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Bent fenders, first-time winners define start of NBC’s NASCAR schedule

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We’re four races into NBC Sports’ portion of the NASCAR schedule and actor Michael Rooker was right about one thing: things have gotten real.

There have been four Cup races shown on NBC networks and each has delivered a finish – or lightning strike – worth talking about.

Each race has been won by a different driver who also was making their first trip to victory lane this year. Two earned their first career Cup wins.

Here’s a look at the how the second half of the season has unfolded.

June 30, 2019 – Chicagoland Speedway

Alex Bowman finally punched his ticket to victory lane in the Cup Series.

It took 134 series starts, three consecutive runner-up finishes earlier in the year and a lengthy rain delay to begin the race day.

Racing under the lights, Bowman dueled with Kyle Larson over the last eight laps, with the two drivers making contact with six laps to go as Bowman drafted off the left side of Larson’s car.

After he took the checkered flag, Bowman’s victory lane visit was delayed even further when his No. 88 Chevrolet got stuck in the rain-soaked infield.

“I’m the dumb guy that won the race and then got stuck in the mud,” Bowman told NBCSN.

July 7 – Daytona International Speedway

Though there wasn’t a dramatic on-track finish to the final scheduled July Cup race at Daytona, there was a surprise winner.

Justin Haley had to wait a significantly shorter amount of time than Bowman to get his first Cup win, celebrating his in 131 fewer races.

Following a massive crash with 43 laps to go, leader Kurt Busch and a group of other teams elected to pit when NASCAR said they would go back to green in one lap.

Then lightning struck within eight miles of the track.

The field was brought to pit road with 33 laps to go and Haley scored as the leader in Spire Motorsports’ No. 77 Chevrolet, a team and car in their first year of existence.

The race never resumed as NASCAR eventually called the race official.

“I never even saw myself running a Cup race until I got a call a few months ago to do Talladega,” Haley told NBCSN. “It’s just unreal. I don’t know how to feel.”

While Busch had been on the “wrong side of a lightning bolt” he wouldn’t have to wait long for his own celebration.

July 13 – Kentucky Speedway

“Hell yeah! Hell yeah!” bellowed Kurt Busch on the start-finish line after the Quaker State 400.

The Chip Ganassi Racing driver had plenty of reasons to be excited.

He’d just triumphed in an overtime finish over his little brother Kyle Busch.

It was the first time Kurt Busch had won in a 1-2 Cup finish against Kyle.

The elder Busch survived making contact with his brother twice on the final lap, including as they exited Turn 4 in the race to the checkered flag.

The victory was Kurt Busch’s first since joining CGR in December and also was the first career win for crew chief Matt McCall in 164 starts. The victory snapped a 64-race winless streak for Ganassi stretching back to the 2017 regular-season finale at Richmond.

July 21 – New Hampshire Motor Speedway

Kevin Harvick is the latest driver to end a lengthy winless streak with dramatic flair.

Sunday saw the Stewart-Haas Racing driver end a 21-race drought after he held off Denny Hamlin over the final 35 laps while racing on older tires.

After Hamlin and other drivers pitted under the final caution, Harvick and two other cars stayed out.

Hamlin wasn’t able to get within striking distance until the last lap. The two veterans slammed sheet metal twice, with Hamlin’s failed bump-and-run in Turn 1 and then Harvick cutting off Hamlin’s path as they exited Turn 4.

“I knew that (Hamlin) was gonna take a shot,” Harvick said. “I would have taken a shot. I stood on the brakes and just tried to keep it straight. I just didn’t want to get him back from the inside and let him have another shot. I wanted to at least be in control of who was gonna have contact in Turn 3 and 4. It was a heck of a finish, closer than what we wanted, but it was our only chance.”

Hamlin was left to re-think the final lap as Harvick celebrated in the background.

Second sucks,” Hamlin told NBCSN.

Up Next: Pocono

Six races remain in the regular season and the next chance for Cup drama will come at Pocono Raceway (3 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN), the 2.5-mile triangle that the series visited in June.

But the circumstances will be a little bit different. After complaints about the competition in June, the track will apply the PJ1 traction compound to areas in all three turns.

It’s the first time the track has applied the traction agent to its surface.

