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NASCAR penalty report from Martinsville Speedway

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NASCAR has fined two Cup crew chiefs for unsecured lug nuts on their cars Sunday at Martinsville.

Paul Wolfe, crew chief on Brad Keselowski‘s No. 2 Ford, and Rodney Childers, crew chief on Kevin Harvick‘s No. 4 Ford, were each fined $10,000 for one unsecured lug nut.

There were no other penalties from the race weekend.

NASCAR America: Will anyone below the bubble advance?

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In Wednesday’s edition of NASCAR America, Steve Letarte said: “When you get to the Round of 12, it’s not about the points; it’s who you’ve got to beat.”

Brad Keselowski trails Martin Truex Jr. by 18 points. Letarte recalled a conversation with Paul Wolfe in which he questioned if it was realistic to beat Truex by that margin at Kansas. The answer was “no”.

The other three drivers below the cutline to advance to the Round of 8 are in an even more serious predicament.

Ryan Blaney is 22 points below the cutoff line. With his Talladega penalty, Kyle Larson is 36 points in arrears and Alex Bowman is 68 points behind. The most points available in a race is 60.

Keselowski’s surge at the end of the regular season that carried over to a playoff win at Las Vegas serves as an example of how these drivers can find a path to advancement. So does the fact that since the elimination-style playoffs were implemented, several drivers have earned dramatic wins in the final races of a round.

“Look at the playoffs,” Letarte continued. “I’m pretty scared to … say anything because Vegas was crazy, the Roval was crazy. Talladega was actually supposed to be crazy and it was calm.”

For more on whether the driver below the bubble can advance, watch the video above.

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Late fuel stop adds to ‘frustrating three weeks’ for Brad Keselowski’s team

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TALLADEGA, Ala. — All that positive momentum Brad Keselowski’s team had entering the playoffs is long gone after another frustrating finish that has his title hopes in jeopardy.

Keselowski pitted for fuel in overtime and finished 27th Sunday at Talladega Superspeedway. He is 18 points out of the final transfer spot entering next weekend’s race at Kansas Speedway.

“Ever since Richmond, we haven’t done much, made bad decisions and we didn’t have speed this weekend, and last weekend was bad,” crew chief Paul Wolfe told NBC Sports. “We wrecked two cars at the Roval. It’s been a frustrating three weeks and now we’re sitting I don’t know how many points out … We’ll go to Kansas and do what we try to do every week and that’s win and see what happens.”

It’s a marked change for the team, which won the Southern 500 and at Indianapolis to end the regular season and won the playoff opener at Las Vegas.

At Richmond, Keselowski finished ninth, hindered by a slow pit stop in the first half of the race. At the Charlotte Roval, he was fastest in practice but crashed in the final session and had to go to a backup. He crashed while leading late in the race and placed 31st. Last week at Dover, Keselowski finished 14th after he was hit by Aric Almirola in the final laps and his car was damaged.

“We made a bad call not to pit last week there at the end and then we got run over,” Wolfe said. “So that’s not good.”

Sunday, Keselowski had a loose wheel that forced him to stop under green and fall a lap down. He recovered to lead 21 laps but Stewart-Haas Racing’s cars were clearly better.

Why?

Sounds like they’ve got some really good engineering,” Keselowski said.

The team made some changes this weekend to the car but couldn’t counter the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“We went for handling today, thought that’s what we needed and I don’t know, I didn’t really see it pay off for us,” Wolfe said. “There were cars out there driving a lot worse than we were but we weren’t able to capitalize on it. Disappointed in that.”

Keselowski was running ninth when the race went to overtime and then pitted for fuel while most of the field stayed out.

“We just got a little bit of air in there and I think he panicked and came to pit road and likely should have just rolled on and we would have probably run out down the back (straightaway) or something but had enough speed to carry it around and maybe finish a few spots higher,” Wolfe told NBC Sports.

“When you get down to the end like that and you got a lap-and-a-half of fuel, we’re talking about half a gallon of fuel, you’ve got to be really aggressive keeping that pick up full and sometimes you‘ll get a little sputter there and got to let it recover and go on. It’s just been a frustrating three weeks.”

Hendrick Motorsports splitting Chad Knaus, Jimmie Johnson after 2018 season

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Hendrick Motorsports will split one of the most successful driver-crew chief combinations in the sport’s history after this season.

The organization announced Wednesday that Chad Knaus and Jimmie Johnson, who have been together since 2002 and won a record-tying seven championships, will not work together in 2019.

Knaus will be William Byron‘s crew chief next year.

MORE: A look at where things stand in Silly Season

MORE: NBC analysts debate who wins an 8th title first: Jimmie or Chad?

Johnson will have Kevin Meendering as his crew chief in 2019. Meendering is serving as Elliott Sadler‘s crew chief in the Xfinity Series this season at JR Motorsports.

Darian Grubb, who is Byron’s crew chief this season, will be promoted to technical director at Hendrick Motorsports.

