Denny Hamlin

Friday 5: Pressure builds for teams heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After all the fun and games of the All-Star Race, the focus returns this weekend to points and playoff spots.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. With only six winners this season, there’s the chance that a number of playoff spots could be claimed by points.

That increases the pressure on those fighting for those positions.

Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend 16th in the points, the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He leads Ryan Newman by eight points, Austin Dillon by 11 and Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter William Byron by 15.

Ryan Newman is eight points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.

“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”

Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season. 

Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.

“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.

“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”

2. A fresh outlook 

Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Wise, a former driver, now serves as the driver performance manager for Ganassi and for some of the younger drivers driving for JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.

“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.

“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”

3. Who is No. 1?

Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).

So which one is the strongest?

It might be another team.

I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”

He said that before Hendrick’s William Byron won the pole for the 600.

Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.

I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.

“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.

“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”

4. More blocking?

In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.

Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?

“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.

“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. described Jones’ block as “normal.”

“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.

“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”

5. An Olympian effort

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.

He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.

In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.

Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.

He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.

After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.

“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”

Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.

“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”

Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.

“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.

“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”

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Preliminary entry lists for Cup, Xfinity at Charlotte

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The longest race of the NASCAR Cup season takes place Sunday with the Coca-Cola 600 at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

The NASCAR Xfinity Series is also back in action after having the last two weekends off. The NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off until June 7 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for this weekend’s two races:

Cup – Coca-Cola 600 (6 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox)

There will be a full 40-car field in Sunday night’s main event of the weekend.

NASCAR On NBC analyst Parker Kligerman will be making his sixth Cup start of the season, driving the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota.

Cody Ware will make his fourth consecutive start and 10th start overall in the No. 52 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

BJ McLeod will make his seventh start of the season for Rick Ware Racing and will be in the No. 53 for the second consecutive weekend.

Joey Gase makes his fifth start of the season for MBM Motorsports in the No. 66 Toyota.

There is no driver listed yet for the No. 51.

Kyle Busch won last year’s race, leading 377 of 400 laps and beating Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

Xfinity – Alsco 300 (1 p.m. ET Saturday on FS1)

There are 39 cars entered for this race.

Austin Dillon is the only Cup regular who will compete in this race. He’ll drive the No. 10 Kaulig Racing Chevrolet.

Joe Nemechek makes his first Xfinity start of the season in the No. 13 MBM Motorsports Toyota.

Camden Murphy makes his second career Xfinity start, and his first since 2016, in the No. 17 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

Brad Keselowski won this race last year under caution, leading 77 of 204 laps, beating Cole Custer and Christopher Bell.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

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Perfect night: Kyle Larson follows up Open win with NASCAR All-Star Race triumph

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Kyle Larson’s Chevrolet seemingly morphed into an armored car by virtue of driving home with a cool $1 million Saturday night for winning the 35th NASCAR All-Star Race at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Larson earned his spot in the All-Star Race after winning the Monster Energy Open preliminary event earlier in the evening.

Even though he’s finished third and eighth in his last two regular season races, it has not been an easy season for Larson, who has struggled in several races (including three DNFs in a four-race stretch due to wrecks), dropping as low as 21st in the standings after Talladega (he’s back up to 15th after last week’s race at Kansas).

But on Saturday night, Larson was the best driver and wound up taking the victory.

“This is unbelievable,” Larson told Fox Sports 1. “This whole day was up and down, from the B Main (the Monster Energy Open) we were in to getting a little bit of damage and repaired on the car.”

Early in the final stage, Kyle Larson got a great push from Kevin Harvick, who was running sixth at the time. Harvick pushed Larson right through the middle of the pack to grab the lead. That would prove to be the move of the race.

“Harvick gave me a heck of a push to get to the lead from the third row, and then to get by the 18 (Kyle Busch) on the final restart,” Larson told FS1. “Man, this is amazing. I feel like every time I’ve been in the All-Star Race, I’ve been close to winning. It’s neat to close it out. … There’s a lot of people from the shop here today, so we get to do some celebrating and I’m excited about that.”

Harvick finished second, followed by Kyle Busch, Joey Logano and Bubba Wallace.

“Letdown” is the way Harvick described his night to FS1. “That’s how you take the fastest car and don’t win the race with it. You spot ’em the whole field.

“It was an incredible Busch Beer Ford. It was just unfortunate the way pit road went tonight because it wasn’t even close to anybody having a good car like we had tonight. It was just a great night from performance, just a bad night on pit road.”

Sixth through 10th were Aric Almirola, Austin Dillon, Alex Bowman, William Byron and Martin Truex Jr.

MORE: Results from NASCAR All-Star Race

Kyle Busch won Stage 1, Kevin Harvick won Stage 2 and Joey Logano won Stage 3.

Stage 1 notes: William Byron, Bubba Wallace and Kyle Larson transferred into the All-Star Race by winning the first three stages respectively in the preliminary Monster Energy Open race held earlier in the evening. Also transferring into the All-Star event was Alex Bowman, who won the fan vote. … The opening stanza went into overtime – with three extra laps for a total of 33 laps – after Erik Jones brought out the caution with four laps to go after hitting the wall, resulting in a blown right front tire.

Stage 2 notes: Ryan Newman went sailing through the front stretch grass just two laps into the 20 lap stage, bringing out a caution flag. The incident caused damage to the front end of Newman’s Ford, but he was able to bounce back.

Stage 3 notes: Erik Jones, Austin Dillon and Kyle Busch were all involved in a wreck three laps into the scheduled 20-lap stage. During the ensuing caution, Kevin Harvick was penalized for pitting too soon and his crew went over the wall too soon, leaving him to restart at the back of the pack. … But Harvick didn’t sit and sulk: he went from 18th to sixth in just 16 laps. … After his early-stage contact, Kyle Busch held back for the remainder of the stage, only to emerge fourth as Stage 4 began.

Stage 4 notes: After an apparent left rear tire failure, Denny Hamlin suddenly slowed and went spinning two laps into the scheduled 15 laps after being hit in the rear by Ryan Blaney, who had nowhere to go. The wreck collected Austin Dillon, as well. … With 12 laps left, Jones lost his right rear tire and hit the wall, bringing out yet another caution. … Clint Bowyer threw a volley of punches at Ryan Newman through his car window after the race.

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Austin Dillon fastest in final practice session for All-Star cars

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CONCORD, N.C. – Austin Dillon was the fastest in the final practice session Friday for cars in the All-Star Race.

Dillon ran a top lap of 179.450 mph at Charlotte Motor Speedway. He was followed by Ryan Blaney (178.560 mph), Clint Bowyer (178.336), Joey Logano (177.954) and Denny Hamlin (177.713).

Kyle Busch ran the most laps in the session at 28. He was 10th on the speed chart with a top lap of 176.592 mph.

Blaney had the best average over 10 consecutive laps at 176.786 mph. He was followed by Logano (176.723) and Kevin Harvick (176.634).

There were no incidents in the session.

Friday 5: Jimmie Johnson grows impatient as winless streak continues

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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.

Jimmie Johnson and crew chief Kevin Meendering. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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.

“There’s a lot of blocking that goes on,” Austin Dillon said Thursday after unveiling his car for the Coca-Cola 600. “Somebody is going to get turned eventually. That’s just part of it.”

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)

Kyle Busch after his Texas win. (Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

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.