Alex Bowman

Stage is set for Cup teams in race for points

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With 10 races left in the Cup regular season, the push for stage points is starting to play a key role in strategy and the results are showing in the standings.

Austin Dillon holds what would be the 16th and final playoff heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1). But as Matt Kenseth nearly showed last weekend at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, a victory by a driver outside the top 16 will take a playoff spot away from one hoping to make it by points.

Teams also are mindful that the regular season finale will be at Daytona International Speedway, which could lead to a surprise winner. Three of the last five Cup points races at Daytona saw a driver score either their first or second career Cup win: Dillon, Erik Jones and Justin Haley.

Teams already are trying different strategies to get away from 16th in the standings or climb into a potential playoff spot.

Matt DiBenedetto entered the Pocono doubleheader weekend 15th in the standings. Focusing on stage results, he scored 17 stage points in the two races that weekend and added 11 stage points last weekend at Indy.

Stage points can just make such a huge difference, especially this point in the year when the point stuff is really starting to settle out a little bit,” DiBenedetto said after the Pocono weekend. “People are settling in place, so you’ve got to take everything you can get because that makes a big difference as far as securing a solid spot in the playoffs.”

Those 28 stage points he’s earned the past three races helped DiBenedetto climb to 12th in the standings heading to Kentucky. He’s scored 26 more stage points than Clint Bowyer the past three races. That 26-point advantage helped put DiBenedetto three points ahead of Bowyer in standings.

William Byron‘s stage win at Indy proved key in helping him climb the points standings. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

William Byron won the first stage last weekend at Indy and collected 10 stage points (and one playoff point) after crew chief Chad Knaus had Byron stay on track under caution when most of the leaders did pit with eight laps left in the stage. Byron restarted in the lead and held that position for the final four laps of the stage under green.

Those 10 points helped Byron pass Hendrick Motorsports teammate Jimmie Johnson for 14th in the standings. Byron leads Johnson, who sat out Indy because he had tested positive for COVID-19, by two points. Johnson has since had two negative tests for the coronavirus and been reinstated for this weekend.

Another driver who has benefitted from a strategy focused on stage points is Dillon. He’s scored 18 stage points the past three races to nine stage points by Jones. Dillon holds what would be the final playoff spot by six points on Jones.

2. Will this be Kyle Busch’s weekend?

The reigning series champion has one win in the last 38 races but heads to a Kentucky Speedway that has been good to him, even though Kurt Busch nipped his younger brother for the win in last year’s race.

Kyle Busch has two wins in nine starts at Kentucky and leads all drivers in top-five finishes (seven), top-10 finishes (eight) and laps led (621) at the track.

Busch’s lone victory in the last 38 races came in last year’s championship race in Miami. In that same span, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have combined to win 14 races.

Also during that 38-race stretch, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick have combined to win 16 races (42.1%). Each has eight wins in that time.

3. Speeding on pit road

Here’s a look at the number of pit road speeding penalties drivers have had in the first 16 races of the Cup season:

6 – Quin Houff

5 – Ryan Newman, Bubba Wallace

4 – Corey LaJoie, Garrett Smithley, Daniel Suarez

3 – Ty Dillon, Ricky Stenhouse Jr., JJ Yeley,

2 – Christopher Bell, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Busch, Matt DiBenedetto, Austin Dillon, Denny Hamlin, Timmy Hill, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Michael McDowell, Brennan Poole, Ryan Preece.

1 – Chris Buescher, William Byron, Chase Elliott, Joey Gase, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, John Hunter Nemechek, Tyler Reddick,

0 – Aric Almirola, Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Cole Custer, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr.

4. Streakin’

With Jimmie Johnson missing last weekend’s race at Indianapolis after testing positive for COVID-19, his consecutive starts streak ended at 663, ranking fifth on the all-time list. Johnson has since been cleared to race this weekend at Kentucky Speedway.

Kevin Harvick ranks sixth on the list of longest consecutive starts streak with 656 consecutive starts heading into Sunday’s race at Kentucky Speedway.

Here is the top 6 in longest consecutive streaks:

797 — Jeff Gordon

788 — Ricky Rudd

704 — Bobby Labonte

697 — Rusty Wallace

663 — Jimmie Johnson

656 — Kevin Harvick

5. More of the same for Chevy teams?

Chevrolet teams are winless in their last eight Cup races and the manufacturer has one win in nine races at Kentucky. That victory came last year with Kurt Busch beating Kyle Busch at the finish.

