NASCAR Power Rankings: Who is No. 1?

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A schedule full of changes will have an impact on this Cup season. Already, it has made an impact on the preseason NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings before cars get on track at Daytona International Speedway.

Sunday’s Daytona 500 begins a journey for Cup teams that includes a record seven road course events, a race on a dirt track and other changes in a season that will end in November at Phoenix Raceway.

Here’s a look at the top 10:

PRESEASON NASCAR POWER RANKINGS

1. Ryan Blaney It’s easy to overlook what Blaney has done on road courses because of Chase Elliott’s success. But don’t. Blaney has four top-five finishes, including a win, in the last six road courses races. He’s strong elsewhere. Blaney was one of only three drivers who scored top 10s in at least three of the four superspeedway races last year. Key for a championship season will be execution, something that the team didn’t always do well last year. Blaney told NBC Sports: “I thought we had crazy speed all year. We just didn’t quite execute, whether it was on my side or other things that happened that we’ve talked a lot about cleaning up.” 

2. Chase Elliott — No champion has won consecutive titles since the championship race format debuted in 2014. It’s easy to expect Elliott to return to the title race in Phoenix and give himself a chance to do so this year. He says of this season: “We need to be on offense. We need to keep pushing. I think if you’re back on your heels and trying to protect something, I don’t think your mind is in the right place. We want more.”

3. Brad Keselowski One of the top drivers on superspeedways, his luck, particularly in recent Daytona 500s has been tough. It’s about time that turns for the better. Watch Team Penske on the 750 horsepower tracks. The Penske cars were strong. Keselowski won three races and had six top-fives finishes in 10 races on tracks 1 mile or less last year. Said Keselowski: “If you want to win races, it’s pretty clear there are only about six drivers that can consistently win multiple races in Cup. It’s nice to be on that list.”

4. Joey Logano The Team Penske theme continues with Logano making the third Team Penske driver in the top four.  He had six top-five finishes at tracks 1 mile or less, including a win at Phoenix early last season. Team stumbled in the middle of the season before scoring 14 top 10s in the last 19 races. Logano told NBC Sports: “We want to be great and to me great is winning five or six races a year and it’s putting yourself in position to win a championship. We’ve done a good job of putting ourselves in position to win the championship without having a bunch of playoff points or a bunch of wins in the bank. … We want to win more races.”

5. Denny Hamlin Few drivers have been better the past two seasons. Hamlin seems poised to continue his strong runs. He’s focused on the early portion of the schedule. Hamlin told NBC Sports: “I think, within our race team, winning multiple races in the first seven, eight races is a goal we set out to say this sets the tone for the rest of the year.” He’s won at Daytona, Miami and Phoenix within the last two seasons. All three races are among the first eight of the season.

6. Kevin Harvick It could be argued that no team is impacted more by NASCAR’s schedule changes for 2021 than Harvick’s Stewart-Haas Racing team. He won on the oval at Indianapolis last year. That race moves to the road course. He swept both Michigan races. That track lost a race. He won at Darlington, which went from three races last year to two this year. He won at Dover, which went from two races last year to one. Said Harvick: “I think as you look at last year that’s one of those that you check off as a career year and you obviously want to do that again, but I’ve been around this long enough to understand that those types of seasons don’t come around all the time. But, look, it’s not to say that it’s not possible because that’s surely the goal – to try to repeat that.”

7. Martin Truex Jr.Other than Chase Elliott, Truex likely is the most excited to see seven road course races on the schedule. He’s finished in the top three in three of the last five road course events. Team looks to clean up issues that kept it from winning more than once last year. He had 11 finishes of second or third. Had some of those been results been wins, he might have built up enough playoff points to have gone deeper into the postseason. Said Truex: “There were a lot of opportunities for us last year to have a great season and we came up short on a lot of those little key areas and decisions or little mistakes along the way, and things like that. We’re all looking at trying to get better.”

8. Kyle Busch Coming off a disappointing season with one win, he and crew chief Adam Stevens parted ways. Busch has former team engineer Ben Beshore as crew chief. They also worked together in the Xfinity Series, which should help speed the communication between them. Busch told NBC Sports: “He kind of knows my little quirks.” The challenge is that most of the crew is new to Busch. 

9. Kyle Larson He’s back after missing the final 32 races of last season and with a new team in Hendrick Motorsports. What he’ll do is a bit of a mystery but the early portion of the season could provide key clues. The third race of the season is at Miami, a track Larson excels. He admits that doing well there will show how far the team has come and a poor finish will show how far they have to go.

10.  Alex Bowman He changes numbers to the No. 48, but his crew remains the same. The challenge for Bowman is that with Auto Club Speedway off the schedule this year, gone is the track he won at last year. His only other Cup win came at Chicagoland Speedway and it also is not on the schedule. He finished last year by placing in the top 10 in nine of the last 12 races. We’ll see if the momentum continues.

Short-track ace Sam Ard shares Xfinity record with Noah Gragson

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Former two-time Xfinity Series champion Sam Ard’s name returned to the forefront in the past week as Noah Gragson tied Ard’s series record for consecutive victories at four.

Although Ard has been nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame, his exploits generally aren’t well-known among many who follow the modern sport of stock car racing. He was on the Hall voting list for the 2023 class but was not elected.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Ard was a short-track master in the vein of stars like Jack Ingram, Harry Gant and Butch Lindley, drivers who could show up at virtually any half-mile track across the country and take home the trophy.

He won the NASCAR Late Model (now the Xfinity Series) championship in 1983 and 1984, scoring 18 wins across those two seasons. He put together four victories in a row late in the 1983 season, winning at South Boston, Virginia; Martinsville, Virginia; Rougemont, North Carolina and Charlotte.

Ard was so dominant in 1984 that he had wrapped up the seasonal championship with two races remaining. In 28 series starts that year, he had 24 top-five finishes and 26 top-10 runs. He won eight times.

In the next-to-last race of the 1984 season, at North Carolina Speedway in Rockingham, Ard suffered critical head injuries when his car slid in fluid from another vehicle and hit the track’s outside wall.

That crash effectively ended Ard’s career and impacted the rest of his life. Ard often talked of learning to walk again as part of his recovery. He said he would use a walker in a pile of sawdust in his backyard so that the landing would be softer when he fell.

Ard eventually was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease. In 2006, responding to Ard’s financial problems, drivers Kyle Busch, Kevin Harvick and Dale Earnhardt Jr., among others, launched a drive to raise funds for his family.

Ard, a native of Scranton, S.C., died in April 2017. He was 78.

 

 

 

 

 

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)