NASCAR Cup playoffs

NASCAR America: What makes Martinsville so special?

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Martinsville is old school, according to Dale Earnhardt Jr. At a time when so much is changing in the sport – new drivers, new cars, new rules, new tracks – it is that connection to the roots of the sport that makes Martinsville Speedway so special.

“The last time we were there with Chase (Elliott) and Denny (Hamlin) and then the crash at the end – everything that was going on – it was crazy,” Earnhardt said on Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America. “It really felt like we went back to the ’80s and ’90s and the heyday of the sport when we were racing at a lot of short tracks every month with this kind of thing here going on just about every two or three weeks.”

On the final lap of regulation at Martinsville last fall, Hamlin bumped Elliott into a spin. On the ensuing restart, Kyle Busch bumped teammate Hamlin out of the lead and that eventually led to Hamlin spinning on the last lap of the overtime period.

Elliott finished 27th one lap off the pace. Hamlin finished seventh.

Busch won.

After the race, Elliott drove Hamlin into the wall and the two drivers had a heated exchange afterward. Earnhardt climbed from his car to watch the drama on the jumbotron.

“I remember leaving that track and pulling out onto the highway, in my mind thinking if NASCAR could have this every week none of us would have nothing to worry about,” Earnhardt said. “We wouldn’t be able to print enough tickets, wouldn’t be able to build the stands high enough to get the people in here who wanted to see this in person.”

The tight confines of short track racing led to rivalries in the past. An incident was rarely forgotten and was carried over from week to week, according to Earnhardt.

Two weeks later when Elliott and Hamlin were racing for second at Phoenix, Elliott did not give Hamlin any racing room and pinched the No. 11 into the wall. Neither driver advanced to the final round of the playoffs.

For more watch the videos above.

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Austin Dillon has hill to climb in playoffs

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Austin Dillon did not have to wait long to punch his ticket into the Cup Series playoffs.

He just had to punch Aric Almirola‘s car out of his way on the last lap of the Daytona 500.

It’s been 25 races since the Richard Childress Racing driver won in Daytona, claiming his second-career victory.

But Dillon, in his fourth full-time season Cup, is not going into the first round of the playoffs with anything resembling momentum.

Ahead of Sunday’s South Point 400 at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN), Dillon has only two top 10s since the July race at Daytona. His peak came four races ago at Michigan, when he drove to a fourth-place finish, his first top five since the Daytona 500.

Dillon ended the regular season with a 22nd-place finish, tying his second worst result since the July Daytona race.

“I will take the dark horse role,” Dillon said Thursday at the Playoff Media Day. “Anything can happen. We show up at times and people least expect it.”

Dillon heads to Las Vegas, where he has one top five and top 10 (fifth in 2016) in six starts.

“It’s a good race track for me in the past,” Dillon said. “We’ve brought some speed to the race track as of late. That’s important. I’ll always enjoy the start of the playoffs. Everybody’s tense. Mistakes are made early and if you don’t make mistakes you probably move on to the first round.”

Here’s how Dillon’s numbers compare to his fellow playoff competitors.

Laps Spent in Top 15

Through 26 races Dillon has completed 6,986 out of a possible 7,189. Of those, Dillon ran in the top 15 for just 2,668 laps, or 37.1 percent.

That ranks 22nd overall and the lowest among the 16 playoff drivers. Six drivers who did not make the playoffs, including teammate Ryan Newman, rank ahead of him. The next closest playoff driver is Alex Bowman in 16th (3,470 laps – 48.3 percent).

Laps Led

Dillion also ranks 22nd in this category with 23 laps led. Jimmie Johnson is 21st with 29 laps led. Five non-playoff drivers separate them from Alex Bowman in 15th (67 laps led).

Percentage of Laps Run on Lead Lap

Dillon actually has the advantage over a fellow playoff driver here. Dillon was on the lead pace for 4,975 of 7,189 laps (69.2 percent). That’s 16th among drivers and one spot better than Bowman (4,965 laps for 69.1 percent). Newman is the lone non-playoff driver ahead of Dillon in 13th (5,733 laps for 79.75 percent).

Average Running Position

Dillon ranks 22nd here with an avg running spot of 18.505. The next best playoff driver is Bowman in 16th (16.598).

‘Big 3’ look to get groove back at Las Vegas

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Las Vegas Motor Speedway could awaken sleeping giants this weekend, giants called the “Big 3.”

Vegas, a 1.5-mile circuit, is the type of track Kevin Harvick, Martin Truex Jr. and Kyle Busch have held sway over for the last two years.

They’ve combined to win the last 13 races at 1.5-mile tracks, including this year’s seven races.

Harvick and Busch have combined to lead 1,171 laps on 1.5-mile tracks in 2018 (55 percent of laps).

But after the last month, all three drivers could use Vegas to get back in a championship groove as the playoffs begin on Sunday (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Despite combining to win 17 of the season’s 26 races so far, the three have hit a rut of sorts.

