Daytona road course takeaways: Field still chasing Chase Elliott

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Denny Hamlin feigned disappointment after hearing that the next Cup road course race is three months away.

“Shoot,” he said after his third-place finish Sunday at Daytona.

Although Christopher Bell won, Chase Elliott showed his dominance again. Even after Elliott’s four-race road course winning streak ended, there’s little doubt that the No. 9 Hendrick Motorsports Chevrolet remains the best on such circuits.

Elliott continues to succeed on long runs on the road courses. Sunday, he ranked first in the field late in runs. Last August on the Daytona road course, he ranked third in that category behind Martin Truex Jr. and Hamlin.

“It’s very clear, every time we come to a road course now, it’s been (Elliott), then one step back is the Gibbs cars, (and it) feels like the next step back has been our car,” Joey Logano said after his runner-up finish.

Hamlin says he sees progress in gaining on Elliott.

“I think I’m catching up,” Hamlin said. “I think I got 20 to 30% there today. I mean, he’s still lightning fast. I mean, honestly, when he got the lead, I beat him maybe a couple laps, but who knows. He’s probably just sitting back one-handing this thing just cruising. Who knows.

“I definitely feel like I gained a little bit today, but I still got some work to do for sure. There’s nothing I could see honestly that was, like, earth shattering, ‘wow, he’s just killing me here.’ It’s a little bit everywhere. It’s just going to take time for me to figure out.”

With the next road course race May 23 at Circuit of the Americas — which will have practice since it is a new track for Cup — is there time to catch Elliott by then?

“I think how I’ll get better is on-track time,” Hamlin said. “I think in general, the more that we run road courses, the tighter the field is going to get. Everyone is going to get better. The gap is going to shrink.”

When the series races at COTA in May, it will be the first of five road course races in a span of 11 points events. After COTA, the schedule will feature road course races June 6 at Sonoma Raceway, July 4 at Road America, Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen and Aug. 15 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Does the playoff picture change?

With first-time series winners in the opening two races for the first time since 1950, could the playoff picture already be changing?

Recent history suggests not necessarily.

The past three seasons there has not been more than 11 different winners by the end of the regular season, leaving five playoff spots via points.

There has never been more than 13 eligible winners by the end of the regular season. That happened in 2014, ’16 and ’17. In 2017, there were 14 winners by the end of the regular season but Joey Logano’s Richmond victory did not count toward playoff eligibility because his car failed inspection after the race — an “encumbered win” as those were called at that time.

Daytona 500 winner Michael McDowell and Christopher Bell, Sunday’s road course winner, are both bound for the playoffs with their victories. That would leave 14 spots remaining.

With six road course races, three superspeedway events and a race on dirt all in the regular season, there are ample opportunities for unexpected winners. That could limit the number of drivers who make the playoffs via points.

Points were already on the mind of Adam Stevens, Bell’s crew chief, entering Sunday’s race. He kept Bell out on older tires during a caution shortly before the end of the first stage. Stevens said he wanted the points and figured about five other cars would stay out. That didn’t happen and Bell fell to 12th by the end of the stage in three laps.

No matter. His win puts him in the playoff picture.

“The dynamic has changed dramatically right now,” Brad Keselowski said after his fifth-place finish. “We’re very early in the season and it’s now turned into a points race for those last few spots. Hopefully it doesn’t matter for us. 

“I think that we’ll be able to go to Richmond and Martinsville and some of those tracks and contend for the win and hopefully bring home wins, but if you don’t win, you’re in a lot of trouble right now because it’s not looking like you’re going to be able to get in the playoffs right now without a win.”

Select group

After two races, four drivers have scored top 10s in each event. They are: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Michael McDowell and Ryan Preece.

Hamlin has a pair of top fives. Harvick has finished no worse than sixth this year. McDowell won the Daytona 500 and overcame a flat tire at the start of the race to finish eighth Sunday. Preece was sixth in the Daytona 500 and ninth Sunday for his first career top 10 in Cup on a road course.

