Greg Biffle

Friday 5: Kyle Larson focused on Texas and ‘best chance to get a win’

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Kyle Larson hinted in September at what was to come in the Cup playoffs, but it was easy to overlook with the focus on Joe Gibbs Racing’s stable and if anyone could keep all four JGR drivers from advancing to the title race in Miami.

Even though Larson had yet to win at that time, he said in Las Vegas that he felt his cars were better than what he had in 2017 when he entered that postseason second in points and with four wins.

“I think this is as good of a shot, minus I don’t have as many playoffs points as that year,” Larson said a few days before this year’s playoff opener.

Larson was eliminated in the second round in 2017 but is among the eight remaining playoff drivers this year.

Although he goes into Sunday’s race at Texas Motors Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) outside a transfer spot to the championship race in Miami, this could be the weekend he earns a spot in that race with a win. If so, it would be his first career Cup victory on a 1.5-mile track.

No remaining playoff driver has a better average finish than Larson’s 7.0 in the past four races on 1.5-mile tracks (Chicagoland, Kentucky, Las Vegas and Kansas). Chase Elliott, who is essentially in a must-win situation after his mechanical woes last weekend at Martinsville, is next among remaining playoff drivers with an 8.0 average over those four races.

While Denny Hamlin won two weeks ago at Kansas, the most recent 1.5-mile track before this weekend, Larson led 60 laps before some sloppiness on pit road by him and his team and contact with a lapped car led to a 14th-place finish.

Even after that finish, Larson remained upbeat.

Crew chief Chad Johnston and Kyle Larson. (Photo by Jerry Markland/Getty Images)

“Texas will be our best chance to get a win,” he said of the Round of 8 races at Martinsville, Texas and ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

Larson survived Martinsville, notable as one of his worst tracks. He finished ninth but scored the sixth-most points in that race thanks to crew chief Chad Johnston’s call not to pit shortly before the end of stage 2. That move gave Larson the lead and he finished the stage in second, collecting nine points.

After finishing the race, Larson said on the radio to his team: “Survived. It’s what we needed to do.”

Larson is 24 points behind Joey Logano, who holds the final transfer spot to the championship round but these playoffs have already have had moments of upheaval from Ryan Blaney’s Talladega win to Elliott racing his way to the Round of 8 at Kansas while Brad Keselowski failed to advance.

A key for Larson will be have a clean race. He overcame a pit road penalty to finish eighth at Las Vegas. He was penalized one lap for pitting outside the box at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval and placed 13th. A penalty for an uncontrolled tire at Kansas played a role in him finishing 14th.

While Larson acknowledged after Kansas that he had a points deficit to overcome, he noted “a win could fix all that.”

It could this weekend for him and his Chip Ganassi Racing team.

2. Gaining traction

Eddie Gossage, president of Texas Motor Speedway, admits he was hesitant to use the PJ1 traction compound on his track in March because “I’m more of a traditionalist than people would guess I am.”

The track again will have the traction compound this weekend.

MORE: Texas Motor Speedway makes its case for IndyCar/NASCAR doubleheader 

Gossage explained to NBC Sports’ Nate Ryan his hesitation with the traction compound previously:

“I was like, look, the asphalt will come in in time. You just got to stomach out the first couple of years. That kind of thing. I don’t know. I just didn’t see the need to do it. Others did and wanted to do it, and you’ve got to trust your people and listen to what they say. I’m talking from experience and pure gut instinct. They’re talking to me about all these friction coefficients and these devices they use to measure it. And so there’s a difference there.

“Most of the time they’re right when they use those devices. Sometimes they’re wrong. The key is to know when science is right and when your gut is right.”

Asked if the traction compound seems like a crutch that detracts from more important things, Gossage told Ryan:

I look at it like there’s so much noise from a few people, the vocal minority, about so many things related to the sport, that it’s hard to know when to stick your fingers in your ear and ignore it. Because you want to listen to fans. It’s another one of those judgment things you’ve got to make. Yeah, I hear all the time from the detractors, and I thought Kansas was a watershed moment in NASCAR, but you hear these detractors, and you want to say, ‘Look, we’re not running a stock car off the showroom floor with an 8-inch bias-ply treaded tire anymore.’

