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Rick Hendrick: ‘Jimmie Johnson has something to prove’

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Even though Jimmie Johnson is in the midst of the longest winless streak of his NASCAR career – 88 races – team owner Rick Hendrick is convinced the seven-time Cup champion will return to victory lane soon, potentially as early as this weekend’s race at Dover.

There’s reason for Hendrick’s optimism: Johnson’s 83rd and most recent Cup win came at Dover. He also owns the one-mile all-concrete banked track’s record with 11 career Cup wins there.

This is the first time Johnson has not been part of the Cup playoffs since he became a full-time Cup driver. Not only has it been difficult on Johnson, it also has been rough on Hendrick to watch his driver go through such a prolonged dry spell.

“It’s been really hard,” Hendrick said Wednesday morning on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “On Track” show with Danielle Trotta and Larry McReynolds. “Here’s a guy that’s won seven championships, won five in a row, is one of the best drivers ever in the sport and to see him struggle, it just kills you. You want to do everything you can to try and fix it. To miss the playoffs was a huge deal, you just hate to see it happen when you’ve got a streak like that going.

But on the flip side, he is more hungry today and more committed and the team is really jelling quickly. Cliff ( Daniels) has just done a fantastic job. You can listen to the two of them, watch the spring in their step, and it looks like the early days of Chad (Johnson’s former crew chief, Chad Knaus) and Jimmie. So I’m really, really pumped up about that.”

How quickly could Johnson get back to victory lane?

I see Jimmie Johnson winning a race here, maybe multiple races, and I think it could happen Sunday (at Dover, 2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN),” Hendrick said. “So I’m going to be as excited to go to victory lane as much as I was when he won the championships. We’re just refusing to give up, he’s doing everything he can and I’m super impressed with Cliff. I’ve never seen a young guy mature as fast and be so quick to make decisions and just show skills that I’ve seen veterans go years without having.

So, we’ll see. I think Jimmie has something to prove and it’ll be fun to watch in Dover.”

Hendrick understands the frustration Johnson has been going through, particularly this season, his first year of not making the playoffs and his first season without Knaus as his crew chief.

You know that any athlete or anybody that’s had the success that he’s had, it weighs on you when you don’t perform,” Hendrick said. “But I think the pressure to make the playoffs was just a ton, almost as much as when you’re coming down to the end to win a championship. But once that was over and we moved on, he became more determined to tell me he couldn’t wait to get to the Roval (last weekend) and Dover, he just can’t wait.

It just built more fire in him and again and they’re clicking. It’s a tough situation to watch someone that good, someone with that much talent, not to be able to hit the stride you know he can do. We just all never gave up. We know we can do this, we know how good he is. It’s just a real spark right now because I see him having fun and feeling comfortable and confident, and that’s what it takes.”

Hendrick also raved about Chase Elliott’s win Sunday at the Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval, rallying back from 37th place after wrecking while leading with 44 laps remaining.

That was the most unbelievable comeback I think I’ve ever seen,” Hendrick told Trotta and McReynolds. “When he went off-course in Turn 1 and locked the brakes up, I thought ‘Well, that’s it, he may be able to get back to 10th, but that’ll be about it.’

But when all the cautions fell and he was back on track, he was doing some amazing things with the car. It was one of the most exciting races that I can ever remember. … It was a spectacular performance and a lot of excitement for the fans.”

When asked if he thought Elliott would be able to rally to finish 1-2 with teammate Alex Bowman, Hendrick replied, “Never, never, not the way he started that race. I thought the car was damaged, but boy, the way he came on in the second half of that race, especially in the closing laps, he did an unbelievable job.

If you had asked me to bet, I would have lost a lot of money that either of those guys would be in the top 10, let alone 1-2.”

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Long: Heated radio chatter raises questions about who is driving

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RICHMOND, Va. — For at least the second time this season, a crew chief told his driver to retaliate after contact from another car, raising questions about such emotional outbursts and the actions that follow.

Car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman each told Austin Dillon on the team’s radio to pay Alex Bowman back for an incident on the Lap 109 restart Saturday at Richmond. Bowman’s contact sent Dillon’s car into William Byron’s, causing more damage to Dillon’s No. 3 Chevrolet.

Childress told his grandson to “get (Bowman’s) ass back if you get to him.”

Stockman told Dillon:

“Get him back.

“Get him back.

“Get him back.

Get … him … back … now.”

Dillon did as told and spun Bowman but the contact also damaged Dillon’s car.

Later, as Dillon tried to dissect his car’s handling at the end of stage 2 on Lap 200, he mentioned the incident earlier in the race: “I don’t have a good idea for you. We ruined our car in a wreck for no reason. I didn’t think we needed to do that.”

