Storylines: Where NASCAR Cup Series left off

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Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of stories this week examining the key storylines as the Cup season resumes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX).

Although it might feel much longer, it was only three months ago when the NASCAR season began.

But when teams headed to Daytona International Speedway to open the season in February, the focus was not on a virus. The questions entering the Cup season included:

How would the Team Penske driver/crew chief shuffle do?

Would the new Camaro help make Chevrolet teams more competitive?

Could Joe Gibbs Racing continue its dominance?

Car owner Roger Penske surprised many in the sport when his organization announced Jan. 6 that it was changing its driver/crew chief lineup. The move came after all three drivers finished in the top 10 in points and combined to win six races in 2019.

Joey Logano was paired with crew chief Paul Wolfe. Ryan Blaney joined crew chief Todd Gordon. Brad Keselowski was matched with crew chief Jeremy Bullins.

MORE: Cup driver points heading to Darlington

In the four Cup races held before the season was paused, the Team Penske moves continued to make headlines.

Crew chief Paul Wolfe has helped Joey Logano win two of the season’s first four races. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

Logano and Wolfe won at Las Vegas and Phoenix. Blaney was in position to win at Las Vegas until a call to give up the lead and pit before the final restart. Logano capitalized by staying out and winning. Keselowski has finished 11th or better since placing 36th in the Daytona 500.

“For the most part, you could say you’re kind of starting where we left off,” Wolfe told NBC Sports about resuming the season. “I don’t know if there is any momentum left at this point; that part of it is kind of like starting over. But I think it was good, especially for us with all the changes at Team Penske in the offseason with the driver swaps, that it gave us a chance to kind of see a few different style of racetracks to get the season started and then give us some time to kind of digest it all and understand strengths and weaknesses.”

Logano told NBC Sports in victory lane at Phoenix that he and Wolfe are “a dangerous combination” with their early success and still not being as fast as they want to be.

The three Penske drivers have combined to lead more than 30% of the laps run (315 of 992) this season. No other organization has led more laps. Hendrick Motorsport’s four-driver lineup is next, having led 313 of 992 laps.

Hendrick Motorsports has shown more success this season with the change in the Camaro, which was introduced to improve the manufacturer’s lackluster performance the past two years. And also help Chevrolet get back into the Cup championship race. Chevrolet has not had a Cup team race for the championship in the season finale the past three years.

At Las Vegas, Jimmie Johnson finished fifth, giving him his first top-five result since Daytona in July 2019. Alex Bowman won at Auto Club Speedway, and Chase Elliott has led more laps than any other driver (186) this season.

“The performance of our cars were pretty good,” Elliott’s crew chief, Alan Gustafson, told NBC Sports. “Not a huge gap, if any gap to anybody else. That, on our side, was good. The execution of the races wasn’t very good.”

The expectation entering the season was that Joe Gibbs Racing would continue to dominate after winning 19 of 36 points races last year, placing three of its drivers in the championship race and Kyle Busch claiming the Cup title.

The season started well for JGR with Erik Jones winning the crash-marred Busch Clash and Denny Hamlin winning the Daytona 500, a victory overshadowed by Ryan Newman‘s terrifying last-lap crash and the image less than 48 hours later of him walking out of a Daytona hospital holding hands with his daughters.

After the Daytona successes for JGR, its drivers combined for more finishes of 20th or worse (five) than top 10s (four). Martin Truex Jr., who had 24 top-10 finishes last season, did not score a top-10 result in the season’s first four races.

Kyle Busch finished second at Auto Club and placed third at Phoenix Raceway, which will host the championship race in November for the first time. Even with that result, Busch said more work remained.

“We unloaded and we weren’t very good,” he said after that race. “I wasn’t too optimistic for the race and rightfully so.”

He later said: “We need to come back here with a better piece.”

Will JGR’s fortunes change this week? Each of the team’s four drivers has at least one Darlington Cup victory.

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Saturday Las Vegas Xfinity race: Start time, TV channel

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The NASCAR Xfinity Series playoffs get underway with the Saturday Xfinity race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The race is the first of seven to determine the champion.

