Friday 5: Kyle Larson showing strength as Cup playoffs near

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While many of his competitors relax far away from a track, Kyle Larson is using the final off weekend of the season for Cup to go racing.

Why not keep going when things are good?

Larson enters this break having finished in the top 10 in each of the last four Cup races. While Joe Gibbs Racing drivers rank 1-2-3 in points scored during that stretch, Larson is the best of the rest. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has scored 146 points to rank fourth among all drivers during the last month.

That run has helped Larson go from being in danger of falling out of a playoff spot to having a comfortable margin with two races left in the regular season. Larson will head to Darlington Raceway next weekend for the Southern 500 trailing Alex Bowman by 10 points for 10th in the standings.

The recent run of success comes as Larson and his team avoided problems.

“I feel like our race cars have gotten little bit better and any time that happens, it makes your job a little bit easier and you can be less aggressive and still get good finishes,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I would just point to our cars getting a little bit better.

“I’ve crashed enough stuff early in the year and really still recently, but I’m trying to race a little bit smarter and make moves a little bit smarter and not try to run fifth with a 10th-place car and take my 10th or even if I fall back to 11th or 12th. Just being a little  bit smarter about things.”

Larson might have had a streak of six consecutive top-10 finishes but he placed 33rd at New Hampshire in July. Larson was ninth on a restart about 80 laps from the finish when he went low to try to pass Bowman entering Turn 1. Larson was on the bottom in a three-wide situation and spun, sliding up the track and backing into the wall. His woes were compounded when he had a right rear tire go down about 40 laps later and he crashed.

Larson knows he needs to make better decisions in the car.

“I should have just stayed in line and not push the issue,” he said of that restart against Bowman. “I had a fast car.”

That’s not the only time he’s had an issue. He looks to the Pocono race in June. On the final restart, he made contact with Clint Bowyer’s car and that forced Larson’s car into the wall. Larson finished 26th after having won both stages.

“I tried to clear myself up in front of Clint and not be quite enough clear and put myself in the fence with a few laps to go,” Larson said. “I cost myself there (Pocono and New Hampshire) a combined at least 40 points. That could put us inside the top 10 in points. Those are just two deals. I’ve had other races that I’ve been overly aggressive because you have to be.”

Even so, he’ll be in a good place when the Cup series resumes at Darlington Raceway. Larson finished third in last year’s Southern 500, the second time in the last three years he’s placed third there.

“I just think our team and myself just have a good feel for worn out surfaces at intermediate tracks,” Larson said. “You look at Atlanta, we were really fast. Chicago, we were really, really fast. Homestead, we’re always good. Darlington, we’re always good. So I think we’ve got a good package for that. It just fits my driving style.”

2. Chasing the right away around Road America

While the focus this weekend at Road America (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) will be on if Austin Cindric can win his third consecutive Xfinity Series road course event, Chase Briscoe will be looking to extend his streak of top-10 finishes at a track he’s never raced.

Briscoe has scored six top-10 finishes in a row, tying Tyler Reddick and Justin Allgaier for the longest active streak in the series. 

Unlike those two, Briscoe’s only experience at the track is on a simulator.

“Road America is going to be a challenge,” said Briscoe, who won last year’s inaugural race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. “I feel like Watkins Glen is one of the easier road courses just to go to the first time. It’s not really that technical, it’s pretty easy. Then Mid-Ohio … I ran an IMSA race there and an Xfinity race there. I felt like that was the one track I would have the opportunity to run good. But the Road America deal is going to be a struggle I feel like.”

Briscoe spent time on a simulator for the 14-turn, 4.048-mile track on Aug. 14. 

“I feel like at a track that big, it’s really hard to get into a rhythm,” he said. “At Watkins Glen, there are seven corners. You go through that same corner it seems like pretty quickly. At Road America, it’s going to be another two and a half minutes it seems like until you get back around there. It’s going to be a challenge. I feel like I kind of struggle on how to pass guys on the road course. It’s just a different style of passing and setting guys up.”

How so?

“Just seems like on the oval, you can catch a slower guy and it’s so easy to go to the other groove and pass them,” Briscoe said. “On these road courses, it’s typically one groove and you catch one slow guy and you might be stuck behind him for eight corners before you get to a passing zone to pass. I don’t know if Road America is going to be bad. For example, at Mid-Ohio, once you get to Turn 5, you can’t pass until really I think Turn 10 or 11, so you’re just kind of stuck. It’s hard to kind of have patience and ride behind people and know you can’t push it in those areas.”

