Friday 5: Rivalries among Joe Gibbs Racing, Team Penske drivers brewing

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The domination by Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske this season could give NASCAR fans two of the best driver rivalries the sport has seen in years.

JGR’s Kyle Busch and Penske’s Brad Keselowski have had a long, tension-filled rivalry that can spark at any time.

But the sport’s hottest rivalry involves JGR’s Martin Truex Jr. and Penske’s Joey Logano. It has been that way since last year’s Martinsville playoff race when Logano moved Truex on the last lap to win and earn a spot in the title race.

Twice this season — and three times since last year’s finale in Miami — Truex and Logano have finished 1-2 in a race. Logano beat Truex to win the championship. Truex held off Logano to win at Richmond and the Coca-Cola 600 this year.

After the Richmond win, Truex was asked if he worried having Logano behind him in the final laps after what happened at Martinsville.

“I think he drove me as hard as he could without hitting me, which that’s what I always expect, and that’s kind of how I’ve always raced him,” Truex said. “Hopefully we can race clean for the rest of the year.”

With plenty of playoff points remaining and a playoff that features two short tracks and the Roval, it seems likely there will be contact if they continue to race together at the front.

Racing in close proximity has led to contact and conflict for Busch and Keselowski through the years.

In last season’s playoff race at Richmond, they battled for the lead. After Busch passed Keselowski, Busch stuck his hand out the window at Keselowski.

Asked what he thought Busch meant by the gesture, Keselowski said then: “I don’t try to read his mind. That’s the last place I need to be.”

Busch said of his message to his rival: “When you spend 15, 20 laps trying to pass the guy and you pass him and you get run into right as soon as you pass him, it’s kind of like, ‘Come on, man, really?’ But oh, well.”

They’ve also had their issues at off the track, most memorably two years ago when Keselowski talked and tweeted about what he believed was Toyota’s advantage and Busch responded with a tweet to shut up (although not in as nice of terms).

If the trend from the first half of the regular-season continues, then each of those drivers will be racing around each other all season. All four rank in the top seven in the number of laps run in the top 15 (Busch is first at 90.7%) and all four rank in the top five in laps led (Keselowski is first at 765, followed by Busch at 684).

While other teams will try to break the stranglehold Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske have had in winning 12 of the first 13 points races of the season, it’s likely fans will see Logano and Truex together and Busch and Keselowski running door to door.

It could make for quite a summer.

2. Hendrick Motorsports rebounds

Hendrick Motorsports placed all four drivers in the top 10 in last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 for the first time since the April 2016 Texas race.

Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Jimmie Johnson have helped lead a turnaround for car owner (center) Rick Hendrick’s team. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

The series is at Pocono Raceway this weekend. Last July, Hendrick Motorsports placed three of its cars in the top 10 — Alex Bowman was third, William Byron sixth and Chase Elliott seventh. Two Hendrick drivers (Jimmie Johnson in eighth and Elliott in 10th) placed in the top 10 in last June’s race there.

The organization comes into Pocono with a good bit of momentum. Hendrick Motorsports placed three cars in the top 10 in the two previous points races.

Bowman was second at Dover, Elliott was fifth and Byron was eighth. The following week at Kansas, Bowman was second, Elliott placed fourth and Jimmie Johnson finished sixth.

It was because of those performances that Brad Keselowski said before last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 that “I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars. I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff.”

Keep an eye on the Hendrick cars this weekend and see if their recent run continues.

3. Getting back in gear

Half of Martin Truex Jr.’s 22 career Cup victories have come on 1.5-mile speedways, but until last weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 win, he had not had as much luck on those tracks lately.

After winning the 2017 championship, five of Truex’s next six victories came at tracks other than 1.5-mile speedways. Then he scored his Coke 600 win.

Three days before that victory, Truex said trying to get the right setup for 1.5-mile tracks was “our biggest challenge this year, no question. … Just still searching for that confidence as a team of what we need to show up at these tracks with.”

After the victory he said: “Now that we’ve got some momentum here and a little confidence on the mile-and-a-half, that’s a really good sign for us moving forward.”

4. Support growing for IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader

Executives from Toyota Racing Development and Chevrolet expressed their interest in IndyCar and NASCAR competing at the same track on the same weekend.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, and Jim Campbell, Chevrolet’s U.S. Vice President of Performance Vehicles and Motorsports, made their comments in separate interviews Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

“It would be incredible to see IndyCar, edge-of-the-seat, massive speeds, wheel-to-wheel competition on one day and come right back the next day and see an incredible Cup race back-to-back,” Campbell said. “Absolutely incredible. All for it. I think the possibilities are there. A lot of work to be done to get to that point. I think it would be great for the race fans, most importantly. Great for TV and we’d love it as a manufacturer.”