It will also be the third consecutive race the Cup Series has held on a track treated with it, following Kentucky and New Hampshire.

And we all know how those races ended.

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Chevrolet boss happy with three-race Cup winning streak but wants more

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Even with a three-race Cup winning streak, the head of Chevrolet’s NASCAR program wants more victories as the playoffs near.

Jim Campbell, vice president of performance and motorsports for Chevrolet, made the comments Wednesday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

In the last three races, Chevrolet has won with Alex Bowman (Chicagoland Speedway), Justin Haley (Daytona International Speedway) and Kurt Busch (Kentucky Speedway). Until that string, Chevrolet had won only once this year with Chase Elliott’s victory at Talladega Superspeedway.

Last year, Chevrolet had four Cup wins, its fewest victories in Cup since scoring three wins in 1982.

“We have really, really, I think, increased the collaboration (among Chevrolet teams) to another level, and I think we need to because we’ve got to put more wins on the board,” Campbell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “The Chevy camp is used to putting 10, 12, 15 wins on the board a year. Right now we’re at four. We expect more of ourselves. I know the teams are looking for more wins and I’ll call it top-five finishes. Talladega was kind of a turbocharger for us to get everyone really working at the next level.”

Chevrolet won at Talladega after an increased effort to have its teams work together throughout the weekend and during the race. Chevrolet made the effort after seeing how successful Toyota and Ford teams were at Daytona and Talladega by working together. Until then, Chevrolet had allowed its teams and drivers to go their own way at those tracks.

“Over the years, Chevy results were pretty doggone strong without a massive work-together effort,” Campbell said during the radio interview. “I think we go back to ’16 and Toyota put together an effort to get some of the (Joe) Gibbs (Racing) guys working together and I think in the fall, the Ford camp was doing that. So, it was time, it was time that we just pulled ourselves together and really worked across all of our teams.”

With seven races left until the Cup playoffs begin, Chevrolet has three drivers set for the playoffs via wins: Elliott, Bowman and Busch. Chevrolet also has three competitors who would qualify for the 16-driver playoffs as of today via points with William Byron 12th in the standings, Kyle Larson 13th and Jimmie Johnson 15th.

Johnson’s position is tenuous. He is 10 points ahead of Ford’s Ryan Newman, who holds the first spot outside a playoff position.

“I look at the trajectory,” Campbell said of Chevrolet’s progress. “Are we on the trajectory up or are we flat or are we down? I would say the momentum is going up, but it’s all performance based. We’ve got to put wins on the board, more top 10s.”

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Long: Aretha sang about it, Kurt Busch says he has it with Chip Ganassi Racing

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SPARTA, Ky. — As Kurt Busch decided last year where he would drive this season, it didn’t take long.

A short meeting with car owner Chip Ganassi laid the foundation for a deal that was completed in about three hours, announced in December and bore fruit last weekend with Busch’s first victory of the season.

In the 30-minute conversation Busch had last year with Ganassi about driving for the car owner, Busch found what he sought.

“(Ganassi’s) level of commitment as a racer is something that I saw,” said Busch, who had run the previous five seasons with Stewart-Haas Racing. “Yes, Tony Stewart is a racer, but I was more on the Gene Haas side. When Chip said, ‘I want you to win for me, I want you to make these guys winners, and if you can bring that (Monster Energy) sponsorship with you, I’m going to pay you this,’ it was just like the most respect that I had felt in a long time when it came to a contract negotiation.”

Respect was a word the former Cup champion used in multiple interviews Saturday in discussing his move to Ganassi.

Busch said on NBCSN’s post-race show that when a contract extension with Stewart-Haas Racing didn’t work, he called Ganassi and quickly had a deal.

“That’s just the respect factor that I was looking for,” Busch told Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett.

Busch went on to say in the media center after the race about how quickly a deal was agreed upon: “It meant that I was wanted. And when you have that, that’s that extra desire to push and to make this group a winner.”

When the deal was announced in December, Ganassi said: “It’s not oftentimes that a NASCAR champion, a Daytona 500 winner becomes available. When you’ve got a guy that is a racer like Kurt … you’ve got to take a serious look at it. It didn’t take me long when he became available.”

