Garrett Smithley

Getty IMages

Xfinity playoff primer ahead of Texas Motor Speedway

Leave a comment

After its second weekend off in three weeks, the Xfinity Series heads to Texas Motor Speedway this weekend to continue the Round of 8 in its postseason (8:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN).

It does so after a first-time winner and a post-race scuffle at Kansas Speedway.

Brandon Jones shook up the Round of 8 with his Kansas win, which came after his elimination from the playoffs.

He was the second non-playoff driver to find victory lane in the playoffs, following AJ Allmendinger‘s win at the Charlotte Roval.

The eight remaining playoff members only have two races left to secure a spot in the championship four, either through wins or points.

Here’s how the playoff field looks ahead of Saturday night’s race.

Drama at the Top

The “Big 3” of Christopher Bell, Cole Custer and Tyler Reddick have seemingly been racing among themselves most of the season.

After combining to win 19 of the first 30 races, only 12 points separate the three drivers heading into Texas. But the fourth driver in the standings, Justin Allgaier, is 35 points behind Reddick.

Then Custer and Reddick got into their pit road scuffle, adding a nice dose of drama to their championship battle.

Custer enters the weekend trying to defend his win in last year’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300, which was his first victory of 2018.  Since then he has seven wins, two of them coming on 1.5-mile tracks (Chicago and Kentucky).

Bell and Reddick each have one win on 1.5-mile tracks this season. Bell enters the weekend with three straight finishes outside the top 10, the longest stretch of his career.

Bell said his team will “100%” be more conservative this weekend than they would be otherwise.

“This weekend winning would be ideal, but we need to go there and we need to survive,” Bell said Thursday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “SiriusXM Speedway. “I think if we go there and survive and have a day like we should, we’ll be close to be locked in on points going into Phoenix then we can attack hard at a place we know we’re very capable of winning at.”

Reddick finished second at Texas in the spring and is the most recent winner on a 1.5-mile track.

“With the PJ1 (Texas) put down in the spring, it really opened up the second, third and even fourth lane in that compound up off the bottom groove when the balance of the cars would change,” Reddick said in a media release. “You don’t see a lot of tire fall-off there, but it’s similar to Kansas where you have a balance change in your car throughout a run. You have to stay on top of that to run well, and I think moving around throughout the race will be important. The pace will be very fast this weekend with the cooler temperatures we will have there.”

Cutting it Close 

While there’s a massive gap between him and the “Big 3,” Allgaier doesn’t have much wiggle room with the drivers behind him in the standings.

Allgaier, who is winless in the last 38 races, enters the weekend with only two points separating him and Chase Briscoe, the first driver below the cutline.

Briscoe, who placed fourth at Texas in the spring, will try to bounce back after he was involved in a controversial wreck with Bell and the lapped car of Garrett Smithley at Kansas while Briscoe led. He rebounded to finish third.

“Honestly, my confidence level is super high right now,” Briscoe said in a media release. “We have had one of the fastest cars, if not the fastest, the last three races. We keep knocking on the door of another win, but things just haven’t been falling our way when it comes down to it. I expect to have a great car once again at Texas and I think we’ll be able to put together a better weekend than we had in the spring for sure.”

Running out of Time

Two of the last three drivers in the standings are JR Motorsports’ Michael Annett (-12 points) and Noah Gragson (-17).

Sitting at the very bottom of the standings is Team Penske’s Austin Cindric, who is 30 points back from the cutline.

The gap is the result of a miserable Kansas race for Cindric, who was involved in three accidents and had multiple flat tires.

The only Xfinity regular outside the “Big 3” with more than one win this year, Cindric is in dire need of another win if wants to make the championship four.

Here are the playoff standings ahead of Texas.

Ryan: Help thy enemy? Why it was the best strategy on Kansas restarts

Leave a comment

KANSAS CITY, Kan. – With all the talk this year about the lack of autonomy afforded drivers because of rules that rob the accelerator of authority, restarts would seem the great equalizer.

If the low-horsepower, high-downforce combination makes you feel a little too stuck to the asphalt, let’s bunch them up and wave the green for 2019’s most consistently dependable spectacle on speeedways.

Five wide! Endless lane selections! Side-drafting in every corner!

It often seems as if drivers could treat restarts as they would reading a Choose Your Own Adventure story with limitless options.

In reality, restarts offer less opportunity for independence in certain situations.

The most critical restarts Sunday at Kansas Speedway were firm reminders of how nothing is as it seems when strange bedfellows emerge while getting back to full speed.

