Bump & Run: Is it time for Jimmie Johnson to be worried?

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How alarmed should Jimmie Johnson be after finishing outside the top 15 at Atlanta and Las Vegas for the first time in five seasons?

Nate Ryan: It has to be somewhat unsettling, even though so much was unknown for the seven-time champion entering this season. Getting acclimated to the new rules, crew chief and sponsor simultaneously is a new experience for the 17-year veteran. It could be simply a matter of getting settled. But at 43 and coming off the first winless season of his career, Johnson surely is feeling some urgency. He wants to prove last year was an anomaly, but so far 2019 has been a regression.

Dustin Long: There should be some concern but it should be tempered. There’s little time during the West Coast swing to update cars based on what is learned at the previous race. This just shows the team it has some work to do. If this team is still running like this by Kansas in May, then the level of concern will increase significantly.

Daniel McFadin: I’d be worried. He has an average running position of 17.4 through three races and the only reason he has a top 10 is because most of the field wrecked at Daytona. He finished two laps down in Atlanta and he wasn’t part of any incidents. If we get through Martinsville and Johnson hasn’t earned another top 10, then it’s time to full on panic.

Jerry Bonkowski: Even though his winless streak now stands at 62 races (dating back to spring 2017 at Dover), it’s not time for Johnson to push the panic button just yet. If he gets to say, Bristol, and he’s still struggling, then there may be pause for concern. But remember, just one win puts him in the playoffs and he can build from there. He’s likely still learning communication and unique nuances with new crew chief Kevin Meendering, so I’m not overly worried just yet.

With consecutive victories and a strong showing by Joey Logano in the Daytona 500, how seriously should Team Penske be taken as the team to beat?

Nate Ryan: It’s only two races, but the organization’s flair for adaptability is undeniable, and Penske seems to have as strong a handle on the new rules as any team in Cup. If Ryan Blaney’s team can shake off its error-prone ways, Penske could have all of its drivers eligible for the playoffs before many teams have a guaranteed berth.

Dustin Long: Team Penske is until someone beats them, but let’s not get too carried away with what they’ve done at Atlanta and Las Vegas. While Brad Keselowski has scored top 10s in both events, he’s done that in each of the past two years at those races. Joey Logano would have the same streak had he not placed 23rd at Atlanta this year. The point is they’ve been strong early in the season before and they’ve shown the ability to excel with this new package.

Daniel McFadin: Penske is the top team right now. Dating back to last season’s Southern 500 they have won eight of the last 15 races and the championship. The fact the new Mustang model hasn’t impeded them is even more impressive. If they’re not up front in Phoenix, I expect them to be the team to beat at Auto Club Speedway where Penske hasn’t placed a driver outside the top 10 in the last four races.

Jerry Bonkowski: Right now, they ARE the team to beat. Yes, teammates Ryan Blaney (15th place in the standings) and Paul Menard (20th place) are struggling, but I expect both to get back on track in the next few races, particularly by Martinsville. And don’t forget, with Logano and Keselowski are now both locked into the playoffs, Team Penske can potentially allocate more resources to Blaney and Menard to get their cars working better and stronger.

Despite flashes of promise, Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing have one driver between them ranked in the top 20  in points. Is this an indication that the new rules package is less of an “equalizer” than some had predicted?

Nate Ryan: It seems more a reflection on the teams and their relatively inexperienced drivers than on the rules. Mistakes (several in the pits) by RCR and JTG Daugherty have undermined the strength they’ve shown at times.

Dustin Long: NASCAR stated that it was their intent with this rules package that the best teams still would be the ones to beat. Richard Childress Racing and JTG Daugherty Racing are not the best teams. RCR has shown speed in practice and qualifying but still has to figure out things for the race. The penalty to Austin Dillon’s pit crew didn’t help at Las Vegas. JTG Daugherty is building their own chassis and refining that takes time.

Daniel McFadin: I don’t think so, Las Vegas was the first race with the full package. RCR showed plenty of speed all weekend, but Austin Dillon’s effort was hurt by a pit penalty. We won’t know what the full potential of this package and its benefits to teams until Auto Club or at least Texas.

