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Friday 5: Pressure builds for teams heading into Coca-Cola 600

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After all the fun and games of the All-Star Race, the focus returns this weekend to points and playoff spots.

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 marks the halfway point in the 26-race regular season. With only six winners this season, there’s the chance that a number of playoff spots could be claimed by points.

That increases the pressure on those fighting for those positions.

Jimmie Johnson enters the weekend 16th in the points, the final transfer spot to the playoffs. He leads Ryan Newman by eight points, Austin Dillon by 11 and Coca-Cola 600 pole-sitter William Byron by 15.

Ryan Newman is eight points out of a playoff spot. (Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

“The biggest thing is we need to get to victory lane,” Newman said after qualifying 18th Thursday at Charlotte Motor Speedway. “If you don’t get to victory lane, you don’t really have a chance.

“You’ve got to be a winner going into the last 10. Just pointing your way in doesn’t entertain me. If we do, great, and we come into a streak and progress in the last 10 (races), then even better. I really want to have that win and that momentum going into those last 10.”

Newman finished second for the championship in 2014 despite going winless that season. Since then, every driver racing for the championship in Miami has had at least one win that season. 

Some teams already are feeling that playoff pressure.

“It’s been a grind now for a couple of weeks for us,” said Dillon, the 2017 Coca-Cola 600 champion. “Hopefully, we can get a win, but it’s going to come down to points.

“I’ve been scratching and clawing every week. That’s where you hear some frustration from because you just want all you can get. When it comes down to it – and that last race happens – you’re going to want as many points as possible on your side.”

2. A fresh outlook 

Kyle Larson has been hitting the gym this season and working with Josh Wise, marking a new routine for the Chip Ganassi Racing driver.

Wise, a former driver, now serves as the driver performance manager for Ganassi and for some of the younger drivers driving for JR Motorsports and GMS Racing.

Larson, who won last weekend’s All-Star Race, admits he’s not been one for workouts that much before this season.

“(Josh) would always still send information to me on pre-race stuff and things like that and I didn’t take it as serious as I needed to,” said Larson, who will start Sunday’s race 25th. “I kind of felt guilty about that. This year I’ve gotten into a good routine where I drop (son) Owen off at school and then I go to the shop and I work out.

“I think before it was hard for me to find that routine to get the motivation to do it. This year I feel like I’ve gotten that routine. It’s made it a lot easier and I’ve actually enjoyed it and noticed a little bit of a difference. I think just the way our sport has gone, more drivers are working out. You don’t want somebody to get an advantage or an edge on you. I feel like I’m just more prepared and confident now going to the track.”

3. Who is No. 1?

Joe Gibbs Racing has won the most races this season (seven). Team Penske won the most recent points race (Brad Keselowski at Kansas).

So which one is the strongest?

It might be another team.

I honestly feel right now the Hendrick cars are the best cars,” Keselowski said Thursday. “I feel like they really came on strong over the last two or three weeks and had some nice updates to their stuff, so I would expect them to be the ones to beat this weekend.”

He said that before Hendrick’s William Byron won the pole for the 600.

Kyle Busch also sees a difference in Hendrick Motorsports.

I think Hendrick has certainly found some speed,” he said. “They’re certainly getting better. They’re waking up. They’ve come to play a bit more lately.

“As far as the (Team) Penske group goes, they don’t really qualify well but they always race well. Then you look at the (Stewart-Haas Racing) cars and they qualify well and they’ll race well typically. It seems like the SHR cars are trimmed out a little bit more than some of the rest of us. They get more speed out of their cars but maybe they don’t have it for the long haul. Where it seems like the (Joe Gibbs Racing) cars are kind of a compromise.

“We might not qualify on the pole or be the best in qualifying, but we’ll race well. I wouldn’t call it middle of the road, but I feel like we’re in a position to win each week.”

4. More blocking?

In the most recent points race (at Kansas), Erik Jones upset Clint Bowyer with a block on the last lap. It was a big move from Jones who came down the track to block Bowyer and then moved up as Bowyer tried to go on the outside. That it was the last lap made it easier to understand Jones’ move.

Still, as the battles intensify, especially during restarts, more blocks are to be thrown. Did Jones’ block show others that they can be bolder in keeping a competitor behind?

