Garrett Smithley

Long: Will Joey Logano’s actions lead to repercussions or another title?

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Joey Logano isn’t making friends in the playoffs, but does it really matter?

For the third time in the last eight playoff races, a driver climbed from his car upset with how Logano raced them and suggested a form of payback could be coming.

* Martin Truex Jr. called Logano’s bump-and-run on the final lap of last fall’s playoff race at Martinsville a “cheap shot” and said days before the championship race in Miami: “I won’t just wreck a guy … unless it is the 22.” (Logano did take part in the Martin Truex Jr. Foundation Catwalk for a Cause event in May). 

* Aric Almirola was upset with how Logano raced him in last fall’s playoff race at Texas, which was a week after Logano had assured his spot in the championship event by winning at Martinsville. Almirola said then: “He just continues to make things harder on himself. … When Homestead comes around if I’m not in it, he’ll know it.” Asked how, Almirola responded: “Just make it really difficult on him.” (Almirola and Logano talked a day later).

* Denny Hamlin expressed his frustration with Logano after last weekend’s playoff race at Dover. Logano was 24 laps down when Hamlin, who was leading, couldn’t get around him late in stage 2. Hamlin lost the lead and finished third in the stage, costing him a playoff point. “He just pissed off some guys that he’s racing with now,” Hamlin said of Logano. “So now we’re going to race him extra hard for what? For the reason he didn’t want to go 26 laps down? Anybody would tell you that’s just not a good choice.”

So far nothing has happened — except Logano winning last year’s Cup title.

That Logano races hard is no surprise. It’s a part of his DNA. His second career Cup win came in 2012 after he did a bump-and-run on Mark Martin in the final laps at Pocono. Logano has had issues throughout his career with Tony Stewart, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Kyle Larson, Truex, Almirola and Hamlin, among others. So, yes, this is Logano’s style.

But even Logano admitted during last weekend’s race at Dover he was in a tough position. This was his radio conversation with crew chief Todd Gordon after stage 2 ended:

Gordon: Did a good job there, man. I know we got eaten up there at the end, but you did a good job of hanging in the whole time.

Logano: Yeah. I dunno. Trying to do the right thing by everyone.

Gordon: Yeah. You’re in a tough spot. You are. I totally understand it.

Logano: What’s our situation now? How many more laps do I have to make up?

Gordon: 54 is 14 laps down. We’re 24 laps down. The 52 is 13. The 51 is 12. Some of those guys won’t end up having enough tires to run the whole race, so, we’ll see where it gets. We’re 36 right now. Every spot we can get from here is a point.”

Logano would not pass the 54 (Garrett Smithley), 52 (JJ Yeley) or 51 (B.J. McLeod). Logano finished 34th, gaining spots only after mechanical issues caused Chris Buescher and Ryan Blaney to the garage.

While Logano’s conversation was taking place, other team radios were lit about his driving.

Hamlin didn’t realize Logano was so many laps down. Told he was, Hamlin said on his radio: “Then what the (expletive) is he doing racing us like this? Twenty-four laps?”

Logano also was a discussion point on Kyle Larson’s radio.

Larson: He’s racing awful hard, huh?

Crew chief Chad Johnston: You sound like you’re surprised. Nothing new.

Larson: I am surprised that he’s racing that hard at 24 laps down, I can see one up.

Johnston: Yeah. I think it is all things we have to put in our memory bank. And when we get the opportunity to do the same thing to him, we remember that, don’t cut him any slack. But, for today we have to race to win, so, we’ll let him go to the back or do a wave around and get one of ‘em back so he can be 23 down. And we’ll go race for a win.”

Memory bank is the key word. Drivers and teams don’t forget. Should Logano advance to the third round, he could face quite a challenge.

Two of the three races in the third round are at Martinsville and ISM Raceway near Phoenix. Both feature plenty of traffic and can be difficult to pass at — and that’s without someone mad at you. NASCAR is expected to approve a traction compound to help drivers pass at ISM Raceway, the last chance for competitors to earn a spot in the Championship 4 race the following week in Miami. 