Harvick’s (seven wins) last victory came on Aug. 12 at Michigan. Since then he’s placed 10th, fourth and fourth.

Busch, who won the regular-season title on the back of six victories, last won at Pocono on July 29. In the five races since he’s placed third, third, 20th, seventh and eighth.

Truex, who has four wins, enters Las Vegas following a last-place finish in Indianapolis (brake rotor). In the seven races since his last win (Kentucky), he has two top fives. But he has failed to place better than 11th in the four races since he finished runner-up at Watkins Glen.

Together, all three drivers have been unable to win a stage in the last three races.

The Cup Series will visit four 1.5-mile tracks in the playoffs: Las Vegas, Kansas, Texas and Miami.

Here’s what each of the “Big 3” has going for them ahead of Sunday’s race.

Kevin Harvick

  • Won the spring race at Las Vegas, leading 214 laps and sweeping every stage.
  • Finished in the top 10 in four of last six Las Vegas races, including two wins.
  • Finished in the top 10 in 19 of the last 21 races on 1.5-mile tracks.
  • Second all-time with 13 wins on the West Coast (Jimmie Johnson, 15)
  • Fourth all-time in wins on 1.5-mile track with 14, tied with Dale Earnhardt.

Kyle Busch

  • The only driver to finish in the top 10 in all seven races at 1.5-mile tracks this season.
  • Has an average finish of 3.7 on 1.5-mile tracks in 2018, the best of all drivers.
  • Tied with Harvick with 10 top-2 finishes this season.
  • Streak of eight consecutive top 10s on 1.5-mile tracks, dating back to 2017, is a career-best and is longest active streak among drivers.

Martin Truex Jr.

  • The most recent winner at a 1.5-mile track (Kentucky). Led 174 laps and swept every stage.
  • Won the last two playoff openers, which were held at Chicagoland Speedway, a 1.5-mile track.
  • In four West Coast races in 2018, has best avg finish of 2.8.
  • Series-leading six wins on 1.5-mile tracks since 2017 Coke 600

NASCAR reveals playoff team hashtags, emojis

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After every Cup Series playoff driver had a special hashtag and emoji last season, NASCAR is taking it one step further.

It revealed on Wednesday the new set of emojis and hashtags for the postseason that begins Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

This time around the emojis will be included on the driver’s cars themselves, located on the front sides of their cars. Non-playoff drivers will display the Twitter bird and #NASCARPlayoffs.

The hashtags and emojis will be available to Twitter users until each driver is eliminated from championship contention. Fans can also unlock the official NASCAR Playoffs emoji on Twitter by tweeting with #NASCARPlayoffs throughout the 10-week postseason.

Look below for each driver’s hashtag/emoji combination.

Brad Keselowski

Austin Dillon

Kevin Harvick


Chase Elliott

Writer’s note: Elliott’s emoji is a depiction of the siren at the Dawsonville Poole Hall that goes off anytime he or his father, Bill Elliott, win a race.

Aric Almirola

Denny Hamlin

Ryan Blaney

Clint Bowyer

Kyle Busch

Erik Jones

Joey Logano

Kurt Busch

Kyle Larson

Writer’s note: Larson, a native of California, has the bear logo from the California state flag on his emoji.

Jimmie Johnson

Martin Truex Jr.

Alex Bowman

Writer’s note: Bowman’s emoji features the yellow rookie stripes on the back of his car. Bowman is not a rookie, but he’s been in on an ongoing joke that he is.

Who is hot and cold entering Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas

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The Cup Series playoffs have arrived and will get underway Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Here’s a look at five drivers who are hot and five drivers who are cold entering the South Point 400.

Who is Hot

Brad Keselowski
• Won at Indianapolis (6th in Stage 1, 7th in Stage 2, 9 laps led); contact with Ryan Blaney on pit road on Lap 32 damaged right rear of car.
• First back-to-back wins since 2016 (Daytona/Kentucky)
• Finished in Top 2 in 3 of last 4 races
• Seventh playoff appearance
• Finished 7th or better in 6 straight Las Vegas races, including 2 wins
• Started 8th, 6th in Stage 1, 6th in Stage 2, finished 6th at Las Vegas in March
• Finished Top 10 in 3 straight 1.5-mile races and 7 of last 9

Kevin Harvick
• Finished 4th at Indianapolis (12th in Stage 1, 21st in Stage 2, 22 laps led); penalized for uncontrolled tire on lap 10 pit stop; pit for a 2nd time on lap 32 after gun failed on lap 30 pit stop
• Won 7 of last 25 races
• Finished in Top 5 in 10 of last 13 races
• Finished in Top 10 in 8 straight races and 12 of last 13
• Twelfth playoff appearance
• Finished Top 10 in 4 of last 6 Las Vegas races, including 2 wins
• Started 2nd, swept every stage, 214 laps led, won at Las Vegas in March
• Won four of last nine 1.5-mile races
• Finished Top 10 in 19 of last 21 1.5-mile races