Jerry Bonkowski: Let’s not forget that RCR is down to only two teams this season and JTG Daugherty really hasn’t improved much. If anything, it’s in another growth mode. So, lack of success for both teams this early in the season is not entirely a surprise. And unfortunately, it’s not likely to get much better any time soon. Sure, Austin Dillon has looked strong at times this season, but he can’t carry RCR or partners JTG and Richard Petty Motorsports on his shoulders. And while the teams may be struggling with the new rules package, it’s simply going to be a matter of time, patience and trial and error before they start to make any significant progress.

There were more accidents on pit road than on the track at Atlanta and Las Vegas. What’s your take on the lack of cautions for accidents in the last two races?

Nate Ryan: It’s surprising and also a little unsettling. With the new rules delivering additional downforce and lower horsepower, there were concerns that the degree of difficulty might be lessened. Hopefully the lack of crashes isn’t indicative of that emerging trend because the cars need to be hard to drive.

Dustin Long: It’s simple. Sometimes they wreck (Daytona) and sometimes they don’t (past two weeks). Let’s see what happens in the coming weeks.

Daniel McFadin: We are fully entrenched in an era of a lack of attrition and the vanishing act of debris cautions. I expect cautions to roar back in Phoenix with its short-track characteristics. 

Jerry Bonkowski: NASCAR is giving fans what they want in terms of closer racing. That’s a good thing. Teams are still getting used to the new rules package. It’s an evolutionary process, with drivers still feeling their way out on track. Once they get a bit more confident or more familiar with the new package, it’s likely you’ll see more aggressive driving – which likely means we’ll start seeing more cautions for accidents, as a result.

Tune into NASCAR America presents MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET on NBCSN

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Today’s episode of NASCAR America presents MotorMouths airs from 5-6 p.m. ET on NBCSN.

Rutledge Wood will be joined by Kyle Petty and AJ Allmendinger.

In addition to discussing this weekend’s second race of the playoffs at Richmond Raceway, the guys will be taking your calls at 844-NASCAR-NBC or reach out on Twitter via #LetMeSayThis.

If you can’t catch today’s 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.

Ryan: Can Kyle Busch find a happy place with less horsepower?

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Kyle Busch clearly has a problem with slower cars.

We don’t mean those that got in his way Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, where the Joe Gibbs Racing driver angrily challenged and questioned the racing acumen and credentials of Garrett Smithley and Joey Gase.

No, it’s the speed in his own No. 18 Toyota that seems to have left Busch miffed many times during a season of too much discontent for the mercurial superstar.

It’s been almost a year since the die was cast on perhaps the most controversial competition decision during Busch’s 15 seasons of racing on NASCAR’s premier circuit.

The move in 2019 to a lower horsepower, higher downforce package (i.e., slower and more stable cars with 550 hp on big speedways and 750 on shorter tracks) – a sudden reversal after years of heading mostly in the opposite direction – initially wasn’t met well within the ranks, and Busch was among many big-name drivers who voiced staunch opposition.

A case can be made that a reason behind the dissolution of the Drivers Council was its inefficacy in blunting the momentum for adopting a rules configuration that inherently affects the ability to harness a 3,400-pound stock with first-class hand-eye coordination and throttle control.

But the public grumbling gradually has subsided this season. Many stopped swimming against the strong tide, choosing to focus on their teams’ results or simply swallow their pride and accept the new rules.

The most notable resistance remained from Busch, the driver who arguably has had the most success with the 2019 rules package as anyone.

It’s somewhat remarkable that Busch, the regular-season champion who entered the playoffs with four wins and a 45-point cushion that likely will carry him to the title round at Homestead-Miami Speedway for the fifth consecutive year, would be the most high-profile remaining holdout on buying into the package, which mostly was aimed at producing closer racing at 1.5-mile tracks such as Vegas (and at least seems to achieve that on restarts, more on that below).

But it’s also perfectly understandable in the context of Busch wanting to maximize a skillset tailored to outdrive anyone when the challenge is taming stock cars that aren’t glued to the pavement as much as they are in 2019.