Will Logano’s actions catch up to him in the coming weeks? Or will he be on his way to a second championship while divers are left to mutter about how the No. 22 Team Penske Ford races?

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Potential can be such an overbearing description for some. While Kyle Larson exudes California cool, many have expected him to win more often. In some cases, his team needed better cars or pit stops. In other cases, Larson needed to be better.

He said that last weekend’s win at Dover was an example of how he is improving.

“It takes focus to win in any type of car, but it takes a different type of focus to win a 400‑ or 500‑mile race,” Larson said after his sixth career Cup victory, which moved him to the next round. “You know, in a sprint car race, it’s 30, 40 laps, and they don’t have an opportunity to work on their car at any point in the race to make it better, where in this I’ve tried to get better at my communication and tried to make it easier for the team to figure out what adjustments to make because it felt like when I look at other people in the past, I’ve been good the first half of races or even past that, but then it seems like as other people get to work on their cars, that’s where they maybe get better than me at the end and that’s what they find to go out there and win.

“(Sunday) I felt like I was struggling, I was getting frustrated in the early part of the race, and then took a deep breath, changed up what I was doing behind the wheel, and we also made our car better at the same time, and here we are with a win.

“I think that’s just the things that guys like Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick and Logano, Truex, Keselowski are really good at just staying focused, and not that I wasn’t focused, it just takes a different level of focus.”

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It was easy to miss Kyle Busch’s finish Sunday at Dover. Other than the speeding penalty he incurred on Lap 122, he was not noticeable on the way to a sixth-place finish.

Busch had expressed his disappointment not only with the racing but his result at Dover in May when he finished 10th and did not exude confidence heading into the playoff race. He qualified 18th, worst of the remaining playoff drivers. He said his car’s setup was similar to what teammate Martin Truex Jr. used to win at Dover in May but still didn’t work for him.

That Busch came out of a race that he didn’t seem to feel good about with nearly a top-five finish could be viewed as a good sign for his fans. Those points earned could mean more should he encounter problems in Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega Superspeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC). Busch enters the race third in the standings, 48 points ahead of Joey Logano, who is the first driver outside a transfer spot.

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Friday 5: Friction grows between non-playoff drivers, playoff drivers

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It’s easy to miss one of the key themes to the Cup playoffs with so much talk about Martin Truex Jr.’s dominance, Kyle Busch’s inconsistency and Hendrick Motorsports advancing three cars to the second round.

What has been overlooked is the friction between playoff drivers and non-playoff drivers. 

NASCAR’s postseason is littered with cases where non-playoff drivers had an impact on playoff drivers, whether it was Scott Riggs’ crash on Lap 3 of the opening Chase race at New Hampshire in 2005 that collected title contender Kurt Busch or David Reutimann paying back title contender Kyle Busch at Kansas in 2010, among others.

But this year’s playoff races have seen the divide between the haves and have-nots reach a breaking point.

It was something Jimmie Johnson experienced at Las Vegas in his first postseason race as a non-playoff driver.

“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs made desperate moves out there,” Johnson said a few days after the Vegas race. “Saw it happen to other drivers. I had a few make that move on me as well. It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to, but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”

Austin Dillon has been on both sides. He made the playoffs the previous three years but failed to do so this year.

“It happens a lot,” Dillon said of playoff drivers taking advantage of non-playoff drivers. “There’s a line between taking that, as a guy that’s out of the playoffs, and there’s a line that you cross.”

Dillon admits “my button ended up pushed” at Richmond by Alex Bowman after Bowman dived underneath Dillon on a restart and came up the track, hitting Dillon’s car, sending it up the track into William Byron’s car. After being told by car owner Richard Childress and crew chief Danny Stockman to pay Bowman back, Dillon retaliated and spun Bowman.

“Yes, I’ve taken advantage of guys because I was in the playoffs,” Dillon said. “I know that feeling. I feel like at some point if you take too much, it will come back on you.”

