chad knaus

What’s the point? At Sonoma, it mattered for many

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Ten races remain until the playoffs begin. With only six different winners, a number of playoff spots likely will be set based on points.

But points also will be critical in the top 10 in the standings. Playoff points are awarded to the regular-season champion (15 playoff points) all the way to 10th in the standings (one playoff point). The race for playoff points continue this weekend at Chicagoland Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

MORE: Click here for the full results from the Sonoma race.

MORE: Click here for the Sonoma points standings.

Sunday’s race at Sonoma Raceway showed how key points could be. Consider these examples:

# Denny Hamlin finished fifth but scored the most points with 51.

How Hamlin did it: He won the second stage (10 points) and finished second in the opening stage (nine points). Those 19 points were significant.

What it means: Even though Hamlin finished fifth to winner Martin Truex Jr., Hamlin gained seven more points than Truex (51-44). Truex is fifth in the season standings and leads Hamlin by one point. They’re both racing to be as high in the points to get as many bonus playoff points. Sunday was a key day for Hamlin.

# William Byron finished 19th but had the fifth-most points in the race with 36.

How Byron did it: He won the first stage (10 points) and finished third in the second stage (eight points). Those 18 points were huge for him.

What it means: Byron finished two spots behind Daniel Suarez but scored 16 more points because of crew chief Chad Knaus’ focus on scoring as many stage points as possible instead of pitting Byron before the end of both stages (as Suarez did). That’s key because Suarez now leads Byron by two points for 13th in the season standings. Should there be some new winners this year, it will mean there will be fewer playoff spots via points. So the higher in points, the better. Every position could be critical. Also important to note is that Bryon’s 36 points were three times as many points as he scored at Sonoma last year.

# Kyle Larson finished 10th but had the third-most points with 39.

How Larson did it: He finished fourth in the first stage (seven points). He finished sixth in the second stage (five points). Those 12 points were key for him.

What it means: Larson entered the race five points ahead of Jimmie Johnson, who held the final playoff spot. Larson remains 15th in the season standings but has a 17-point lead on the last playoff spot, now manned by Ryan Newman

# Joey Logano held on to his points lead despite finishing 23rd.

How Logano did it: A 23rd-place finish is worth 14 points but Logano finished the day with 29 points. He finished third in the first stage (eight points) and was fourth in the second stage (seven points).

What it means: Logano leads Kyle Busch (37 points after a runner-up finish) by one point atop the season standings. The regular-season champion gets 15 playoff points and second gets 10 points so there’s something at stake for both in the remaining 10 regular-season races.

William Byron looks to continue building program in Sonoma

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What a difference a year makes.

William Byron liked what he saw in his first Cup weekend last year at Sonoma Raceway. He qualified strong (eighth), although he finished 25th.

He came back for this weekend’s Toyota/Save Mart 350 a bit wiser and more prepared and the result in Friday’s practices proved that: Byron was 14th in the first session and improved to seventh in the final session.

Next up is Saturday’s qualifying (3:10 p.m. ET).

That he did so well Friday was a bit surprising to Byron, given the close quarter racing and the addition of Sonoma Raceway’s Carousel, which has changed the layout of the track and increased its length from 1.99 miles to 2.52 miles. The Carousel has not been used in Cup competition since 1997.

It was wild,” Byron said. “I was surprised how much grip the track has lost in some areas. It’s not as black as it was last year, for sure. I feel like it has less grip up the hill into Turn 1, which is kind of interesting. The track was really dirty to start, so it had to get cleaned up. Guys were throwing rocks into the groove too.

It was different every lap. Some guy would go through there and throw a dust storm up, and you’d have to peek through to see where you were going. That’s part of it.”

William Byron enters Sunday’s race 14th in points. (Photo: Getty Images)

As for experiencing the Carousel for the first time, Byron noted: “It’s so blind on entry, so it’s going to be hard to make much out of the entry (on race day). I’m sure there will be some passes there once we are all together and stuffed in there, but I don’t know. I think the biggest area to focus on will be exiting that carousel and trying to get that good so you can launch to the next corner.”

As for using the simulator in preparation for Sonoma, Byron said: “It was really beneficial. I feel like it helped right off the bat during the first couple of laps on the track. I’m glad we did that because I think it was a good advantage for us to have going in here. It just allowed us to open up our practice and not be so worried about speed.