When Busch pouts (as he did after Vegas) that it’s impossible to pass at any track anymore (mostly because of aerodynamic turbulence for a trailing car), he is both wrong (in that winning teammate Martin Truex Jr. proved Sunday that you still can gain positions) and right (in that Busch can’t advance through the field using the same manhandling style he once did).

That makes it doubly frustrating for an already emotionally charged personality who can fly off the handle even faster than he drives.

“Kyle is just plain and simple unhappy,” analyst Jeff Burton said in the NASCAR on NBC Splash & Go weekly feature Tuesday (video above). “He wants to race a certain way, and that’s not the way we’re racing. He’s going to have to find a way to get above it. He’s going to have to find a way to focus on performance and championships and do the things that he is so good at.

“I think Kyle has convinced himself that the things he’s so good at he can no longer do, but I’ve watched from the best seat in the house every week, and people do pass and people do find a way to make things happen, but they do it differently than two years ago. I feel bad for him because he is a hell of a race car driver. He wants to drive the thing a certain way, but that’s just not how it’s going to be. He’s going to have to find a way to embrace it, but it’s obviously hard for him to do.”

This is immaterial, by the way, to how Busch carried himself with his infamous truculence as he faced a barrage of questions (mostly fair and well-stated, by the way) after Sunday’s race.

Like Tony Stewart and A.J. Foyt before him (and Smoke’s unhappiness in 2004, when he clashed often with officials and peers, is reminiscent of the current situation for Rowdy), churlishness is a byproduct of Busch’s greatness … and for some fans, it’s also part of his appeal. Even if he were completely happy with the racing, there always will be regrettable moments in the media bullpen after a race that breaks badly for Busch.

It’s his essence, and it’s unfair to ask him to be someone else, especially when the biggest casualties of his combativeness are reporters’ feelings.

On the scale of bad behavior across professional sports, Busch has been a relative choirboy.

Should he be more cognizant that postrace interviews are as much about serving fans as the media (which often is the conduit to Rowdy Nation)?

Perhaps, but if he wants to be that way and can live with potential consequences (whether the ire of series officials or sponsors), he shouldn’t be asked to change by NASCAR and a fan base that wants its drivers candid and colorful.

Busch meets those standards better than any current star (in the right mood, his interviews are articulate, insightful and steeped in history). His issues with the package aren’t about his personality or how it’s impacted.

The much bigger concern is how the dissatisfaction with 550 horsepower affects his performance behind the wheel. From when he hit the wall in the opening laps while apparently pushing the envelope after starting 20th, Busch was the weak link in the No. 18 team at Las Vegas (as Steve Letarte said on the latest NASCAR on NBC Podcast).

That rarely happens with Busch, an elite talent who probably could have become a champion in any series he chose to race anywhere in the world.

But it has been true too many times this season as the 2015 series champion has seemed a victim of distracted driving on a semi-regular basis. He hit the wall with the fastest car at New Hampshire Motor Speedway two months ago and also seemed way off his game at Watkins Glen International with errors in the Xfinity and Cup races. On Monday’s NASCAR America, analysts Kyle Petty and Letarte said Busch’s problems with the lapped cars at Vegas were self-induced.

Drivers make mistakes, but these have been uncharacteristic for Busch, who is 13 races and more than three months removed from his most recent win.

There’s a NASCAR saying that drivers sometimes need to slow down in order to go faster.

But asking Kyle Busch to celebrate driving at medium instead of maximum power seems sacrilege.

It’s no wonder he’s struggling with it.


Chase Elliott’s move to slow down and help Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron under caution on Lap 181 was legal, but it came some risk and raises some interesting questions, as NASCAR on NBC analysts Letarte and Jeff Burton (above) explained.

After spinning in Turn 4, Byron was able to enter the pits immediately to change his flat left-side tires. But he stayed on the lead lap only because Elliott eased off the accelerator while leading and allowed the No. 24 Chevrolet to exit the pits ahead of the No. 9.

Though slowing to at least 200 feet behind the pace car, Elliott hadn’t been picked up yet as the leader under the yellow flag. Joey Logano, running second, actually accelerated past Elliot just past the finish line.