Ultimately, the driver is responsible for what they do with the car. But when a driver is agitated after being hit by a competitor and told to “get him back” as Dillon was, it puts the driver in a difficult situation. Ignore the crew chief — and the car owner in this case — and it can lead to questions about team leadership among crew members and who can hear the conversations on their headsets. Do as told and it can make a bad situation worse.

It did for William Byron at Watkins Glen.

Kyle Busch spun while underneath Byron’s car in Turn 1. Busch caught Byron and hit the back of Byron’s car, forcing it through the grass in the inner loop.

Crew chief Chad Knaus told Byron on the radio: “If I see that 18 (Busch) come back around without you knocking the (expletive) out of him, we’re going to have a problem.”

Byron, following the orders of a seven-time champion crew chief, did as he was told and had a bigger problem.

Seeing Byron behind him under caution, Busch hit his brakes and Byron slammed into the back of Busch’s car. The contact smashed the nose of Byron’s car. Byron, who started second, finished 21st and was never a factor after the incident.

Byron called the Watkins Glen episode a “turning point. I realized I’m the guy driving the car and ultimately the decisions that I make … trickles down to my team and all the work they’re putting in.”

Another key is what is said on the radio and how it is said between Knaus and Byron.

“I think the only thing is just staying positive and staying motivated in the race,” Byron said. “I don’t seem to do well with like negative energy.”

How did he get his point across?

“I think situations have played out on the track to where it’s kind of been understood that we’ve got to do things a different way,” Byron said. “We both have our way of doing things. I’ve really accepted the way he does things, and he’s accepted the way I do things. Any good working relationship is kind of that compromise.”

It’s understandable that crew chiefs and teams will be upset when somebody damages their car. To have all the work that goes into each race impacted by some driver’s mistake or recklessness is frustrating and infuriating.

But for those who talk to a driver on the radio during a race comes great responsibility. One can calm a driver and focus on the task at hand or inflame the situation.

When a situation escalates, the results are never good.

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Although he tied his best finish of the season Saturday night at Richmond, placing fifth wasn’t the biggest achievement to Ryan Newman.

“What meant to me the most was just being better than we were the first race,” said Newman, who finished ninth at Richmond in the April. “We came back and showed that we were learning and we’ll keep learning.”

Such improvement has put the Roush Fenway Racing driver — who didn’t secure a playoff spot until the regular-season finale — in position to advance to the second round after Sunday’s race at Charlotte Motor Speedway’s Roval (2:30 p.m. ET on NBC). Newman enters the weekend ninth in the standings, 14 points ahead of Alex Bowman, the first driver outside a playoff spot.

Ryan Newman’s finishing position has improved 3.8 positions in the six races Cup teams have visited a track for a second time this year. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Newman is one of four playoff drivers — Ryan Blaney, Chase Elliott and Kyle Larson are the others — who have finished better in their second appearance at a playoff track than the first time this year. Newman’s 10th-place finish in the Las Vegas playoff opener was 14 places better than he finished there in March. His Richmond race was four spots better than his spring result.

“We hoped every time we got back (to a track a second time) we would be better,” Scott Graves, Newman’s crew chief, told NBC Sports after the Richmond race. “This was a good race for us in the spring. We took all our notes there and we knew what we needed to do differently. When you get here and you unload and the car is good right from the bat and you can just make fine adjustments, it just makes the weekend go easier. We were able to do that this time.”

Richmond marked the sixth time that Cup has raced at a track for a second time this season. The others are Daytona, Las Vegas, Bristol, Pocono and Michigan.

Newman has improved 3.8 positions the second time at those tracks, ranking fourth among playoff drivers. Newman trails Larson (gain of 11.2 positions), Martin Truex Jr. (9.2) and William Byron (4.5).

“I feel like we really struggled to figure out where the balance of the car needed to be the first time around,” Graves said. “How much drag did we need? How much downforce did we need? Then mechanically, what did we need in the car. It’s kind of like those learn-by-trial kind of things. We went, ‘OK that didn’t work but we think we know what we need now.’ ”

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The six lead changes Saturday at Richmond were the fewest there since the 2014 fall race, which had four lead changes among two drivers.

Both Richmond races this season combined for 10 cautions (five in each race). Last year’s two Richmond races combined for nine cautions.

Clint Bowyer, who finished eighth, expressed his frustration with this past weekend’s race.

We have to figure something out with this track and our package,” Bowyer said. “I’m not sold that this is the best product we can do here. I love this place. I love the race track. I love this fan base, this area and everything. Ever since I started in this sport, this has always been an action track and it’s lacking a little bit of that. 

“I think we could do some things with maybe some PJ1 or sealer or tires – something. We need to try to make an adjustment, I really believe that.”

