What drivers said after Charlotte

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Chase Elliott – winner: “It feels awesome. Man, it was a tough week, for sure. We’ve had some tough losses, but that deal on Sunday night was a heartbreaker. It’s not the Coca-Cola 600, but any win in the Cup Series is really hard to get, and I really appreciate everybody at Hendrick Motorsports across the street, Chevrolet, and everybody at the shop have been working really hard. … I appreciate my team. Alan (Gustafson) made a great call there at the end to get it tuned up and, luckily, the run went long and I think that fell in our favor.

“(What were the last five laps like?) I was just waiting for the caution to come out, to be honest with you. I thought either the caution was going to come out, I was going to break something or I was going to crash. Just after the last couple of weeks, I just thought surely it wasn’t going to go green until the end. Just glad it did and glad we’re hopefully back on the right path.”

Denny Hamlin – finished second: “(How were you able to rebound for the runner-up finish?) Eventually the air pressure built up enough to where it got off the race track. The pit crew just did a phenomenal job picking up a bunch of spots. Our whole FedEx team prepared a good car. Every time we come back to a race track for the second time, our results are really, really good. We’re making good adjustments, I had a really good Camry, just needed to be a little better in the short run there.

“(Did you have a chance for the win following the final restart?) We started up front there when the pit crew got us out second there and ideally we would have stayed in front. I knew the 4 (Kevin Harvick), his car typically drops like a rock in the long run. We made a good run at it, but it was just too late.”

Ryan Blaney – finished third: “We got to second and the 4 (Harvick) was really fast getting going and the 9 (Elliott) got by me. I kind of messed up three and four and allowed him to get by me. I kind of thought I was equal with him when we were both running the 4 down and I just got tight. I was a little bit free all night and we tightened it up just a touch for that last run, and it was the longest run we had, and we just kind of burned the right-front off of it and couldn’t stay with the 9 there late in the run, and then the 11 (Hamlin) got by me. Overall, not a bad day for our BODYARMOR Ford Mustang. We had two solid races here at Charlotte. We just need to find a little bit more speed, but we’re right there. I’m really proud of this team.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. – finished fourth: “That was a really solid night for our Kroger Camaro ZL1 1LE. I knew we had good speed in our car from the Coca-Cola 600 the other night, we just weren’t able to put the whole race together. We worked really well together and I was happy with the handling the majority of the night. (Crew chief) Brian (Pattie) made some really good adjustments that allowed us to make passes and make aggressive moves to gain track position and hold it during the final green flag run. This is exactly the type of momentum we need heading into one of my favorite tracks – Bristol Motor Speedway – this Sunday.”

Kurt Busch – finished fifth: “Not a bad run! A top five at Charlotte (Motor Speedway) on a Thursday night. Thanks to (crew chief) Matt McCall and all the guys on this Monster Energy team. We changed a few things our car to learn as much as we could, without practice and without testing. We tried some different things and it raced differently. The car handled loose all night, but we were able to bring home a top five. We just need to fine-tune a little bit here and there. Thanks to Monster Energy, Chevrolet, GEARWERENCH and everyone else on this effort. That puts us solidly up in the points; moving forward there will be a random draw for the starting line-up, if you’re in the top 12 you have a shot at starting on the pole. We’re making steady progress and had good stage points tonight.”

Joey Logano – finished sixth: “We had a solid to okay day. Solid to start and okay to finish. We started off with some good track position on the initial start and then had the opportunity to stay out, which we were able to grab a stage win and get another playoff point for the second week in a row, which is nice. We had a decent second stage and finished third, and then had two mediocre restarts that kind of put me back in the sixth or seventh place range. It was just impossible to pass. It’s so hard to pass. I rode behind the 1 (Kurt Busch), which I was better than, but could not get to him. I was waiting for him to make a mistake, but he’s too good to make a mistake, so I rode around and waited and waited and waited. I needed a caution to have the opportunity to have a restart and a pit stop, but in this racing you just run hard, you try to get everything you can on restarts. Details mean so much. We’re detail racing for sure and after that you hope that maybe there’s a car like the 4 that is fast and falls off, and there might be one or two cars that you might get on the long haul, possibly, but it’s tough at a track that’s just not wide enough.”

