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NBC Sports Power Rankings heading to Atlanta

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If you thought the second NBC Sports Power Rankings of the year would be a recounting of the top 10 drivers in the Daytona 500, you’d be wrong.

While 500 winner Denny Hamlin takes the top spot this week, followed by Joey Logano and Kyle Busch, there’s quite a bit of variety – and even a few surprises – in our top 10.

Our weekly NASCAR power rankings are an aggregate of the individual top 10s of NASCAR Talk writers Dustin Long, Nate Ryan, Jerry Bonkowski and Daniel McFadin.

Check it out:

1. Denny Hamlin: Yes, his Daytona 500 win was big – but how will he do in the other 35 races on the schedule? He’s coming off one of the worst seasons of his career. And don’t forget Sunday’s win broke a 47-race winless streak.

2. Joey Logano: In terms of pure driving, he was the best of Speedweeks – especially his last-lap pass from fourth to first in his qualifier win.

3. Kyle Busch: Still missing the Daytona 500 from his illustrious resume, but Sunday was the closest he’s come to getting it. He’ll be there soon.

4. Matt DiBenedetto: Could anyone have predicted Matt D. would have led a race-high 49 laps? And if he hadn’t been caught in the big wreck, a top-five finish was very much within reach. This kid is going places in 2019.

5. Ryan Preece: Made his first 500 start and turned heads with his incredible dodging of late-race wrecks. Finishing eighth should give him a boost going into the much more difficult schedule after Daytona.

6. Ross Chastain: Only driver to compete in all three Speedweeks points races, proved his worth by finishing in the top 13 in each of them, including a third-place finish in the Truck race and 10th in the 500.

7. Jimmie Johnson: Rallied back after penalty put him two laps down to finish ninth. He’s definitely a favorite at Atlanta (five wins, 14 top fives in 27 starts there).

8. Chase Elliott: Finishes weren’t stellar, but NASCAR’s most popular driver gets an A effort. No one tried harder to pass cars in Speedweeks.

9. Kevin Harvick: If his team is as strong with new package at Atlanta as before, look out.

10. William Byron: Another competitive driver taken out in a late wreck. After a rookie mistake by him caused a wreck at Daytona last year, Byron took his pole-winning car and led 44 laps in his first race with crew chief Chad Knaus.

Others receiving votes: Michael McDowell, Erik Jones, Kyle Larson, Ty Dillon, Johnny Sauter, Michael Annett, Austin Hill, Alex Bowman, Jeffrey Earnhardt.

NBC’s Steve Letarte debuts podcast ‘Letarte on Location’

NBC Sports
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NASCAR on NBC analyst Steve Letarte debuted his podcast “Letarte on Location” Tuesday.

The former Daytona 500 winning crew chief will bring you closer to all kinds of personalities that Letarte has met throughout the years traveling the NASCAR circuit.

HIs first guest is Doug Duchardt, chief operating officer for Chip Ganassi Racing. They talk about a wide range of topics at the Streamline Hotel, the birthplace of NASCAR, in Daytona Beach, Florida. Duchardt had overseen Chevrolet’s racing programs and Hendrick Motorsports before joining Chip Ganassi Racing in January 2018.

You can listen to Letarte’s podcast by clicking on the player below or via the respective links for podcasting apps:

Apple iTunes

Stitcher

Spotify

Letarte’s podcast is NBC’s second NASCAR podcast. Nate Ryan hosts the NASCAR on NBC podcast. His most recent podcast was with Austin Dillon heading into last weekend’s Daytona 500.

Listen to the NASCAR on NBC podcast by clicking on the player below or via the links for podcasting apps:

Apple iTunes

Stitcher

Spotify

Bump & Run: Should Michael McDowell have pushed fellow Ford at end of Daytona 500?

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Should Michael McDowell have been obligated to push fellow Ford driver Joey Logano on the last lap of the Daytona 500 instead of pushing Toyota driver Kyle Busch? Or are such beliefs pointless in the final laps?

