Getty Images

Friday 5: How a few laps in March could impact the playoff race

1 Comment

In a season that stretches from February to November, covers more than 13,000 miles and competes in 20 states, it often can be the moments easily overlooked that prove to be among the most important.

The race for points is becoming increasingly critical with only six winners — the fewest this deep into a season since 1996. If Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Clint Bowyer continue to win (they’ve combined to win 13 of the first 15 races), that would mean several of the 16 playoff spots would be set by points.

If so, even the smallest moments could determine who makes the playoffs or how many playoff points, if any, a driver scores for finishing in the top 10 in the regular season, which ends Sept. 9 at Indianapolis Motor Speedway.

Chase Elliott enters this off-weekend 14th in the playoff standings. He has a 31-point lead on what would be the final playoff position, held by Hendrick Motorsports teammate Alex Bowman.

Even with the dominance of Harvick, Busch, Truex and Bowyer, it seems likely there will be at least two different winners before the postseason, meaning Elliott will need to climb higher in the points — if he’s not one of those winners — to secure a playoff spot.

Recall that he’s already lost 45 points this season because of penalties at Phoenix and Texas this season.

Then look back at the middle of that Phoenix race in March.

Elliott was fourth and in position to score seven points in the second stage until a late caution. He scored none.

Things changed for Elliott when Chris Buescher hit the wall to bring out the caution on Lap 147. The second stage ended at Lap 150. NASCAR cleared the track in time to run one green-flag lap before the stage ended.

Elliott pitted during that caution with many of the leaders, who were focused on positioning themselves to win the race instead of scoring stage points.

Six cars did not pit. That included Kurt Busch, who was behind Elliott in fifth, and Brad Keselowski, who was sixth.

Elliott restarted outside the top 10 and didn’t make it up there for the end of the stage. So seven points he looked to be in position to gain were gone. Elliott went on to finish third in the race.

Busch won that stage to earn a playoff point but would finish 10th in the race. Keselowski went on to finish 15th after finishing second in that stage.

One who gained points at Phoenix was Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

He is four points out of what would be the final playoff spot at this moment.

Stenhouse was running 20th before the caution for Buescher’s incident. Stenhouse did not pit and lined up third for the one-lap run to end the stage. He finished third, gaining eight points that he wouldn’t have scored had Buescher’s accident not happened.

It can be simple decisions — pit or not — that can play a big factor in how the season goes for some teams. Lose too many points and one could miss the playoffs. Steal points and that could help a team be eligible for a run to the championship.

That’s why the end of the second stage at Michigan was critical for drivers such as Elliott and Stenhouse, who do not have a win and are battling for a playoff spot.

Had a winless driver remained on track through the caution — Kasey Kahne stayed out but then pitted the lap before the restart when it appeared that rain wouldn’t be arriving soon — then such a driver could have taken a playoff spot. It would have meant one less playoff spot based on points.

That Bowyer, who was already set in the playoffs with his Martinsville win, triumphed at Michigan allowed those racing for a playoff spot to breathe easier.

But with two road courses to go (Sonoma and Watkins Glen), a restrictor-plate race (Daytona) and possibly two races with the All-Star Race rules package (likely Michigan and Indianapolis) left in the regular season, there’s the chance that there could be some different winners taking playoff spots.

That would make the race for points even tighter and every decision more important.

2. Grassroots racing

With the Cup Series off this weekend, some drivers are taking the chance to race at local tracks.

Kyle Busch finished third to Brian Campbell in the Money in the Bank Super Late Model race Monday at Berlin (Michigan) Raceway.

Kyle Larson is set to run in six days of the nine-day Ohio Sprint Speedweek with the Arctic Cat All Star Circuit of Champions, the series owned by Tony Stewart.

Kasey Kahne also is scheduled to run a few of the Ohio Sprint Speedweek races.

Ohio Sprint Speedweek begins tonight at Attica Raceway Park. Eldora Speedway in Rossburg, Ohio, hosts the second night of the series on Saturday. The series then goes to Waynesfield Raceway on Sunday night before continuing the following week.

3. A new winner?

The Xfinity Series has had 12 different winners in the first 13 races heading into Sunday’s event at Iowa Speedway.

