Dustin Long

Where Cup playoff drivers stand heading to Richmond

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Cup drivers are off to Richmond this weekend for the second race in the opening round of the playoffs (7:30 p.m. ET Saturday on NBCSN).

Here is where the 16 playoff drivers stand with two races left before the field is cut to 12:

MOVING ON

Martin Truex Jr.’s victory last weekend at Las Vegas sends him into the second round. Still, he could be a key factor in the first round. He won at Richmond in the spring for his first Cup short track victory and was headed for the win in last year’s race at the Charlotte Roval before a spinning Jimmie Johnson collected Truex in the final chicane.

LOOKING GOOD

Kevin Harvick, Joey Logano, Kyle Busch, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott and Denny Hamlin all appear to be in good shape to advance to the second round.

Harvick finished second at Las Vegas, Keselowski was third, Elliott fourth. Logano placed ninth. Harvick, Keselowski and Logano also scored several stage points. Logano had 19 stage points to lead the group.

Hamlin is seventh in the points after his 15th-place finish. He has 2,056 points and is his 29 points ahead of Ryan Newman, the first driver outside the cutoff line. Hamlin has finished sixth or better in seven of the last eight Richmond races.

Busch is still in good shape despite his frustrating race and anger with slower cars. Collecting 45 playoff points, including 15 for the regular-season championship, provided the insurance he needed after his Vegas woes.

WORK TO DO

Kyle Larson and William Byron.

Larson is eighth in the points and followed by Byron. Larson sits 17 points ahead of Newman. Byron is 13 points ahead of Newman after Byron placed in the top 10 at Las Vegas.

Larson has four consecutive top 10s at Richmond. Byron’s best finish in three Richmond Cup races is 12th.

PRESSURE IS ON

Ryan Blaney, Alex Bowman, Aric Almirola, Ryan Newman and Kurt Busch.

Blaney has never finished better than 18th in seven Cup races at Richmond. He enters the weekend 12 points ahead of Newman, who is outside the cutline. If Blaney has another poor finish, he will need a good result at the Roval the following week to advance.

Bowman has never finished better than 12th in seven previous Richmond races. Almirola has two top 10s in his past seven Richmond races.

Newman is six points behind Almirola for the final transfer spot — the following weekend’s race at the Charlotte Roval is the cutoff race for the first round. Newman has three top 10s in his last five Richmond races. Kurt Busch, who is 14 points behind Almirola, has finished 11th or better in six of the last seven Richmond races.

IN TROUBLE

Clint Bowyer and Erik Jones. Bowyer won the pole last weekend at Las Vegas and then scored zero stage points. Without any stage points from last weekend, Bowyer is 21 points out of the final transfer spot. He finished third at Richmond in the spring. Not sure if two top-five finishes in this round will be enough to help him advance.

Jones likely needs to win. At 26 points behind the cutoff line, Jones has the second-largest deficit to the cutoff line after one playoff race since the elimination format was created. 

POINTS STANDING

2082 — Martin Truex Jr. * (win moves him to second round)

2079 — Kevin Harvick

2075 — Joey Logano

2063 — Kyle Busch

2058 — Brad Keselowski

2057 — Chase Elliott

2056 — Denny Hamlin

2044 — Kyle Larson

2040 — William Byron

2039 — Ryan Blaney

2037 — Alex Bowman

2033 — Aric Almirola

CUTOFF LINE TO SECOND ROUND

2027 — Ryan Newman

2019 — Kurt Busch

2012 — Clint Bowyer

2007 — Erik Jones

For more on the playoffs, watch NASCAR America MotorMouths at 5 p.m. ET Wednesday on NBCSN

William Byron rallies to score top 10 in first Cup playoff race

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LAS VEGAS — William Byron called his first Cup playoff race “crazy.”

Contact with Ryan Blaney, a spin after a tire went down, help from a teammate to stay on the lead lap and a different pit strategy were all events in Byron’s seventh-place finish Sunday night at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

He was one of three Hendrick Motorsports drivers to finish in the top 10. Chase Elliott was fourth and Alex Bowman placed sixth.

