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Almirola: Season-best fourth place finish ‘just not quite good enough’

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Aric Almirola continues to be off to one of the best season starts of his NASCAR Cup career.

The Tampa, Florida, native has been giving teammate Kevin Harvick a run for his money as the top driver at Stewart Haas Racing thus far in 2019.

After being involved in a crash that relegated him to a 32nd-place finish in the Daytona 500, Almirola has steadily climbed the ladder of success since then, finishing eighth at Atlanta, seventh last week at Las Vegas and a season-best showing of fourth Sunday at Phoenix.

Harvick, meanwhile, racked up a 26th place showing at Daytona (crash), fourth-place finishes at Atlanta and Las Vegas and a ninth-place outing Sunday at Phoenix, meaning Almirola was the highest-finishing SHR driver in the TicketGuardian 500.

You’d think Almirola would be happy to have the spotlight on himself for what he did at ISM Raceway as SHR’s top-finishing driver.

On the contrary, Almirola wanted more – a lot more. You might even say he borrowed a page from Kyle Busch’s playbook when the younger Busch brother broods after he has a strong race but doesn’t win.

“We had a good car, but we’re just not quite as good as we need to be,” Almirola said. “We still have work to do, but I’m really proud of everybody at Stewart-Haas Racing. We keep chipping away.

“That’s three top 10s in a row, our first top five of the year, so we’re getting there. Our cars are getting a little better, but we just have to keep working and keep finding more speed.

“We have a great race team and we’ll continue to improve on what we’ve got, so we’ll just keep working. Our Smithfield Ford Mustang was decent, but just not quite good enough.”

If he hadn’t been passed late in the race by Busch, runner-up Martin Truex Jr. and third-place finisher Ryan Blaney, Almirola potentially may have wound up in the top-three.

But lapped cars and the new aero package limited his forward progress late in the 312-lap race.

It’s always really tough to pass at Phoenix,” Almirola said. “But then when you put more downforce in the cars, we’re going across the middle of the corner faster and cars are punching a bigger hole in the air with a bigger spoiler, it just inherently makes the cars a lot harder to drive when you’re behind and in traffic.

“That’s nothing new. I think we all kind of knew that going in and expected it and it’s really just a product of what we have going on right now.”

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Saturday Cup race at Bristol: Start time, TV channel

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Four drivers will be eliminated from the Cup playoffs after Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This marks the first time the track has been in the playoffs. The Saturday Cup race at Bristol will end the first round. The 16-driver field will be cut to 12.

William Byron (3 points behind the cutline), Cole Custer (-8), Matt DiBenedetto (-25) and Ryan Blaney (-27) are the four drivers out of a playoff spot. Clint Bowyer holds the final transfer spot.

Here is all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Bristol:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines is at 7:38 p.m. The green flag waves at 7:45 p.m.

PRERACE: Cup haulers enter the garage (screening and equipment unload) at 10:30 a.m. Garage access health screening begins at 12:30 p.m. Garage opens at 12:30 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:10 p.m. Driver introductions will be at 7:15 p.m. The invocation is at 7:30 p.m. The national anthem will be performed by Joe Nichols, three-time Grammy nominee, at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 500 laps (266.5 miles) around the .533-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 125. Stage 2 ends on Lap 250

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 6:30 p.m with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 7 p.m. Race coverage begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6:30 p.m. and also can be heard at goprn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 62 degrees and a 2% chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski won at Richmond. Martin Truex Jr. finished second. Joey Logano placed third for the second race in a row.

LAST POINTS RACE AT BRISTOL: Brad Keselowski won in May after Denny Hamlin lost the lead when he hit the wall. Chase Elliott ran into Joey Logano as they battled for the lead late in the event.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Cup starting lineup

CATCH UP ON NBC SPORTS’ COVERAGE:

Friday 5: The thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney seek NASCAR history to advance

What upcoming Cup playoff races NASCAR fans can attend

Trevor Bayne says the fire remains to run more races

Trevor Bayne says fire remains to run more races

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Former Cup driver Trevor Bayne says he’d like to continue racing in NASCAR after running the past three Truck races for Niece Motorsports.

Bayne crossed the finish line fifth in Thursday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway but was disqualified when his truck failed post-race inspection.

He will not drive for the team in next weekend’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway but looks to be back for an undetermined number of races.

“We’ll see what happens from here,” Bayne said after Thursday’s race. “Obviously, I don’t want to be done. I don’t feel like I need to be done. I’m 29 years old and I have a lot of experience and the fire to still do this thing.”