In his sophomore Cup season, Byron has improved over the last five races. After finishing eighth at Dover, Byron was 19th in the standings. In the four races since, he had ninth-place finishes at Charlotte and Pocono and has climbed to 14th in points.

With Chad Knaus as his crew chief this season, Byron has shown steady progress, including leading laps in the last five races, the first time he’s done that in Cup.

(The key is) all of the little details and things that it takes to win one of these or being in the top five,” Byron said. “I feel like we are learning, the communication is getting better and more upfront.

We got a chance to do this Spring Mountain (Motor Resort and Country Club in Pahrump, Nevada) trip yesterday with Chad and all the drivers and crew chiefs; that was a lot of fun. I got the chance to take Chad for a ride around the track. I think that’s going to help us this weekend; kind of help him better relate to what’s going on. We will continue to try and improve.”

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More with less: Comparing records of Joe Gibbs Racing’s two best teams

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It took 13 races, but Martin Truex Jr. and Cole Pearn appear to have their groove back.

Sunday’s Coke 600 saw the driver-crew chief combo win for the third time in five races after a slow start to their first season with Joe Gibbs Racing.

Before their winning stretch, the No. 19 team had only two top fives (both runner-up finishes) and 12 laps led in the first eight races. By comparison, their JGR teammates Kyle Busch and crew chief Adam Stevens won three times and finished in the top 10 in every race.

In addition to their wins, Truex and Pearn have led 445 laps since their Richmond victory April 13.

“Looking at it now, it’s going well, but it’s come with a lot of hard work. It’s been a lot of adjustment,” Pearn said Sunday of the move from Furniture Row Racing to JGR.

They now have 20 wins in their five years and 156 starts together.

“It’s always been an easy relationship between the two of us,” Pearn said of Truex. “I never, ever dreamt that when I kind of took over as crew chief that we’d be sitting here with as many wins as we’ve had together. It just still blows my mind.

“Seemed like we were just hoping that we could knock out some top 10s, and looking back what we’ve been able to do is great, and just so fortunate to work with so many special people on our team and now be part of a big organization with that many more special people, it’s really cool. People are everything that makes this sport and makes the team, so it’s really cool.”

Truex and Pearn claimed three wins in fives races once before in 2016. They also had stretches of three wins in six races in both 2017 and 2018.

Busch and Stevens have been together just as long as Truex and Pearn, being paired together in Cup since 2015 after two years together in Xfinity.

But they have 15 fewer Cup races than Truex and Pearn, a result of Busch missing the first 11 races in 2015 due to injury and Stevens missing four races in 2017 due to a suspension over a lug nut violation (Pearn missed one race for suspension in 2016).

Despite the fewer Cup races together, Busch and Stevens have five more wins, 11 more top fives and six more top 10s than Truex and Pearn.

While Busch hasn’t won since Bristol, he has remained stubbornly consistent. Busch has 12 top 10s in 13 races. The only blemish came at Kansas when Busch had an unscheduled pit stop late for a tire rub and finished 30th.

“We’re fortunate enough to have strong teammates that make us better and hopefully we can do the same for them,” Pearn said Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We’ve got some really tough competitors just in this building.”

Last June, after Truex won at Sonoma Raceway, NBC Sports took a look at his and Pearn’s record after 123 starts together and compared it to other historic and active driver-crew chief pairings at the same point, including Busch and Stevens despite them being behind in terms of starts.

With help from Racing Insights, NBC Sports has an updated look at the pace of Truex and Pearn and Busch and Stevens through 156 and 141 starts respectively.

Truex and Pearn trail their JGR teammates, as well as the historic pairings of Darrell Waltrip/Jeff Hammond, Jeff Gordon/Ray Evernham and Dale Earnhardt/Kirk Shelmerdine.

They remain narrowly ahead of the pace established at the same time by eventual seven-time champions Jimmie Johnson/Chad Knaus, along with Tony Stewart/Greg Zipadelli and Brad Keselowski/Paul Wolfe.

However, when it comes to Kevin Harvick and Rodney Childers, Truex and Pearn have them beat only in the wins category, with one more victory through 156 races.

See the complete state comparison below.

After 156 starts together

NBC Sports Power Rankings heading into Pocono

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Martin Truex Jr. is in and Kyle Busch is out as No. 1 in this week’s NBC Sports Power Rankings.

Truex has been riding a hot hand of late. His Coca-Cola 600 victory was his third in the last five points races.

