Friday 5: Is time running out for Cup playoff hopefuls?

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While the Cup playoff field won’t be set for another four months, there is a shrinking window for those not already in the top 16 in points as the series heads this weekend to Dover International Speedway.

Since 2017 — when stage racing and stage points were added — 84.3 percent of the drivers who were in a playoff spot after 10 races made the playoffs that year.

Take out those who already had wins to be playoff eligible at this point in the season and 81.8 percent of the remaining drivers in a playoff spot after 10 races made it to NASCAR’s postseason the previous two years.

That’s good news for the drivers in the top 16 in points now. Last weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway was the 10th of the Cup season.

What’s also telling is that 13 of last year’s 16 playoff drivers are in the top 16 at this point in the season. That’s despite rule changes intended to make the racing tighter and possibly give more drivers chances for better finishes or wins.

The three drivers in a playoff spot this year who were not in that position at this time last year are Chase Elliott (seventh in points this season), Daniel Suarez (12th) and Austin Dillon (14th). They replace Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who were all in a playoff spot at this time last year.

So far, those who have earned a playoff spot with a win this season (provided they start every race) are Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Elliott.

With NASCAR’s system of win and you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. A fuel-mileage race can create a surprise winner or a pit gamble can help someone score an unexpected victory. Maybe a rain-shortened race leads to a new winner.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Last season, no driver outside a playoff spot won any of the final 16 regular-season races.

In 2017, two drivers outside playoff spots won in the final 16 regular-season races to make the postseason. Dillon was 22nd in points entering the Coca-Cola 600 and won that race on a fuel-mileage gamble. Kasey Kahne was 22nd in points later that season entering the Brickyard 400. He won that race in the second overtime.

The question becomes how much will those not in a playoff spot now gamble to score a win and secure a spot instead of having to rely on points to make it? This will be worth watching in the coming weeks.

2. A year later

Talladega winner Chase Elliott has made the biggest jump in the standings compared to where he was after 10 races last year.

A year ago, Elliott was 18th. He is seventh this year, moving up 11 spots. Other big gainers among the top 30 from last year are: Daniel Suarez (up nine spots to 12th this year), Ty Dillon (up five spots to 22nd), Denny Hamlin (up four spots to third) and Austin Dillon (up three spots to 14th).

Those who have fallen the most this year from this point last season: Kyle Larson (dropped 11 spots to 21st), Clint Bowyer (down six spots to 10th this year), Bubba Wallace (down six spots to 28th this year), Erik Jones (down five spots to 18th this season) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (down five spots to 20th this season).

3. Familiar ground

It has been nearly two years since Jimmie Johnson last won a Cup race, but he’s back this weekend at Dover International Speedway, the site of his most recent victory.

Jimmie Johnson winning at Dover in 2017. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Johnson won his 83rd career Cup race June 4, 2017, at Dover to tie him with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the career victory list. That win was Johnson’s 11th at Dover, most of any driver.

In the 69 races since, Johnson has four top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes. He’s led 149 laps during that time. His best finish since that last win is third. He placed third at the fall Dover race in 2017 and third at the spring Bristol race last year. His best finish this season is fifth at Texas. He has four top-10 finishes in the first 10 races of this year.

“The first couple of downforce races we were not where we needed to be,” Johnson said of this season. “I think we’ve kind of rallied back and put some speed in our cars and are going the right way. Based on performance, I would say we are at a ‘C’ but I know the distance we’ve made up here recently.

“If there’s an effort score, I want to score my team really high because we’re working really hard to get there. But at the end of the day, the results are results and we know we’ve got to get better. I feel like we’re headed into ‘B’ territory right now.”

4. Tight rookie battle 

In the Xfinity Series, the rookie race features a tie for first. John Hunter Nemechek and Chase Briscoe are tied for first with 295 points each. Noah Gragson is third with 284 points. Justin Haley is next with 273 points. Brandon Brown completes the top five with 180 points.

5. All for some popcorn?

According to LehighValleyLive.com, two eighth graders have been accused of arson after lighting an abandoned building at Nazareth Speedway on fire last weekend.

Nazareth Speedway hosted what is now the Xfinity Series from 1988-2004 but has sat abandoned since. Martin Truex Jr. won the last NASCAR race there.

Police said that the boys, one age 14 and the other 15, showed up on Snapchat recorded by one of the boys at the scene as the fire burned. According to police, the story says that before the fire, one of the boys stole lighter fluid, a lighter and Jiffy Pop popcorn from a nearby supermarket. According to police, the boys attempted to heat the Jiffy Pop from the fire.

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Roger Penske was ready for his close-up in popular commercial

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MONTEREY, California – Roger Penske is the only team owner in auto racing history who has 18 “Baby Borg” Trophies in his possession for his team’s record 18 wins in the Indianapolis 500.

