Friday 5: Cup drivers prepare to deal with anxiety, chaos at Roval

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It is not hyperbole to say that the final lap of last year’s Cup playoff race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval might be among the most exciting laps in NASCAR’s history.

The leaders crashing within sight of the finish line. The car running third suddenly wins. A mangled car bouncing off the wall and puttering toward the checkered flag needing to pass a car stalled less than 100 yards from the finish line for 25th place to advance in the playoffs. And a three-way tie for the final two spots to advance to the next round.

The Roval was great for fans and stressful for competitors.

A year ago, Aric Almirola entered the Roval sixth in points. He had a 23-point lead on the first driver outside a transfer spot and six drivers between them. While not safe, it wasn’t an awful place to be.

And yet …

“Going into the Roval last year was really nerve-racking for me,” Almirola said. “It’s hard because you go into that position and you want so badly to advance to the next round and you feel like you’re holding on so tight. You almost race with don’t lose (mentality) than with that mentality of go get it, and that’s a hard way to race. I don’t like racing that way. I like racing on offense, but I don’t want to be on the other side of the cutline, either.

“I think I learned a lot last year. I had never really been in that experience before, going into the last cutoff race (of a round) of the playoffs. In 2014, when I was with Pettys, we blew up in the very first race and we were never really in it. So going (into) this year, I gained a lot of valuable experience of being in that position. I’ll feel better about it this year and just kind of knowing more and being more relaxed and having a better understanding of what to expect.”

Expect chaos.

Almirola survived a day last year that saw him involved in three incidents before he finished 19th, tying Kyle Larson and Jimmie Johnson for the final two playoffs spots. Almirola and Larson both advanced on the tiebreaker of better finishes in the opening round.

Almirola enters Sunday’s elimination race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) in a worse position than he was last year. He is 11th in the standings, three points ahead of Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a transfer spot in 13th place.

Bowman understands the pressure after experiencing it last year. He went into the Roval 11th in the standings a year ago, five points ahead of the first driver outside a playoff spot.

“That was a really stressful situation, a lot of anxiousness and nervousness,” said Bowman, who advanced to the second round last year. “Going into that race, I didn’t think that was going to be a good day for us, not being super confident in my road course skills. The day went well for us and it worked out. Just stressful.”

Last year’s Roval showed anything was possible.

“It’s a crapshoot,” Almirola said, “but it’s a crapshoot for everybody.”

2. Don’t just watch the battle to avoid elimination

Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance in the opening two playoff races has allowed him to score 12 of 14 playoff points and that is likely creating concern among his competitors.

While playoff points may matter in the next round, they likely will be critical in the third round, which will determine the four drivers who will race for the championship Nov. 17 in Miami.

At least one of the four drivers in the championship race will advance from the third round via points. The difference could be playoff points.

That’s why each stage win is important and each victory is critical for the playoff points. And why the race at the front of the field could be as meaningful as the race for the final transfer spot Sunday.

Here are the drivers with the most playoff points this season:

46 — Kyle Busch

41 — Martin Truex Jr.

30 — Denny Hamlin

29 — Joey Logano

28 — Kevin Harvick

24 — Brad Keselowski

18 — Chase Elliott

Strategy on road courses often dictates giving up a chance for stage points to be in a better position to win.

Last year’s Roval race saw Truex, the points leader entering the event, not pit in the first stage when some other playoff drivers did, in hopes of winning the stage. He finished fourth in the stage.

Truex pitted in the middle of stage 2 to set himself for a final pit stop under caution with just under 40 laps to go in the final stage. It would have led to the winning strategy and five playoff points had Jimmie Johnson’s spinning car not hit Truex in the final chicane on the last lap.

3. A better trip the second time?

Even though teams tested at the Roval last summer and had three practices, some drivers struggled around the course a year ago.

Eleven drivers either spun or crashed during practice or qualifying last year. Bubba Wallace had the roughest time, spinning four different times and crashing into the tire barrier on the backstretch chicane (which was redesigned this summer).

Wallace was one of four drivers who went to backup cars for the race after incidents in practice or qualifying last year. The others were: Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Erik Jones.

Practice should be interesting Friday and Saturday.

MORE: Weekend schedule for Cup, Xfinity teams at Charlotte Roval

4. Don’t overlook those deep in the standings

In four of the previous five years of the elimination style playoff format, a driver ranked 10th or worse after the second playoff race went on to the championship race. It could be a sign for those drivers 10th or worse this year.

