Friday 5: With pressure on, time for Denny Hamlin to perform

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For all that Denny Hamlin has accomplished, what he does this weekend at ISM Raceway could alter the narrative for one of NASCAR’s most successful drivers without a Cup championship.

Among the favorites to win the title when the playoffs began in September, Hamlin is in danger of seeing his championship hopes end with Sunday’s race (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC).

Hamlin trails rival Joey Logano, a driver he’s feuded with in these playoffs and over the years, by 20 points for the final spot in the Championship 4 field despite a stellar season that ranks among the best in Hamlin’s 14 seasons in Cup.

Hamlin is in this position after a crash last weekend at Texas dropped him from a transfer spot. Kevin Harvick is the only driver to race his way into the championship race at ISM Raceway, winning that event in 2014 and then claiming the title a week later.

While the pressure is on now, Hamlin professed before the playoffs began “pressure doesn’t get to me, nothing like it probably did 10, 12 years ago.”

Hamlin’s best chance for a title before this season came in 2010 when he led the points going into the season’s penultimate race at ISM Raceway but had to make an extra pit stop for fuel late. That allowed Jimmie Johnson and Harvick to close the points gap.

Miami weekend started with the press conference for the title contenders. Johnson and Harvick ganged up on Hamlin. Harvick said of Hamlin: “He definitely seems like the most nervous.”

While Hamlin still led going into Miami, he had a poor qualifying effort and an incident early in the race that doomed his title hopes, allowing Johnson to win his fifth consecutive title in a row.

That late-season collapse will always be a part of Hamlin’s history. He made the championship race in 2014 but hasn’t been back since.

If he doesn’t advance this year, it does not diminish the two Daytona 500 wins, two Southern 500 victories and 36 career Cup victories, but it leaves a gap for a driver who likely is Hall of Fame bound (just maybe not as soon as others without a championship). Only Junior Johnson (50 Cup wins) and Mark Martin (40) have more Cup wins than Hamlin and also not a title.

“I’ve seen it all,” Hamlin told NBC Sports before the playoffs of his postseason disappointments. “Any way I can get taken out of a championship battle, I’ve had happen.

“But I know as long as I prepare each week, the way I’ve been doing, as long as I do the work during practices, give the right feedback like I’ve been doing, we’re going to be fine. That makes me rest easier than anything.”

Those experiences help Hamlin, who will turn 39 the day after the title race. While it’s easy to wonder what might have been, Hamlin says he’s moved past that in regards to 2010.

“It probably took a year to get over that,” Hamlin said earlier this week at Toyota’s national headquarters in Plano, Texas. “After that, you’re so week-to-week, you can’t let stuff linger, and if you do, you’re not doing your job 100 percent.”

Few thought Hamlin would be in this position based on his season and his playoffs. His five wins trail only teammate Martin Truex Jr. for the most this season. Hamlin has finished third or better in 10 of the season’s 34 races. In the playoffs, Hamlin has a win and five top-five finishes in eight races. Yet, that might not be good enough after finishing 28th at Texas.

Hamlin, the NBA fan, can look to LeBron James and the 2016 Cleveland Cavaliers for inspiration this weekend.

Hamlin says his favorite moment in sports came in the NBA Finals between the Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors that year. Golden State led the best-of-seven series three games to one before Cleveland rallied to force a seventh game.

Late in that series-deciding contest came the play that Hamlin says “I remember like it was yesterday.”

“(Andre) Igoudala fast break at the end of the game, and LeBron chasing him down,” Hamlin said. “If (Igoudala) makes that basket, it’s over. LeBron chases him down, beats it off the backboard, and they (later) go down and score and change the whole game.

“Anyone down 3-1, they always talk about the odds and statistics of how impossible it is to come back, but that was the moment that someone just wanted it more.”

Such is the position Hamlin is in. Can he provide a memorable moment Sunday?

2. A NEW APPROACH

Austin Dillon’s 13th-place finish last weekend at Texas Motor Speedway wasn’t particularly noteworthy on the surface, but it was significant in other ways.