Nate Ryan: He wasn’t obligated to push Logano, but it also seemed his best hope for getting to the front. It’s understandable why McDowell, who has soldiered through a decade of mostly getting knocked around while racing for midpack teams, was frustrated that the elite of the Cup Series seemed so dismissive of his No. 34 Ford in the draft. But if he was trying to send that message by declining to push Logano out of spite, it probably was a decision that doomed both their hopes of winning the Daytona 500. (Also worth noting: Front Row Motorsports might be a Ford team, but it isn’t supported by the manufacturer at nearly the same level as Stewart-Haas Racing and Team Penske, so the dynamics of the allegiances were different.)

Dustin Long: No. Manufacturers should not be second-guessing a driver for going with a different car make if the driver feels that is their best chance to win in the heat of the moment. And drivers should not assume that just because they are in the same camp they should expect help in such moments. 

Daniel McFadin: Absolutely not. At some point the emblem on your hood is meaningless when it comes to winning a race, especially the final laps of the Daytona 500. I’m fine with manufacturers collaborating through the early stages as a means of survival, but you have to be a tad naive to expect that on the last lap. McDowell’s in the right.

Jerry Bonkowski: No, McDowell was under no obligation to push Logano. Even with both being Ford drivers, McDowell chose to push the driver – in this case Kyle Busch – he thought might help McDowell earn a higher result. Now, once we start using tapered spacers at Daytona and Talladega, things could be much different. Time will tell.

Does Ross Chastain deserve a full-time ride with an elite team after his triple-header masterpiece of not tearing up his equipment at Daytona?

Nate Ryan: Yes, and it would benefit NASCAR nearly as much as Chastain if he gets one. Beyond being a special talent, the part-time watermelon farmer from Florida speaks his mind in an appealingly brash and candid manner. He is the type of personality that is needed, and it’s somewhat inexplicable he wasn’t scooped up by a bigger team when his Xfinity ride with Chip Ganassi Racing dissolved. Sponsors and teams should be cognizant of what he brings to the table.

Dustin Long: He may deserve a ride but the reality is money plays a key role on where some drivers go. Look, there are plenty of drivers racing at local tracks who might deserve a chance at one of NASCAR’s national series but they aren’t going to get it for one reason or another. The sport could be better by having Chastain in a top-flight ride as Nate notes but sometimes things don’t go as they should.

Daniel McFadin: Chastain deserved an elite ride after his performance with Chip Ganassi Racing in three Xfinity races last year. He got that ride until circumstances out of his control took it away. He’s still under contract with Ganassi, and I don’t think he’s going to be forgotten next year.

Jerry Bonkowski: I don’t know if I would use the word “deserve,” but Chastain has shown he has a great deal of talent that deserves to be recognized by higher-level teams. The problem is there is only a finite number of driver positions with teams in Cup, and as he has learned throughout his career, Cup is far too often a numbers game. Chastain will have to keep fighting the good fight, but sooner or later his time will come.

NASCAR Chairman Jim France asked drivers to work the bottom lane and put on a show before Sunday’s Daytona 500. Was the race evidence that they listened or just circumstantial coincidence?

Nate Ryan: As I wrote in the notes column, the only thing that ultimately matters is he said it. It’s impossible to say definitively if drivers did listen … but you could make a strong case it made an impact in the first stage.

Dustin Long: Coincidence. Competitors were talking after the Duels that they expected two lanes of racing in the 500 with a full 40-car field. Yes, it was a less-than subtle dig at the drivers but once in the heat of competition, a competitor isn’t going to focus on the requests of a series executive if they don’t feel it gives them a good chance to win.

Daniel McFadin: I originally was going to answer that I thought the stakes of the Daytona 500 meant the racing we saw was going to happen regardless. But then I remembered a good chunk of last year’s 500 was conducted in a single-file manner (with Ryan Blaney leading 118 laps). So it’s entirely possible France’s friendly prodding did the trick.

Jerry Bonkowski: I lean more towards circumstantial coincidence. Drivers will be the first to tell anyone that they race for themselves and their teams first and foremost, and then their sponsors. NASCAR officials are not – and should not – be in a position to tell drivers how to drive or where to drive on a track to put on any kind of a show. Fans are not stupid, they will quickly pick up if drivers are given NASCAR orders (as opposed to team orders, which they should listen to).

What do you expect to see this weekend at Atlanta with the new rules package?

Nate Ryan: A race that resembles most races at Atlanta Motor Speedway. The lower horsepower should keep cars closer, but surely the massive tire wear, coupled with a few long green-flag runs, will produce a familiar look.