Truex makes the biggest jump from last week, going from ninth to No. 1 this week. Conversely, Kevin Harvick makes the biggest drop from last week, going from No. 2 to a tie for ninth this week.

Here’s how this week’s Power Rankings shape up:

1. Martin Truex Jr. (39 points): Was like a mail delivery man at Charlotte: Didn’t let heat, nor gloom of night nor a blown tire or contact with another car keep him from his appointed rounds and into victory lane. Three wins in the last five races makes you the sport’s top dog. Last week: 9th.

(tie) 2. Kyle Busch (33 points): Too little, too late in Sunday’s race. But he shouldn’t be too disappointed. He earned his seventh top five and 12th top-10 finish in the first 13 races of the season. Nobody else comes close. Still, with Truex’s success, Busch is no longer No. 1 within his own organization. Last week: 1st.

(tie) 2. Chase Elliott (33 points): Best Chevrolet driver of the bunch. Led a Hendrick Motorsports juggernaut that placed all four of its drivers in the top 10. Remains the only HMS (and Chevrolet) driver with a win this season. Has not finished outside the top five since winning at Talladega. That’s four top fives in a row. Last week: 5th.

4. Joey Logano (30 points): Maybe, just maybe, if the race would have gone into overtime, he might have had a chance of overtaking Truex for the win. Nonetheless, it was his third runner-up of the season and seventh top-five (including his win earlier in the year at Las Vegas). Things are looking very good for the defending series champion. Last week: 4th.

5. Alex Bowman (22 points): Failed to make it four runner-up finishes in a row in points races, but a seventh in the longest race of the season is nothing to be ashamed about. Last week: 6th.

6. Jimmie Johnson (14 points): The seven-time Cup champ is slowly getting back into his old form. We may sound like a broken record, but it’s just a matter of time before Johnson finally breaks the longest winless streak of his career (which has reached 72 races, dating back to spring 2017 at Dover). Last week: Not ranked.

7. Chris Buescher (14 points): Has earned back-to-back top-10 finishes in his last two points races. Still has a way to go – he’s 22nd in the standings this week, 55 points behind 16th-ranked Kyle Larson – but the little team that could is getting it done. Last week: Not ranked.

8. Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (10 points): Earned his first top-five of the season and first since last fall’s playoff race at Talladega. If you’re looking for a dark horse pairing to make the playoffs this season, keep your eye on Stenhouse and Roush Fenway Racing teammate Ryan Newman. Last week: Not ranked.

(tie) 9. William Byron (7 points): Earned his second pole of the season and third top-10 finish of the season at Charlotte. Is starting to click with crew chief Chad Knaus. Last week: 8th.

(tie) 9. Kevin Harvick (7 points): Some drivers would take a 15-race winless streak but for Kevin Harvick such a streak seems long. Last week: 2nd.

Others receiving votes: Tyler Reddick (5 points), Brad Keselowski (5 points), Justin Allgaier (4 points).

Follow @JerryBonkowski

Speed Tweets: What you may have missed on Twitter from Las Vegas

Denny Hamlin
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With the start of the West Coast Swing, the NASCAR community and its social media got in the Las Vegas spirit during its trip to Sin City.

Denny Hamlin did his part by paying homage to the movie The Hangover with a shirt inspired by Zach Galifianakis’ character.

This is not the first time a Cup driver got their Hangover on. In 2013, Jimmie Johnson recreated multiple scenes from the film on his Instagram account.

The final laps of Saturday’s Xfinity Series race were marred by multiple wrecks in Turn 3 and 4.

But one fan standing on a RV in the vicinity completely missed Brandon Jones‘ demolished No. 19 car coming to a rest right next to him.

Maybe Menards should consider making its traditional yellow even brighter.

The split of Jimmie Johnson and Chad Knaus has its bright spots.

One fan decided to take his loyalty to the No. 24 team with Knaus and showed up in the Las Vegas garage bearing a message. Johnson posted pictures of the fan and his makeshift signs over the weekend and may have won him back.

The hottest club in Las Vegas is called the OSS.

It has everything: a Cup car, psychedelic flashing lights and Pitbull music plays at obscene levels when you make it through in one try.

The pre-race ceremonies for Xfinity race had an “only in Vegas” moment when the National Anthem was sung by impersonators of Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

Erik Jones was inspired.

The West Coast Swing has its downsides when it comes to travel time, but Aric Almirola is getting through it thanks to power of caffeine and Dr. Seuss.