Brad Keselowski – finished seventh: “It wasn’t our prettiest day, but, all in all, we were decent. We had a lot of speed in our car, not as much as maybe the 9 (Elliott) car. He was lights-out fast today, but we had enough to, I think, run in the top three or four. We had a little bit of contact early on and got a flat tire that did a lot of damage to the car, and we recovered and I got contact again and had a lot of damage to the car, but came back in to fix it. There at the end we started to recover. I think we drove up to seventh to finish the race, but it’s kind of not my strongest day. I was pushing a little bit too hard starting in the back and got us behind with damage a little bit early and had to kind of fight through it in a short race. We did the best we could to recover, but didn’t have enough laps and I put us in too big of a hole.

“(How was tonight different physically compared to the much longer Coca-Cola 600?) It feels like I just played one half of a game, rather than a full game. It’s a lot easier, for sure, but I also kind of like this format a lot. I think it makes sense. I think it makes sense to have long races on weekends and kind of shorter races, disregarding the weather, during the week. I really like the format NASCAR has here. It’s a good give-and-take. It doesn’t just completely destroy your body, so I think NASCAR has really hit something here. I couldn’t see the front, but it seemed like it was pretty racy there at the end for the win, and I think that’s always a good thing as well.

“(You’ve talked about midweek races for some time. Do you think NASCAR will schedule more?) Oh yeah, I think absolutely. NASCAR, in my opinion, has hit gold with this format. The limited practice, show up and race, and the time window that benefits both the east and west coast. No qualifying. Inversion from the week before is really good because it mixes the field up and creates some good storylines there. I think it’s fair. It’s compelling and it’s at a time where, quite frankly, the sports world, even if it wasn’t for COVID, midweek races in the summer, when you’re generally not having a lot of competition, is in a time period where everybody is hungry for content. I think they’ve got gold here. COVID or not, I hope we keep this for years to come. I think this is a great little format that’s good for the sport and good for the fans and good for everybody all around, so kudos to them.”

Austin Dillon – finished eighth: “A top-10 finish is what we deserved in both this race, and in the Coca-Cola 600 this past Sunday. It’s crazy. We’ve run 900 miles at Charlotte Motor Speedway over the past few days and we were an eighth-place car for all of it. We had spurts where we were really fast – top five at times. (crew chief) Justin Alexander, the pit crew, my spotter Brandon, everybody did a great job. It was fun. I had fun on the restarts, and we were able to pick up some stage points. We were just a little too free tonight. It was good on the long runs because it was free, but during the first 10 laps if you didn’t get going you would lose a couple of spots. We needed a little better take off speed. We’ll keep working. Bristol Motor Speedway is next. I’m loving it. A lot of miles in a short period of time.”

Martin Truex Jr. – finished ninth: “It was quite a battle. We started the race and made a few little changes to try to be better. We tried to figure out what we needed to be a little better than the other night and we started the race and we were just crazy loose. Honestly, that’s really the whole story. It was undrivable sideways for the first two stages and we just kept taking big swings at it. Finally, I fired off for that long run in the third stage and the Bass Pro Shops Camry was pretty good. We started passing cars and making up some ground. We just continued to chug our way forward the whole time. We never gave up on it, we worked hard and salvaged something. I think we’re all a little baffled on how we could have been that far off after how good we were Sunday. We definitely need to go back to the shop and figure some things out.

“(Are you looking forward to Bristol?) Hopefully no rain. I’m about sick of getting in and out of that car and watching the radar. Sitting there thinking, ‘well we were going to go and now we’re not going.’ Then drive home, come back. We just haven’t been able to catch a break. Hopefully, all the bad luck is out of the way as far as that’s concerned and we can go have us a good race at Bristol.”

