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Friday 5: The race for points intensifies

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With only six drivers qualified for NASCAR’s postseason via wins so far, the Cup series could see half a dozen or more make the playoffs by points.

That will make every decision through the Sept. 9 regular-season finale at Indianapolis critical for drivers and teams. When to pit. If to pit. Take no tires. Take two tires. Take four tires. Such calls — and the hundreds of others made about setups and such — could have a lasting impact.

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. have combined to win 13 of the first 15 races this season. Joey Logano and Austin Dillon are the only other drivers who have won this year. The six total winners are the fewest at this point in a season since 1996.

What it means is that points — particularly stage points — could play a key role in who advances.

Alex Bowman holds what is the final playoff spot entering this weekend’s trip to Sonoma Raceway. He has 331 points, putting him four ahead of Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Paul Menard.

Stenhouse and Menard are so close to Bowman, in part, because of stage points. Bowman has 14. Stenhouse has 37; Menard 35. Those stage points also have helped Stenhouse and Menard keep close to Erik Jones, who is 15th in the playoff standings. Jones has a 19-point lead on Stenhouse and Menard. Jones has 38 stage points.

Realistically, there will be a few more different winners before the 16-team playoff field is set. Even if there are four more winners, that would mean six drivers would qualify by points. There has never been more than five to qualify on points. That happened in 2015.

Jamie McMurray qualified for the playoffs that year on points and did so the following two seasons. He heads to Sonoma with 283 points, 48 points behind Bowman for what is the last spot at this time. McMurray has 13 stage points.

It’s not just at the bottom of the playoff standings where stage points could be significant.

Remember that the regular-season winner scores 15 playoff points, the runner-up scores 10 playoff points and on down to the 10th-place finisher scoring one playoff point.

Brad Keselowski (fourth in the standings with 514 points), Clint Bowyer (510), Martin Truex Jr. (506) and Kurt Busch (493) are within 21 points of each other.

That could represent the difference in up to three playoff points.

Keselowski has the advantage on those other three drivers because he has scored more stage points. Keselowski has 160 stage points to 121 by Bowyer, 113 by Truex and 121 by Busch.

The race for stage points will become more important as the series heads toward Indy.

Here is look at who has scored the most stage points this season:

197 — Kyle Busch

161 — Kevin Harvick

160 — Brad Keselowski

121 — Kurt Busch

121 — Clint Bowyer

119 — Joey Logano

117 — Ryan Blaney

113 — Martin Truex Jr.

107 — Kyle Larson

84 — Denny Hamlin

58 — Aric Almirola

52 — Jimmie Johnson

46 — Chase Elliott

38 — Erik Jones

37 — Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

35 — Paul Menard

2. NASCAR in 2019

All-Star winner Kevin Harvick approves of NASCAR’s decision to not run that package in any more Cup races this season but focus on making adjustments to run it in 2019.

“I think we just need to be very cautious about protecting the integrity of the sport and the things that happen behind the wheel of the car,’’ Harvick said Thursday night on his SiriusXM NASCAR Radio show. “The other thing that I will say is the All-Star Race was a very short race. You had that caution in the first segment and you never really ran more than 20 laps at a time.

“The thing I’m most excited about is we’re going to vet this thing out and make sure that we get all the right things done to the car. I think a lot of the things that happened at the All-Star Race were covered up because the runs were so short. There’s definitely some work to do on the cars. I think we could probably make that package better.

“I’m glad we didn’t just jump right in. This is a big ship to turn. When you decide to start changing rules like that. You’re talking engines and transmissions, bodies and things like that. It’s not an easy process. It’s not like you just change the height of a spoiler. You’re basically changing the whole car, engine included.”

3. More of the same?

Four of the last six races at Sonoma have been won by this season’s dominant drivers.

Kevin Harvick won last year. Kyle Busch won in 2015. Martin Truex Jr. won in 2013. Clint Bowyer won in 2012.

The other two winners during that stretch? They’re no longer in Cup. Carl Edwards won at Sonoma in 2014. Tony Stewart won in 2015.

