Kyle Petty

Matt DiBenedetto, Ryan Blaney seek NASCAR history to advance

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Matt DiBenedetto and Ryan Blaney need to make NASCAR history Saturday night to move on to the second round of the playoffs.

It’s that simple.

Never has a Cup driver advanced after being as far back from a transfer spot entering a cutoff race as either.

DiBenedetto goes into Bristol 25 points behind Clint Bowyer, who holds the final transfer spot. Blaney trails Bowyer by 27 points.

MORE: NASCAR Power Rankings 

“It definitely stinks going to Bristol being so far back and probably having to win the race,” Blaney told NBCSN after last weekend’s Richmond race.

But there is hope for Blaney and DiBenedetto heading into this weekend’s race (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Three times since the elimination-style format debuted in 2014 a driver at least 20 points behind entering a cutoff race advanced.

Kevin Harvick went into the 2015 first-round elimination race at Dover 23 points out of a transfer spot. He won. Harvick went on to make it to the championship race.

Chase Elliott entered last year’s second-round elimination race at Kansas 22 points behind the last transfer spot. He finished second. Aided by 15 stage points, he advanced. Elliott’s playoffs, though, ended in the following round.

Denny Hamlin entered last year’s third-round elimination race at Phoenix 20 points behind the last transfer spot. He won to advance to the championship race.

 

Blaney has a checkered past at Bristol Motor Speedway. He’s led 439 laps there, most of any track. But his average finish is 20.7, worse than every track but Richmond and the Daytona road course.

Blaney has led more than 100 laps in three of the last five Bristol races. He’s scored three top 10s in that stretch.

In April 2018, Blaney led 100 of the first 117 laps before he was collected in a crash. He led 121 laps and won stage 1 in the 2018 night race, but his chances of winning ended with a loose wheel in the last stage. He led 158 laps before finishing fourth in the 2019 spring race there.

Blaney led 60 laps in May and was second to teammate Brad Keselowski when Blaney’s car got out of the high groove and bounced off the wall. His car spun and came to stop. Ty Dillon couldn’t avoid him and hit Blaney’s car, ripping off the nose. Blaney finished last.

“I don’t really think that he is going to be able to point himself in, but I think he can win himself in,” NASCAR on NBC analyst Jeff Burton said on this week’s Splash and Go (video above). “Of everybody that we’re talking about, he is the guy that I think has enough speed and has shown me at Bristol to have enough speed where he can win this race and advance into the next round. … I think this is an opportunity for Ryan and his team to step up to the plate and find a way in a big moment on a big stage to move themselves forward.”

NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty raises questions about if Blaney can overcome his deficit.

“What concerns me about Ryan Blaney and that team is exactly some of the points you brought up,” Petty told Burton. “They’ve had speed. They’ve led races. They’ve run up front and they’ve given it away in stage three almost every time. They should be sitting here, I feel, with at least three to four wins on regular race tracks. … And they won a (superspeedway race) by about a half inch and that’s all they have to show for their regular season.”

DiBenedetto seeks his first career Cup win. It nearly came at Bristol last year when he finished second to Hamlin that night.

“If there is one track to be in a must-win situation that I would choose it would definitely be Bristol,” DiBenedetto said after Richmond. “I think we have a good shot at it.”

Kyle Busch faces challenging path to win back-to-back titles

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Kyle Busch faces a challenge to reach the championship race for a record-extending sixth consecutive year and win back-to-back titles.

No Cup driver winless at the end of July has made it to the championship race since stages were introduced in 2017.

Since the playoffs began in 2014, two drivers winless after July advanced to the title race. Neither won the championship.

Busch heads into August without a Cup victory this season.

MORE: Brad Daugherty joins NBC Sports NASCAR broadcast team

NASCAR on NBC analyst Kyle Petty said on this week’s “Splash and Go” that Busch is someone who could still challenge for the title despite not winning a race to this point.

“Kyle Busch, that we haven’t heard from, that we haven’t heard from all year long, may get hot, and we all know that Cup racing can come and go,” Petty said. “Hot streaks. Cold streaks. Hot streaks. Cold streaks. Kyle is in a cold streak. When he gets hot, everybody better watch out because as cold as he is, when he gets hot, he’s going to melt a racetrack. He’s going to burn it down.”

Busch has three runner-up finishes this season. He also has eight top-five results but only one such finish in the last five races.

Busch is one of four former Cup champs winless at this point of the year. 

Former champs Jimmie Johnson, Kurt Busch and Matt Kenseth also do not have a Cup victory this season. Of those four, only Kyle and Kurt Busch are in a playoff spot heading into Sunday’s race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN). Busch has two wins at New Hampshire since 2015 and has six top-10 finishes in the last eight races there.

“It’s definitely a challenging racetrack – not one of my best racetracks, I’ll admit that,” Busch said in a media release this week. “I’ve won there twice so, if we get a good car – I guess I’ll need to have a really good car, apparently – then we might have a shot to win there.”