Trevor Bayne and his crew celebrate in Victory Lane after winning the 2011 Daytona 500. (Gary W. Green/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images)

Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, last competed in NASCAR in 2018 before his return.

He made 187 Cup starts from 2010-18. He won the Daytona 500 for Wood Brothers Racing in his second career series start. Bayne didn’t run a full schedule until 2015 when he moved to Roush Fenway Racing.

He ran 21 Cup races in 2018 season, sharing his ride with Matt Kenseth at Roush. Bayne was not retained after that season and had not competed until driving for Niece Motorsports at the Darlington Truck race on Sept. 6.

“I’m trying to make the most of every lap and enjoy every lap because you don’t know when it’s your last lap,” Bayne said. “For me I would love to rebuild. If I could run a truck full-time and battle for a championship, I think that would be awesome. I think that would be great. If down the road it led to a Cup deal, then I wouldn’t be mad about it, but that’s also not really the goal right now. The goal is to make the most of it at Niece Motorsports with how many races I get.”

Since losing his ride, Bayne opened Mahalo Coffee Roasters, a specialty coffee shop in Knoxville, Tennessee. Bayne admits to mixed emotions since his exit from racing.

“It was a roller coaster,” he said. “There were weeks when I was blowing everybody’s phone up that I knew in racing, like, ‘Hey man, what do you got? Is there anything we can put together?’ Probably getting on everybody’s nerves. Some weeks I was just over it.”

Bayne said he decided recently to compete in Super Late Model races and was preparing a car when he got the chance with Niece Motorsports to run at Darlington.

“It’s putting a smile on my face to be turning laps,” Bayne said.

Friday 5: Thin line between aggressive and dirty driving

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Ryan Blaney’s message to competitors in Saturday night’s Cup playoff race is simple.

I caution those in front of me that I am not going to be behind them for very long if we are faster than them,” he said.

Ditto for Matt DiBenedetto.

“You’re not going to do anything stupid, he said, “but you can’t sit and wait behind them.”

Those two drivers face the biggest challenges to advance to the second round of the playoffs. DiBenedetto is 25 points behind Clint Bowyer, who holds the final transfer position entering Saturday’s race at Bristol (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Blaney trails Bowyer by 27 points.

No driver so far back entering an elimination race has made it to the next round since the playoff format debuted in 2014.

“I would love to say it is another race weekend, but it is our season, pretty much,” Blaney said Saturday’s race.

It will take a mix of aggression and patience during the 500-lap playoff race by Blaney and DiBenedetto to advance.

The line between aggressive and dirty driving can be blurry. Not every driver will see it the same way. With the need to move through the field and score as many points as possible — or win stages and the race — Blaney and DiBenedetto will have less patience, but where is the line?

DiBenedetto goes back to the All-Star Open in July. He restarted deep in the field after pitting in the first stage when not all the cars did. He worked his way through the field to win the final stage to advance to the All-Star Race.

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race were aggressive to get through the field,” DiBenedetto said. “Everything’s on the line and you’re trying to make the All-Star Race and it’s a very short race. 

“Some of the moves that I made in the Open race, if it were a regular points race and we’re at the beginning of the race or something, some of those moves probably at that time were just considered aggressive because everyone knows what we’re doing and what’s at stake. In other situations, they could have been dirty because I moved some people out of the way. That’s a little bit of a moving target, so it’s hard to answer that question. 

“I would say for this weekend that everyone usually knows what’s on the line for different people.”

2. Out of sight but not out of mind

Crew chief Johnny Klausmeier knew that he faced a one-race suspension late in the Southern 500 when it was evident that Clint Bowyer’s car had two lug nuts not tight.

From my vantage point on the pit box, I kind of watched the tire changers, and I saw that it didn’t look like he was hitting all the lug nuts,” Klausmeier said. “He was swinging for them, but not making contact and then the car left. I kind of knew that we would have some kind of issue there, so we kind of went back and looked at the video and made sure that it wasn’t going to be a safety thing.”

Johnny Klausmeier and driver Clint Bowyer enter Bristol holding the last transfer spot to the second round. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/NASCAR via Getty Images)

The team didn’t see a safety issue so Bowyer stayed on track, finishing 10th. Had Klausmeier called his driver back to pit road to secure the lug nuts, Bowyer likely would have lost at least 10 points. Instead of holding on to the final transfer spot entering Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, Bowyer would have been outside the cutline.

Saving those points, though, meant that Klausmeier would miss last weekend’s race at Richmond because of the suspension.

What was it like not to be at the track and still call the race?

“I didn’t feel like it was more efficient than actually being there,” Klausmeier said. “There is a delay in the audio. There is a delay in the broadcast. There is a delay in the information transfer.