Though Burton advocated Logano speeding up even earlier to put greater pressure on NASCAR to make a call on whether Elliott was maintaining reasonable speed as the leader, NASCAR officials later relayed to Burton that Elliott would have remained in first even if Logano had made a more demonstrable challenge (because Elliott would have been ruled to be using a “cautious pace” to catch up to the pace car.

Still, NASCAR has penalized leaders for failure to maintain reasonable speed under yellow (notably Marcos Ambrose stalling on a hill at Sonoma Raceway in June 2010). And if Byron hadn’t been a teammate, or if it had been later in the playoffs, Elliott might have been on the pace car’s rear bumper to ensure trapping him a lap down.

“Chase Elliott has the ability to set that cautious pace,” Letarte said on the new playoff edition of the NASCAR on NBC Podcast. “Did he set it to save William Byron a lap? Absolutely.

“I see a teammate playing nicer earlier in the playoff than perhaps we would have seen. If Hendrick Motorsports was dominant with 15 or 18 wins, I think Chase doesn’t care about (Byron) and tries to pin him because he sees him as (a threat). It shows perhaps Hendrick in their struggles, their relationship has been galvanized where they’re looking out for one another.”


Daniel, we hardly knew yet, but it’s fairly obvious what is coming next.

Ever since team owner Richard Childress essentially volunteered that Tyler Reddick was destined for a Cup ride during a July 30 interview, it was clear that Daniel Hemric was in trouble during a disappointing rookie season at Richard Childress Racing. Asked a few days later about Childress’ comments, Hemric seemed less than certain about his future at the team.

It also isn’t clear if the Kannapolis, North Carolina, native will remain in Cup, though there are a few lesser rides that could come open.

Hemric is unlikely to be considered for a potential top-flight opening next season, and the only vacancy likely would be at Stewart-Haas Racing, which has yet to confirm Clint Bowyer or Daniel Suarez as returning and probably would move in Cole Custer if either leaves. Things seem to be trending well for Bowyer, who won his first pole position in 12 years after making the playoffs and was ebullient in Vegas until his 25th place finish.

Suarez also ran well before finishing 20th after contact with Joey Logano, qualifying second and leading 29 laps. But he said he had no timeframe for learning if he would return to SHR for a second year. The past two seasons, the team has waited until the offseason to hire its No. 41 Ford driver.

“We’ll still working on a couple of things,” Suarez said of 2020. “We have some good opportunities sponsorship-wise. There are some good things coming, but you never know. This sport is extremely unpredictable. We’ll just have to take one day at a time.”

Though making the playoffs would have helped, Suarez believes he can make up for it with a  victory: “The past is the past. We can’t change that. What we can change is we have 10 more weeks to keep improving. We have nothing in our heads but to get wins. If we are able to make it to victory lane this year, I won’t even think about the playoffs. Who cares about the playoffs if we can make it to victory lane? If we win one of the next 10, believe me, nobody will remember that we didn’t make the playoffs.”


Also unsure of his status for next year is Ross Chastain, who is focused on trying to win a truck championship with team owner Al Niece.

“I got nothing” for next year, Chastain said last week. “No one is calling now to put me in a fast Cup car. I doubt that’s going to happen anytime soon. I’m racing my butt off trying to be the best I can be. I’ve got so much opportunity now.  I’ve got more races on the Xfinity side to compete and run up front. That’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. I’m making my living, paying my bills by driving race cars as fast as I can. And I’m driving for multiple people, and they all want me to drive.”

Chastain has maintained a working relationship at Chip Ganassi Racing despite losing an Xfinity ride with the team because of an offseason sponsor pullout. He said his job for now in Cup when he races for underfunded Premium Motorsports is “to not make the news or crash the car. Even if I don’t crash, getting in someone’s way or being in the leader’s way coming down to the end or hitting someone on pit road. All that stuff you think it’s easy, but it’s so hard to be a slow car. It’s hard. I learned a lot in doing it, and it helps when I get in something that’s fast.”


When the first NASCAR Playoff Media Day without Jimmie Johnson happened, the seven-time series champion took steps to ensure he avoided it.

Johnson shifted the days of a mountain bike trip to Bentonville, Arkansas, to try to forget being sidelined from championship contention with 10 races remaining for the first time in his 18 Cup seasons. Though hitting the trails helped, he couldn’t avoid seeing glimpses of the 16 playoff drivers making the rounds in Las Vegas when he opened social media last Thursday.

