Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin in solid points positions after top-five finishes at Kansas

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KANSAS CITY, Kansas – Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin both were within striking distance of a victory Sunday that would have advanced either to the NASCAR Championship 4.

But considering the degree of difficulty at Kansas Speedway – trying to overcome a “huge game-changer” of massive wind gusts while running inches from the wall trying to chase down the Cup Series’ best driver and master of the high line – they were happy to leave with a solid points cushion while many championship contenders struggled.

“Listen, I feel much better than I did coming into today,” said Hamlin, who is ranked third in the standings and 32 points above the cutoff line heading into the final race to set the field for the Nov. 7 title race at Phoenix Raceway. “Certainly, I can’t complain about that. We’re in a good spot. Just don’t make any big mistakes, we’ll be OK.”

With Kyle Larson having won the first two races in the Round of 8 (and three consecutive victories overall for the second time this season), there will be at least two championship berths decided on points at Martinsville Speedway.

HIGH HOPES: Those below cutline feel good about Martinsville

Hamlin and Elliott — both past winners on the 0.526-mile track in Southwest Virginia – are solid bets to make the title round again.

After a runner-up finish Sunday at Kansas, Elliott is ranked second behind Larson with a 34-point bulge on the cut line — though the Hendrick Motorsports driver says “I’m not sure any amount of points is safe. I think anyone can win next week, pretty much, so we need to be on it, and I’m looking forward to the opportunity and the challenge.”

Elliott, who won the final two races last season at Martinsville and Phoenix to take the 2020 championship, was on his game at Kansas with his career-best ninth top-two finish this season.

Until scraping the Turn 2 wall with his No. 9 Chevrolet with five laps remaining, Elliott seemed the only threat to Larson, who led a race-high 130 of 267 laps en route to a series-high ninth victory this season.

“I was trying really hard obviously, and we were both just so tied to the wall there, it was going to be hard to pass him in clean air,” Elliott said. “I was trying to just stay close enough to where if he got checked up, maybe an opportunity might come my way, and then I ended up hitting the wall, and once I did that, it was kind of over.”

There are few in modern-era NASCAR who are as good as Larson at running the wall, which pleased Elliott by keeping pace on the high lane with his Hendrick teammate.

“He does a really good job at it, and obviously, he’s really, really good at what he does,” Elliott said. “I felt like we were pretty even with him there. Typically to stay that close, I was really pretty happy with that. As you run the wall like that, it’s hard to stay close for a period of time just because that’s the only option. There’s nowhere else to go.

“I thought we were within striking distance, and that’s where I was trying to stay, and just kept pushing and got a little closer, a little closer to him and ultimately just got close enough between him and the lapped cars off 2 just enough dirty air (and) got out of shape.”

Hamlin, who made the most of a “very average” day with his No. 11 Toyota, said conditions changed drastically after a brief storm passed over the speedway (causing a short red flag after the first 10 laps).

“Obviously, the wind was a huge game-changer off Turn 2, it was treacherous over there,” he said. “Your car would just take off. I probably was too slow at times just making sure that I kept my car out of the wall after I saw that many guys we were battling got in trouble. It just depended on the gusts, but really, too, it also depended on your line and how you took corner entry and how you came off to how bad it was going to take off on the exit.”

Virtually the only playoff driver who could race with reckless abandon was Larson, who already had qualified for the championship race with a victory last week at Texas Motor Speedway.

“Yeah, he doesn’t need an advantage with the car he has,” Hamlin said. “That thing is so fast, it’s crazy. I think if you’ve got nothing to lose and can run along the wall like him, certainly he’s going to be fast.”

Hamlin also didn’t have the speed to run with Larson during the first two stages. But as the car came to him, several playoff rivals (such as Brad Keselowski, Kyle Busch and Ryan Blaney) were running into trouble, and the Joe Gibbs Racing driver wasn’t as confident about pushing the envelope, either.

“Yeah, just when guys start dropping, you just think a little bit more about how close do you want to run to the wall,” Hamlin said. “Managing your risk on restarts. On top of that, we just didn’t have a good balanced car. So to come away with a top five, we got it so much better in Stage 3 than the first two stages, I’m just really happy we made some gains, but obviously also very happy that we don’t settle the championship on tracks like this.”

That’s a reference to Hendrick’s dominance on 550 horsepower tracks such as Kansas this season. With the season ending at two 750 horsepower tracks, the odds swing a bit more in favor of drivers such as Hamlin, who has five victories at Martinsville and is assured a top-five starting spot that will offer a good shot at stage points.

“You just see where you shake out,” Hamlin said. “We were fast in the spring, and we want to have a solid day like we had today.”

Talladega Xfinity starting lineup: Austin Hill wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — Austin Hill will lead the field to the green flag Saturday at Talladega Superspeedway after scoring his first career Xfinity Series pole.

Hill won the pole Friday with a lap of 182.036 mph. He will be joined on the front row by fellow playoff contender Ty Gibbs (181.981 mph).

