After finishing third in the All-Star Race, Kyle Busch is back atop this week’s NBC Sports Power Rankings – although it was not a unanimous decision.
The real story this week is Kyle Larson. Although it was a non-points event, Larson’s win in the All-Star Race propelled him from not even in last week’s rankings to No. 3 this week. Larson is one of three drivers who went from unranked last week to into this week’s top 10. Also making a big jump from last week was Kevin Harvick (from 7th to 2nd).
Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings look heading into the Coca-Cola 600:
1. Kyle Busch (38 points): Finished third in All-Star Race but climbs the rankings for his rant on the radio late in the race. If you can’t win .… But he did win the Truck race and finished the year winning all five of his starts. Last week: 3rd.
2. Kevin Harvick (32 points): Once again, falls short of victory lane. Pit crew mistakes again. Will they finally get things fixed in time for the race that typically has the most pit stops of the season in it? Last week: 7th.
3. Kyle Larson (30 points): Will the $1 million man build upon his riches to earn some wins that will actually count towards the playoffs? Last week: unranked.
4. Joey Logano (24 points): Strong run at the end to secure top-five finish in All-Star Race.Could be a big factor in the 600. Last week: 8th.
5. Chase Elliott (22 points): Things didn’t go his way. Hey, he has 600 miles this weekend to make things happen. Last week: 1st.
6. Alex Bowman (17 points): With three straight runner-ups and eighth in the All-Star Race, a win could be right around the corner – perhaps as early as Sunday. Last week: 2nd.
7. Bubba Wallace (14 points): Storybook night – stage win in Open and fifth-place finish in All-Star Race – gave him an emotional boost that may lead to better things to come. Last week: unranked.
8. William Byron (10 points): Strong move to win the first stage in Monster Open and then finishes the night with a ninth-place finish in the All-Star Race. Last week: unranked.
9. Martin Truex Jr. (9 points): Fast car but then later had issues and finished 10th. Last week: 9th.
(tie) 10. Clint Bowyer (7 points): Punched his ticket to a 12th-place finish, then went out and punched Ryan Newman on pit road. Will their feud flare up again on Sunday? Last week: 4th.
(tie) 10. Kurt Busch (7 points): Late crash left him with a disappointing 17th-place finish (out of 19 drivers). Look for a big comeback in the 600. Given his consistency this season, he’s overdue for a win. Last week: 6th.
With a winless streak nearing two years and a contract expiring next year, Jimmie Johnson admits he’s getting impatient.
“We haven’t been in contention to win a race yet this year, and we’ve got to fix that,” Johnson said this week after unveiling the camouflage car he’ll drive in next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600. “If I’m not in contention to win a race, there’s no chance of winning a championship. This middle portion of the season is key for me to get things where they need to be so we can win races and ultimately win a championship.”
Asked if he’d rather win this weekend’s All-Star Race or the Coca-Cola 600, the seven-time champion quickly answered: “600. Lock me into that championship. I want eight, damn it.’’
He laughed, but it’s clear how serious he is.
Johnson enters the All-Star Race winless in his last 71 points races. His last Cup victory came June 4, 2017, at Dover.
Since stage racing and playoff points were implemented in 2017, 80% of the drivers who had two or more wins by the All-Star break went on to compete in the championship race in Miami. The only driver who had multiple wins before the All-Star Race and didn’t make it to the championship race was Johnson in 2017. He had two wins before the All-Star Race but was eliminated in the third round of the playoffs that year.
Four drivers this season have multiple Cup victories coming to Saturday’s All-Star Race: Kyle Busch (three wins), Brad Keselowski (three), Denny Hamlin (two) and Martin Truex Jr. (two). Based on the past two years, it would mean that at least three of those drivers should make it to Miami to race for a championship.
By dominating victory lane this season, Busch, Keselowski, Hamlin and Truex also are stockpiling playoff points that could help them advance and offset a bad race in a round. Johnson doesn’t have that luxury. He has no playoff points.
