Key storylines for Road America

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Road America is not new to the NASCAR Cup Series landscape, although you’ll be forgiven for thinking otherwise.

The 4-mile road course in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin hosted its lone Cup race on Aug. 12, 1956. Tim Flock won out over a field that included many of stock car racing’s important pioneers, including Fireball Roberts, Lee Petty, Buck Baker, Curtis Turner and Junior Johnson.

Less than 10,000 fans attended that weekend. Back then, NASCAR was a primarily Southern tradition.

Nearly 65 years later, as the sport’s premier division returns to the Wisconsin woods, it has become something much bigger.

Naturally, a much bigger crowd will be watching – both at the track and at home on NBC (Sunday, 2:30 p.m. ET).

Kings of the road

Kyle Busch snapped Hendrick Motorsports’ six-race win streak in last Sunday’s fuel duel at Pocono. But as Busch himself admitted, the Hendrick cars were still faster.

That performance has been especially pronounced on road courses. Hendrick has won six of the last seven road course races dating back to the 2019 race at Watkins Glen.

Reigning Cup Series champion Chase Elliott has five of those wins, including his lone victory of 2021 in the rain-shortened inaugural race at Circuit of the Americas.

Teammate Kyle Larson swept both stages and won in overtime in the most recent road course race at Sonoma Raceway earlier this month.

Alex Bowman, who won last Saturday’s race at Pocono after Larson blew a tire while leading on the final lap, hasn’t been bad on road courses, either. He’s posted top-10 finishes in his last four road course races.

The only Hendrick driver who hasn’t excelled on road courses this season is William Byron. While his 14 top-10 finishes are tied with Larson and Kevin Harvick for most in Cup, none have come on a road course. He’s finished 33rd at Daytona, 11th at COTA, and crashed out at Sonoma.

A winding path to the playoffs

Road America is the first of three road course races in the final seven races of the Cup regular season.

The series will return from the Olympic break with back-to-back road course races on Aug. 8 at Watkins Glen and Aug. 15 at Indianapolis, the latter being a new layout for Cup.

Those plus the Aug. 28 regular season finale on the oval at Daytona provide ample opportunities for someone outside the playoff cutline to change the post-season picture entirely with a victory.

Entering Road America, Kurt Busch holds the 16th and final playoff position by three points over Chris Buescher. Daniel Suarez (-48 behind Busch), Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (-54 behind Busch) and Bubba Wallace (-54 behind Busch) follow in 18th, 19th, and 20th in the playoff standings.

All five of those drivers have at least one top-10 finish in Xfinity competition at Road America. Suarez has the best finish of the group, placing fourth in the 2016 Xfinity race on his way to that year’s series title.

Behind them in the standings are Matt DiBenedetto in 21st (-60 behind Busch) and Ross Chastain in 22nd (-72 behind Busch).

Pocono was not kind to either. DiBenedetto finished 32nd and 18th in the doubleheader, while Chastain finished 33rd and 26th.

DiBenedetto has finished 18th or worse in the last eight races. Chastain’s momentum was zapped last weekend. Both need a big result Sunday.

Getting the reps

Back to the aforementioned Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick. The two former Cup champions have never competed at Road America in any series.

As such, they’ll be double-dipping this weekend. In addition to Sunday’s Cup race, they’ll also run Saturday’s Xfinity Series race (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC).

Busch has been a perfect three-for-three in Xfinity competition this season. In his most recent Xfinity start, he claimed his 100th series win on June 19 at Nashville Superspeedway.

He’ll be back in the No. 54 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota, leading a five-car JGR armada for Saturday. Along with Busch and Xfinity regulars Daniel Hemric, Harrison Burton and Brandon Jones, Ty Gibbs will drive a fifth JGR entry, the No. 81.

“Being able to come to a new track – when everything was announced that we were coming here – I wanted to run there as much as I could,” Busch said earlier this week.

“We were able to work it out so both myself and Ty (Gibbs) can run here, as well, so I think it’s beneficial for both of us. He loves road racing, too.

“It was kind of a perfect scenario – being able to get in the Xfinity Series and be able to practice in both of those races. I’m hoping it will be a really good weekend for us.”

As for Harvick, he’ll drive the No. 99 Ford for B.J. McLeod Motorsports in Saturday’s Xfinity race. Harvick ran a McLeod entry for the Xfinity race at COTA, finishing fourth.

“I’m a huge visual person,” Harvick said earlier this week. “The experience I have in going to these racetracks for a long time – I can tell you every crack, every curve and every marker on the wall, and those are the things I want to have embedded in my mind before we get to Sunday.

“I want to make sure we’ve hit most of the curbs and know where you can take a risk making a pass and where to make time and how to get on and off pit road in a live situation, because the practices are short.

“The Xfinity car is going to be the best tool, and just being able to make laps is the most important thing.”

Long: NASCAR needs to quickly correct officiating issue from Texas

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NASCAR’s admission that it did not see William Byron spin Denny Hamlin under caution during Sunday’s Cup playoff race is troubling.

With video evidence of impropriety and Hamlin’s team vigorously arguing for relief, there were enough reasons for series officials to take a closer look at putting Hamlin back to second before the race returned to green-flag conditions. Or some other remedy even after the race resumed. 