Kevin Harvick – finished 10th: “It just falls off after lap 30. We knew that’s what we had with our Busch Light Ford and it went straight 60-some laps. They did a really good job turning the car around. It was the total opposite of what we raced last Sunday, so it was a good test session for us. We just didn’t need a long run.”

William Byron – finished 12th: “It was a rough night after we got that damage. We really never were the same after that. Obviously, we never had track position or the speed. We could get the handling to be okay but it would really fall off hard on the long run. It was just never the same, but the guys did a good job fixing it, trying to get us back up to the front. The pit crew was phenomenal. We restarted eighth on that last run and ran 10th for a while. To finish 12th is not bad after getting that damage. I feel like we got a couple more spots than maybe we should have, which is great. We’ll go on to the next race, execute and have a smooth race hopefully.”

John Hunter Nemechek – finished 13th: “Overall, it was a solid night for our No. 38 Scag Power Equipment Ford Mustang. I’m worn out… It was a hard-fought night. We had to overcome a couple of mistakes and we weren’t great in traffic, but we never gave up. (Crew chief) Seth [Barbour] and the crew did a really good job of tuning her up and making improvements so we could find some speed. We were able to bring home another top-15 finish for our Front Row Motorsports team.”

Tyler Reddick – finished 14th: “Man, what an up and down night for our No. 8 Okuma Chevrolet team. We worked hard and we were able to grab a top-15 finish. The biggest challenge was managing the balance tonight. For the first two stages of the race, we were too tight on entry and exit of the turns and way too loose in the middle. It made it really hard to trust the car as we went into the corners of the track. The adjustment my Richard Childress Racing team made during the final stop of the race was the best one of the night and allowed me to race up through the field and into the top 15. We just lacked some long run speed tonight to stay up there and battle within the top 10. That’s something we’ll go back and look at to improve on for future intermediate tracks. It’s been fun racing in our backyard of Charlotte over the past week, but I’m looking forward to moving on to Bristol Motor Speedway on Sunday.”

Clint Bowyer – finished 16th: “We need to figure something out for this place. We just had too many penalties tonight. We can’t make those kinds of mistakes.”

Cole Custer – finished 18th: “It didn’t start the way we wanted to tonight, but we kept chipping away at it. I think we have some stuff we can take to other tracks. We definitely learned a lot.”

Aric Almirola – finished 20th: “That was just an overall tough day for our Smithfield Ford team today. After starting in the rear we were able to get back to 16th by taking two tires and holding on, but our day went downhill from there. The car was just not where we wanted it to be and contact with the No. 18 (Kyle Busch) put us back where we started. The pit crew did a great job today and gained us some spots, but unfortunately I just couldn’t pass in traffic with the way the car handled. I’m looking forward to Bristol in a few days to get back to a short track.”

Matt Kenseth – finished 23rd: “Another tough night for the Credit One Bank Camaro. We had a flat tire early in the race, but managed to get the lap we lost back, then had a loose wheel later in the race which forced a pit stop under green. The penalty for the commitment violation when we pitted for the loose wheel certainly added to the rough night, but we kept doing all we could to gain back as many spots as possible before the end of the race. The handling on the car improved some throughout the night, but we just got too far back with the bad breaks to be able to do much more. A tough race, but better days ahead for our team.”

Michael McDowell – finished 25th: “It was an up and down night at Charlotte Motor Speedway for our No. 34 CarParts.com Ford Mustang. We fired off extremely well and ran competitively inside of the top 10 for the majority of Stage 1. However as daylight faded and the track temperature began to change, our race car started to tighten up on entry into the corners, making it tough to carry speed through the turns; something we battled all night long. (Crew chief) Drew (Blickensderfer) and my guys fought hard on pit road to make multiple adjustments on our No. 34 CarParts.com Ford Mustang, but we just ran out of time at the end.”

