Friday 5: Examining the most intriguing storyline of the Cup playoffs

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LAS VEGAS — They could be viewed as NASCAR’s odd couple, a blend of youth and experience, of past and present. No other driver/crew chief combination in the Cup playoffs has as wide of an age gap as Chad Knaus and William Byron at 27 years.

And no other combination in the playoffs has as many championships. Of course, Knaus won seven titles with Jimmie Johnson and Byron makes his Cup playoff debut Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

While Joe Gibbs Racing (just pick a driver) is the favorite to win the title, Kevin Harvick is the hottest driver and Joey Logano seeks a second consecutive championship, one of the most intriguing storylines of the postseason could be Knaus and Byron.

They’ve spent their first season together learning and adjusting to each other. The result has been significant gains at times.

“I feel like the first 10 races were kind of that newness and awkward stage of a relationship in trying to figure out how not to step on each other’s toes,” Byron said Thursday during playoff media day at South Point Hotel Casino. “And there were some heated moments, to be honest. We had some things that we didn’t execute as well as we wanted to. And then we got to the meat of the season in the summer, and we just started to really click.”

As that relationship progressed, Byron also hit a key milestone in the All-Star Race in May. He raced his way into the All-Star Race with an aggressive style.

“It was, at least for me, a turning point because it gave me the confidence that I could do it,” Byron said.

But Byron doesn’t mean aggressive in the sense of knocking people out of the way. Instead, he was aggressive in how he contemplated his next move on the track.

You’re kind of anticipating what moves to make,” Byron said. “You’re taking advantage of situations more than you are defending situations, and I think that was a big difference. Coming to a restart and thinking about how can I take advantage of this person or this person or get the best start that I can. That’s what changed for me in that race.”

While Byron has continued to learn, he’s also made an impact on Knaus in at least one way.

“As far as me shaping him, I think the only thing is just staying positive and staying motivated in the race,” Byron said. “I don’t seem to do well with like negative energy.”

How did he get his point across?

“I think situations have played out on the track to where it’s kind of been understood that we’ve got to do things a different way,” Byron said. “We both have our way of doing things. I’ve really accepted the way he does things, and he’s accepted the way I do things. Any good working relationship is kind of that compromise.”

He admits one key learning point came at Watkins Glen when Knaus all but ordered Byron to hit Kyle Busch’s car in retaliation for earlier contact. Busch slammed his brakes and that created a greater impact when Byron ran into the back of Busch’s car. The result was Byron damaged his car more than Busch’s was hurt.

“I think it was a turning point for us because I realized I’m the guy driving the car and ultimately the decisions that I make affect what I do,” Byron said. “Obviously, that trickles down to my team and all the work they’re putting in.”

2. Way in the past

It is nearing 10 years since Denny Hamlin was in position to win the championship only to see mistakes and misfortune rob him of that opportunity.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver still seeks his first Cup crown.

Hamlin, who won this year’s Daytona 500, is confident entering the playoffs after a season with four victories, including two in the last six races.

But until he wins a championship, that 2010 title race will remain something he’s asked about. He entered that season finale in Miami with a slim points lead after he gave away several points by pitting for fuel late in the season’s penultimate race in Phoenix. In Miami, Hamlin faltered during the weekend and Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive title.

I just got too excited in the moment,” Hamlin said Thursday. “I remember when it all started on qualifying day. Watching a couple guys run up high in qualifying and be fast, I’m like, ‘I didn’t practice up there (but) I need to run up there.’ I got in the wall and started in the rear and caught up in a three-wide wreck early (in the race). That was on the driver, not anyone else in 2010.”

But he admits it took some time before he could move on from that experience.

“I came off an eight-win season in 2010 and in 2011 I won one race and just kind of ran crappy,” Hamlin said. “It was definitely a hangover, letdown year from 2010. Then we kind of bounced back in 2012 (with five wins). … We had a good season and at that point I kind of let 2010 go.”

As for now, Hamlin is eager for the playoffs to begin. He won at Pocono in late July and followed that with a third-place finish at Watkins Glen, a runner-up result at Michigan, a win at Bristol, a 29th-place finish at Darlington after he was collected in a crash, and a sixth-place finish in a backup car last weekend at Indianapolis.

