16 drivers, 16 questions: Analyzing the NASCAR Cup playoff field


After 26 races this season, there’s no telling what will happen during the Cup playoffs.

The difference between second and 16th in the points is as close as it has been in recent years. Only 22 points separate second and last among the playoff field. Last year, that gap was 47 points at the start of the playoffs. In 2019, it was 30 points. In 2018, the gap was 50 points.

“If you have one bad race in one playoff round, it’s like six bad races in a row in the regular season,” Denny Hamlin told NBC Sports. “The implications are that high.”

The pressure builds leading into Sunday’s Southern 500 playoff opener at Darlington Raceway (6 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Before the green flag waves, here’s a look at a key question for each of the 16 playoff drivers:

1. Kyle Larson (2052 points)

Is this title his to lose?

Larson is the motorsports version of a big-game hunter, having won such major races this year as the Coca-Cola 600, the All-Star Race, the Chili Bowl Nationals and the Knoxville Nationals.

But his last championship?

It came in 2012 when he won a title in what was then called the K&N Pro Series East.

“I haven’t really gotten to race for a lot of championships,” Larson told NBC Sports, referring to his racing career before moving to NASCAR. “Once I got to NASCAR, that’s kind of the only championships I’ve chased.”

This is Larson’s fifth Cup playoff appearance. He’s never made it to the championship race.

But he’s never had a season like this, winning five points races, scoring 52 playoff points and claiming the title for the regular season. He finished first or second in 10 of the 26 races in the regular season.

“It would mean a lot to us and our race team and all of us,” Larson said of winning the title this season. “This team was the 48 team before I came, and a lot of them on the team have experienced a lot of championships with Jimmie (Johnson). Those last three years of his career were tough on everybody. … If we’re able to win it, it would kind of reward all those guys for their hard work for the past few seasons. That would be the coolest thing to me.”

2. Ryan Blaney (2024 points)

Can he ride the momentum to a championship?

No one comes into the playoffs hotter than Blaney. He won the last two races of the regular season and finished second in the race before his winning streak began.

Blaney is making his fifth playoff appearance. Twice he reached the Round of 8 but failed to reach the title race. Chase Elliott had never made it to the championship race until last year and he won his first crown. Could Blaney follow his friend and win his first Cup championship this year?

One thing certain about Blaney is his growth as a driver and team leader at Team Penske.

“I feel like young Ryan Blaney is gone,” teammate Joey Logano told NBC Sports. “It’s Ryan Blaney the race car driver now, where he has learned how to finish races. He’s learned how to position himself toward the front and take advantage of an opportunity when he may not have the fastest car. That’s how you win. That’s how those things happen.

“To see him do that, on top of the teammate he’s been to me lately and how assertive he is in our team meetings in guiding us along and doing his fair share and his role there, all those are great things to see in a teammate.”

3. Martin Truex Jr. (2024 points)

Do wins earlier in the year at Darlington, Martinsville and Phoenix still matter?

Truex was viewed as the title favorite when he won three races at tracks that will host key playoff races earlier this season.

But the results lately have one wondering if he’ll be a title contender when the series competes at Martinsville and Phoenix to end the season.

Truex has four top-10 finishes in the last 10 races.

“It’s just been a tough summer,” he said.

Two pit road penalties and a late stop for fuel led to a 22nd-place finish at Nashville in June. He ran less than half the race in the top 15, finishing 18th in the first Pocono race. He finished ninth at Road America but it could have been better. Pit strategy was going to put him in the lead, but he was caught speeding on pit road.

Running second in the early laps at New Hampshire, he hit the wall when NASCAR did not call a caution for rain soon enough. He had to pit early for tire rub after contact at the Indianapolis road course and later was involved in an incident before finishing 15th. At Michigan, he was hit from behind early and the team had to make repairs before he finished 10th.

“We’ve been fast,” Truex said. “We’ve just had a lot of hurdles to overcome, so that’s been tough. We’ve been fast, and I feel good about the team. The pit crew has gelled. They are clicking well, and things are going well there. I feel fine. I’m not worried at all.”

4. Kyle Busch (2022 points)

Is he the favorite to top the Hendrick drivers for the championship?

Hendrick Motorsports is the favorite entering the playoffs. Even with Ryan Blaney’s two-race winning streak, Kyle Busch has been one of the strongest drivers with seven top-five finishes in the last 12 races.

“The Hendrick guys obviously are strong,” Busch said. “We’ve had our years of dominance where you have asked all those drivers ‘Where is Toyota beating you? Why are they better?’ I get it, but it’s just a thing where we’ve got to work hard with what we’ve got.

“Unfortunately, we feel as though we have to be perfect in order to compete with them. They don’t have to be perfect and are still going to be fast. But we wouldn’t be close if we weren’t perfect.

“That lends itself to a much tighter box that we have to race in, and it’s just due to the (parts freeze with the Next Gen car debuting next season).

