NBC Sports Staff

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin No. 1 for fifth straight week

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By winning Saturday night at Bristol, Denny Hamlin maintained his stranglehold on the NBC NASCAR Power Rankings.

For the fifth consecutive week, Hamlin is No. 1 in the rankings – and by unanimous selection. But he’s not the only big story: Matt DiBenedetto, who finished second in Saturday’s race, made the biggest jump in this week’s rankings, going from unranked to No. 2.

Conversely, taking the biggest falls are Kevin Harvick (second last week to seventh) and Martin Truex Jr. (third to eighth).

Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings shape up:

1. Denny Hamlin (40 points): Doing everything right. Could this finally be the year he earns that elusive first Cup championship? Last week: 1st.

2. Matt DiBenedetto (29 points): Starting to come on at the right time. Runner-up run at Bristol gives him four top 10s in the last five races. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 3. Chase Elliott (27 points): After struggling to find consistency at times, he has three consecutive top-10 finishes heading into the off-weekend. Last week: 6th.

(tie) 3. Kyle Busch (27 points): Finished fourth for his fifth top 10 in the last six races but lamented after the race to NBCSN that “we’re flat out getting our ass kicked by our teammates so we’ve got to get better.” Last week: 5th.

5. Kyle Larson (26 points): Sixth-place finish marked his sixth top 10 in the last eight races. This team is cutting down on the mistakes that plagued it earlier in the year. Last week: 4th.

6. Brad Keselowski (23 points): As well as he’s run in Bristol over a long while. Earned first top five in 10 starts on the track. Last week: 9th.

7. Kevin Harvick (16 points): Freak mechanical failure ruins a very good weekend but look for him to bounce back big-time at Darlington in two weeks. Last week: 2nd.

8. Martin Truex Jr. (11 points): Flat tire caused his streak of four consecutive top 10s to come to an end with a 13th-place performance at Bristol. Last week: 3rd.

9. Daniel Suarez (9 points): Team and driver are showing a lot of fight. Don’t be surprised if Suarez is the next first-time Cup winner. Last week: 7th.

10. Clint Bowyer (4 points): He may have fallen below the playoff cutline, but you have to admire the way he bounced back from adversity to finish seventh at Bristol. With the pressure on him in the last two races to make the playoffs, Bowyer will have to have two of his best efforts of the year at Darlington and Indianapolis. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Ryan Blaney (3 points), Ryan Newman (2 points), Kurt Busch (2 points), Tyler Reddick (1 point).

Bump and Run: Time to be concerned about Kyle Busch’s winless drought?

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Kyle Busch is winless in his last 10 Cup races — his longest drought since 2017. He said after Saturday night’s race that “we’re flat out getting our ass kicked by our teammates so we’ve got to get better.” What kind of concern do you have with this team as the playoffs near?

Nate Ryan: Not too much concern. It was expected there would be a dropoff in results at some point for Busch. While it’s surprising he struggled at Bristol (though still scored a top five), and it comes on the heels of a disappointment at Michigan, he had blazing speed at Watkins Glen, Pocono and New Hampshire but without the results. Better to get the “slump” out of the way now before the playoffs begin for the No. 18.

Dustin Long: Minimal. His average finish is 8.3 during his “drought” and he averages 37.3 points per race, which is the equivalent of a fourth-place finish (with no stage points). Can understand if he’s frustrated but would not count this team out at all.

Daniel McFadin: None. Kyle Busch has finished in the top five or top 10 in five of the last six races. He’ll be fine. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I have mixed emotions. It’s hard to feel bad for Kyle Busch, given he’s leading the points. But at the same time, could he potentially have peaked too early in the season with his four wins? Or is he just in a slump and needs a big win at a place like Darlington or Indianapolis to get back on track? Sure, he’s struggled to reach victory lane of late, but it’s too early to start holding a tag day for the younger Busch brother.

Could Matt DiBenedetto become NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver this year, taking the title from Chase Elliott?

Nate Ryan: Highly unlikely he wins, but he could crack the top 10 or maybe even the top five.

Dustin Long: I don’t see it happening. Matt DiBenedetto’s popularity continues to grow but it still has a way to go to reach Chase Elliott’s level.

Daniel McFadin: As enticing as that story would be, I don’t see it. He didn’t even win the All-Star Race fan vote in May, losing to Alex Bowman. He’s got a lot momentum right now, but I think Chase Elliott would have to remove his name from contention for that to happen.

Jerry Bonkowski: While there’s no question Matt DiBenedetto has been one of the best feel-good stories of the season, he’d have to win Darlington or Indy (or both) and then a couple of playoff races and make it all the way to Miami in the final four before he’d have a shot at unseating Elliott. Still, I can easily see DiBenedetto finishing No. 2 to Elliott no matter how the rest of his season goes.