“That’s not what we do. That’s not what this sport is. It’s evolved. It’s changed. The forward path is not a bad thing. It’s a tough line to straddle to stay in the old days where certain things were great because the way they were, and you also have to advance or die. So what do you listen to and who? The good old days for me are different from the good old days for you and somebody else. If I listen to most detractors, the good old days … the first Cup race I saw in person, Darrell Waltrip beat Bobby Allison by a lap. I thought it was the greatest thing I’d ever seen. Well if you did that today, they’d tear the place down. So you got to grow.”

As for Kansas being a “watershed moment,” Gossage said: “I thought Kansas was the first time where all the things that the playoffs bring about in every sport: Intrigue. Intensity. Mayhem. Nerves. Who’s in, who’s out. On and on. Great things. That was the story. That is what each playoff race needs to be like.”

3. Right tracks at the right time

Kevin Harvick enters this weekend at Texas having finished in the top 10 each of the past 10 races there, tying Greg Biffle for the longest steak of consecutive top 10s at that track.

No other drivers have had more than six consecutive top 10s at Texas. Since the track was repaved and reconfigured in 2017, Harvick has a 3.2 average finish in five races. He won two of those races. 

But this is just the beginning for Harvick with some of his best tracks.

After Texas, the series heads to ISM Raceway. Harvick has 12 consecutive top-10 finishes going into that race.

The season finale is in Miami and Harvick has scored 11 consecutive top 10s there.

4. Moving closer to record

Martin Truex Jr.’s win last weekend at Martinsville gave Joe Gibbs Racing its 17th victory of the season.

The record for wins in a season by one organization in the modern era (since 1972) is held by Hendrick Motorsports, which won 18 of 36 races in 2007.

JGR has three races left to tie or surpass Hendrick Motorsports’ accomplishment.

5. F1 announces cost cap for 2021

Formula 1 announced several changes this week for the 2021 season, including a cost cap. That’s something that could be in place in NASCAR by 2021.

The F1 cost cap will limit teams to $175 million for the calendar year and is based on 21 races. The cap will not include wages for drivers, the team’s three highest paid personnel, marketing costs and travel costs. A NASCAR team cap is not expected to include driver salaries.

Auditors will be appointed to provide independent oversight of the F1 teams. Penalties for exceeding the cap could be a financial penalty, loss of constructors and/or driver points, ban for a certain number of races, limitations on testing and/or reduction of the team’s cost cap. In the most serious cases, penalties also could include exclusion from the World Championship.

This has been something team owners have been working on with NASCAR and will be interesting to see in what ways a NASCAR cap might mirror the F1 cap and other ways it might not.

 

Brian Pattie not returning to Roush Fenway Racing next season

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Brian Pattie, crew chief on Ricky Stenhouse Jr.‘s No. 17 Ford, will not return to Roush Fenway Racing next year, the team confirmed to NBC Sports.

SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s Claire B. Lang first reported the news.

Pattie has been with Roush Fenway since 2016 when he was crew chief for Greg Biffle. He’s been paired with Stenhouse the last three seasons.

News of Pattie’s departure after this season comes after the news that Chris Buescher will drive the No. 17 next year and with Stenhouse moving to JTG Daugherty Racing.

Pattie has six wins in 416 Cup races as a crew chief since 1999. Two came with Stenhouse in 2015 at Talladega and Daytona.

Stenhouse and Pattie failed to make the playoffs the last two seasons.

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Martin Truex Jr. completes Richmond sweep with playoff win

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Martin Truex Jr. rebounded from a spin with 85 laps to go to win Saturday’s Cup Series playoff race at Richmond Raceway, completing a sweep of the season’s two races on the short track and giving him wins in the first two playoff races.

Truex, who spun from contact with Ricky Stenhouse Jr. while leading and restarted third, passed teammate Kyle Busch with 26 laps to go and went unchallenged to the checkered flag.

Truex now has six wins this year and 22 in the last four seasons.

“I feel like Danny Sullivan or something right now,” Truex told NBCSN, referencing to the driver who spun and then won the 1985 Indianapolis 500. “I’m speechless. Unbelievable job, all my guys. … Had a heck of a race with Kyle and Denny (Hamlin) all night long, really. We just kept plugging away at it, plugging away at it. That’s what we always do, just keep digging and we never quit.