Ty Dillon – finished 27th: “Our GEICO Hump Day Chevrolet was actually pretty good handling wise tonight. It drove well over the bumps, which was an area we struggled with on Sunday, so (crew chief) Matt (Borland) and the guys definitely improved our setup. Unfortunately, from the moment I pulled off of pit road before the green flag, I didn’t have any power steering. We tried to fix it under caution, but when we couldn’t diagnose the problem on pit road, I had to tough it out. The pit crew had solid stops all night long and we would’ve had a strong run tonight if it wasn’t for the power steering issue. When we get back to the shop, we’ll figure out what the problem was and move forward to Bristol.”

Daniel Suarez — finished 28th: “You know, another 28th – I’m getting a little tired of those 28ths. But we have to keep working. Honestly, I’m a little disappointed about this one because I thought we were going to bring a better car than last Sunday. We made adjustments hoping for that, but obviously it didn’t work out for us. I know what I signed up for and I trust in this team and I trust everyone involved – Toyota, Coca-Cola and CommScope, everyone who is making this happen. We have to keep pushing and the results will come. I really want to thank everyone for the amazing support. Let’s see what we can do Sunday in Bristol.”

Kyle Busch — finished 29th: 

Gray Gaulding — finished 30th:

Alex Bowman – finished 31st: “That didn’t end the way we imagined. We had a great car and led some laps and got our fourth stage win of the season. I just got in the wall there at the end and it really hurt the right side. At that point, there isn’t really much we can do. We will finish one of these things here soon. It is a quick turnaround to Bristol on Sunday, but I’m ready for it.”

Quin Houff — finished 32nd:

Timmy Hill — finished 33rd:

Josh Bilicki — finished 36th:

Bubba Wallace — finished 37th: “I know there are a lot of questions to be answered. Obviously, our Richard Petty Motorsports team is frustrated. First thing, hats-off to the guys for bringing an outstanding Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. The Richard Petty Motorsports No. 43 World Wide Technology Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE had a lot of speed – a big improvement from Sunday. We’ll hold everyone accountable, including myself, as a team would do for the problems that we are having right now. It takes a team effort to figure out our struggles.

“If it’s bad luck, it’s bad luck. We’ve got to shake it and the best way to do that is to show-up to the next race with our heads held high and keep that chip on our shoulder. We’ll get to the root of our problem and continue to bring a fast race car to the track. We’re showing big improvements and that’s really all we can ask for. But we’ve got to clean-up some stuff. Like I said, if it’s internally, we’ll fix it. If it’s dumb luck, then you’ll have that. On to the Bristol Motor Speedway.”

Joey Gase – finished 39th:

Garrett Smithley — finished 40th:

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Friday 5: Team’s departure adds to ‘extremely stressful’ time

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While NASCAR celebrates Michael Jordan’s entry as a Cup owner, his arrival comes at the expense of another team.

Jordan and Denny Hamlin purchased Germain Racing’s charter, marking the end of that single-car team when the season concludes Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway.

Seven races remain for Germain Racing, Ty Dillon and the team’s 40-plus employees before they scatter, some within the sport and others elsewhere. The team races for the first time since the announcement Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN). 

“It’s not been real easy the last couple of weeks,” Dillon told NBC Sports.

He has been Germain Racing’s driver the past four seasons. The team, which won Truck titles in 2006 and 2010 with Todd Bodine, has competed in Cup since 2009. Germain Racing’s best Cup finish is fourth, accomplished by both Dillon and Casey Mears.

The team’s future soured when GEICO determined it would not return after this season. Without sponsorship money and with multiple groups interested in the team’s charter, a sale became the best route for owner Bob Germain. Hamlin and Jordan quickly put together an effort to buy the charter and made headlines with their deal.

With lives upturned by the novel coronavirus, Germain Racing employees now seek work in a pandemic. It adds stress to a 2020 that has tested so many.