“There’s nothing going on. There’s no development going on. Everything is really, really limited with the stuff that you can do. Everything is all built out with what you’ve got because of the new car coming, so that’s how I see it.”

5. CHASE ELLIOTT (2021 points)

What will it take to repeat?

Elliott has said that winning last year’s championship didn’t change much for him. He goes into these playoffs taking a similar approach to last year.

“To me, the message is really no different than it was last year,” he said. “To me, it’s just about enjoying those big moments. If you don’t enjoy them, you’re never going to thrive in them. A big moment typically means it means something to you and it typically means there’s opportunity for something big at the end of it.  

You have to like it. I mean, that’s to me the biggest piece of the whole puzzle. I don’t think that message will ever change, whether you have zero championships, or you have 15. I feel like that’s the single most important piece of how this playoff format works. It promotes winning, and winning in big situations.”

Elliott enters the playoffs with 12 top-10 finishes in the last 16 races of the regular season.

6. Alex Bowman (2015 points)

Can this team find the consistency to be a title contender?

Bowman has three wins but also has seven finishes of 20th or worse. He has not had more than four top 10s in a row this season.

“We’re just not consistent,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “We’re streaky. Can be really good for a couple of weeks and then struggle.”

Last year, the Hendrick Motorsports driver finished sixth in points after reaching the Round of 8.

“Last year we had a great playoff run,” he said.

It’s just a matter of if this team can build on that and find the consistency that has been lacking this season. If so, Bowman could be one to watch during these final 10 races.

7. DENNY HAMLIN (2015 points)

Can he go from not winning a race in the regular season to winning his first Cup crown?

Hamlin led the points for much of the year until Kyle Larson passed him late in the regular season. The consistency has been there for Hamlin, but he hasn’t won this season.

Hamlin scored more points than any playoff driver at the seven tracks the series raced this season that will host playoff races — this doesn’t include Bristol since it was dirt in the spring. Hamlin had 299 points, avenging 42.7 pints per race.

That will get him only so far. He’ll likely have to win at some point to reach the title race for a third consecutive year.

This is the 15th time Hamlin has been in the playoffs, tied for most in series history. Yet, he still is looking for his first Cup crown.

“I have to make sure I do my job to 100%,” he told NBC Sports. “Hopefully, the car is fast enough, and hopefully the breaks fall my way. They haven’t yet. You keep showing up in the final four and eventually they will.”

8. William Byron (2014 points)

Will lessons learned from last year’s early exit fuel a long playoff run?

Byron is the only drive to score a top-10 finish this season at every track that will host a playoff race (that includes Bristol, which was a dirt race in the spring).

If he can continue that, he could go deep into the playoffs and avoid repeating the disappointment of last year’s playoffs when he was eliminated after the first round. That memory fuels him.

“How much of a bummer it was to be out that early and how much of the season was left that we didn’t really get to compete for,” Byron told NBC Sports about the lingering memories of last year’s playoffs. “It was a lot of time spent thinking. Having an early exit like that is just tough.”

9. JOEY LOGANO (2013 points)

Can he avoid the odd-year hex?

Logano has made the championship race four times, winning the title once. All four championship race appearances came in even-numbered years: 2014, ’16, ’18 and ’20.

He reached the Round of 8 in 2015 and ’19 but did not advance to the title race. Logano missed the playoffs in 2017. If you’re into numerology, this isn’t a good sign for Logano this season.

Logano isn’t focused on such numbers, though.

“These next 10 weeks are, in my mind, really fun,” he told NBC Sports. “They’re hard, they’re grueling and they’re sometimes stressful, but you always become better at the end of it. Ether way, win or lose, you become better. I guess that’s what drives me. I want to be better tomorrow than I am today. The playoffs allow you to do that.”

10. Brad Keselowski (2008 points)

Can he win one more title before leaving Team Penske?

Keselowski used the slogan “Why not us” for last year’s playoff run. It almost worked. He finished second to Chase Elliott and would have won the title had the team’s execution been better on pit road at Phoenix.

Keselowski said he doesn’t have a slogan for this year’s playoff. If he so chooses, it could simply be something like “One last ride,” as he completes his tenure at Team Penske this season before moving to Roush Fenway Racing next year.

Of course, a rallying cry doesn’t have to be just a saying. It could just as easily be a song, he noted. Keselowski said that he started listening to a lot of music by U2 this summer

“That was my inspirational band,” he told NBC Sports.

“It just came on one of my playlists and it just hit me. Just a feeling. I think it was really part of the emotional experience of leaving Penske and the new opportunities.”

After winning a Cup title in 2012, he continues to search for his second title.

Or as U2 sings: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.”

Should he win that title this year, he could say, as U2 sings, that it would be a “Beautiful Day.”

11. Kurt Busch (2008 points)

Can a team that will go away this season win the title?