The first moment came on a restart with two laps remaining in Stage 1 (video above). Joey Logano restarted third by skipping a pit stop under yellow, and he charged around Clint Bowyer and Ryan Blaney to the high lane and the lead.

Behind him went Chase Elliott, who was on four fresh tires and also entered the race trailing Logano by 22 points for the last playoff transfer spot.

As traffic fanned out five wide, Elliott elected to tuck in directly behind Logano — pushing his chief rival to 10 stage points and a playoff point.

Wut?

“What else was he going to do?” Logano countered a reporter who asked him if he was surprised by the help. “He didn’t have another option. He was three wide and pinned in behind me. His only thing was to push me and to help himself. He didn’t do it to be a nice guy, I promise you that. He did it because it was going to help him. That’s what got him to second.”

Indeed, Elliott picked up nine points that helped make the difference in his advancement to the Round of 8 (over Brad Keselowski by three points).

But couldn’t he have picked another lane and made Logano’s life that much harder?

“The top is where you want to be on the restart,” Logano shrugged. “Obviously he got to second, so that was the only move for him. It was the smartest one. That’s why I went (to the high lane).”

Elliott gave Logano credit for forcing him into a decision that essentially left his No. 9 powerless to avoid aiding the No. 22.

“At that point, I was going to do what was best for me,” Elliott said. “Unfortunately, it helped him. At the point in time, it was the best thing I could do for myself and in those situations, you have to be as selfish as you can. Unfortunately, it was the best option and he happened to be the guy in front of me. It wasn’t by dumb luck. He put himself in a good position. He’s pretty sharp on that.”

Elliott was in the mix of two more crucial restarts that determined the race’s outcome and his playoff fate while underscoring how alliances can shift. The final two times the green flag waved Sunday, the top four consisted of Elliot and the Joe Gibbs Racing trio of Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch and Erik Jones.

If it seemed like a recipe for the Gibbs Toyotas ganging up for a 1-2-3 finish, but Elliot managed to get second place and had some unexpected help from Jones when starting on the outside of the front row on the penultimate restart

“I was a little surprised that (Jones) gave me as good a shove as he did on that restart so appreciate that,” Elliott said. “At the end of the day, those guys moving their lane forward is going to help them. It might not look right at first, but you never know what is going to happen on the backstretch or down into Turn 3 that could give that guy behind you a shot to win. You’re just trying to do whatever you can to put yourself in a better position.”

Jones, who finished fourth, said working with his JGR teammates “was never talked about” on his team radio, but he did try to reduce Elliott’s momentum by pulling out of line briefly into Turn 1

“You want a team car to win,” Jones said. “But I wanted to win if our team car is going to win, so I would push (Elliott) on the restart, tried to split him on the top. It didn’t work. I was trying to get myself in a position to get to second to duke it out for the win with whoever it may be, whether a teammate or Chase. So there wasn’t really anything crazy teammate-wise we were trying to do.”

There was no expectation of tactical teammate precision from Hamlin and crew chief Chris Gabehart, who said there is communication between Gibbs crew chiefs without a delineated strategy to help each other. “Everybody is pretty smart about playing chess at that point,” he said. “It’s about he who executes best. My guy did it.”

Said Hamlin: “There’s no guarantees at all. You just hope, from my standpoint, that the person that’s behind you gives you a push.”

The most important shove for the race winner came from the No. 18 Toyota of Busch, who stayed committed to the slower bottom lane to ensure Hamlin kept the lead into Turn 1.

“There was one that was really crucial,” Hamlin said. “If he dips out and takes us three‑wide, one way or another, our lane is dead, and the whole outside line just freight trains right by us all.”

Busch, who slipped from second to third on the final restart, said the move “proved that point” about being a team player.

His sense of resignation also might have revealed another reason he has been among the biggest detractors of the rules package.

Even when it seems you have options … sometimes, you really don’t.

“If you’re not in control of the last restart, then you don’t have a chance to win,” Busch said. “So oh well.”


Lapped cars were a hot topic this past weekend with Garrett Smithley essentially causing Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell to wreck while racing for the lead late in Saturday’s Xfinity race.

That sparked an avalanche of outrage from NASCAR Twitter, which had thoughts on Smithley making contact with a faster car for the second time in six weeks (Kyle Busch took umbrage at Smithley’s lapped car in the opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway). One of the amusing and (naturally) blunt tweets came from Kyle Larson, who had an encounter Sunday with the lapped car of Joey Gase.