As Busch, who turns 41 on Aug. 4, looks ahead to the playoffs, he also has to focus on what he’ll do next season. The deal with Ganassi is only for this year. So what’s next for Busch?

“For me, it’s a matter of just having the dominos line up and everybody fall together and to make it happen,” he said. “I guess the easiest way to move things forward is request for proposals are going out Monday with sponsors, with manufacturers, with team owner. 

“Yes, a win, that might have happened last week at Daytona, is one of those moments. Tonight is one of those stamps on — this 1 team is a powerful team, and it would be stupid not to keep this group together, and that’s part of my leverage, but at the end of it, we just want to make it work for all parties.”

After a night like Saturday, Busch said: “It gives you that energy of, yeah, it’s fun, and let’s get our sponsors lined up and let’s do this (again).”

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Ryan Newman has a simple rule on blocking, a tactic that has become more prevalent with the race package this year.

“I don’t do that personally, that’s not the way I race, I race hard,” Newman said. “Because it’s not the way I want to be raced. It’s not right.

“You don’t change the way that you enter a corner to choke somebody off knowing that it’s going to slow you down. You as a racer are supposed to go out there and race as hard as you can to try to catch the guy in front of you, not let the guy behind you stay behind you.”

Newman also noted a conversation he had with Ryan Blaney earlier this season after he was blocked by Blaney multiple times.

“Ryan Blaney and I have had it out after the race, not in a mean way,” Newman said. “(I) just told him, I said, ‘Listen, the next time you do that, it’s not going to be good for you. That’s not the way I race. You want to block me, it’s not going to be good.’ I don’t mean it as a threat. I’m just telling him that’s the fact of it.

“I don’t race that way. If I block you, you’ve got the right to turn me around, but if you choke me down going into the corner just to try keep me behind you, expect to get loose.”

Blaney admitted he threw “a couple of big blocks” on Newman in the Charlotte races in May.

“You make those decisions in a split-second,” Blaney said. “You’re not trying to screw that guy over, you’re just like ‘I have to help myself.’ Between me and Ryan (Newman), I’ve always liked that you could talk to someone afterwards and have an understanding about it.

“Newman said that was a big block, that was a kind of a late one. I said, ‘Yeah, I knew it was close, sorry.’ You could tell how close it was by how hard he hit you on the bumper. It’s good to talk about it and not kind of let it brood over. Me and Ryan have always been good friends. He’s someone I’ve looked up to for a long time. He’s been a friend of my family’s for a long time. It was good to talk to him and understand it.”

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To NASCAR,  it was a simple call in penalizing William Byron for jumping the restart at Kentucky Speedway.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, explained the penalty on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday.

“(Byron) fired first in the restart zone, and he wasn’t controlling the restart,” Miller said. “It’s kind of as simple as that.”

In the rules video that was played in the drivers meeting at Kentucky, it stated: “It will be the control vehicle’s discretion to restart in the zone between the double marks and the single mark on the outer wall and on the racing surface.”

Clint Bowyer was the leader at the time.

The penalty took place on Lap 184 of the 267-lap race. Byron went from second place to a lap down after serving the penalty and never recovered. He finished 18th.

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Paul Menard confirmed this past weekend his contract status for next season, saying:

“I have a good job, for sure. I love the Wood Brothers. I love my race team. They are good people. I have a contract for next year. I guess it is getting to be that time of year when people start talking about things. I have a contract and I love my team. We just have to perform better, that is all.”

Menard finished 11th Saturday. He is 20th in the season standings, 54 points out of the final playoff spot.

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Sponsorship issues nearly cost eventual Truck champion Brett Moffitt his playoff eligibility last year and threaten the playoff eligibility for Tyler Ankrum this season.

Ankrum won last weekend’s Gander Outdoors Truck Series race at Kentucky but lack of sponsorship could be an issue for him.

Ankrum was set to run a full season for DGR-Crosley once he turned 18 in March. He announced in June that he would not be running a full season with the team because of lack of sponsorship.