“Not being there, it stung,” Johnson said. “It’s probably good that it stung. It’s been a nice gut check for me. I should be part of that. I want to be part of that. All those things are there. In a weird way, I was glad to see the 16 drivers and all that went along with that.”

The goal the rest of the season for Johnson, who turned 44 Tuesday two days after an 11th at Vegas, is to end a two-year winless drought.

“We just have to put a stake in the ground that we’ve got to win,” he said. “We just need to see progress at a rapid pace in the right direction. We were making progress, but the sport evolves, the team evolves, and we need to take big chunks out of that gap. That’s ultimately what we need to do. If we continue to take chunks out of the gap as we have, we’ll ultimately be back in victory lane.

“It hurts not being in the playoffs. It really bothers me, but at the end of the day, it’s good to have that effect on me. I didn’t enjoy it. I’m mad I’m not in the playoffs. I’m going to use that as fuel to push us through and get us back to where we need to be.”


For this observer, Las Vegas offered the chance to watch the 550 horsepower package from a fresh vantage point. Here were a few modest observations from the 1.5-mile speedway’s frontstretch press box near the start-finish line:

–The term “Insane Restarts” (or crazy, or even psychotic, if you prefer) gets tossed around so much it probably should be trademarked, but the first few laps after every green flag are breathtaking – better than a classic restrictor-plate race at Daytona or Talladega, really.

–Five laps or so after the restart, though, the racing looked like it has for the bulk of 1.5-mile tracks for the last 25 years.

–If you’re looking, you can find passing throughout the field … just not necessarily at the point.

When Las Vegas Motor Speedway made its Cup debut on March 1, 1998 (a race also covered by this writer), it was met with mixed reviews before a sellout crowd of more than 120,000 that had been promised “insane” five-wide racing for three hours. Instead, the fans saw largely a snoozefest won by Mark Martin in which Fords took 13 of the top 15 spots and the yellow flew only twice (both for single-car spins).

Sunday’s race was much better and memorable than the debut 21 years ago, but when viewed through the prism of NASCAR’s incessant tinkering to enhance 1.5-mile racing, it loses luster. Witness the recent ranking in journalist Jeff Gluck’s poll.

Las Vegas was a crucial marker in the development of the 550 hp package because of a January test that produced spectacularly tight racing and raised hopes that this season’s races might replicate it for two to three hours at a time.

It hasn’t and probably for myriad reasons. Tests rarely simulate real-world conditions with the necessary accuracy, and teams have spent so much time developing car builds since then (and through the different routes of gaining downforce or lessening drag), that there’s likely much more disparity between drivers.

As discussed on the new NASCAR on NBC Podcast, though, the conclusion here is that three straight hours of “Insane Restarts” probably would be too much of a good thing anyway.

Short of adding more mandatory cautions to guarantee re-racking the field (that’s not a suggestion, by the way), there probably is little more that can be done to enhance racing at the ubiquitous multipurpose speedways that began littering the Cup schedule in the mid to late 1990s.

If NASCAR wants more slam-bang tight racing that is true to its roots, the solution is much simpler: Run more short tracks instead of trying to retrofit 1.5-mile ovals that always will produce a brand of racing regardless of what is done to the cars.


After qualifying Morgan Shepherd’s car in ninth with a lap for the “Qualifying Hall of Fame” (according to NASCAR on NBC broadcaster Dale Earnhardt Jr.), will Landon Cassill start more Xfinity races for Shepherd, who seems to be winding down his driving career?

“I’ll let him dictate that,” Cassill said of Shepherd, who turns 78 next month. “I talk to him a lot, and he’s very mindful of his future and what he wants to build. I think me driving and having some speed in his car has been a part of it. He could see himself as a car owner someday probably.”

Cassill, who made 20 laps at Vegas and finished 36th for Shepherd, also posted top-20 qualifying efforts in the No. 89 Chevrolet at Charlotte (13th) and Michigan (16th). The relationship with Shepherd began when Cassill qualified the car 24th in the 2018 season finale after it lacked speed to make the race in practice.