“Next thing you know I’m catching (Busch) for the lead. I’m like, ‘Cool, here we go.'”

Truex led a Joe Gibbs Racing sweep of the top three spots, with Truex leading Busch and Denny Hamlin. Erik Jones originally finished fourth, but his No. 20 Toyota failed post-race inspection and his finish was disqualified, giving him a last-place finish. Jones’ car failed in the rear toe section in the optical scanning station.

Earlier in the day, Gibbs’ grandson Ty, won his first career NASCAR K&N Pro Series East race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway.

Pole-sitter Brad Keselowski is now credited with fourth place and Ryan Newman completed the top five.

The top 10 was rounded out by Kyle Larson, Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson.

Busch and Harvick both clinched spots in the second round on points. Busch’s winless streak is now at 14 races.

STAGE 1 WINNER: Martin Truex Jr.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Kyle Busch

More: Race results and points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: Ryan Newman earned his second top five of the year, his third straight top 10 … Denny Hamlin has finished in the top three in six of the last nine races … Bubba Wallace finished 12th for his third top-15 finish in the last five races … Jimmie Johnson earned his first top 10 with crew chief Cliff Daniels.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Reed Sorenson finished 37th after he got in the wall on Lap 243 and brought out the caution … Kurt Busch and Aric Almirola each received speeding penalties during the race and finished 18th and 16th … Chris Buescher‘s streak of top-18 finishes ended at 16 races after he placed 31st, seven laps down … Alex Bowman and William Byron placed four laps down in 23rd and 24th.

NOTABLE: This was the eighth time in their careers that Truex and Kyle Busch have finished 1-2 (or Busch was 1-2 with Truex) and the third time this year. … Truex is the fourth driver to win the first two playoff races, following Matt Kenseth (2013), Tony Stewart (2011) and Greg Biffle (2008).

WHAT’S NEXT: Bank of America Roval 400 at Charlotte Motor Speedway at 2:30 p.m. ET Sept. 29 on NBC

Xfinity Series 2020 race fields cut; most Cup drivers limited to five starts

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The 2020 season will have a slightly different look in both the Xfinity Series and Gander Outdoors Truck Series, NASCAR announced Wednesday.

Among the more notable changes: reduction in Xfinity Series race fields, as well as a decrease in the number of Xfinity races that full-time Cup drivers with more than three years of experience can compete in.

Also unveiled were the 2020 Dash 4 Cash and Triple Truck Challenge race dates and tracks.

Here’s the breakdown:

XFINITY SERIES:

* The starting field for each race will be cut to 36 cars (from 38 currently).

* The field will be set with 31 starting positions based on qualifying, four provisional positions based on the rulebook and one past champion provisional.

* Drivers with more than three years of full-time NASCAR Cup experience will be limited to a maximum of just five starts (down from seven currently). Those five starts cannot include the final regular season race or the playoffs. The current maximum for 2019 is seven starts for Cup drivers with five years of full-time Cup experience.

* The Dash 4 Cash battle will have the qualifying race at Homestead-Miami (March 21, 2019), followed by the four Dash races: Texas (March 28), Bristol (April 4), Talladega (April 25) and Dover (May 2).

* Drivers electing to accumulate NASCAR Cup series points are ineligible to take part in the Xfinity Series Dash 4 Cash.

TRUCK SERIES:

* Drivers with more than three years of full-time NASCAR Cup series experience will be allowed to make a maximum of just five starts (as is the case currently, although drivers must have five years of full-time Cup tenure). Those five starts cannot include the final regular season race or the playoffs.

* The Triple Truck Challenge, introduced this season, will continue. The three 2020 races will be at Richmond (April 18), Dover (May 1) and Charlotte (May 15).

* Drivers electing to accumulate NASCAR Cup or Xfinity Series points are ineligible to compete in the Triple Truck Challenge races and the championship race.

* Removed post entry driver and owner caveat. Greg Biffle, who made one start earlier this season for Kyle Busch Motorsports in the first challenge race and won, would have been prevented from being eligible for the second Truck Challenge race because of the current limitation of not being named on the initial race entry list, which will now be rescinded for 2020.

