Examining the elite eight in Cup playoffs

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It’s on to Kansas for teams and the beginning of the Round of 8 in the Cup playoffs.

Title favorites Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin remain in good position to advance to the championship race Nov. 8 at Phoenix Raceway. Harvick, the regular-season champion, leads the points heading into Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). Hamlin, second in points, has won the past two Kansas races, including the July event. Harvick and Hamlin have combined to win 16 of the 32 races run this season.

MORE: Cup starting lineup at Kansas 

Chase Elliott, who won last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Roval, enters this round holding the final transfer spot. He leads Joey Logano by five points, Martin Truex Jr. by 10 points, Alex Bowman by 18 points and Kurt Busch by 21 points.

The eight remaining playoff drivers have combined to win 28 of 32 races this season.

The Round of 8 in the Cup playoffs features races at Kansas, Texas and Martinsville. NASCAR has raced at all three tracks this season.

Here is a look at each of the eight playoff drivers 

KEVIN HARVICK

Points: 4067 (1st)

Wins: 9

Wins in playoffs: 2 (Darlington and Bristol)

Points scored in playoffs: 223 (2nd)

Laps run in the top five in playoffs: 935 (3rd)

July Kansas finish: 4th (42 points)

July Texas finish: 5th (46 points)

June Martinsville finish: 15th (31 points)

Notable: Seeks to make championship race for fourth consecutive year and sixth time in seven years.

Quote: “There’s really no change for us. We’ve been here, done this. We know what’s in front of us. You go and prepare and that’s why we’ve stuck with the attitude of trying to playoff race every week and the expectation is to go out and be competitive and if you’re not, come home and figure out why and try to address it and move on to the next one.  It’s survive and advance at this particular point.”

DENNY HAMLIN

Points: 4054 (2nd)

Wins: 7

Wins in playoffs: 1 (Talladega)

Points scored in playoffs: 206 (5th)

Laps run in the top five in playoffs: 664 (6th)

July Kansas finish: 1st (56 points)

July Texas finish: 20th (25 points)

June Martinsville finish: 24th (13 points)

Notable: Has won the past two Kansas races. Also is only driver to win more than once on a 1.5-mile track this season.

Quote: “In years past, Kansas has not always been a strong suit. Mile-and-a-halves in general haven’t been a super strong suit for most of career. You could argue the statistics and wins would say otherwise, but it seems like on the mile-and-a-halves we’ve got a really good package or setup going that seems to be working. We nearly won Vegas, and that was the track that – if we could finish in the top 15, I was going to be happy. I adjust my expectations based on how I feel after the first 10 laps of the race. I’m confident. I feel like we’ve got a good grasp on Kansas. Nothing really much has changed other than the tire, which that tire was run at Vegas, so it looks like we’ve accounted for it pretty good in our setup. I’m as optimistic as anyone going into that race track.” 

Brad Keselowski

Points: 4035 (3rd)

Wins: 4

Wins in playoffs: 1 (Richmond)

Points scored in playoffs: 169 (11th)

Laps run in the top five in playoffs: 618 (7th)

July Kansas finish: 2nd (51 points)

July Texas finish: 9th (28 points)

June Martinsville finish: 3rd (34 points)

Notable: Tied with Kevin Harvick for most top 10s on 1.5-mile tracks this season. Has eight such finishes in nine races.

Quote: “I put no expectations on the year coming into it other than to run our best and to push myself to be the best driver I can be and be the best leader of the team I can be. So I can’t tell you I had a win quota put up. It is nice to have another four‑win season, but I hope we don’t stop there. The most I’ve ever had in a year is six, and I hope I can get seven.”

CHASE ELLIOTT

Points: 4027 (4th)

Wins: 3

Wins in playoffs: 1 (Charlotte Roval)

Points scored in playoffs: 239 (1st)

Laps run in the top five in playoffs: 1,176 (1st)

July Kansas finish: 12th (26 points)

July Texas finish: 12th (29 points)

June Martinsville finish: 5th (40 points)

Notable: Has finished in the top two in the last two Kansas playoff races.

Quote: Crew chief Alan Gustafson: “I think we were slightly better than that at Texas, if you look at kind of average run, speed, whatever. We didn’t get great finishes either place (Texas and Kansas). We just weren’t very good at Kansas which was extremely disappointing because that’s historically a pretty good track for us, a track that we enjoy going to race at, have had success in the past. I think we have to be top five every stage and every finish. That’s the only way you’re going to get through that, or win.”