“I didn’t even think twice about it when I saw it from my perspective,” Denny Hamlin said. “The person who gets blocked always makes it a bigger deal than what it really is. I think the other competitors probably don’t think anything about it to be honest with you.

“We all throw blocks at certain times and sometimes they’re not as dramatic. Sometimes … somebody would come up on you and you would just choose to run their lane and block them that way. It’s a less dramatic way of doing it but certainly one where you cut from high lane to low lane or whatever it might be, you are counting on the person either checking up or you are counting on them to lose enough air that they’re going to lose their car. That’s the whole reason you do it in the first place.”

Ricky Stenhouse Jr. described Jones’ block as “normal.”

“You can get mad about it, but we all do it, so you can’t get mad at somebody just because they do it to you. We throw blocks on each other all the time.

“Kyle Busch threw a block on me. I told (the spotter), ‘Hey, make sure he knows that later on in the race I’m not going to lift and he might end up in the fence.’ That’s just part of this package. The better track position you can keep yourself in, the better the car drives. … Obviously, at the end of the race, I think anything goes.”

5. An Olympian effort

Sunday’s Coca-Cola 600 will be the first for rookie Daniel Hemric.

He’ll rely on some training he got a few years ago from Olympic speed skating champion Dan Jansen.

In 2016, Hemric and Tyler Reddick were teammates at Brad Keselowski Racing in the Truck Series. Keselowski heard Jansen tell his story of overcoming defeat to win gold in his fourth Olympics.

Jansen entered his second Olympics as the favorite in the 500- and 1,000-meter races in the 1988 Games at Calgary. His sister died of leukemia hours before his 500-meter race. Jansen fell in that race. He later fell with a lap to go in the 1,000-meter race.

He failed to medal in the 1992 Games in Albertville and finally won gold in 1994 in Lillehammer in the 1,000-meter race.

After hearing Jansen speak, Keselowski approached the former Olympic champion.

“We just asked each other questions,” Keselowski said. “What did you do for this, how did you handle that? Different athletes compare notes. Some of that crosses over. A lot of it doesn’t, that’s OK. The crossover there I thought was very interesting. I wanted to apply it to our team. What he said made a lot of sense, and I thought it was something we were missing.”

Hemric had the chance to train with Jansen.

“We would do a really hard workout and get our heart rate extremely high, up in the 190s, 200 range, if not more, and have to get off that and do some hand-eye coordination stuff,” Hemric said. “Then as soon as that’s over, your heart rate is as high as it can be and you’re breathing heavy, closing your eyes and think about qualifying a lap, think about a green-white-checkered restart, putting yourself in those moments, thinking about what you would do and how you would do it. Being able to bring your heart rate down in those moments, seeing your heart, imagine seeing your heart slow down, all those things to get your body calm.”

Those are lessons Hemric continues to practice and says will help him in his first Coca-Cola 600.

“A lot of times in our sport it gets focused solely on the physical endurance part of it,” Hemric said. “The mental side in my opinion is going to be the most crucial. When you talk to other guys that have ran this race for the first time they’ve always said that when the first thing goes and they get tired, it’s their mind.

“That’s a long time to keep yourself mentally in the game. I’ve always kind of trained and had my own mental things that I do to visualize and think about those moments late in the race. It’s something I’ve had a lot of success with in the past. I’ve got to credit Dan Jansen. I’ve kept a lot of those methods in my training regimen and a lot of that was mental.”

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Bump & Run: Was Clint Bowyer justified to be upset with Erik Jones at Kansas?

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Was Clint Bowyer justified to be angry with Erik Jones for blocking on the last lap at Kansas, or did Jones have a point that the current style of 1.5-mile racing demands such moves?

Nate Ryan: Both drivers could make legitimate cases for their actions. Bowyer absolutely cut Jones a break by backing off on the last lap and giving up a shot at finishing second, which had to be hard to swallow at the home-state track where the Stewart-Haas Racing driver is so desperate to win. But Jones’ point on the aggressive and risky moves required by the drafting package also is well taken. As Cup drivers adapt their racecraft to this style, and if there are more races similar to Kansas, it’s likely there will be more instances such as these. That could be good for rivalry-building in NASCAR but frustrating for those behind the wheel.