“He called me the hour before qualifying and asked me to hop in,” said Cassill, who was introduced to Shepherd by Xfinity team owner Johnny Davis. “Ever since then, built a relationship and a lot of trust in each other, and he’s asked me to drive it whenever I’m available.

“It definitely makes me feel good to run that well. The experience really helps me a lot and running both (Cup and Xfinity) helps a lot. The speed in his car for Morgan is encouraging. He’s trying to envision what he’s doing for the future. I think having that speed in his car can draw attention to sponsors and putting forth a full-time effort.”


Next season, Las Vegas Motor Speedway will move from opening the playoffs the past two years to opening the second round.

Though the Sept. 27 race will be nearly two weeks later and likely in cooler weather, it’s expected the track will keep the 7 p.m. ET starting time. Out of the oppressive early afternoon heat, the grandstands seemed less empty than then 2018 race, which started shortly at 3 p.m. ET.

Richard Childress to drive car Dale Earnhardt won last race in at ‘Dega

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Richard Childress will once again climb behind the wheel of a race car – but it won’t be just any race car and it won’t be at just any race track.

Childress announced Wednesday that he will pace the field prior to the start of the Oct. 13 Cup playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway, driving one of the most renowned cars in the sport: the same No. 3 GM Goodwrench Chevrolet Monte Carlo that the late Dale Earnhardt drove to the 76th and final win of his Cup career nearly 19 years earlier in the Winston 500 at Talladega on Oct. 15, 2000.

Dale Earnhardt celebrates his 76th and final Cup win at Talladega in 2000. Photo: Getty Images.

Earnhardt’s roar to the checkered flag is one of the more memorable moments in NASCAR history, going from 18th to first place in the final four laps, beating Kenny Wallace to the finish line by .119 of a second for a Talladega track record 10th career Cup win.

“Dale is a part of the history of this place,” Childress said. “He loved Talladega because it was so wide, you could move around, and I’ve seen him do things here with a race car that you don’t even think about … fitting in some of the holes. And if there wasn’t room, he would kind of make a hole.”

Talladega president Grant Lynch initially reached out to Childress, who this year is celebrating the 50th anniversary of Richard Childress Racing, to want to do something special to commemorate the special day.

Grant Lynch called me and says, ‘What do you think about bringing Dale’s car down here that he won the race with in 2000?’” Childress said during a press conference at the track. “I said, ‘I don’t know.’ But how do you say no to your best friend on something like this. So I said, ‘alright, I’ll do it.’

We’re going to be running that car leading the field, which is going to be a great honor. That car hasn’t been out of our museum since we opened the doors of it, so this will be the first time we took it down, put it on the shop floor, got it all fixed, got the engine running – same engine that he had in the car that day. It’s the exact car just like the day when it left the winner’s circle here. That’s going to be the coolest thing. It gives me cold chills just thinking about it.”

Childress then joked, “I asked my guys could I run it 200 mph.”

Talladega was where Childress made his first career Cup start as a race car driver on Sept. 14, 1969. He finished 23rd in a 36-driver field. He would go on to make 285 career starts between 1969 and 1981, collecting zero wins, six top-five and 76 top-10 finishes.

 

Lynch surprised Childress with the old CRC Chemicals helmet that Childress used to wear during his own racing days before becoming solely a full-time team owner.

 

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NASCAR penalty report after Las Vegas

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NASCAR on Wednesday issued five penalties to crew chiefs in the Cup or Xfinity series following this past weekend’s racing action at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

In the Cup Series, crew chiefs Greg Ives (No. 88 driven by Alex Bowman), Adam Stevens (No. 18 driven by Kyle Busch) and John Klausmeier (No. 10 driven by Aric Almirola) were each fined $10,000 apiece for lug nut(s) not properly installed, found during post-race inspection.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chiefs David Elenz (No. 9 driven by Noah Gragson) and Jeff Meendering (No. 19 driven by Brandon Jones) were each fined $5,000 apiece for lug nut(s) not properly installed, found during post-race inspection.

There were no other penalties assessed.

In addition, driver Bayley Currey was reinstated after completing NASCAR’s Road To Recovery substance abuse program.