Johnson also is in a precarious spot. He’s 16th in the standings — which would be the final transfer spot to the playoffs provided a driver below him in points doesn’t win.
Johnson is the only driver who has competed in NASCAR’s postseason format every year since it debuted in 2004. To keep that streak going, he and his team have to be better.
Even though he finished sixth last weekend at Kansas Speedway, Johnson struggled with the car’s handling for more than half the race and said that the team needed to “make better decisions.”
“Certainly I was venting when I got out of the car Saturday night,” Johnson said. “We have been working hard on things, our processes and decision-making process looking at the All-Star Race. We’ve made some changes to be a little wiser going into the All-Star Race and hopefully have that play out and take it to the 600, but it’s tough.
“When we look at pre-Texas, we knew we had to make big changes. We kept changing and changing and changing. We go to Texas and (three of the four Hendrick) cars qualify one through (three).
“So after that, it’s like, ‘Let’s be aggressive, continue to be aggressive.’ Then you get burned a couple of weeks and you’re like ‘OK, where is that fine line really at?’ I don’t have a clear answer. Ultimately for us to win and compete for another championship that process has to clean up somehow.”
Johnson has ranked last among his Hendrick Motorsports teammates the past three races in green-flag speed, according to NASCAR’s statistics. Although teammate Alex Bowman finished second in each of the past three races and teammate Chase Elliott won at Talladega, putting their setups on Johnson’s car isn’t that simple.
“We have flexibility in the group to change cars and build cars in different ways,” Johnson said. “At times, we’ve found ourselves very close together. I think there are some areas where the cars are closer together than they have ever been … but we have flexibility to run different versions of chassis, spindles, certain suspension components and shocks and springs.
“The journey the driver kind of leads the team or the engineers on that team lead the group on, we all end up in our own spaces with our own setups. Unfortunately, this weekend when we unloaded (at Kansas), we knew right off the truck that we were down on speed, our team was. We made some provisions to race better and try not to pay attention to single-car speed, a lot like you would see at a restrictor-plate track.
“So Friday we’re trying to react and hoping it would race better. When I got into the race, the first half of the race was so bad for us. We didn’t have the raw speed and we didn’t have a better car in traffic. I have to give Kevin (Meendering, crew chief) a ton of credit. … He made some killer decisions. Our pit stops were awesome. Those guys rallied around him, and we had a great second half of the race and finished sixth. We know what’s making speed with our own company. We just need to figure out how to put those pieces into our car with our philosophies.”
As for Johnson’s future, he’s unsure at this point.
“I don’t know what I’ll be doing in a couple of years,” he said. “My contract is up in 2020, and I’ll have to evaluate what I want to do after that.”
Until then, his focus is on finding enough speed to win again.
2. More close calls coming?
Erik Jones’ block of Clint Bowyer on the last lap of last Saturday’s race at Kansas upset Bowyer, but it might be just the beginning.
In a season where only six drivers have won, drivers will have to be more aggressive to get a victory. If they can’t, then they will need all the points possible. That can mean everything from pit calls by crew chiefs to drivers blocking.
With the races dwindling before the playoff field is set — next weekend’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point of the regular season — there could be more big moves on the track.
“The points are so close at the edge there at 16th,” said Dillon, who is 18th in the standings, 11 points behind Jimmie Johnson for the final transfer spot. “There’s going to be a lot of guys fighting for every point.”
3. An idea for next year
Car owner Richard Childress says he likes the rules package that NASCAR has gone to this year, but he’d make one change for next year.
“If I were them, I would have the 550 (horsepower) engine everywhere,” Childress said Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “We’ve got it at Daytona and Talladega. We got it everywhere except the half-mile tracks and the 1-mile tracks. Just go with one engine package. That way your development is around one engine package (instead of two).”
Cup cars run the 550 horsepower engine or 750 horsepower engine depending on the track’s size. Teams use the 750 horsepower engine for all races on ovals 1 mile or less and the road courses. That’s 14 of the 36 points races. The 550-horsepower engine is used at the other points races.