3. Woe is the No. 3

This was not the season Richard Childress Racing imagined for its 50th anniversary.

Heading into next weekend’s Southern 500, Austin Dillon is 23rd in points, two spots ahead of rookie teammate Daniel Hemric.

Dillon’s 34th-place finish last weekend at Bristol marked his fifth finish of 30th or worse in the last seven races.

“We’ve got to do a better job in our group of controlling our entire weekend from the time we unload off the trailer, it’s been a little bit inconsistent,” Dillon said before last weekend’s Bristol race. “But in that sense, motors are good, feel like our bodies are good. The core stuff is there, but we’re beating ourselves. That’s what’s frustrating about this year. I feel like we’ve had more speed than we had in the past but haven’t been able to execute.”

Dillon won stage 2 at Daytona in July before he and Clint Bowyer triggered an 18-car crash battling for the lead. Dillon finished 33rd. A transmission and alternator issue led to a 35th-place finish for Dillon at Kentucky. He was 32nd at New Hampshire after a right front tire went down and he hit the wall. Dillon placed 31st at Watkins Glen after struggling most of the weekend on the road course. Dillon’s Bristol finish was hampered by a tire that went down and sent him into the wall and Jimmie Johnson into the back of Dillon’s car.

Dillon admits this has been his most frustrating year in the series.

“It’s been really trying mentally,” he said. “Just beats you down because every week you have to come back to it, what’s next? What’s going to happen next?”

Most weeks, at least recently, the answer to that question has not been good for Dillon and his team.

“I just want to do so much for RCR in their 50th year, for the No. 3 and for myself,” he said. “I hate running bad. It sucks. You want to get those finishes and you see bad finishes piling up and it gets you down.”

4. Feeling comfortable

As William Byron nears his first playoff appearance, the Hendrick Motorsports driver says he feels more comfortable in his role with the team in his second season in Cup.

“This is the first time I can walk into the shop and I don’t feel like I’m on pins and needles with the guys, in terms of them just trusting me and me feeling comfortable with them to tell them what is exactly on my mind,” Byron said. “It’s the first time I can walk into the shop and feel like I can say what’s on my mind; if I’m not content or I’m not happy with something or even when things go great.”

Byron is growing into his role with guidance from crew chief Chad Knaus, who joined the team after last season. Knaus has Byron 12th in the standings with races left at Darlington and Indianapolis before the Cup playoffs begin.

“I would say Chad and I are both kind of, the two pillars of the team,” Byron said. “Chad’s job is to encourage those guys, give them the resources they need, make sure they’re staying on task and make sure they’re focused. My job is to kind of I guess cheerlead a little bit in terms of motivation but also to be honest with them and say, hey this was good, this wasn’t good, this worked well, this didn’t.”

5. Back again

While the Gander Outdoors Truck Series makes its annual visit to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park for Sunday’s playoff race, it won’t be the first time this year for ThorSport’s drivers.

Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes, Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter competed in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at the road course, driving Ford Mustang GT4s. Rhodes and Enfinger shared driving duties and finished 13th. Crafton and Sauter shared driver duties and placed 14th.

With Sunday’s race the second in the three-race opening round, Enfinger, Crafton and Sauter will be looking to win to advance. Reigning series champ Brett Moffitt won last week’s race at Bristol to move on to the second round.

Power rankings after Bristol: Brad Keselowski is new No. 1

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Kevin Harvick is out and Bristol winner Brad Keselowski is the new No. 1 in this week’s NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.

Keselowski was the unanimous pick of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers. Harvick had been the unanimous No. 1 the last two weeks. He falls to second in this week’s rankings.

Kurt Busch made the biggest climb, going from 10th last week to No. 4 in this week’s rankings. Three drivers dropped out of the top 10 from last week: Alex Bowman, Martin Truex Jr. and Tyler Reddick.

Here’s how this week’s rankings look:

1. Brad Keselowski (30 points): Right place, right time at Bristol, taking advantage of contact between Chase Elliott and Joey Logano to sail on to victory lane for second time in last three races. Last week: second.

2. Kevin Harvick (26 points): Saw his streak of 13 consecutive top 10s end at Bristol with an 11th-place finish. Last week: first.

3. Chase Elliott (25 points): Won once in the past week and was in contention for a second win until he hit Joey Logano late at Bristol. Last week: tied for third.

4. Kurt Busch (20 points): The elder Busch brother has gone from third to 10th and back up to fourth in the last three power rankings. Last week: 10th.

5. Jimmie Johnson (14 points): The seven-time champ has been knocking on victory’s door for each of the last four weeks, including finishing a season-best third at Bristol. Is that 104-race winless streak ready to end? Last week: unranked.