New Hampshire is one of seven races remaining in the regular season before the 16-driver playoff field is set. Between New Hampshire and the playoffs are doubleheader weekends at Michigan and Dover, the inaugural Cup race on Daytona’s road course and the regular-season finale on Daytona’s oval.

Advancing deep into the playoffs and reaching the title race in Phoenix could prove difficult for Kyle Busch and other former champions if they don’t score more playoff points by winning stages or races. The Busch brothers and Jimmie Johnson have one playoff point each. Kenseth has none.

With so few playoff points, those drivers would have little margin for error in the playoffs to advance provided they did not win in the postseason.

Combined, the Busch brothers, Johnson and Kenseth have won three of the last 20 playoff races. All three of those wins were by Kyle Busch, including last year’s title race in Miami.

Kenseth’s last win in the playoffs came in 2017. Johnson’s last playoff win came in 2016. Kurt Busch’s last victory in the playoffs was in 2011.

Ryan Newman (2014) and Jeff Gordon (2015) are the only drivers who were winless after July to advance to the championship race. Newman finished second to Kevin Harvick for the series crown.

“It does become more difficult as you get to this point in the season if you haven’t been successful to play catch-up,” Newman said. “It doesn’t mean it’s impossible. I do believe that the math is there to do what we did in 2014. Now keep in mind, we did that with quite a bit of drama among the rest of our peers to get to that point. There was some crashing, there was some fighting and a little bit of laying low and playing it safe that helped progress us to that point to where we were in the final four.”

Brad Daugherty joins NBC Sports NASCAR broadcast team

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Brad Daughterty has joined the NBC Sports team for NASCAR broadcasts this season, NBC Sports announced Tuesday. Daugherty is scheduled to make his debut with NBC Sports during the Michigan doubleheader weekend Aug. 8-9.

He will primarily join the team of studio analysts for pre- and post-race coverage alongside current NBC Sports NASCAR analysts Dale Jarrett and Kyle Petty. Daugherty also will join the broadcast booth for select Xfinity Series races.

“I’m extremely excited and I’m looking forward to spending time with all of the folks at NBC Sports and talk racing,” said Daugherty, who also has served as an analyst for ESPN. “I want to thank NBC Sports for giving me this historic opportunity and share my passion and insight about this sport that I’ve loved for more than 30 years. I’m boisterous, I love to laugh and talk, and I think my excitement will translate to the viewers watching at home.”

“Brad’s energy, emotion and passion for NASCAR make him a perfect fit for the NBC Sports team,” said Jeff Behnke, vice president of NASCAR production and motorsports, NBC Sports. “His ability to inform, entertain and simply share his love of the sport will be terrific for the fans and viewers.”

Daugherty, co-owner of JTG Daugherty Racing, has been involved in racing for much of his life. He wore the No. 43 during his eight-year NBA career with the Cleveland Cavaliers as a tribute to Richard Petty.

Daugherty grew up in Black Mountain, North Carolina and was friends with former NASCAR driver Robert Pressley. Daugherty and Pressley built a late model car together. They eventually paired together on a Busch Series car and Pressley won in his rookie year in 1989 in a car owned by Daugherty.

NBC Sports’ coverage of NASCAR continues this weekend with the Cup race at New Hampshire Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

How Austin Dillon’s Texas win was set in motion 1,100 miles away

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When the caution flag waved 27 laps from the end of last weekend’s Cup race at Texas Motor Speedway, crew chief Justin Alexander had a decision to make.

Austin Dillon was seventh. Pitting was the easy call — all the leaders came to pit road.

The key question was if to take two tires, four tires or no tires. Figuring a few of the leaders would take two tires, Alexander contemplated a quicker no-tire stop to pass those cars on pit road to gain track position.

In a command center 1,100 miles away at Richard Childress Racing in Welcome, North Carolina, a different option was presented.

Pit for two tires. Specifically, pit for two left-side tires.

Alexander made that call, Dillon exited pit road second to teammate Tyler Reddick, whose team changed no tires. Dillon took the lead and went on to win the race and earn a playoff spot.

“The call was the win,” Dillon said after his third career Cup victory.

Many things had to happen — Dillon’s pit crew needed a fast stop and he had to hold off the field on multiple restarts — for Dillon to win, but the role the command center played was critical.

The sport’s top teams have places in their race shop dedicated for engineers and team officials to use to study in-race data and provide input for the crew chief at the track. Such centers have become more valuable this season with teams not practicing and qualifying before races, meaning a car’s first laps at speed are when the green flag waves. NASCAR announced this week that there will be no practice and no qualifying the rest of the season.

NBCSN’s Marty Snider will give fans an inside look at the RCR command center during tonight’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App), showing what takes place and how the decisions there impact a race.

RCR’s command center, which was built about five years ago, has 10 stations for engineers and others to work and a wall-sized screen that can show various data about the RCR cars or any other car in the field along with the race broadcast. Computer programs also provide instant analysis of when to pit, how many tires to change and where each option is likely to put the car.

Austin Dillon and his team after winning Texas. (Photo by Chris Graythen/Getty Images)

“Definitely the command center has helped,” said Alexander, who led the organization’s research and development and worked race days in the command center before reuniting as Dillon’s crew chief this season. “There’s more eyes on things than I can look at on my computer.”

