Cup Series Championship 4 clinching scenarios

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It will be warm in the Phoenix area this weekend, but it will be even hotter for the six remaining Cup Series playoff drivers.

Those six drivers will compete Sunday at ISM Raceway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC) to be the two drivers who advance to the Championship 4 in Miami with Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr.

Each driver could advance by simply winning Sunday’s race on the 1-mile track, but that can only be said for one driver.

At least one driver will have to advance on points.

Here are the clinching scenarios for each of the six remaining playoff drivers.

Kyle Busch (4,113 points) – Would clinch by earning 53 points and there being a new winner. If there is a repeat winner (or a win by Joey Logano), he would clinch a position having earned 34 points.

Busch enters the race as the winner of the last two Cup races at ISM Raceway, but he is winless in his last 20 starts.

“We all know (at least) one guy is going to move through on points and we have to do whatever we have to do in order to be that guy,” Busch said in a media release. “If we can obviously go to Phoenix and have a strong run and be able to go out there and win, that will put us through, as well. We’re two (points) up on (Joey Logano), so it’s going to be a race between the 18 and the 22. Imagine that. We’ll look forward to the challenge and hope we have a strong run in order to make it through to Homestead.”

Joey Logano (4,111 points) – Would clinch by earning 55 points and there being a new winner. If there is a repeat winner or a Kyle Busch victory, he would need to earn only 36 points.

Logano didn’t earn his first top-five finish of the playoffs until last weekend at Texas and yet he’s still in position to claim back-to-back championships. 

He has only one top five in his last seven starts at ISM Raceway, his win in the 2016 playoff race.

“We’ve had more blue-collar days than you can imagine throughout these playoffs,” Logano said after Sunday’s race. “We’re not locked in like (Harvick) and (Truex) but we’re not out either.

“We’ve just got to go to Phoenix and do the same things we’ve been doing. We’ve got to score stage points and get a great finish. Off we go.”

Denny Hamlin (4,091 points) – Could clinch on points, with help.

A wreck in the first stage Sunday at Texas resulted in Hamlin being 20 points behind the cutoff going into this weekend’s race.

Hamlin has only one Phoenix win, in the 2012 spring race. In the 14 races since, he has six top fives.

“I’m optimistic we can win,” Hamlin said Sunday. “We’ve been really good there for many, many years and knowing that we have to go win, it puts a very easy strategy in our hands. If anything you have an advantage with cautions coming out and some people battling for stage points, we’re going to get good track position as long as we’re competitive at the end of that race because we’re going just for that race win.”

Ryan Blaney (4,088 points) – Could clinch on points, with help.

The Team Penske driver had a win at ISM Raceway in his sights in the spring before he was overtaken by Busch and Truex in the closing laps. His third-place finish was his first result better than eighth in seven Phoenix starts.

He enters the weekend tied with Kyle Larson in points.

“In the spring race you saw a lot of cars immediately drive to the apron as soon as you crossed the start-finish line and I think that is going to be the same,” Blaney said in a media release. “You saw us four wide into (Turn) 1 on a handful of occasions. You just hope you are in a spot going forward and not getting stuck three wide. With the added downforce we’re faster there through the corners and the qualifying speeds were way up. The cars go faster and you can drive them harder.”

Kyle Larson (4,088 points) – Could clinch on points, with help.

“Our team has never made it this close to a shot at the final four, and even though we’re not in great place in the points, we’re excited about our chances this weekend,” Larson said in a media release. “I think our strategy has been good the last two races, we just didn’t have things work out on track in our favor last weekend.

“It sounds like the traction compound will be applied this weekend similar to last weekend, and I think that plays into my ability to move around during the race to find speed. So, we’ll head to the track this weekend ready to do what we can to have a good race and hopefully advance.”

Chase Elliott (4,033 points) – Must win to earn a Championship 4 position.

Elliott is the only driver who has to win Sunday to advance to Miami.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver is 78 points back from the cutoff after finishes of 36th and 32nd in the first two races of the Round of 8. Elliott has managed incredible comebacks twice in the playoffs, winning at Roval in the first round and skating by with a runner-up finish at Kansas in the second round.

Elliott has two top-three finishes in seven starts at ISM Raceway.

“We’ve seen guys make up a lot of ground on restarts and the closing restarts in the past couple of (Phoenix) races,” Elliott said in a media release. “There’s a time and there are different opportunities that I think it can work better than others and it just depends on the situation and who’s in front of you and what kind of gap there is to the people around you and all kinds of situational things that you just have to make split second decisions as to what feels right and what’s not.”

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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).

Reports: Nashville Superspeedway to host Cup race in 2021

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NASCAR will race at Nashville Superspeedway in 2021, according to multiple reports Tuesday night.

The Tennessean reported that a “very tentative” date of June 20, 2021 has been set for the Cup Series race at Nashville Superspeedway in Lebanon, Tennessee.

The Nashville race will come from one of Dover International Speedway’s two race dates, according to The Associated Press.

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

Nashville Superspeedway, a 1.333-mile oval, is owned by Dover Motorsports, which also owns Dover International Speedway. The track hosted Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Series races from 2001-11.

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?” Dover CEO Mike 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