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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Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick reigns going into All-Star Race

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Kevin Harvick‘s dominance of his Cup competitors continues in this week’s NBC Sports power rankings, as the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is the unanimous No. 1 driver for the second week in a row.

That comes after Harvick placed fourth at Kentucky Speedway in a race won by rookie Cole Custer.

Fourteen drivers earned votes this week following a weekend of four NASCAR races, including two Xfinity Series events.

Here is this week’s top 10:

 1. Kevin Harvick (30 points): Fourth-place finish is his fourth consecutive top-five finish. Last week: First.

 2. Aric Almirola (22 points): While Almirola finished eighth, he led a career-best 128 laps, won Stage 1 and earned his sixth consecutive top-10 finish. Last Week: Second.

(Tie) 3. Cole Custer (19 points): Custer became the first rookie of the year candidate to win a Cup race since 2016 and the first 2020 rookie to score consecutive top fives with his win. Last week: Ninth.

(Tie) 3. Matt DiBenedetto (19 points): Earned his second top five of the year and his second top 10 in three races. DiBenedetto has earned points in the last eight stages. Last week: Unranked.

(Tie) 5. Brad Keselowski (16 points): His ninth-place finish was his 10th top 10 in the last 12 races, but he didn’t earn any applause from Jimmie Johnson after contact spun Johnson. Last week: Third.

(Tie) 5. Martin Truex Jr. (16 points): Runner-up finish marked his fifth top 10 in the last eight races. Last week: Unranked.

 7. Austin Cindric (12 points): The Xfinity driver dominated his series’ doubleheader in Kentucky and came away with his first oval track wins in NASCAR. Last Week: Unranked.

 8. Kurt Busch (8 points): Placed fifth for his first top five since the second Charlotte race in May. Last Week: Unranked.

 9. Denny Hamlin (7 points): Forgettable day at Kentucky. On to the All-Star race at Bristol. Last week: Fourth.

 10. Tyler Reddick (6 points): Placed 10th to earn his first consecutive top 10 of his Cup career. Last Week: Unranked

Others receiving votes: Chase Briscoe (3 points), Ryan Blaney (3 points), Christopher Bell (3 points), Sheldon Creed (1 point)

NASCAR video explains Choose Rule for All-Star Race at Bristol

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NASCAR detailed in its drivers meeting video how the Choose Rule will be used for restarts in Wednesday night’s NASCAR All-Star Race (8:30 p.m. ET on FS1).

The non-points race marks the first time Choose Rule — which allows drivers to determine what lane they restart — will be used in a NASCAR Cup event. Drivers have been vocal about trying the rule since May.

The Choose Rule will be used for restarts only. It will not be used for the start of the All-Star Race, which is being held for the first time at Bristol Motor Speedway.

The video states that drivers must be single file under caution when crossing the start/finish line at the time to choose their restart lane. The video states that a V shaped painted mark on the track will show where drivers must decide what lane they wish to restart.

To restart in the inside lane, drivers must have their right side tires on or below the painted line at the V shaped mark.

To restart in the outside lane, drivers must have their left side tires on or above the painted line at the V shaped mark on the track.

If in NASCAR’s discretion, a driver has not chosen a lane at the V shaped mark on the track, changes lanes, tires touch the painted box after the V shaped mark or impedes the process, that driver will have to restart at the tail end of the field in the longest line of cars.

Xfinity team owner fined for violating COVID-19 protocol at Kentucky

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NASCAR announced on Tuesday the first fine for a violation of its COVID-19 protocols.

Anthony Clements, owner of Jeremy Clements Racing, was fined $10,000 for violating section 12.8.1.b of the Member Conduct Guidelines and section 7.7.2.j Team Event Roster Guidelines in the rulebook.

Among the potential violations in Section 12.8.1.b is that a member can be fined $5,000-$25,000 for: “Failure to comply with NASCAR’s COVID-19 Event Protocol Guidelines and/or instructions from NASCAR including screenings, social distancing, compartmentalization, and use of required personal protective equipment, etc.”

Last week, NASCAR issued a memo to teams requesting them to address “complacency” regarding its COVID-19 mask policy.

Section 7.7.2.j says “If a team is not in compliance with the Team Event Roster Rules and guidelines, that team will be subject to a Penalty as outlined in Section 12 Violations and Disciplinary Action.”

NASCAR also issued a $5,000 fine to crew chief Dave Rogers for one unsecured lug nut on Riley Herbst‘s No. 18 Toyota.

NASCAR did not issue any penalties for Friday’s post-race fight between Noah Gragson and Harrison Burton.

Last Saturday, NASCAR announced L1 level penalties for three Truck Series teams that failed pre-race inspection.

Wednesday’s Bristol All-Star Race: Start time, lineup and more

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History will be made Wednesday night when NASCAR holds the All-Star Race at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time.

The night will be filled with many other firsts. Cars will have unique paint schemes centered around their sponsors. Drivers who automatically qualified for the All-Star race will have underglow lights on their cars. This will be the first national NASCAR event with the choose rule.

Here’s all you need to know ahead of Wednesday night’s event.

(All times are Eastern)

START: All-Star Open: Command to start engines is at 7:02 p.m. Green flag is scheduled for 7:10 p.m. All-Star Race: Command to start engines is at 8:56 p.m. Green flag is at 9:01 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at Noon (teams are assigned specific times). All-Star Open: Driver introductions at 6:43 p.m. Drivers report to cars at 6:45 p.m. Invocation at 6:54 p.m. All-Star Race: Driver introductions at 8:35 p.m. Invocation at 8:47 p.m. National anthem at 8:49 p.m.

DISTANCES: All-Star Open: 85 laps around the half-mile track. All-Star Race: 140 laps.

SEGMENTS: All-Star Open: 35 laps / 35 laps / 15 laps. All-Star Race: 55 laps / 35 laps / 35 laps / 15 laps (only green-flag laps count in final segment)

CHOOSE RULE FOR ALL-STAR RACE: Competitors can choose which lane to restart. Rule is detailed here.

ADVANCING: The winners of each stage in the Open will advance to the All-Star Race. A fourth driver will advance through a fan vote.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will televise the race. Coverage begins at 7 p.m. Motor Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 6:30 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

FORECAST: For the All-Star Open, wunderground.com forecasts partly cloudy skies, a high of 87 degrees and chance of rain at the start. For the All-Star Race, it forecasts a high of 81 degrees and no chance of rain.

LAST ALL-STAR RACE: Kyle Larson beat Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch to claim his All-Star Race win.

ALL-STAR OPEN STARTING LINEUP: Click here for NASCAR Open starting lineup

ALL-STAR RACE STARTING LINEUP: Click here for All-Star Lineup

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Bump and Run: All-Star Race picks, surprising wins, and more

Cash App to sponsor Bubba Wallace in multi-year deal

Xfinity team owner fined for violating COVID-19 protocol at Kentucky

Cup playoff grid after Kentucky Speedway

Cup rookies shine going into All-Star Race

NASCAR in ‘good place’ with Harrison Burton, Noah Gragson after fight