‘The most dangerous … 22nd-place points team in the history of the sport’

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DARLINGTON, S.C. — Denny Hamlin’s damaged car, packaged with the disappointment of another race gone awry, had been loaded into the Joe Gibbs Racing hauler Sunday night at Darlington Raceway when crew chief Chris Gabehart surveyed the scene and the status of the No. 11 team a third of the way through the Cup season.

“I am convinced that we are the most dangerous … 22nd-place points team in the history of the sport,” Gabehart told NBC Sports. “I am convinced that we are the most venomous snake laying in the grass. Any week we can jump up and turn this thing on its ear. We could have won last week. We could have won this week.”

A race that was playing into Hamlin’s hands veered when a slow pit stop put him deep in the field and into the path of a multi-car crash. Hamlin was left with his second consecutive 21st-place finish after having one of the stronger cars.

“We’re all frustrated,” Gabehart said. “Gosh, it’s hard. I don’t know what you do other than go race next week. Again, the speed and the ability of everyone on the team is not lacking. When it is, that’s what’s really hard to fix. That’s a long-term march and slog. … We’re not there, but gosh it’s frustrating to go through it week in and week out for sure.”

Darlington marked the fifth consecutive race Hamlin finished 18th or worse. Other than his win at Richmond in early April, he’s not scored a top-10 result this season.

So, how can a team that has fewer top 10s than 22 drivers this year be one to watch? It’s what this team does even in those races that end with bad results. 

Sunday, Hamlin had to start at the rear because the underbody was damaged in qualifying and needed repairs. He was in the top 10 by Lap 57 and finished the opening stage seventh. 

The second stage showcased the team’s strength. Hamlin was seventh when Gabehart pitted him on Lap 134 ahead of many other cars. That helped Hamlin gain two spots when the green-flag pit cycle was complete. 

A caution at Lap 168 for the incident involving Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch led the field to pit road. Hamlin was fourth at the time. His crew gained him a spot, moving him to third. Hamlin finished Stage 2 in fourth.

During the caution at the end of that stage, Hamlin’s crew got him off pit road first, allowing him to go from the back of the field at the start of the race to be in control of the event. He led 42 of the next 51 laps. 

NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400
Denny Hamlin led 42 laps Sunday at Darlington Raceway but saw his race change after a slow pit stop and then damage to his car in a crash after a restart. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Hamlin’s race unraveled under caution for Alex Bowman’s incident. Hamlin was seventh because a few cars in front had yet to pit. He exited pit road outside the top 15 because of a slow stop. Gabehart said that a tire changer did not reset the pit gun to tighten the lug nut after removing it to change tires. 

Mired mid-pack, Hamlin’s car was damaged in the nine-car crash after the restart. 

“As maddeningly frustrating as this is, I will take this to running 12th every week and not knowing how to go forward,” Gabehart said. “… To overcome adversity, start in the rear at Darlington — a one-lane racetrack — and graining control of the race at the start of Stage 3, I’ll gladly take this. I’ll gladly take a car and team that’s capable of lapping the field at Dover the way we were over 12th and searching (for speed).”

Another challenge remains for this team. Gabehart is facing a four-race suspension for a wheel coming off Hamlin’s car at Dover. Joe Gibbs Racing will appeal the penalty. Gabehart understands there’s a good chance he might not be at the track soon.

“I’m not going to lie, it’s tough,” he said. “Morale is important. Right now we’re like Denny says, waiting for the anvil to drop on our heads. It’s just where we’re at. Again, the speech is simple, the message is simple. We have the ability to win every week from the pit crew to the driver to the crew chief to the engineers to the mechanics, top to bottom, we have the ability.

“This is no longer a points system, it’s no longer a season that is defined by 36 races, it’s not. It’s defined at getting hot at the right time and dominating when it’s time to dominate, and this team has the ability to do that. That’s the message. The message is try to gain some more playoff points and get hot when it’s time. We have the ability to do that.”