Trackhouse Racing’s purchase of Chip Ganassi Racing this season means that Ganassi will go away from NASCAR after this year.

If Busch won the championship, it would be quite a way to exit the series. The challenge, though, is that team members could be worried about their future and looking for new jobs while in the playoffs.

Busch, who is in his 15th Cup playoffs, told NBC Sports that he spoke to the team after his Atlanta win and urged the team to focus ahead.

“We’ve got these 10 weeks in the playoffs that I need everybody to focus on the hood ornament of their car — just stay focused on what’s right in front of you and then things will unfold for the future where you don’t have to panic,” Busch said he told the team.

“I’m asking everybody, stay committed, stay with us, stay focused right now, but know that we are winners here. We’re in the playoffs. We’ve won races together. Your resumes have been built up even stronger to be more successful later on.”

12. Christopher Bell (2005 points)

Can he deliver Joe Gibbs Racing another title?

Bell makes his first Cup playoff appearance and is confident even though he starts behind much of the field because of limited playoff points.

Asked this week why someone should bet on him to win the title, Bell had plenty to say.

“You should bet on me because the tracks in the playoffs are all really good racetracks for us,” he said. “No. 2, we definitely have been getting better over the course of the season. We haven’t put it all together yet to be a championship-caliber team, but I think we’re headed in that direction.

“Round 1 should be a really good round for us. We’ve been to two tracks this year, and they’ve been two of my best races this year. Bristol is a great racetrack for Joe Gibbs Racing and a great racetrack for me.

“Charlotte Roval, a road course we should be extremely strong at, and I almost won Texas last year. The path is there. Just have to see if we can execute and get better.”

13. Michael McDowell (2005 points)

Is he just happy to be in the playoffs?

He’s happy but that doesn’t mean the Daytona 500 winner is satisfied.

“I feel like we have the speed and the momentum to surprise some people in the playoffs, but we’re also realistic of where we’re at,” the Front Row Motorsports driver said.

“I have to have three incredible races in order to advance in the next round, and I know that. We know that. We’re not naive to it.

“We know where we’re at as a race team and what we need to do, so we’ve got to hit home runs here the next three races. If we don’t, we won’t advance. We all know that and we’re ready to see what happens.”

14. Aric Almirola (2005 points)

After struggles this season, will this team take big gambles in the playoffs? 

Almirola finished the regular season with the fewest points of the playoff drivers. He was 23rd in the points before the reset for playoff drivers. Almirola earned his playoff spot with a win at New Hampshire.

This season has not been easy for the No. 10 team at Stewart-Haas Racing. Almirola has six finishes of 30th or worse. He placed 20th or worse in 12 of the season’s first 16 races.

Since Nashville, this team has shown progress, scoring a win and nine top-20 finishes in the last 10 races.

Still, that likely won’t be enough to advance far in the playoffs. So, is it time for this team to take some big gambles in the playoffs?

“Taking big swings and going off on science experiments rarely works,” Almirola said. “You’re throwing darts hoping that one sticks. You have to go off knowledge you have, a notebook you have. And make smart, educated decisions.

“We’re not in a situation of throwing caution to the wind with Hail Marys or science experiments for setups. It’s about maximizing what we do have. We know our 750 package is good. Let’s be great at that. Let’s run all the races that are short tracks or 750 packages. Let’s be great on those days.

“The 550s, let’s score every point and get the best finish we can. If we find ourselves in a situation to pull something off strategy-wise, we’ll evaluate it. Our mindset is focus on the details. Do all the little things right. Score every point you can.”

15. Tyler Reddick (2003 points)

Will the grind wear down this team in the playoffs?

Six races into the season, Reddick was 28th in the points. He and his Richard Childress Racing team had to claw their way back into playoff contention and hold off teammate Austin Dillon in the final weeks of the regular season.

“We have kind of had to just grind, grind, grind to get out of the hole we were in,” Reddick told NBC Sports. “I think having that mindset going into this of ‘get the finish, get the finish, be consistent, score points if we can,’ is good, especially for this first round.”

But could that grind earlier this year prove to be too much and wear this team down in the playoffs?

“I don’t feel like it’s gotten to that point at all,” Reddick said. “If anything, we’re becoming more and more bought into our process and how we go about things because it’s shown to work for us so well this year.”

16. Kevin Harvick (2002 points)

Will he make it out of the first round?

This has been a difficult year for Stewart-Haas Racing, which has one win this season. Harvick, who won nine races last year, remains winless this season.

Even with the struggles this team has had, Harvick scored 16 top-10 finishes this year.

“I’ve been through 10 races in the playoffs a number of times and they’re all different,” Harvick told NBC Sports. “You have to be prepared for anything.

“As you look at the past, it never goes as planned. There are always things that happen are unexpected. Every lap matters and you’ve got to make each one of them count and try to make as few as mistakes as possible and see where it all lands in the end.”