Who will score their initial Cup victory first: Matt DiBenedetto, William Byron, Daniel Suarez or someone else?

Nate Ryan: William Byron, sometime before the end of this season.

Dustin Long: William Byron. I like what Matt DiBenedetto has done lately but the equipment is behind what fellow Toyota team, Joe Gibbs Racing has, so it will be hard to beat that. Byron’s Hendrick team could be one to watch in the coming weeks. Remember how well Chevrolet teams worked together at Talladega in the spring? Byron’s teammate, Chase Elliott, won that race. Could things set up for Byron at Talladega in the playoffs?

Daniel McFadin: My gut is to say William Byron, but Matt DiBenedetto has outperformed both of them by a mile over the last two months. I’d watch out for him at Talladega, the Charlotte Roval, Richmond and maybe even Martinsville. I’d like to see him put together impressive runs in consecutive weekends rather than every other race.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’d love to see Matt DiBenedetto do it at either Darlington or Indianapolis to get himself into the playoffs. But honestly, given their success this season, my pick would be either Daniel Suarez or William Byron as the next first-time Cup winners.

Truck Series practice report from Bristol Motor Speedway

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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BRISTOL, Tenn. – Austin Hill, who won last weekend’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Michigan, posted the fastest lap in Thursday’s final practice session at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Hill led the way with a lap of 126.328 mph. He was followed by Sam Mayer (126.095 mph), reigning series champion  Brett Moffitt (125.789), Stewart Friesen (125.617) and Johnny Sauter (125.469).

Click here for final practice results

Moffitt had the best average over 10 consecutive laps at 122.594 mph. He was followed by Friesen (122.532 mph) and Matt Crafton (122.407).

Harrison Burton ran the most laps in the session at 73. He ranked ninth on the speed chart with a top lap of 125.060 mph.

OPENING PRACTICE

Tyler Ankrum was fastest in the first of two Gander Outdoors Truck Series practice sessions Thursday at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Ankrum, one of the eight Truck Series playoff drivers, posted a top speed of 126.420 mph around the half-mile track.

He was followed by Ross Chastain (125.831 mph), Matt Crafton (125.354), Raphael Lessard (125.036) and Brett Moffitt (124.930).

Sheldon Creed, who was eighth on the speed chart, recorded the most laps with 78. He also had the best 10-lap average at 123.983 mph.

The final Truck practice is scheduled for 11:05 – 11:55 a.m ET.

Click here for the practice report.

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Denny Hamlin still No. 1

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It appears Denny Hamlin isn’t going anywhere any time soon. That’s the case as the Joe Gibbs Racing driver remains No. 1 in the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings for the fourth consecutive week.

Hamlin’s reign at the top isn’t surprising. He has a win and four top-five finishes in his last five starts.

The biggest gainer in this week’s rankings is Michigan winner Kevin Harvick, who moved from sixth last week to second this week.

Meanwhile, Erik Jones fell from second to eighth this week.

Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings shape up:

1. Denny Hamlin (39 points): Just like his sponsor, he delivers. Certainly seems like the preemptive championship favorite. Last week: 1st.

2. Kevin Harvick (37 points): Two wins in the last four races. Shades of his 2018 dominance returning? Competitors better be worried. Last week: 6th.

3. Martin Truex Jr. (31 points): Had best car at Michigan but sometimes the best car doesn’t win. Mistakes by team (strategy) and driver (restarts) hurt No. 19. Last week: 3rd.

4. Kyle Larson (27 points): Has quietly but effectively become more of a factor of late. The Knoxville Nationals proved to be a bust for him but a third-place finish at Michigan is his sixth top 10 in the last eight races. Last week: 8th.

5. Kyle Busch (17 points): Didn’t have the best car but still won a stage at Michigan and stretched his lead on Joey Logano for the regular-season title. Last week: 9th.

6. Chase Elliott (12 points): Followed Watkins Glen win with top 10 at Michigan. First time he’s had back-to-back top 10s since late May/early June. Last week: 4th.

7. Daniel Suarez (10 points): A playoffs-saving salvage job after a disastrous Stage 2. Last week: Unranked.

8. Erik Jones (9 points): His streak of four consecutive top-five finishes came to an end at Michigan. Still, he’s on track to make the playoffs if he keeps having consistent top-10 finishes. Last week: 2nd.

9. Brad Keselowski (8 points): Can’t argue with Team Penske’s speed, but execution needs work. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 10. Joey Logano (6 points): If the cautions fall differently, he might have swept both Michigan Cup races this year. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 10. Austin Cindric (6 points): After failing to win in his first 53 career Xfinity starts, has now earned back-to-back wins in last two starts (Watkins Glen and Mid-Ohio). We’re starting to see Cindric coming into his own, for sure. Last week: Unranked.