Dillon’s result marked one of his team’s better finishes on a 1.5-mile speedway this season.

“I feel like we need to try to find a baseline that we can kind of go to, and we haven’t had that this year,” Dillon said before the race. “We have had some fast cars but haven’t been able to race very well with them. We’re trying to kind of tune our cars to more a race-style setup. (At Texas) and Homestead we’re going to try to develop a little more of that baseline.”

The Richard Childress Racing cars were set up with less downforce easier in the season, giving them more speed in qualifying, but when they fell into the pack during a race, the cars were more unstable and harder to drive.

Dillon qualified in the top 10 in eight of the nine 1.5-mile races before Texas, including a pole at Chicago, but never finished better than 10th in any of those races. He showed that speed also at the 2-mile Auto Club Speedway in March, winning the pole but failing to score any stage points despite the favorable track position and pit stall.

At Texas last weekend, Dillon qualified 21st, his worst starting spot at a 1.5-mile track this year. He joked ahead of qualifying that if they were any better than 15th to 20th, “we will have tricked ourselves.”

The point being is the team put more downforce in the car to make it more stable in traffic, knowing it would hurt the qualifying speed.

“It’s been pretty obvious where our cars are and what they’ve had,” Dillon said of the setup. “There’s a happy medium in there. You see some of the guys that make it work and the other teams that don’t even try to run that concept. The Chevys that are fast don’t seem to be doing what we were doing.”

Another change is that crew chief Danny Stockman will give way to Justin Alexander after this season. Alexander was at Texas and will be with at the track the final two races to assess the team.

3. LOOKING AHEAD

As Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finishes the season with Roush Fenway Racing, he’s looking ahead to 2020 with JTG Daugherty Racing.

Stenhouse joins JTG in a virtual swap that sees Chris Buescher taking over Stenhouse’s ride in the No. 17 next year.

Stenhouse says he’s begun preparing for his ride by talking to Ernie Cope, competition director at JTG Daugherty Racing, and team owner Tad Geschickter after races.

Stenhouse says he’s discussed with Cope and Geschickter “the things that they fought through (with the car) in the weekend, kind of compare that to what I’m feeling and then also just looking at the potential that they have.

“I thought both their cars had really good short-run speed at Martinsville. We had better long run speed. Going over there it’s like, ‘Alright, how do we get that long-run better and keep that short-run speed?’ I look at Kansas … we raced around (Buescher) a lot and felt like in the end they were probably a little bit better overall.

“I’m interested to see how Phoenix goes. We ran decent there in their spring, but (JTG Daugherty Racing’s) short track stuff, I feel like, seems better than what we have right now and that’s an area that I feel like needs to get better.”

Until Stenhouse finished last after a crash last weekend at Texas, he had placed in the top 20 in six consecutive races, his longest stretch since 2017 when he won two races and made the playoffs.

“I am focused on making sure we finish the job here,” Stenhouse said of his final races with Roush Fenway Racing. “We’ve had some solid runs. We haven’t had any stellar runs, but we’ve had solid runs since the announcement came out in Charlotte. Just looking to continue that … and end on a decent note.”

4. BETTER HELP

One of the issues with the Chevrolet Camaro ZL1, particularly at Daytona and Talladega, is that its pointed nose made it more challenging to push as compared to the Fords and Toyotas, which each had flatter noses.

While Chevrolet won at Daytona (Justin Haley in July) and at Talladega (Chase Elliott in the spring), the nose on the Camaro ZL1 1LE that Chevy teams will use in 2020 should prove beneficial at those tracks.

“It was definitely a challenge for us being able to push like some of our competitors were doing,” Elliott said. “I think all the drivers wanted (a flatter nose). We’re just lucky that Chevrolet saw it and wanted to make an effort and try to make it a little better. I think they did. We’ll see when we get to Daytona how it affects things, but I certainly think with all the pushing and how aggressive restarts are … hopefully that helps us.”