4. Change of scenery?

Will a road course help change Chevrolet’s fortunes this season? The car manufacturer has one win this year (Austin Dillon in the Daytona 500). In six of the first 15 races, Chevy has had two or fewer cars finish in the top 10. Chevrolet has won twice in the last 11 years at Sonoma (Tony Stewart in 2016, Jimmie Johnson in 2010).

5. Back in the saddle

With Cup back in action this weekend, the series will race on 21 of the next 22 weekends. The lone weekend off will be Aug. 26 between Bristol and the Southern 500.

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NASCAR America Fantasy League: 10 Best at Sonoma in last three years

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The last nine races at Sonoma have been won by a different driver each time. Only one driver enters the weekend with back-to-back top-fives on this track and three others have consecutive top 10s. Given the importance of strategy and track position, repeating at this track is incredibly difficult.

Those stats should predict a fresh face in Victory Lane, right?

Unfortunately a brief glance at the drivers with the best average finishes over the past three years reveals that the two dominators of 2018 – Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch – head up the list. If a fantasy player thought this was going to be a good week to vary their NASCAR America Fantasy Live roster, it’s time to rethink that position.

There are a couple of surprises among recent top performers, but the cream tends to rise to the top of NASCAR events. Anchor this week’s team with solid marquee drivers and use dark horses as a way to differentiate those selections from the competition.

1. Kevin Harvick (three-year average: 3.67)
Harvick won last year’s edition of this race, but it is not the first time he has run well at Sonoma. He finished fourth in 2015 and was sixth the following year. Making those runs even more impressive is the fact that he has started outside the top 10 in each event and had to drive his way through the field.

2. Kyle Busch (three-year average: 4.33)
Along with Harvick, Busch is the only other driver with a current three-race streak of top 10s at Sonoma. He won there in 2015, followed by a seventh and fifth in his last two outings. He may be a better value than Harvick this week, however, because he has an equally impressive record at Watkins Glen International with a second in 2015, a sixth in 2016 and a seventh last year.

3. Kurt Busch (three-year average: 6.33)
It has been three years since Busch scored a top five at Sonoma, but what he lacks in raw power is made up for in consistency. In his last seven attempts on this track, he has finished outside the top 10 only once and that was a 12th in 2014. He won on this track in 2011 and finished second in 2015.

4. Joey Logano (three-year average: 6.67)
It appeared Logano had found the handle on this track. He scored his first top five in 2015 when he crossed under the checkers fifth. That was followed by a third in 2016. Last year was difficult for the driver of the No. 22; he qualified poorly in 18th and managed to climb only to 12th at the checkers.

5. Denny Hamlin (three-year average: 8.00)
Sometimes a switch seems to flip for a driver on a given track. That is what happened to Hamlin in 2016 when he was on his way to Victory Lane before contact from Tony Stewart in the final corner. He hung on to finish second – snapping a six-race streak of results outside the top 15 – and backed that up with a fourth last year.

6. Ryan Newman (three-year average: 10.67)
Newman’s consistency has aided in his making the top 10 list a few times this year and the same is true at Sonoma. Without a top five to his credit in the past five years, he has swept the top 15. That makes him a good utilitarian pick. He will probably not score maximum points, but is also unlikely to lose a lot at Sonoma.

6. Jimmie Johnson (three-year average: 10.67)
There are so many different things that can go wrong on a road course and Johnson has had too many disappointments in 2018 to make him a fantasy favorite. Sonoma and Watkins Glen reward skill behind the wheel over raw horsepower and handling, however, so there is still a chance that he could earn a top five if the team is mistake-free.

8. Brad Keselowski (three-year average: 12.33)
Keselowski makes the top-10 list despite having a 19th-place finish in his three-year average. That indicates just how difficult it is to sustain momentum on road courses given the various strategies that play out in a given race. The good news for Keselowski fans is that he finally earned his first career top five in eight starts last year with a third.

9. Jamie McMurray (three-year average: 12.67)
McMurray has been consistent recently at Sonoma, but that is a fairly new trait. In his first 12 starts on this track, he had two top fives and no other top 10s. His average finish before 2015 was 16.7 despite finishing fourth in the 2014 race. He was 11th in 2015, 17th in 2016, and 10th last year – so he could be a good value if he practices and qualifies well this weekend.