He started races at Iowa and Gateway for NEMCO Motorsports and retired after less than 20 laps in both races, finishing 31st at Iowa and 30th at Gateway. By starting those races, he kept his playoff eligibility. Ankrum received a waiver from NASCAR for missing the season’s first three races because he was not 18 years old at the time and could not run at Daytona, Atlanta and Las Vegas. He’s run the remaining races.

DGR-Crosley is a Toyota team and it leads to the question of what responsibility Toyota has to ensure that one of its playoff teams remains eligible for a championship run.

David Wilson, president of Toyota Racing Development, said the company will help in ways its best suited to do so.

“Our focus is on providing technical support to our team partners, and David Gilliland and his family, they’re not maybe at the (Kyle Busch Motorsports) level but make no mistake, we do have a strong technical partnership with them,” Wilson told NBC Sports after Ankrum’s win.

Wilson said that Toyota had been with the team when they took what was the winning truck to a wind tunnel earlier.

“We obviously are engaged and hopeful that they can put enough (sponsorship) together to keep Tyler moving forward, and we’d love to have him in the playoffs,” Wilson said.

Wilson admits a focus for Toyota is on Kyle Busch Motorsports. Harrison Burton and Todd Gilliland are both outside a playoff spot with three races left in the regular season.

Toyota has two teams in the playoffs as of now with Ankrum and Austin Hill, who won at Daytona for the reigning Gander Outdoors Truck Series championship team, Hattori Racing Enterprises.

Whatever Toyota teams are in the playoffs will get Wilson’s attention.

“Obviously we’re going to focus our resources on whomever is fighting to win the championship,” Wilson said. “There’s not a question about it. If it happens to be non-KBM trucks, so be it.”

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Kurt Busch gushes about Kyle: ‘I love to call him my little brother’

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Kurt Busch won the race to the finish line Saturday night at Kentucky Speedway, but his younger brother won the race to the airport.

“I was supposed to fly home with him, and now I’m looking for a plane ride,” Kurt said with a laugh after outdueling his younger brother, Kyle, during an overtime restart on the 1.5-mile oval. “So that’s Kyle. He won’t even wait. We shared a plane ride earlier this year. It was Phoenix where he won, and I had to sit there and wait for him to do his little victory lane thing.

“It’ll be fine. We’re going over to his house actually for a little get‑together on a Sunday off, and I’m going to plop the trophy down right on his kitchen counter.”

It was the third time the brothers from Las Vegas had finished 1-2 in a Cup race, but the first in which Kurt had emerged the victor. The most recent was at Bristol Motor Speedway three months ago when Kurt had vowed he would have wrecked Kyle if he’d gotten close enough.

They nearly crashed on the final lap at Kentucky, making contact off the final turn that nearly caused both to lose control (watch the video of the finish above).

“It’s obviously cool to put on great races and great finishes and been a part of a lot of them and … none with my brother like that, so that was a first,” said Kyle, who did also win a spirited battled with his older brother in the June 28, 2015 race at Sonoma. “You know, no hard feelings, and we move on.”

Though they both have one title in NASCAR’s premier series, Kyle has the upper hand in Cup victories with 55 (of his 206 in NASCAR national series); Kurt’s win Saturday was the 31st of his career.

“It’s very special to race a sibling,” Kurt said during an interview in the NASCAR on NBC postrace show. “I couldn’t be more proud of (Kyle) over the years on how many wins he’s accumulated. He crested over that 40-win mark a while back. Now he’s 50-plus wins, and the Xfinity wins, the truck wins, the truck ownership.

“His passion for motorsport is way beyond where I thought the coach potato he was when he was my little brother growing up, and I love to call him my little brother, but he gave me room on that outside. I think he gave me room where maybe he wouldn’t have given that little half a foot to somebody.”

Though they haven’t competed head to head for victories often in their 15 full seasons of racing in Cup together, Kurt said “it’s special to race against my little brother each and every week.

“The Manning brothers, the Williams sisters, there’s plenty of siblings that go head to head,” he said, “but they don’t go head to head week in and week out like we do.”

During his interview with Krista Voda, Kyle Petty and Dale Jarrett on the NBCSN postrace show, Kurt Busch also provided a detailed account of the final two laps at Kentucky, how his career has been viewed and why Chip Ganassi Racing was the right fit when he moved this season.