Perhaps his next trophy should be an Emmy.

Penske took part in a commercial along with 103rd Indianapolis 500 winner Simon Pagenaud and one of his NASCAR Cup drivers, Ryan Blaney. The commercial was shot at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway on Sept. 7 while NASCAR was in town for the Brickyard 400.

The premise of the commercials is a takeoff on the 2006 comedy, “Talladega Nights: The Ballad of Ricky Bobby” with Blaney playing the Ricky Bobby role and Pagenaud playing the Jean Girard role.

The commercial was shot by NBC to promote its coverage of the NTT IndyCar Series and NASCAR Monster Energy Cup Series and concludes with Penske stepping in between the two drivers, demanding them to, “Go out there and win races.”

Penske delivered the line perfectly and in just three takes.

“It took me about five minutes,” Penske told NBCSports.com. “They made it very easy for me. We let the guys do all of the hard work. It was fun for me to do. I saw it, and I didn’t make a fool out of myself.

“I’m ready for the next commercial.”

Penske’s ability to deliver his lines perfectly impressed NBC Sports Group President of Programing Jon Miller.

“I assume he’s got his SAG card,” Miller told NBCSports.com. “He has certainly been in front of the camera enough, and he’s quite an ambassador for the sport, so we were not at all surprised by that.”

NBC Sports Executive Producer Sam Flood was also highly impressed with Penske’s ability to turn into an actor in front of the camera.

“We were thrilled that he agreed to do it,” Flood told NBC Sports.com. “It’s one of those special things and the kind of guy he is to jump on board and make it even bigger because we had a ‘Plan B’ if Roger couldn’t do it, and when we got the confirmation, we knew we had something special that was going to happen.

“Roger Penske did the ad with two of his drivers that we shot at the Brickyard last week that got out there. A lot of fun, a lot of great response to it, and that’s things we couldn’t have done in the past. I think that’s part of us leaning in as NBC in trying to grow all of motorsports, and it’s important that every form of racing gets attention, and that’s what we’re pushing, as you know all too well.”

Team Penske driver Josef Newgarden, who will take a 41-point lead over Andretti Autosport driver Alexander Rossi into Sunday’s Firestone Grand Prix, also was complimentary of his team owner.

“Wow, I was impressed,” Newgarden told NBCSports.com. “First of all, how did they get him to do a cameo? That was cool. And he nailed it.

“The pressure on Simon and Blaney to nail it, after Roger does it in only three takes? Wow, the pressure was really on them to deliver their lines.”

Pagenaud thought Penske’s first take was the best.

“It didn’t take long for Roger to deliver his line, he was on top of it,” Pagenaud told NBCSports.com. “NBCSN was very excited about the idea. IndyCar CEO Mark Miles made sure we were able to get into Gasoline Alley early that day. It was the Saturday of the Brickyard 400 and it was early, but Roger was probably up since 2 a.m. I’m sure, so it wasn’t early for him.

“It was good, the script was fun and well done. I forced my French and Blaney being the perfect American NASCAR driver and Roger just being himself was just perfect. It shows personality between NASCAR and INDYCAR. NBC is doing such a great job showing both fans on both sides what is going in and it helps everybody get interested in both sports.”

Penske was asked if that is how he normally talks to his drivers in a prerace situation to fire them up.

“That’s not the normal, daily message, but that’s how it helped those two guys get going,” Penske said. “I think NBC has done a great job in all cases on IndyCar. The continuity of having the same partner has made a huge difference. The talent knows the drivers. They know the situation. Guys like Paul Tracy and the experience of Leigh Diffey and the whole group has done a great job.

“It’s about good racing. We have good teams. Lots of competition, new drivers and date equity. And it’s attracting young people.”

Penske believes the addition of NBC Sports to the 2019 NTT IndyCar Series schedule, including the season’s final race on the NBC, has been a big boost to the series.

“Any time you are on network is great,” Penske said. “It’s great for the sponsors, the notoriety for the team and the drivers is very important for all of us as we finish up the season. It’s going to be a great weekend, and I hope we can continue the movement we’ve had and the momentum we’ve had coming up to the last weekend.”

Richmond winners and losers

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WINNERS

Joe Gibbs Racing — It was a 1-2-3-4 finish until Erik Jones’ car failed inspection. Still the team scored a 1-2-3 finish and claimed its fourth consecutive win on a short track with Martin Truex Jr.’s triumph. Don’t forget, the organization also won Friday’s Xfinity race with Christopher Bell.

Ryan Newman His fifth-place finish tied his best result of the year and was his third consecutive top-10 showing. He was encouraged by the team running toward the front and noted: “You take away those four Gibbs cars, we were racing for the win. I know it doesn’t work that way, but if they would have had one bad meeting (incident) we would’ve been in the hunt.” Still, Newman moved into a transfer spot heading into this coming weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

Brad KeselowskiHe finished fourth and was the only driver outside of Joe Gibbs Racing to lead Saturday’s race.