Byron’s day allowed him to gain four spots in the points — most among the playoff drivers — and go from 13th, outside a cutoff spot, to ninth with two races left in the opening round. The series races at Richmond next.

But Byron’s top 10 wouldn’t have happened had he and his Chad Knaus-led team not persevered during an up-and-down night.

“You think about all the things that can go wrong in a race,” Byron said. “It’s tough. You’ve got to really manage the whole race and recover through things that happen. It seems like every car had something happen during this race. You’ve got to recover from it.”

Byron had been running in the top 10 when he had contact with Blaney on the restart to begin the final stage.

“I’ll be honest with you, I just heard about it,” Blaney said after finishing fifth. “I didn’t even know that I touched him. It must have been barely. Obviously, it wasn’t intentional. I was just trying to slow him down. I didn’t know that I got him. I feel bad for it. Obviously I didn’t  mean to get him. Just trying to sidedraft hard. That’s definitely not what I meant to do.”

Even so, the contact led to a tire rub. While Byron continued to run, the situation got worse and the tire went flat. He spun just before entering pit road to bring out the caution on Lap 182.

Byron quickly made it down pit road after the spin. Knaus had the team change the two left side tires to keep Byron on the lead lap. It helped that Elliott was leading. Elliott backed off behind the pace car down the frontstretch, giving Byron a cushion to exit the pits and remain on the lead lap. That allowed Byron to return to the pits on the next lap and change four tires and add fuel.

“I definitely owe him a big thank you,” Byron said of Elliott. “It was great that we were able to stay on the lead lap there.”

With a caution a few laps later, Byron was 22nd. Knaus brought Byron down pit road to add fuel and change four tires. Few cars stopped then. Knaus’ strategy allowed Byron to stay out longer than most cars and lead six laps before pitting on Lap 236 of the 267-lap race. Needing less fuel, the team only changed two tires for a quicker stop and that helped Byron score his second consecutive top 10.

It also helped how well the Hendrick cars ran, something Elliott, sixth in the points, noted afterward.

“I felt like we were closer today than we have been in the past few weeks,” said Elliott, who overcame contact on a restart that forced him to pit to fix a tire rub. “That was nice. Hopefully we can have cars like that the next nine weeks.”

Bowman said his car improved after early struggles.

“We just didn’t fire off very good,” he said. “As the race ran, we got our car much better. I think kind of the in-between from day to night was the best we were. When it grouped up there at the end, it helped out some of the other cars. But, proud of my guys. I wish we would have gotten some more stage points, but we’ll take sixth.”

Bowman fell to 11th in points. He’s 10 points ahead of Ryan Newman in 13th. The top 12 after the race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval in two weeks will be eliminated.

NASCAR champion Mike Stefanik killed in plane crash

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Nine-time NASCAR champion Mike Stefanik was killed in a plane crash Sunday, NASCAR confirmed. Stefanik was 61.

Stefanik, a NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee, won seven modified titles and two K&N Pro Series East crowns. In 2003, he was named one of the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour’s 10 greatest drivers.

NASCAR issued a statement on behalf of Chairman Jim France:

“Mike Stefanik was one of the most successful drivers in NASCAR history, but even more so, he was a true representative of our sport. His tough, competitive nature and excellence on the race track won him the respect and admiration of fans and competitors alike.

“His career stretched more than 30 years, bridging the generations between Jerry Cook and Richie Evans to our current drivers. He recorded achievements in this sport that are likely untouchable, and his legacy as a champion will endure. We will keep his wife Julie and his family and friends in our prayers.”

RaceDayCT.com reported that according to multiple news reports, Stefanik crashed while piloting a single-engine, single-seat Aero Ultra-Light plane. The crash took place took place in Sterling, Connecticut near the Rhode Island border.

Stefanik is the winningest driver in Whelen Modified Tour history with 74 wins. His nine championships ties him with Richie Evans for most national touring championships in NASCAR history.

