Alan Gustafson

16 points to ponder as 16 drivers set to race for Cup crown

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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:

Crew chief Chad Knaus and William Byron. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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.

4. Members only: Six of the 16 drivers in the playoffs have won a Cup title: Kurt Busch (2004), Brad Keselowski (2012), Kevin Harvick (2014), Kyle Busch (2015), Martin Truex Jr. (2017), Joey Logano (2018).

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.

Kyle Busch (Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

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.

Hamlin, Aric Almirola, Clint Bowyer and Martin Truex Jr. are next with three pit road speeding penalties each.

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.

Kyle Larson  (Photo by Streeter Lecka/Getty Images)

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.

Chase Elliott (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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).

Playoff schedule

Sept. 15 – Las Vegas (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Sept. 21 – Richmond (7:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Sept. 29 – Charlotte Roval (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Oct. 6 – Dover (2:30 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Oct. 13 – Talladega (2 p.m. ET, NBC)

Oct. 20 – Kansas (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Oct. 27 – Martinsville (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Nov. 3 – Texas (3 p.m. ET, NBCSN)

Nov. 10 – Phoenix (2:30 p.m. ET, NBC)

Nov. 17 – Miami (3 p.m. ET, NBC)

Driver points standings entering the playoffs

2045 – Kyle Busch

2030 – Denny Hamlin

2029 – Martin Truex Jr.

2028 – Kevin Harvick

2028 – Joey Logano

2024 – Brad Keselowski

2018 – Chase Elliott

2011 – Kurt Busch

2005 – Alex Bowman

2005 – Erik Jones

2005 – Kyle Larson

2004 – Ryan Blaney

2001 – William Byron

2001 – Aric Almirola

2000 – Clint Bowyer

2000 – Ryan Newman

 

Penalty report from Bristol Motor Speedway

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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.

Those fines are in addition to the points penalties against Tyler Reddick‘s Xfinity Series team (10 driver and owner points) for failing pre-qualifying inspection four times.

NASCAR also indefinitely suspended Bayley Currey for violating its substance abuse policy.

After being ‘beat down’ by superspeedways, Alan Gustafson gets first win

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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.

Nearly 12 years later, a day that saw an increased amount of coordination among Chevy teams, ended with Elliott leading 45 laps (his most on a superspeedway), including the final four, to score 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.”

Chase Elliott celebrates his first Cup win of 2019. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

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.

“It’s going to be hit‑or‑miss.”

Long: Chevrolet victory went just as planned at Talladega

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — A fan arrived to Talladega Superspeedway this weekend carrying flowers to his seat, looking for the woman he has dated online but never met in person.

In much the same way, Chevrolet teams came to NASCAR’s longest and most ferocious track, agreeing to help each other in ways they’ve never done amid questions to if they could actually do it.

The fan, Omar, was to meet his date, Amber, at the track. At last report, he had yet to find her.

But Chevrolet teams made an instant connection Sunday, fortifying the bottom lane and outmaneuvering Fords and Toyotas for a 1-2-3 finish led by Chase Elliott’s fan-pleasing, drink-raising victory at a track his Hall of Fame father Bill Elliott reigns as the fastest man. Chevrolet, which scored its first win of the season, had five of the top six finishers.

“Every Chevy driver was all in on it and all in on trying to get a Bowtie to win,” runner-up Alex Bowman said.

They had little choice.

Hendrick Motorsports’ decision to work with Toyotas instead of fellow Chevrolet teams in the Daytona 500 put this weekend’s plan in motion.

“That’s kind of what pushed us to be a little bit more firm I’d say with the teams,” said Pat Suhy, Chevrolet Manager of NASCAR Competition Group.

Chevy executives met with drivers, crew chiefs, technical directors and directors of competition Saturday, then met with crew chiefs and team executives afterward to formulate the race plan. Sunday morning, Chevy executives met with crew chiefs and spotters to finalize the plans and make sure all were onboard.

The message was clear.

“Look, we all know you know that there is power in numbers and we know that you’d like to be able to pick your dance partners,” Suhy said Chevy officials told teams. “We’re going to ask you — maybe some would say we told them — very firmly to work together as a group of Chevys and see how that works out.”

Drivers understood.

“We all have egos and we all think we’re a tick better than the guy we’re sitting next to, but we were all able to put that aside and focus on the betterment of our manufacturer,” fifth-place finisher Daniel Hemric said.