(tie) 6. Kyle Busch (13 points): Rebounded from a cut tire and 29th-place finish at the second Charlotte race to take fourth at Bristol. Last week: tied for third.

(tie) 6. Austin Dillon (13 points): Eighth at second Charlotte race and followed up with a strong sixth at Bristol. Last week: unranked.

8. Denny Hamlin (11 points): Much like the rest of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates, his streak of up-and-down results continues. Runner-up at second Charlotte race and 17th at Bristol after a late incident. Last week: seventh.

9. Ryan Blaney (4 points): Continues his search for consistency. Finished third at second Charlotte and was strong at Bristol until spinning while running second and then was hit, ending his race. Last week: unranked.

10. Christopher Bell (3 points): After rough first five races of rookie season, has bounced back with three finishes of 11th or better in his last four races. Last week: ninth.

Others receiving votes: Austin Cindric (2 points), William Byron (1 point).

Nashville Superspeedway to host Cup race in 2021

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The NASCAR Cup Series will race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2021, NASCAR announced Wednesday.

No official race date was given in the announcement, but The Tennessean reported Tuesday that a “very tentative” date of June 20, 2021 has been set for the Cup Series race at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tennessee.

The 1.333-mile oval is owned by Dover Motorsports Inc., which also owns Dover International Speedway. One of Dover’s two race dates will be moved to Nashville.

“Thanks to the collaboration of Dover Motorsports and our broadcast partners, we are excited to bring NASCAR racing back to Nashville, a place where the passion for our sport runs deep,” NASCAR President Steve Phelps said in a release. “The Nashville market is a vital one for our sport, and bringing NASCAR Cup Series racing to Nashville Superspeedway will be an integral building block in helping us further deliver on our promise in creating a dynamic schedule for 2021.”

Such a move likely means that Speedway Motorsports’ efforts to bring NASCAR back to Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville will not take place in 2021.

“The news that NASCAR will bring a Cup race to Wilson County and the greater Nashville region in 2021 is a positive move for the sport of NASCAR and for NASCAR fans,”   Speedway Motorsports President and CEO Marcus Smith said in statement. “In recent years, we’ve made it very clear that we think Nashville is a place where NASCAR should be for the future and not just the past. Our efforts to work with state and local government officials to revive the historic Nashville Fairgrounds Speedway will continue. We believe that the beloved short track in downtown Nashville provides tremendous opportunity to be a catalyst for year-round tourism and entertainment development.”

Nashville Superspeedway hosted Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Series races from 2001-11.

“Our company is excited about the terrific opportunity to not only host a NASCAR Cup Series race weekend but opening our Nashville facility will enable us to host other exciting forms of racing and entertainment options,” Mike Tatoian, executive vice president and chief operating officer for Dover Motorsports, Inc, said in a release. “We are also proud that our long history with NASCAR will continue at the Monster Mile in 2021, and we also look forward to hosting the 9th Firefly Music Festival next summer.”

The Associated Press stated that the idea of Nashville Superspeedway hosting NASCAR races again came after the city hosted the Cup Awards in December for the first time.

“Especially after the awards banquet, it was, how do we get to Nashville as soon as we possibly can?” Tatoian told The Associated Press. “It made it a fairly easy discussion that it was through Dover Motorsports.”

Tatoian told the AP that updating the track would cost $8-10 million. He also stated that capacity would be between 25,000-50,000.

Dover has hosted two Cup races a year since 1971. It has had a race weekend postponed by the COVID-19 pandemic. Dover is expected to host a Cup doubleheader Aug. 22-23.

“It looks more and more like we’ll be hosting a doubleheader,” Tatoian told the AP. “That’s a strong scenario and that’s what we’re focused on.”

Penalty report from Bristol Motor Speedway

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NASCAR has issued its penalty report for the Bristol Motor Speedway race weekend.

The only penalty was a $10,000 fine for Chris Gayle, crew chief on Erik Jones‘ No. 20 Toyota, for having one unsecured lug nut after Sunday’s Cup Series race.

 

Stats, Quotes and Moments: The NASCAR Cup Season So Far

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The first nine races of the 2020 NASCAR Cup Series season have been a long, strange trip.

Beginning with the Daytona 500 on Sunday, Feb. 16 – a race that concluded the following Monday due to rain – and ending with Sunday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway, it took 106 days to conduct nine races at seven race tracks. That was after NASCAR endured a 71-day COVID-19 imposed break from action.