In 2014, Ryan Newman was 11th in points heading into the first elimination race. He made it to the title race and finished second. Also that year, Denny Hamlin was 13th in points heading into that elimination race. Hamlin also made it to Miami, finishing third in the points.

In 2015, Kyle Busch was 13th in points heading into the first elimination race. He went on to win the crown that year. Kevin Harvick was 15th in points heading into the elimination race — which he had to win to advance and did — and went on to make the title race, placing second in the championship. Jeff Gordon was 10th in the points going into that first elimination race and made it to the title event, placing third in the championship.

In 2016, Carl Edwards was 10th in points before the first round elimination race. He made it to Miami and finished fourth in the championship.

In 2017, Kevin Harvick was 10th in points before the last race of the opening round. He advanced to Miami and placed third in the championship.

Last year, Joey Logano was the lowest ranked driver after two playoff races among those who would compete in the championship race. Logano was fifth in the points at the time.

5. New deal, similar plan

Christopher Bell’s ascension to Cup next year in the No. 95 car for Leavine Family Racing won’t end his ability to race sprint cars. But Bell concedes that he won’t race those cars as much next year.

“There’s not a plan for him to stop that,” car owner Bob Leavine said this week. “I know he will be prudent in races he goes to because he understands the commitment that we’re going to ask of him in the Cup Series.

“It’s had to tell somebody that does that as a ‘hobby’ not to do it. We’re excited that he still wants to and excited to see him win there. I think it’ll be contagious with his confidence level.”

Said Bell: “I understand that my dirt racing is going to have to slow down a little bit. With the Cup Series, the schedule is a lot more, it’s a little bit bigger than what the Xfinity cars are and it’s going to be a huge learning curve moving into the Cup Series. …  I’m going to be allowed some races, but I understand that the schedule won’t be near what it has been the last several years.”

 

NASCAR Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick back at No. 1

NASCAR Power Rankings
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Stop us if you’ve heard this before: Kevin Harvick is the No. 1 driver in this week’s NASCAR rankings.

Martin Truex Jr. held the top spot for just a week before Harvick reclaimed the crown with his series-leading ninth Cup win of the year Saturday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

This week’s rankings includes three ties as 12 drivers received votes.

More: Playoff standings after Round of 16

Harvick takes his power rankings lead to Las Vegas Motor Speedway for the start of the Round of 12.

Here is this week’s NASCAR Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 1): The Stewart-Haas Racing driver has three wins in the last five races: Dover, the Southern 500 and Bristol night race.

2. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 7): Finished seventh at Bristol for his third top 10 in five races. His 11 top fives so far matches his total from each of the last two seasons. He scored a career-high 12 top fives in 2017.

3. (tie) Kyle Busch (Last week No.  9): Finished second in Bristol after he started from the rear due to inspection failures. Has three consecutive top 10s for the first time this season.

3. (tie) Joey Logano (Last week No. 3): Followed consecutive third-place finishes with an 11th at Bristol.

5. (tie) Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 1): Finished 24th in Bristol following contact with Denny Hamlin after an unscheduled pit stop.

5. (tie) Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 5): After winning at Richmond, Keselowski had a rough night in Bristol. He finished 34th due to power steering problems.

7. (tie) Aric Almirola (Last week unranked): Finished fifth in Bristol for his third consecutive top 10 and his fourth in five races.

7. (tie) Clint Bowyer (Last week unranked): Placed sixth in Bristol for his third consecutive top-10 finish and to keep his playoff chances alive.

9. Austin Dillon (Last week No. 3): Placed a respectable 12th to finish the first round after consecutive top fives.

10. Erik Jones (Last week unranked): Placed third in Bristol for his seventh top-five finish of the season and his second in the last three races.

Also receiving votes: Alex Bowman and Denny Hamlin

NASCAR Silly season features Bubba Wallace, Michael Jordan

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NASCAR Silly Season took a twist Monday. A day that started with the announcement that Ross Chastain would drive for Chip Ganassi Racing next year ended with the news that Denny Hamlin would co-own a team with Michael Jordan and have Bubba Wallace as the driver in 2021.

As JTG Daugherty Racing co-owner Brad Daugherty said: “I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba. They’re going to be like rock stars.”

The 26-year-old Wallace is in his third full Cup season. All 105 of his starts in NASCAR’s premier series have been with Richard Petty Motorsports.

