justin haley

Friday 5: Is time running out for Cup playoff hopefuls?

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While the Cup playoff field won’t be set for another four months, there is a shrinking window for those not already in the top 16 in points as the series heads this weekend to Dover International Speedway.

Since 2017 — when stage racing and stage points were added — 84.3 percent of the drivers who were in a playoff spot after 10 races made the playoffs that year.

Take out those who already had wins to be playoff eligible at this point in the season and 81.8 percent of the remaining drivers in a playoff spot after 10 races made it to NASCAR’s postseason the previous two years.

That’s good news for the drivers in the top 16 in points now. Last weekend’s race at Talladega Superspeedway was the 10th of the Cup season.

What’s also telling is that 13 of last year’s 16 playoff drivers are in the top 16 at this point in the season. That’s despite rule changes intended to make the racing tighter and possibly give more drivers chances for better finishes or wins.

The three drivers in a playoff spot this year who were not in that position at this time last year are Chase Elliott (seventh in points this season), Daniel Suarez (12th) and Austin Dillon (14th). They replace Kyle Larson, Erik Jones and Ricky Stenhouse Jr., who were all in a playoff spot at this time last year.

So far, those who have earned a playoff spot with a win this season (provided they start every race) are Denny Hamlin, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Brad Keselowski, Martin Truex Jr. and Elliott.

With NASCAR’s system of win and you’re in the playoffs, anything can happen. A fuel-mileage race can create a surprise winner or a pit gamble can help someone score an unexpected victory. Maybe a rain-shortened race leads to a new winner.

But it doesn’t always work that way. Last season, no driver outside a playoff spot won any of the final 16 regular-season races.

In 2017, two drivers outside playoff spots won in the final 16 regular-season races to make the postseason. Dillon was 22nd in points entering the Coca-Cola 600 and won that race on a fuel-mileage gamble. Kasey Kahne was 22nd in points later that season entering the Brickyard 400. He won that race in the second overtime.

The question becomes how much will those not in a playoff spot now gamble to score a win and secure a spot instead of having to rely on points to make it? This will be worth watching in the coming weeks.

2. A year later

Talladega winner Chase Elliott has made the biggest jump in the standings compared to where he was after 10 races last year.

A year ago, Elliott was 18th. He is seventh this year, moving up 11 spots. Other big gainers among the top 30 from last year are: Daniel Suarez (up nine spots to 12th this year), Ty Dillon (up five spots to 22nd), Denny Hamlin (up four spots to third) and Austin Dillon (up three spots to 14th).

Those who have fallen the most this year from this point last season: Kyle Larson (dropped 11 spots to 21st), Clint Bowyer (down six spots to 10th this year), Bubba Wallace (down six spots to 28th this year), Erik Jones (down five spots to 18th this season) and Ricky Stenhouse Jr. (down five spots to 20th this season).

3. Familiar ground

It has been nearly two years since Jimmie Johnson last won a Cup race, but he’s back this weekend at Dover International Speedway, the site of his most recent victory.

Jimmie Johnson winning at Dover in 2017. (Photo by Sean Gardner/Getty Images)

Johnson won his 83rd career Cup race June 4, 2017, at Dover to tie him with Cale Yarborough for sixth on the career victory list. That win was Johnson’s 11th at Dover, most of any driver.

In the 69 races since, Johnson has four top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes. He’s led 149 laps during that time. His best finish since that last win is third. He placed third at the fall Dover race in 2017 and third at the spring Bristol race last year. His best finish this season is fifth at Texas. He has four top-10 finishes in the first 10 races of this year.

“The first couple of downforce races we were not where we needed to be,” Johnson said of this season. “I think we’ve kind of rallied back and put some speed in our cars and are going the right way. Based on performance, I would say we are at a ‘C’ but I know the distance we’ve made up here recently.

“If there’s an effort score, I want to score my team really high because we’re working really hard to get there. But at the end of the day, the results are results and we know we’ve got to get better. I feel like we’re headed into ‘B’ territory right now.”

4. Tight rookie battle 

In the Xfinity Series, the rookie race features a tie for first. John Hunter Nemechek and Chase Briscoe are tied for first with 295 points each. Noah Gragson is third with 284 points. Justin Haley is next with 273 points. Brandon Brown completes the top five with 180 points.

5. All for some popcorn?

According to LehighValleyLive.com, two eighth graders have been accused of arson after lighting an abandoned building at Nazareth Speedway on fire last weekend.

Nazareth Speedway hosted what is now the Xfinity Series from 1988-2004 but has sat abandoned since. Martin Truex Jr. won the last NASCAR race there.

Police said that the boys, one age 14 and the other 15, showed up on Snapchat recorded by one of the boys at the scene as the fire burned. According to police, the story says that before the fire, one of the boys stole lighter fluid, a lighter and Jiffy Pop popcorn from a nearby supermarket. According to police, the boys attempted to heat the Jiffy Pop from the fire.

