Aric Almirola

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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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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Oval or road course? Cup drivers address future of Brickyard 400

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For 27 years, the Cup Series has competed at Indianapolis Motor Speedway with its annual Brickyard 400. All 27 of those races have been run exclusively on the track’s traditional 2.5-mile oval.

But following Saturday’s Xfinity Series race on the track’s 2.4-mile, 14-turn road course, an obvious question has been raised:

Should the Brickyard 400 remain on the oval, where passing is made difficult due to a combination of the rules package and the design of the track, or should moving it to the road course be considered?

“I would never vote for that,” Kevin Harvick declared last week before he won his third Brickyard 400 on Sunday. “I love everything about the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. For me it is all about the oval … racing on the traditional track because for me I am kind of old school and I think that the Cup cars belong and really started the Brickyard 400.

“That was kind of what it was always meant to be, that iconic one-off, just the Cup cars event. I think with the Xfinity cars and the trucks and (ARCA Menards) cars and all the things that used to race at IRP (Indianapolis Raceway Park), it was a great event. Hopefully the road course can kind of take that role that IRP used to have and be able to bring the Indy cars and NASCAR together to add to that event at the Speedway. For me personally, I would never vote for the Cup cars to not run on the oval.”

Harvick is joined in that camp by his Stewart-Haas Racing teammate, Aric Almirola, who finished third in Sunday’s race for his first top five and top-10 finish at Indy.

“I hope that we never stop running the oval,” Almirola said. “I just think it’s one of these places that regardless if it puts on the greatest race or not, it’s historic. It’s just a special place. It’s hard to explain when you don’t grow up a racer and you don’t aspire to come to race at Indy.

“But for me, I grew up watching stock car racing and dirt sprint car racing. I grew up watching Thursday Night Thunder, seeing so many guys go from USAC racing and sprint car racing to racing at Indy. It’s something I’ve always kept up with, always dreamed about getting the opportunity to race here. I get that opportunity now.”

Matt Kenseth, who finished second Sunday in his 20th Brickyard 400, said the Cup Series “should be” on the oval. But the Chip Ganassi Racing driver is open to the idea of Cup using the road course in some manner.

 “I think it’s one of those racetracks that we need to race at as long as we can,” Kenseth said of the oval. “It’s arguably the most famous speedway in the world, or one of them.

“To be able to race on the ovals with the Cup cars, which is the highest form of stock car racing here, we should be on the big track as well. I don’t think it would be bad to maybe test the road course and look into it, maybe do a second race on a road course, kind of like the IndyCars did this week.

“I really do think the Brickyard 400 has a lot of prestige. It’s not a southern race, but similar to the Southern 500, races like that. I think there’s a few of those races you sure would hate to see disappear.”

Return to Indy provides another runner-up finish for Matt Kenseth

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INDIANAPOLIS — All around him, before one of the biggest restarts of his career, Matt Kenseth had no friends.

Maybe this was Kenseth’s final chance to win a Cup race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Three times before Sunday he had finished second at this fabled track but the former Cup champion — who was brought back after not competing in 2019 — had never kissed the bricks.

Before the race, the 48-year-old said he was more focused on week-to-week than looking ahead on if he will return to Chip Ganassi Racing or the series after this season.

As he lined up next to leader Kevin Harvick for an overtime restart, Kenseth faced the challenge of trying to topple one of the sport’s hottest drivers and the reigning race winner.

And Harvick had help.

Behind him was Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Cole Custer. Behind Kenseth was Harvick’s teammate Aric Almirola.

Kenseth was surrounded by SHR cars.

“Aric was great,” Kenseth said. “He was ready and pushed me. I didn’t do the best job taking off. I didn’t want to get a penalty for jumping the start. I started going, he pushed me. 

“Didn’t look like Kevin was going, so I hesitated just that beat that kind of got Kevin out there.”

Harvick was waiting on Custer to hit his rear bumper and give him a shove.

“Cole got a really good restart, was able to get attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “Being right on the front row, especially late in the race, everybody is going to try to push as hard as they can to put themselves in a position to have the best restart.”

Said Kenseth: “(Almirola) still pushed me up there pretty good. Couldn’t get going that fast.”

Said Harvick: “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

The result was a fourth runner-up finish at Indy for Kenseth.

