Friday 5: Chase Elliott embraces challenge of Roval, playoff cutoff race

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Chase Elliott seeks his third consecutive victory at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval this weekend, but the reigning Cup champion also faces playoff elimination.

He is among a group of former Cup champions at or near the cutline heading into Sunday’s Round of 12 cutoff race (2 p.m. ET, NBC).

Elliott and two-time Cup champ Kyle Busch hold the final two transfer spots. They are both nine points ahead of former champion Kevin Harvick, the first driver outside a transfer position.

“Well, it could always be worse, right?,” Elliott said of his spot in the standings.

Elliott knows quite well that a driver more than 20 points from the cutline in an elimination race still can advance. He’s done it in each of the past two years.

In 2019, Elliott entered the Round of 12 cutoff race 22 points from the cutline. He finished second at Kansas and beat Brad Keselowski, who placed 19th, by three points to take the last transfer spot.

Last year, Elliott entered the Round of 8 cutoff race 25 points from the cutline. He won at Martinsville to clinch a spot in the championship race at Phoenix. He won the title the following week.

It’s easy to expect Elliott to win Sunday at the Roval – or at least advance to the next round – because of his road course success. His two wins this season came at Circuit of the Americas and Road America. Elliott has won seven of the last 13 Cup road course events and is the favorite this weekend.

But the Roval hasn’t been easy for Elliott despite the victories.

He crashed into the Turn 1 barrier while leading the 2019 race and fell to 37th before winning. Last year, Elliott gave up second place to pit before a restart because of a loose left front wheel. He dropped to 36th before he came back to win.

“It’s a challenging place,” Elliott said of the Roval. “There’s just not a lot of forgiveness at that particular course. There’s nowhere to go if you make a mistake or run off course or whatever. It’s definitely a really fine balance.”

Even with those challenges, Elliott looks to Sunday’s race with excitement, reaffirming the mantra he had last year in embracing big moments.

“You better like having your back against the wall and have to perform, because if you ever want to win, that’s how it’s going to be,” he said.

Elliott also knows that Sunday’s race could be a roller-coaster affair with the differing strategies of playoff drivers. Some playoff drivers will go for points in each stage, while others will focus on winning the race.

What it means is that there may be times Elliott is shuffled to the middle of the pack due to the various strategies.

“You don’t want to sit there and count points, right?” he said of focusing on the playoff standings during the race. “But at the same time, you certainly want to be aware of what’s going on, at least leading it. And that’s kind of my approach. … The best way to get points is to go and win the stages. They offer 10 points to win each stage and that’s a lot.

“So, I would like to have both of those and would certainly like to have another (win) sticker. So, my goal is to retrieve all three.”

2. Just go win

Joining Kevin Harvick below the cutline heading into the Roval are Christopher Bell (-28 points from the cutline), William Byron (-44) and Alex Bowman (-52).

While Harvick could advance via points, Bell views his situation as needing to win to make the Round of 8.

“If we go out here and have an exceptional day, it’s still going to take some bad luck on the other competitors for us to make it,” Bell said this week at the Roval.

Bell could be one to watch because of his victory at the Daytona road course in February. He says that track is most similar to the Roval. That’s just one of a few road courses he’s had strong runs this season.

Bel finished second at Road America. At Watkins Glen, he was second on Lap 55 of the 90-lap race when contact from Kyle Larson caused Bell to drop back to 10th. Bell went on to finish seventh but the fallout from the incident continued afterward.

Bell’s focus is on the Roval and trying to ensure that all four Joe Gibbs Racing cars advance to the next round.

“I think this is a place that we all thought we can compete for a win,” Bell said. “I expect us to run good. Hopefully, we’ll be there at the end of the day.”

3. Next for the Next Gen car

Several Cup teams are scheduled to test the Next Gen car Monday and Tuesday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

For Chase Elliott and Kevin Harvick, among others, it will be their first time to drive the car. Harvick said he had planned to be at the shop this week to figure out the shifting “so I can figure out how to get out of the garage stall and not embarrass myself.” The Next Gen car features a sequential five-speed shifter, a departure from the traditional four-speed H-pattern.

One of the concerns with the car has been the heat drivers have experienced.

“They’ve got to fix that,” Joey Logano said. “That’s a must-fix. It’s too hot, way too hot. If they don’t do anything, they’re going to have drivers passing out. … I’m interested to see what they come up with. It’s not a new issue with the cars. It’s been an issue for a while.”

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, notes that much work remains for the Next Gen car before it debuts in the Feb. 6 NASCAR Clash at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.

“This isn’t just an evolution,” Wilson said. “We’re taking the seat out of the current car and throwing the rest away. We can’t minimize that. … We’re going to be working on this car while we’re racing it next year and that’s to be expected. No one should be surprised.”

As for what he hopes to see from the test, Wilson said: “Hopefully, we continue to make some progress in the drivability characteristics of the car, steering system and, again, just see how they race together. We only have one data point with more than three cars on track together.

“Right now, we’re going to have multiple cars on track. See how they respond. See how they behave aerodynamically. We’ll be drinking through a firehose observing that.”

Other Next Gen tests are scheduled for November at the Charlotte Motor Speedway oval, December at Phoenix and January at Daytona.

Austin Cindric, who takes over the No. 2 car at Team Penske next season, will take part in next week’s test. He notes it’s important because it is the only test scheduled on a road course. Next year’s Cup schedule has six road course races.

4. New experience

With Todd Gordon retiring as a crew chief after this season, Ryan Blaney had to go through the process of finding and interviewing a candidate.

“That was a different deal for me,” Blaney said.

Blaney will have Jonathan Hassler as his crew chief next season. Hassler has served as Matt DiBenedetto’s crew chief since early June

Blaney said he went to Gordon for advice on questions to ask Hassler when they sat down to discuss the position.

“I had a list of questions I kind of wanted to ask (Hassler), both racing and personally,” Blaney said. “I asked Todd about it. Todd has plenty of experience (so I asked) ‘What’s a good thing to ask Jonathan from a crew chief standpoint? What do you want a driver to ask you from a crew chief standpoint?’

“One of the things that I thought was really good that Todd suggested: ‘List me some bad qualities you want to get better at.’ … I thought that was really good. You’ve got to get your problems out there in the open.

“I was the same. I told him some of my bad qualities, too, so we could help each other work on them. That’s the biggest thing is you’ve got to help each other on things you are weak at. We got that on the table. I thought that was a really good conversation.”

One area Blaney admits he’s improved in the car is remaining calm.

“It’s very easy to get frustrated when things don’t go your way, you get angry,” he said. “Then your mind is so focused on the bad thing that happened, you’re not worried about ‘I’ve got half this race left.’

“I think that comes with age and time. You figure out that not everybody is out to get you. Things happen and we have to be able to move on from it really quickly. That’s something that I think Todd and I have done really well over the last couple of years. We sat down and talked about it. I struggle with this. 

“A couple of years ago, I said I can get upset and animated and sometimes it’s hard for me to forget it and focus forward. We worked on that a lot. We’ve gotten a lot better at it and had that communication. That comes with time. Some of it is natural and some you have to work on.”

5. Crew switch

Roush Fenway Racing has switched its teams for the final five races of the season.

Crew chief Luke Lambert, his road crew and pit crew will move to Ryan Newman’s team.

Scott Graves, his road crew and pit crew will move to Chris Buescher’s team.

Buescher is 19th in points heading to the Roval. Newman ranks 26th. Newman will be replaced by Brad Keselowski in the No. 6 car next season. Keselowski will join the team as a driver/owner.

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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.

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).

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.”