Larson spun Gase when he impeded his progress through the outside lane in Turn 4.

“There were a lot of us, and I was trying to get a big run up top,” Larson said. “I was hoping to get a lane and didn’t get one, and I was so slow. I was already to his back bumper, so …  yeah.”

Was a message being sent?

“It wasn’t really a message,” Larson said. “More it was just I was in a hurry, and he was doing his best to get out of the way of the guys below, and more so just impatience on my part. Yeah, I mean I just had to go.”

That’s the right assessment of the situation. As long as NASCAR races have a few dozen cars in the field and a few hundred miles to race to the checkered flag, there always will be lapped cars that potentially can affect the lead group.

There isn’t much that can – or should – be done aside from changing the parameters that govern how slower cars are allowed on track and then stay there.

“There’s just a few cars that are way off the pace, and it just is what it is,” Larson told NBC Sports. “Selfishly, I’d love to say make the minimum speed higher, but I know they have a formula for how that works.”

As Bill France Jr. once famously said: You always need slower cars for the faster cars to pass.


It seems only a matter of time before the best remaining open ride for 2020 is filled, and it seems likely Daniel Suarez will remain in the No. 41 Ford at Stewart-Haas Racing.

Suarez said meetings with sponsors have gone well the past two weeks as his management team helps shore up the funding for the car and with Arris. The telecommunications company, which has sponsored Suarez in NASCAR since 2015, recently underwent management changes with new ownership.

Encouraged that Stewart-Haas Racing now can focus on his deal after re-signing Clint Bowyer and Aric Almirola, Suarez said “good progress” was made on having his car sponsored after meeting the new Arris executives.

“There are a lot of things moving internally with Arris as a company, and overall that slowed things down a little bit, but everything is looking pretty good,” he said. “You make a relationship with somebody, and all of a sudden, they’re not making the decisions anymore. It’s like starting over again. There’s a lot of things in the middle helping. You have to do more than put a sticker on the car. Working on different scenarios to try to make racing make sense for everyone.”

There also seems to be building sentiment at SHR of delaying the elevation of Cole Custer to Cup until 2021 when the debut of the Next Gen car is expected. Custer is an Xfinity championship contender for the second consecutive year along with Christopher Bell and Tyler Reddick, both of whom are headed to Cup in 2020.

Suarez said he hasn’t felt pressure from Custer’s success, though.

“If you look at it, there are three drivers winning a lot in Xfinity,” said Suarez, the series’ 2016 champion. “Eventually, they’ll all be in Cup. Have to remember as well that in today’s world, it’s way easier to win races in the Xfinity Series because there is not Cup drivers there anymore, compared to two years ago.

“At same time, all three drivers are strong, eventually they’ll make it to Cup because they have everything it takes to be there. But honestly, I’m not worried. I know what I can do. I know what I bring to the table on the track and off the track. That’s very important. We just have to be patient and make sure the timing is right.”


In a revealing interview about his professional future, Jimmie Johnson told Jeff Burton last week that he expects to win this season.

New crew chief Cliff Daniels believes his driver can end a two-year winless skid over the next four races (“I think we can win any of them. With good execution, great restarts and pit stops, any day could be our day”), and a victory positively would influence the decision Johnson is facing about driving beyond the 2020 season.

“I think it would, and I think it would add years (to Johnson’s career),” Daniels told NBC Sports. “I think if he wins this year, he’s going to be fired up just to keep going. That’s just my take on it. To see his hunger and his drive right now, it’s still 100 percent committed, which is pretty cool to see.”

Daniels, who took over the team at Watkins Glen International in August, said he and Johnson have had some conversations on the future. Daniels is confident the team won’t get distracted while Johnson mulls a career timeline (the seven-time series champion expects to inform team owner Rick Hendrick within four to six months).

“I think whatever level he’s going to want support or encouragement or advice, he’s going to ask for that,” Daniels said. “But as far as the team goes, I think everyone is aware, and we would be blinding ourselves needlessly to not be aware, and that doesn’t bother anybody, and that’s fantastic because the team knows that he still is operating at a really high level and performing at a really high level as a driver. With the way he approaches the weekend, the way he still stays good with his fitness, we’re here to give him our 110 percent, no matter what’s going on, to give.

“If he decided to hang it up at the end of this year or in three years, it’s going to change nothing about our approach. We are fully committed to building us back to where we need to be and then continuing that. And then once we get there, we have to sustain it. So again, whether it’s six months or three years, our approach doesn’t change.”