Harvick said he’s not making any changes for the playoffs after the way the regular season has gone.

“You have the same preparation,” he said. “You can’t just go in and start changing things and say ‘I’m going to do this different, that different, this different and that different’ because it just never works.”

Wisconsin winners: Ty Majeski races in tire tracks of Alan Kulwicki


Ty Majeski was born 16 months after the April 1, 1993, plane crash that killed NASCAR Cup Series champion Alan Kulwicki.

It would be years later before Majeski, who grew up in Wisconsin racing go-karts, would hear of Kulwicki’s auto racing record and begin to appreciate what he had built from scratch while learning to race in the same Midwestern environment.

Kulwicki, also a Wisconsin native, won the 1992 Cup championship, scoring a significant upset by outrunning well-financed teams with his much smaller and nimbler outfit. An accomplished driver, Kulwicki turned down offers to race for other teams because he wanted to do things “my way,” as he often said. That became a theme of his rise through the sport.

Tragically, Kulwicki and three business associates died in a private plane crash barely four months after he had celebrated winning the 1992 title. They were flying to eastern Tennessee 30 for that weekend’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.

In 2015, to honor Kulwicki’s legacy and to assist young drivers trying to follow Kulwicki’s path to racing’s top levels, his family started the Kulwicki Driver Development Program. Managed by Tom Roberts, Kulwicki’s public relations director at the time of his death, the program chooses seven (Kulwicki’s car number) short-track drivers each year and supports them with money ($7,777 to each driver), advice and contact support inside racing circles. The drivers compete in a point system, and the seasonal champion wins $54,439.

Majeski won the first KDDP championship in 2015 and remains its most successful graduate. Thirty years after Kulwicki’s death, Majeski is a full-time competitor in the Craftsman Truck Series and reached that circuit’s Championship Four last year, finishing fourth. With three top 10s this season, he is second in the standings.

Kulwicki made what he called the “Polish victory lap” a staple of his NASCAR wins. After taking the checkered flag, he took a lap in the opposite direction, waving to fans along the way. Other drivers, including Majeski, have adopted it.

Majeski won the 2020 Snowball Derby Super Late Model race in Pensacola, Florida and repeated the Kulwicki lap once more.

“The Snowball Derby is such an exciting race, and the crowd was amped up,” Majeski said. “It was cool for people in Florida to recognize ‘the Polish victory lap’ from a guy from Wisconsin.”

Alan Kulwicki - 1992 NASCAR Cup Champion
Alan Kulwicki prepares for the start of a NASCAR Cup race at Richmond in 1992. (Photo by ISC Images & Archives via Getty Images)

Kulwicki famously labeled his NASCAR Ford an “Underbird” (modified from Thunderbird) to underline his status as an underdog driver. Majeski said his career has been much the same.

“I never had the luxury of landing a huge corporate sponsor or my family being able to fund my way through the levels,” he said. “I’ve just had to put myself in position to win races and surround myself with the best people I could with the resources I had. Sometimes I was at the right place at the right time, and some opportunities opened up. Some went well; some didn’t. My career has had ups and downs, but I have to pave my way.”

In 2015, when he won the Kulwicki Cup, Majeski won 18 short track races in 56 starts. That success led to a driver development deal with Roush Fenway Racing. He scored three top 10s in 15 Xfinity Series races for Roush, then moved on to Niece Motorsports in the Truck Series before landing with ThorSport’s Truck team in 2021. In 2022, his first full season, he won twice, scored 10 top fives and finished fourth in the point standings.

Majeski, now 28 years old, said he has tried to set himself apart from other rising drivers by being involved in all aspects of the team, much as Kulwicki was.

“I think what people maybe don’t understand about Alan is that, yes, he was a great race car driver, but he was so smart from every avenue it takes to be good in motorsports,” Majeski said. “From a business perspective, from an engineering standpoint, from a driving standpoint, he was able to take all his strengths and put it all together and put the correct people around him to be successful.

“In every NASCAR opportunity I’ve had, I’ve worked at the shop in some capacity. I’ve tried to show ambition and the want to get better and to get the team to sort of corral around me.

“Alan won a championship doing that, and I don’t know how you could be any prouder of what you accomplished than that. I was always very inspired by that. I sort of set my career and my mindset around what he did.”

Richmond NASCAR Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather


The NASCAR Xfinity Series season has been an “alternate” one for driver Austin Hill.

Starting with a victory in the Daytona International Speedway season opener, Hill has won every other race, also scoring at Las Vegas and Atlanta. If that trend holds, Hill will win Saturday’s Xfinity race at Richmond Raceway after finishing 37th last week because of engine trouble at Circuit of the Americas.

Hill leads the points standings entering Richmond. Second is Riley Herbst, who has two top-five runs this year.