Others receiving votes: Ryan Preece (5 points), Ryan Newman (4 points), Ryan Blaney (3 points), Christopher Bell (2 points), Matt DiBenedetto (2 points), William Byron (1 point), Chris Buescher (1 point).

Bump and Run: Who will earn final playoff spots?

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Ryan Newman, Clint Bowyer, Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson are fighting for the final two playoff spots (provided someone below them in the points doesn’t win any of the next three races). Which two do you think make the playoffs?

Nate Ryan: Ryan Newman and Clint Bowyer.

Dustin Long: Ryan Newman and Jimmie Johnson.

Daniel McFadin: Ryan Newman and Daniel Suarez. Of the four drivers they’re the only two who have produced consistent enough results.

Jerry Bonkowski: Daniel Suarez and Jimmie Johnson. Suarez has had a strong season but hasn’t gotten the recognition he deserves. Making the playoffs will be a huge boost for him and his team. Ditto for Johnson. Sure, he hasn’t won in his last 82 starts, but he’s never missed the playoffs. That would be even more embarrassing than remaining winless for the rest of the season.

At this point, who would be your Championship Four in Cup for Miami?

Nate Ryan: Denny Hamlin, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr.

Dustin Long: Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Busch, Kurt Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Denny Hamlin

Jerry Bonkowski: Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

There are 36 charter teams. Sixteen make the Cup playoffs. That’s 44.4% of the charter teams making the playoffs. Are you OK with that? Or should there be a different number of teams make the playoffs?

Nate Ryan: I’d prefer that the field be limited to 12 drivers and the elimination sets changed to reach the Championship Four (how about eight drivers after Round 1 and six after Round 2?). While the “anybody who gets in can win the championship” argument is appreciated (and with Tony Stewart’s 2011 as a rallying cry), this season in particular seems to have accentuated that there are only so many teams truly worthy of running for a title. While Jimmie Johnson extending his playoff streak and Ryan Newman gritting out a berth are both nice storylines, they are the NASCAR equivalent of 16 seeds.

Dustin Long: It’s too many. But it’s on par with the Truck series where eight of the 19 drivers (42.1%) who have run in at least 80% of the races made the playoffs. And it’s on par with the Xfinity Series where 12 of the 28 drivers (42.9%) who have started at least 80% of the races will be in the playoffs. The 80% marker is used since one Truck driver, Tyler Ankrum, started 81.3% of the regular-season races, missing the first three because he was too young to race on those tracks, and made the playoffs.

Daniel McFadin: I’d be OK if there were only 14 drivers in the Cup playoffs. It would add more drama to the regular season and postseason. Playoff eliminations don’t have to include round numbers in each round. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I’d like to see the playoff structure changed to see the top-20 teams make the playoffs. Then, 10 teams would be eliminated after the fifth playoff race, five others would be eliminated after the penultimate race, leaving five teams/drivers to battle it out in a winner-take-all race in the season finale.

What is your most memorable Bristol memory?

Nate Ryan: As far as races covered there, my first taste of a night race in person – Jeff Gordon bumping Rusty Wallace aside for the win during a 2002 race filled with emotion (Ward Burton’s heel pads, Jimmie Johnson’s obscene gesture, Elliott Sadler’s finger-pointing) – would rank at the top, beating out Carl Edwards’ bump on Kyle Busch in August 2008, Jeff Gordon’s shove of Matt Kenseth in March 2006 and Kurt Busch’s win under duress in August 2003.

Dustin Long: The 1999 night race where Dale Earnhardt spun Terry Labonte but meant only to “rattle his cage” on the last lap. What is most memorable is that several minutes after the race ended, the track played the radio call of the final lap on the PA system and when it got to the point where Earnhardt spun Labonte, boos cascaded from the stands. The stands appeared to be more than half full even then, people not wanting to leave after seeing such a wild finish.

Daniel McFadin: My memory comes from the first time I covered a race at Bristol in 2017 and it doesn’t involve the race itself. While driving to the track, I rounded a corner and suddenly it was in front of me. It just doesn’t make sense that a facility like Bristol exists where it does. Having grown up for 20 years watching Bristol races, it was a surreal moment.

Jerry Bonkowski: The first time I attended the night race at Bristol in 2000 is a memory that will forever stay with me. It was a battle of the senses, sounds, smells and more. Honestly, when cars took the green flag to start the race, the first thing I immediately thought of as I watched the action from pit road was tens of thousands of angry hornets had been released, the sound was deafening and overpowering.