Last year’s championship field had Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr., Kyle Busch and Joey Logano, who won the title. Harvick and Truex have clinched spots in this year’s title race. Busch and Logano are in position to advance and Busch won at ISM Raceway in March. If all four return, it would mark the first time in the playoff era that the same four drivers made it to back-to-back title races.
THREE OF A KIND
Denny Hamlin, Ryan Blaney and Kyle Larson are in a similar situation outside the cutoff line. Hamlin trails Joey Logano by 20 points for the final transfer spot. Blaney and Larson are each 23 points behind Logano for that spot. If they need inspiration, they can look to the previous round. Chase Elliott entered the final race of the previous round 24 points behind Brad Keselowski for a transfer spot and took Keselowski’s spot.
The only way Chase Elliott will qualify for the title race is by winning at ISM Raceway. He started second there in the spring and finished 14th. Crew chief Alan Gustafson has won at Phoenix with Kyle Busch, Mark Martin and Jeff Gordon. Only once since the playoff format debuted in 2014 has a driver needing to win at ISM Raceway to advance to the title race done so. Kevin Harvick did it in 2014 and won the championship the next week in Miami.
4133 — Martin Truex Jr. (advanced to Miami with win)
4113 — Kevin Harvick (advanced to Miami with win)
4113 — Kyle Busch
4111 — Joey Logano
4091 — Denny Hamlin
4088 — Ryan Blaney
4088 — Kyle Larson
4033 — Chase Elliott
Playoff hopes for all three Hendrick Motorsports teams take big hit
TALLADEGA, Ala. — A weekend that started with its cars starting at the front ended in disappointment for Hendrick Motorsports’ three playoff teams and left each essentially in a must-win situation next weekend at Kansas Speedway.
Blaney’s victory assures him a spot in the next round, joining Kyle Larson, who won last weekend at Dover.
Bowman, Elliott and Byron — along with Clint Bowyer — are all outside the cutoff spot. Bowman is 18 points behind Joey Logano, who holds the final transfer spot. Elliott trails Logano by 22 points and Byron is 27 points behind Logano.
While anything is possible, it will be difficult for any of the Hendrick cars to outpoint Logano for the final spot at Kansas.
“We’ve got three cars that really need to win to get in,” Jeff Andrews, director of competition at Hendrick Motorsports, told NBC Sports. “I think the points thing right now is kind of irrelevant. The focus is to win.”
Should all three Hendrick cars fail to advance after next weekend’s race, it would leave Chevrolet one driver left (Larson) in championship contention.
Alex Bowman’s race ended when he triggered an 11-car crash by blocking Logano two laps from the end of the second stage.
“I just misjudged how much of a run (Logano) had there,” Bowman said. “That’s on me. These cars are tough to see out of and I didn’t do a good job of it. Probably shouldn’t have attempted to block that.”
Bowman finished 37th.
As for his plan at Kansas?
“We’re just going to go lead the most laps, win both stages and win the race,” Bowman said.
Byron was next to exit Monday, eliminated when he was hit from behind by Kurt Busch. Byron finished 33rd.
“It was just cars everywhere, drafting at 200 mph,” Busch said.
Byron said the contact was an “accordion effect (after) I had kind of lost momentum for whatever reason.”
While Elliott finished eighth, his car was damaged in the crash triggered by Bowman’s block of Logano. Elliott also failed to score any stage points.
“Just a train wreck,” crew chief Alan Gustafson said of the team’s day. “I don’t know what else to say about it.”
There really wasn’t much to say for Hendrick’s drivers except they need to win now.
16 points to ponder as 16 drivers set to race for Cup crown
The quest to be NASCAR’s best begins for 16 drivers, as they embark on 10-track, nine-state, three time-zone quest that will take them from Las Vegas to Dover to Phoenix and Miami (and points in between).
With Jimmie Johnson failing to qualify, there is no playoff driver with more than one Cup title. Ten playoff drivers, including Denny Hamlin, seek their first Cup championship. One, William Byron, is making his first playoff appearance.