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Richmond Raceway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 1:08 p.m. … The green flag is scheduled at 1:15 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 6 a.m. … The invocation will be given by Kaulig Racing President Chris Rice at 1 p.m. … The national anthem will be performed by Nashville recording artist Celeste Kellogg at 1:01 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 250 laps (187 miles) on the .750-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 75. Stage 2 ends at Lap 150.

TV/RADIO: FS1 will broadcast the race at 1 p.m. … NASCAR RaceDay airs at noon on FS1. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 12:30 p.m. and can be heard at mrn.com. … SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Mostly cloudy with a high of 68 degrees and a 15% chance of rain at the start of race.

LAST TIME: Ty Gibbs won last April’s Xfinity race at Richmond by .116 of a second over John Hunter Nemechek. Sam Mayer was third.

Friday 5: Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell on path to be NASCAR’s next superstars


NASCAR Hall of Famer Dale Jarrett says that he believes Tyler Reddick and Christopher Bell “are your next superstars that are coming.”

The NASCAR on NBC analyst also sees how the dirt racing backgrounds of Reddick and Bell go well with the Next Gen car and could influence car owners to look there for future drivers.

“I think they’re that good, that talented,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell. “The background that they come from, I think, means a lot with the way they can handle these cars and what they can get out of them that others have a more difficult time getting.

“These are the two names, in my opinion, that as long as they stay with their current teams right now, they’re in the best position (to succeed). It’s going to be hard to dominate in a respect, but they’re going to win more often than a lot of others out there.”

Reddick (four) and Bell (three) have combined to win seven of the last 25 Cup races, including Reddick’s victory last weekend at Circuit of the Americas.

Since the start of last year’s playoffs at Darlington Raceway, Bell has two wins, tied with Reddick and William Byron and trailing only reigning champion Joey Logano’s three wins. Bell’s 10 top 10s in that 16-race stretch are more than any driver in the series in that time except Denny Hamlin, who has 11 top 10s.

“I think what we’ve seen from them already,” Jarrett said of Reddick and Bell, “they’re just getting to the point now that they have the experience to know what to expect in these races at all different types of tracks.”

Both drivers have nearly the same number of starts. Reddick has 116 Cup starts, Bell has 114. Both have four Cup wins. Among current full-time Cup drivers, only Brad Keselowski scored more wins (eight) in his first 116 Cup starts than Reddick and Bell.

* Christopher Bell has 114 Cup starts                                             List is active full-time Cup drivers only

The next three races set up well for Bell, starting this weekend at Richmond Raceway. The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has finished sixth or better in the last four Richmond races, including a runner-up result there last August.

Then comes the dirt race at Bristol. The 28-year-old will be among the favorites due to his extensive dirt racing background. Following Bristol is Martinsville. While Ross Chastain is remembered for his video game move the last time the series raced there, it was Bell who won the race. It marked the second time in the playoffs that Bell had to win to advance and did.

“The sky is definitely the limit,” crew chief Adam Stevens said of Bell after they won the Charlotte Roval playoff race last October. “He’s young. He’s getting better at a tremendous rate. He’s already extremely good. You can’t hide the talent that he has.”

It was that same type of talent that led 23XI Racing to sign Reddick last summer for the 2024 season. Once Richard Childress Racing got Kyle Busch for this season, the team released Reddick from the final year of his contract and allowed him to join 23XI Racing starting this season.

The 27-year-old Reddick is making an impact with his new team. Toyotas struggled last year on road courses — even with Bell winning at the Charlotte Roval. Reddick had the dominant car at COTA, giving Toyota its first victory of the season.

“It’s why I went after him as early as I did,” said Hamlin, co-owner of 23XI Racing, after Reddick’s victory last weekend. “I wanted to get the jump on all the other teams because I knew he was going to be the most coveted free agent in a very, very long time. That’s why I got the jump on it. It cost me a lot of money to do it, but it pays dividends.

“You have to have that driver that you feel like can carry you to championships and wins for decades. I think we have that guy. It’s not going to stop at road courses. Dirt racing, short tracks, speedways, he’s got what it takes on every racetrack we go to.”

After making his series debut in 2013, Reddick ran a majority of the 2014 Truck schedule for Brad Keselowski’s team. He finished second in points in 2015 and won three races with Keselowski’s team before moving to Chip Ganassi Racing’s Xfinity team in 2017.

Reddick went to JR Motorsports in 2018 and won the Xfinity championship. He repeated in 2019 but won the crown with Richard Childress Racing. He moved to RCR’s Cup program in 2020, breaking out with victories at Road America, the Indianapolis road course and Texas.

Bell’s path was groomed by Toyota Racing Development, taking him from the dirt tracks all the way to Cup. He claimed the 2017 Truck title and won 15 of 66 Xfinity starts (22.7%) in 2018-19, his two full-time seasons in that series.

Eventually, Joe Gibbs Racing and Toyota decided to replace Erik Jones with Bell in 2021. Bell had his breakout season last year, winning at New Hampshire, the Charlotte Roval and Martinsville.

