NASCAR Cup playoffs

NBC Sports Power Rankings: Kevin Harvick back to No. 1

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Martin Truex Jr.’s reign atop the NBC Sports NASCAR Power Rankings lasted all of one week. Kevin Harvick returns to the No. 1 spot — where he had been the previous two weeks before Truex overtook him — in this week’s balloting.

But it’s close: While Truex was a unanimous choice among the NBC Sports NASCAR writers last week, Harvick was not an all-in pick this week. In fact, Harvick beat Truex by two points.

Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval race winner Chase Elliott made the biggest jump in the rankings, going from being unranked to No. 3 this week, just three points behind Harvick and only one point behind Truex.

The biggest drops were Denny Hamlin (tied for second last week to tied for 10th this week) and Kyle Busch (tied for fourth last week to tied for 10th this week).

Here are this week’s rankings:

1. Kevin Harvick (35 points): Third-place run at Roval marked his ninth top 10 in the last 10 races. Last week: Tied for fourth.

2. Martin Truex Jr. (33 points): So much for him winning three or even four in a row. Still, had a strong run on the Roval. A win at his home track of Dover would lock him into the Round of 8. Last week: First place.

3. Chase Elliott (32 points): Honestly, could anyone have predicted he’d bounce back from his wreck with 44 laps left – which dropped him from first to 37th place – and wind up winning? One of the best comebacks NASCAR has seen in years. Could be the key motivating factor that sends him all the way to Miami. Last week: Unranked.

4. Brad Keselowski (29 points): Fifth-place finish at the Roval was his fifth top-five result in the last six races. He’s under the radar but should not be overlooked. Last week: Tied for second.

5. Alex Bowman (19 points): Charged from the rear to a second-place finish in a backup car while feeling sick after being involved in two spins. That deserves recognition. Last week: Unranked.

6. Clint Bowyer (17 points): Had strong run when he needed it to advance to the next round. Now can he and his team repeat that effort in the second round? Top 10 finishes in five of his last six races. Has potential to be Cinderella story of playoffs. Last week: Ninth.

7. William Byron (13 points): Top 10s in three of last four races, but has to pick up performance even more if he hopes to advance to Round of 8. Last week: Unranked.

8. Kyle Larson (12 points): Penalty hurt him at Roval but he’s moving on to the second round, so there’s that. With teammate Kurt Busch now eliminated, Larson is carrying the championship torch for Chip Ganassi Racing. Can he deliver? Last week: Sixth.

9. Ryan Blaney (8 points): Even though he has top 10s in three of last four races, he’s in same boat as guys like Byron, Bowyer, Bowman and Larson: he has to significantly pick up his performance if he hopes to advance to the next round. Last week: Unranked.

(tie) 10. Denny Hamlin (7 points): Not a memorable run at the Roval but it’s all about surviving and advancing in the playoffs. Sitting fairly pretty heading into start of Round of 12 this weekend at Dover. Last week: Tied for second.

(tie) 10. Kyle Busch (7 points): Winless streak has now hit 15 races. Roval mechanical failure not his fault. Saving grace was all the playoff points he’s earned, allowing him to be No. 1 in the Cup standings heading to Dover. But he needs a win desperately. Can it come at Dover? Last week: Tied for fourth.

Others receiving votes: Jimmie Johnson (4 points), Michael McDowell (2 points), Joey Logano (1 point), AJ Allmendinger (1 point).

Brad Keselowski rebounds to ‘steal’ third-place finish in playoff opener

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Usually when you see a race car on pit road with its hood up in the middle of a race, it’s a sign that a team’s race is over or will be soon.

It’s not typically a prelude to a third-place finish.

But that’s what happened to Brad Keselowski in Sunday’s Cup playoff opener at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

The adjustments made to his No. 2 Ford on pit road during the Stage 2 break, including adjustments to the front suspension, helped cure what was a “miserable” first 160 laps for Keselowski.

“Nothing I was doing was working,” Keselowski told NBCSN after his top-five finish. “We were losing spots to everybody out there.”

Keselowski, the race’s defending winner, qualified 18th. But while his Team Penske teammate Joey Logano went from 22nd to first in 34 laps, Keselowski was “just kind of bleeding positions.”

“I am disappointed we didn’t start the race any better than we did but very proud that we didn’t freak out and everyone kept their head on their shoulders,” Keselowski said.

After Stage 2, Keselowski pitted from 13th. He would pit twice under the caution before the start of the final stage.

“The team worked on it really hard there and got us back to a spot to where we could kind of almost steal a win,” Keselowski said. “I thought for a minute we might be able to.”