In 1997-98, Stefanik won back-to-back championships in the modified and K&N East Series. Stefanik was the rookie of the year in the NASCAR Camping World Truck Series in 1999.

Stefanik was first nominated for the NASCAR Hall of Fame in 2015. He told RaceDayCt.com that the nomination  “humbled” him. “I’m not in, but it’s quite an honor,” Stefanik told RaceDayCt.com. “I never really thought much about it. I didn’t get into racing to get into a Hall of Fame. But it’s humbling for sure.”

The Hall of Fame released a statement from its director, Winston Kelley:

“First and foremost, on behalf of everyone at the NASCAR Hall of Fame, we offer our most sincere condolences to Julie, Nichole, Christie and the entire Stefanik family on the loss of Mike.

We are all very saddened to learn of the passing of NASCAR Hall of Fame nominee and nine-time NASCAR Champion Mike Stefanik. His record-tying nine championships just tells part of the story of his incredible legacy. He was intensely competitive, dedicated and tenacious and equally humble, versatile and respected. His seven NASCAR Whelen modified championships are second only to NASCAR Hall of Famer Richie Evans. His tenacity and dedication are exemplified in the facts that his first and seventh championships came 17 years apart and his first and 74th wins came an incredible 27 years apart, the final win coming at age 55 at the very tough Bristol Motor Speedway. His versatility can be seen in winning back-to-back titles in both the Whelen Modified Tour and KN Pro Series East in 1997 and 1998 and winning the NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series rookie of the year the following year, 1999. Despite his success and frequent dominance, perhaps what Mike will most be remembered for is his humility and the respect he had from his fellow competitors.

Mike’s legacy and commitment to NASCAR will be forever remembered, celebrated and cherished here at the NASCAR Hall of Fame and in our hearts and minds.”

New Hampshire Motor Speedway released a statement from David McGrath, the track’s executive vice president and general manager.

“Yesterday, the short track community lost one of the greatest modified drivers in history. Mike Stefanik was a true champion on and off the racetrack making a long-lasting mark on short track racing, specifically in the NASCAR Whelen Modified Tour. With 10 career victories, Mike is one of New Hampshire Motor Speedway’s top winning drivers. I know that I can speak for everyone here, as well as our entire Speedway Motorsports, Inc. family, when I say that Mike will be truly missed. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family, friends and the entire NASCAR community during this very difficult time.”

Chaos or calm? What do drivers expect in playoff opener?

Photo by Jeff Speer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images
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LAS VEGAS — When the Cup drivers last raced at Las Vegas Motor Speedway, they were slowed only by two cautions for stage breaks in March. When they ran at this track in last year’s playoff race, there were 12 cautions, many for accidents.

So what do drivers expect for today’s playoff opener (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway? Chaos or calm?

“I think you’re going to have more cautions than you did in the spring, without a doubt, maybe not to the extent of last year,” said playoff contender Ryan Newman, who starts 17th.

He starts next to defending race winner and playoff contender Brad Keselowski, who also shares Newman’s belief.

“I’m a little bit thinking there will be more this time than in the spring,” Keselowski said. “It’s hotter this fall than what I remember last fall and we’re way faster through the center of the corners. So I expect it to be very difficult on the tires. Probably see some tire failures, accordingly, that will kind of add to the cautions.”

The wunderground.com forecast for today’s race calls for a high of 100 degrees at the start. The temperature will still be in the 90s when the race is scheduled to end. This will be the hottest race of the season, topping the 96 degrees that drivers battled at New Hampshire Motor Speedway in July.

MORE: Today’s Cup race details, start time & lineup

Playoff contender Kurt Busch, who starts fifth, says the heat will impact the racing.

“Track is hotter, (there’s) less grip, it’s the playoffs, everybody is on edge,” Busch said for his belief there will be more cautions than the spring race.

Playoff contender Alex Bowman, who starts 19th, also sees an increase in cautions from the March race.