Jarrett sees that talent in both Reddick and Bell, in part, from their dirt backgrounds.

“I really just believe it’s their car control is what I like the best,” Jarrett said. “You see someone like Reddick and what he did at COTA and what we saw him do a couple of times on road courses last year and the fact that he can make his car go that fast but yet not have to give up. That’s a talent that you’re able to do that.

“Christopher Bell does a lot of the same things. We see this come out on the short tracks and the difficult tracks where tire conservation means a little bit. It’s not that they’re trying to conserve the tire, it’s just their driving experience and driving abilities allow them not to abuse the tires on these cars as much as others are having to to try to match that speed that they have.”

2. What now?

In a rare public admission, NASCAR stated that it was “disappointed” that the National Motorsports Appeals Panel overturned some of the penalties to Hendrick Motorsports this week.

The Appeals Panel rescinded the 100-point penalty to Hendrick drivers Alex Bowman, William Byron and Kyle Larson, as well as the 10-point playoff penalty to each.

“A points penalty is a strong deterrent that is necessary to govern the garage following rule book violations, and we believe that it was an important part of the penalty in this case and moving forward,” NASCAR stated.

The Appeals Panel agreed with NASCAR that Hendrick Motorsports violated the rules by modifying the hood louvers of each of its cars. NASCAR discovered the issue before practice March 10 at Phoenix and took the hood louvers after that practice session.

The Appeals Panel kept the the $100,000 fines and four-race suspension to each of the four Hendrick crew chiefs for the infraction.

The Appeals Panel did not explain its reasoning for altering NASCAR’s penalty.

Hendrick Motorsports stated three key elements when it announced that it would appeal the penalties. Those three factors were:

  • “Louvers provided to teams through NASCAR’s mandated single-source supplier do not match the design submitted by the manufacturer and approved by NASCAR
  • “Documented inconsistent and unclear communication by the sanctioning body specifically related to louvers
  • “Recent comparable penalties issued by NASCAR have been related to issues discovered during a post-race inspection.”

When the National Motorsports Appeals Panel amended a NASCAR penalty last year — rescinding the 25-point penalty to William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin under caution at Texas but increasing Byron’s fine from $50,000 to $100,000 — NASCAR made a change to the Rule Book two days later.

NASCAR removed one word — or — so there was no option between a point penalty or fine but that such an infraction would constitute a point penalty and fine.

The question is if NASCAR will make any changes to the Rule Book this time to prevent the Appeals Panel from altering a similar penalty as the Hendrick infraction in such a way again — maybe something that more clearly states that an infraction found before a race is a point penalty.

This was only the second time in the Next Gen era that a team was penalized points for an infraction found before the race. The other case was when Cody Ware’s car failed pre-qualifying inspection four times. At the time, the Cup Rule Book stated that such an infraction was an L1 penalty. Such a penalty could result in a 20-point penalty, which Cody Ware and team owner Rick Ware received.

Another key question is what, if anything, will NASCAR do to improve quality control of parts that teams get from vendors.

Chad Knaus, Hendrick vice president of competition, said March 17 that more emphasis needed to be put on the quality of the parts coming to teams from single-source suppliers.

“We as a company, we in the garage, every one of these teams here are being held accountable to put their car out there to go through inspection and perform at the level they need to,” he said March 17 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. “The teams are being held accountable for doing that.

“Nobody is holding the single-source providers accountable at the level that they need to be to give us the parts we need. That goes through NASCAR’s distribution center and NASCAR’s approval process to get those parts, and we’re not getting the right parts.”

3. Single-file restarts

The overtime restarts last weekend at Circuit of the Americas have led to talk about if NASCAR should consider single-file restarts for all or some of its road courses.

Joey Logano discussed the notion on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio this week, saying: “There’s a lot of different opinions floating around. Probably the best I’ve heard is single-file restarts on road courses.”

The key issue is that at COTA and the Indianapolis road course both have a long straightaway for drivers to build speed before barreling into a sharp turn — at COTA it’s a hairpin left-hand turn, at Indy it’s a sharp right-hand turn.

Last year at Indy, Ryan Blaney was fourth on the last restart and got spun. While a single-file restart likely would have lessened the chances of such an incident, it also would have lowered Blaney’s chances to win because he would have been further away from the leader.

“The single-file restart is something I’ve been hearing around, and at some tracks I could see it working,” Blaney said, noting COTA and Indy.

He admits, that’s not the only idea.

“Do you move the restart zone?” Blaney said. “Do you give the leader more of an opening window of when to go? At COTA … do you give the leader the choice where he can go anytime between (Turn) 19 and the restart zone? So you kind of have like a short stint, slow down, turn, and then you have your long straightaway to where it kind of gaps everybody.