NASCAR fines Ty Gibbs $75,000 for pit road incident at Texas

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NASCAR fined Ty Gibbs $75,000 and docked him 25 points for door-slamming Ty Dillon on pit road during last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Crew members from other teams were nearby when Gibbs hit Dillon’s car, causing it to swerve. No crew members or officials were hit.

NASCAR has made it a priority that drivers are not to cause contact that could injured crew members or officials on pit road. NASCAR also penalized Gibbs 25 Cup driver points and docked 23XI Racing 25 car owner points for the No. 23 Cup car that Gibbs drives.

NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

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NASCAR has docked William Byron 25 points and fined him $50,000 for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution in last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Byron drops from third in the playoff standings to below the cutline heading into Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

Chase Briscoe moves up to hold the final transfer spot with 3,041 points. Austin Cindric is the first driver outside a transfer spot with 3,034 points. Byron is next at 3,033 points.

Hendrick Motorsports was docked 25 owner points as well.

Hendrick Motorsports stated it would appeal the penalty.

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash. As Hamlin slowed, Byron closed and hit him in the rear. 

Byron admitted after the race the contact was intentional, although he didn’t mean to wreck Hamlin. Byron was upset with how Hamlin raced him on Lap 262. Byron felt Hamlin forced him into the wall as they exited Turn 2 side-by-side. Byron expressed his displeasure during the caution.

“I felt like he ran me out of race track off of (Turn) 2 and had really hard contact with the wall,” Byron said. “Felt like the toe link was definitely bent, luckily not fully broken. We were able to continue.

“A lot of times that kind of damage is going to ruin your race, especially that hard. I totally understand running somebody close and making a little bit of contact, but that was pretty massive.”

On the retaliatory hit, Byron said: “I didn’t mean to spin him out. That definitely wasn’t what I intended to do. I meant to bump him a little bit and show my displeasure and unfortunately, it happened the way it did. Obviously, when he was spinning out, I was like ‘I didn’t mean to do this,’ but I was definitely frustrated.”

Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart argued and questioned NASCAR for not putting Hamlin back in second place — where he was before Byron hit him — and also questioned Byron not being penalized.

“I guess we can just wreck each other under caution,” Hamlin said after the race.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, told reporters after the race that series officials did not penalize Byron because they did not see the incident. 

“When we were in the tower, we were paying more attention to the actual cause of the caution up there and dispatching our equipment,” Miller said. “The William Byron-Denny Hamlin thing, we had no eyes on. We saw Denny go through the grass.

“By the time we got a replay that showed the incident well enough to do anything to it, we had gone back to green.”

Kurt Busch ‘hopeful’ he can return from concussion this year

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CONCORD, N.C. — Kurt Busch said Tuesday he remains “hopeful” he will recover from a concussion in time to race again before the end of the NASCAR Cup season.

The 2004 Cup champion has been sidelined since he crashed July 23 during qualifying at Pocono Raceway. He’s so far missed 10 races – both Ty Gibbs and Bubba Wallace have driven the No. 45 Toyota for 23XI Racing since Busch was injured – and withdrew his eligibility to participate in the playoffs.

“I’m doing good. Each week is better progress and I feel good and I don’t know when I will be back, but time has been the challenge. Father Time is the one in charge on this one,” Busch said.

There are six races remaining this season and 23XI co-owner Denny Hamlin said the team has contingency plans for Busch’s recovery and is not pressuring the 44-year-old to get back in the car. Busch is under contract at 23XI through next season with an option for 2024.

Hamlin said this past weekend at Texas that Busch has a doctor’s visit scheduled in early October that could reveal more about if Busch can return this season.

Busch has attended a variety of events to stimulate his recovery and enjoyed an evening at the rodeo over the weekend. But his visit to Charlotte Motor Speedway on Tuesday for its 10th annual honoring of Breast Cancer Awareness Month was Busch’s first official appearance as a NASCAR driver since his injury.

He attended for the second consecutive year as part of his “Window of Hope” program in which all the window nets on the Cup cars will be pink meshing in next week’s race on The Roval at Charlotte. Busch credited the Toyota Performance Center at TRD’s North Carolina headquarters for helping his recovery and getting him out to events again.