JOEY LOGANO

Points: 4022 (5th)

Wins: 2

Wins in playoffs: 0

Points scored in playoffs: 218 (3rd)

Laps run in the top five in playoffs: 1,044 (2nd)

July Kansas finish: 35th (2 points)

July Texas finish: 3rd (43 points)

June Martinsville finish: 4th (51 points)

Notable: Has won at all three tracks in this round of the playoffs. Kevin Harvick and Denny Hamlin are the only other remaining playoff drivers to do so.

Quote: “I look at Martinsville as one of our best races. Texas wasn’t bad for us either. I feel great about where we’re at. … I feel like we got a good shot at getting to the Championship 4.”

MARTIN TRUEX JR.

Points: 4017 (6th)

Wins: 1

Wins in playoffs: 0

Points scored in playoffs: 201 (6th)

Laps run in the top five in playoffs: 816 (4th)

July Kansas finish: 3rd (45 points)

July Texas finish: 29th (14 points)

June Martinsville finish: 1st (47 points)

Notable: Ranks second in stage points earned during playoffs with 61. Chase Elliott has scored the most stage points in the playoffs at 73.

Quote: “The strategy is every weekend you show up to the track to go out and win, and if you can’t win, you get the best finish that you can get. I don’t think strategy ever really changes in racing. Certainly, there are times that you may have to pull some strategy during a race to try to do something, but looking to the next few races, I’m looking forward to trying to win a couple of them.”

ALEX BOWMAN

Points: 4009 (7th)

Wins: 1

Wins in playoffs: 0

Points scored in playoffs: 209 (4th)

Laps run in the top five in playoffs: 394 (9th)

July Kansas finish: 8th (31 points)

July Texas finish: 30th (10 points)

June Martinsville finish: 6th (38 points)

Notable: Has six top-10 finishes in the past eight races, the most top 10s of any driver in the series during that span.

Quote: “Kansas in particular, we’ve almost won there before. I feel like we can go be phenomenal there. Kansas and Texas are two opportunities for us to win. Every week going to the racetrack with Hendrick Motorsports is an opportunity to win. Kansas and Texas are going to be our best shots at it for sure. It’s probably going to take a win to make the Round of 4. Just going to go all in and do everything we can to make that happen.”

KURT BUSCH

Points: 4006 (8th)

Wins: 1

Wins in playoffs: 1 (Las Vegas)

Points scored in playoffs: 177 (10th)

Laps run in the top five in playoffs: 427 (8th)

July Kansas finish: 9th (28 points)

July Texas finish: 8th (41 points)

June Martinsville finish: 9th (34 points)

Notable: Tied with Kevin Harvick for longest active streak of top 10s at 1.5-mile tracks with four.

Quote: “I feel like you’re going to have to win out in this Round of 8 and the championship race in Phoenix. This group, the elite eight … are the best of the best and can win each and every week. And so, with Kansas not being one of my best tracks, but it is a 1.5-mile, where we have won twice at Chip Ganassi Racing. Texas is a 1.5-mile that we’ve been very good at. And Martinsville has been a nice surprise since I switched to Ganassi. I’ve been running much better with the balance of the car that they have there. And then with Phoenix, if we can get there, that would be huge.”

IndyCar driver Conor Daly to attempt to qualify for Daytona 500

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Conor Daly, who competes full-time in the NTT IndyCar Series, will seek to make his first Daytona 500 this month with The Money Team Racing, the Cup program owned by boxing Hall of Famer Floyd Mayweather.

The team also announced Tuesday plans for Daly to race in up to six additional Cup races this year as his schedule allows. Daly’s No. 50 car at Daytona will be sponsored by BITNILE.com, a digital marketplace launching March 1. Among the Cup races Daly is scheduled to run: Circuit of the Americas (March 26) and the Indianapolis road course (Aug. 13, a day after the IndyCar race there).

“The Money Team Racing shocked the world by making the Daytona 500 last year, and I believe in this team and know we will prepare a great car for this year’s race,” Mayweather said in a statement. “Like a fighter who’s always ready to face the best, Conor has the courage to buckle into this beast without any practice and put that car into the field. Conor is like a hungry fighter and my kind of guy. I sure wouldn’t bet against him.”

Daly will be among at least six drivers vying for four spots in the Daytona 500 for cars without charters. Others seeking to make the Daytona 500 will be seven-time Cup champion Jimmie Johnson (Legacy Motor Club), Travis Pastrana (23XI Racing), Zane Smith (Front Row Motorsports), Chandler Smith (Kaulig Racing) and Austin Hill (Beard Motorsports).