With crew rosters limited, Alexander does not have either of his engineers with him at the the track. They work from RCR.

“As they feed me data, I can make better decisions,” Alexander said.

Dr. Eric Warren, RCR’s chief technology officer, spearheaded the effort to build the center. The technology has grown from analyzing timing and scoring to deciphering the car’s performance and strategies each team is likely to use in the race.

“The basic foundation of it is trying to learn what is the real performance of the car,” Warren told NBC Sports. “That way you are taking out things like weather, track position and laps on tires, all those things. As it gets more accurate in really understanding you’re an eighth-place car, then you can make those tradeoffs. If I take two tires and gain five seconds of track position, what’s my fall-off going to be and what’s my performance going to be?”

With such knowledge, teams can decide if such gambles are worth making.

Computer programs also study other teams and learn their tendencies and that can help plot strategy against.

Warren noted the key for Dillon came well before that last pit stop. Dillon had a four-tire stop on Lap 213 of the 334-lap race. That allowed the team to go with two-tire stops later since lap times did not significantly increase the longer the car ran on the same set of tires.

Dillon came in for a two-tire stop on Lap 245 under caution, a move that allowed him to go from 11th before the stop to eighth. The top six cars did not pit, meaning Dillon was second among those that had stopped.

A caution on Lap 307 when rookie Quin Houff made contact with Christopher Bell and Matt DiBenedetto trapped five of those six cars that had not pitted on Lap 245 a lap down, forcing them to take a wave around and not pit during that caution. That all but eliminated Ryan Blaney, who led 150 laps and pole-sitter Aric Almirola, among others.

“We knew, even an entire stop before, there were a lot of people that the way they did their pit strategy, they were going to be left exposed for a long period of time,” Warren said, noting Blaney, Almirola and others who pitted under green around Lap 290 and would remain a lap down until the rest of the field cycled through under green. “We actually altered our strategy way before those (late) cautions came out and kind of knew the likelihood of a caution happening (near Lap 307) was pretty high.”

That caution is when Dillon came in for two left-side tires, as the computer program suggested, and Reddick changed no tires, also as the program suggested. Dillon and Reddick went on to give RCR its first 1-2 finish in a Cup race since 2011.

“It’s starting to show that the speed of the cars are there,” Reddick told NBCSN’s Kyle Petty on this week’s Splash and Go. “Just taking advantage of some track position, taking advantage of some strategy calling played into our strengths, and it really showed that our cars had the speed on the older tires to be able to hold off the guys on four fresh tires.”

Warren also notes that while technology plays a key role in races, the human factor remains important.

“The relationship between the crew chief and the driver is critical because we might say 100% we definitely think you need to take right-side tires here,” Warren said. “The crew chief is going to know, even a little bit more than us, how far is the driver on the edge and maybe we’re not seeing a little damage on the car. My way of thinking about it has always been like we used to not have computers to do word processing, right? Well, now you have that and you can, so now you can spend time doing the next advanced thing. That’s the same with us.

“I don’t think the human element ever really is going to be replaced, at least not short term. I think it allows you to think about things more complex.”

Like winning races.

Kurt Busch to make 700th career Cup start

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Former champion Kurt Busch will make his 700th career Cup start today at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (4 p.m. ET on NBC and the NBC Sports App).

Busch becomes only the 16th driver to amass at least 700 career Cup starts. Richard Petty owns the series record with 1,185 starts.

Busch, who starts second today at Indy, has the most career starts among active drivers. He has two more starts than Kevin Harvick, who is scheduled to make his 700th career Cup start July 19 at Texas Motor Speedway.

Busch made his first career Cup start Sept. 24, 2000 at Dover, finishing 18th.

He has 31 career victories, including the 2017 Daytona 500. Busch won the 2004 Cup title. He has 307 career top-10 finishes.

The 41-year-old marvels at making his 700th career Cup start today.

“It’s amazing,” Busch said. “To have this opportunity and to have been blessed to have raced with so many great race teams over the years, just making it past the local track was something that I thought was an achievement because my dad was a local racer. He won a lot. But it was like money, sponsors, and the whole challenge of even getting to like the Southwest Tour and Late Model division, that was even tough for us way back in the past.

“So, it’s amazing. Twenty years of racing at the top series level and now having 700 starts, I never would have guessed.”

Busch is 10th in points entering today’s race. He has yet to win his year but has three top-five finishes and nine top-10 results in 15 starts for Chip Ganassi Racing.

MOST CAREER CUP STARTS

1,185 – Richard Petty

906 – Ricky Rudd

890 – Terry Labonte

883 – Dave Marcis

882 – Mark Martin

829 – Kyle Petty

828 – Bill Elliott

809 – Darrell Waltrip

805 – Jeff Gordon

784 – Michael Waltrip

763 – Ken Schrader

748 – Sterling Marlin

729 – Bobby Labonte

706 – Rusty Wallace

700 – Kurt Busch