Cars pushing one another could become more important at those tracks in 2020. The Talladega playoff race showed more cars could form a two-car tandem and pull away briefly from the pack. With the rules stable for next season, teams will have more time to maximize that, and the tandem could play greater role in those races next year.

5. LAST CHANCE

Chevrolet will need a big day Sunday from Kyle Larson or Chase Elliott to avoid missing the Cup championship race for a third year in a row.

Chevrolet last had a team racing for the Cup title in 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won his record-tying seventh series crown.

In 2017, the Chevy teams of Elliott and Johnson were eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway. Last year, Elliott was eliminated in the Round of 8 at ISM Raceway.

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Michigan Truck race results

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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Zane Smith scored his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series win, securing a playoff spot with a last-lap pass in double overtime Friday night at Michigan International Speedway.

Christian Eckes finished second and was followed by Tanner Gray, Tyler Ankrum and Todd Gilliland.

Click here for race results

Todd Gilliland stretched his lead to 29 points over Tyler Ankrum for the final playoff spot after Friday’s race. Gilliland gained seven points on Ankrum. Gilliland in 10th in the standings. He’s one point behind Derek Kraus. Austin Hill continues to lead the points.

Click here for driver points  

Zane Smith uses overtime charge to score first Truck win

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Zane Smith passed Christian Eckes on the last lap of double overtime to score his first career NASCAR Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series race Friday night at Michigan International Speedway.

Eckes finished second. Tanner Gray placed third.

Smith is 21 years old, Eckes is 19 and Gray is 21.

MORE: Race results

“I wish I was here to celebrate with my parents and my girlfriend,” an emotional Smith told FS1 after the race.

Grant Enfinger led on the restart but came down from the top lane and came down on Austin Hill and John Hunter Nemechek and spun. That allowed Eckes to take the lead and put Smith third. Smith passed Gray for second in Turn 4 coming to the white flag.

Smith dived under Eckes in Turn 2 on the final lap and pulled away to win.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Brett Moffitt

STAGE 2 WINNER: Johnny Sauter

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Zane Smith was eighth with three laps to go and went on to win and secure a playoff spot. … Christian Eckes finished second for the third consecutive race. … Tanner Gray finished a career-high third.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Johnny Sauter spun and hit the wall while racing teammate Grant Enfinger for the lead with 16 laps to go. Sauter entered the race 63 points out of the final playoff spot after a 10-point penalty for an inspection issue before the race. … Stewart Friesen was eliminated in a crash on Lap 50  after contact with Christian Eckes. Friesen finished last in the 39-truck field. … Chandler Smith was eliminated in a crash on Lap 60 after contact with Ben Rhodes. Smith finished 38th.

NOTABLE: The combined age of the top three finishers (61) was just short of the series record for the youngest three finishers. That record of 55 was set in  June 2016 at Iowa when William Byron (then 18), Cole Custer (then 18) and Cameron Hayley (then 19) went 1-2-3.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race on the Daytona road course, Sunday, Aug. 18 at Noon ET on FS1.

Brandon Brown wants to reward father with a special celebration

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A week after he begged his father to let him race a go-kart, the 9-year-old finished last and in tears. He complained that the loaned go-kart was not fast enough.

Jerry Brown saw a passion he had not seen from his son when Brandon played soccer, baseball or did any other activity. Jerry didn’t know much about racing but he bought a go-kart, beginning a father-son journey that took them to races across the country and all the way to the NASCAR Xfinity Series.

“It’s been my dad and I every single weekend since the age of nine,” Brandon Brown told NBC Sports.

It was that way until this year.

MORE: Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America: Start time, forecast, TV channel

Jerry attended this season’s first four Xfinity races before the COVID-19 pandemic paused the sport. Father and son were together in an Atlanta hotel in March when NASCAR announced it would not race there that weekend.

While much of the world stopped, Jerry’s life changed.

A simple procedure in April led to a cancer diagnosis. His routine now includes “aggressive” cancer treatments. Jerry, 60, isolates to avoid the coronavirus. If he were to be infected, his treatments would have to stop until he recovered from the virus.