“We all in life go through things,” Dillon said. “Life is … never going to be easy or perfect. For me, this has definitely been an extremely stressful time with all the things, the virus that is going on, our team announces that we’re selling and is sold now with seven races to go, and you still have people that you care about that you want to see get opportunities.

“Everyone is trying to keep a good attitude. It’s a very tough situation. Then I have a little girl (who turns 3 in November) and my wife is pregnant and we’re going to have our son in November. You have your virus concerns and also wanting to make sure your daughter is raised and still be able to get out and do things a 2 1/2-year-old should be able to do. That is what is most important to me over all things, spending time with her.

“Then you have in the back of your mind you want to provide for your family. I’m 28 years old and just getting started. … Also, I’ve been (racing) since I was 13, I’ve put a lot of effort and time in it myself. I feel like I still haven’t gotten to prove what I’m fully capable of yet. That’s always in the back of my mind. So it’s been extremely stressful.”

Dillon said he’s relied on his faith to navigate these challenges.

“I believe that God is with me in this process, no matter how much I don’t understand,” he said. “He’s on the other side. He’s going to put me in a place that is going to allow me to do the most for his kingdom, and he’s going to bring me the most joy at the end of wherever I’m going here.

“Knowing that is my teeth in this bit of a storm. It’s definitely not an easy season, and I’m immature in the fact that I want to know what is going to happen.”

Dillon, who finished a season-best 10th at Las Vegas in February, said he’s put together sponsorship for 2021. He is among a number of drivers who have not announced rides for next year. That list includes Clint Bowyer, Corey LaJoie, Daniel Suarez, Chase Briscoe, Austin Cindric and Justin Haley, among others. 

Dillon told NBC Sports that “this week and next week are going to be really crucial weeks in figuring out what the next step is. There’s an array of things that can happen and I’m not sure which one is going to happen.”

2. Staying Power

While Michael Jordan has made news for coming to NASCAR, the key is how long he stays as an owner.

The sport is filled with former athletes and celebrities who have come and gone in ownership roles through the years.

While many in the sport hope Jordan can help attract more fans and businesses, he needs to remain in the sport to help achieve some of those goals.

Denny Hamlin, who is partnering with Jordan on the new team with Bubba Wallace as driver, told NBC Sports and Fox in an exclusive interview this week that he is confident he can create a program with staying power.

“He has me to help him with the day-to-day stuff,” Hamlin said of Jordan. “Obviously, I’ve got a day job, racing a car and that’s what I’m going to continue to do for years and years with my FedEx team, but I know enough about this sport that I can help guide this ownership team in the right direction.”

The team is expected to align with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing.

Another key will be the personnel hired to run the team with Hamlin racing and Jordan busy as owner of the NBA’s Charlotte Hornets and his other business ventures.

“I think we’re going to have the ability by starting a team from scratch essentially of hiring the best people available at every position,” Hamlin said. “Believe me, since this became public knowledge, we’ve already started those conversations.

“We’re going to give Bubba the best possibility or chance to win in Year 1. I believe that he can win in the first year, but I’m also not naive to think this is an easy business either. It’s hard to win.

“Two years ago, I didn’t win a race. I’ve got 12 years experience and I’m with the best team. My teammate, Kyle Busch, is one of the best, and hasn’t won yet in 2020. It’s not easy. It’s going to be difficult, but I have very good faith that Bubba is going to have everything that he needs to be capable of winning.”

If so, that should keep Jordan in the sport for a long time.

3. TikTok the timing was right

For all the time Ryan Vargas spent searching for sponsorship, networking in the NASCAR garage and looking for a ride in the Xfinity Series, he could have not imagined how he landed a deal with this year’s hottest social media property.

Credit goes to Ryan Pistana, a friend of Vargas who designs paint schemes for some NASCAR teams.