Bubba Wallace His 12th-place finish was his third top-15 result in the last five races. He had one top-15 finish in the first 23 races of the season.

Front Row Motorsports — All three of its cars placed 21st or better, the first time the team has accomplished that feat this season. David Ragan was 19th, rookie Matt Tifft placed 20th and Michael McDowell was 21st.

LOSERS

Erik Jones He was feeling good about his fourth-place finish that put him within three points of the final transfer spot to the next round only to later find out that his car was disqualified for failing inspection after the race. Now he’s 45 points out of the final transfer spot and is essentially in a must-win situation. He faces being eliminated from the first round of the playoffs for a second year in a row.

William Byron Got lapped in the final circuits before the end of each stage and also had a pit road speeding penalty. That led to a season-worst 25th-place finish. He holds the final transfer spot to the second round by two points on Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman heading to the Roval.

Brad Keselowski bumped up to fourth, but JGR domination still ‘not good news’

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Brad Keselowski ended Saturday’s NASCAR Cup playoff race at Richmond Raceway with what he thought was a fifth-place finish.

About an hour later though, Keselowski was moved up one position to fourth place after original fourth-place finisher Erik Jones was disqualified after his car failed post-race inspection.

Still, gaining one extra finishing position didn’t make the 2012 NASCAR Cup champion happy because of Joe Gibbs Racing’s domination in the second race of the playoffs – even with Jones’ DQ.

(How JGR finished is) definitely not good news,” Keselowski said. “We’ve got work to do. (JGR is) really strong and we’re not where we need to be to be able to beat them heads-up, but we threw everything we had at them.

We put down a great qualifying lap, got the first pit stall, had great pit stops and got to the lead, but just didn’t have the raw speed to keep it.”

MORE: Martin Truex Jr. completes Richmond sweep with playoff win

MORE: Results, points after 2nd race of Cup playoffs at Richmond

MORE: NASCAR disqualifies Erik Jones’ car for failing inspection

Keselowski tweeted a few hours after the race that he didn’t “take no pleasure & seek no treasure from another man’s loss,” referring to Jones’ DQ.


Even so, Keselowski took some consolation from his overall performance.

We led 80-some laps, so it’s not a bad day but just not nearly fast enough to dominate the race and win,” he said.

Keselowski mistakenly said in a post-race interview that he had joined Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick in advancing to the Round of 12 two weeks from now due to his points in the standings.

Yeah, we’re locked into the next round,” Keselowski said. “That feels good. I’m proud of that effort.”

Actually, Keselowski left Richmond two points shy of being locked into the next playoff round. That will have to come next Sunday at Charlotte’s Roval.

There’s still work to do not only for Keselowski’s car, but also those of his teammates — Joey Logano finished 11th and Ryan Blaney 17th — to counter JGR’s domination.

But what exactly has to be done is a question mark, Keselowski said.

Honestly, I don’t know,” Keselowski said. “They’ve got all the secrets so we need to find some more secrets.”

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Kyle Busch sees progress in runner-up finish at Richmond

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RICHMOND, Va. — After his fiery comments last week led some to be critical of his attitude toward slower drivers, Kyle Busch was calmer after his runner-up performance to Martin Truex Jr. on Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Busch led a race-high 202 of 400 laps but lost the lead to his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate with 26 laps to go and had to settle for second place.

“We put up a valiant effort,” Busch said.

MORE: NASCAR disqualifies Erik Jones’ fourth-place finishing car

While his winless drought starched to 14 races, Busch noted that the performance was a step forward for the No. 18 Toyota team.

“I know we’re capable of it, the team is capable of it,” said Busch, who clinched a spot in the second round with his 54-point night. “Just stupid things have been biting us this year and we put it all together tonight. I didn’t speed on pit road, pit crew did a good job, our car was fast and we made the most of our effort.”

Whether it was Busch hitting the wall (or another car) at Las Vegas, an engine failure at Indianapolis, the pit crew losing the lead at Darlington or a speeding penalty at Watkins Glen (and hitting cars), Busch and the team have been off in recent races despite often having the speed to challenge for wins. In the process, Busch has lost the chance to collect many more playoff points.

He was strong enough Saturday night to win the second stage, giving him his third stage win in the last seven races.

But Busch didn’t have enough at the end to keep Truex behind him.

“We ran OK,” Busch said. “(Truex) could follow closer than I could, and he was better on the long run than I was. Why? Maybe I pushed my tires too hard there at the last stint at the beginning trying to stay ahead of (Denny Hamlin), which gave (Truex) the opportunity to kind of save his stuff and roll around and attack later.”