“I think we’re going to have cautions,” he said. “I think you’re going to have tire failures with it being so hot. I think you’re going to have guys crashing their stuff. I think it’s just going to be a really slick race track, tough to drive and nobody is going to give an inch. I think that is going to create some cautions. I don’t think it will create the 12 we had last year.”

Aric Almirola, who starts fourth, notes that “if I was a betting man, which I’m not … I’d say we will have more cautions than just the stage breaks.

“As teams have gotten smarter and tried to make their cars go faster, the cars are trimmed out more and because of that are less stable, they’re harder to drive. It makes really, really challenging on restarts and around guys. We’ve seen that the last couple of months. I don’t think it’s specific to Las Vegas, just the last few months in general we’ve seen wreck on restarts and things just because the cars are a lot more difficult to drive.”

Newman adds another key factor that could lead to more cautions today.

“I think give-and-take is kind of gone in our sport now,” he said of how drivers race each other. “It’s still there, don’t get me wrong, but it’s less than it has been by a long shot then the last few years, let’s say five years ago.

“I think that you see that with guys blocking. When you start doing the blocking deal, give-and-take is gone. I think it’s going to be pretty amped up. Sixteen guys, eight of them kind of on the bubble already in the first race, it’s going to be intense.”

Kyle Busch looks to return to winning ways as playoffs begin

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LAS VEGAS — Kyle Busch admits there was a day when he dreamt of winning a record-breaking eight Cup championships.

But in a career that has seen the Las Vegas native win 55 Cup races and make four consecutive appearances in the championship event, the 34-year-old Busch has only one Cup crown. That gives the regular-season champion a different viewpoint entering Sunday’s playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

If I could get a handful of them, I would say that’s probably a successful career,” Busch said of titles. “Years ago if you would have asked me that question, I would have said, seven or eight is possible. Right now, probably five I would say.”

Although the sport is in the midst of its most competitive era — seven drivers have won titles since 2010, more than in any other decade in NASCAR history — the notion of Busch winning as many as five championships doesn’t seem beyond belief for Busch.

But before that topic becomes more than a social media debate, Busch has to start winning again.

Busch enters Sunday winless in his last 12 races. While that’s nothing compared to the winless droughts for Clint Bowyer (47 races), Kyle Larson (72), Jimmie Johnson (85), it is Busch’s longest winless streak since a 36-race drought in 2016-17.

That doesn’t mean this team is floundering.

Before he finished 37th last week at Indianapolis because of an engine failure, he had not placed worse than 11th in the seven previous races.

Busch was second when he hit the wall in the final laps trying to catch eventual winner Erik Jones in the Southern 500 and placed third. Busch led 30 laps at Michigan before finishing fourth. Busch led 118 laps but finished eighth at New Hampshire after hitting the wall.

Of course, when winning four of the first 14 races, even such performances seem disappointing.

Busch is no different.

We probably coulda, shoulda won Darlington if we would have been able to come off pit road the last two times, first,” he said. “We came off third and couldn’t pass anybody. You’re at Indy and you come off pit road fourth and you ride fourth for the entire fuel run until you come back down pit road.”

Darlington is one of several other races Busch said he believes he could have won this year.

“You look back on it and we should have eight or nine wins,” he said.

“We were really fast here (in Las Vegas) in the spring – coulda, woulda, shoulda won the race if it wasn’t for speeding on pit road. Hopefully this time around we’ll keep it clean and have a shot to win again.”

Despite those setbacks, Busch still has the most playoff points (45) of any of the title contenders. That should provide a nice cushion to help him through the first round of races at Las Vegas, Richmond and the Charlotte Roval. Those playoff points also can be a gateway through the second round.

“We’ve done a great job of being able to build those points up throughout the regular season and it’s nice to be able to have that point structure in place to kind of give you the opportunity to have your early season success help you through the postseason,” Busch said. “I think it’s the most fair structure that we’ve had through the playoff era. Looking forward to not having to use those points, but if need be, there’s some that are there.”