Pistana created a TikTok car for Vargas because Vargas uses the social app so much. Pistana posted his concept scheme for Vargas on social media in July.

TikTok soon saw the image and talks began.

TikTok
Ryan Vargas’ TikTok car for JD Motorsports mirrors the design Vargas’ friend, Ryan Pistana, created in July and posted on social media. (Photo: JD Motorsports)

“They loved the scheme, they loved the sport,” Vargas told NBC Sports. “They’re very enthusiastic about jumping in.”

TikTok also had a good representative in Vargas, who has more than 40,000 followers and nearly 600,000 likes. Vargas’ TikTok videos are a mix of fun, behind the scenes images and inspiration.

Within about two months, TikTok completed a six-race deal with Vargas and JD Motorsports that will begin next week at Talladega Superspeedway. The agreement allows Vargas to run the rest of the season.

Those six races equal the number of races Vargas has run in the series since last year. He ran three races last year and three this season.

When he hasn’t been racing, he’s often been on the road crew for JD Motorsports. In the last month, Vargas was a mechanic for BJ McLeod’s car at Richmond and Daytona, drove for the team at Darlington (finishing 25th) and was a mechanic for Jeffrey Earnhardt’s car at Dover.

“I learn just by doing that,” Vargas said of his role as mechanic at the track. “So when I hop into the car, I know what I want changed.”

It’s a great learning experience but drivers want to drive and Vargas is no different.

“I would be lying to you if I said that didn’t kind of sting sometimes, your friends are out there racing and doing what they want,” he said. “I’ve experienced what it’s like to have pretty much everything fall apart. I was very close to being completely done racing at the end of 2018, so I know what it’s like to sit out and not be in the car.”

Vargas credits a meeting with Mike Davis, director of brand strategy for JR Motorsports and co-host with Dale Earnhardt Jr. on the Dale Jr. Download, with helping him push through after the 2018 season.

“His piece of advice to me, be present, have your gear and never stop working,” Vargas said of what Davis told him in their meeting.

Vargas has kept following his dream. Now he has a ride for six races thanks to social media.

4. A fan’s last ride

For nearly 20 years, Kenneth Chase took grandson Brendon Harmon to NASCAR races at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

They’d travel from Chase’s home in Sebago, Maine and camp with friends and family. Sometimes the group was so large, they’d need a second camper to accommodate everyone.

The trips started when Harmon was about 5 years old. They continued when Chase, known as Pa to his grandchildren, was found to have prostrate cancer.

Kenneth Chase with grandson Brendon Harmon at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in 2014. (Photo: Brendon Harmon)

As his grandfather went through treatments in 2012, Harmon decided he wanted to take him to the Daytona 500.

Harmon worked two jobs and saved more than $3,000 so he could take his grandparents and mom to the 2013 Daytona 500. He paid for the plane tickets, race tickets and hotel.

Chase later got colon cancer. Doctors removed the tumor. The cancer returned. They did another surgery. The cancer came back and spread.

Chase died Aug. 25. He would have been 77 years old Saturday.

“He’s what I aspire to be some day,” Harmon said of Chase. “I really hope my future grandkids think of me the way I think of him.”

Harmon has found a way to honor his grandfather. The NASCAR Foundation and Martin Truex Jr. Foundation partnered for the Nominate a Cancer Hero program. The program auctions off space on a NASCAR Truck or car to put a person’s name for this weekend’s Las Vegas races. More than 40 drivers are participating. The program raised about $100,000.

Harmon found out about the auction shortly before it closed. He didn’t have enough money to provide a winning bid but asked friends for help and they rallied to provide the winning bid of about $2,800 to have Chase’s name on Alex Bowman’s car Sunday at Las Vegas.

Chase was a Dale Earnhardt fan. He switched to Hendrick Motorsports drivers Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson after Earnhardt’s death. Chase remained a Hendrick fan after that, so putting his name on a Hendrick car was perfect for Harmon.