10. Paul Menard (three-year average: 13.33)
Some of Menard’s earliest racing experience came in the Trans-Am series and that seems to have stuck with him. While he barely makes the top-10 list this week, he is perhaps the most consistent driver in recent years with four results of 11th through 16th in the last five races. Now that Team Penske is supporting his effort with the Wood Brothers, he should easily contend for a top 10.

Bonus Picks

Pole Winner: This is a good week to go out on a limb where the pole sitter is concerned. McMurray has won two of the last five poles on this track, while his teammate Kyle Larson took the top spot last year. Two JTG-Daugherty Racing drivers also have recent poles with Marcos Ambrose securing one in 2012 and AJ Allmendinger leading the field to green in 2015.

Segment Winners: There is absolutely no way to determine who is going to take the segment wins this week because it will all come down to strategy at the close of each stage. Since Harvick and Kyle Busch have scored the most segment wins, however, you may as well keep riding that momentum.

For more Fantasy NASCAR coverage, check out Rotoworld.com and follow Dan Beaver (@FantasyRace) on Twitter.

Road course racing about being ‘accurate’, ‘smooth’ and not breaking anything

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For the first time this season, the Cup Series will have to turn left and right this weekend.

The circuit heads to the West Coast, where the 12-turn, 1.99-mile Sonoma Raceway awaits.

After 15 races on ovals of varying designs, drivers will have to brush up on skills they mastered in other racing disciplines or skills they’re just now developing.

“My focus when I go to road courses is to not wheel hop, not spin out, not break anything,” Kyle Larson told NBC Sports. “But I seem to always do those things when I go there.”

Larson has only one top-10 finish (fourth at Watkins Glen in 2014) in four starts at each track.

“I never had any road course experience growing up, you know?” Larson said. “All my stuff was on dirt tracks and ovals, which was totally opposite, but in a way, those stock cars on a road course feel more similar to a sprint car on a dirt track to me than anything. … I feel like at road courses I can kind of feel the car a little bit better. I always qualify well at them. I don’t really race great for whatever reason.”

How do drivers get themselves in the mindset to turn right for the first time in a season?

Thanks to limits on testing, teams can use simulators and road course schools to give their drivers a boost.

That helps drivers like Bubba Wallace, who will make his Sonoma debut this weekend, and Alex Bowman, who makes his first road course start of any kind in Cup since 2015.

“I want to do everything I possibly can,” Bowman told NBC Sports. “So simulator, road course school, whatever I can get my hands on to be better.”

Bowman’s start will also come in an appropriate car.

“I’m excited to go road racing in a Hendricks Motorsports car,” Bowman said. “It’s going to be different. Last time I went road racing (with Tommy Baldwin Racing) we raced a superspeedway car. So it should be quite a bit of fun. A little bit more fun than that was.”

Wallace last competed on a road course in 2016 in the Xfinity Series at Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio.

“I think the simulator will do,” Wallace told NBC Sports. “The simulator is good for putting the corners together. It is so hard to translate speed from a simulator, but then when we go to the actual road course for driving school the cars aren’t the same, the speeds aren’t the same so that is kind of tough as well.”

Fellow rookie William Byron will also make his first Cup start on a road course. In his championship campaign last season in Xfinity, Byron had finishes of 10th (Watkins Glen), 25th (wreck at Mid-Ohio) and sixth (Road America).

“I think road courses, you just try to be as accurate as you can,” Byron told NBC Sports. “It’s obviously a different skill set than it takes for an oval. So you have to adapt, and kind of grow your style at those places, but you don’t get to do it a lot. So I think the biggest thing there is being able to get through the gears and downshifts and everything successfully.”

What about veteran drivers who have already experienced the twist and turns and elevation changes at Sonoma?

Daniel Suarez, who will make his second Sonoma start in Cup, relies on his experiences from racing go-karts.

“One of the main things for me to think about was to be smooth and slow to actually (being) fast on the clock,” Suarez told NBC Sports. “That’s something very important. Sometimes you want to rush everything and to try to make things happen very quick and that’s when the car can do many things at the same time so you have to be smooth, aggressive, but everything at the right time so you can make some speed.”
Suarez and Bowman will get a little more track time this weekend. In addition to Aric Almirola and Erik Jones, they are entered into the K&N Pro Series West race at Sonoma. Suarez competed in the race last year.