Dustin Long: I don’t know. That will be the fun of it. Sure, the cars should be closer together for a few laps but tire wear likely will spread the field some. How much remains to be seen. I’m keeping an open mind on what will take place this weekend.

Daniel McFadin: I expect a somewhat uneventful first stage as the teams get their heads around the package before they drop the hammer in Stage 2 and beyond. I’m willing to say it will probably be the most interesting Atlanta race in a decade.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given what we saw at the Las Vegas test – and at a track very similar to Atlanta – I am very bullish that this could be one of the closest and best races we’ve seen at Atlanta in perhaps a decade or more. The only thing that could alter that is if there are weather issues. Then it could be a whole different ballgame, especially if drivers are in a race to not only beat their opponents, but also closing-in rainstorms.

Kyle Busch opens season atop NBC Sports Power Rankings

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NBC Sports kicks off a new weekly feature today with Power Rankings. The NASCAR Talk staff has come together to give its take on who’s hot, warm and even lukewarm.

Power Rankings will appear each Wednesday morning. Also on Wednesdays, the NASCAR America analysts will dissect the rankings and give their own takes.

Any driver in the Cup, Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series is eligible for these rankings.

Kyle Busch is at the top of the first edition of Power Rankings, just in time for Sunday’s Daytona 500:

1. Kyle Busch: Comes into the season with the most Cup wins in the last four years

2. Jimmie Johnson: Speedweeks 2019 couldn’t have started any better.

3. Brad Keselowski (tie): He was dicing with Menard for a while in the Clash and remains an odds-on favorite for Sunday

3. Joey Logano (tie): His title defense started without a major crash, which is more than can be said for many contenders

5. Kurt Busch: Among the strongest Chevrolets and seems to be blending well into Chip Ganassi Racing

6. Kevin Harvick: Should have most Cup wins last four years, but has left several wins on the table

7. Paul Menard: The Clash didn’t end the way he wanted, but Wood Brothers Racing can now be considered a Daytona 500 favorite

8. Martin Truex Jr. (tie): New team, same results. See ya in Victory Lane several times in 2019

8. William Byron (tie): Chad Knaus got him the Daytona 500 pole. Can he now get Byron the win on Sunday?

10. Chase Elliott: Can he and Johnson lead a Hendrick juggernaut in the 500 like they did in qualifying?

Others receiving votes: Alex Bowman, Ryan Blaney, Kyle Larson, Austin Dillon, Aric Almirola, Tyler Reddick, Christopher Bell, Denny Hamlin and Brett Moffitt.

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Bump & Run: Does Paul Menard owe Jimmie Johnson a payback?

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How much of a hall pass does Paul Menard have to pay back Jimmie Johnson for the Clash wreck? Can he knock him aside on the next short track without compunction, or does it only extend to cutting Johnson no breaks in the near future?

Nate Ryan: It would seem heavy-handed if Menard retaliated by intentionally wrecking Johnson, but he has earned the right to rough up the seven-time champion if the roles are reversed in the future. They probably wouldn’t be working together anyway during a restrictor-plate race but don’t expect Menard to lay over for Johnson anytime soon, particularly with the Wood Brothers Racing driver alluding to a history between them at Daytona.

Dustin Long: As Menard said after the incident, contact from Johnson wrecked him at Daytona last year. So, yes, he’s keeping score. And yes he has a hall pass to use. 

Daniel McFadin: I don’t expect any form of retribution from Menard (it’s not really in his personality), outside possibly not cutting Johnson some slack at some point. It was a non-points race and Johnson didn’t wreck him on purpose. It was a side draft gone wrong.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given how NASCAR has cracked down on things this year, including taking wins away from drivers whose cars don’t pass post-race inspection, my guess is the sanctioning body will be equally diligent when it comes to payback between drivers. I highly doubt we’ll see a Joey LoganoMatt Kenseth tit-for-tat situation between Menard and Johnson, lest Menard gets nailed and suffers another fallback. The best situation is for Menard to move on and just beat Johnson with his car and talent.

Paul Menard said of Johnson’s ill-timed bump, “Jimmie does that a lot at these tracks.” Is that a fair criticism of how the seven-time champion has raced at plate tracks?