“We are not searching for speed, we are not searching for anything right now,” Hamlin said. “As long as we execute, we contend for wins every week and that is something that only a handful or less can say every week.”

Hamlin also likes that the series is heading back to several tracks for a second time this season. He notes that in the second time to tracks this season, he has finished first at Pocono, second at Michigan and first at Bristol.

3. Higher expectations

Ryan Blaney is in the playoffs for a third consecutive year, but he enters still seeking his first victory of the season, while teammates Brad Keselowski (three) and Joey Logano (two) each have multiple wins this year.

“I’d like to be doing better,” said Blaney, who has five top-10 finishes in the last seven races. “You want to be winning races with your teammates, right? I mean, your teammates winning races, you want to win races and you know, it sucks that we haven’t won a race yet this year. There’s a handful of them I wish we got back, but you just try to move forward and move on and try to do the best you can.

“Indy stunk how it kind of played out and ended there. But you definitely want to be doing better. Do I think that I’ve done the best job throughout this year and before this? No, I could do a lot better. So that’s kind of an ‘on me’ thing. So you just try to keep learning, keep getting better.

“You see your teammates winning and you want to be there just to prove that. You want to be part of the  show. You want to be in that group. You want to be in that winning group, and hopefully we can figure things out.”

Blaney says when he compares himself to Keselowski and Logano, “I feel like I don’t meet expectations. So that part stinks.

“I think Brad and Joey are two of the best guys out here, smartest guys, really great race car drivers and do a great job of figuring it out. And you just try to compare yourself to those guys. It’s hard compared to them because they’re so good and past champions. But I think if you try to meet that bar, and you kind of push yourself to be there, hopefully one day you do achieve that goal and get to where those guys are at.”

4. How many wins could Kyle Busch have?

Asked if he is better with handling frustration, regular-season champion Kyle Busch answered by alluding to this season and the four wins he has.

“No, I’m definitely not very good with frustrating moments,” said Busch, winless in his last 12 races. “It’s hard. You pour your life and soul into this and this is what you do and what you want to do and be successful at, and you want to go out here and prove and show people what they all hype up and talk about that, yes it’s true that I can be one of the best here and it’s frustrating when I’m not able to come out of races or seasons with the goals that you anticipate or the goals that you think you can achieve.

“It’s quite frustrating in that regard. This year for example, we’ve had four wins. We’ve been really good, we led the points …  you look back on it and we should have eight or nine wins.”

5. New mayor for Nashville

John Cooper defeated Mayor David Briley by more than a two-to-one margin Thursday to become the new mayor of Nashville, Tennessee.

Here is why that matters to NASCAR fans:

Once Cooper takes office (at a date to be determined) one of the many issues he’ll be tasked with is the effort by officials from Bristol Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports Inc. to renovate Fairgrounds Speedway in hopes of attracting a NASCAR race.

With NASCAR seeking to announce the 2021 schedule around April 1, 2020, it leaves a little more than six months for Bristol officials to have an agreement with the mayor, get approval from the metro council and get approval from the fair board to begin construction on what has been billed as a $60 million project.

It would seem ambitious to think everything could be put into place for Nashville to be on the 2021 NASCAR schedule. If so, that could mean that the earliest NASCAR might race there would be 2022.

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Greg Zipadelli to serve as Clint Bowyer’s interim crew chief

Greg Zipadelli
Photo by Todd Warshaw/NASCAR via Getty Images
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Greg Zipadelli, competition director for Stewart-Haas Racing, will serve as the crew chief for Clint Bowyer in Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan International Speedway, the team confirmed Monday.

Johnny Klausmeier will miss Saturday’s race, serving a one-race suspension because Bowyer’s car was found to have two lug nuts not safe and secure after last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Bowyer enters Saturday’s race at Michigan (4 p.m. ET on NBCSN) 14th on the playoff grid. The top 16 will advance to the playoffs. Six races remain in the regular season.

Klausmeier will be able to resume his role for Sunday’s Cup race (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Michigan.

Zipadelli, who won Cup titles in 2002 and 2005 with Tony Stewart, will reprise the interim role he played earlier in the season in the Xfinity Series.

Zipadelli served as Chase Briscoe‘s crew chief for four races after crew chief Richard Boswell, the team’s car chief and an engineer were each suspended four races because ballast fell out of his car. Briscoe won three of the four races with Zipadelli as his crew chief.