“You’re still doing double-file, but it kind of gaps (the cars) a little bit to where it’s not everyone nose-to-tail 15 rows deep diving in there. There’s a lot of differing opinions and ideas that are floating around, and we’ll see what we come up with, but, personally, from a driver’s standpoint it just gets messy.”

There’s time for NASCAR to decide if anything needs to be done. The next Xfinity race is June 3 at Portland. The next Cup road course race is June 11 at Sonoma.

“I don’t think you need to do anything for Sonoma,” Blaney said. “The way the restart zone is there it’s slow and you’re going up the hill right away. You don’t get the four-wide kind of thing there, so I don’t think Sonoma is anything we need to be working on.”

After that will be the inaugural Xfinity and Cup races at the Chicago street course on July 1-2. That course has a sharp left-hand turn shortly after the start/finish line that could replicate the chaos seen in restarts at COTA and Indy.

“I think Chicago is gonna be wild no matter what you do,” Blaney said.

4. Another new short track winner?

Sunday presents the opportunity for a ninth consecutive different winner of a short track race on pavement.

Here’s a look at those last eight winners:

Martin Truex Jr. (Richmond, September 2021)

Kyle Larson (Bristol, September 2021)

Alex Bowman (Martinsville, October 2021)

Denny Hamlin (Richmond, April 2022)

William Byron (Martinsville, April 2022)

Kevin Harvick (Richmond, August 2022)

Chris Buescher (Bristol, September 2022)

Christopher Bell (Martinsville, October 2022)

5. Race for cash

Saturday’s Xfinity Series race at Richmond marks the return of the Dash 4 Cash program.

JR Motorsports and Kaulig Racing have combined to win the $100,000 bonus each of the last 12 times. JR Motorsports has won it seven times, Kaulig Racing five times.

Of the four drivers eligible for the bonus Saturday, three race for JR Motorsports or Kaulig Racing: Justin Allgaier (JRM), Sam Mayer (JRM) and Daniel Hemric (Kaulig). The fourth driver is Sammy Smith for Joe Gibbs Racing.

Smokin’: Winston fueled NASCAR for 33 years

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Ranking historic moments in any sport is a risky business, but it’s difficult to deny that one of the biggest items in NASCAR’s 75-year history was the 33-year sponsorship of its top series by the R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Co. and its Winston cigarette brand.

When federal legislation derailed cigarette advertising on television, RJR moved its millions from the tube to the racetrack, transforming NASCAR forever and adding layers of financial strength to its teams, drivers and promoters.

From 1971-2003, NASCAR and RJR enjoyed one of the most powerful sponsorship relationships in the history of professional sports, each entity feeding off the other as stock car racing grew from a regional curiosity to a national phenomenon.

Although giant superspeedways had opened in several states in the late 1950s and 1960s, as the calendar turned to the 1970s NASCAR’s Grand National schedule remained frozen in another time. For an organization that hinted at joining the big leagues of pro sports and longed for television exposure that might take it there, NASCAR’s 48-race schedule was far too unwieldy and tied to shorter, smaller tracks with little or no national impact.

When RJR signed the dotted line to become the top-level series’ primary sponsor in 1971, the name changed from Grand National to Winston Cup Grand National (and later to simply Winston Cup), but the evolution of the title barely scratched the surface of the shifts to come. Working with ideas suggested by RJR officials, NASCAR did major surgery on the Cup schedule for the 1972 season, abandoning outposts like Beltsville, Maryland and Macon, Georgia to concentrate on a streamlined “national” schedule that emphasized big events and a year-long march toward a driving championship.

So the 1972 season opened with 31 races on the schedule, dramatically downsized from 48 in both 1970 and 1971. The RJR/Winston effect was on.

Great things were ahead. Reynolds dumped millions into speedway improvements, from the biggest of tracks to the smallest. Red and white (not surprisingly, Winston’s colors) paint was slapped on speedway walls and buildings, adding spice to tracks that had fallen on hard times. Billboards and other signage promoting races went up in communities near racetracks.

Purses at Cup Series tracks grew, and RJR added incentives, boosting season-end points money and designing programs like the Winston Million, which paid $1 million to a driver who could win three of what then were considered the sport’s biggest races: the Daytona 500, Winston 500 (at Talladega), Coca-Cola 600 and Southern 500.

The Winston, a rich all-star race, was added to the schedule. It continues today, although its name and format have changed over the years.

Perhaps most importantly, however, RJR invested millions in widespread and business-smart promotion of NASCAR, which, at the start of the 1970s, had a very limited – both in personnel and in dollars – public relations and communications presence. RJR unleashed dozens of public relations and marketing individuals into its NASCAR operations, bringing a professionalism and thoroughness rarely seen in such circles prior to the company’s arrival.

