Long: Playoff drought could be coming to an end for one team

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BROOKLYN, Mich. — As cars ran out of fuel Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, Ryan Newman gained positions.

Then his engine sputtered, and he ran out of fuel in Turn 4.

On the final lap.

Newman made it to the finish line without losing any spots. He went from 18th to 12th in the last three laps as others coasted or had to pit for fuel.

Those six spots gained — and six points collected — helped stretch Newman’s lead for one of the final Cup playoff spots. He can help end a significant playoff drought. Newman enters Saturday night’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 15th in the standings. Clint Bowyer, who holds the final playoff spot, is 10 points behind Newman.

MORE: Click here for the point standings.

Not since 2006 has the No. 6 team made the Cup playoffs. That car number was the first number Roush Fenway Racing used when it entered NASCAR’s premier series in 1988 with Mark Martin. And it was Martin in the car when it last made the Cup playoffs. Now it’s Newman’s ride and he is three races away from making the playoffs.

“To get into the (playoffs), race our way in throughout the whole season, it would show a huge step for the program,” said crew chief Scott Graves.

The team struggled last year with Trevor Bayne and Matt Kenseth sharing the ride. Graves, who had been Daniel Suarez’s crew chief for the majority of the past two years at Joe Gibbs Racing, joined Newman with the No. 6 team this year.

Topping off for fuel played a key role in Newman’s finish at Michigan. Twenty-seven cars pitted on Lap 150 under caution but Newman returned to pit road the following lap to top off on fuel. Only Newman and teammate Ricky Stenhouse Jr. came back to pit road to top off for fuel on Lap 151

Without that extra fuel, Newman would have run out sooner and lost positions — and points.

Ryan Newman is in a playoff spot with three races left in the regular season. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Newman looks to lead the No. 6 back in the playoffs with a grinding style that has not been pretty but has been productive.

The team has struggled to find speed. Newman has not started better than 16th in the last 15 races. It’s a key reason why Newman has scored 19 stage points in that span.

Newman is ahead of Bowyer, Suarez and Jimmie Johnson in the race for the final two playoff spots. Bowyer (54 stage points), Suarez (23) and Johnson (37) each has more stage points than Newman.

With the deficit on stage points, Newman and his team have had to score solid finishes. That made Graves’ decision to top off for fuel on Lap 151 at Michigan critical.

“We know the guys we’re racing against here, they’ve got the potential on any given weekend to go up there and bust off stage points and potentially win,” Graves said. “Obviously we are working really hard. We are grinding it out and getting the finishes we can to stay in this.

“That’s how we have to race right now. We know that to get in and even get anywhere in the (playoffs) if we do get in, we’ve got to really work on speed to get points.”

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Kevin Harvick revealed after his victory Sunday that he’s been racing with a right shoulder injury this summer.

The shoulder, he said, was not injured in an accident on the track. No, he injured the shoulder throwing a Nerf ball to son Keelan.

“It’s cut into my golf game,” Harvick quipped Sunday on NBCSN’s post-race show.

He later added that the shoulder is “probably 80 percent now. I mean, there was a point when I went to Sonoma that I couldn’t even lift it up. It feels better in the race car than it does  — the worst thing I had to do in the race car was shift.

“My main concern was Watkins Glen, but we got through it. It’s getting close to being back where it needs to be. But it was definitely uncomfortable. The load that these cars put on it is right next to the … it’s right in the spot where it’s not feeling well. So all the load from the shoulder is where it’s been injured. … But it’s fine.”

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Jimmie Johnson, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Busch, William Byron and Bubba Wallace were among the drivers who had conflicts after Watkins Glen and had to address it at Michigan.

Johnson and Blaney traded barbs through the media before eventually meeting in Johnson’s motorhome last Friday night. Busch had meetings with Byron and Wallace.

With the rules package intended to keep cars closer together and blocking more prevalent, additional conflicts are likely to occur toward the end of the regular season and into the playoffs. How one handles those situations could play a role in the final weeks of the season.

Such situations can be challenging, says Brad Keselowski, who had feuds with Denny Hamlin and Carl Edwards early in his career. There remains friction with Busch even after Keselowski sought to smooth things between them.

“It wears on you as much as you let it wear on you,” Keselowski said of conflicts with other drivers. “Second, I would say that there are some drivers that handle conflict incredibly well and there are some that don’t. I have never considered myself to be the best at it.

“I will be honest, I do look at videos of guys like Dale Earnhardt. He was in so many situations of conflict and they were easier to deal with in his time and age because of the lack of social media and lack of a 24-hour news cycle and things of that nature. But then on the flip side, he was a master at dealing with it. So I think you look at those guys and you think that probably parlayed into some of the success of his career, so you would be a fool not to study and try to learn from it. In today’s landscape it is harder than ever to handle for sure.”