Brandon, 27, admits his father’s condition was a key point in moving from Virginia, where the family resides, to the Mooresville, North Carolina area and being closer to the sport’s hub. Traveling each week to races, Brandon didn’t want to take the chance he could catch COVID-19 and infect his father. So it was better to be apart, something they’ve rarely been.

“It’s been quite the emotional roller coaster,” said Brandon, who talks with his father daily. “I haven’t really opened up to anyone … it’s a feeling of fear constantly just because I keep seeing posts about people that have passed away from (the coronavirus), people without health issues that are getting it and things are going bad.”

“Joy and the hugs”

Jerry Brown looks back to all those days driving to races with Brandon and the trips that also included wife Valorie and son William. Jerry says buying that first go-kart and getting into racing was the “best decision we ever made” because of the time spent with family.

Valorie Brown with son Brandon, husband Jerry and son William. (Photo: Brandon Brown)

“You actually get to be with your kids as they are growing up and doing what they love to do,” he told NBC Sports.

“The gleam that you get to see on their faces when they’re 10-11 years old and going out and competing against 20 karts and winning and the joy and the hugs you get to give right there, you just can’t beat that.”

It’s not just the good times that are memorable.

“You also got to be with them in the heartaches, when things didn’t go right,” Jerry said. “The first national race (Brandon) won, a plug in the carburetor had fallen out, so at post-tech we got disqualified. … It’s not the best memory, but it’s one of those things that when you’re a father, you want to be there for your sons for the good and the bad.”

As Brandon climbed from Late Models to the NASCAR Truck Series and then Xfinity Series, Jerry was there. The journey hasn’t been easy for Brandon, who last won a race in 2012 in Late Models. He went to college, graduating in 2018 from Coastal Carolina. He ran a partial schedule while in school with the family team, Brandonbilt Motorsports.

“When you’re here racing this type of competition, you’re not going to win when you are a part-timer,” Jerry said. “He understood that.”

Brandon ran his first full Xfinity Series season last year. Competing against organizations such as Joe Gibbs Racing, Stewart-Haas Racing, Team Penske, Richard Childress Racing and Kaulig Racing, is formidable for any team, let alone a family team with eight full-time employees.

Brown finished 15th in the points last year. He holds the final playoff spot entering Saturday’s Xfinity race at Road America (noon ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App).

“I’m not going to give up,” Brandon said. “That was something my dad has preached to me, among other things, thousands and thousands of times over. When you get a goal, you put your mind to it and get it done. Do the important things first and goof off later. I heard that a lot growing up.

“His push, his drive, his sacrifice, his determination is kind of in the back of my mind pushing me the entire time. It’s one of those things where I don’t want to fail.”

Brandon Brown’s best finish in the Xfinity Series is sixth at Daytona in 2019. His best finish this year is seventh at Daytona and Bristol. (Photo by Meg Oliphant/Getty Images)

Shocking phone call

Jerry went to the doctor’s office April 7 to have a swollen lymph node checked.

The node had to be removed and tested. After the procedure, the doctor told Jerry that he didn’t think the lymph node was cancerous.

Tests confirmed it was.

“Getting that call was devastating,” Jerry said.

Then came a series of tests to find the source before treatment could be set. Doctors determined that Jerry needed proton treatment, which is a new type of radiation therapy, and chemotherapy.

He has had treatments every weekday since July 13. When he talked to NBC Sports on Thursday, he had completed treatment 19 earlier in the day. Jerry is scheduled to have 33 treatments, the last one set for Aug. 26.

“The chemo knocks you out really bad,” he said.

A special celebration

As his father goes through treatment, Brown goes to the track, seeking to make the Xfinity playoffs for the first time.

He goes to Road America 32 points ahead of Jeremy Clements but Clements scored his lone Xfinity win at this track in 2017. Nine races remain before the playoffs, including one race on the Daytona oval, two races on road courses and three on short tracks. There are many obstacles between Brown and a playoff spot. 