Dustin Long: Welcome to racing with this rules package. If there are more late-race cautions, expect more extreme maneuvers and blocking. Bowyer had every right to be upset, but Jones had every right to defend his position. Until NASCAR starts penalizing drivers for blocking, expect these types of moves to continue.

Daniel McFadin: It was the last lap of an overtime finish. I expect a driver to do whatever they can to advance their position or protect their position in that instance. Bowyer has every right to be annoyed, but that’s racing. 

Jerry Bonkowski: I understand both drivers’ arguments. Bowyer has never won at his home Cup track and was pressing for a top-three finish. Jones, who has struggled at times, was looking for his best finish of the season (and wound up tying it). This is yet another example why NASCAR should implement rules against blatant blocking.

 

There have been six different winners as the Cup Series nears the halfway point in the regular season. How many drivers will qualify for the playoffs via wins when the regular season ends?

Nate Ryan: There will be 10 and here are my four predictions of those winners: Kevin Harvick, Clint Bowyer, Kyle Larson and Erik Jones.

Dustin Long: Ten drivers will make the playoffs via wins.

Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with 11 drivers qualifying via wins.

Jerry Bonkowski: Given that there are 14 more races left in the regular season, I believe we’ll see four or five more different winners. In addition, several of the frontrunners to date may go into slumps themselves, which could further shake things up (much like Kyle Busch finished 30th at Kansas after 11 consecutive top-10 finishes). 

 

Is Brad Keselowski right that many wins are coming soon for Alex Bowman, or did the way the No. 88 driver lost at Kansas underscore that Bowman still needs more improvement?

Nate Ryan: Three consecutive runner-up finishes show that Bowman and his team are consistently putting themselves in position to win, but the Hendrick Motorsports driver rightfully was beating himself up after Kansas. Beyond being able to register fast laps with a good car, managing restarts and traffic are essential to being a winner in NASCAR’s premier series. Bowman struggled with both Saturday: losing the lead to teammate Chase Elliott on a Lap 229 restart and then losing the race to Keselowski by misjudging a lapped car on Lap 261. That makes it harder to declare he’s on the verge of a breakthrough.

Dustin Long: Bowman’s recent run has been impressive but he needs improvement — as many drivers who have limited experience running at the front. 

Daniel McFadin: At this point it feels inevitable that Bowman will steal a win somewhere (possibly Pocono). But Bowman does need more experience when it comes to leading in Cup. His 63 laps led were his most in a race since he led 194 at Phoenix in 2016 when he was a substitute driver for Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Jerry Bonkowski: I agree with Keselowski that Bowman will win — and soon. Some may say his Talladega runner-up was a fluke, but there’s no denying he drove his butt off for second-place showings at Dover and Kansas. But Bowman still needs improvement; he learned a valuable lesson in the way he was snookered by Keselowski at Kansas. It’s a lesson he likely won’t forget any time soon.

Alex Bowman leads Hendrick with second consecutive runner-up finish

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While Martin Truex Jr. got the accolades and the trophy after he started from the rear and won Monday’s Cup race at Dover, Alex Bowman wasn’t any slouch.

Like Truex, Bowman started the 400-lap race from the rear due to inspection violations. But he quickly established his No. 88 Chevrolet had competitive speed and drove to his second consecutive runner-up finish.

“It would be better if we had a trophy, right?” Bowman told Fox Sports 1. “We needed this, for sure. Talladega is a speedway, it’s a lot of luck involved. To come here to, in my opinion, the hardest racetrack we go to, run like that from the back of all things, was pretty special.”

Bowman, who finished second to Chase Elliott at Talladega, put on arguably the most impressive performance of his Cup career, which reached start No. 127 Monday.

By Lap 20 Bowman was in the top 20. With 30 laps left in the first stage he was in 10th. He cracked the top five with six laps left in the stage before finishing seventh in a one-lap shootout.

He entered the top three on Lap 176 and after a series of green flag pit stops passed Elliott for the lead on Lap 224.

Bowman would spend the next 16 laps trying to fend off Elliott, then Kevin Harvick and finally Truex.