MORE: Talladega Xfinity starting lineup

Playoff drivers will start in seven of the top eight spots. The exception is Sheldon Creed, who will start third after a lap of 181.870 mph. Hill and Creed give Richard Childress Racing the first and third starting spots.

Justin Allgaier (181.529) qualified fourth and Brandon Jones (181.305) completed the top five. Noah Gragson, who has won four races in a row, starts sixth after a lap of 181.134 mph and is followed by playoff drivers Josh Berry (181.052) and AJ Allmendinger (180.932).

The Xfinity Series race is scheduled for 4 p.m. ET Saturday on USA Network.

Talladega Truck starting lineup: John Hunter Nemechek wins pole

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — John Hunter Nemechek will start on the pole for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race.

Nemechek earned the pole with a lap of 178.767 mph.

Nemechek is one of four playoff drivers starting in the top six: Chandler Smith (second, 177.732 mph), Zane Smith (fourth, 177.061) and Ty Majeski (sixth, 176.744). Majeski clinched a spot in next month’s championship race at Phoenix with his Bristol win.

MORE: Talladega Truck starting lineup

Also qualifying in the top five were Carson Hocevar (177.068) in third and Matt Crafton (176.960) in fifth.

Failing to qualify are Tim Viens, Spencer Boyd, Jason White and Natalie Decker.

Saturday Talladega Xfinity race: Start time, TV info, weather

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The second race of the opening round of the Xfinity playoffs takes drivers to Talladega Superspeedway.

Noah Gragson secured his spot in the next round by winning last weekend at Texas. Ryan Sieg holds the final transfer spot. Riley Herbst is the first driver below the cutline, one point behind Sieg. Also below the cutline are reigning series champion Daniel Hemric (-8 points), Brandon Jones (-12) and Jeremy Clements (-28).

Details for Saturday’s Xfinity race at Talladega Superspeedway

(All times Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 4:09 p.m. … Green flag is scheduled to wave at 4:21 p.m.

PRERACE: Xfinity garage opens at 1 p.m. … Driver introductions are at 3:30 p.m. … The invocation will be given at 4 p.m. … The Brookwood High School choir will perform the anthem at 4:02 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 113 laps (300.58 miles) on the 2.66-mile speedway.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends at Lap 25. Stage 2 ends at Lap 50.

TV/RADIO: USA Network will broadcast the race at 4 p.m. Countdown to Green begins at 3:30 p.m. on USA Network. … Motor Racing Network coverage begins at 3:30 p.m. and also will stream at mrn.com. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry the MRN broadcast.

STREAMING: NBCsports.com

FORECAST: Weather Underground — Sunny with a high of 78 degrees and no chance of rain at the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Noah Gragson won and was followed by Jeffrey Earnhardt and AJ Allmendinger.

 

Could Talladega open door for a record 20th winner?

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Talladega Superspeedway is known for fast speeds, huge drafting packs, sensational wrecks and tight finishes.

On Sunday (2 p.m. ET on NBC), it could be the site of an unexpected record.

Nineteen different drivers have won Cup races this season, tying a record. If a new winner shows up in Talladega victory lane Sunday, it will mark the first time in the sport’s history that 20 drivers have won races in a single season.

One of the remarkable things about that possibility is that the driver who has far and away the best record at Talladega among active drivers is among the group still looking for a win in 2022. That’s Brad Keselowski, who has won six times at NASCAR’s biggest track. No other active driver has more than three. (Keselowski is tied for second on the all-time Talladega win list with Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jeff Gordon. Dale Earnhardt tops that list with 10).

Talladega and Daytona tend to reject repeat winners. The past nine races at the two tracks have been won by nine different drivers.

Other seasonal non-winners who could break through at Talladega:

Ryan BlaneyBlaney’s only win this year is in the All-Star Race, so he’s still looking for his first points win while continuing to chase the championship. He won at Talladega in 2019 and 2020.

Martin Truex Jr. — Superspeedways have been a pox on Truex’s career. In 70 races at Talladega and Daytona, he has failed to win.

Aric Almirola — In what has been a disappointing season, Almirola’s best finish is a fifth — twice. He won at Talladega in 2018 but hasn’t had a top 10 in his last four runs there.

Michael McDowell — McDowell’s best finish at Talladega is a third, but he is usually very competitive in the Talladega and Daytona drafts, winning the 2021 Daytona 500.

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — Stenhouse won at Talladega in 2017 and usually is a factor in the draft.

Harrison Burton — Burton has had a tough rookie season, but the peculiarities of the Talladega draft should play in his favor. The No. 21 team’s next win will be its 100th.

Justin Haley — Haley has no top-10 runs in five Talladega starts, but he showed potential last week with a third-place finish at Texas.

Corey LaJoie — LaJoie has started nine Cup races at Talladega and has led exactly one lap. His best finish is a seventh.

Noah Gragson — Gragson, the star of this Xfinity season, is in the No. 48 for Hendrick Motorsports with Alex Bowman out because of concussion-like symptoms. In the Talladega draft he could be a threat.