Storylines: What’s changed in the NASCAR Cup Series?

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Ryan Newman is back. So is Matt Kenseth. And the NASCAR schedule? It’s evolving.

Much has changed since Cup last raced March 8 at Phoenix Raceway.

When the season resumes Sunday at Darlington Raceway (3:30 p.m. ET on FOX), Newman will compete for the first time since he suffered a bruised brain in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500.

Newman was injured when his car was hit from behind while racing for the win and veered into the wall. His No. 6 Ford went airborne and turned upside down before Corey LaJoie’s car slammed into it. Newman’s car skidded upside down along the frontstretch, coming to rest past the exit of pit road.

MORE: Storylines – Where Cup Series left off

MORE: NASCAR reveals competition rule changes 

Newman said in a March 11 interview with NBC’s “Today” show that the car’s cage “was compromised.”

NASCAR revealed technical changes May 1 in response to Newman’s crashWith the COVID-19 pandemic suspending the season, Newman will miss only three races. NASCAR has granted Newman a waiver should he need it to qualify for the playoffs. He enters this weekend 29th in the driver standings, 54 points out of a potential playoff position.

“We certainly recognize that the easiest path to make the playoffs is win a race,” Kevin Kidd, competition director for Roush Fenway Racing, told NBC Sports. “We’re going to do everything in our power to accomplish that.”

Newman, though, is ahead of Kenseth in the standings. Chip Ganassi Racing hired Kenseth after the team fired Kyle Larson on April 14 for saying a racial slur during an iRacing event.

Kenseth’s last start came in the 2018 Cup finale in Miami.

Even so, former teammate Denny Hamlin is confident Kenseth will succeed.

“From my standpoint, I’m like, I don’t want him back,” Hamlin joked. “I know he gives great information. He can give an organization information. It’s another voice that that organization will hear that’s different than what they’ve had over the last few years. Not better or worse but just different. So, I think he’s probably going to lift that program up, similar to what he did to Roush toward the end (of the 2018 season).

“He’s my buddy, but I prefer him just to stay home at this point. I mean that jokingly.”

Kenseth also didn’t expect to be racing in Cup again before Ganassi officials reached out to him.

“You just never know what life is going to throw at you,” Kenseth told NBC Sports.

NASCAR also has granted Kenseth a waiver should he need it to make the playoffs.

One thing that keeps changing is the schedule.

This much is known: the Cup Series will race May 17 and 20 at Darlington Raceway and May 24 and 27 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

No other races have been announced at this point, although Cup teams are preparing cars for Bristol Motor Speedway, signaling that the high-banked, half-mile track could be the site of the next Cup race after Darlington and Charlotte.

Atlanta Motor Speedway also appears likely to happen soon. And even with Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s plan to ease restrictions, it doesn’t appear likely that NASCAR will race at Martinsville until late June at the earliest.

NASCAR announced May 8 that the Richmond spring race, the Chicagoland race and Sonoma race were realigned to the two Darlington and one extra Charlotte race this month. This year will mark the first time since 1958 that Richmond has hosted only one Cup race in a season. Cup had raced once a year at Sonoma since 1989 and at Chicagoland since 2001.

NASCAR stated that further schedule adjustments will be released in the near future.

Another change for teams is that they will have fewer crew members at the track in upcoming races. Cup teams could have as many as 10 crew members, including the crew chief and spotter, along with five pit crew members, three organizational team members and a couple of hauler drivers. That didn’t include additional senior level executives and the team owner, among others. For some teams, that was more than 20 people per team per race.

Now, teams are limited to no more than 16 individuals, with no more than six road crew members (including the crew chief and spotter). The reduced list also includes one driver, one competition director, one IT support person, two hauler drivers and five pit crew members.

Some teams are not taking either of their two engineers to the track. Instead of sitting atop the pit box next to the crew chief, they’ll be working from home or the shop. Crew chief Chris Gayle, who guided Erik Jones to the Southern 500 win last year in the most recent race at Darlington, will leave his engineers behind.

“I can have them connected to me wherever they are,” Gayle told NBC Sports. “I think the (crew number) is so limited, like if you look at what you really need behind the wall for pit stops and then from the standpoint of running the race. The race is going to be the same protocol as a normal race, meaning the (Damaged Vehicle Policy, which limits what type and how long teams can spend on repairs) and all the rest.

“I wanted to make sure that I had enough people that if we had damage we had the correct people that could work on things. I didn’t want to sacrifice that.”

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NASCAR announces changes to Kansas playoff weekend

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Citing “programming changes,” NASCAR announced shifts in the race dates and start times for its visit next month to Kansas Speedway.

The Xfinity, ARCA and Truck Series races have been shifted, while the Cup race remains at 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday, Oct. 18.

The biggest move is the Truck Series race shifting from Friday night to Saturday afternoon.

Here are the changes.

Friday, Oct. 16, 8:30 p.m. ETARCA Menards Series on FS1 or FS2; network TBD at a later date (previously at 10 p.m. ET)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 4 p.m. ETTruck Series on FOX (previously Friday, Oct. 16 at 7 p.m. ET on FS1)

Saturday, Oct. 17, 7 p.m. ET Xfinity on NBCSN (previously 3 p.m. ET on NBCSN)

 

Xfinity Series playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Chase Briscoe opened the Xfinity Series playoffs by earning his second consecutive win.