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Ben Rhodes collected a dubious honor Saturday at Michigan International Speedway.

He ranked fifth in the points — before the standings were reset for the playoff competitors — and failed to make the playoffs. That makes him the driver who has been the highest in points before the standings were reset to miss the postseason in Cup, Xfinity or the Gander Outdoors Truck Series in this current format. 

Rhodes scored more points than playoff drivers Ross Chastain, Austin Hill, Johnny Sauter and Tyler Ankrum. The difference is that in NASCAR’s win-and-you’re-in system, Chastain, Hill, Sauter and Ankrum won this year. Rhodes did not.

Also what makes Rhodes standing unique is that not all the playoff competitors ran all the races or scored points in all the races.

Ankrum was not old enough to compete in the season’s first three races. Sauter was suspended one race when NASCAR penalized him for wrecking Hill at Iowa in June. Chastain started the season running for points in the Xfinity Series and switched to Truck points before the season’s ninth race, which was at Texas in June. That’s why they were behind Rhodes in points.

The Truck playoffs begin Thursday night at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Tire issues end race for Chase Elliott, Christopher Bell

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FORT WORTH, Texas — Chase Elliott, who entered Sunday’s second-round playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway leading the points, crashed and finished 32nd.

A right rear tire issue caused Elliott to lose control while leading on Lap 184 of the 334-lap race. 

He was the second playoff driver to be eliminated after tire issues. Christopher Bell finished 34th after having two right rear tires go down. After his second tire went down, Bell hit the wall. Cole Custer and Alex Bowman also had incidents after tire issues. 

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault. Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car,” Elliott said. “I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Elliott did not score stage points in the first stage and was eliminated before the end of the second stage, leaving him with no stage points.

“It’s not a great position to be in for sure, but it is what it is now,” Elliott said. “I hate it for our No. 9 NAPA Auto Parts Chevrolet team. We were actually decent here for once, so that was nice while it lasted. We’ll go to Talladega (Superspeedway) try to get a win and go on down the road.”

Bell also scored no stage points. Bell entered the race in a three-way tie for the final three transfer spots to the next round. 

“To have two right rears go in the first half of the race is very strange,” Bell said. “I don’t know. It’s a very disappointing day. We are probably going to be in a deep hole now.”

The second round continues next Sunday at Talladega and concludes Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Roval.

 

RFK Racing reaps benefits of hard work with Bristol win, Texas pole

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When Brad Keselowski arrived at RFK Racing after last season, among the early changes he made included repainting the walls and restructuring the team’s shop.

They were meant to infuse an organization that hadn’t won a Cup points race since 2017 with a new look and feel. And help create a new mindset for the 165 employees.

“The first thing (Keselowski) started changing was colors,” Justin Edgell, tire carrier on Chris Buescher’s team, told NBC Sports. “Everything is satin black. My man is a satin black-type guy. I’m talking about trash cars. I’m talking about equipment. I like it. You know, look good, play good.”

RFK Racing has looked great the last week. Buescher gave the organization its first points win of the season, taking the checkered flag in the Bristol night race. Keselowski followed by winning the pole for today’s second-round playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway (3:30 p.m. ET on USA Network). Buescher starts today’s race 13th. 

MORE: Details for today’s Cup race at Texas 

It has taken much for the organization to experience a week like this. The season didn’t start well. Both Keselowski and Buescher failed to make the feature in the Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum in early February. 

Less than two weeks later, they each won their qualifying race at Daytona. 

RFK Racing wouldn’t be back to Victory Lane until Bristol. In between were disappointments, close calls and plenty of work.

“We’re in a spot where with our company, we’ve made a lot of changes over the last six to 12 months,” Keselowski told NBC Sports after the team’s celebration on Monday. “And there’s a maturation cycle to those. 

“Nobody likes that maturation cycle. There’s still things that we’ve invested that haven’t matured. So there’s a lot of reasons for optimism, but we have a long ways to go.”

Having patience in such a fast-moving sport isn’t easy but it is needed.

“I wish we would have matured earlier,” Keselowski said,” but I ain’t going to look at gift horse in the mouth and scream at him. I will take it and we’re going to build off it. Right now we have two teams that are like 10th-place teams. Our last few weeks have shown that’s where we’re at in speed, that’s where we’re at in finishes. If we ran a whole season like that … we’d be a playoff team.”

When Keselowski spoke to the employees at Monday’s celebration, he told them to enjoy the moment. He also had another message for them.