Since Chase Elliott won the second Charlotte race in late May, Chevy drivers have not won. Elliott finished second in Miami, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. was second at Talladega and Matt Kenseth was second at Indianapolis.

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Glow in the dark: Cup cars get new look for All-Star Race

All-Star Race
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Wednesday’s NASCAR All-Star Race will be a little brighter than expected.

NASCAR announced Thursday that the exhibition night race at Bristol Motor Speedway will see certain competitors racing with underglow lights on their cars.

Cars that have automatically qualified for the event will have the lights.

Drivers who have already clinched an All-Star Race spot: Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Kurt Busch, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Justin Haley, Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Jimmie Johnson, Erik Jones, Matt Kenseth, Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano, Ryan Newman and Martin Truex Jr.

The light placement was first seen on Chip Ganassi Racing cars at Champion’s Week 2019 in Nashville during a burnout competition.

The best looking NASCAR burnout you'll ever see.

This might be the best looking NASCAR burnout you’ll ever see. 💨Monster Energy | Kurt Busch

Posted by Chip Ganassi Racing on Wednesday, December 4, 2019

The lights are the latest change NASCAR has made for the event, which will be held at Bristol Motor Speedway for the first time.

The race will feature the introduction of the choose rule. The rule designates a spot on the track where a driver must select if they wish to restart on the inside lane or outside lane.

Cars will also have special paint schemes that shift the numbers on the side of the cars over for sponsor placement.

Starting lineup for Sunday’s Cup race at Kentucky

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Two-time winner Kyle Busch will start from the pole for Sunday’s Cup Series race at Kentucky Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on FS1) thanks to a random draw.

He will be joined on the front row by Joey Logano.

The top five is completed by Kevin Harvick, Aric Almirola and Alex Bowman.

Click here for the starting lineup

NASCAR Cup Series at Kentucky

Race Time: 2:30 p.m. ET Sunday

Track: Kentucky Speedway; Sparta, Kentucky (1.5-mile speedway)

Length: 267 laps, 400.5 miles

Stages: Stage 1 ends on Lap 80. Stage 2 ends on Lap 160.

TV coverage: FS1

Radio: Performance Racing Network (also SiriusXM NASCAR Radio)

Streaming: Fox Sports app (subscription required); goprn.com and SiriusXM for audio (subscription required)

Next Xfinity race: Thursday at Kentucky (134 laps, 201 miles), 8 p.m. ET on FS1

Next Truck race: Saturday at Kentucky (150 laps, 225 miles) 6 p.m. ET on FS1

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Tire issues derail several competitors at Indy

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INDIANAPOLIS — Denny Hamlin was among at least eight drivers whose cars had tire issues in Sunday’s Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, saying “it’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not.”

Hamlin’s team was one of three at Joe Gibbs Racing that had tire issues or vibrations throughout the race. Hendrick Motorsports had two drivers suffer tire problems, and Aric Almirola had to pit out of sequence because of tire vibrations before rallying to finish third to winner Kevin Harvick. Ryan Newman also hit the wall after a right front tire went down.

Greg Stucker, Goodyear’s director of racing, explained in a statement what happened with tires Sunday: “The importance of air pressure, and getting it right, is something that we cautioned about before the race. With the high amount of downforce on the Cup cars down the straightaways, we asked teams to respect our recommended pressures so as not to hurt the tire. 

“Early in the race, without having the benefit of any practice, teams obviously had to be very mindful of that. Most of the race was run in the heat and teams were obviously searching for grip, while several issues happened later in the event when track temperature cooled off a bit and speeds picked up. We had our engineers on the ground all race, working with teams as we do every week, trying to emphasize the importance of right-front pressures.”

The 2.5-mile speedway is difficult on tires and has created challenges in the past, most notably in 2008 when cautions had to be called throughout the race to prevent tires from blowing.

Hamlin crashed when his right front tire went out while leading with eight laps left.

“I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all,” Hamlin said. “It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result.”

Hamlin’s teammate, Erik Jones, crashed earlier in the race after a right front tire went down.