Team Penske extends contract with Brad Keselowski

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Team Penske announced Monday that New Hampshire winner Brad Keselowski has agreed to a contract extension. Keselowski’s contract was to expire after this season.

A media release from the team did not state the length of the extension for Keselowski, 36. The Associated Press reported that the deal was for one year through the 2021 season.

Keselowski, who won the 2012 Cup title, has been with Team Penske since 2010, winning 31 Cup and 33 Xfinity races during that time.

“We are pleased that Brad will continue to be a part of our organization,” said Roger Penske in a statement. “Brad not only demonstrates talent and skill on the track, but his leadership away from it and his dedication to our partners have had a huge impact in making our organization one of the best in NASCAR. I am proud that we will be able to able to keep the continuity we have with Brad, Ryan (Blaney) and Joey (Logano) and look forward to competing for more wins and championships together.”

MORE: Winners and losers from New Hampshire

Said Keselowski in a statement: I have been racing for Team Penske for the vast majority of my NASCAR career and to continue to represent Roger Penske, our partners and his organization is exactly where I want to be. We’ve accomplished a lot of things together over the years, including winning both the Cup and Xfinity Championships, the Brickyard 400, the Southern 500 and the Coca-Cola 600. Now, my goal is to win the Daytona 500, another championship and continue to build Team Penske into the best NASCAR team in the garage area.”

Logano is signed to at least 2022. In March, Blaney signed a multiyear extension with Team Penske.

Keselowski’s victory Sunday was his third of the season. He’s scored at least three wins in each of the past five seasons. Keselowski is second  in the points to Kevin Harvick.

GMS Racing, Brett Moffitt to honor Jimmie Johnson with special scheme

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GMS Racing and sponsor Plan B Sales have created a special paint scheme to honor seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson on championship weekend in November at Phoenix Raceway.

Brett Moffitt, the 2018 Truck Series champion, will pilot the the specially adorned truck at Phoenix.

“Brett has been a part of the Plan B family and a great ambassador for our company over the years,” said Brent Powell, owner of Plan B Sales in a statement. “Last year we partnered with Brett and GMS for the Phoenix race, but this year is different with it being the season finale and Jimmie’s final (full-time Cup) weekend. It truly is an honor for us to showcase this throwback for Jimmie and hopefully see Brett clinch his second championship in our truck.”

Said Moffitt of Johnson in a statement: “I have looked up to him, leaned on him and had the utmost respect for everything he has done for our sport. This is the coolest paint scheme I’ve had in my career because of how much respect and admiration I have for Jimmie. I’m rooting for him to go out on top, and maybe we’ll both get the chance to celebrate a championship in Phoenix later this year.”

Johnson has announced this will be his final full-time Cup season. He drove a Chip Ganassi Racing IndyCar in a July 28 test on the road course at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Johnson has expressed a desire to race different vehicles after this season.

 

Cup playoff grid after New Hampshire

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William Byron holds a 15-point lead on rookie Tyler Reddick for the final playoff spot in the Cup playoff grid after last weekend’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Six races remain in the regular season.

Byron finished 11th at New Hampshire, one spot behind Reddick, but Byron extended his advantage on Reddick by five points. Byron scored six stage points, while Reddick scored none.

MORE: Could New Hampshire be a sign of things to come in Cup?

MORE: Winners and losers from New Hampshire 

Jimmie Johnson fell to 25 points behind Byron for the final spot in the Cup playoff grid. Johnson overcame a spin after contact with Clint Bowyer to run in the top 10 but lost four spots in the final 20 laps to finish 12th.

“Good fight today guys,” Johnson told his team on the radio after the race. “Overcome a lot of (stuff) again.”

The series heads this weekend to Michigan International Speedway for two races. The Cup Series races there at 4 p.m. ET Saturday and at 4:30 p.m. ET on Sunday. Both races will be on NBCSN.

Ten of the 16 playoff spots have been secured by drivers who have won at least one race this year: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr., Alex Bowman, Austin Dillon and rookie Cole Custer.

Here is a look at the Cup playoff grid. Drivers shaded in green are locked in the playoffs. Drivers shaded in yellow are in a playoff spot based on their point total. Drivers shaded in red are outside a spot in the Cup playoff grid.

 

Cup playoff grid New Hampshire