After Sonoma, Cup will race at Watkins Glen on Aug. 5 and then it will hold its inaugural race on the Charlotte Motor Speedway road course on Sept. 30.

But three road courses isn’t enough for Wood Brothers Racing’s Paul Menard, who has one top five at Sonoma and an Xfinity win at Road America.

“I don’t think we have enough of them on our schedule,” Menard told NBC Sports. “The whole thing with road racing is you … have these braking zones and you have these points and you always try to push it to get a little bit more in a braking zone, try to get back to the gas sooner all the while trying to be smooth so you are not abusing your tires, your brakes, your transmission.

“It definitely puts it in the driver’s hands a little bit more which is cool for us.”

Driver lineup set for Charlotte road course tests in July

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Charlotte Motor Speedway announced the driver lineup for the two days of testing that will take place in July on the track’s road course.

NASCAR created two separate test days. Tests will be July 10 and July 17. Both sessions will go from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. ET with a lunch break from noon to 1 p.m. ET.

The tests are open to the public.

The Cup series races on Charlotte’s road course Sept. 30 in the playoffs.

Scheduled to test on July 10

Martin Truex Jr.

Jimmie Johnson

Chase Elliott

Kevin Harvick

Clint Bowyer

Denny Hamlin

Daniel Suarez

Brad Keselowski

Paul Menard

Trevor Bayne

Jamie McMurray

Austin Dillon

Chris Buescher

Kasey Kahne

Michael McDowell

Gray Gaulding

Landon Cassill

B.J. McLeod

Scheduled to test on July 17

Kyle Busch

Erik Jones

Ryan Blaney

Joey Logano

Kyle Larson

Aric Almirola

Kurt Busch

Alex Bowman

William Byron

Bubba Wallace

Ryan Newman

Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

AJ Allmendinger

Ty Dillon

Matt DiBenedetto

Corey LaJoie

David Ragan

Reed Sorenson

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Ryan: Untangling a caution flag with many layers at Michigan

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It was completely normal … and yet in another way, it also was wholly unprecedented.

In untangling what happened between the first and second stages Sunday at Michigan International Speedway, it’s best to start here: NASCAR officials believe they applied the letter of the law.

After leader Ryan Blaney took the yellow flag that began on Lap 58, there were two full laps remaining in Stage 1. NASCAR’s policy is that the pits are closed with two laps left in a stage in order to prevent strategy plays in which only half the field might complete a normal pit cycle (this was determined after consultation with teams to build guidelines for stage racing).

So on its face, the yellow flag was administered customarily when Matt Kenseth spun in Turn 4 on Lap 57 with three laps left in the first stage at Michigan.

But there were many layers to what transpired during the laps that bridged the first two stages Sunday, and the cascading events affected several cars with some repercussions that could be felt months later while also underscoring how a race’s rhythm can change in the era of stage racing, which NASCAR introduced last season.

In a Q&A format, here’s what went down at Michigan:

How and why did Kenseth get penalized?

Because he stopped when the pits were closed to change the flat tires on his No. 6 Ford. Kenseth fell two laps down while limping around the 2-mile oval to enter the pits and then exiting again as the stage finished under green.

The penalty for entering a closed pit is to restart at the end of the longest line. But Kenseth also was held a lap for taking the wavearound (getting a lap back under the yellow to start Stage 2) before serving the penalty, which is against the rules.

This, however, wasn’t listed on NASCAR’s official penalty report because it was viewed as a scoring correction. “He ended up getting a lap up on the field artificially, and we had to get that back,” Cup Series director Richard Buck said after the race.

Did NASCAR err during the caution sequence?

Yes, though only briefly.

Teams initially were informed that there would be a “quickie yellow,” i.e. a term that means the pits will be open as the caution period commences (the pits normally are closed for at least a lap after a yellow). Buck said the mistake was realized almost immediately, and the pits were closed before any cars reached the entrance.

Were the pits actually closed earlier than normal?

Technically, no.

As noted, NASCAR usually closes the pits with two laps remaining in a stage. That announcement is usually made on NASCAR’s radio channel when the leader crosses the line to begin the penultimate lap of the stage.