Getting there won’t be easy just for all the issues that have plagued this team. Hamlin said he felt he had the best car at Las Vegas before he missed a shift and broke the drivetrain, ending his race. He led 67 laps at Dover and won the opening stage before his wheel fell off. He led 42 laps at Darlington and scored a season-high 11 stage points before the slow pit stop and then crash. 

All the issues the No. 11 car has suffered, Gabehart noted, has made an impact on the team. 

“We’re all so gun-shy and snake bit right now that inevitably you’re performing at your 90-95th percentile in those instances because psychologically you’re waiting on what’s next,” he said. “Once you break through that barrier, I think you’ll really see top end capability, and I’m just waiting for this team to do it.”

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“We’re trending!”

Crew chief Brian Pattie smiled Sunday night after Ricky Stenhouse Jr. finished eighth, giving Stenhouse back-to-back top 10s for the first time since joining JTG Daugherty Racing in 2020. 

“It’s nice to finally have a few breaks go your way,” Pattie told NBC Sports. “I think the engineering group, we’ve settled on a couple of things we were working on and it’s proven out to be decent the last two weeks. We’ll just continue that route.

“Obviously, a one-car team it kind of puts you behind the eight ball (with information gathering).”

Stenhouse said after finishing second last week at Dover that the team had been “trying to come up with a new philosophy” for some tracks. 

Pattie explained the change. 

“Some of it was approach,” he said. “The cars are so much different, so much to work on, aero and mechanical also, that we’ve had to — ‘Let’s step back and make it simple, don’t trick ourselves’ — and we run better.”

NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400
Ricky Stenhouse Jr. followed his runner-up finish at Dover with an eighth-place result at Darlington, the first time since 2018 that he’s scored consecutive top 10s in Cup . (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Pattie said the team worked on the car throughout the night. The No. 47 car benefitted from pit strategy. Pattie called Stenhouse to pit on Lap 229, making him among the first to pit. Stenhouse was 14th before pitting. He was fifth when the green-flag cycle ended. 

A caution at Lap 256 allowed Stenhouse to pit with the field for the last stop of the race. He went on to finish eighth behind winner Joey Logano.

“A one-stop strategy (in the final stage) was probably the fastest on paper but our car fell off so bad after 32, 34 laps, we just made the decision we were going to two-stop it right on our numbers and see what happens,” Pattie said of the team’s evolving strategy. 

“Luckily, a caution fell whenever it needed to and was running top five and that was the lucky break you get.”

It’s what the team has been needing.

“Finally something goes your way,” Pattie said. 

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A day before finishing a season-best third at Darlington Raceway, Justin Haley noted the progress his Kaulig Racing team has made this season. 

“Just got to take the good weeks and maximize those and take the bad weeks and learn from them,” he said. 

NASCAR Cup Series Goodyear 400
Justin Haley has scored four consecutive top-15 finishes. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Kaulig Racing and Haley have done that. Haley has scored four consecutive top-15 results, placing 14th on the dirt at Bristol, 12th at Talladega, 11th at Dover and third at Darlington.

Haley’s finish Sunday was his best in Cup since his 2019 win at Daytona. Sunday’s result was the best for Kaulig in Cup since AJ Allmendinger’s win at the Indy road course.

“The last three weeks means a lot,” Chris Rice, president of Kaulig Racing, told NBC Sports. “… It just means a lot to Kaulig Racing to come and contend.”

Haley benefitted from pit strategy, but when he was in position, he took advantage to score a top-five result.

“I don’t think we had a third-place car, but we’re an organization that can have a good strategic day and get up front,” Haley said after the race.

Drivers to watch in Cup Series race at Talladega Superspeedway

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The NASCAR Cup Series playoffs will reach a critical point Sunday in a 500-mile chase at treacherous Talladega Superspeedway.

The overriding factor in any race at Talladega, NASCAR’s biggest track, is the unknown. With cars running so fast and so close together, multi-car accidents are not only possible but expected, and it’s easy to become the innocent victim of someone else’s mistake.