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Two late-race wrecks at Talladega; Kyle Larson flips several times

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Chris Buescher, Martin Truex Jr., Matt DiBenedetto and Justin Haley were involved in a late-race wreck with seven laps remaining in Sunday’s GEICO 500 at Talladega Superspeedway.

Shortly after exiting Turn 2, Buescher appeared to be turned into the backstretch wall by Aric Almirola. DiBenedetto was trailing and had nowhere to go, running into Buescher’s car.

“We just got turned,” Buescher told Fox Sports. “We had a good driving car and put ourselves in a good position there with a handful of laps to go.

“We just turned right, got hit and turned right into the fence, destroyed our race and several race cars. Its typical of these racetracks. It gets frustrating every time you come to these places and something like this throughout the race. It’s just not very much fun.”

DiBenedetto’s car caught fire, but he was able to escape unscathed.

Truex and Haley, making his first career Cup start, also were caught up in the resulting aftermath.

The race was briefly stopped under a red flag for track cleanup.

Heading into the final lap, Ricky Stenhouse Jr. wrecked in a single-car incident, followed by a heavy crash that involved Kyle Larson, whose car flipped several times before landing upright, as well as David Ragan, Jeffrey Earnhardt and William Byron.

“Initially I thought I was going to hit the inside wall and right before I got there, it started to lift,” Larson told Fox Sports. “That was probably the longest flip I’ve ever had. I just didn’t know if it would ever stop.

“I knew I was flipping and was just hoping I wouldn’t get any closer to the catchfence. It was a little bit scary, but I’m all right. Thanks to the fab shop at Chip Ganassi Racing for building safe race cars. Like I said, it was scary, but I’m just thankful I’m OK.”

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Sieg, Chastain fastest in two Xfinity practices at Talladega

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Ryan Sieg was fastest in Friday’s second and final Xfinity Series practice at Talladega Superspeedway.

Sieg recorded a speed of 187.824 mph, followed by Ross Chastain (187.108 mph), who was fastest in the first practice earlier in the day.

Third through fifth fastest were John Hunter Nemechek (184.754), Josh Williams (184.726) and Timmy Hill (184.324).

Only 13 drivers took to the track for the session. As was the case in the first practice, Chevrolet dominated the second practice with eight Camaros in the top 10.

Qualifying and the MoneyLion 300 race will take place Saturday.

Click here for the full second practice speed chart.

In Friday’s first practice:

Ross Chastain was fastest in the first Xfinity practice session Friday.

Chastain, driving the No. 10 Chevrolet, was the only driver to turn a lap over 193 mph around the 2.66-mile superspeedway, at 193.779 mph.

In addition to Chastain, four of the next five fastest cars were also Chevrolets: Noah Gragson was second (192.874 mph), Justin Haley was fourth (192.820), Justin Allgaier was fifth (192.451) and Tyler Reddick was sixth (192.235).

The only non-Chevy driver in the top 6 was Ford pilot Chase Briscoe, who was third-fastest at 192.823 mph.

Toyotas struggled for speed, with 12th-ranked Timmy Hill the fastest at 191.172 mph.

Thirty-five cars took to the track for the session.

Click here for the full first practice speed chart.

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The No. 1 pick in the (fictional) NASCAR draft is….

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The eyes of the sports world will be on Nashville, Tennessee, this weekend with the annual NFL Draft, with the first round getting underway Thursday night at 8 p.m. ET.

You can follow all of NBC Sports’ and Rotoworld’s draft coverage here.

With the draft in mind, the NASCAR on NBC writing staff has taken it upon ourselves to hold our own draft of NASCAR talent.

Each writer received five picks to put together a team. The parameters: Pick four active Cup drivers and one non-Cup driver for development.

Now, after months weeks a few days (hours?) of intense research and scouting combined with the knowledge of covering the sport for a living, here are the draft results. Let the second-guessing begin:

Round 1

Dustin LongKyle Busch: He’s won 16 of the last 61 Cup races and doesn’t turn 34 until May. Who else are you going to select when you have the No 1 pick?

Daniel McFadinJoey Logano: Basically Kyle Busch lite. The defending Cup champion, he’s in the midst of or on the verge of his prime at the age of 28. He’s good pretty much everywhere and a threat every week barring something unfortunate.

Nate RyanBrad Keselowski: As talented as the Team Penske driver is on the track, he is nearly as valuable in the shop as a leader who constantly pushes his teams conceptually.

Jerry BonkowskiKevin Harvick: While he’s struggled to reach victory lane this season, when it comes to clutch performances in his career, Harvick didn’t earn the nickname “The Closer” for nothing. Once he finally hits victory lane this season, look for many more visits to come.

 

Round 2

Jerry BonkowskiJimmie Johnson: How can any draft not include a guy who is tied for the most career Cup championships with NASCAR legends Richard Petty and the late Dale Earnhardt? While he hasn’t won in his last 68 starts, many more wins are still to come.

Nate RyanChase Elliott. Along with his championship-caliber ability, there is big sponsor upside for a star who virtually is guaranteed to be NASCAR’s Most Popular Driver as long as he is behind the wheel in Cup.