“Chad and Jimmie will go down as one of the greatest combinations in sports history,” Hendrick Motorsports owner Rick Hendrick said in a statement. “They defied the odds by performing at a championship level for longer than anyone could’ve possibly imagined. What they’ve accomplished together has been absolutely remarkable and will be celebrated for generations. This has been an incredible, storybook run.

“It’s no secret that Chad and Jimmie have experienced their ups and downs over the years. “They’re fierce competitors, great friends and have immense respect for one another. They also fight like brothers. All three of us agree it’s finally time for new challenges and that a change will benefit them and the organization.”

Knaus and Johnson have been together 17 seasons, the longest active streak. Brad Keselowski and Paul Wolfe are the next longest driver-crew chief combination at eight years.

Johnson enters Sunday’s Cup race at Talladega SuperSpeedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC) on a career-long 53-race winless streak.

[More: Johnson plays joke on No. 78 team with special gifts]

Since last season, Johnson has three wins, six top-five finishes and 21 top-10 finishes in 66 starts. That is the worst two-year period for Johnson and Knaus in their time together.

In their time together, they won one Daytona 500 (Johnson won a second while Knaus was suspended), two Southern 500s, four Brickyard 400s and four Coca-Cola 600s.

Pairing Meendering with Johnson next year brings Meendering back to Hendrick Motorsports. Meendering spent 16 years with the organization, becoming the lead engineer for Dale Earnhardt Jr.‘s team in 2011. Meendering has spent the past three seasons as Sadler’s crew chief in the Xfinity Series, leading Sadler to three wins and 38 top-five finishes.

On pairing Knaus with Byron, Hendrick said: “You can’t quantify how much Chad’s leadership and championship experience will benefit William, who is a special talent. The two of them are a great match, and I’m excited to see what they can do together. Chad has the Rainbow Warriors pedigree and truly appreciates the history of the No. 24. I’ve asked him to build another winner and given him the green light to put his stamp on the team and do it his way.”

Long: A decision where the head won out over the heart

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LAS VEGAS — Car owner Barney Visser stood outside the Furniture Row Racing hauler Sunday at Las Vegas Motor Speedway and chatted with team members, some he had not had the chance to talk to personally since announcing that the team would cease after this season.

It was his first time back at the track since the Sept. 4 announcement. He plans to be at many of the remaining nine races as Martin Truex Jr. seeks a second consecutive Cup championship.

Each week, though, brings Visser closer to the end of a remarkable run in NASCAR that saw his organization start as a part-time team in Denver, elevate to full-time status, score its first win in the Southern 500, align with Toyota and Joe Gibbs Racing, expand to a second car, win the Cup title, downsize to one car and seek to repeat as champion.

Visser admits it was a hard decision — and an easy decision — to not continue the team after this season.

“You got your soul and you got your heart and you got your mind,” Visser told NBC Sports. “Two of the three are hurting, and my mind is saying you got to do this.”

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The announcement in July by 5-hour Energy to leave the team and the sport after this season left Visser facing a gap of millions of dollars. With budgets already set for many companies, the likelihood of replacing 5-hour Energy’s millions with one company was slim. Visser would have to put more of his own money into the team if he wanted to continue. Then, he would need to renew deals with Toyota, Joe Gibbs Racing and sign Truex to an extension. 

“The family, we had all sat down and decided together that there would be a limit on what we could put in any given year,” Visser said. “We were talking about that the last couple of years. This (gap) was so far off.”

Visser’s tale could prove cautionary for the sport. He was an outsider who came into NASCAR, built his team, won races and captured a championship. There are few such success stories in Cup in recent years.

It’s not that others don’t try but they don’t have the success for various reasons. Ron Devine and a group of investors started BK Racing in 2012, ran as many as three full-time teams, but never had the success, struggled to find sponsorship, fell behind in payments on loans and to the IRS, among others, filed Chapter 11 bankruptcy before this year’s Daytona 500 and was sold for $2.08 million to Front Row Motorsports in August.

Visser, though, doesn’t think that his exit will mean the end of outsider owners coming into NASCAR. But change will need to take place, he admits.

“Hopefully they’re going to standardize the equipment more, and they’re going to find a way to maybe protect sponsors from leaving, from going with drivers and protect the teams, just some kind of standard contract, that would be good,” Visser said, although he admits such a contract “wouldn’t have saved us” with 5-hour Energy.

“There’s not going to be a shortage of drivers in this sport, there’s going to be a shortage of quality teams. We’ve got to get that figured out.”

Standing about 30 feet from Visser on Sunday was Gene Haas, co-owner of Stewart-Haas Racing and also the owner of Haas F1.

He’s searching for a driver for the No. 41 car for next year and noted the importance of a driver bringing sponsorship.

Haas laments the decline in the number of teams.

“We used to have 40-50 cars showing up for some of these races and now you’re barley filling the field,” Haas told NBC Sports. “From an economic standpoint it’s not working. There’s not enough money for teams to do that.”


Can friendship carry over to the track? And should it?

The issue came up at the end of the first stage in Saturday’s Xfinity race.