“He gets to go fast one more time,” Harmon told NBC Sports. “He gets to feel the race car one more time and hear the race car one more time.”

Harmon will gather with family Sunday and have a cookout at his house, serving deer steak and chicken on the grill. He’ll also have ice cream. Chase would eat ice cream, often chocolate, as he watched the races on TV.

Watching Sunday’s race on NBCSN and knowing his grandfather’s name will be on Bowman’s car will be special for Harmon.

“It’s going to kind of be a mixture of tears with joy,” he said.

5. Learn by example

The Xfinity playoffs begin Saturday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

While Chase Briscoe enters after his seventh win of the season, tying regular-season champ Austin Cindric for the most victories this season, rookie Harrison Burton looks to take the lessons he’s learned this season and turn them into a title run.

Burton told NBC Sports that one of the areas he’s improved most this season is “using my head and thinking about things.”

He notes his third-place finish at Kansas Speedway was a turning point.

“I think Kansas was probably one of the most fun races I ever lost,” he said. “I was really thinking, how can I beat Austin (Cindric, who finished second to Brandon Jones)? What can I show him to make him do something that I want him to do? (It’s) things I listen to Denny Hamlin talk about and say on his radio. Using the mental side of the game to their advantage. That has been really fun to go to the places where that is a big deal and try to make the most of it.”

The key, Burton said, is having a car that will allow a driver to think as they’re hitting their marks in each corner.

“When that becomes muscle memory, that’s when you free up your brain and you’re able to strategize in your head,” he said. “You’re able to show people lines that you know are going to hurt their tires but it’s fast. Then you run them down on a long run because they have been doing that.”

Who has taught Burton a memorable lesson in such a situation?

“Briscoe does a good job of that, of showing you a different lane and catching you with a different lane and then he has the ability to pass you in a completely different (lane),” Burton said.

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Stage points crucial at Las Vegas in Round of 12

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Former champion Brad Keselowski views Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) as the “second most important” to win during the season after the championship race, “because these next two weeks are very difficult to prepare for.”

What’s so difficult about the two races after Las Vegas?

Two-thirds of the Round of 12 are made up of Talladega and the Charlotte Roval: a superspeedway known for its wild multi-car wrecks and a road course that can prove unpredictable.

“The biggest thing I’ve been thinking about is the playoff bonus points and winning in Vegas,” Keselowski said. “The best thing we can do to control our own destiny is to go win Vegas and then Talladega just becomes what it is. It’s the same thing with the Roval, so we’re hopeful to just kind of not have to worry about it that way by scoring a win. If we’re not able to do that, I’d like to get a few more playoff bonus points with stages for those races and that would help a bunch, but, certainly, this round presents a lot of challenges for us.”

If anyone knows the importance of winning early in a round, it’s Keselowski. His victory two weeks ago at Richmond benefitted him in the cutoff race a Bristol when power steering issues resulted in a 34th-place finish.

Chase Elliott, who has won at both Talladega and the Roval in previous seasons, has a similar view to Keselowski.

The Hendrick Motorsports driver said “we would be messing up to already be looking ahead to Talladega,” later adding, “the way I kind of look at it is I’m probably going to crash – I think that’s just the odds.”

Were everything to go right for a driver, they can earn up to 20 stage points in the first two stages of a race.

“So, I think everybody knows how important stages are and what they can mean, especially stage wins,” Elliott said. “Getting that extra bonus point is a huge thing, too. I think everybody knows that and that’s certainly a game that’s been played. I don’t know that it was as much played that very first year that we had (playoff and stage points), but really ever since that first year, I think it has been known and everybody really gets that. And it’s just gotten more and more aggressive.”

Focusing on Vegas is key for Elliott because it’s been a “super hit or miss” track for him. In seven career starts, he has two top fives and four finishes of 26th or worse.

“We’ve crashed a bunch out there (three DNFs) and had some really bad finishes,” Elliott said. “That would be a fantastic opportunity, I think, to have a solid day.”