Bowman didn’t have problems just with Dillon at Richmond. Bowman said he and Bubba Wallace had an issue in that race that led to Wallace flipping him the bird. Then on the first lap of last weekend’s race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval, Bowman lost control of his car entering the backstretch chicane and hit Wallace’s car, forcing Wallace to miss the chicane. Wallace later responded with a series of one finger salutes as they raced together. Tiring the signal, Bowman dumped Wallace.

It’s not just Bowman who has had problems. Kyle Busch was running in the top five, rallying from two laps down, when he ran into the back of Garrett Smithley’s car. Combined with an incident with Joey Gase, a frustrated Busch told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Smithley later responded on social media and Gase followed a day later.

To say that playoff drivers should have the right of the way on the track is shortsighted. The other drivers have something at stake. Ricky Stenhouse Jr., whose contact spun Martin Truex Jr. while Truex led at Richmond, is racing for a job. So is Daniel Hemric. No announcement has been made on Daniel Suarez’s status for next year at Stewart-Haas Racing, so he also could be racing for a job.

Those eliminated in the first round — Kurt Busch, Ryan Newman, Aric Almirola and Erik Jones — are racing to finish as high as fifth in the points.

And others are going after more modest goals. Chris Buescher, 20th in points, seeks to give JTG Daugherty Racing its best finish since 2015 (AJ Allmendinger placed 19th in points in 2016). Johnson seeks to refine the No. 48 team in these final weeks with new crew chief Cliff Daniels to become more of a factor and end his 88-race winless streak.

To have a playoff driver think they own the road is misguided. There’s much taking place on the track.

Whether playoff drivers want to play nice with non-playoff drivers is up to them and how they’ve been raced in the past. Of course, a playoff driver has more to lose than a non-playoff driver. So drivers will need to pick their battles wisely.

2. Hendrick’s round?

It’s easy to note Alex Bowman’s runner-up finishes earlier this year at Dover, Talladega and Kansas — all tracks in the second round of the playoffs — and forecast him advancing to the next round.

It’s just as easy to think Chase Elliott will have a smooth ride into the next round since he won at Talladega this year and scored wins at Dover and Kansas last year (with a different race package).

And if things go well, William Byron could find his way into next round.

Hendrick is building momentum. But what happened in the spring or last year doesn’t guarantee what will happen in the coming weeks, beginning with Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

It would be something if all three of Hendrick’s cars moved into the third round after the team’s slow start to the season: Bowman did not have a top 10 in the first nine races of the season, Byron had one top 10 in the first nine races and Elliott had two top 10s in the same period. And Jimmie Johnson, who is not in the playoffs? He had four top 10s in the first nine races.

Bowman and Byron enter the round outside a cutoff spot. Bowman trails Kyle Larson by one point for the final transfer spot. Byron is five points behind Larson.

3. Under the radar?

It’s hard to imagine someone scoring three consecutive top-five finishes — and five top fives in the last six races — being overshadowed but that seems to be the case with Brad Keselowski.

He has quietly collected consistent finishes at the front. The key will be to continue with mistake-free races or at least races with minimal mistakes. His 29 stage points scored in the opening round trailed only Martin Truex Jr., and Kevin Harvick, who each scored 36 stage points.

For what it’s worth, Keselowski won at Kansas earlier this season. That’s the cutoff race in this round.

4. Drivers to watch at Dover

Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott have led the most laps in nine of the last 10 Dover races. Harvick has led the most laps five times. Truex and Elliott have each done so twice. Kyle Larson led the most laps the other time.

Domination doesn’t necessarily equal wins. Only three of those times has the driver leading the most laps won the race. Harvick has done it twice. Truex the other time.

5. Milestone starts 

Sunday’s race marks the 500th career Cup start for Denny Hamlin.

Only two drivers have won in their 500th career Cup start. Richard Petty won at Trenton in July 1970 and Matt Kenseth won at New Hampshire in September 2013.

Kevin Harvick is making his 676th career Cup start. That equals Dale Earnhardt’s career total. Harvick made his Cup debut with Earnhardt’s team the week after Earnhardt was killed in a last-lap crash in the 2001 Daytona 500.