Nate Ryan: Johnson is a two-time Daytona 500 winner, but even he probably would admit that plate races aren’t his specialty. He has crashed out of more than a quarter of his Cup races at Daytona (nine in 34 starts), and he has been accused multiple times of instigating massive wrecks since near the beginning of his career (the 2005 season was particularly uncomfortable with Johnson in the middle of multicar pileups in both May and October at Talladega Superspeedway). Claiming Johnson starts wrecks in every plate race is hyperbole, but he has been in the middle of his share of crashes (and admirably took the blame for some of them).

Dustin Long: Yes, look it up, but also understand there are others that have been in the center of incidents on plate tracks. Over time it cycles to where those that are involved in incidents are victims of others. It’s not like Johnson has gone rogue or anything like that.

Daniel McFadin: Menard is right, just based on this short tweet thread of incidents involving Johnson and Menard. His involvement in Sunday’s wreck was his eighth straight Clash marked by involvement in an incident. Johnson may have eight points and non-points Daytona wins, but he’s no master of pack racing like Earnhardt.

Jerry Bonkowski: I think Menard spoke in the heat of the moment. Yes, Johnson has been involved in some incidents at plate tracks where the finger of blame has been pointed at him, but at the same time, how many times has he also been victimized by other drivers’ errors? Also, Menard cut down on Johnson in Sunday’s wreck and Johnson was trying to hold his position. So I do not give him full blame on the wreck; Menard is also culpable.

After the Clash, Kurt Busch said: “You want the cars more stable. You want us to run side-by-side. You want us to change lanes and not have side effects, and it just shows you how trimmed out everybody has got these cars to find that speed, and when you’re looking for speed, it usually brings instability in the cars.” Should NASCAR try to make changes to put in more comfort and handling for the Daytona 500?

Nate Ryan: Yes, if it were at all possible (and it might not be) to improve the stability in the draft and aid passing, NASCAR should look at it. The 2018 Daytona 500 was terrific, but plate racing has been mostly lackluster since then (notably the past two Talladega races). While this technically will be the last “plate” race (with tapered spacers essentially serving the same purpose in the future), and perhaps the new package will fix itself, it’s still important to ensure Sunday is as high quality as possible.

Dustin Long: No. No. No. No. No. If they’re going to make changes, then just give everyone participation ribbons while you’re at it. At some point, skill has to play a role.

Daniel McFadin: If NASCAR can introduce an element between now and Sunday that allows for easier creation of a second lane, go for it. But as a non-engineer I have no idea what that would entail.

Jerry Bonkowski: I’m not convinced that NASCAR has to do anything more. Rather, I think the onus is on the drivers to learn and adapt to the new rules. Just because drivers complain doesn’t necessarily mean the sanctioning body has to immediately change the rules to appease them. Drivers and teams are given rules and it’s up to them to abide by those rules.

Who are you picks to make it to the Championship 4 in Miami?

Nate Ryan: Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Chase Elliott, Denny Hamlin.

Dustin Long: Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Joey Logano.

Daniel McFadin: Chase Elliott, Kyle Larson, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick

Jerry Bonkowski: Chase Elliott, Ryan Blaney, Brad Keselowski and Kyle Busch.

Who is one driver you are most intrigued about this season and why?

Nate Ryan: Jimmie Johnson, because he still feels he has much to prove despite a Hall of Fame career, and the start to 2019 underscores he might have a newfound swagger to go along with it.

Dustin Long: Christopher Bell. He said at one point last year he was ready for Cup but remains in Xfinity this season. How does he improve in a series a year after he won seven races as a rookie?

Daniel McFadin: Kyle Larson. After a disappointing winless season, how does he bounce back with a new teammate in champion Kurt Busch and how will the new rules package impact the driver with one of the most distinct driving styles?

Jerry Bonkowski: Jimmie Johnson. Will he be able to win an eighth NASCAR Cup championship with new crew chief Kevin Meendering? Will Chad Knaus have some behind-the-scenes input, even though he’s now crew chief for William Byron? There’s also some intrigue there, as well, wondering how Byron will do in his sophomore season in Cup and with one of the greatest crew chiefs in history calling the signals for him from the pit box.