MORE: NASCAR penalizes William Byron for spinning Denny Hamlin

The tension is doubled for the 12 playoff drivers. A bad finish at Talladega could open the door for a probable playoff exit at the end of the round Oct. 9 at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval.

The playoffs to date have seen four wins by non-playoff drivers, an unprecedented result. Tyler Reddick was the most recent to join that list with a win last Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway.

A look at drivers to watch at Talladega:

FRONTRUNNERS

Denny Hamlin

  • Points position: 6th
  • Last three races: 10th at Texas, 9th at Bristol, 2nd at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 2 career wins

Although he hasn’t won, Hamlin has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. In the past six races at Talladega, he has four finishes of seventh or better. Now if he can just keep people from running into him…

William Byron

  • Points position: 3rd
  • Last three races: 7th at Texas, 3rd at Bristol, 6th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is a second

Byron stands alone as the only playoff driver who has been able to avoid major crashes and trouble in the pits, and he has finished in the top 10 in all four playoff races. After Tuesday’s penalty for his incident with Denny Hamlin at Texas, he sits below the cutline entering Sunday’s race.

Brad Keselowski

  • Points position: 24th
  • Last three races: 8th at Texas, 13th at Bristol, 25th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 6 wins, the active leader

Even in trying times, Keselowski is a threat at Talladega, where he last won in April 2021 (his last Cup victory). He has led 268 laps there in the past 13 races.

QUESTIONS TO ANSWER

Kyle Busch

  • Points position: 15th
  • Last three races: 36th at Texas, 34th at Bristol, 26th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2008

Is Busch going to steadily disappear into the mist as he rides out the final weeks of his final year with Joe Gibbs Racing? His best finish in the past four races is 26th. On the positive side this week, he’s the only driver to finish in the top 10 in this year’s three races at Daytona and Talladega.

Chase Elliott

  • Points position: 8th
  • Last three races: 32nd at Texas, 2nd at Bristol, 11th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: 1 career win, in 2019

Can Elliott rebound from a fiery finish and a 32nd-place run at Texas? Playoff points give him some comfort, but a second career win at Talladega would be greatly appreciated in the Hendrick camp.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • Points position: 17th
  • Last three races: 31st at Texas, 36th at Bristol, 5th at Kansas
  • Past at Talladega: Best career finish is 5th

Will one of the sport’s most enduring mysteries continue at Talladega? In 70 career starts at Daytona and Talladega, Truex, a former champion and a smooth driver, has zero wins. At Talladega, he has only three top-five finishes in 35 starts.

 

 

 

NBC will broadcast final six NASCAR Cup Series playoff races

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The final six races in the chase for the NASCAR Cup Series championship will be televised by NBC.

The races remaining on the schedule are at Talladega Superspeedway (Oct. 2), the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval (Oct. 9), Las Vegas Motor Speedway (Oct. 16), Homestead-Miami Speedway (Oct. 23), Martinsville Speedway (Oct. 30) and Phoenix Raceway (Nov. 6).

NBC’s broadcasting team will be on hand Sunday for what is typically a seasonal highlight — a 500-mile race at Talladega Superspeedway. The next week the playoffs move on to Charlotte for a cutoff race. The lowest four drivers in the playoff point standings will be eliminated from championship competition.

The Round of 8 is scheduled at Las Vegas, Homestead and Martinsville, with the tiny Martinsville track serving as the final cutoff race. The four drivers who advance from Martinsville will race for the title at Phoenix Nov. 6.

The high drama of the Phoenix race, in which the championship will go to the highest finisher of the four competing drivers, will be carried by both NBC and Peacock.

Post-race commentary and analysis for all six remaining Cup races will be carried on Peacock.

Kyle Larson is the series defending champion. Joey Logano carries the point lead into Sunday’s race at Talladega.

NASCAR viewer’s guide for Talladega Superspeedway

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After a messy Sunday at Texas Motor Speedway, the NASCAR Cup Series playoffs move on this weekend to another potentially messy spot — Talladega Superspeedway.

Home to the Big One — an almost certain multi-car crash, Talladega also occasionally produces unexpected winners, including Richard Brickhouse, James Hylton, Lennie Pond, Ron Bouchard and Brad Keselowski.