“Winning at this level is really hard and it’s supposed to be hard,” he said. “We’ve had a lot of fight to get there this year. Certainly some good moments and some really tough moments. I’m really proud of all of us and the work that went in.”

Another key to the organization’s success finding common ground between those who had been at Roush before Keselowski’s arrival and the new hires and their ideas.

After working through those issues, which included how the cars were prepared, Graves saw progress.

“You step back and embrace it and look at it and it’s like, ‘OK, this makes sense,’” Graves said. “You can start to develop and build on some ideas that make progress.”

The results started to show. Buescher finished second at Sonoma in June. He was sixth at Road America in July. He placed third at Richmond ninth at Watkins Glen in back-to-back weekends in August. 

“It’s been really nice to go to these race tracks and be in the hunt, be up there at the front,” Buescher told the employees at Monday’s celebration. “We’re learning every week. We’ve made huge progress really through the whole year.”

Buescher and Keselowski combined to lead 278 of the 500 laps at Bristol. Buescher found himself toward the front late in the race. Graves made a two-tire call on the last stop. Buescher went from entering the pits fourth to exiting first when no one else made such a move. Buescher led the final 61 laps to win. 

Then he got to do something he hadn’t in years. 

A burnout.

“I’ve only been able to do like three in my career,” he told NBC Sports, noting he didn’t do burnouts in ARCA because he often needed those tires for another event. “Xfinity wins, we were able do do some burnouts. 

“After the Pocono Cup win, it was rained out so we just had to push it to victory way, so it’s been a really long time since I’ve done any legal burnouts in a race car. So that part was nice. 

“It was nice to actually be able celebrate on the frontstretch with the team the real way, in the moment, not hanging around for that that rainout. That’s what made it that much better in my eyes.”

Keselowski looks to join Buescher in winning a points race this year. In a season with 19 different winners, Keselowski admits it’s challenging to be among those who have yet to win.

“Now we are in a spot where we are ready to play some offense,” he said. “It is a good feeling. It comes with a pragmatic view and a lot of humility of being able to walk away from some races where you were legitimately 20th or 25th and go to work the next morning and say, ‘Alright, we aren’t going to burn the house down. We are going to repaint the living room and then we are going to go to the next room and work on it piece by piece.’

“The easy thing to do is to lose control over yourself. That is the easy thing to do. The hard thing to do is to work through it and be methodical in that approach.”

It’s an approach that has led RFK Racing back to Victory Lane.

Dr. Diandra: Surprises in playoff performance

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The first round of playoff performances defied expectations in both good and bad ways.

That is my excuse for why my very first attempt at making predictions was an abject failure. I projected Alex Bowman, William Byron, Chase Briscoe and Austin Dillon would be the first four drivers out of the playoff. Only Dillon failed to move on to the round of 12.

Of course, my algorithm did not account for Kyle Busch having two engine failures in three races. Especially after his not having had a single engine failure in the previous 92 races.

Nor did the algorithm predict Kevin Harvick’s Darlington race being ended by fire.

Or that none of the 16 playoff drivers would win even one of the first three playoff races.

On the positive side, playoff drivers took 11 out of 15 possible top-fives (73%), and 21 of 30 top-10s (70%.) That’s consistent with a season boasting 19 different winners.

Chase Elliott is the only driver to win more than two races this season. Drivers made the playoffs by finishing well rather than winning of lot of races.

Playoff performance by the numbers

In the table at right, I list drivers in order of points after Bristol — but before re-seeding. Red numbers indicate DNFs.A table showing drivers' finishing positions for the first three playoff races

DNFs played a major role in the first round. Each of the four eliminated drivers had at least one DNF. Harvick and Busch had two each. Both of Busch’s DNFs and one of Harvick’s were due to equipment failure.

Only three drivers earned top-10 finishes in all three playoff races: Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Byron. Two of my predicted eliminations over-performed. And the one driver I expected to dominate the playoffs didn’t.

Relative to the regular season

Excluding equipment failures and crashes, one expects most drivers to perform, on average, at about the same level they ran during the regular season. That mostly didn’t happen.

In the first two elimination rounds, top 10s are enough to stay in the game. So that’s the metric I’ll focus on here.

The graph below compares drivers’ top-10 finish percentage in the first three playoff races to the same metric from the regular season.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to

Each arrow starts at the driver’s regular-season average and travels to his playoff average. Blue indicates playoff performance better than the regular season and red indicates the opposite.

Six drivers performed better than their regular-season averages would suggest.

Byron entered the playoffs seeded 10th with only five top-10 finishes in the regular season. With three top-10s in the first round of the playoffs, he earned the second-most points of any driver in the round of 16.