“Then just being there and when the tires come off the race car on a pit stop, being able to walk down behind the pit box and visually look at the tires and see what the wear looks like. (Also) coming up and calculating changes and things that you’re going to do based on what you see and feel looking at the racetrack and getting that information real time. 

“I do not think the role of a crew chief can be done virtually. I think you have to be there. You have to be immersed in it. You can’t just go down and get the pit crew guys rallied up. You can’t see what’s going on with the car, so you miss out on those things and there is a little bit of a delay in the communications, so it’s not ideal but we managed to do it.”

3. Pit road speeding

Pit road speeding penalties could play a key role in Saturday’s Cup race.

Twenty-one speeding penalties were called in the May Cup race there. Each of the last three Cup races at Bristol has had at least 11 speeding penalties.

Brad Keselowski overcame a pit road speeding penalty to win the May race — but he was helped by leader Denny Hamlin hitting the wall and then Chase Elliott and Joey Logano later making contact racing for the lead in the final laps.

Matt DiBenedetto was caught speeding on pit road after Stage 1. He finished the stage seventh and restarted 28th because of the penalty. DiBenedetto was 22nd when he was collected in a nine-car crash, ruining his race. He finished more than 40 laps behind the leaders.

Joey Logano and Kyle Busch also were penalized for speeding on pit road in the May race. Austin Dillon was penalized twice in May. Both times came after he was involved in a crash on Lap 330.

4. Almost there

Brandon Brown is set to clinch the final spot in the Xfinity Series playoffs Friday night at Bristol. He enters with a 49-point lead on Jeremy Clements for the final transfer spot. Brown will clinch a playoff spot provided there is not a new winner outside the top 12 in points.

Brandon Brown is in position to make the Xfinity Series playoffs on Friday night for the first time. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Brown’s family-run team has eight employees. He spends part of his time at the shop helping with the vehicles. Brown also is focused on trying to find sponsorship for this season and next year.

He has been to a simulator only once this season, going before the Daytona road course race. When he wants to get some sim time, he starts his iRacing rig. And his physical training? It’s limited to running. The gym he uses in his apartment complex is closed because of COVID-19.

So with all that around him, he’s about to clinch a playoff spot.

Brown also knows some view him as being aggressive on the track. He doesn’t hide from such viewpoints.

Getting down to the playoffs and having an opportunity like this, it’s not something that comes around for everyone,” Brown said. “So for me, it pushes me that much harder to want to make that happen.

“It’s hard to back yourself down to ‘I need to run smarter to make sure we’re bringing the car home all four corners on it.’ At the same time, I want to get everything out I can out of the car and push to get the best result possible because this is our run, our chance at the playoffs.

“Taking a little bit extra risk, to me, it’s worth it, to really put my name out and to really make something happen this year. The risk is worth the reward to me, but I’m sure that others would view it differently.”

5. Odds and ends

# Matt DiBenedetto said his contract with the Wood Brothers is through this year with options for 2021, ’22 and ’23. He said the deadline for the team to pick up the option for next season is the end of this month.

I guess I should know pretty soon,” he said. “I wish I knew now because I don’t want to go anywhere and it would put me in a pretty bad situation if something were to change, but I don’t expect any changes.”

# The Joey Logano Foundation will donate $22,000 each week of the playoffs to organizations that support children and young adults in crisis. The organizations selected help those that are homeless, within the foster care system or aging out of the foster care system.

Those organizations include Children’s Hope Alliance, The Relatives, Youth Villages, Least of These and Crossnore School & Children’s Home.

# Martin Truex Jr. has won four of the last seven races at short tracks.

# Kyle Busch has one victory in his last 50 Cup races.

# Kevin Harvick has scored 46% of his Cup wins after turning age 40.

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Bristol Truck race results, driver points

Bristol Truck race results
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Sam Mayer scored his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win Thursday night. The 17-year-old finished ahead of GMS Racing teammate Brett Moffitt.

Mayer is the youngest driver to win a Truck race at Bristol.

Tanner Gray placed third and was followed by Parker Kligerman and Chandler Smith.

Gray’s finished tied a career high. Kligerman’s finish was his best this season.

Trevor Bayne crossed the finish line fifth but his truck was disqualified for failing post-race heights in inspection.

The next race in the playoffs is Sept. 25 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Click here for race results

POINTS

Brett Moffitt leads the points after the opening race in the first round of the playoffs. He leads Sheldon Creed by nine points. Zane Smith trails Moffitt by 12 points.

Click here for points report