TV: NASCAR America presents coverage of Playoff Media Day at 6 p.m. ET Thursday
TV: NASCAR America Burnout Boulevard Driven by Goodyear airs at 7 p.m. ET Thursday
The next two months are likely to feature frayed nerves, epic celebrations and tight racing. Who will have the honor of being called NASCAR champion in Miami?
We’re about to find out. The journey begins Sunday (7 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.
Until then, here are 16 things to ponder about this playoff field:
1. Still Perfect: While Jimmie Johnson will miss the playoffs for the first time in his career, crew chief Chad Knaus will continue his streak of taking part in every playoff season.
This will be Knaus’ 16th consecutive year in the playoffs. The first 15 were with Johnson. This year, Knaus is with William Byron, who is making his first playoff appearance.
Only one other crew chief has been in more than 10 consecutive playoffs. Alan Gustafson, crew chief for Chase Elliott, will be making his 12th consecutive appearance in the playoffs.
2. Streaking: While Johnson’s streak is over, Kyle Busch has an impressive streak going. He has made it to the championship race in Miami each of the past four years. Busch won the title in 2015, finished third in 2016, placed second in 2017 and was fourth last year.
3. Most to prove in the playoffs: Chevrolet. The manufacturer has not had a car make it to the championship race since 2016 when Jimmie Johnson won the last of his seven championships. Chevrolet has five cars in the playoffs this year (Chase Elliott, Alex Bowman, William Byron, Kyle Larson and Kurt Busch) and failing to make the championship race a third year in a row would only add to Chevy’s embarrassment.
5. So long ago: Kurt Busch is seeking to set a record for the longest gap between championships. He won his lone Cup crown in 2004. The record is 12 years between titles. Terry Labonte won his first crown in 1984 and his second title in 1996.
6. Most pit road speeding penalties in regular season: No, it’s not Denny Hamlin. It’s his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate, Kyle Busch, who has five.
Kevin Harvick, Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano each had no pit road speeding penalties in the first 26 races of the season.
7. Most playoff wins (by current title contender): 13 by Kevin Harvick (Jimmie Johnson has 29 wins in the playoffs is not in the playoffs this year).
8. Most consecutive playoff appearances — Kevin Harvick is making his 10th consecutive playoff appearance, the longest active streak.
9. Familiar refrain: Kyle Larson enters the playoffs winless in his last 72 points races (he did win the non-points All-Star Race in May). During that winless streak, Larson has finished second nine times (12.5% of the time). Since his last win at Richmond in September 2017, here are the races Larson has finished second and who he finished behind:
Sept 24, 2017 — New Hampshire (Kyle Busch won)
March 18, 2018 — Auto Club (Martin Truex Jr. won)
April 15, 2018 — Bristol (Kyle Busch won)
June 3, 2018 — Pocono (Martin Truex Jr. won)
July 1, 2018 — Chicago (Kyle Busch won)
Aug. 18, 2018 — Bristol (Kurt Busch won)
Sept. 16, 2018 — Las Vegas (Brad Keselowski)
June 30, 2019 — Chicago (Alex Bowman won)
10. Bet on 1 at Las Vegas: Vegas native Kurt Busch has the best average finish among the playoff drivers at 1.5-mile tracks this season. Busch, who won at Kentucky in July, has an average finish of 9.29 at 1.5-mile tracks.
Joey Logano, who won at Las Vegas in March, is next with an average finish of 9.71 at 1.5-mile tracks this year. Ryan Blaney has the worst average finish among playoff drivers at 1.5-mile tracks this year at 20.71.
11. Then again, maybe you should play the 2 and 22 at Vegas: Brad Keselowski, who won last year’s playoff opener at Las Vegas, has eight consecutive top-10 finishes there. Team Penske teammate Joey Logano has seven consecutive top 10s there.
12. Most Popular Champion: Reigning most popular driver Chase Elliott might be overlooked by some but consider this: On the eight playoff tracks that have hosted a Cup race this season, Elliott scored the most points (324) among the playoff drivers.
Joey Logano is next at 301 points and then comes Kevin Harvick at 292 points. Ryan Newman ranks last with 184 points.