“I feel hopeful. I know I have more doctor visits and distance to go, and I keep pushing each week,” Busch said. “And TPC, Toyota Performance Center, has been a group of angels with the workouts and the vestibular workouts, different nutrition as well and different supplements and things to help everything rebalance with my vision, my hearing. Just my overall balance in general.”

He said his vision is nearly 20/20 in one eye, but his other eye has been lagging behind in recovery. Busch also said he wasn’t sure why he was injured in what appeared to be a routine backing of his car into the wall during a spin in qualifying.

NASCAR this year introduced its Next Gen car that was designed to cut costs and level the playing field, but the safety of the spec car has been under fire since Busch’s crash. Drivers have complained they feel the impact much more in crashes than they did in the old car, and a rash of blown tires and broken parts has plagued the first four races of the playoffs.

Busch said his concussion “is something I never knew would happen, as far as injury” and likened his health battle to that of the breast cancer survivors who aided him in painting the pit road walls at Charlotte pink for next week’s race.

“Each situation is different. It’s similar to a breast cancer survivor. Not every story is the same, not every injury is the same,” Busch said. “It’s not like a broken arm and then you get the cast taken off and can go bench press 300 pounds. It’s a process. I don’t know what journey I’m on, but I’m going to keep pushing.”

NASCAR Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin returns to first place

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Four races into the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs and drivers who are eligible to win the championship remain 0-for-4 in pursuit of race wins.

Tyler Reddick became winner No. 4 on that list Sunday night at Texas Motor Speedway.

And now we go to Talladega Superspeedway, where there is potential for drivers from the far back end of the field to emerge victorious, given the impact of drafting and, more significantly, wrecking.

Sunday’s tire-exploding, wall-banging, car-wrestling craziness at Texas Motor Speedway jumbled the playoff standings again, and the same is true for the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings, which see a new leader in Denny Hamlin.

MORE: Winners and losers at Texas

Hamlin could be a busy guy the rest of the season. His potential retaliation list grew Sunday with the addition of William Byron after they had a major disagreement.

Here’s how the rankings look in the middle of the Round of 12:

NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings

1. Denny Hamlin (No. 3 last week) — Despite everything — the tires, the wrecks, the hassle, the weather and a brouhaha with William Byron, Hamlin finished 10th Sunday and is sixth in the playoff standings entering Talladega. He has the best average finish — 5.75 — in the playoff races. Unless his “list” gets in the way, Hamlin might be ready to seriously challenge for his first championship.

2. Kyle Larson (No. 4 last week) — Larson led 19 laps at Texas and probably should have led more with one of the race’s best cars. Now fourth in points, he figures to be a factor over the final two weeks of the round.

3. Chase Elliott (No. 2 last week) — Elliott was not a happy camper after smashing the wall because of a tire issue and riding a flaming car to a halt. He finished 32nd.

4. Joey Logano (No. 6 last week) — Logano was chasing down winner Tyler Reddick in the closing laps at Texas. He jumps to first in the playoff standings and gains two spots in NBC’s rankings.

5. William Byron (No. 5 last week) — Byron might be No. 1 on Denny Hamlin’s list; here he slides in at No. 5.

6. Christopher Bell (No. 1 last week) — Bell had a rotten Sunday in Texas, crashing not once but twice with tire issues and finishing 34th, causing a precipitous drop on the rankings list.

7. Ross Chastain (No. 7 last week) — Chastain’s team played the tires and the cautions right and probably deserved better than a 13th-place finish Sunday.

8. Ryan Blaney (No. 8 last week) — Mr. Winless (except in All-Star dress) rolls on. A fourth-place run (and 29 laps led) Sunday keeps him relevant.

9. Chase Briscoe (No. 9 last week) — Briscoe’s Texas run started poorly but ended nicely with a fifth-place run.

10. Tyler Reddick (unranked last week) — Reddick Sunday became the only driver not named Chase Elliott with more than two race wins this year. Now totaling three victories, he got his first oval win at Texas.

Dropped out: Alex Bowman (No. 10 last week).