Daniel McFadinKurt Busch. Every four-car team needs a grizzled veteran. He’d be instrumental in getting the team’s equipment fine-tuned.

Dustin LongRyan Blaney: His time is coming. The 25-year-old should be a force in this sport for many years.

 

Round 3 

Dustin LongChristopher Bell: Strong Xfinity career has expectations high for when he gets to Cup.

Daniel McFadinRoss Chastain: A driver’s driver. He’s proven he can get in top equipment and be good right off the bat.

Nate RyanDenny Hamlin. He is nearing the prime age for a NASCAR driver and is beyond motivated to win his first Cup championship to cement an already Hall of Fame career.

Jerry BonkowskiMartin Truex Jr.: Finally broke through with his first career short track win at Richmond. While there have been some growing pains since joining Joe Gibbs Racing this season, he’s on track to still be one of the favorites for this year’s championship.

 

Round 4

Jerry BonkowskiTyler Reddick: Much like Christopher Bell, how much longer can Reddick be held back like a student in grade school? He needs to be in the Cup series in 2020. The problem is NASCAR’s numbers game. Who picks him? Who has room? RCR? RPM? CGR? RFR?

Nate RyanKyle Larson. His stock has dropped slightly in a tough start to the 2019 season (perhaps related to adapting to the new rules), but his potential remains limitless.

Daniel McFadinErik Jones: Often seems like the forgotten member of the “Youth Movement,” but has lots of talent that’s waiting to get on a consistent winning run.

Dustin LongClint Bowyer: Can still wheel it and will make this a fun team!

 

Round 5

Dustin LongChris Buescher: Keeping with the unintended theme of every driver’s last name starting with B, I present Mr. Buescher, a former Xfinity champ who is showing what he can do.

Daniel McFadinBrett Moffitt: He’s young, he’s a veteran and he took a Truck Series team without top equipment and won a NASCAR title. But really, it’s the mustache.

Nate RyanJustin Haley. Proven winner in ARCA and Trucks. Showed at Daytona last July that he can win in Xfinity as well while mixing it up with Cup veterans.

Jerry BonkowskiRyan Newman: The “Rocket Man” is off to a good start with his new home, Roush Fenway Racing, particularly in his last two starts, both ninth-place finishes. I’m looking for even bigger and better things going forward, including at least one win this season (which would be his first win since 2017 and only his second win since 2013).

Entry lists for NASCAR at Talladega

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This weekend will mark the first time Talladega Superspeedway will hold a NASCAR Cup race without restrictor plates in more than 30 years.

Instead of restrictor plates, NASCAR requires Cup teams to use tapered spacers to limit the engine’s horsepower. 

Both the Cup and Xfinity Series will be in action this weekend at the 2.66-mile track. The Truck Series does not race again until May 3 at Dover International Speedway.

Here are the preliminary entry lists for each race:

Cup – GEICO 500 (2 p.m. ET Sunday on Fox)

There will be a full 40-car field in Sunday’s main event.

Cody Ware will once again be back in the No. 51 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet.

Stanton Barrett will make only his second Cup start since 2008 in the No. 52 Rick Ware Racing Chevrolet. He finished last in the 2018 Cup playoff race on the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway.

Justin Haley will make his NASCAR Cup debut in the No. 77 Spire Motorsports Chevrolet.

Jeffrey Earnhardt will be in the No. 81 Xtreme Concepts Inc. (XCI) Racing Toyota. It will be the first Cup race for XCI.

NASCAR on NBC analyst Parker Kligerman will be in the No. 96 Gaunt Brothers Racing Toyota.

Joey Logano won this race last year, leading 70 of 188 laps and beating Kurt Busch and Chase Elliott. Aric Almirola won last fall’s playoff race at Talladega, beating Clint Bowyer and Ricky Stenhouse Jr.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

Xfinity – Money Lion 300 (1 p.m. ET Saturday on Fox Sports 1)

There are 37 cars entered.

B.J. McLeod will be in the No. 15 Chevrolet for JD Motorsports.

Brett Moffitt will make his third career Xfinity start – and first since 2017. He’ll be in the No. 8 JR Motorsports Chevrolet.

Chris Cockrum will make his second Xfinity start of the season in the No. 17 Chevrolet for Rick Ware Racing.

Jeffrey Earnhardt will make his fourth Xfinity start of the season – and his third for Joe Gibbs Racing – in the No. 18 Toyota.

Max Tullman will make his fifth career Xfinity start – and second of the season – in the No. 42 Motorsports Business Management Toyota.

Brandon Brown returns to the No. 86 Brandonbilt Motorsports after competing for RSS Racing at Richmond.

Canadian driver Alex Labbe will make his third start of the Xfinity season in the No. 90 DGM Racing Chevrolet.

There is no driver listed yet in the No. 99 B.J. McLeod Racing Toyota.

Spencer Gallagher won this race last year, leading just one lap. Brandon Jones was second and Justin Allgaier was third.

Click here for the preliminary entry list.

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