Said Wilson: “Politically, the leadership across both of those organizations have expressed their openness to looking at a more collaborative approach. We applaud that even if we are not racing in both platforms like our colleagues at Chevrolet are. We are hopeful and would love to see nothing more than a doubleheader down the road.”

5. Enjoying the show

Earlier this week, I wrote about Kasey Kahne and how he’s remained optimistic despite health issues that ended his NASCAR season and career last year and an injury in a sprint car in late March that still has him sidelined.

I asked him if he missed racing in Cup. He had an interesting response.

“There hasn’t been a race yet where I was like, “Man, I wish I was out there,’ but I’ve enjoyed watching them all,” Kahne told me.

He then told me: “I’d like to see a little bit of the rivalries that they’re building now. It’s fun to see the younger guys coming up and still see the veteran guys do well. I like watching all of that and how they progress.”

Maybe Joey Logano and Martin Truex Jr. will be as entertaining as Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch can be in terms of rivalries. Or maybe it will be some other drivers.

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After Las Vegas incidents, Kurt Busch, Kyle Larson look for Richmond rebound

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Sunday’s NASCAR Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas leaves Chip Ganassi Racing with a mixed bag of potential strategies to develop heading into the next race, this Saturday night at Richmond Raceway.

Kurt Busch, the first NASCAR playoff champion in 2004, was involved in a wreck at Vegas with eventual race winner Martin Truex Jr. on Lap 189 that knocked him out of the event, ending with a last-place finish of 39th.

We were trying to go for the same spot in the middle, it wound up four-wide, got a fender rub and our day’s done,” Busch told NBCSN after he left the medical center. “It just happened that fast. Everyone wants to try to get to the middle and that’s where you make up the most spots and Truex and I were going for the same piece of real estate.”

As a result of the poor finish, Busch finds himself in 14th place among the 16 playoff contenders, a distant 63 points behind points leader Truex Jr.

How Busch rebounds at Richmond will go a long way toward determining whether he will advance to the Round of 12 following the Roval elimination race at Charlotte in two weeks. Busch is currently 14 points behind 12th-ranked Aric Almirola, but he is also only 12 points ahead of 16th-ranked Erik Jones.

There’s no question Busch is in need of a big comeback at Richmond, a track that he has had decent success at, including two wins (last time was in spring 2015), seven top five and 15 top-10 finishes in 37 career Cup starts there.

A win would immediately wipe out the Las Vegas nightmare and push Busch into Round 2.

And then there’s teammate Kyle Larson, who had a car that looked like it could challenge for the win at Vegas. But a costly pit road penalty — a behind-the-wall crew member trying to grab tires back over the wall slipped, touching the ground on pit road — pushed Larson back and he wound up playing catch-up the rest of the race. He settled for an eighth-place finish that potentially could have been a top five showing had it not been for the penalty.

Our car was better than what I thought it was going to be,” Larson said. “We were able to battle up front there in the second stage. Then, we had the pit road penalty and had to come from the back.

The restarts were crazy and I was just being safe. It probably cost us a little bit, but we still got a top-10 out of the day and some decent stage points. So, all-in-all, it wasn’t a bad day.”

Busch has one win this season, while Larson is still looking for his first.

Our cars have definitely been good enough to win, we just have to put the whole races together at this point,” Larson said. “We want to win. We’ll keep working at it and hopefully we can knock one out before the season is over.”

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Best of the rest: How non-playoff drivers did in Las Vegas

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The Cup playoffs began Sunday night in Las Vegas, and the playoff drivers made their presence known by occupying every spot in the top 10.

But what about the rest?

The first 16 spots were not filled by the 16 playoff drivers. In fact, playoff drivers only made up 13 positions in the top 20.

Here’s a look at the top-finishing drivers who are not contending for the championship:

Jimmie Johnson – finished 11th

With him not participating in the playoffs for the first time in his career, the spotlight wasn’t focused on Johnson very often Sunday.

But the Hendrick Motorsports driver finally put together his first complete run six races into Cliff Daniels’ tenure as his crew chief.

It was their first race together to not be involved in some sort of incident and it saw Johnson earn his first top-15 finish with Daniels. It’s only his second top 15 in the last nine races.

Austin Dillon – Finished 12th

The Richard Childress Racing driver earned his second straight 12th-place finish and his third consecutive finish of 12th or better.

He’s earned a top-15 finish in four of the last five races. That’s after only having one in a 12-race stretch.

Dillon also finished sixth in Stage 1.

