Friday 5: Friction grows between non-playoff drivers, playoff drivers

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It’s easy to miss one of the key themes to the Cup playoffs with so much talk about Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance, Kyle Busch’s inconsistency and Hendrick Motorsports advancing three cars to the second round.

What has been overlooked is the friction between playoff drivers and non-playoff drivers. 

NASCAR’s postseason is littered with cases where non-playoff drivers had an impact on playoff drivers, whether it was Scott Riggs’ crash on Lap 3 of the opening Chase race at New Hampshire in 2005 that collected title contender Kurt Busch or David Reutimann paying back title contender Kyle Busch at Kansas in 2010, among others.

But this year’s playoff races have seen the divide between the haves and have-nots reach a breaking point.

It was something Jimmie Johnson experienced at Las Vegas in his first postseason race as a non-playoff driver.

“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs made desperate moves out there,” Johnson said a few days after the Vegas race. “Saw it happen to other drivers. I had a few make that move on me as well. It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to, but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”

Austin Dillon has been on both sides. He made the playoffs the previous three years but failed to do so this year.

“It happens a lot,” Dillon said of playoff drivers taking advantage of non-playoff drivers. “There’s a line between taking that, as a guy that’s out of the playoffs, and there’s a line that you cross.”

Dillon admits “my button ended up pushed” at Richmond by Alex Bowman after Bowman dived underneath Dillon on a restart and came up the track, hitting Dillon’s car, sending it up the track into William Byron’s car. After being told by car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman to pay Bowman back, Dillon retaliated and spun Bowman.

“Yes, I’ve taken advantage of guys because I was in the playoffs,” Dillon said. “I know that feeling. I feel like at some point if you take too much, it will come back on you.”

Bowman didn’t have problems just with Dillon at Richmond. Bowman said he and Bubba Wallace had an issue in that race that led to Wallace flipping him the bird. Then on the first lap of last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Bowman lost control of his car entering the backstretch chicane and hit Wallace’s car, forcing Wallace to miss the chicane. Wallace later responded with a series of one finger salutes as they raced together. Tiring the signal, Bowman dumped Wallace.

It’s not just Bowman who has had problems. Kyle Busch was running in the top five, rallying from two laps down, when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley’s car. Combined with an incident with Joey Gase, a frustrated Busch told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Smithley later responded on social media and Gase followed a day later.

To say that playoff drivers should have the right of the way on the track is shortsighted. The other drivers have something at stake. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose contact spun Martin Truex Jr. while Truex led at Richmond, is racing for a job. So is Daniel Hemric. No announcement has been made on Daniel Suarez’s status for next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, so he also could be racing for a job.

Those eliminated in the first round — Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola and Erik Jones — are racing to finish as high as fifth in the points.

And others are going after more modest goals. Chris Buescher, 20th in points, seeks to give JTG Daugherty Racing its best finish since 2015 (AJ Allmendinger placed 19th in points in 2016). Johnson seeks to refine the No. 48 team in these final weeks with new crew chief Cliff Daniels to become more of a factor and end his 88-race winless streak.

To have a playoff driver think they own the road is misguided. There’s much taking place on the track.

Whether playoff drivers want to play nice with non-playoff drivers is up to them and how they’ve been raced in the past. Of course, a playoff driver has more to lose than a non-playoff driver. So drivers will need to pick their battles wisely.

2. Hendrick’s round?

It’s easy to note Alex Bowman’s runner-up finishes earlier this year at Dover, Talladega and Kansas — all tracks in the second round of the playoffs — and forecast him advancing to the next round.

It’s just as easy to think Chase Elliott will have a smooth ride into the next round since he won at Talladega this year and scored wins at Dover and Kansas last year (with a different race package).

And if things go well, William Byron could find his way into next round.

Hendrick is building momentum. But what happened in the spring or last year doesn’t guarantee what will happen in the coming weeks, beginning with Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

It would be something if all three of Hendrick’s cars moved into the third round after the team’s slow start to the season: Bowman did not have a top 10 in the first nine races of the season, Byron had one top 10 in the first nine races and Elliott had two top 10s in the same period. And Jimmie Johnson, who is not in the playoffs? He had four top 10s in the first nine races.

Bowman and Byron enter the round outside a cutoff spot. Bowman trails Kyle Larson by one point for the final transfer spot. Byron is five points behind Larson.

3. Under the radar?

It’s hard to imagine someone scoring three consecutive top-five finishes — and five top fives in the last six races — being overshadowed but that seems to be the case with Brad Keselowski.

He has quietly collected consistent finishes at the front. The key will be to continue with mistake-free races or at least races with minimal mistakes. His 29 stage points scored in the opening round trailed only Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick, who each scored 36 stage points.

For what it’s worth, Keselowski won at Kansas earlier this season. That’s the cutoff race in this round.

4. Drivers to watch at Dover

Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott have led the most laps in nine of the last 10 Dover races. Harvick has led the most laps five times. Truex and Elliott have each done so twice. Kyle Larson led the most laps the other time.

Domination doesn’t necessarily equal wins. Only three of those times has the driver leading the most laps won the race. Harvick has done it twice. Truex the other time.

5. Milestone starts 

Sunday’s race marks the 500th career Cup start for Denny Hamlin.

Only two drivers have won in their 500th career Cup start. Richard Petty won at Trenton in July 1970 and Matt Kenseth won at New Hampshire in September 2013.

Kevin Harvick is making his 676th career Cup start. That equals Dale Earnhardt’s career total. Harvick made his Cup debut with Earnhardt’s team the week after Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

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.”

Nashville will be the first new facility for the Cup Series since it began racing at Kentucky Speedway in 2011.

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