“I am thrilled to be given the opportunity to attempt to run in the Daytona 500,” Daly said in a statement. “It is the most prestigious race in NASCAR and to have the chance to compete in it is truly an honor. I am also excited to be running the entire IndyCar Series season and select NASCAR Cup events. I am looking forward to the challenge and can’t wait to get behind the wheel of whatever BITNILE.com race car, boat, dune buggy or vehicle they ask me to drive. Bring it on.”

Daly has made 97 IndyCar starts, dating back to 2013. He made his Cup debut at the Charlotte Roval last year, placing 34th for The Money Team Racing. He has one Xfinity start and two Craftsman Truck Series starts.

 

Will driver clashes carry beyond Coliseum race?

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LOS ANGELES — Tempers started the day before the Busch Light Clash at the Coliseum when AJ Allmendinger, upset at an aggressive move Chase Briscoe made in practice, “sent (Briscoe) into the fence.”

The action gained notice in the garage. It was quite a change in attitude from last year’s inaugural Clash when drivers were more cautious because teams didn’t have as many spare parts for the new car at the time.

But seeing the aggression in practice made one wonder what the races would be like. Such actions carried over to Sunday night’s exhibition race, which featured 16 cautions and many reasons for drivers to be upset. 

Kyle Busch made it clear where he stood with Joey Logano running into his car and spinning him as Busch ran sixth with 65 laps to go.

“It’s really unfortunate to be raced by guys that are so two-faced,” Busch said of Logano to SiriusXM NASCAR Radio after the race. “We were in the TV booth earlier tonight together and when we were all done with that, just like ‘Hey man, good luck tonight.’ ‘OK, great, thanks, yea, whatever.’

“Then, lo and behold, there you go, he wrecks me. Don’t even talk to me if you’re going to be that kind of an (expletive deleted) on the racetrack.”

Logano said of the contact with Busch: “I just overdrove it. I screwed up. It was my mistake. It’s still kind of a mystery to me because I re-fired and I came off of (Turn) 2 with no grip and I went down into (Turn 3) and I still had no grip and I slid down into (Busch’s car). Thankfully, he was fast enough to get all the back up there. I felt pretty bad. I was glad he was able to get up there (finishing third).”

Austin Dillon, who finished second, got by Bubba Wallace by hitting him and sending Wallace into the wall in the final laps. Wallace showed his displeasure by driving down into Dillon’s car when the field came by under caution.

“I hate it for Bubba,” Dillon said. “He had a good car and a good run, but you can’t tell who’s either pushing him or getting pushed. I just know he sent me through the corner and I saved it three times through there … and then when I got down, I was going to give the game. Probably a little too hard.”

Said Wallace of the incident with Dillon: “(He) just never tried to make a corner. He just always ran into my left rear. It is what it is. I got run into the fence by him down the straightaway on that restart, so I gave him a shot and then we get dumped.”

Among the reasons for the beating and banging, Briscoe said, was just the level of competition.

“Everyone was so close time-wise, nobody was going to make a mistake because their car was so stuck,” he said. “The only way you could even pass them is hitting them and moving them out of the way. … It was definitely wild in that front to mid-pack area.”

Denny Hamlin, who spun after contact by Ross Chastain, aptly summed up the night by saying: “I could be mad at Ross, I could be mad at five other guys and about seven other could be mad at me. It’s hard to really point fingers. Certainly I’m not happy but what can you do? We’re all just jammed up there.”

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After going winless last year for the first time in eight seasons, Martin Truex Jr. was different this offseason. Asked how, he simply said: “Mad.

“Just determined. Just have a lot of fire in my belly to go out and change what we did last year.”

Sunday was a start. After a season where Truex was in position to win multiple races but didn’t, he won the Clash at the Coliseum, giving him his first Cup victory since Sept. 2021 at Richmond. 

The 42-year-old driver pondered if he wanted to continue racing last season. He had never examined the question before.

“I’m not really good at big decisions,” Truex told NBC Sports in the offseason. “I didn’t really have to do that last year. This sport … to do this job, it takes a lot of commitment, takes a lot of drive, it takes everything that you have to be as good as I want to be and to be a champion.

“I guess it was time for me to just ask myself, ‘Do I want to keep doing this? Am I committed? Am I doing the right things? Can I get this done still? I guess I really didn’t have to do that. I just felt like it was kind of time and it was the way I wanted to do it.”

As he examined things, Truex found no reason to leave the sport.

“I came up with basically I’m too good, I’ve got to keep going,” he said. “That’s how I felt about it honestly. I feel like I can win every race and win a championship again.”

Things went his way Sunday. He took the lead from Ryan Preece with 25 laps to go. Truex led the rest of the way. 