Chase Briscoe is on the pole after his win last weekend at Bristol

Here is all the info for the Saturday Las Vegas Xfinity race:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 7:38 p.m by Cup driver Bubba Wallace. The green flag is scheduled to wave at 7:47 p.m.

PRERACE: Garage access health screening begins at 1 p.m. Drivers report to their cars at 7:20 p.m. The invocation will be given at 7:30 p.m. by Motor Racing Outreach Chaplain, Billy Mauldin. The national anthem will be performed by Mackenzie Mackey at 7:31 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 200 laps (300 miles) around the 1.5-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 45. Stage 2 ends on Lap 90.

TV/RADIO: Coverage begins on NBCSN with Countdown to Green at 7 p.m. Race broadcast begins at 7:30 p.m. Performance Racing Network’s radio coverage will begin at 7 p.m.. and also can be heard at goprn.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 clear skies with a high of 98 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST RACE: Chase Briscoe beat Ross Chastain and Austin Cindric at Bristol.

LAST RACE AT LAS VEGAS: Chase Briscoe beat Austin Cindric and Ryan Sieg for the win in February.

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for Xfinity starting lineup

Results, point standings after Truck race at Las Vegas

race results
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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway for his second win of 2020.

He beat Sheldon Creed for the victory.

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

IndyCar driver Conor Daly finished 18th and Travis Pastrana was 21st.

Click here for the race results.

Point Standings

With his win, Austin Hill is the first driver to advance to the second round of the playoffs.

Todd Gilliland is last in the playoff standings with 2,050 points. He is 13 points behind Ben Rhodes.

Click here for the standings.

Austin Hill wins Las Vegas Truck race

Austin Hill
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Austin Hill won Friday night’s Truck Series playoff race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, leading the final 39 laps to score the victory.

Hill took the lead on a restart and held off charges from Sheldon Creed over the final 20 laps.

Creed’s progress was slowed with 11 laps to go when he got loose and scraped the wall in Turn 1. He was never able to get close enough to Hill to make a challenge.

Creed dominated the early portion of the race, leading 89 laps before he struggled to get going on the final restart and briefly fell to seventh.

The win is the second of the year for Hill. He’s the first playoff driver to win in the postseason and it come after he finished 25th at Bristol.

“We didn’t have the best truck tonight by no means,” Hill told FS1. “Pit crew did a hell of job on that last pit stop getting me into the position I needed to. I just had to go out there and get it. … Sheldon was definitely way faster than me. … I was probably looking in my mirror more than I was our front. I knew he was better than we were.”

The top five was completed by Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith.

More: Race results and point standings

STAGE 1 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

STAGE 2 WINNER: Sheldon Creed

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Tanner Gray, Stewart Friesen and Chandler Smith all matched their best results of the season … While he was the first driver to finish one lap down, IndyCar driver Conor Daly placed 18th in his first career Truck Series start … Travis Pastrana placed 21st in his second start of the season.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Rachael Lessard finished 20th after he had to pit early in the race following contact with the wall … Ben Rhodes finished 23rd after he spun from contact with Stewart Friesen and hit the inside wall on Lap 84 … Jordan Anderson’s engine expired on the ensuing restart. He finished 32nd.

NOTABLE: Natalie Decker, who was not medically cleared to compete Friday night, was treated and released from the infield care center.

WHAT’S NEXT: Race at Talladega Superspeedway, 1 p.m. ET Oct. 3 on FS1

 

Natalie Decker not medically cleared for Las Vegas Truck race

Natalie Decker
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NASCAR announced right before Friday night’s Truck Series race that Natalie Decker hadn’t been medically cleared to compete.

No details were provided about the issue that prevented Decker from being cleared. During the final stage of the race, NASCAR announced she had been treated and released from the infield medical center.

The Niece Motorsports driver would have started 23rd. Due to her No. 44 truck having cleared inspection and having been placed on the starting grid she was credited with a last-place finish.

Decker has made 11 starts this year. She missed the June 28 race at Pocono after she was hospitalized due to bile duct complications related to her gallbladder removal in December.

Decker provided this update Saturday morning.