Denny Hamlin
• Finished 3rd at Indianapolis (3rd in Stage 1, 20th in Stage 2, 37 laps led)
• Finished in Top 10 in 2 straight races and 3 of last 4
• Twelfth playoff appearance
• Last 4 Las Vegas races: 2 finishes of 6th or better & 2 finishes of 17th or worse
• Finished 12th or worse in 5 of last 7 Las Vegas races
• Started 19th, 11th in Stage 1, 15th in Stage 2, finished 17th at Las Vegas in March; penalized for speeding entering pits on lap 122
• Finished 7th or better in 3 of last 4 races on 1.5-mile tracks

Kyle Busch
• Finished 8th at Indianapolis (5th in Stage 1, 24th in Stage 2, 27 laps led); penalized for pitting when pit road was closed on Lap 98; pit on Lap 119 with flat right rear tire while running 16th
• Won regular season championship
• Won 6 of last 20 races
• Finished in Top 5 in 10 of last 14 races
• Finished in Top 10 in 13 of last 15 races
• Finished in Top 5 in 17 of 26 races this season
• Eleventh playoff appearance
• Finished Top 5 in 3 of last 5 Las Vegas races
• Started 13th, 9th in Stage 1, 5th in Stage 2, 10 laps led, finished 2nd at Las Vegas in March
• Won 3 of last 5 races on 1.5-mile tracks
• Finished in Top 10 in 8 straight 1.5-mile races

Erik Jones
• Finished 2nd at Indianapolis (10th in Stage 1, 3rd in Stage 2)
• Finished Top 10 in 9 of last 11 races
• First playoff appearance
• 2 career Las Vegas starts: 15th in 2017, 8th in 2018
• Started 9th, 12th in Stage 1, 11th in Stage 2, finished 8th at Las Vegas in March
• Top 10 in five of seven races on 1.5 mile tracks in 2018

Who is Cold

Austin Dillon
• Finished 22nd at Indianapolis (17th in Stage 1, 12th in Stage 2)
• Finished 13th or worse in 7 of last 8 races
• Finished 12th or worse in 19 of last 21 races
• Finished outside Top 10 in 22 of 25 races since Daytona 500 win
• Third playoff appearance
• Finished 13th or worse in 5 of 6 career starts at Las Vegas
• Started 16th, 16th in Stage 1, 14th in Stage 2, finished 13th at Las Vegas in March
• Finished outside Top 10 in 13 straight 1.5-mile races

Aric Almirola
• Finished 23rd at Indianapolis (7th in Stage 1, 31st in Stage 2); penalized for speeding on pit road on Lap 95
• Finished 14th or worse in 3 straight races and and 7 of last 10
• Second playoff appearance
• Finished 14th or worse in 9 of 10 career Las Vegas starts
• Started 29th, 15th in Stage 1, 13th in Stage 2, finished 10 at Las Vegas in March
• Finished in Top 10 in 3 of last 6 races on 1.5-mile tracks

Jimmie Johnson
• Finished 16th at Indianapolis (19th in Stage 1, 10th in Stage 2)
• Finished 16th or worse in 2 straight races and 5 of last 6
• Only two top 10s in the last 12 races
• Currently on a 49 race winless streak (longest of career)
• Fifteenth playoff appearance, won 7 championships – only driver to make every playoff
• Finished outside the Top 10 in 3 of last 4 Las Vegas races
• Started 14th, 27th in Stage 1, 19th in Stage 2, finished 12th at Las Vegas in March; started in the rear after multiple failures in pre-race inspection
• Finished outside the Top 10 in 9 of last 10 1.5-mile races

Martin Truex Jr.
• Finished 40th at Indianapolis (40th in Stage 1, 40th in Stage 2); DNF – started in rear after failing inspection multiple times; broke left front brake rotor on lap 41
• Finished outside Top 10 in 4 straight races and 5 of the last 6
• Won 3 of last 13 races
• Finished in the Top 5 in 10 of last 16 races
• Sixth Playoff appearance
• Finished 4th or better in 3 of last 4 Las Vegas races, including win in 2017
• Started 4th, 2nd in Stage 1, 7th in Stage 2, 6 laps led, finished 4th at Las Vegas in March
• Won 8 of last 17 races on 1.5-mile tracks
• Finished 4th or better in 4 straight 1.5-mile races
• Finished 8th or better in 17 of last 18 races on 1.5-mile tracks.

Alex Bowman
• Finished 33rd at Indianapolis (15th in Stage 1, 36th in Stage 2); wrecked with AJ Allmendinger on Lap 67 while battling for 16th
• Finished 23rd or worse in 2 straight races and 14th or worse in 4 of last 5
• First Playoff appearance
• Never finished better than 16th in 3 career Las Vegas starts
• Started 20th, 19th in Stage 1, 18th in Stage 2, finished 16th at Las Vegas in March
• Finished in Top 10 in 2 of last 3 races on 1.5-mile tracks
• Finished 13th or worse in 7 of last 9 races on 1.5-mile tracks