But it was the previous restart Kenseth lamented. It came with 22 laps to go.

Denny Hamlin led and restarted on the outside lane. Harvick was on the inside of the front row. Kenseth was fourth and started behind Hamlin. The outside lane was the preferred lane and had allowed the car restarting fourth to move to second soon after the green waved again.

Kenseth could only manage one spot and ran third behind Hamlin and Harvick.

“Really the restart before that was our chance,” Kenseth said.

With Hamlin and Harvick ahead, they controlled the race. Harvick assumed the lead after Hamlin crashed when a right front tire blew with eight laps left.

Although he didn’t win, the runner-up finish was Kenseth’s best since he began driving the No. 42 after Kyle Larson was fired for uttering a racial slur during a sim racing event while the series was not competing.

Sunday’s finish followed an 11th- and 12th-place finish in the two Pocono races last weekend.

“I feel like we had done some stuff at Pocono that really seemed to work for me and directionally seemed to be better,” Kenseth said. “The car drove pretty good here the whole entire day, too. I’m hoping we can just carry that momentum into Kentucky, just keep moving forward with that. Hopefully get to the front like we did today, running up front where this team belongs.”

Kenseth said such finishes as Sunday’s helps confidence.

“Whenever you run well, you build more confidence, not just for myself but for the team and everybody involved,” he said. “Running bad has opposite effect. Certainly we had a good day starting off at Darlington. I was super sloppy and rusty, we still finished 10th.

“Just kind of downhill from there. We went back and were a little faster. I hit the wall, got a bad finish. Nothing was going really well. Like I said, we had a couple decent races last weekend with no mistakes, no problems, no issues, got decent finishes. Today we were able to be competitive, run up front.”

The question is was this his last chance to win at Indy or will he back next year?

Aric Almirola’s team ‘has been on it’ amid top-five steak

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While Kevin Harvick got all the glory with his win Sunday in the Brickyard 400, he wasn’t the only member of Stewart-Haas Racing who left the track with something to smile about.

Harvick led a team effort that saw three SHR cars finish in the top five for the first time this year and for the fourth time in team history.

Finishing third was Aric Almirola, who overcame an early unscheduled pit stop for a tire vibration that briefly sent him a lap down. He scored his fifth consecutive top-five finish. Almirola entered this season having never earned consecutive top fives in his Cup career.

“We had such a fast race car and we kept getting behind the eight-ball because we kept having to pit for vibrations, but so proud of (crew chief) Mike Bugarewicz and this whole race team,” Almirola told NBC. “Just really proud of our race team. Five top fives in a row. We’re so consistent and when you run that consistently in the top five we’ll win races. … We just ran five top fives in a row at racetracks that are probably my worst racetracks statistically (Miami, Talladega, Pocono and Indianapolis). We’re going to some racetracks that are really good for me — Kentucky, Loudon, Bristol for the All-Star Race, so I’m excited for these next stretch of races. This team has been on it.”

Rounding out the top five was rookie Cole Custer, who earned his first Cup Series top five in his 19th start.

His previous best finish this season was ninth at Phoenix.

“It is awesome to have all of SHR running well here at Indy,” Custer told NBC. “It is (co-owner) 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. … I am psyched. I am really happy we finally had it all come together.”

Why are things starting to come together for Custer through 16 races in his rookie season?

“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,” Custer said. “It is a work in progress and having no practice doesn’t help that. I think it is all starting to come to us.”

On the overtime restart to end the race, Custer restarted in the second row behind Harvick and helped push him to the lead.

“Cole had a great restart, got attached to my bumper,” Harvick said. “We were clear before we got to Turn 1. At that point you have clean air, and those guys were side‑by‑side. We were able to break away right there. Definitely Cole was a huge part of helping us win this race at the end.”

Almirola said he was “really proud” of Custer.

“I think he’s been learning the ropes,” Almirola said. “He’s figured out that the jump from Xfinity to Cup is a big jump. He’s doing a great job. He’s learning. He’s bringing cars home in one piece. He’s continuing to build and get better.”

Sunday’s performance by SHR and Harvick’s win capped off a memorable doubleheader weekend for the team. On Saturday, Chase Briscoe won the inaugural Xfinity Series race on the Indy road course for his fifth win of the year.