4. One last time (for this year)
Friday’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Charlotte Motor Speedway will mark Kyle Busch’s fifth and final start of the season in that series. He seeks to complete a sweep of his races.
Busch and all other drivers who have more than five full-time seasons in Cup and are scoring Cup points are limited to five Truck races a season (and seven in the Xfinity Series).
Busch has won Truck races at Atlanta, Las Vegas, Martinsville and Texas this season.
5. Slight change
Pocono Raceway announced a change to its race weekend in two weeks. Cup qualifying will be held before the Xfinity race on Saturday, June 1.
Last year, Cup teams had one practice on Friday and then qualified. Cup teams had one Saturday practice.
Now, Cup teams will have two practices Friday and then only be on the track Saturday for qualifying. The race is Sunday, June 2.
NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings heading into All-Star Race
For the first time since after the Atlanta race, Kyle Busch is no longer atop the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings.
Busch is out (and drops to third) and Chase Elliott is in as the unanimous pick of NBC Sports’ NASCAR writers for this week’s No. 1 spot. Elliott moves up from third place in last week’s rankings.
Clint Bowyer makes the biggest gain, going from outside the top 10 last week to a solid No. 4 this week. Also making a big jump: Alex Bowman from sixth last week to second this week.
Conversely, Dover winner Martin Truex Jr. suffered the biggest drop, falling from second last week to ninth this week. Also, Kyle Larson and Denny Hamlin both dropped out of the rankings entirely.
Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings look heading into this weekend’s All-Star Race at Charlotte:
1. Chase Elliott (40 points): Has led 235 laps over the last three races and finished in the top five in each. Last week: 3rd.
2. Alex Bowman (30 points):Three 2s (runner-up finishes) for the double-8 car. That’s a full house poker hand but still leaves him short of winning.Last week: 6th.
3. Kyle Busch (29 points): It’s tough to lose the top spot in the rankings, but just like his disappointing finish at Kansas, Busch will bounce back and be a man on a mission in the Coca-Cola 600. Last week: 1st.
4. Clint Bowyer (27 points): Almost finally got that first elusive Cup win at his home track in Kansas. Is on a roll of late, with six top 10s in his last seven starts. One of the most underrated drivers out there right now. Last week: 11th (others receiving votes).
5. Brad Keselowski (24 points): Lost somewhat in all the post-race celebration is Keselowski is now tied with Kyle Busch for most wins (three each) this season. Who will wind up with the most wins by season’s end? Last week: (tie) 7th.
6. Kurt Busch (21 points): Earned his eighth top 10 of the season. Has not had consecutive finishes outside the top 10 through 12 races. Consistency has become his middle name in 2019. Just a matter of time before that consistency pays off with a win. Last week: (tie) 7th.
7. Kevin Harvick (16 points): Does Harvick have a black cloud following him? The guy can’t seem to catch a break when it comes to winning this year. But there is a silver lining to that cloud with his consistency (including five fourth-place finishes). Last week: (tie) 4th.
8. Joey Logano (13 points):Damage to car early hurt him at Kansas and had him falling down the running order and these standings.Last week: (tie) 4th.
9. Martin Truex Jr. (11 points):Followed Richmond win by finishing 20th at Talladega. Followed Dover win by placing 19th at Dover. Can you say roller coaster ride?Last week: 2nd.
10. Erik Jones (8 points): Making a strong push for a signed extension at Joe Gibbs Racing. His strong finish at Kansas will help his job security, but he needs a lot more finishes like that. Last week: 14th (others receiving votes).
Here are the entry lists for each race and the rules for the All-Star Race and Open.
Monster Energy All-Star Race (8 p.m. ET Saturday on Fox Sports 1)
There will be 19 drivers in the All-Star Race, which will be divided into four segments of 30 laps, 20 laps, 20 laps and 15 laps.
Driver eligibility: Winners from last season and this season, previous all-star winners who are competing full-time in the series, Cup champions who are running full-time in the series, the three stage winners from the Monster Energy Open and the winner of the fan vote.