“Bubba has shown tremendous improvement since joining the Cup Series and we believe he’s ready to take his career to a higher level,” Hamlin said in a statement. “He deserves the opportunity to compete for race wins and our team will make sure he has the resources to do just that. Off the track, Bubba has been a loud voice for change in our sport and our country. MJ and I support him fully in those efforts and stand beside him.”

A team name, car number, manufacturer and sponsors will be announced at a later time.

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2021

No. 00: Quin Houff enters the second year of his two-year deal with StarCom Racing.

No. 1: Kurt Busch enters the second year of a multi-year contract that Chip Ganassi Racing announced last season.

No. 2: Brad Keselowski and Team Penske announced a contract extension Aug. 3.

No. 4: Kevin Harvick signed a contract extension in February that will keep him at Stewart-Haas Racing through the 2023 season.

No. 8: Tyler Reddick said Aug. 7 that he will be back with Richard Childress Racing next season.

No. 9: Chase Elliott is under contract with Hendrick Motorsports through the 2022 season.

No. 10: Aric Almirola extends deal with Stewart-Haas Racing for 2021 season.

No. 11: Denny Hamlin is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 12: Ryan Blaney and Team Penske announced a multi-year extension earlier this season.

No. 18: Kyle Busch is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 19: Martin Truex Jr. is signed with Joe Gibbs Racing through at least next year.

No. 20: Christopher Bell moves from Leavine Family Racing to take over this ride in 2021.

No. 22: Joey Logano is tied to Team Penske “through the 2022 season and beyond.”

No. 24: William Byron is under contact with Hendrick Motorsports through 2022.

No. 42: Ross Chastain takes over Chip Ganassi Racing’s ride for the 2021 season.

No. 47: Ricky Stenhouse Jr. enters the second year of a multi-year deal with JTG Daugherty Racing.

No. 88: Alex Bowman will race for Hendrick Motorsports under a one-year contract extension announced earlier this year.

No. TBA: Bubba Wallace joins the new team co-owned by Denny Hamlin and NBA great Michael Jordan. The team purchased Germain Racing’s charter. Germain Racing will not continue after this season.

 

Available/possibly available rides

No. 14: Clint Bowyer is in a contract year to drive for Stewart-Haas Racing.

No. 21: Matt DiBenedetto said Sept. 17 that Wood Brothers Racing has an option to pick up his contract for next year and the deadline is the end of September.

No. 32: Ride is open with Corey LaJoie announcing he will not return to Go Fas Racing in 2021.

No. 43: Bubba Wallace will not return to Richard Petty Motorsports in 2021, the team confirmed on Sept. 10.

No. 48: With Jimmie Johnson retiring from full-time competition, Hendrick Motorsports has this seat to fill.

No. 95: Spire Motorsports purchased the charter and assets of Leavine Family Racing and will be a two-car operation in 2021.

No. 96: Daniel Suarez and Gaunt Brothers Racing announced Sept. 15 that they would part ways after this season.

 

Brad Daugherty: Michael Jordan to NASCAR is ‘huge moment’

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Brad Daugherty calls Michael Jordan’s ownership of a Cup team a “huge moment for NASCAR.”

Jordan and Denny Hamlin will co-own a Cup team next season. Bubba Wallace will be the driver. Jordan will become the first Black majority car owner of a full-time team since Wendell Scott owned and raced cars in the 1960s and ‘70s.

Daugherty, the only Black owner of a full-time Cup team currently, is excited about Jordan’s entrance into NASCAR.

“It’s a big momentum shift for this sport culturally, period,” said Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing and an analyst for NBC Sports. “Three years ago, this would have never happened. A year ago, this wouldn’t have happened. It’s the timing. If the timing is right and you have someone like Michael Jordan put his brand and what he’s all about into whatever you are doing, it adds a lot of credibility. I look forward to whatever he can bring to the table to help continue to build NASCAR.”

Daugherty told NBC Sports that Jordan can help the sport reach more people.

“The eyeballs are going to be incredible,” Daugherty said of Jordan’s potential impact. “The opportunity for entrance into the sport will be made more available as far as people being aware of the availability to get involved in NASCAR as a fan or as a business. There’s just so many different areas that will light up just because of who he is and what he represents. His entire legacy creates opportunity for everyone.