The mix of tight drafting, the Next Gen car and general playoff tension should make Sunday’s 500-mile run quite the adventure.

On Sunday at Texas, Tyler Reddick became the second driver (after Chase Elliott) to score three wins this season.

Joey Logano enters Talladega with the playoff point lead.

Playoff rookies roll on

The four drivers participating in the Cup playoffs for the first time remain factors approaching the second race in the second round.

Ross Chastain is second in the standings, 18 points above the cutline entering Talladega.

MORE: NBC NASCAR rankings put Denny Hamlin first

Daniel Suarez, Chastain’s Trackhouse Racing teammate, is seventh. He’s four points above the cutline.

Two other playoff rookies — Chase Briscoe and Austin Cindric — will start Talladega below the cutline. Briscoe is four points below the cutline. Cindric is 11 points below the cutline.

Looking for wins

Only six of the remaining 12 playoff drivers have won races at the two remaining tracks in the second round (Talladega and Charlotte Roval).

Among the six, Joey Logano has the best win record at Talladega, having finished first there in 2015, 2016 and 2018.

Other Talladega winners in the group: Ryan Blaney (two), Denny Hamlin (two), Chase Elliott (one), Ross Chastain (one).

The Charlotte Roval is relatively new, of course, but Chase Elliott already owns two wins there. Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson also have won at the Roval.

An opening for Brad?

Few people who watched it will forget the first Cup Series victory scored by Brad Keselowski.

It occurred at this week’s tour stop — Talladega Superspeedway — in April 2009. Keselowski and Carl Edwards made contact approaching the finish line and notched the win, even as Edwards’ car flew into the frontstretch fence, spraying car parts into the grandstands.

Thirteen years later, Keselowski returns to NASCAR’s biggest track having recorded six Talladega wins. No other active drive has more than three.

Keselowski’s refurbished team — Roush Fenway Keselowski Racing — has new fire with Chris Buescher winning at Bristol and Keselowski winning the pole and finishing eighth at Texas.

RFK Racing has led 309 laps in the past two races, more than the team had led in the prior 105 races combined.

Although he hasn’t won a Cup race since scoring a victory in a Team Penske Ford in April 2021 at Talladega, Keselowski must be considered a threat Sunday.

Entry lists

Thirty-seven drivers, including Xfinity Series star Noah Gragson and reigning Xfinity champion Daniel Hemric, are entered for Sunday’s Cup race.

Talladega Cup entry list

The Xfinity entry list includes 41 drivers for 38 spots. Among those joining the series regulars are Trevor Bayne, Parker Kligerman, Timmy Hill and Jeffrey Earnhardt.

Talladega Xfinity entry list

Forty-one drivers are entered for Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race. Included are Kaz Grala, Ryan Preece, Natalie Decker, Jennifer Jo Cobb and Parker Kligerman.

Talladega Truck entry list

This week’s schedule and forecast

(All times Eastern)

Friday, Sept. 30

Forecast: Partly cloudy. High of 77. (Weather note: There is the possibility that Hurricane Ian could impact the race weekend, depending on its path).

  • 3:30 – 5 p.m. — Truck Series qualifying
  • 5:30 – 7 p.m. — Xfinity Series qualifying (USA Network)

Saturday, Oct. 1

Forecast: Overcast with showers at times. Potential for heavy rainfall. High of 73. 60% chance of rain.

  • 10:30 a.m. – Noon — Cup Series qualifying (NBC Sports app, Motor Racing Network, Sirius XM NASCAR Radio)
  • 12:30 p.m. — Truck Series race (94 laps, 250 miles; FS1, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)
  • 4 p.m. — Xfinity Series race (113 laps, 300 miles; USA Network, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Sunday, Oct. 2

Forecast: Sun in the morning, increasing clouds in the afternoon. Slight chance of a shower. High of 74.

  • 2 p.m. — Cup Series race (188 laps, 500 miles; NBC, Motor Racing Network, SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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