Kevin Harvick was asked the day before last weekend’s race if traction compound should be used at Richmond to help drivers with passing.

“I honestly thought we would have traction compound down for this particular race,” he said. “Using the tire dragon here does zero.”

So where would it be best to apply traction compound at Richmond?

“Chase Elliott had the best idea, just like we used to do with the sealer, just coat the whole corner,” Harvick said. “Let it ride for the weekend. Let the race track evolve. It’s become one of the most difficult places to pass. It’s become more difficult this year. I think the traction compound would definitely be a good option.”

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Clint Bowyer is a free agent after this season but signs point to him returning to Stewart-Haas Racing next year.

Bowyer noted that he did a Mobil 1 shoot last week with Kevin Harvick for next year.

Bowyer said a new contract is “not done” but “I’m comfortable where it’s at. We’re working on partnerships for next year and having success there.”

Bowyer is in his third season at Stewart-Haas Racing, taking over the No. 14 ride after Tony Stewart retired. Bower has won twice with the team, scoring victories at Martinsville and Michigan in 2018.

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There was a buzz in the garage over the weekend about possible changes for pit stops next year in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.

That buzz intensified after Michael Waltrip tweeted that stage breaks without live pit stops for the Xfinity and Truck Series would be “absolutely the right thing to do” to help teams save money while also providing more racing action.

NASCAR had no comment about the issue and Waltrip’s tweets.

It’s clear based on the chatter in the garage that NASCAR is taking a look at potential changes to pit stops. In making the switch to 18-inch wheels with the Gen 7 car, which is scheduled to debut in 2021, NASCAR also is considering the use of a single lug nut to secure wheels. Such a move would overhaul pit stops and likely de-emphasize the importance of tire changers. 

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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.

Friday 5: Examining the most intriguing storyline of the Cup playoffs

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LAS VEGAS — They could be viewed as NASCAR’s odd couple, a blend of youth and experience, of past and present. No other driver/crew chief combination in the Cup playoffs has as wide of an age gap as Chad Knaus and William Byron at 27 years.

And no other combination in the playoffs has as many championships. Of course, Knaus won seven titles with Jimmie Johnson and Byron makes his Cup playoff debut Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (7 p.m. ET, NBCSN).

While Joe Gibbs Racing (just pick a driver) is the favorite to win the title, Kevin Harvick is the hottest driver and Joey Logano seeks a second consecutive championship, one of the most intriguing storylines of the postseason could be Knaus and Byron.

They’ve spent their first season together learning and adjusting to each other. The result has been significant gains at times.

“I feel like the first 10 races were kind of that newness and awkward stage of a relationship in trying to figure out how not to step on each other’s toes,” Byron said Thursday during playoff media day at South Point Hotel Casino. “And there were some heated moments, to be honest. We had some things that we didn’t execute as well as we wanted to. And then we got to the meat of the season in the summer, and we just started to really click.”

As that relationship progressed, Byron also hit a key milestone in the All-Star Race in May. He raced his way into the All-Star Race with an aggressive style.

“It was, at least for me, a turning point because it gave me the confidence that I could do it,” Byron said.

But Byron doesn’t mean aggressive in the sense of knocking people out of the way. Instead, he was aggressive in how he contemplated his next move on the track.

You’re kind of anticipating what moves to make,” Byron said. “You’re taking advantage of situations more than you are defending situations, and I think that was a big difference. Coming to a restart and thinking about how can I take advantage of this person or this person or get the best start that I can. That’s what changed for me in that race.”

While Byron has continued to learn, he’s also made an impact on Knaus in at least one way.

“As far as me shaping him, I think the only thing is just staying positive and staying motivated in the race,” Byron said. “I don’t seem to do well with like negative energy.”

How did he get his point across?

“I think situations have played out on the track to where it’s kind of been understood that we’ve got to do things a different way,” Byron said. “We both have our way of doing things. I’ve really accepted the way he does things, and he’s accepted the way I do things. Any good working relationship is kind of that compromise.”

He admits one key learning point came at Watkins Glen when Knaus all but ordered Byron to hit Kyle Busch’s car in retaliation for earlier contact. Busch slammed his brakes and that created a greater impact when Byron ran into the back of Busch’s car. The result was Byron damaged his car more than Busch’s was hurt.

“I think it was a turning point for us because I realized I’m the guy driving the car and ultimately the decisions that I make affect what I do,” Byron said. “Obviously, that trickles down to my team and all the work they’re putting in.”

2. Way in the past

It is nearing 10 years since Denny Hamlin was in position to win the championship only to see mistakes and misfortune rob him of that opportunity.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver still seeks his first Cup crown.