“These updates to the Xfinity Series and Gander Trucks procedures continue our commitment to strengthening our race teams and providing a stronger field with even greater competition for our fans,” Meghan Miley, NASCAR Senior Director of Racing Operations, said in a media release. “We’re excited about the return of the Dash 4 Cash in the Xfinity Series and the Triple Truck Challenge with the Gander Trucks.

“These programs provide our teams with an incredible performance-based bonus opportunity each season. By removing the entry deadline requirement for the Triple Truck Challenge, we ensure our teams and fans know immediately if a driver is eligible to race for additional bonuses.”

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Friday 5: Anger building during NASCAR’s season of rage

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Call this NASCAR’s season of rage: Drivers sniping, fussing and even a few fighting.

The anger was evident last weekend at Watkins Glen International. A seven-time champion ridiculed a competitor in an interview on NBCSN. A young driver’s expletive-laced comments explained why he spun a former champion.

The confrontations and cross words are not surprising in a season that might best be described with an angry face emoji.

The Cup Series is going though a transition. A new rules package is meant to excite current fans, coax new fans and create tight racing that can lead to clashes on and off the track. While the new rules have enhanced racing at 1.5-mile tracks, drivers say that passing remains a challenge. Thus blocking, once a tactic found primarily at Daytona and Talladega, has become commonplace. So have the conflicts.

There’s also a battle between veteran drivers and the next generation. The last few years have seen many veterans leave, and several new drivers arrive. Seventeen of the 40 starters in the Daytona 500 three years ago are no longer full-time Cup drivers, a list that includes Dale Earnhardt Jr., Carl Edwards, Matt Kenseth and Greg Biffle. One driver who missed that race with an injury was Tony Stewart. He returned nine races into the year for what was his final Cup season.

Mix blocking with a generational gap in how to race, and one gets a mercurial situation. Add the pressure to make the playoffs and simply stand back because somebody is about to lose their cool.

So there was Jimmie Johnson, who holds the final playoff spot entering Sunday’s race at Michigan International Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), confronting Ryan Blaney last weekend at Watkins Glen after Blaney’s contact spun Johnson. After their talk, Johnson told NBCSN that “I couldn’t hear what (Blaney) was saying, his lips were quivering so bad that he can’t even speak. I guess he was nervous or scared or both. I don’t know what the hell the problem is.”

Farther up pit road, Bubba Wallace said he wasn’t backing down. He turned Kyle Busch — Wallace’s former boss when Wallace ran in the Truck series — in retaliation for contact that sent Wallace into a tire barrier.

“I’m going to get my respect on the track, and I don’t care who it is,” Wallace said. “That’s for when guys fail to think about the young guys, I guess, or with me.

“I won’t put up with no shit. So I flat out wrecked his ass back.”

These disagreements have been going on throughout the season. It’s just that they’ve become more common lately.

Ryan Newman said he had a discussion with Blaney about blocking after a couple of incidents at Charlotte. Newman says blocking is not racing and he doesn’t do it.

“You don’t change the way that you enter a corner to choke somebody off knowing that it’s going to slow you down,” Newman said. “You, as a racer, are supposed to go out there and race as hard as you can to try to catch the guy in front of you, not let the guy behind you stay behind you.”

As for his discussion with Blaney, Newman said he told the fourth-year Cup driver: “The next time you do that, it’s not going to be good for you. That’s not the way I race. You want to block me, it’s not going to be good.’ I don’t mean it as a threat. I’m just telling him that’s the fact of it.”

Blocking was an issue Clint Bowyer had at the end of the Kansas race with Erik Jones in May. Jones, who is in his third full season, moved multiple lanes to block Bowyer’s charge and then drifted up to keep Bowyer behind.

“I had a huge run on both those guys but that kid, I guess he was willing to wreck himself to hold the position,” Bowyer said of Jones that night.

There have been other cases of veterans trying to lay down the law with a younger driver. After declaring last year he wasn’t going let off the gas when he was blocked because he had been wrecked from behind doing so, Brad Keselowski delivered “a message” at Daytona in July. He turned William Byron when Byron blocked him in practice.

“It would have been, I feel like, more professional to come talk to me about what was wrong instead of tearing up a race car and make my guys have to bring out a backup and have to work all the way through last night and show up early this morning and have to work even more,” Byron said the day after the incident. “I don’t think that’s the way to handle it. That’s kind of the unnecessary part for me that I don’t appreciate.”