Brandon Brown holds the final Xfinity Series playoff spot heading into Saturday’s race at Road America. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

“We can’t afford to make mistakes,” he said. “Jeremy is an excellent road course racer and also he’s run very, very strong at the short tracks. Just as he is going to have to give 110%, we’re going to have to give 111% just to keep that points buffer.”

Brown has built that margin on Clements and those behind him with consistent finishes. Brown has placed between 10th and 13th in five of the last seven races.

“Our goal is to show up, run all the laps, stay clean, finish the race,” he said. “With that mindset, we push to be right there in the 10th, 11th, 12th mark. We want to be be there to capitalize on if top-tier programs have incidents or wreck out or whatever, we have the ability to take advantage of the situation.”

Brown’s best Xfinity finish is sixth in 70 starts. He’s scored four of his five career top-10 finishes this season. The closer he gets to the front, the closer he gets to his first NASCAR win. 

“I’ve said if we win a race and dad is not there, I think it would be a bittersweet moment,” he said. “It would feel so good to finally win again and also prove to myself that I’m supposed to be here. It does get a little defeating when you’re best is some of those guys’ OK races. It can get a little defeating, but it would feel so good to climb that hurdle.”

And if he wins soon, he admits the “trophy would not leave my sight … I will throw it in the front seat of my truck and I will drive my butt to Virginia and I will do donuts in the cul-de-sac and celebrate with dad there.”

Jerry can’t wait.

“That would be awesome.”

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Saturday Cup race at Michigan: Start time, TV channel, lineup

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The Cup Series is set to hold its second doubleheader weekend of the year as it journies to Michigan International Speedway.

A few weeks after holding back-to-back races at Pocono, the series does so on the 2-mile speedway.

Saturday sees the first race of the doubleheader, with Joey Logano starting from the pole.

Here’s all the info for the Saturday Cup race at Michigan:

(All times are Eastern)

START: WWE Superstar The Big Show will give the command to start engines at 4:08 p.m. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:17 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 9 a.m. Drivers report to their cars at 3:50 p.m. The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. by Father Geoff Rose, OSFS President St. Francis De Sales School in Toledo, Ohio. The national anthem will be performed by 12-time Grammy winner CeCe Winans at 4:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 156 laps (312 miles) around the 2-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 40. Stage 2 ends on Lap 85.

PACE LAP: At the direction of race control, NASCAR will run the entire field down pit road during one of the pace laps for pit road speed verification. If a car stops anywhere on pit road for any reason, the car will start at the rear of the field.

TV/RADIO: NBCSN will televise the race. Coverage begins at 3 p.m. with NASCAR America, followed by Countdown to Green at 3:30 p.m. and the race broadcast. Motor Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 3 p.m. and also can be heard at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the broadcast.

STREAMING: Watch the race on the NBC Sports App. Click here for the link.

FORECAST: The wunderground.com forecast calls for mostly sunny skies with a high of 81 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Brad Keselowski triumphed over Denny Hamlin to win at New Hampshire.

LAST RACE AT MICHIGAN: Kevin Harvick beat Denny Hamlin and Kyle Larson.

STARTING LINEUP: Cup starting lineup Saturday at Michigan

Catch up on NBC Sports’ coverage:

Joey Logano draws the pole for Saturday’s Cup race at Michigan

Up to 8,000 fans approved to attend Southern 500

Silly Season Scorecard: Erik Jones splits with Joe Gibbs Racing

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson’s crew chief makes a simple request

Erik Jones will not return to Joe Gibbs Racing after 2020

NASCAR announces new method for setting starting lineups

NASCAR to introduce choose rule starting at Michigan

Truck Series driver Spencer Davis tests positive for COVID-19

NASCAR announces remaining 2020 schedule

Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski remain 1-2

Chip Ganassi Racing makes crew chief change

Leavine Family Racing announces it has been sold

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

Brad Keselowski signs contract extension with Team Penske