“Hopefully we can do a lot more of that,” Truex said, the gold medal given to the event’s race winner draped around his neck Sunday night. 

“We’ve got a lot going on good in our camp, at Toyota. I’ve got a great team, and I knew they were great last year, and we’ll just see how far we can go, but I feel really good about things. Fired up and excited, and it’s just a good feeling to be able to win a race, and even though it’s not points or anything, it’s just good momentum.”

Asked if this was a statement victory, Truex demurred.

“I just think for us it reminds us that we’re doing the right stuff and we can still go out and win any given weekend,” he said. “We felt that way last year, but it never happened.

“You always get those questions, right, like are we fooling ourselves or whatever, but it’s just always nice when you finish the deal.

“And racing is funny. We didn’t really change anything, the way we do stuff. We just tried to focus and buckle down and say, okay, these are things we’ve got to look at and work on, and that’s what we did, and we had a little fortune tonight.”

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While the tire marks, dented fenders and bruised bumpers showed how much beating and banging took place in Sunday night’s Clash at the Coliseum, it wasn’t until after the race one could understand how much drivers were jostled.

Kyle Larson, who finished fifth, said the restarts were where he felt the impacts the most. 

I only had like one moment last year that I remember where it was like, ‘Wow, like that was a hard hit,’” Larson said. “I think we stacked up on a restart at like Sonoma or something, and (Sunday’s Clash) was like every restart you would check up with the guy in front of you and just get clobbered from behind and your head whipping around and slamming off the back of the seat.

“I don’t have a headache, but I could see how if others do. It’s no surprise because it was very violent for the majority of the race. We had so many restarts, and like I said, every restart you’re getting just clobbered and then you’re clobbering the guy in front of you. You feel it a lot.”

After the race, Bubba Wallace said: “Back still hurts. Head still hurts.”

Kyle Busch apologizes for violating Mexican firearm law

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Kyle Busch issued a statement Monday apologizing “for my mistake” of carrying a firearm without a license in Mexico.

The incident happened Jan. 27 at a terminal for private flights at Airport Cancun International as Busch returned with his wife from vacation to the U.S.

The Public Ministry of the Attorney General of the Republic in Quintana Roo obtained a conviction of three years and six months in prison and a fine of 20,748 pesos ($1,082 U.S. dollars) against Busch for the charge. Busch had a .380-caliber gun in his bag, along with six hollow point cartridges, according to Mexican authorities.

Busch’s case was presented in court Jan. 29.

Busch issued a statement Monday on social media. He stated he has “a valid concealed carry permit from my local authority and adhere to all handgun laws, but I made a mistake by forgetting it was in my bag.

“Discovery of the handgun led to my detainment while the situation was resolved. I was not aware of Mexican law and had no intention of bringing a handgun into Mexico.

“When it was discovered, I fully cooperated with the authorities, accepted the penalties, and returned to North Carolina.

“I apologize for my mistake and appreciate the respect shown by all parties as we resolved the matter. My family and I consider this issue closed.”

A NASCAR spokesperson told NBC Sports on Monday that Busch does not face any NASCAR penalty for last month’s incident.

 

 

Winners and losers from the Clash at the Coliseum

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s Clash at the Coliseum, the non-points race that opened the NASCAR season:

WINNERS

Martin Truex Jr. — Truex limped through a frustrating 2022 season, going winless and contemplating writing “finish” to his driving career. But he decided late in the year to make another run, and that choice paid big dividends Sunday as he put Joe Gibbs Racing in victory lane.

Richard Childress Racing — RCR opened the season with power, putting Austin Dillon in second and newcomer Kyle Busch in third. The new teammates even enjoyed some late-race collaboration, Busch backing off a second-place battle to give Dillon a chance to make a run at eventual winner Truex.

Ryan Preece — Preece, given a shot in the offseason at a full-time ride in Cup with Stewart-Haas Racing, showed strength in his first outing, leading 43 laps before electrical issues dropped him to seventh.

Bubba Wallace — Wallace held the lead at the halfway point and totaled 40 laps in first but was drop-kicked by Austin Dillon late in the race and finished 22nd.

LOSERS

Chase Elliott — It was a lost weekend for the former Cup champion. Elliott was lapped during the race, failed to lead a lap and finished 21st.

Ty Gibbs — Suspension problems parked Gibbs after 81 laps, and he finished next-to-last a day after his car caught fire in practice.

Michael McDowell — McDowell was involved in several on-track incidents during the evening and finished 24th after running out of fuel, along with teammate Todd Gilliland.