This weekend’s race will have three drivers who have won this year — Tyler Reddick at Daytona, Christopher Bell at Richmond and Justin Allgaier at Dover.

Ryan Preece, who won at Bristol, is not entered. Spencer Gallagher, who won at Talladega, remains under indefinite suspension for violating NASCAR’s Substance Abuse Policy. The other winners in the series are full-time Cup drivers.

The odds are in favor or another new winner this weekend in the Xfinity Series.

Points leader Elliott Sadler seeks to snap a 52-race winless streak, dating back to Kentucky in September 2016. Cole Custer is second in the points, and goes for his first win since last year’s season finale in Miami. Daniel Hemric, who is third in the points, seeks his first career series wins. Sunday will be his 47th Xfinity start.

4. No Cup drivers

Saturday’s Camping World Truck Series race and Sunday’s Xfinity Series event at Iowa Speedway both will not have any Cup drivers entered.

This will be the fifth Xfinity race without a full-time Cup driver in it. Full-time Cup drivers were barred from the fourth Dash 4 Cash races and Iowa will be run with all the Cup drivers taking the weekend off from NASCAR.

5. Last break until …

After this weekend, Cup teams will have only one weekend off the rest of the season. Cup teams will race 21 of the next 22 weekends. The lone weekend off will be Aug. 19, the weekend between Michigan (Aug. 12) and Bristol (Aug. 26). The season ends Nov. 18 in Miami.

 and on Facebook

Justin Haley to make Xfinity debut at Iowa with GMS Racing

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Justin Haley will make his Xfinity Series debut this weekend at Iowa Speedway in GMS Racing’s No. 23 Chevrolet.

The 19-year-old driver is set to make three Xfinity starts for the team this season.

He will drive a second GMS Racing entry July 6 at Daytona International Speedway. He will also compete Aug. 4 at Watkins Glen.

Haley will be sponsored by The Fraternal Order of Eagles at Iowa.

Haley, who drives for GMS Racing full-time in the Camping World Truck Series, is the latest driver to substitute for the indefinitely suspended Spencer Gallagher. Gallagher was suspended for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy days after winning the April 28 race at Talladega Superspeedway.

He has entered NASCAR’s Road to Recovery program.

In the four races since, Gallagher has been replaced by Johnny Sauter, Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman.

In his 35 Truck Series starts, Haley has six top fives and 18 tops 10s. His best result is second in this year’s season opener at Daytona.

The native of Winamac, Indiana, was the 2016 K&N Pro Series East champion.

“This is an opportunity of a lifetime to be in top-notch Xfinity Series equipment,” Haley said in a press release. “I can’t say enough about how much the Gallagher family has helped my career over the past few years in the Truck Series. I’m excited to get to Iowa and run a double-header with The Fraternal Order of Eagles (FOE) onboard. FOE, along with my family, have been nothing but supportive of me since the beginning. I am humbled to have the support to take the next step into the Xfinity Series, after always being unsure if it would ever happen. Thank you to the whole GMS organization.”

Elliott, who drove the No. 23 at Charlotte and Pocono, will return to the car at Chicagoland (June 30), Daytona (July 6) and Bristol (Aug. 17).

Bowman will drive it again July 13 at Kentucky Speedway.

Alex Bowman, Elliott Sadler clear air on incident in Xfinity race

Leave a comment

BROOKLYN, Mich. — Alex Bowman and Elliott Sadler tweeted that they have talked and cleared the air between them after an incident during Saturday’s Xfinity race at Michigan International Speedway.

Sadler bounced off the wall on the frontstretch and then hit Bowman on the driver’s side during a caution on Lap 74.

That led to Bowman’s frustration immediately after the race.

“I don’t know if he cleared himself or Brett (Griffin, Sadler’s spotter) cleared him,” Bowman said on pit road after placing 21st. “He wasn’t clear. Drove like a third of the way down the straightaway before he decided to pull up. At that point, what am I supposed to do? It’s his race track and I’m just driving on it and lift? I’m not going to lift for a guy that wouldn’t lift for me.

“I don’t know why he drove down into the corner and hit us under caution. That was pretty dumb. I don’t know. He gets pretty fired up. I like Elliott, but my opinion that was pretty dumb.’’