Kurt Busch noted that you could arguably view Las Vegas as “standard” when it comes to pit strategy and racing. But Busch provided a reminder of what happened earlier this year at Texas Motor Speedway.

“A place like Vegas fits into a track like Texas, as well; where you can change just left side tires like we saw Austin Dillon do to win the Texas race earlier this year,” Busch said. “So, there are all the different strategies and different things playing out.”

The four drivers eliminated after the Round of 16 – William Byron, Cole Custer, Ryan Blaney and Matt DiBenedetto – scored a combined six stage points. All of them were earned by Byron.

Busch observed that just because four teams have been eliminated from the playoffs doesn’t mean there’s four less cars in the field vying for points.

“There are two Hendrick cars now not in the playoffs, but they’re fast,” Busch said of Byron and Jimmie Johnson. “Same thing with (Joe) Gibbs (Racing). You’ve got the No. 20 car, Erik Jones, not in the playoffs but he’s fast. Those are points that those guys could take away from the contenders that are still left in the situations they’re in. So, you’ve just got to race hard and race smart. There are three ways to get points each and every weekend: Stage 1, Stage 2, and the finish of the race. And, that happens at all the race tracks.”

Of the 12 remaining drivers left in the playoffs, here’s how many stage points they earned in the first round.

Most Stage Points Earned in 2020 Playoffs:

Chase Elliott  – 35
Kevin Harvick – 33
Martin Truex Jr.  – 32
Kyle Busch  – 31
Alex Bowman – 29
Joey Logano  – 28
Denny Hamlin  – 26
Kurt Busch – 22
Austin Dillon – 22
Brad Keselowski – 21
Aric Almirola – 7
Clint Bowyer – 4

NASCAR fines Hendrick Motorsports $100,000

NASCAR fines
Photo by David Rosenblum/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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NASCAR has fined Hendrick Motorsports $100,000 for exceeding the amount of wind tunnel testing allowed this season.

NASCAR also announced that it had deducted 10 hours of wind tunnel testing from the organization for the 2020-21 amount allowed.

Hendrick Motorsports will not appeal the penalty. The team reported the violation to NASCAR.

The Cup Rule Book states in section 5.3.e that organizations are allocated 150 hours to be used on cars through Dec. 31, 2021 with a maximum usage of 70 hours in 2020 and a maximum usage of 90 hours in 2021. NASCAR states that testing hours are defined as billable hours reported by the wind tunnel to NASCAR. The minimum test period is four hours. Wind tunnel testing of Next Gen cars by individual organizations will not be permitted.

The L2 penalty comes with a fine of at least $100,000 and no more than $200,000.

NASCAR also announced two fines for lug nut violations last weekend at Bristol.

In the Xfinity Series, crew chief Bruce Schlicker was fined $5,000 for the No. 10 car of Ross Chastain having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

In the Truck Series, crew chief Kevin Bellicourt was fined $2,500 for the No. 19 truck of Derek Kraus having one lug nut not safe and secure after the race.

 

Carson Hocevar to run full Truck schedule in 2021

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Niece Motorsports has signed Carson Hocevar to run the full NASCAR Truck schedule in 2021, the team announced Thursday.

Hocevar, who turns 18 in January, has run five races for the team this season. His best finish this year is 12th at Dover. He’s scheduled to run at Martinsville on Oct. 30.

“I’m so excited to get the opportunity to race fulltime next year with the Niece Motorsports group,” said Hocevar in a statement. “We’ve had some really strong runs in the few starts that we’ve had this season and I am grateful for the chance to continue that next year. I’ve learned so much already this year and know that we will keep improving next year too.”

“Carson has really impressed us this season,” said team owner Al Niece in a statement. “He’s proven his talent – getting into the truck with no track time and really holding his own. We’re thrilled to have him with us fulltime next season and look forward to contending for wins together.”