“I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride,” Jones said.

Kyle Busch said he “had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those.”

Hendrick Motorsports’ drivers also had issues. William Byron blew a left front. Alex Bowman crashed after a right front tire blew.

“We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day,” Bowman said.

Almirola finished third despite tire issues.

“We kept having left front tires come apart,” he said. “They would start shaking and vibrating so bad, I could hardly see where I was going on the straightaway. We had to pit for that. We kept getting off our pit sequence for our strategy.”

Brad Keselowski, who finished fourth, also had some tire issues.

I felt us have a problem one time and my crew chief confirmed we did,” he said. “Every time the tires would have an issue it was really concerning.  You blow a tire out here you wreck really hard and there’s no chance of saving it, so definitely concerned about that all race.”

Harvick said he had no tire issues in winning his third Brickyard 400.

“We had great tire wear today,” he said. “They hit the cambers and everything right on. I was able to really push my car hard, as hard as I could push it.”

What drivers said after Brickyard 400

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Kevin Harvick – winner: “We knew (Denny Hamlin) was gonna be really close on tires and (crew chief) Rodney (Childers) told me on the radio he said, ‘Just make sure you keep the pressure on him,’ and that was all the pressure I could give.  Those guys do a really good job.”

(HOW TOUGH WAS THE BATTLE TO STAY OUT FRONT?  YOU MADE ONE DARING MOVE WHERE YOU WENT TO THE GRASS TO TRY TO GET THE LEAD.) “I didn’t have anymore room. That was for sure, but it’s the Brickyard. This is what i grew up wanting to do as a kid, win at the Brickyard and to be able to come here and have won for the third time is something that I could have never dreamed of.  I want to say hi to my family at home. I know (his son) Keelan will be jacked up. (Daughter) Piper is probably asleep. If not, hello. But just really, really proud of all these guys on this team.”

Matt Kenseth – finished second: “It was a great day for the 42 team today. It’s always nice to be up front and be in contention late in the race. (crew chief) Chad (Johnston )did a great job on the box with his calls today. We had a really good strategy and the best tires coming to the end of the race, lining up fourth behind the leader late in the race, but just couldn’t get it done to take the lead. I tried everything to get to the front, but just didn’t have quite enough to get around the (Harvick). If we had gotten to the lead though, I know we would have been hard to beat. All in all, though, a great race for us. It felt good to run up front and was a confidence booster for all of us. Looking forward to getting to Kentucky and carrying that momentum forward.”

Aric Almirola – finished third: “We had such a great Smithfield Ford Mustang, but we kept having to get off-sequence on our pit strategy because we kept having tires come apart. They’d start to come apart and they would vibrate and shake so bad that I could hardly see where I was going, so we kept having to pit for that and it kept messing us up on our strategy and getting us off-sequence, but fortunately there at the end the caution came out when we needed it to and things finally went our way and we knocked out another top five, so just really proud of all the guys on this team. We’re doing such a good job of being consistent. We’re bringing great race cars and we’re being really consistent running up front, so just really proud of this team and just want to keep it going. It’s fun to run up front like that.”

Brad Keselowski – finished fourth: “I think we were kind of up and down. We started ninth or 10th and just kind of hung around sixth or seventh and couldn’t quite make the pass. Our car was really, really fast in clean air, but I couldn’t run in traffic. We’d run up to cars and get stopped and would kind of ride. Then we started to see the tire issues and tried to be really smart about that and try not to beat ourselves, keep tires on the car. Of course, every time we pitted to put tires on the car we’d cycle to the back, but we were just really mindful to not beat ourselves and that paid off. It gave us a good finish. If I’d have had clean air all day and not had to worry about the tires, we were as good as anybody, but worrying about the tires and not being spectacular in dirty air we kind of had to play it straight with the way it was and ended up with a top five and a fourth-place finish. We’ll take that and move forward.”