Sadler denied that he intentionally hit Bowman’s car under caution.

“I had stuff smoking everywhere,’’ Sadler said after placing 30th, his first finish outside the top 10 this season . “And a tire rub.”

Sadler tweeted after the race that he and Bowman spoke and Sadler took responsibility “for my actions.” Bowman also tweeted about the “good talk” the two had.

Asked about racing Bowman and hitting the wall, Sadler said after the race: “I tried to get up and I thought him being my teammate, he’d cut me a break. But that wasn’t the case. He’s trying to do his best, too. I just thought I might get a little more room. It is what it is. It’s good, close racing. You had to be in the top lane to try to have a chance to win the race.”

Bowman drove for GMS Racing, which is a technical partner with Hendrick Motorsports, and Sadler drives for JR Motorsports, which is affiliated with Hendrick Motorsports. Sadler is the series points leader.

Bowman was in the GMS car because of Spencer Gallagher‘s indefinite suspension for violating NASCAR’s Substance Abuse Policy. Bowman is scheduled to drive the car again next month at Kentucky Speedway.

 and on Facebook

Alex Bowman to drive GMS Racing’s No. 23 Xfinity car in two races

Getty Images
Leave a comment

Alex Bowman is the latest Hendrick Motorsports driver named to pilot GMS Racing’s No. 23 Chevrolet in the Xfinity Series.

The team announced Bowman will drive the car this weekend at Michigan International Speedway and on July 13 at Kentucky Speedway.

Bowman follows Hendrick teammate Chase Elliott and GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter in substituting for Spencer Gallagher. Gallagher was suspended indefinitely following his win in the April 23 race at Talladega Superspeedway for violating NASCAR’s substance abuse policy.

Bowman will be sponsored by ISM Connect.

“I want to thank GMS Racing for letting me race the No. 23 Chevrolet this weekend in Michigan,” Bowman said in a press release. “Last time I was in the Xfinity race at the track, we started on the pole and I was able to lead some laps. I am looking forward to this weekend and what we can do on track with the No. 23 team.”

Bowman has 52 starts in the Xfinity Series with his first win coming last year at Charlotte with Chip Ganassi Racing.

Elliott, who drove the No. 23 at Charlotte and Pocono, will return to the car at Chicagoland (June 30), Daytona (July 6) and Bristol (Aug. 17).

More substitute drivers will be announced at a later date.

NASCAR’s preliminary entry lists for Michigan, Texas

Getty Images
Leave a comment

All three of NASCAR’s national series will be racing this weekend, but they’ll be doing it in different states.

Cup and Xfinity teams head to Brooklyn, Michigan, for the first trip of the year to Michigan International Speedway.

The Camping World Truck Series will compete at Texas Motor Speedway.

Here the entry lists for Cup and Xfinity. The Truck entry list has not been published yet.

Cup – FireKeepers Casino 400

There 39 entries for the race.

Garrett Smithley, who races full-time in Xfinity for JD Motorsports, will make his Cup debut driving the No. 99 Chevrolet for StarCom Racing.

Matt Kenseth will make the last of his initial five starts in Roush Fenway Racing’s No. 6 Ford.

There is not a driver attached to Rick Ware Racing’s No. 51 Chevrolet.

Kyle Larson won both races at Michigan last year and has won the last three races at 2-mile track.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – LTi Printing 250

There are 41 cars entered for the race, including five full-time Cup drivers: Kyle Busch, Austin Dillon, Kevin Harvick, Paul Menard and Alex Bowman.

Bowman will drive GMS Racing’s No. 23 Chevrolet, making him the latest Hendrick Motorsports driver to substitute for the indefinitely suspended Spencer Gallagher. Chase Elliott drove it at Charlotte and Pocono.

One entry will not qualify for the race.

Last year, Denny Hamlin won this race after making a last-lap pass of William Byron.

Click here for the entry list.

Trucks – Rattlesnake 400

There are 33 entires for the race.

There is not a driver attached to the No. 74 Chevrolet owned by Mike Harmon Racing.

Last year, Christopher Bell won this race over Chase Briscoe and Grant Enfinger.

Click here for the entry list.