But in this case, the announcement that the pits were closed was made much earlier. Buck explained that this was because of a “dynamic situation” with the imminent end of a stage.

Though the caution didn’t officially begin until Lap 58, the yellow flag had waved (which freezes the field and establishes pace car speed) before the halfway point of Lap 57. Because there were still more than three laps remaining then in the stage, the announcement to close the pits was made nearly a lap earlier than typically.

But it also should be noted there are some crew chiefs who probably would regard NASCAR’s interpretation of “two laps to go” in this case as too liberal.

A stricter interpretation of “two laps to go” would mean when Lap 58 is completed (according to the Rule 10.9.1.1.b: “When the lead vehicle completes this designated lap, two laps prior to completing a Stage, except for the Final Stage, at the start/finish line, pit road will be closed.”).

So NASCAR kept the pits closed for the entirety of the Lap 58-59 caution. Couldn’t the caution have been extended through the beginning of Stage 2?

Yes. Officials waved the green on the final lap of Stage 1 because they wanted to end the stage at speed because points were on the line for the top 10.

“We’ll try every opportunity that we can to allow the top 10 to cross under heated competition at the start-finish line,” Buck said. “ And that’s why a lot of times you won’t see us put the yellow out (ending a stage) until the leader is on the back (straightaway). In the stage racing, there’s a lot of dynamics that go into it, and we feel that our checks and balances came into play, and everything came off the way we had explained and done it before in that type of situation.”

NASCAR has ended stages under caution several times before, though, most recently in the April 8 race at Texas Motor Speedway. With four laps remaining in the first stage, there was a heavy crash involving Martin Truex Jr. The ensuing yellow flag lasted nine laps, bridging the first and second stages.

How unusual is a two-lap caution at Michigan?

Fairly unusual.

This was the first two-lap yellow for an on-track incident at Michigan since 2012. In the past 35 years and 70 races at Michigan, this was the 11th two-lap caution. Such short cautions often result from lazy one-car spins, but Kenseth’s car suffered four blown tires and left a trail of sparks – both evidence that the track could have been cluttered.

It certainly would have been understandable if the caution lasted longer than two laps to ensure a full cleanup. In the June 18, 2017 race at Michigan, there was a controversial debris caution at Michigan that lasted five laps.

How unusual is a one-lap restart to end a stage?

It had happened five times in the previous 50 races since the advent of stage racing last season – but Michigan is the first instance in which the pits weren’t opened during the preceding yellow.

The first one-lap restart was in the June 11, 2017 race at Pocono Raceway after a crash involving Jimmie Johnson and Jamie McMurray with four laps remaining in Stage 2. The yellow lasted three laps.

There also was a one-lap restart Oct. 15, 2017 at Talladega after a caution for a one-car crash with four laps left in Stage 1 (the pits were opened). And a week later at Kansas Speedway after a one-car crash with four laps left in Stage 2 (the pits were opened).

This year, there have been one-lap restarts for the March 11 race at ISM Raceway (a one-car crash with four laps remaining in Stage 1; the pits were opened) and to end Stage 1 in the April race at Bristol Motor Speedway. That one-lap dash was preceded by a six-lap caution (including a red flag) in which the pits were opened.

Similar to Sunday at Michigan, inclement weather also had a major impact on the Bristol race (whose finish eventually was postponed to Monday).

How did the one-lap restart impact the Michigan race?

Significantly, because it’s a line-sensitive track, and the outside is the preferred groove on a restart. The disparity in restart grooves is common for most Cup races (as is well documented by the Motorsports Analytics site).

At Michigan, the outside line was preferred for restarts. When the green fell on Lap 60, Kurt Busch was on the inside in second (because Blaney chose the outside) and fell five spots on the restart lap, which is a loss of five points. Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch (who fell from seventh to 12th and consequently earned no stage points) also lost positions on the inside.

A few points here and there might not seem like much … until the end of the regular season when they will determine which drivers earn playoff berths and which playoff drivers receive larger playoff point bonuses.

Was Chase Elliott also penalized for pitting too soon at the end of Stage 1?