Updated entry lists for Dover playoff races

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Like a heavyweight championship fight, we’re ready for Round 2 of the NASCAR Cup playoffs.

After four of the 16 Cup playoff contenders were eliminated following the Roval race at Charlotte Motor Speedway, Sunday’s race at Dover International Speedway kicks off the Round of 12.

Meanwhile, the elimination race in the first round of the Xfinity Series playoffs will be held Saturday at Dover.

The Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off until Oct. 12 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for this weekend:

Cup – Drydene 400 (2:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN)

There are 38 cars entered.

Joe Nemechek will start his fourth race of the season in the No. 27 Premium Motorsports Chevrolet.

Garrett Smithley is listed for the No. 54 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

B.J. McLeod is back in the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Ford, while JJ Yeley is back in the No. 52 Rick Ware Racing Ford.

Chase Elliott won this race last year. Denny Hamlin finished second and Joey Logano was third. Martin Truex Jr. won there on May 6, followed by Alex Bowman and Kyle Larson.

Click here for the entry list.

Xfinity – Use Your Melon Drive Sober 200 (3 p.m. Saturday on NBCSN)

There are 38 cars entered.

Harrison Burton makes his sixth start of the season in the No. 18 Joe Gibbs Racing Toyota.

Bayley Currey makes his 10th start of the season, but just the second in the No. 38 Chevrolet for RSS Racing.

Stefan Parsons makes his fifth start of the season in the No. 99 B.J. McLeod Motorsports Toyota.

Mike Harmon listed on the preliminary entry list for the No. 74 Mike Harmon Racing Chevrolet.

Christopher Bell has won the last two Xfinity races at Dover. Cole Custer and Justin Allgaier finished second and third in last fall’s playoff race, while Allgaier and Tyler Reddick were second and third in this spring’s race at Dover.

Click here for the entry list.

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Kyle Busch touts support he’s received for comments at Las Vegas

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RICHMOND, Va. — Kyle Busch says he’s received support from fellow drivers, who told him “what I said is not wrong” about the ability of some competitors.

Busch was upset last weekend after running into the back of Garrett Smithley’s car and being impeded by Joey Gase in the Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

After the race, Busch told NBCSN: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Smithley responded on social media and Gase later responded on social media.

MORE: Kyle Busch’s comments address murky issue with no solution 

Busch was asked Friday at Richmond Raceway if he watched video of the incident with Smithley since last week and if his opinion changed.

“I did see video of last week,” Busch said. “It doesn’t matter what my opinion is. I get beat up on it anyway.”

Busch was encouraged by support he received.

“I’ve had multiple texts from other people that are race car drivers and non-race car drivers this week that have said what I said is not wrong, but there’s other general masses that say different,” Busch said.

Busch’s race at Las Vegas started poorly when he hit the wall in the opening laps and went down two laps. He explained what happened:

“We started out, we practiced our car and we were pretty decent in practice, but I felt like I was a tick tight, so we made some changes going into the race to free it up,” Busch said. “The first run at Vegas is always looser. And I guess I didn’t mentally prepare myself for that enough, and we were 10 numbers loose, like crashing loose.

“I got myself in trouble. I got myself into the fence. Was able to battle back from all of that throughout everything of the day and put ourselves in position for a solid finish and we just didn’t get it.”

Asked what he could have done differently, Busch said:

“I should have been prepared for it,” he said. “I actually prepared (crew chief Adam Stevens) for it, but I guess didn’t prepare myself for it. I was getting passed, guys were going by me and I was falling backwards and I was like I got to go here, I’ve got to move forward and pushed too hard.”

Busch recovered to get back on the lead lap and was running in the top five when he had the contact with Smithley. Busch finished 19th.

“For as bad as our day started, we were certainly able to make something of it and come back for a top-four run until close to the end,” Busch said when asked if his frustration hurts his performance. “People want to say because of my state of mind that’s the reason I ran into the back of a slow car, that’s funny people know how I think and what I am inside my helmet. I don’t think that had anything to do with it.”