Hamlin had the second-largest improvement with two second-place finishes and a ninth. That continues his season-long trend of trying to overcome a slow start.

Bell’s 53.8% top-10 rate for the regular season doesn’t give him much room to improve. But he did. He’s also the only driver with three top-five playoff finishes.

Bowman, whose crew chief, Greg Ives, will retire at the end of this season, increased from 38.5% to 66.6% top-10 finishes.

“I think we are super motivated,” Bowman said, “because its Greg’s last 10 races with me and we want to end on a high note. We know the summer doesn’t matter anymore, our troubles, and it’s a good reset for us going into the playoffs.”

The biggest surprise, perhaps, was Elliott. He has the most top-10 finishes of any driver with 18. But only one came from the first playoff round.

Momentum

Driver finishes rise and fall throughout a season. The ups and downs are even larger this year because of the new Next Gen car. For that reason, it’s worth comparing playoff performance not only to the entire regular-season average, but also to just the last five regular-season races.

The arrows on the next plot start at the top-10 rate for each driver’s last five regular-season races and travel to their playoff rate.

A graph comparing the regular season top-10 rate to the top-10 rate in the first three playoff races to the last five races of the regular season

Seven drivers improved relative to their last five regular-season races — the six from before, plus Daniel Suárez. Suárez rose from 20% to 33.3%. That’s typical of a season that has been fairly consistent, but not at a level that will take him to the final four.

Byron’s turnaround is even more impressive in view of his having zero top-10 finishes in the last five races of the regular season.

“I think we had a lot of really good tracks in the beginning of the year,” Byron said. “As we started to chase some speed and chase some things, we got off a little bit throughout the summer.”

He believes the team has returned to where it needs to be.

“We know what works; we know what doesn’t work,” Byron said. “We definitely know what doesn’t work after the last month or so, so that’s a good thing.”

Joey Logano has the largest downward trend relative to the last five races, going from a 80.0% top-10 rate to 33.3%.

This graph shows Elliott’s playoff decline to be a trend continuing from the end of the regular season. That might be good news for the other drivers struggling to catch up with him.

Scoring and re-seeding

The table below summarizes points and playoff points earned during the three playoff races and each drivers’ final score before re-seeding. The lineup looks quite different than it did going into this round of three races.

A table showing how many points each playoff driver earned in the first round But that’s before re-seeding.

I hadn’t appreciated playoff points until I did the math. Each driver moving on to the round of 12 gets 3000 points, plus their total playoff points.

Because none of these drivers won a race, only five of the 21 playoff points available in the last three races impact the new standings. Bell won two stages; Byron, Bowman and Busch one each.

So we’re mostly back to where we were leaving Daytona.

A table showing the re-seeded rankings entering the second round of playoff racesRyan Blaney fell a spot. Byron’s dramatic turnaround didn’t impact his playoff standing. Most of Bowman’s move up the charts is due to eliminating the drivers originally ranked seventh, ninth and 11th.

The current standings reflect NASCAR’s eternal struggle between winning and consistency. On the one hand, I understand the desire to mimic other sports’ playoffs and not let the results of the last round impact the next. But carrying over regular-season playoff points means that Elliott returns to P1 despite having earned fewer points in the three playoff races than seven of the 16 drivers.

That’s why Bell, who earned almost twice as many points as Elliott and won two stages, ties for sixth place with Hamlin and Blaney. Elliott goes from 40 points behind Bell to 27 points ahead of him.

If Bell or any of the other remaining drivers wants to challenge Elliott, even top-five finishes won’t be enough.

In these playoffs, performance isn’t enough. You have to win.

Texas Xfinity results: Noah Gragson wins playoff opener

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Noah Gragson is rolling through the NASCAR Xfinity Series like a bowling ball headed toward a strike.

Gragson won for the fourth consecutive race Saturday, taking the lead with 11 laps left and winning the 300-mile race at Texas Motor Speedway. The victory put Gragson in the second round of the playoffs.

Finishing behind him in the top five were Austin Hill, Ty Gibbs, AJ Allmendinger and Riley Herbst.

Texas Xfinity results

The race was pockmarked by wrecks, scrambling the 12-driver playoff field.

POINTS REPORT

Noah Gragson remains the points leader after his win. He has 2,107 points. AJ Allmendinger is next, 26 points behind.

Sam Mayer and Ryan Sieg hold the final two transfer spots. They are one point ahead of Riley Herbst, eight points ahead of Daniel Hemric, 13 points ahead of Brandon Jones and 29 points ahead of Jeremy Clements.

Texas Xfinity driver points

The Xfinity playoffs will continue Oct. 1 at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET, USA Network).