On the last lap of the second stage, Bowman washed up the track in Turn 2 allowing Truex to assume the lead.

Bowman never led again.

“We were in Martin’s way,” Bowman told Fox Sports 1 after the race. “I wish I was in his way at the end of the race. We at least had a shot at it. That’s really all you can ask for.”

Before last weekend’s Talladega race, Bowman had never finished better than third in his Cup career. Now he has two runner-up finishes after not having any top 10s through the first nine races of the season.

“So proud of (crew chief) Greg Ives, everybody on this 88 team,” Bowman said.  “We had a miserable start to the season.  We did a really good job resetting over the off week.  We’ve come out strong since then.

“Just proud of everybody at Hendrick Motorsports for all the improvement we’ve made over the last year or so. We’re going to keep it going.”

Bowman led a solid day for Hendrick Motorsports which saw its fortunes start to turn around with Elliott’s win at Talladega.

Elliott started from the pole and led a career-high 145 laps, but the majority of that came in the first two stages. His fifth-place finish is his sixth top five at Dover in seven starts.

“We just fell off there at the end of that second stage,” Elliott said.  “That was the time of the race that we needed to be controlling it and not falling back. Just a bad time to have a bad half of a run and that is kind of what happened. So, we were fast, just not fast enough when it really mattered.”

William Byron logged his best finish at Dover, bringing his No. 24 Chevrolet home in eighth after he started on the front row with Elliott. He has two top 10s this season.

“We had the strategy deal where we took two tires and got some stage points,” Byron said. “Then we had to start at the back, and ultimately we were clawing our way back the whole race. We finished behind (Joey Logano), and we both started in the back, which was unfortunate. The guys brought a really fast car that was a lot of fun.”

The race marks the first time three Hendrick cars have finished in the top 10 since the Charlotte Roval last year (18 races).

Cup race at Dover postponed until Monday at noon ET

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NASCAR announced the Cup race has been postponed until noon ET Monday after rain kept the race from beginning. The race will air on Fox Sports 1 and carried by Motor Racing Network on the radio. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will have MRN’s broadcast.

The green flag for Sunday’s Cup race was scheduled to wave at 4:01 p.m. ET, nearly two hours after the scheduled start, but rain began to fall as the cars were on the track for the pace laps. NASCAR brought the cars back down to pit road at 4:07 p.m. ET.

Chase Elliott will start on the pole and be joined by Hendrick Motorsports teammate William Byron.

Four cars will start at the rear of the field for failing inspection Sunday morning.

The wunderground.com forecast for Monday calls for partly cloudy skies with a high of 66 degrees and a 15 percent chance of rain.

 

Sunday’s Cup race at Dover: Start time, lineup and more

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Speeds are up at Dover International Speedway this weekend and that has drivers talking. With Hendrick Motorsports taking the front row with Chase Elliott and William Byron, can Hendrick win its second race in a row? Or will Joe Gibbs Racing and Team Penske continue their domination this season? Or will there be a new winner?

Here’s all the info you need for today’s event:

(All times are Eastern)

START: The command to start engines will be given at 2:02 p.m. The green flag is scheduled for 2:10 p.m.

PRERACE: The drivers meeting is at noon. Driver introductions will begin at 1:20 p.m. The invocation will be given by Dan Schafer, Pastor of Calvary Assembly of God in Heightstown, New Jersey. John Rich from the country music band Big & Rich will perform the National Anthem at 1:54 p.m.

DISTANCE: The race is 400 laps (400 miles) around the 1-mile track.

STAGES: Stage 1 ends on Lap 120. Stage 2 ends on Lap 240.

TV/RADIO: Fox Sports 1 will broadcast the race with coverage beginning at noon NASCAR RaceDay. Motor Racing Network will broadcast the race. MRN’s coverage begins at 1 p.m. SiriusXM NASCAR Radio will carry MRN’s broadcast, which is also available at mrn.com.

FORECAST: wunderground.com calls for a high of 59 degrees and a 64 percent chance of rain for the start of the race.

LAST TIME: Chase Elliott won the October playoff race, finishing ahead of Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano. Kevin Harvick won the race there last May, finishing ahead of Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez

STARTING LINEUP: Click here for lineup