Watch the interview in the video below or by clicking here.

Missed opportunities: Pit call, flat tire leave Daniel Suarez short on points

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SPARTA, Ky. — After winning the pole Friday, Daniel Suarez, who has yet to score a Cup victory, noted that the past two races had first-time winners.

“Why not have a third one?” Suarez asked, clearly meaning him.

But missed opportunities and misfortune Saturday night kept his winless streak alive and also left him still outside a playoff spot on a night when he could have scored more points. He wasn’t the only one who lost a chance at a better result. A restart cost William Byron. A pit road penalty stymied Denny Hamlin.

It was Suarez, though, who was hurt the most Saturday night.

He entered the race three points out of a playoff spot. As the pole-sitter, he was in position to score stage points, while Ryan Newman, who held the final playoff spot entering the night, started at the rear because his car failed inspection.

Everything was there for Suarez to take advantage of Newman’s situation.

Suarez didn’t.

A pit call backfired and Suarez finished the first stage 14th, failing to score any stage points, after leading the first 49 laps. It marked the first time since Auto Club Speedway in March that the pole-sitter did not score points in the opening stage.

“I feel like the first stage, I feel like the call that we made on four tires instead of two tires, that kind of messed us up a little bit,” Suarez told NBC Sports.

Crew chief Billy Scott had Suarez stop for four tires under caution at Lap 49. Problem was that two cars, including winner Kurt Busch, took no tires and 10 cars took two tires. Suarez was the first car with four tires, but he restarted 13th.

“Really thought that we had run far enough at that point … that it would be the first of our two opportunities to put lefts on (for a four-tire change),” Scott told NBC Sports. “From those lefts there, you only needed them one more time.

“That was kind of the root of it. In hindsight, there were a lot of cars that took two tires and that kind of hurt. Restarting 13th and on the bottom (lane), and that was a big difference, too. Probably the only thing that is regretful with that is that we ended up not getting any stage points. Where we’re at in points, that’s important. Not getting stage points out of that deal definitely hurt and something we question for sure. After that, what really got us was our flat tire.”

That happened in the second stage. Suarez pitted on Lap 107 and was penalized for speeding. He fell two laps down and went three laps down on Lap 143.

With the pit call in the first stage and the flat tire in the second stage, Suarez scored no stage points.

That he got back on the lead lap and finished eighth consoled Suarez only so much.

“Bad decisions, little bad luck but were able to recover for a decent finish,” Suarez said of his night.

“We showed that we had the speed, so we just have to keep that one up.”

Problem was that Newman finished ninth. Suarez scored 29 points Saturday. Newman had 28.

Newman fell out of the final playoff spot. Erik Jones moved into that spot with his third-place finish, scoring 43 points. Suarez trails Jones by four points for that spot.

Byron is in a more comfortable position than Suarez in the season standings. Byron is 12th in the standings and is 46 points ahead of Newman, who is in the first spot outside a playoff position.

Byron appeared headed for a strong run before he was penalized on Lap 184 for jumping the restart. He restarted second to Clint Bowyer, who brought the cars through the restart zone slowly.

“(Bowyer) dragged it way down in the restart zone,” Byron told NBC Sports, “and I still, obviously kind of peddled it a little bit and got in front of him and gave it back and went with him after that and still got called for it. I don’t know. I felt like I gave enough back.”

Asked if he would talk to NASCAR about it, Byron said: “I understand the rule. I don’t think it was necessary to call it. It wasn’t like I killed him into Turn 1. I don’t know.”

Byron fell a lap down and finished 18th.

Hamlin also was frustrated despite finishing fifth. A penalty for an uncontrolled tire on Lap 147 derailed Hamlin’s hopes of winning and scoring more playoff points.

Unlike Suarez and Byron, who are winless this year, Hamlin has two victories and is bound for the playoffs.

Still, the penalty stung.

“That kind of sealed our fate to try to win,” Hamlin said. “Certainly we rallied. The reason we had a top-five finish was because we had a fast car and had some good restarts at the end and was able to get back up there.

“I’m ecstatic that we have race-winning speed every single week, but certainly we’ve got to tighten up the execution a little bit. Once we do that, we’ll be pretty good.”

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