Keselowski thought if he had gained one or two spots on the final restart with 71 laps to go, he might have been the winner instead of Martin Truex Jr.

Instead, “we kind of stole a third place today,” Keselowski told NBCSN. “I guess I can’t complain. … Decent recovery, great fight. That’s kind of what these playoffs are about. Minimizing your bad days. That’s what we were able to do.”

Keselowski’s finish is his ninth straight top 10 at Las Vegas. He hasn’t finished worse than seventh on the 1.5-mile track since 2012.

Las Vegas winners and losers

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Winners

Martin Truex Jr. – A series-high fifth win for the No. 19 Toyota, which was the best on long runs. Despite his slump late in the regular season, Truex said he had a good feeling about the playoffs. He was right Sunday.

Hendrick Motorsports – For the fourth consecutive season, its Chevrolets again seemed faster as the playoffs began – notably Chase Elliott’s No. 9 and Jimmie Johnson‘s No. 48 as the highest non-playoff car in 11th.

Brad Keselowski — Battles back to third after struggling to stay in top 20 for the first two stages.

The heat – Score one for Mother Nature again as moving the start time four hours later still resulted in temperatures over 100. Maybe starting a few weeks later next year will provide relief.

Losers

Clint Bowyer – The promise of the pole position faded in a familiar struggle to amass stage points, and the late green flag pit stop for a tire rub just made things worse.

Kurt BuschQualified and ran well, but Lady Luck never has been kind to the Las Vegas native at his hometown track.

Erik Jones – For the second consecutive season, he is in a massive hole after the opener; will be tough to escape first round without a win at Richmond or the Roval.

Martin Truex Jr. wins South Point 400 at Las Vegas

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Martin Truex Jr. opened the Cup Series playoffs with a win in Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway.

Truex passed Kevin Harvick with 20 laps to go and went unchallenged to the finish. He claimed his fifth victory of the year and his first since Sonoma Raceway in June. His five wins surpasses his total from last year and leads the series.

The Joe Gibbs Racing driver has now won the opening race of the playoffs in three of the last four years.

“We took a gamble and qualified 24th” Truex told NBCSN. “For a while there it wasn’t looking too smart, with (Harvick) out front. Got the right adjustments at the end. Had a great car all day long.”

The top five was completed by Harvick, Brad Keselowski, Chase Elliott, and Ryan Blaney.

Playoff drivers populated the entire top 10. Alex Bowman finished sixth and he was followed by William Byron, Kyle Larson, Joey Logano and Ryan Newman.

Harvick finished second after leading 47 laps.

“We were way off after we got here this week,” Harvick told NBCSN. “(His team) kept working. We qualified well and it wasn’t where we wanted when we started the race. We got stage points and led there late and gave us an opportunity. … Martin was just so much better on the second half of the run.”

STAGE 1 WINNER: Joey Logano. Started 22nd, took the lead on Lap 34 and led 31 laps before claiming the stage win.

STAGE 2 WINNER: Martin Truex Jr. Passed Logano coming to two laps to go after Logano got held up by lapped traffic.

More: Race results, points

WHO HAD A GOOD RACE: William Byron managed to finish seventh after he spun from a cut tire – a result of contact with Ryan Blaney – on Lap 181 … Joey Logano led 105 laps and finished ninth after multiple cases of contact on a restart damaged his car … Alex Bowman place sixth for his best result since he won at Chicagoland Speedway.

WHO HAD A BAD RACE: Kyle Busch, the regular-season champion, finished 19th. He had to pit on Lap 12 following contact with the wall in the opening laps and was two laps down at one point. Front-end damage late from contact with the lapped car of Garrett Smithley ended a comeback run that saw him run as high as fifth .… Erik Jones placed 36th after went to the garage to start Stage 2 following his transmission getting stuck in second gear … Kurt Busch cut his left-front tire from contact with Martin Truex Jr on a restart and crashed. He finished 39th … Pole-sitter Clint Bowyer‘s night went downhill fast after the green flag. He led the first lap, before falling back. He finished outside the top 10 in Stage 1 and went a lap down in Stage 1. He was forced to pit on Lap 198 for damage and finished 25th.

QUOTE OF THE NIGHT: “Should of run fourth, probably. But instead 19th. We’re the top echelon of motorsports and we’ve got guys that have never won late model races running out here on the race track. It’s pathetic. They don’t know where to go. So, what else do you do?” – Kyle Busch to NBCSN on his contact with Garrett Smithley that ended his comeback run.

WHAT’S NEXT: Federated Auto Parts 400 at Richmond Raceway at 7:30 p.m. ET Sept. 21 on NBCSN

 

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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