“When the caution came out on Lap 180, we pitted to take another swing at loosening up this Chevy,” Dillon said. “Unfortunately, we had an uncontrolled tire penalty but it did allow us to come back down pit road to top off with fuel and adjust on the car more. We got the car better and made a good strategy to stay out for track position during a late caution to pick up additional spots.”

Paul Menard – Finished 14th

Menard took part in his first race since announcing last week that he would retire from full-time competition after this season.

The Wood Brothers Racing driver kicked-off his final 10 races for the team with his sixth top-15 finish in the last nine races. He finished outside the top 15 just once in his last 11 starts at Las Vegas.

Ty Dillon – finished 16th

The Germain Racing driver earned his best finish at Las Vegas in five starts (previous was 24th).

Dillon has finished 20th or better in six of the last nine races.

Daniel Hemric – finished 17th

The rookie driver earned a top-20 finish after two straight DNFs for wrecks. He has only three top 20s in the last nine races.

“Our handling balance would swing a lot from being really tight and then halfway through the run it was like a light switch and I would get super, super loose,” Hemric said. “We got that better throughout the race and back to where I could run more throttle, which allowed us to move forward into the top 10 and be more aggressive on restarts and make some hay during those time. On that last green flag stop we just got a little too free to where I couldn’t make the most time coming off pit road and just struggled a bit on that last run.”

Chris Buescher – finished 18th

The JTG Daugherty Racing driver extended his streak of finishes inside the top 18 to 16 races. The streak began at Kansas Speedway on May 11.

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Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.

William Byron rallies to score top 10 in first Cup playoff race

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LAS VEGAS — William Byron called his first Cup playoff race “crazy.”

Contact with Ryan Blaney, a spin after a tire went down, help from a teammate to stay on the lead lap and a different pit strategy were all events in Byron’s seventh-place finish Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He was one of three Hendrick Motorsports drivers to finish in the top 10. Chase Elliott was fourth and Alex Bowman placed sixth.

Byron’s day allowed him to gain four spots in the points — most among the playoff drivers — and go from 13th, outside a cutoff spot, to ninth with two races left in the opening round. The series races at Richmond next.

But Byron’s top 10 wouldn’t have happened had he and his Chad Knaus-led team not persevered during an up-and-down night.

“You think about all the things that can go wrong in a race,” Byron said. “It’s tough. You’ve got to really manage the whole race and recover through things that happen. It seems like every car had something happen during this race. You’ve got to recover from it.”

Byron had been running in the top 10 when he had contact with Blaney on the restart to begin the final stage.

“I’ll be honest with you, I just heard about it,” Blaney said after finishing fifth. “I didn’t even know that I touched him. It must have been barely. Obviously, it wasn’t intentional. I was just trying to slow him down. I didn’t know that I got him. I feel bad for it. Obviously I didn’t  mean to get him. Just trying to sidedraft hard. That’s definitely not what I meant to do.”

Even so, the contact led to a tire rub. While Byron continued to run, the situation got worse and the tire went flat. He spun just before entering pit road to bring out the caution on Lap 182.

Byron quickly made it down pit road after the spin. Knaus had the team change the two left side tires to keep Byron on the lead lap. It helped that Elliott was leading. Elliott backed off behind the pace car down the frontstretch, giving Byron a cushion to exit the pits and remain on the lead lap. That allowed Byron to return to the pits on the next lap and change four tires and add fuel.

“I definitely owe him a big thank you,” Byron said of Elliott. “It was great that we were able to stay on the lead lap there.”

With a caution a few laps later, Byron was 22nd. Knaus brought Byron down pit road to add fuel and change four tires. Few cars stopped then. Knaus’ strategy allowed Byron to stay out longer than most cars and lead six laps before pitting on Lap 236 of the 267-lap race. Needing less fuel, the team only changed two tires for a quicker stop and that helped Byron score his second consecutive top 10.

It also helped how well the Hendrick cars ran, something Elliott, sixth in the points, noted afterward.

“I felt like we were closer today than we have been in the past few weeks,” said Elliott, who overcame contact on a restart that forced him to pit to fix a tire rub. “That was nice. Hopefully we can have cars like that the next nine weeks.”

Bowman said his car improved after early struggles.

“We just didn’t fire off very good,” he said. “As the race ran, we got our car much better. I think kind of the in-between from day to night was the best we were. When it grouped up there at the end, it helped out some of the other cars. But, proud of my guys. I wish we would have gotten some more stage points, but we’ll take sixth.”

Bowman fell to 11th in points. He’s 10 points ahead of Ryan Newman in 13th. The top 12 after the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval in two weeks will be eliminated.