Darlington Raceway

Chase Elliott, Martin Truex Jr. move on from Darlington incident

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Chase Elliott looks at his “racing incident” with Martin Truex Jr. last weekend at Darlington and sees a victory lost because of what he should have done differently well before the contact.

Truex ran Elliott down and attempted to pass him for the lead with 14 laps to go in last week’s Southern 500. They made contact and both hit the wall. That allowed Kevin Harvick, running third at the time, to pass both and win the playoff opener.

Elliott finished 20th. Truex placed 22nd. Elliott is 12 points ahead of the final transfer spot to the second round of the playoffs entering Saturday’s race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Truex is 16 points ahead of the cutline.

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Elliott said his respect for Truex remains and calls the contact a “racing incident.

“I think we were both battling really hard for a win,” Elliott told reporters Thursday. “I think any other time in the race I probably give him the position. In that situation, you got to know, nobody is going to let anybody in for a race win with 15 laps left. I hate that it happened. It hurt both of us.

“I don’t think it was something he did on purpose. I think we were both being aggressive. When you’re coming to a race end like that, a potential win of the Southern 500, I think I would be foolish not to push for every last inch I had the opportunity to get. It was an unfortunate end to a solid comeback for us.”

Truex called the contact “unfortunate” in a session with reporters Thursday.

It was just kind of one of those racing deals where it was obviously really close,” Truex said. “It was pretty much going to be the pass for the win in my eyes. I feel like in that moment, we both made a split-second decision and tried to anticipate or think about what the other one would do, and I think we both guessed wrong, to be honest with you.

“Just really close, obviously, nobody’s fault. I don’t think you can really put blame on one guy. Just kind of a racing deal that was unfortunate for both of our teams.”

Elliott said he must do a better job when leading to avoid situations like last weekend.

“The way I look at those situations is this, I think the people who win in this series and win a lot don’t find themselves in the tough positions that we were in on Sunday night because they don’t let the guy in second ever get to that point to have a chance,” Elliott said.

“The way I view it is I can’t control what a guy does when he’s up next to me, and he can’t control what I’m going to do. But I can certainly control my decision prior to something like that happening to do a better job in extending the gap to that person behind you to where they don’t have that opportunity to be up there by you to make a mistake or to run you over, whatever the situation may be.

“I’m a believer in that, and I certainly think that I could do a better job in extending the lead in that situation to not allow an opportunity to present itself. That is the focus that I have moving forward is just trying to be better, be faster and get far enough away from the people behind you where they can’t get to you.”

Darlington penalty report

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NASCAR issued its Darlington penalty report Tuesday, listing the one-race suspensions to crew chiefs Adam Stevens and Johnny Klausmeier. NASCAR also listed the penalty to Ryan Blaney’s team and fines to three crew chiefs for lug nut issues.

In Cup, NASCAR fined crew chiefs Rodney Childers (Kevin Harvick) and Chad Knaus (William Byron) for one lug nut not secure.

In Trucks, NASCAR fined Kevin Bellicourt (Derek Kraus) $2,500 for a lug nut not secured.

Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick reclaims No. 1 spot

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Kevin Harvick reclaims the No. 1 spot in the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings with his victory in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Darlington.

Harvick takes over the No. 1 spot from Denny Hamlin.

Now the series heads to Richmond Raceway for Saturday night’s playoff race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Here is this week’s Power Rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (Last week No. 2): Didn’t have the dominant car at Darlington. Sometimes, though, it’s about being in the right position at the right time. He was to score his eighth victory of the season. Could he be the first driver since Jimmie Johnson in 2007 to win 10 races in a season?

2. Denny Hamlin (Last week No. 1): Appeared headed for a strong finish before he missed pit road and lost time going back around the track for one more lap. A debris caution a few laps later left him stuck outside the top 10. On to Richmond, a track he has three Cup victories.

3. Martin Truex Jr. (Last week No. 3): Aggressive move for the lead against Chase Elliott backfired and put both in the wall. Instead of a victory, Truex finished 22nd. That ended his eight-race streak of finishing fourth or better. Now he looks to Richmond. He swept both Cup races there last year.

4. Chase Elliott (Last week No. 4): Led 114 laps at Darlington (second only to the 196 laps Truex led) but was a victim of incident with Truex late in the race. The last two times at Darlington, Elliott has been wrecked by a Joe Gibbs Racing car while running second.

5. William Byron (Last week No. 4): Fifth-place finish in Southern 500 marked his third consecutive top-five result. He had not finished better than seventh this season until his hot streak, which includes a win at Daytona.

6. Joey Logano (Last week No. 8): Overcame damage on a restart and a right front tire going down to finish third at Darlington. He has seven top-10 finishes in the last eight races.

7. Alex Bowman (Last week No. 6): Rallied from a slow pit stop after a problem with the jack to finish sixth. He scored 12 stage points, giving him 43 points for the race. Only winner Kevin Harvick scored more points in the Southern 500.

8. Brad Keselowski (Last week No. 7): Team rallied from early incident to finish 11th at Darlington. Nice recovery after contact with wall dropped him to 31st at one point.

9. Austin Dillon (Last week unranked): Start of the race was nearly a disaster. Team switched left- and right-front tires. The error was caught. Dillon overcame a tire issue early in the race and benefitted from the last caution to finish second at Darlington. He has two top 10s in the last three races.

10. Kyle Busch (Last week unranked): Placed seventh at Darlington. In the last five races that he has been running at the finish, he has placed fifth, fourth, third, 11th and seventh.

Dropped out: Austin Cindric (last week No. 9), Sheldon Creed (last week No. 10)

 

Long: Managing mistakes defined Cup playoff opener

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Mistakes and how they were handled during Sunday’s Southern 500 could reverberate throughout the Cup playoffs.

Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott could feel the impact of what happened for the next few weeks. Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin could benefit in how they recovered.

Drivers talked last week about the need to be mistake-free in the playoffs. Some teams didn’t make it to the pre-race ceremonies without blunders.

NASCAR penalized Blaney 10 points, his starting spot and suspended crew chief Todd Gordon for the race before Blaney was on the grid.

A five-pound bag of lead used at the shop to simulate fluid weights before the engine is installed was accidentally left in Blaney’s car, the team stated. Gordon said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that the issue “was missed by several people.”

NASCAR saw it. The 10-point penalty could be devastating to Blaney.

Darlington and Richmond, the first two tracks in the opening round of the playoffs, are among Blaney’s worst. He’s not scored a top 10 at either in Cup.

Blaney’s Southern 500 issues were compounded when a left rear tire went down and he had to pit as the field took the green flag to begin the second stage. That cost him a lap. Blaney finished 24th. He’s last in the playoff standings and now heads to Richmond, a place he’s never finished in the top 15 in a Cup race.

Blaney’s team wasn’t the only one to have problems before the command to fire engines. Somehow, Dillon’s team switched the left front and right front tires on the No. 3 car.

“Somebody just didn’t see the L and didn’t see the R,” Dillon said of the markings that note left side and right side tires. “They’re Sharpied on there. That was how they found it.”

Dillon said crew chief Justin Alexander saw the issue shortly before the race. Had the error not been found, Dillon said “I would have probably knocked the fence down.” Dillon had to start at the rear for changing the tires since it came after pre-race inspection.

Dillon relied on FIDO — Forget It and Drive On — to get him through that challenge.

It’s an approach Dillon picked up from former Marine Lt. Clebe McClary, a motivational speaker and veterans advocate, who lost his left arm and left eye in combat in Vietnam. Clebe spoke at Richard Childress Racing before the season.

“It was probably one of the best luncheons we’ve had as a group, just an unbelievable speaker,” Dillon said. “I think it really hit home for me because I’m a fiery guy and I can dwell on things too long instead of moving on. That acronym is just an easy reminder, like hey, man, it’s over. There’s no need to play it back or wonder why we’re in the situation we’re in. It’s just get the most out of everything that I can.”

Dillon moved on and prepared to race from the back of the lineup. Challenges persisted. He had to pit under green during the first stage because a right rear tire was going flat. He overcame that obstacle and went on to finish second to winner Kevin Harvick.

Brad Keselowski’s team had their own challenges. Keselowski — whose playoff motto is “Why not us?” — hit the wall and had a flat right front tire on Lap 81 of the 367-lap race. Instead of making partial repairs and sending Keselowski back on track to stay on the lead lap, crew chief Jeremy Bullins calmly told his team they’d lose a lap while making the necessary repairs.

Keselowski eventually got back on the lead lap and went on to finish 11th. It wasn’t a memorable result, but it was better than 31st, his position after the incident.

Hamlin also was steady during a key point in the race. He was in a pack of cars and tried to get to the lower lane so he could pit under green. Hamlin was blocked by a car on the inside on the backstretch. He finally got to the bottom lane in Turn 3.

Hamlin recognized he was going too fast to pit and didn’t compound matters with a daring move that could have damaged his car. He lost positions by going back around the track before pitting, but he didn’t panic. A debris caution about 10 laps late stuck Hamlin outside the top 10 and he wasn’t able to recover. Still, his 13th-place finish was better than it might have been.

It was a better finish than Truex (22nd) and Elliott (20th). As they raced for the lead late, Truex got a run off Turn 4 and made a move under Elliott entering Turn 1 with 14 laps to go. Truex hadn’t cleared Elliott when he moved up but later said: “I thought I had enough momentum and distance on (Elliott) that he was going to let me in there. I didn’t expect him to be on my right rear and I was committed.”

They made contact and both hit the wall. Their chances to win were over.

The aggressive move is understandable. It’s 14 laps to go in the Southern 500. It’s a playoff race where a win moves the driver to the next round and scores five playoff points. Truex entered the playoffs with only 14 playoff points. But his hope that Elliott would let him up might have been overly optimistic. Could Truex have stayed on the low side and tried to pressure Elliott into a mistake over the remaining laps? Possibly. If he thought that was his one opportunity to take the lead, Truex had the take the chance. 

With risk comes reward, but there was no reward this time. Instead, Truex and Elliott each lost about 20 points and the potential for five playoff points because of the incident.

Will they need those points in the playoffs? Will those points be the difference in advancing to another round or the championship race? Or will it be only a footnote to what is to come in these playoffs?

With nine races remaining, there will be many challenges and mistakes made. How drivers and teams respond could  play a role in who races for a title.

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Cup standings after Darlington

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While Ford driver Kevin Harvick won Sunday’s Southern 500 to advance to the second round of the playoffs, other Ford drivers are at the bottom of the Cup standings after Darlington.

Aric Almirola holds the final transfer spot to the second round. He is tied with Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Clint Bowyer but holds the tiebreaker on Bowyer. They are followed by rookie Cole Custer, Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney at the bottom of the Cup standings after Darlington.

Two races remain in the opening playoff round before the 16-driver field is cut to 12. The series races at 7:30 p.m. ET Saturday at Richmond Raceway. The first round ends Sept. 19 at Bristol Motor Speedway.

Here is a look at the Cup playoff grid. Drivers shaded in green are locked in the playoffs. Drivers shaded in yellow are in a playoff spot based on their point total. Those shaded in red are outside a spot in the Cup playoff grid.