didn’t get torn up. It is just part of it. It is what it is and I’m just thankful I’m safe. This is just one of those places you come to that there are a lot of unknowns and certainly after flipping at Talladega (last April), speedway racing was a little different in my mind.”

McMurray will now transition to an analyst role for Fox Sports.

Should the native of Joplin, Missouri, never make another Cup start, he ends his career with seven wins, 63 top fives and 168 top 10s.

He exits the NASCAR stage after 581 consecutive Cup starts.

Next week’s race at Atlanta Motor Speedway will be the first without McMurray since the Oct. 20, 2002 event at Martinsville Speedway. That was the race after McMurray scored a surprise first career win at Charlotte Motor Speedway driving Ganassi’s No. 40 Dodge in substitution of an injured Sterling Marlin.

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