Cole Custer – finished fifth: “It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy. It is Tony’s (Stewart) backyard so it is a huge race for us. For us, our team, this package has been exactly the opposite of what I am used to driving. For it to all come together today means a lot. Thanks to all the guys at SHR for bringing great race cars. HaasTooling.com went national this week, so check them out. I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”

(Why did it come together at Indianapolis?) “I think it is just that I am getting better with the cars and knowing what to expect when we go to the track and getting better at what to bring in the cars to the track. It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

Kyle Busch – finished sixth: “We just kept getting off on pit strategy with the Skittles America Mix Camry. We had a valve stem come off the left rear (tire) on a stop and that put us in the back. Then we had vibrations at various points throughout the race with different sets of tires so we had to stay on top of that and make sure we changed those. Each time, that would put us on the back. I struggled to pass anybody most of the day, but somehow got spots on restarts. I was able to salvage a sixth-place finish and will head to Kentucky next week.”

Michael McDowell – finished seventh: “Another great finish for us. Another solid top 10.  t’s such a big run for us. I’m so proud of everybody at Front Row (Motorsports) and (owner) Bob Jenkins for giving me this opportunity. It’s taken so long to be this competitive and I’m so thankful to have the opportunity.  To have CarParts.com and Power Stop and Love’s Travel Stops and FR8 Auctions and all our partners throughout the year, Speedco — so many great people that make this possible and we’re doing it  We’re doing it every week. We’re definitely way more competitive than we’ve ever been and it’s a lot of fun.”

Tyler Reddick – finished eighth: “We had a great No. 8 Cheddar’s Scratch Kitchen Chevrolet when we could run in clean air and record some good lap times, but unfortunately we struggled in dirty air, like a lot of our competitors today. Any time we were battling someone side by side or from behind them, our car would just build way too tight and make it tough to gain or hold track position. We just had an up-and-down day, falling back early and then playing some strategy to stay out to start Stage 3 from the fifth spot.

“Once the race restarted for Stage 3, we were able to hold on to that position for a while before having to make our final green flag stop of the day. Unfortunately, a yellow came our when our pit stops were cycling through, trapping us a lap down and forcing us to take the wave-around and get shuffled back in traffic again. When that final yellow flag came out and set us up for a green-white-checkered finish, my crew chief Randall Burnett made the call to come in for four fresh tires and put us 16th for the restart. I was able to capitalize on the final restart with fresher tires and race up to eighth place, which is a great finish for our day. We had to grind it out today, but it turned out in our favor.”

Bubba Wallace – finished ninth: “I guess it is good to be frustrated when you finish in the ninth place. All-in-all, it was a good day for this No. 43 World Wide Technology (WWT) Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE. It was fast. We just did not have the handling underneath us. It was good down the straightaways. It did not want to turn very well – specially behind traffic. One of the more frustrating days being behind cars and just trying to maneuver. So, coming out of there with a top-10 finish is good momentum going to the Kentucky Speedway – another good track for us. We will continue the good vibes and keep staying on Jerry (Baxter, crew chief) to produce good finishes for us.”

Kurt Busch – finished 13th: “This was an Indy race to forget today. We had to make too many unscheduled returns to pit road, which cost us a lot of track position. We just had an unbelievably tight handling Monster Energy Camaro in traffic, I just could cut through the corners to make any passes. Obviously I was hoping for better results for (start) No. 700 today.”

Ty Dillon – finished 14th: “A nice 14th-place finish at Indy for our GEICO Military team. It was a crazy one, but overall, it was a really solid day. From start to finish, we had speed and these are the types of cars that I knew we could bring to the track that would make a difference. I’m very proud of (crew chief) Matt (Borland) and all of my Germain Racing guys for their hard work. To finish the first two stages in 11th and 12th and then finish the race in 14th is a great day for our program. This is our fourth top-15 finish of the season and we are going to keep stacking those up. We’ll go get them in Kentucky and keep this momentum rolling.”

John Hunter Nemechek – finished 15th: “It was a hard-fought day for our No. 38 Fire Alarm Services, Inc. Ford Mustang. We were tight in traffic to start and it was difficult to keep the car turning when I was behind another car. (cew chief) Seth (Barbour) and the crew made some good adjustments throughout the day that helped our handling a lot. We got caught up there at the end, but still had a decent top-15 day.”