Busch, the regular-season champion, qualified fourth for Saturday night’s Cup race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Friday 5: Kyle Busch’s comments address murky issue with no solution

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RICHMOND, Va. — The way to prevent the contact that happened last week between Kyle Busch and Garrett Smithley at Las Vegas Motor Speedway is simple.

Once the playoffs start, only playoff cars can race.

Of course, that will never happen — and should never happen.

But as long as more than half the field features non-playoff competitors, there will be times when those drivers play a role, despite their best intentions, of impacting a playoff driver’s race. It could happen again in Saturday night’s playoff race at Richmond Raceway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

While the focus since Sunday has been on Busch’s comments after the Las Vegas race, the response from Smithley and the rebuttal from Joey Gase, there is a bigger issue, which Smithley alluded to in an interview on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio earlier this week.

“People don’t understand the technology gap and the money gap that there is in the Cup series,” Smithley told Mojo Nixon on “Manifold Destiny.”

Smithley understands. His NASCAR career of 11 Cup races and 125 Xfinity starts all have been with underfunded teams.

Such teams have fewer resources and struggle to be competitive, all but forcing their drivers to seemingly spend as much time looking out the rearview mirror to stay out of the way as looking ahead through the windshield.

While NASCAR has a minimum speed for races, only one time this season, according to Cup race reports, has a car been ordered off the track because it was going too slow. That was the Spire Motorsports entry at Dover in May. Two months later, that team — one of 36 chartered teams — won the rain-shortened race at Daytona with a different driver.

Corey LaJoie noted on Twitter after the Las Vegas race how a team’s financial situation can impact its driver choice:

Justin Allgaier, preparing to compete in Friday’s Xfinity Series playoff opener, understands the plight of drivers with subpar equipment. Allgaier suffered through such circumstances when he raced in Cup.

“Kyle obviously had some pretty harsh words,” Allgaier said Thursday during the Xfinity Series playoff media day at Richmond Raceway. “I do understand sometimes there are times where lapped traffic does make a big difference in how the outcome goes. But on the flip side, I’ve been in that situation. You’re battling, really your livelihood, just to even keep a ride, and you’re doing everything you can and the last thing you want to do is mess somebody up.

“I thought that the situation we were in last week, personally I didn’t think anything could have been done differently as far as what Garrett did or what lane he ran. I thought he did everything right. He went in and picked a lane and stuck with it.”

Busch didn’t see it that way and ran into the back of Smithley. Busch then ignited a debate on social media when he told NBCSN after the race: “We’re at the top echelon of motorsports, and we’ve got guys who have never won Late Model races running on the racetrack. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. What else do you do?”

Busch’s question has no answer that will appease him because nothing will be done. It’s understandable if he’s sensitive to the issue. Last year at Phoenix, a caution with 18 laps to go by a driver making his first start in either Cup, Xfinity or Trucks in four years, bunched the field and took away Busch’s advantage. Busch pulled away on the restart to win.

“I understand the implications I could cause by messing somebody’s race up, and I’m going to do everything I can to not do that,” said Tanner Berryhill, the driver who was making his first NASCAR start in four years last season at Phoenix, before that event. “That’s not how I want to be remembered in this sport.”

Nobody does. The incident between Busch and Smithley likely will be soon forgotten. But there will come a day when a non-playoff driver is involved in a situation in the championship race that could determine who wins the title and who doesn’t. As long as NASCAR’s playoff races include non-playoff cars, the risk always will be there. It is up to NASCAR to ensure that those competing in those races are qualified to do so.

2. A new experience

Jimmie Johnson got his first taste as a non-playoff driver in a playoff race last weekend at Las Vegas and it was interesting.

One of the debates before and during the playoffs is how much those not racing for a title should race the playoff contenders. As the level of desperation increases in each round among playoff drivers, their patience with non-playoff drivers decreases.

So what was the seven-time champion’s experience like with the playoff drivers Sunday?