Hamlin, who won this year’s Daytona 500, is confident entering the playoffs after a season with four victories, including two in the last six races.

But until he wins a championship, that 2010 title race will remain something he’s asked about. He entered that season finale in Miami with a slim points lead after he gave away several points by pitting for fuel late in the season’s penultimate race in Phoenix. In Miami, Hamlin faltered during the weekend and Jimmie Johnson won his fifth consecutive title.

I just got too excited in the moment,” Hamlin said Thursday. “I remember when it all started on qualifying day. Watching a couple guys run up high in qualifying and be fast, I’m like, ‘I didn’t practice up there (but) I need to run up there.’ I got in the wall and started in the rear and caught up in a three-wide wreck early (in the race). That was on the driver, not anyone else in 2010.”

But he admits it took some time before he could move on from that experience.

“I came off an eight-win season in 2010 and in 2011 I won one race and just kind of ran crappy,” Hamlin said. “It was definitely a hangover, letdown year from 2010. Then we kind of bounced back in 2012 (with five wins). … We had a good season and at that point I kind of let 2010 go.”

As for now, Hamlin is eager for the playoffs to begin. He won at Pocono in late July and followed that with a third-place finish at Watkins Glen, a runner-up result at Michigan, a win at Bristol, a 29th-place finish at Darlington after he was collected in a crash, and a sixth-place finish in a backup car last weekend at Indianapolis.

“We are not searching for speed, we are not searching for anything right now,” Hamlin said. “As long as we execute, we contend for wins every week and that is something that only a handful or less can say every week.”

Hamlin also likes that the series is heading back to several tracks for a second time this season. He notes that in the second time to tracks this season, he has finished first at Pocono, second at Michigan and first at Bristol.

3. Higher expectations

Ryan Blaney is in the playoffs for a third consecutive year, but he enters still seeking his first victory of the season, while teammates Brad Keselowski (three) and Joey Logano (two) each have multiple wins this year.

“I’d like to be doing better,” said Blaney, who has five top-10 finishes in the last seven races. “You want to be winning races with your teammates, right? I mean, your teammates winning races, you want to win races and you know, it sucks that we haven’t won a race yet this year. There’s a handful of them I wish we got back, but you just try to move forward and move on and try to do the best you can.

“Indy stunk how it kind of played out and ended there. But you definitely want to be doing better. Do I think that I’ve done the best job throughout this year and before this? No, I could do a lot better. So that’s kind of an ‘on me’ thing. So you just try to keep learning, keep getting better.

“You see your teammates winning and you want to be there just to prove that. You want to be part of the  show. You want to be in that group. You want to be in that winning group, and hopefully we can figure things out.”

Blaney says when he compares himself to Keselowski and Logano, “I feel like I don’t meet expectations. So that part stinks.

“I think Brad and Joey are two of the best guys out here, smartest guys, really great race car drivers and do a great job of figuring it out. And you just try to compare yourself to those guys. It’s hard compared to them because they’re so good and past champions. But I think if you try to meet that bar, and you kind of push yourself to be there, hopefully one day you do achieve that goal and get to where those guys are at.”

4. How many wins could Kyle Busch have?

Asked if he is better with handling frustration, regular-season champion Kyle Busch answered by alluding to this season and the four wins he has.

“No, I’m definitely not very good with frustrating moments,” said Busch, winless in his last 12 races. “It’s hard. You pour your life and soul into this and this is what you do and what you want to do and be successful at, and you want to go out here and prove and show people what they all hype up and talk about that, yes it’s true that I can be one of the best here and it’s frustrating when I’m not able to come out of races or seasons with the goals that you anticipate or the goals that you think you can achieve.

“It’s quite frustrating in that regard. This year for example, we’ve had four wins. We’ve been really good, we led the points …  you look back on it and we should have eight or nine wins.”

5. New mayor for Nashville

John Cooper defeated Mayor David Briley by more than a two-to-one margin Thursday to become the new mayor of Nashville, Tennessee.

Here is why that matters to NASCAR fans:

Once Cooper takes office (at a date to be determined) one of the many issues he’ll be tasked with is the effort by officials from Bristol Motor Speedway and Speedway Motorsports Inc. to renovate Fairgrounds Speedway in hopes of attracting a NASCAR race.

With NASCAR seeking to announce the 2021 schedule around April 1, 2020, it leaves a little more than six months for Bristol officials to have an agreement with the mayor, get approval from the metro council and get approval from the fair board to begin construction on what has been billed as a $60 million project.

It would seem ambitious to think everything could be put into place for Nashville to be on the 2021 NASCAR schedule. If so, that could mean that the earliest NASCAR might race there would be 2022.

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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