After three races of uncharacteristic blunders – some inexplicably occurring prerace – there were undoubtedly some uncomfortable conversations this week in the conference rooms at Team Penske headquarters in Mooresville, N.C. There were two loose wheels on consecutive days at Kansas for Austin Cindric and Joey Logano, and the latter nearly precluded the defending series champion from having another shot to reach the title round at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Mistakes during championship runs aren’t totally unfamiliar to Penske – there was a period in the late 2000s when a comedy of late-season errors negated an IndyCar championship seemingly annually – but the “blocking and tackling” mistakes (as NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte calls them) are more egregious than just pit-stop miscues. While each has been a separate issue (e.g., Logano’s axle and Ryan Blaney’s hub failures at Dover; Brad Keselowski’s fuel pickup at Talladega), the rash of problems make it harder to write off as freak incidents and more indicative of a lack in quality control.

“We have to smooth out our days,” Logano said. “That’s the first thing and most controllable thing to work on is getting through the races with nothing happening. We shouldn’t have loose wheels when the race starts. We have to clean that stuff up. I’ve got to be smoother on the track and make sure I get the most out of it from there. We have to clean up pit stops and be faster there.

“We just got to look at every department and be a little better. We’re definitely not exactly where we need to be. I think we can close the gap. Don’t take that as I’m saying we can’t win this thing. We just have some work to do, and I know we’ll do it.”

Chase Briscoe looks to move on after Kansas incident with lapped car

Leave a comment

Chase Briscoe admits he “kind of felt bad” for Garrett Smithley upon seeing the comments directed toward Smithley after he caused Briscoe and Christopher Bell to crash as they raced for the lead late in last weekend’s Xfinity Series race at Kansas Speedway, but Briscoe said that “it doesn’t take away from the fact that we should be locked into Homestead right now.”

Briscoe made the comments Tuesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Briscoe and Bell were racing for the lead with 16 laps left when Smithley, who was running five laps behind the leaders, drifted up the track and into their lane. Bell and Briscoe made contact. Briscoe recovered to finish third. Bell finished 12th. Brandon Jones scored his first Xfinity win.

The race was the opener in the Round of 8, meaning a win would have locked a playoff driver into next month’s championship race in Miami. Jones was eliminated in the previous round. At least two of the final four spots in Miami will be based on points. Instead of winning to guarantee a spot in the title event, Briscoe is fifth in the points heading to the Nov. 2 race at Texas Motor Speedway.

Briscoe was asked on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio what the etiquette should be for cars laps down when the leaders approach:

“I think it’s so tough,” he said. “Those guys, they’re racing their own race, too. They’re trying to prove they deserve to be there. Obviously they aren’t racing for a championship, but they are racing for their lives. They have every right to use whatever lane they want to use.

“There is a certain etiquette, I think, that comes, especially when two guys are clearly batting for the chance to make it to Homestead. That was what kind of frustrated me. There were a couple of guys even before we got to (Smithley) that ran right on the fence right in front of us. It just made it tough for us to race it out.

“It’s one of those deals that you can’t change it now. You’ve just got to have general awareness of what is going on. It is tough to see out of these cars but we have spotters too. I heard that there was a little bit of a misunderstanding there. Just go on. Hopefully they’ve learned from it and we’ve learned from it and go on and just do better next time.”

Smithley said after the incident that he didn’t know the leaders were approaching.

“I just didn’t get the memo that he was coming,” Smithley said of the leaders. “(Spotter) Freddie (Kraft) usually does a good job, he always does a good job. I’m sure it wasn’t his fault. Something didn’t get transmitted or what.”

Kraft resigned as Smithley’s spotter after the incident, according to spotter Brett Griffin on the “Door Bumper Clear” podcast.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that officials talked with Smithley about his role in causing Briscoe and Bell to crash.

Smithley stated in a tweet after Saturday’s race that he took “full responsibility” for the incident with Briscoe and Bell.

Briscoe said that as of Tuesday morning he had yet to talk to Smithley.

“He texted me I saw (Monday) and I was so busy (Monday) I didn’t even have the opportunity to talk to him,” Briscoe told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “ I’m sure this week I’ll reach out to him and tell him to call me. I understand where he’s coming from, it’s a situation he certainly doesn’t want to be.

“I kind of felt bad honestly for him because he tagged us in that tweet and I saw a lot of people kind of ridiculing him. The fans can definitely be brutal. It was just a mistake. It’s obvious he didn’t do it on purpose. I understand that.