Austin Dillon – finished 18th: “We had a really strong Dow Salutes Veterans Chevrolet today at the Brickyard and it was fun to be able to earn stage points in Stages 1 and 2 and lead laps. Our Chevy was handling really well all day so we really only needed to make small adjustments throughout the race. Justin Alexander made great calls to help us get track position. Clean air is huge. We made the decision to stay out when the caution flag was displayed at the end of Stage 3. That put us in a great position for a two-lap shootout to the checkered flag. We were racing for sixth but tangled in Turn 4 coming to the checkers and ended up backing into the wall. Definitely not the finish we wanted or deserved today, but I’m proud of our effort. We had a lot of positives with earning stage points and leading laps.”

Daniel Suarez – finished 20th: “I thought the balance of our Certified Used Vehicles Toyota was good today and we did a good job of keeping up with the track. One thing we know we have to do is keep working to find more speed. The team did a good job dealing with a couple of issues we had, one with the power steering that took a couple of extra stops to fix. We worked hard and got a top 20 out of it, but we also know we are better than that and we know the areas we need to keep working on. We’ll just keep working hard on getting better and if we keep working hard, we will. We all want this.”

William Byron – finished 27th: “Our Liberty University Chevrolet Camaro ZL1 1LE was super-fast today. It just sucks because we have had a lot of these things happen this year. It’s not a fault of anyone, it just happens and it’s a bummer for sure. We’ve had fast cars and it feels like we always have bad luck when we do. That’s what hurts even more. We just need to bring that same speed to Kentucky and hopefully we won’t have any issues there. To be leading the race like that and have a tire issue is, I guess, a good way to go out. We’ll just see what we can do in Kentucky.”

Denny Hamlin – finished 28th: “It’s just tough. I hate it for the FedEx team. We didn’t do what we needed to do and it didn’t work out for us today. I had a fast car obviously and was stretching it out there but wasn’t pushing right front at all. It’s kind of roulette if you’re going to get one that will stay together or not and mine didn’t. You saw the end result. These big races — things don’t go my way all the time. We’re still going to go next week and try to win the next one. We’ll do all we can.”

Alex Bowman – finished 30th: “I wish we could have some luck here in Indy. Every time we come here, something happens. We had a pretty decent car, but through a series of events it just got worse. We suffered a tire issue right before we made a green flag stop, which ended our day. I hate it for my guys and everyone at Hendrick Motorsports because they have been putting in a ton of hours both at track and at the shop. We will move on to Kentucky and I hope we bring some luck with us.”

Erik Jones – finished 33rd: “The Stanley Camry was pretty quick. We were kind of just trying to move to the front and get some track position and I guess we had a right front go down. I felt it pop, and I was kind of along for the ride. It was a pretty hard hit. It’s a shame. The Stanley Camry was fast. I think we just needed to get up front a little more and we could have contended. It’s a shame; it’s kind of the story of our season. We’ve just had a rough year, and things are just not going our way. Hopefully, we can just turn it around, keep bringing fast cars and have things turn around for us.”

Justin Allgaier – finished 37th: “The No. 15 (Brennan Poole) actually got in the back of me. I didn’t know if I got (hit) the gentleman on the No. 12 (Ryan Blaney‘s crew member) or not. Once the wreck started happening in front of us and we all got bottled-up there, one car after another were getting run into. It’s just a shame. I hate it for these guys on this Ally No. 48. They’ve done such a great job. They’ve prepared so well for the circumstances. Obviously, our hearts and thoughts are for Jimmie (Johnson) and his family right now. That’s the most important piece of all this is getting him back to the race track soon. And, I wanted to do well for them today and it’s disappointing to be standing here talking to you (TV interviewer) unfortunately. But we’ll go on. I don’t know what next week looks like yet. We’ll go run the Xfinity Series race and go have a good shot at it. It’s a disappointing way to end the Brickyard 400.”

Martin Truex Jr. – finished 38th: “Terrible. Disappointing. We really only ran one lap up to speed, then we ended up having that engine deal, so it’s just disappointing. Our Auto Owners Camry felt amazing. I thought that we were going to have a great day. We ran a lap and a half, I guess, and it was feeling really good and then engine went down. The deal on pit road, that kind of happened to us last year. I almost aborted. I almost said I’m going to wait and come around the next lap, but the guys really wanted to get under the hood and assess the engine, and come to find out it was just a spark plug problem, so we could have easily fixed it and had a really good day. Thanks to Auto Owners and Toyota and everyone that supports us. We will come back strong and hopefully get them next week.”