Add the lack of access series officials had to Byron’s in-car camera— something fans could readily see at NASCAR.com and the NASCAR Mobile App — and changes need to be made before this weekend’s playoff race at Talladega Superspeedway.

While NASCAR should make every effort to judge matters between drivers regardless of their playoff status, that it was two playoff drivers involved in an incident demanded greater attention. With three races per round, one misstep can mean the difference between advancing or being eliminated. 

Just as more is expected from drivers and teams in the playoffs, the same should be expected of officials.

“If we had seen that (contact) good enough to react to it in real time, which we should have, like no excuse there, there would probably have been two courses of action,” said Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition Sunday night. “One would have been to put Hamlin back where he was, or the other would be to have made William start in the back.”

Here is how the incident played out:

The caution waved at Lap 269 for Martin Truex Jr.’s crash at 8:19 p.m. ET.

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.

About 90 seconds after the caution lights illuminated, the USA broadcast showed a replay from a low angle of Byron directly behind Hamlin’s car and apparent contact. 

Contact can happen in multiple ways. It can come from the lead car hitting the brakes and forcing the car behind to hit them, or it can come from the trailing car ramming into the car ahead. The first video replay did not make it clear what caused the contact, making it difficult for any official to rule one way or the other based solely on that.

This also is a time when NASCAR officials were monitoring safety vehicles on track, checking the lineup and making sure pit road was ready to be open. It’s something NASCAR does effortlessly much of the time. Just not this time. 

A different replay aired on USA 11 minutes, 16 seconds after the caution that showed Byron and Hamlin’s car together. That replay aired about a minute before the green flag waved at 8:31 p.m. ET. Throughout the caution, Hamlin’s crew chief, Chris Gabehart argued that Hamlin should have restarted second.

But once the race resumed, the matter was over for NASCAR. Or so it seemed.

Three minutes after the green flag waved, the NASCAR Twitter account posted in-car video that showed Byron running into the back of Hamlin’s car while the caution was out. Such action is typically a penalty — often parking a driver for the rest of the race. Instead, Byron was allowed to continue and nothing was done during the rest of the event. 

After the race, Miller told reporters that series officials didn’t see the contact from Byron. 

“The cameras and the monitors that we’ve got, we dedicate them mostly to officiating and seeing our safety vehicles and how to dispatch them,” Miller said. “By the time we put all those cameras up (on the monitor in the control tower), we don’t have room for all of the in-car cameras to be monitored.

“If we would have had immediate access to (Byron)’s in-car camera, that would have helped us a lot, being able to find that quickly. That’s definitely one of the things we’re looking at.”

But it didn’t happen that way.

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

NASCAR didn’t act. By that time maybe it was too late to do so. But that’s also an issue. Shouldn’t the infraction be addressed immediately if it is clear what happened instead of days later? Shouldn’t officials have been provided with access to the in-car cameras so they could have seen Byron’s actions earlier and meted the proper punishment? Instead, Miller hinted at a possible penalty to Byron this week.

Miller didn’t reveal details but it wouldn’t be surprising to drop Byron in the field, costing him points. He’s 24 points from the cutline, so a penalty that drops him from seventh to 30th (the position ahead of Truex) could be logical and that would cost Byron 23 points, putting him near the cutline. 

Texas winner Tyler Reddick said something should have been done. He knows. He was parked in a 2014 Truck race at Pocono for wrecking German Quiroga in retaliation for an earlier incident.

“In William’s situation, whether he ran him over on accident or on purpose, there should be some sort of penalty for him on that side because he’s completely screwed someone’s race up, whether it was on purpose or not,” Reddick said. “I feel like there should be something done there.

“I’m sure (NASCAR will) make some sort of a decision. I’m sure there will be something they’ll address this week, updates, on NASCAR’s side. I’ll be curious to see what that is. We can’t really have this where you dump someone under caution, they go to the back and you don’t. That could potentially be an interesting situation in the future.”

Texas shuffles NASCAR Cup playoff standings

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Texas marked the fourth consecutive playoff race that the winner didn’t advance to the next round.

All three races in the first round were won by drivers not in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick won Sunday at Texas, a week after he failed to advance from the Round of 16 and was eliminated from title contention.

Texas did shake up the playoff standings. Chase Elliott entered as the points leader but a blown tire while leading sent his car into the wall, ending his race. He falls to the No. 8 spot, the final transfer position with two races left in this round. He’s tied with Daniel Suarez, but Suarez has the tiebreaker with a better finish this round.

Chase Briscoe, who scored only his second top 10 in the last 22 races, is the first driver outside a transfer spot. He’s four points behind Elliott and Suarez. Austin Cindric is 11 points out of the transfer spot. Christopher Bell is 29 points out of a transfer position. Alex Bowman is 30 points from the transfer line.

The series races Sunday at Talladega (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

 

XFINITY SERIES

Noah Gragson’s win at Texas moved him on to the next round. The win was his fourth in a row.