The Chevrolets worked together throughout the race. Bowman’s spotter, Kevin Hamlin, even referred to fellow Chevy cars as “friendlies” throughout the race. Chevrolet drivers pitted together under green and often ran the bottom lane together. The cohesion among the Chevy camp impressed those who tried to beat it.

“It’s harder than ever to stay in a line,” said fourth-place finisher Joey Logano, the only non-Chevrolet driver in the top six. “When you’re in line you’re running three-quarter, half throttle, you’re just waiting to go and cars are really tight and packed up. I was surprised to see how much that worked for them.”

There were numerous instances of Chevy drivers helping each other and letting them in line off restarts. Typically in the final laps, the orders go away and everyone understands it’s each driver for themself.

Yet on the final restart with four laps to go, Elliott, starting on the inside of third row, slowed to allow fellow Chevrolet driver Kurt Busch to come down from the top line, hanging his brother, Kyle, out and moving in front of Elliott.

“If it had been a green‑white‑checkered, I don’t think it would have been favorable,” Elliott said. “I think having it be more than three laps, I felt like there was going to be enough steam and momentum up to where the pack was going to be kind of back to normal.

I felt like there was going to be some power in numbers with it being that many laps to go. That’s what we did. I was really trying to stay with him and trying to stay the course on all that, be the best friend I could be at that point in time. He went to make a move on Joey. Honestly, I couldn’t get up there to push him fast enough. If I did, somebody else behind me probably wasn’t going to do the same. At some point that was going to hurt.

That’s just kind of the way it goes. You have to realize the shoe could be on the other foot next time. It’s not always going to work out for everybody. I get that. It’s easy for me to say today. That’s just the way it’s going to be at these places.”

Although Kurt Busch fell to sixth, he was “impressed” with how the Chevrolet drivers worked together.

“I feel like Chase did a perfect job to put himself in a good position,” Busch said. “I feel like I just gave the win away. I had a run and didn’t change lanes quick enough and got bottled up. Chase was a perfect wingman and in a great spot. I’m happy that Chase got the win today.

“I’m really disappointed that I didn’t close the deal. It was in my hands and I let it fall through.”

For a time this weekend at least, a fan holding flowers waiting for his date, could understand Busch’s feelings.

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Chase Elliott looks to build upon last season’s success in 2019

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There’s no question 2018, his third full season in the Cup Series, was a breakthrough year for Chase Elliott.

The son of NASCAR Hall of Famer Bill Elliott not only won his first career Cup race (Watkins Glen), he followed that up with two more wins at Dover and Kansas. Even with those wins, Elliott finished sixth in 2018, as compared to finishing a career-best fifth – yet winless season – in 2017.

Still, as he approaches the 2019 Cup season, the driver of Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 9 Chevrolet  is ready to build upon last season’s performance.

“It’s kind of a fresh start in a lot of ways,” Elliott said. “I think definitely there was nothing negative about the wins and things.

“I obviously wish we could have finished a little stronger those last handful (of late season races), but it’s hard to piggyback off of a win and the month of, what was it, September (or) October and then continue that in the end of February. But we’ll try our best and try to get rolling.”

Even with his racing pedigree and lineage, Elliott admits he struggled at times in his first two full-time Cup seasons in 2016 and 2017.

“The first two, I had some ups and downs, (with) obviously last year being the best of the three,” Elliott said. “It’s kind of hard to believe that this will be year four. It’s gone by really fast.”

MORE: Crew chief marvels at Chase Elliott’s progression

Elliott — who won his first NASCAR Most Popular Driver Award after last season — is also entering his fourth Cup season with crew chief Alan Gustafson.

I have a lot of confidence in him, and (it’s) nice to feel from his end it’s mutual,” Elliott said of Gustafson. “I think that goes a long way.

“But our relationship really has been pretty simple. As I’ve told a lot of people, I kind of let him do his thing and he lets me do mine, and we really just go about our business that way. Our friendship has grown, I think, over the past couple years.

“We’re by no means best friends. I think he would tell you the same thing. But we work well together, and I think that we enjoy the competition aspect at a similar pace. And, he and I, I feel like, view a lot of things the same way from that aspect. And when you’re working with somebody and you’re in the roles that he and I are both in, I’m not real sure that there’s a much better fit or a better way to go about it.

We keep things very simple or as simple as we possibly can, and we believe in our process of how we prepare for races, and yeah, look forward to doing it some more with him this year.”

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