“I’ve been in this sport 50-plus years, and there have been some big moments,” team owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports. “R.J. Reynolds coming in was certainly one of the biggest. They brought in paint and built buildings and brought in media from all over the United States. And the billboards. I remember going to North Wilkesboro, and there was a big billboard about Winston and the race. That was a big deal back in the day – stuff that we never had before.”

Sports Marketing Enterprises, the sports arm of RJR, in effect became NASCAR’s public relations headquarters. SME employees produced annual NASCAR media guides, usually working through the Christmas holiday break to have updated editions ready for January distribution. Winston introduced weekly media phone press conferences with drivers, lobbied media outlets with little interest in NASCAR to cover races and developed fan experiences like the Winston Cup Preview, an annual January event in which drivers signed autographs for fans in a Winston-Salem, North Carolina, arena.

RJR also was instrumental in moving NASCAR’s annual Cup Series end-of-season awards banquet to the Waldorf-Astoria hotel in New York City, a change that put the sport and its drivers in the media capital of the world for a few late-autumn days.

Bill Elliott
Bill Elliott celebrates winning the Winston Million bonus Sept. 1, 1985, at Darlington Raceway. (Photo by ISC Archives/CQ-Roll Call Group via Getty Images)

“Anybody at NASCAR recognizes the role that Winston played in helping promote the sport from so many different angles,” Chris Powell, a former RJR employee and now the president of Las Vegas Motor Speedway, told NBC Sports. “There was no question that the sport was a great vehicle to advertise the product. So many other corporations recognized the possibilities of promoting their products through the sport. It all made it grow and grow.”

Steadily, as RJR’s influence in the sport grew, NASCAR tracks (from the Cup Series down to weekly tracks with NASCAR affiliations) were splashed with Winston red and white. Women wearing Winston outfits offered fans entering tracks a free pack of Winstons if they would trade the brand they smoked. Red and white Winston “show” cars appeared in on-track parades prior to races and at events in towns hosting races.

The Winston name and colors were seemingly everywhere in and around tracks. If you weren’t a smoker entering the facility, you might be converted being there all day; and if you were a smoker but used a competing brand you might consider switching. The Winston presence was commanding.

As a former RJR employee put it, “It was about moving the sticks,” in-house vernacular for cigarettes.

“We were always in a tussle to outdo Marlboro,” Powell said. “There was data to show to executive management in the company that adult smokers who were NASCAR fans were more likely to be Winston smokers.”

RJR involved NASCAR drivers in all manner of activities. Race-week golf events sponsored by the company brought together drivers, NASCAR and track officials and others with track tie-ins. Winston representatives invited drivers and their team members to dinner gatherings during race weeks, with the check often reaching into four figures.

Jimmy Spencer #23
In April 1999, Jimmy Spencer runs practice laps at Bristol Motor Speedway in a Ford sponsored by Winston. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Allsport)

RJR often scheduled events pairing drivers and media members with an eye toward enhancing relations between the two. During a Talladega race week, a Winston skeetshooting competition resulted in Jeff Gordon, not particularly known as an outdoorsman, defeating big-game hunter Dale Earnhardt, who was so shocked by the result that he was seen closely examining his rifle in the aftermath.

Winston employees became involved in almost every official operation – and some not so official — related to race weekends. At Pocono one year, several Winston operatives, quite aware of the traffic difficulties associated with exiting the track after races, basically created a new exit route through a nearby wooded area.

The RJR ties to NASCAR included sponsorship of drivers and teams. Long-time Cup driver Jimmy Spencer ran for teams carrying Winston and Camel cigarettes sponsorship.

“They were probably the best sponsor I ever drove for,” Spencer told NBC Sports. “They knew what it took. They were all about promoting and all about the fans. That’s what made the sport grow. It will never be as big as it was with them. I remember (late NASCAR president) Bill France Jr. telling me it would change the sport forever.”

The key RJR officials involved with NASCAR were Ralph Seagraves, who started the Winston racing program, and T. Wayne Robertson, who directed operations through years when the Winston presence expanded significantly.

“T. Wayne was a hell of a visionary,” Spencer said. “Everybody around him learned so much. I remember him saying that they weren’t coming into the sport to take over, that they were there to help. ‘We don’t want to be bullies,’ he said. ‘We want to move it to the next level.’ ”

Some insiders predicted that Robertson, who was widely respected across motorsports and sports marketing, eventually would move into a management role with NASCAR. Tragically, he died in 1998 at the age of 47 in a boating accident.

RJR’s talent pool produced leaders who moved on to more prominent roles in racing. In addition to Powell becoming LVMS president, Ty Norris moved from RJR to lead Dale Earnhardt’s racing team and now is president of Trackhouse Racing. Curtis Gray worked at RJR before becoming president at Homestead-Miami Speedway. Grant Lynch, who directed sports operations for RJR, became president at Talladega Superspeedway and a key lieutenant for NASCAR and its ruling France family. Jeff Byrd, who was involved in media operations at RJR, became president at Bristol Motor Speedway.