Ryan Sieg and Sam Mayer are tied for the final two transfer spots to the next round. Riley Herbst is one point behind them. Daniel Hemric is eight points from the final transfer spot. Brandon Jones is 13 points from the last transfer spot. Jeremy Clements is 29 points shy of the final transfer position.

The series races Saturday at Talladega (4 p.m. ET on USA Network).

 

 

CAMPING WORLD TRUCK SERIES

The series was off this past weekend but returns to the track Saturday at Talladega. Ty Majeski has advanced to the championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

 

Winners and losers at Texas Motor Speedway

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A look at the winners and losers from Sunday’s marathon race at Texas Motor Speedway:

WINNERS

Tyler Reddick – Reddick isn’t acting like a lame duck. Headed for 23XI Racing in 2024 (if not sooner), Reddick now owns three wins with Richard Childress Racing, the team he’ll be leaving.

Justin Haley – Haley, who has shown flashes of excellence this season for Kaulig Racing, matched his season-high with a third-place run.

Chase Briscoe — Briscoe wrestled with major problems in the early part of the race but rebounded to finish fifth. It’s his second top-10 finish in the last 22 races.

LOSERS

NASCAR Officials – Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, admitted that series officials missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution after Martin Truex Jr.‘s crash. Such a situation could have major playoff implications, although Miller hinted that series officials may still act this week.

Christopher Bell – Bell met the wall twice after blown tires and finished a sour 34th, damaging his playoff run in a race that he said was critical in the playoffs.

Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. – Harvick (finished 19th) and Truex (31st) were late-race victims of the day’s tire dilemma. Both crashed while leading.

Track workers  Somebody had to clean up all that tire debris.

Chase Elliott – Elliott remains a power in the playoffs, but he left Sunday’s race in a fiery exit after a blown tire while leading and finished 32nd. He holds the final transfer spot to the next round heading into Talladega.

 

 

Blown tires end race early for several Texas contenders

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FORT WORTH, Texas — A Goodyear official said that air pressures that teams were using contributed to some drivers blowing tires in Sunday’s Cup playoff race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. all crashed while leading after blowing a tire. Among the others who had tire issues were Alex Bowman, Chris Buescher Cole Custer and Christopher Bell twice. 

“We’re gaining as much information as we can from the teams, trying to understand where they are with regard to their settings, air pressures, cambers, suspicions,” said Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing Sunday. “For sure I can say without a doubt air pressure is playing into it. We know where a lot of the guys are. Some were more aggressive than others. We know that plays a part.

MORE: NASCAR says it missed William Byron spinning Denny Hamlin under caution 

“I’m not saying that’s the only thing, but it’s certainly a factor, so we’re just trying to understand everything else that is going on with regard to specific teams. We know a lot of guys have not had issues. We’ve had guys put full fuel runs on tires, but, obviously, other guys have had issues. We’ll be working with them to try to sort through that is.”

Eight of the 16 cautions were related to tire failures that caused drivers to spin or crash.

“It’s not a good look, that’s for sure,” Ryan Blaney said of the tire issues others had. “How many leaders blew tires tonight? Three or four?

“You just don’t understand what is making these things do that. From last week to this week, it’s really unfortunate. It’s just luck now.

“You never know if you’re going to blow one. You go into (Turn) 3 almost every lap with 40 laps on your stuff and I don’t know if one is going to blow out or not. That’s not safe. That’s for sure. Running (180) into (Turn) 3 and the thing blows out and you have no time to react to it. It’s unfortunate. I hope we can figure that out.”

Blaney said he was confused that the tires were blowing partly into a run instead of much earlier.

“It was weird because those tires didn’t blow right away,” he said. “Like the pressures were low. They blew like after a cycle or two on them, which is the weird thing.”

Asked how he handles that uncertainty, Blaney said: “Nothing I can do about it. Just hope and pray.”

After his crash, Elliott was diplomatic toward Goodyear’s situation:

“I’m not sure that Goodyear is at fault,” he said. “Goodyear always takes the black eye, but they’re put in a really tough position by NASCAR to build a tire that can survive these types of racetracks with this car. I wouldn’t blame Goodyear.”

Tyler Reddick, who won Sunday’s race at Texas, said his team made adjustments to the air pressure settings after Saturday’s practice.

“We ran enough laps, were able to see that we had been too aggressive on our right front tire,” he said. “So we made some adjustments going into the race, thankfully.”

This same time was used at Kansas and will be used again at Las Vegas next month in the playoffs. 

Reddick is hopeful of a change but also knows it might take time.

“I just think to a degree, potentially, as these cars have gotten faster and we’re getting more speed out of them, maybe, hypothetically speaking, we’re putting the cars through more load and more stress on the tire than they ever really thought we would be,” he said. 

“I know Goodyear will fix it. That’s what they do. It’s going to be a process. I know they’re going to be on top of it. Hey, they don’t want to see those failures. We don’t want to see them either. They’re going to be working on looking through and trying to find out exactly what is going on. We’ll all learn from it.

“It’s a brand-new car. It’s the first time in the history of our sport we’ve gone to an 18-inch wheel and independent rear suspension. All these things are way different, diffuser. All these things, way different. We’re all learning together. Unfortunately, just the nature of it, we’re having tire failures.”