Here’s a look back at the first quarter of the season and where the series stands ahead of race No. 10 Sunday at Atlanta Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on Fox).

Key stats

– Through nine races there have been six different winners and three repeat winners. Not among them are three of the last four Cup champions: Kyle Busch, Jimmie Johnson and Martin Truex Jr.  Since Truex’s rookie year in 2006, this is the first time all three have been winless through the ninth race of the year.

– Due to COVID-19, the Cup Series held a Wednesday race for the first time since 1984.

– The three races on 1.5-mile tracks have seen three different winners: Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski and Chase Elliott. They are part of a stretch of nine different winners in the last nine races on 1.5-mile tracks. The last time there was nine in a row was in 2008-09. The last time there was more than nine was 2001-02 when there was 10.

– Elliott, who has just one win, has the best average running position: 7.748.

– The driver with the best average average finish who hasn’t won yet is Kurt Busch: 11.6

– Only four out of 19 times has a stage winner finished in the top 10 (Hamlin won after winning Stage 2 at Daytona, Alex Bowman won after winning Stage 1 at Auto Club Speedway and Harvick finished second at Phoenix after winning Stage 1 and Logano finished sixth after winning Stage 1 at Charlotte 2).

Chase Elliott after winning Thursday’s Cup Series race at Charlotte. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

– The Stage 2 winner has finished 11th or worse in each of the last eight races.

– Hendrick Motorsports has led the most laps this year (780) and won the most stages (10), but has just two race wins.

– 21st: Matt Kenseth‘s average finish in his five races driving Chip Ganassi Racing’s No. 42 car after replacing Kyle Larson. Larson was fired by CGR in the aftermath of his use of a racial slur in an iRacing event in April.

Key Moments

– Daytona 500: After a push from Ryan Blaney gave Ryan Newman the lead on the last lap, a violent wreck coming to the checkered flag resulted in Denny Hamlin earning his third Daytona 500 win and Newman being taken to the hospital with a bruised brain. He walked out of the hospital two days later with his daughters. Newman missed the next three races and returned at Darlington on May 17.

– Las Vegas: Ryan Blaney was leading late when a caution came out for a Ross Chastain spin. It set up a two-lap shootout for the win. When pit road opened, Blaney and Alex Bowman, who was running second, both went to pit road. Joey Logano, running third, stayed out. Logano went on to win and Blaney finished 11th.

– Darlington 1: Denny Hamlin stayed out under a late caution due to having run out of fresh tires. Hamlin held onto the lead for one lap until a caution came out for an incident between Kyle Busch and Chase Elliott. During the caution, it began raining and the race was made official, giving Hamlin the win.

– Coca-Cola 600: Chase Elliott was three laps away from winning when the caution came out for his teammate, William Byron, spinning after cutting a tire. Elliott’s team chose to pit for tires as a majority of the leaders stayed out. After restarting 11th, Elliott could only race back to third place (before Jimmie Johnson’s disqualification) in overtime as Brad Keselowski won.

Key quotes

“We were in a position to finish it off, and we got destroyed for no reason. You would think these guys would be smarter than that. We all cause wrecks. I get in wrecks all the time and I cause them. The same one over and over again. It’s the same thing. Somebody throws a stupid block that’s never going to work and wrecks half the field and then goes ‘eh’. Maybe we need to take the helmets out of these cars and take the seat belts out. Somebody will get hurt and then we’ll stop driving like assholes. I don’t know. We’ll figure it out I guess.” – Brad Keselowski after he was eliminated in a large wreck in the Busch Clash, which began when his teammate Joey Logano threw “a stupid block.”

“I thought it was warranted, and he was deserving.” – Chase Elliott on the middle finger he displayed at Kyle Busch following the contact between the two drivers that wrecked Elliott late in the May 20 race at Darlington.

“Imitation is the strongest form of flattery or something, I don’t know what it is. Huh, that’s cute.” – Kyle Busch upon being informed Chase Elliott performed his trademark bow after beating him in the May 26 Truck Series race at Charlotte, which earned Elliott (and a COVID-19 relief effort of his choice) a $100,000 bounty for beating Busch.

“He wrecked me. He got loose underneath me. The part that’s frustrating is that afterwards a simple apology, like be a man and come up to someone and say, ‘Hey, my bad.’  But I had to force an apology, which, to me, is childish. …  I passed him clean. It’s hard racing at the end, I get that. It’s hard racing, but, golly, man, be a man and take the hit when you’re done with it.” – Joey Logano after Sunday’s race at Bristol, when contact from Chase Elliott while racing for the lead took them out of contention