“Now, we start talking diversity with what he’s able to do from a corporate standpoint and also just from a legacy standpoint with his brand. It’s going to be exciting. I’m excited because I think more people now, more than ever, will take a look at NASCAR with a keen eye and keen interest and be excited about maybe participating as a fan or as a business partner or as someone wanting to learn how to drive a race car or own a race team. The more notoriety the better.”

NASCAR stated Monday: “Michael is an iconic sports figure and celebrated champion whose fiercely competitive nature has placed him among the greatest athletes of all time. His presence at NASCAR’s top level will further strengthen the competition, excitement and momentum growing around our sport. We wish Michael and his team tremendous success.”

Jordan told The Charlotte Observer on Monday that the deal came together in about 10 days because of the chance to hire Wallace.

“When (Hamlin) told me there was a possibility of getting Bubba Wallace, I’m saying, ‘OK, this is perfect!’” Jordan told The Observer. “If I’m getting involved in NASCAR, then get a Black driver (with) a Black owner.”

For all that Jordan can bring to NASCAR, Daugherty knows that the competition can prove challenging.

“I’m sure he’s committed to next season and we’ll see how that goes and if it goes well, you go beyond that,” Daugherty said. “He had a (Superbike) team for a long time and loved that. He understands it’s a different business model. He’s at the point in his life, he’s like Roger Penske and Rick Hendrick and those guys to where it’s really not a detriment to him financially if he’s not making money. We’ll have to see how much he can stomach because it’s an interesting business model for sure.”

Jordan told The Observer he’s in it to win.

“If I’m investing, if I’m a participant, then I want to win! I don’t want to be out there to be just another car,” Jordan said.

Daugherty looks forward to seeing Jordan, Hamlin and Wallace at the track.

“I think it’s a pretty dynamic trio with Michael, Denny and Bubba,” Daugherty said. “They’re going to be like rock stars.”

Daugherty also looks forward to something else next year.

“Look forward to racing against those guys,” he said, “and trying to kick their butts.”

Germain Racing sells charter, will exit sport at end of season

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Germain Racing car owner Bob Germain announced Monday that he has sold the team’s charter and will end the team after this season.

The charter was purchased by a new team that will have Denny Hamlin and Michael Jordan as owners and Bubba Wallace as the driver.

Germain said in a statement that the No. 13 team will continue the rest of the season with Ty Dillon as driver.

“Being an owner in NASCAR for the last 16 years has been a thrilling and rewarding adventure,” Germain said in a statement. “From winning two NASCAR Truck Series championships in 2006 and 2010 to competing at the highest level of motorsports in the Cup Series for the last 12 seasons, I have experienced the highs and lows of our sport. I’m extremely proud of what Germain Racing has accomplished at every level and I will be transitioning out of ownership with many memories and friendships. I appreciate the interest and offers made over the last couple of weeks and I am excited to see how the sport continues to grow in the future.

“Thank you to GEICO for their loyalty to Germain Racing for over a decade. It has been a great source of pride for our team to represent their brand on the track. Doug Barnette with Player Management International has facilitated our GEICO relationship since the beginning and I truly appreciate his efforts. Finally, to my employees: building a team camaraderie and creating a family atmosphere has been a highlight of this journey. I will miss each of you.”

Germain pondered a sale when GEICO decided not to renew its contract after this season with the team.  GEICO is one of NASCAR’s Premier Partners, joining Busch Beer, Coca-Cola and Xfinity.

Dillon spoke in late August about the challenges facing single-car teams in Cup.

“The model is very tough right now for single-car teams,” he said. “I’m hoping that NASCAR is going to change it and help on it. But it needs to change for one-car teams to be more successful that haven’t already been at the top level of the sport or have an incredible amount of money to leapfrog into the top spot. If you don’t have three or four teams to spread the wealth with big name sponsors and a lot of money behind the effort, it’s just not a model that’s going to survive long term.”

Hamlin acknowledged the challenge a one-car team can have.

“I do believe that the (ownership) model will hopefully get better,” Hamlin said before last weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway. “Do I think it’s fixed? No, I think there is still some work to be done to make the model a viable business. You want a business that everyone wants to be a part of, not the ones that are fleeting. Certainly, I think NASCAR is trying it’s best to make the teams a little more healthy. I think that outlook toward the future is what’s interesting to me.”

Germain Racing is the second team to sell its charter since August. Leavine Family Racing announced it had sold its charter on Aug. 4. Spire Motorsports purchased it and will be a two-car team in 2021.