It hasn’t just been veterans and young drivers having issues. Bowyer and Newman had contact after the All-Star Race that spun Bowyer. After exiting his car, Bowyer, ran to Newman’s and started punching Newman as he sat in his car.

Even young guys have been upset with one another. Alex Bowman was not happy with Joey Logano‘s driving at Charlotte, saying Logano “about crashed us in practice and then he drove into Turn 1 and tried to turn us (in the 600). I like Joey a lot. It is what it is. We’re all racing hard. I’m not super mad about it, I just thought it was dumb, that’s all.”

Asked about how drivers are racing each other, Bowman said: “Everybody has to race everybody hard with this package. There’s not a lot of room for give and take. I thought the situation was, there was a good chunk of the race left, it was pretty unnecessary. Probably wouldn’t have been as mad as I was about it if (Logano) didn’t about crash us in practice, which I thought was really unnecessary.

“It’s all good, and he’ll get his for sure.”

Bowman, who has a victory this season, doesn’t face the pressure to make the playoffs that Johnson does. Johnson, who has never failed to qualify for NASCAR’s postseason since it debuted in 2004, holds the final playoff spot by only a tiebreaker on Newman with four races left in the regular season. Earlier this month, Johnson’s team changed crew chiefs in the middle of the season for the first time in his career.

Johnson and Newman trail Bowyer by 12 points. Bowyer is trying to make the playoffs while he doesn’t have a contract for next season. Daniel Suarez, who has had run-ins with Michael McDowell (ISM Raceway) and Wallace (Pocono), is 23 points behind Johnson and Newman.

The tension is only going to increase in the Cup garage.

2. Life on the playoff bubble

Alex Bowman understands the pressure of trying to make the playoffs. A year ago, he held the final playoff spot with four races to go. He made the playoffs, but he admits to the anxiety he felt, something he doesn’t have to worry about with his win at Chicagoland Speedway qualifying him for a chance at the title this year.

“It’s definitely tough,” Bowman said of the pressure last year. “It’s not a lot of fun. It’s a lot of stress and a lot of pressure. It really wasn’t that bad last year until we got to Indy (for the regular-season finale), and we crashed pretty early, and we were kind of riding around just trying to finish. And I could see that Jamie McMurray was pretty close to the front, and, I’m like trying to look past 30 cars on restarts and see where everybody’s at. So, that was really stressful.”

3. Quest for tires that wear

NASCAR and drivers have made it clear that they seek a tire that wears more and that’s something Goodyear is looking to deliver.

When it comes to tires, no secret that we want more wear, especially on the short tracks, and that’s the goal,” Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s chief racing development officer, said earlier this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We’re going to work closely with Goodyear to get that. We think that’s a huge component of what goes into a race. The more we can deliver on that, that’s where the drivers want to see us go, and we’re going to push hard to do that.”

Case in point was a recent tire test at Martinsville Speedway.

“I think the main deal for that tire test was finding a left rear (tire) that fell off,” said Ryan Blaney, who took part in the test. “We ran through a bunch of different sets and combinations and things like that. Some were better than others. I don’t know what we’re coming back there with.”

Paul Menard, who also participated in the test, likes the idea of a tire that wears more.

“I think that Goodyear kind of sees that and is making a push to maybe be more aggressive to give us a softer compound that wears out more,” he said.

4. Winning again

Chase Elliott‘s win last weekend at Watkins Glen International gave Chevrolet four wins in the last six races: Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona), Kurt Busch (Kentucky) and Elliott.

Chevrolet drivers had won only four of the previous 51 races before this recent streak.

5. Racing is in their blood

While Sterling Marlin looks to return to racing Saturday night at Fairgrounds Speedway in Nashville after brain surgery, another former Cup driver will be racing Saturday night for the first time at Bowman Gray Stadium.

Bobby Labonte will get his first taste of “The Madhouse” in his first career modified race.

“The modified races there are really competitive, and the teams and drivers are serious and talented,” Labonte said in a media release. ” I am sure they will make it tough on me, but I am looking forward to strapping on my helmet and giving them a run.”