Yes, as was Bubba Wallace for stopping during the Lap 58-59 caution.

But Elliott’s penalty wasn’t as stiff as it could have been. Though he was sent to the rear (which should have meant starting outside the top 35) before the Lap 66 restart, Elliott restarted in 20th because several cars ahead elected to lay over for the green and give the right of way to the No. 9 Chevrolet (which likely had fresher tires than some of the cars that yielded).

Why is all this important?

Because it underscores the importance of consistent and fair officiating during an increasingly complex era in which governance and rules that are based partly on race strategy can create some highly unique circumstances that might ostensibly seem benign but actually can have a major effect on the results.

And it also raises a fair question: Could some of these parameters be streamlined in a manner that would make race procedures cleaner and easier for crew chiefs, drivers and officials?


Michigan was the second time this season (remember the lack of aggression at Richmond?) when nearly every crew chief played it safe rather than gamble for a checkered flag.

Feel free to blame the reliability of your weather apps as much as you’d like, but the inconvenient truth is that taking two tires – as inexplicably only race winner Clint Bowyer and crew chief Mike Bugarewicz chose to do – before what turned out to be the final restart wasn’t much of a gamble.

Paul Menard already had shown the way 40 laps earlier when he took the lead by staying on track under caution. With a No. 21 Ford that had average speed in the pack, Menard was able to turn much faster laps near the front and unburdened by turbulence.

Why wouldn’t more crew chiefs in the top 10 – particularly those whose drivers had wins (namely Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch) – take a gamble on two tires under threatening skies?

There’s a temptation to conclude that the rise of engineering principles on the pit box has been accompanied by an overreliance on data consumption that results in overthinking scenarios (though to be fair, Bugarewicz also has an engineering degree).

Perhaps too many crew chiefs are trying to apply physics to strategy instead of just relying on their guts.


There is a valid reason for being gun-shy, though: The playoff standings.

With the fewest number of winners (six) through 15 races since 1996, there figures to be as much sensitivity to points racing during the stretch run of the regular season. If Busch, Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. continue to amass victories, the top-15 teams will adjust accordingly with fewer golden-ticket wins available

But if you are a 25th-place team with no hope of cracking the playoff bubble in points by the end of the season, this logic doesn’t apply – particularly when the speed differential from first to 25th seems as large as it’s been in the recent past.

A miracle win is your only shot at a major playoff payday – and let’s remember it worked for Chris Buescher and Front Row Motorsports at Pocono two years ago.

So it’s puzzling again why Sunday’s ominous skies didn’t encourage more backmarker teams to attempt a Hail Mary.

Even by just clogging traffic and increasing the likelihood of a pileup, a quick caution on the restart still could have put an underdog in victory lane.


There were no postrace quotes provided from Ricky Stenhouse Jr. and Matt Kenseth, but there also wasn’t much to say about Roush Fenway Racing’s performance.

Though Stenhouse qualified seventh, he finished 29th after a late crash and ran outside the top 10 much of the race. In the fourth race since his return, Kenseth started 19th and finished 33rd and wasn’t a factor before or after the spin.

In a test at Darlington Raceway last week, Kenseth told reporters Roush was making “baby steps” but was lagging behind the team’s pace of improvement. With an off week to regroup, and with Kenseth out of the car for Trevor Bayne at Sonoma Raceway and Daytona International Speedway, this could be a critical spot for Roush’s turnaround.

The most vexing question might be why the team has struggled so mightily while the Ford teams of Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske have excelled this season, crediting a change in NASCAR’s inspection process with optimizing their Fusions.


The success of the aero/horsepower combination in the Xfinity Series last weekend at Michigan makes it likely the rules package (which was a smash hit in the All-Star Race) will find its way into the Cup Series when the circuit returns Aug. 12 to Michigan.

But the momentum for using the package (which has stirred much debate) in the July 14 race at Kentucky Speedway seems to have stalled out after a decision appeared to be looming last week.

The playoffs are off the table for the package. So barring a sharp change in direction, it might be used only at Michigan and the Sept. 9 race at Indianapolis Motor Speedway, both tracks where drivers could remain in the throttle for a full lap and increase the efficacy of the aero/horsepower package on enhancing passing opportunities.