His victory Saturday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway gives him 57 playoff points and an automatic spot in the Round of 8.

Harrison Burton holds the final transfer spot. He has a two-point advantage over Ross Chastain.

Behind Chastain below the cutline are Michael Annett (-10 points), Riley Herbst (-14) and Brandon Brown (-20).

Below is the full Xfinity Series playoff standings going into Saturday’s race at Talladega (4:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance. Drivers in yellow are in the remaining playoff spots.

Xfinity Series playoff standings

Cup playoff standings after Las Vegas

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Kurt Busch flipped the script on the Cup playoff standings with his win Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He entered the Round of 12 as the last driver in the playoff standings, but is the first driver to clinch a spot in the Round of 8.

Replacing Busch in the bottom spot of the playoff standings is Austin Dillon. He is 32 points behind Alex Bowman, who holds the final cutoff spot.

Behind Bowman is Kyle Busch (-9 points), Clint Bowyer (-20), Aric Almirola (-27) and Dillon.

“Obviously, the 1 car (Kurt Busch) was not a car that we needed to win a race,” Clint Bowyer said after Sunday’s race. “It’s been a hell of a battle back there with cars that are kind of in the same wheelhouse as far as points-wise. (Kurt Busch) winning changes that landscape quite a bit, but we’re only 20 points out.”

Here is the full playoff standings entering Sunday’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Drivers in red are below the cutline to advance to the Round of 8. Drivers in yellow hold the remaining available playoff spots.

Cup playoff standings

 

 

Kurt Busch win capped off big racing weekend for family

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After hopping from the door of his No. 1 Chevrolet Sunday night, Kurt Busch let out a primal scream.

The source of his emotion?

“20 years of agony and defeat” at the his home track, Las Vegas Motor Speedway, had been replaced by “triumph.”

After the fortunate timing of a caution and pit strategy Sunday night, the Chip Ganassi Racing driver led the final 26 laps and visited LVMS’ Victory Lane for the first time, a day after his brother Kyle Busch experienced a special win.

There was plenty more for the 42-year-old driver to celebrate. He’d entered the Round of 12 as the last driver in the playoff standings. But with his first win in 46 races, Busch became the first driver to plant in his flag in the Round of 8.

But the Las Vegas native’s focus was on the 1.5-mile track, which he’d seen evolve from a “desert gravel pit” into the site of two NASCAR race weekends each year.

“This feeling of growing up here and watching the track get built … when Speedway Motorsports came in and bought it, I’m like, ‘Man, there’s going to be a Cup race there, I hope I can make my way up through Legend cars (and race there). And just all the memories, all the memories of everybody, my mom and dad, every Saturday night, all the commitment they gave me and my little brother (Kyle Busch) to make it in racing.

“For me it was a hobby. I never knew I’d get this far. A guy named Craig Keough here locally in Las Vegas, the owner of the Star Nurseries here in Las Vegas, took a chance on me and let me run his late model a few times and we won a couple races and started working our way up.”

Busch made his first NASCAR start on the Las Vegas oval in 2001 driving for Roush Fenway Racing. Between then and Sunday, he won 31 Cup races, the 2004 championship and the 2017 Daytona 500.

But his home track eluded him until his 21st year competing on the sport’s top circuit.

Busch said Sunday’s win is “right there underneath” his Daytona win and the championship.

“Any time you win, it’s special,” Busch said. “But to do it in front of my hometown crowd and nobody was there (due to the COVID-19 pandemic) and all the people that I see every time I come to Vegas and I get to say thank you and I can’t right now, that’s the hardest part. So this one is easily ramping up to being my third most favorite win ever.

“Right now it’s my favorite because it’s here, it’s Vegas, and I have so many people to thank. They know they helped me, and they know who they are, and it just all started with mom and dad taking me to the racetrack right here at the Bullring in Las Vegas.”

The Busch family got to celebrate more than one win over the weekend.

The night before Kurt’s Vegas breakthrough, a third generation racer got his first taste of victory.

Kyle and Samantha Busch’s son, Brexton, won his first karting race and celebrated with his parents in Victory Lane.

“It’s so much fun to watch him and just to see his excitement and how much he enjoys going to the race track and being with is friends,” Kyle Busch said after his sixth-place finish Sunday. “It’s three generations worth, I guess. My dad (Tom) did it, myself and Kurt and now him. It’s pretty fun to just be out there. My dad is kind of the truck driver, the team manager, the crew chief, the lead mechanic and all that stuff on his kart.

“He’s got a big task at hand in order to get it all ready to go and get us to the race track every week. It’s been fun to see (Brexton) and to see how excited he was when he was able to win and beat the other competition that was out there and to see his joy. I told him, ‘Whatever that feeling is, whatever you’re feeling, however that sits in you, that’s feasible, that’s possible a lot more often than just one time. So don’t rest on just getting one, we gotta go out there and fight for more.'”

Kurt Busch wasn’t there for his nephew’s win, but he got all the details from his sister-in-law as they flew to Las Vegas.

“It definitely felt like a generational shift was happening,” he said. “But maybe not. Maybe not. This old guy has still got it going on.”