13. No pay, no play(offs): Only one of the last 31 playoff races has been won by a non-playoff driver.
14. Miles to be run in the 10 playoff races: 3,726.1
15. Miles if one were to drive from track to track for each of the 10 playoff races: 10,362. For perspective, Beijing is 7,126 miles from Charlotte, North Carolina, the sport’s hub … Auckland, New Zealand is 8,324 miles from Charlotte … Tokyo, site of the 2020 Olympics, is 6,879 miles from Charlotte.
16. Left out: Kyle Busch is on a 12-race winless streak, his longest drought since 2017-18. All three of his Joe Gibbs Racing teammates have won since Busch’s last victory: Martin Truex Jr. (Sonoma), Denny Hamlin (Pocono, Bristol) and Erik Jones (Darlington).
NASCAR has issued three fines to Cup Series crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts following Saturday’s race at Bristol Motor Speedway.
Paul Wolfe, crew chief on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford, Alan Gustafson, crew chief on Chase Elliott‘s No. 9 Chevrolet and Michael Bugarewicz, crew chief on Clint Bowyer‘s No. 14 Ford, have each been fined $10,000 for having one unsecured lug nut.
Coming off the first off-week of the season, crew chief Alan Gustafson and his No. 9 team at Hendrick Motorsports had an interesting three-race stretch awaiting them.
The Cup Series would head to Talladega Superspeedway, Dover International Speedway and Kansas Speedway.
The last two tracks hold good memories for Gustafson and driver Chase Elliott. Two of their three wins last year came in the playoff races at Dover and Kansas. The 1-mile Dover is also the site of Elliott’s best average finish (4.3) through six starts.
“Probably of the three, I was most looking forward to Dover,” Gustafson said Sunday. “I just love Dover, because when you win Dover, you’ve done something. That’s a tough, fast track. There’s no place to hide. There’s no way you can get away with not being on the edge all day.”
But they had to go through Talladega to get there.
“I was looking forward to coming here,” Gustafson said. “I mean, you get a little beat down after doing it for so long, not getting the results, how fickle it can be. Certainly don’t want to say I wasn’t looking forward to coming here. You’re a bit cautious with your expectations because this place can bite you in a second.”
Elliott’s win Sunday at Talladega came in Gustafson’s 58th Cup points race on a superspeedway, with 29 each at Talladega and Daytona.
In those races, the first being the 2005 Daytona 500, Gustafson has worked with the likes of Kyle Busch, Mark Martin, Jeff Gordon, Casey Mears and Elliott.
Outside a win in a Daytona 500 qualifying race in 2018, Gustafson had come up one spot short of victory lane three times at superspeedways.
The closest he came was in the July 2007 race at Daytona, when Jamie McMurray edged Busch by .005 of a second to steal the win.
In addition to Gustafson and Elliott’s first Cup superspeedway wins, the victory ended a seven-race stretch of Ford wins at Talladega. It also was Chevy’s first Cup win of the season.
“We needed to win this,” Gustafson said. “We needed to consolidate our efforts. We needed to break the streak that one of our rivals has here. … (Crew members at Hendrick have) worked really, really hard. Really haven’t had the results to pay off their efforts.”
The win was also Hendrick Motorsports’ first on a superspeedway since Dale Earnhardt Jr. won the July 2015 race at Daytona.
“Just thinking back a year or so, we’ve been so close to winning one of these (superspeedway) races for so long, haven’t been able to do it,” Gustafson said. “Happy for them we were able to get that done today.”
Elliott noted that it was “pretty cool” to get Gustafson’s first superspeedway win, but he observed that “a sticker is a sticker, the Playoff points are what they are. I think it’s important to rack them up as early as you can, as long as you can keep stacking on top of it.”
While the No. 9 has been to victory lane four times in the last 25 races, Elliott doesn’t think they’re “winning often enough.”
“I feel like we need to be contending more,” Elliott said. “I see some of our competitors being in contention more than we have been throughout the season. I think we can certainly do a better job.
“To have a win this early in the year I think is nice. And just because we won at Dover and Kansas last year doesn’t mean we’re going to go run good there, too. You know that.