“It doesn’t take away from the fact that we should be locked into Homestead right now, but if we go do our job these next two weeks we can still do that and hopefully it doesn’t come back to bite us.”

NASCAR will not penalize Tyler Reddick, Cole Custer for altercation

Leave a comment

Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer will not be penalized for their altercation after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race, a NASCAR executive said Monday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, told “The Morning Drive” that series officials will look at the role of crew members in the altercation.

“In those situations, the key for us is to make sure that the crew members are not coming in and escalating things,” O’Donnell told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “If anything, we’ve just got to go back and look and make sure that’s not the case from our perspective.

“There’s a lot on the line there for the drivers and we certainly don’t want to encourage that but understand that it gets heated at times. Our thing is to make sure crew members are not getting in there and piling on a driver so to speak vs. trying to deescalate the situation.”

Reddick and Custer approached each other after the race on pit road to discuss an incident between them late in the race. Cuter made a comment and put his hand on Reddick’s shoulder. Reddick responded by grabbing Custer with both hands. Crew members swarmed.

O’Donnell also addressed other topics on his appearance:

He said that series officials talked with Garrett Smithley after Saturday’s Xfinity Series race. Smithley was five laps down when the leaders approached but ran in their lane and caused Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell to crash late in the race.

“We talked to the driver afterwards,” O’Donnell said. “Spotter communication was not where it should have been. I think you look at the history of what’s happened on the track with each particular driver and address it from there. We do have mechanisms we can pull if it’s something we see a pattern with. This one was certainly unfortunate with the leaders out there and created an entirely different race. We communicate from the tower as well as we’re coming down the closing laps to let it play out and give the leaders room. That one was not how we wanted it to play out for sure.”

Smithley had been in the center of an incident with Kyle Busch in the Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas when Busch ran into the back of Smithley’s slower car.

O’Donnell also addressed the caution that came out that led to the second overtime restart in the Cup race. An NBC Sports replay (see below) showed the caution light on as Denny Hamlin was within about a car length of the start/finish line. Had Hamlin reached the line before the caution, the field would have been frozen and the race would have ended under caution.

“If you look at the language, it’s when the leader takes the white at the line,” O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The white flag was certainly out but there is a human element to the sport in terms of timing. It’s not an automatic where a light goes on and flag waves. In this case, the light actually came on, I think it was .125 (seconds) before (Hamlin’s) car hit the start/finish line. It was a caution at that point. Certainly very close.”

Winners and losers at Kansas Speedway

3 Comments

WINNERS

Joe Gibbs Racing — Team scored its 16th win in 32 races this season with Denny Hamlin recording his fifth victory of the year. All four of the team’s cars placed in the top seven with Kyle Busch third, Martin Truex Jr. sixth and Erik Jones seventh. Also, Brandon Jones won his first Xfinity race Saturday, giving JGR a sweep of the weekend.

Chase Elliott He raced his way into the Round of 8 for the third consecutive year. He is Hendrick Motorsports’ lone playoff car remaining.

Ryan Preece A few days after JTG Daugherty Racing’s hauler was damaged by a fire and his crew had to convert teammate Chris Buescher’s backup car into Preece’s primary car for this weekend, Preece finished 12th. That’s his best result since a seventh-place run at Michigan in August.   

LOSERS

Brad Keselowski Lost six spots on the final overtime restart, costing him a spot in the next round of the playoffs by three points. He entered the race 24 points ahead of Chase Elliott for the final transfer spot.

Slow cars — A tough weekend for a couple of slower cars. In the Xfinity race, Garrett Smithley, who was five laps down, said he didn’t realize the leaders were approaching and moved up the track, causing Chase Briscoe and Christopher Bell to wreck. On Sunday, Kyle Larson turned Joey Gase, causing Gase’s race to end. Said Larson: “I was just trying to get a big run up top. There was a lot of us. I was hoping I could get a lane and I didn’t get one. I was already to his back bumper, so yeah. It wasn’t really a message, I was just in a hurry and he was doing his best to get out of the way of the guys below. It was more so impatience on my part.”

Ryan TruexMaking his sixth and final start of the season in the Xfinity Series, his race ended after four laps when the engine in his JR Motorsports car expired. Tough break for a driver trying to get back to a full-time ride.

Watch NASCAR America from 6-7 p.m. ET today on NBCSN with Steve Letarte, Jeff Burton and Dale Jarrett for more on Sunday’s race at Kansas Speedway.