Ryan Preece was two laps down after an early incident. Leader Ross Chastain, a teammate to Preece at JD Motorsports in 2016, slowed his Chip Ganassi Racing ride coming to the line to end the first stage. That allowed Preece to beat Chastain to the line and get a lap back.

“I was hoping,” Preece told NBC Sports that Chastain would allow him to get a lap back there. “That was something he didn’t have to do. I’m sure one day I’ll return the favor.”

Mike Shiplett, crew chief for Chastain, told his driver on the radio not to do that again.

He was already a couple of laps down and he was torn up,” Chastain said of letting Preece get a lap back. “I’ve been on the other side of that. I wish they would just give that little bit. I know Mike wasn’t happy, and I didn’t do it again.

“I ran as hard as I could to prove a point to him that I listened to him. If I could go back, I wouldn’t change it. I would do it again. It did let the second-place car close up to us for pit road, but our guys were so fast it didn’t matter.

“It didn’t matter if it was Preece or whoever. Those are the guys that I have raced with for years and I just wanted to be nice. Be nice every now and then. It’s not going to kill you. Just give a little bit.”

Preece got back on the lead lap less than 20 laps later when there was a caution and he got the free pass. He ended up having issues later in the race and never put himself in position to challenge for the win, but the move by Chastain to allow Preece to get a lap back could have backfired.

When he got the free pass later, I was like uh oh,” Chastain said. “I didn’t know if he was fast or what. If he comes back and beats me, I’m never going to live that down. It all worked out. I was just trying to be nice.”


When a car doesn’t have the speed to challenge the top cars, a team has to do other things to win.

Such is the case for Brad Keselowski’s No. 2 team, led by crew chief Paul Wolfe.

After each of Keselowski’s last three wins, Keselowski or Wolfe have talked about needing to find more speed. So, how have they won three races in a row?

It has helped that the Big 3 have had their issues in those races. Martin Truex Jr. was among the strongest at Darlington in the first half of the race before an uncontrolled tire put him a lap down and he didn’t get back on the lead lap until the end.

At Indy, Kevin Harvick and Kyle Busch had issues on pit road that kept them from leading much of the race.

At Las Vegas, Harvick crashed and Busch spun.

So in each of those races, Keselowski didn’t have to beat each of the Big 3 head-to-head on speed.

Still, Keselowski had to outrun others to win. He did it with restarts, short-run speed and pit stops.

At Las Vegas, Keselowski fended off the field on the final three restarts and was stronger on short runs than Truex, whose car was set for long runs there.

“Our car was very good on restarts, would run fast for a few laps,” Wolfe said. “I think our car had some good stability. That’s really what it comes down to those first couple laps when everyone is jammed up and you don’t have a lot of clean air is having a lot of security, and our car seemed to be able to fire off really well, and the pit crew was really flawless.”

Four times Keselowski was first off pit road, gaining positions, and a fifth time he entered pit road first and left first at Las Vegas.

At Indy, Wolfe’s pit strategy put Keselowski in position to win on a late restart because of fresher tires than Danny Hamlin.

At Darlington, Keselowski beat Kyle Larson off pit road for the lead on the final pit stop and shot out to the lead on the restart. Keselowski led the final 22 laps to win.

“We have not been the best car the last three weeks,” Keselowski said after his Las Vegas win. “This week we were probably a top‑three or ‑four car. I didn’t get to see (Kevin Harvick) before he had his issue, but I thought he was running pretty good. He was obviously in front of me at one point. And him and (Martin Truex Jr.) were very strong. 

“The 78 (Truex) was clearly the best car, and we put everything together when it counted, and kind of stole it today. Same scenario the last two weeks. 

“I thought (Larson) was the best car in Darlington, and we hit the strategy right and executed the last pit stop and that put us in position to win. 

“And in Indy, we were nowhere near probably even a top‑10 car. We were probably a 15th‑place car, and Paul Wolfe hit the strategy right, and I hit the restart right to make all the passes when it counted and won that race. With that in mind, no, I feel like we stole the last three races. We’re not complaining, but we still have a lot of work to do to go out there and win heads up without those issues.”


It has been a rough year for the No. 60 Roush Fenway Racing Xfinity team.

Austin Cindric, Chase Briscoe and Ty Majeski have shared the ride throughout the season but last weekend’s race provided an all-too-familiar scene for that team — the car hitting the wall.

Briscoe’s crash at Las Vegas marked the 10th time in 26 races this season the No. 60 car has been eliminated by an accident.

The team has had only four top-10 finishes. Its best finish is seventh at Iowa with Ty Majeski.

Briscoe’s crash at Las Vegas was eerily reminiscent of Jeff Gordon‘s crash there in 2008 before a SAFER barrier was placed on the inside wall.

“I’m really disappointed right now in this speedway for not having a soft wall back there, and even being able to get to that part of the wall,” Gordon said after the crash. “That kind of hit shouldn’t happen. It’s just uncalled for. There’s no reason why any track should have that (kind of opening).”

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