“I saw quite a few situations where drivers in the playoffs took some desperate moves out there,” he said earlier this week at Charlotte Motor Speedway after joining breast cancer survivors in painting pit wall pink. “I saw it happen to other drivers, I had a few make that move on me as well.

“It’s a tricky situation to be in, and I know they’re going after every point they need to but so am I. We certainly plan to not allow myself to be used up as I was in Vegas a couple of times.”

3. Game planning

A fascinating aspect of this year’s rules package is how crew chiefs set their cars, particularly at the big tracks. Stewart-Haas Racing focused on speed for its cars last weekend at Las Vegas and took the top four spots in qualifying. When it came to the race, Kevin Harvick’s car was the only SHR car to excel and finished second.

Joe Gibbs Racing, on the other hand, focused on downforce to make its cars better in the race. The result was that Martin Truex Jr. won after starting 24th.

Crew chief Cole Pearn and Martin Truex Jr. celebrate their Las Vegas win. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

That’s a trend for Truex. He has started eighth or worse in four of the five races he’s won this year. Truex qualified 13th at Dover but then started at the rear because of inspection failures, he qualified 14th in the Coca-Cola 600, started eighth at Sonoma and 24th at Las Vegas in his wins. The exception was when he started fifth at Richmond in his April victory.

Harvick’s team has taken a different approach. He qualified third at Las Vegas and finished second. He won from the pole at Indianapolis. He won at Michigan in August after starting second.

“That’s their MO, right?” crew chief Cole Pearn said after Truex’s win last weekend at Las Vegas of Harvick’s team. “They’re dragging the pipes, slamming the backs, just going for all that speed. It’s working for them. All the power to them.

I think for us, we’ve had a couple races where we’ve gone more that way and they haven’t been very good for us. I think everyone has their own take. I think you generally look at JGR as a whole, how well we’ve qualified this year, I think we got one pole, 14 wins.  That’s the variance in the strategy.”

4. Reading time

Denny Hamlin and Noah Gragson have spent time on a new endeavor recently. They’re both reading books to help make them better.

Hamlin and others have cited personal growth as contributing to his turnaround this season after going winless last year, the first time he had failed to win while competing full-time in Cup.

“It’s definitely fact that I am calmer and more confident because I have learned to let go of the things that I can’t control,” Hamlin said. “A lot of that has come through self-improvement. I have done a lot of reading, which I wouldn’t consider myself a reader. I didn’t read a book, I guarantee you, from whenever I had to in high school till I turned 38 this year.

“I just started reading over the last three or four months. I started learning and trying to be a better person in general. I have learned to really let go of things I can’t control. It has really allowed me to think about the process more. I think it really has helped with my on-track performances. Thinking through the processes more and not focusing on and worrying about the things that I specifically can’t control.”

Gragson said that he’s reading a book “25 Ways to Win With People” to be a better team leader.

“That’s what I need to be for this race team,” Gragson said. “It’s really easy to be happy and smiling when things are going good, but I feel like your character comes out when maybe things aren’t going as well as you would want. I’m trying to lean on people who I call my mentors … reading that book and just trying to be better and more positive.”

Gragson said he got the book from former driver Josh Wise, who trains drivers with Chip Ganassi Racing, JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

“I’ve been leaning on him,” Gragson said of Wise. “He helps me with overall thinking. He was the first person I went to when I felt like we were going through maybe a valley that our communication was off as a team, I was kind of struggling with my confidence and where we were. Leaning on him really helped me. The takeaways (from the book) have been very valuable and it helps me with everyday life, too. I’m willing to try it and it’s been helping so far.”

5. Who is next

Richmond marks the fifth short track race of the season. Consider what the first four races have seen:

Four different winners (Brad Keselowski at Martinsville, Kyle Busch at Bristol, Martin Truex Jr. at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).

Four different pole winners (Joey Logano at Martinsville, Chase Elliott at Bristol, Kevin Harvick at Richmond and Denny Hamlin at the Bristol night race).

Four different drivers finished second (Chase Elliott at Martinsville, Kurt Busch at Bristol, Joey Logano at Richmond and Matt DiBenedetto at the Bristol night race).

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