playoffs

Denny Hamlin reacts to giving up the No. 1 pit stall to Kyle Busch

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — In an unusual development, the pole-sitter for Sunday’s Ford 400 championship finale will start first in the race but won’t be stopping the last stall in the pits at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

How did Denny Hamlin feel about handing over the best spot for pit stops to Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch, who will race for a title Sunday?

In an interview with the Associated Press and NBC Sports after the final practice Saturday, Hamlin (who is starting on the pole at the track for the second consecutive season) discussed his reaction to team owner Joe Gibbs’ decision to cede the No. 1 stall to Busch (who qualified second), the precedent it might set, how sponsor FedEx reacted and how racing is complicated Sunday for those outside the Championship 4.

Q: You said last night that you would prefer to keep the stall, can you explain how this decision was reached?

Hamlin: “Ultimately, it’s an upper management decision, and that’s part of it. I understand. Sat down with Joe quite a bit. He came over pretty fast to talk to me. I could see the other side of it. If the roles were reversed, I think we would hope for the same thing. I think that’s the thing that sucks about it. You can’t predict what will happen in the future, but we would expect the same thing back.

“The problem is from my standpoint is it probably will set a precedent going forward. It probably will be a manufacturer thing more so than a teammate. I hate it, too, because I denied Martin last year. Luckily he won the race anyway, but I just think it’s a tough deal, and you’ve got to listen to the boss. And I understand, too, that there’s 400 employees back at the shop saying you got to do it. We’re narrow-minded because we’ve got 20 guys here working on our car, but there’s also 400 or 500 at the shop who are like you’ve got to do what’s best for all of us. I get that part of it. Ultimately, I sat behind Kyle at Martinsville for just way too long at the end of the race thinking I shouldn’t pass him, and I lost the race by a 10th (of a second) and shouldn’t have done that. I look back, I gave away a Richmond race. A bunch of stuff I just gave away trying to help.

“Hopefully, it all just comes back full circle. Maybe I’ll even get a thank you text.”

Q: Joe Gibbs says you can win from your fourth stall; do you agree?

Hamlin: “Certainly. Sure you can. I think it just depends on the situation. If there’s a late-race caution, certainly it’ll hurt, but this race typically has gone green for a really long time. If that’s the case, it’s not as big of a factor, but if we have some cautions and things at the end, it definitely can play a role.”

Q: Have you heard from sponsor FedEx about the move?

Hamlin: “Yeah, I talked to them a little bit, and Joe talked to them. They actually said we would want the same in return if the roles were reversed. It’s good that they’re kind of understanding in that sense.”

Q: Can this be classified as manipulating the race?

Hamlin: “I don’t know. Tough to say. I was third last year on the last restart, I cleared Kyle, he was fourth, and I just let him go, so that’s manipulating, too. You could bring that up all the time. Everybody who’s not in it has manipulated for a teammate in some way, shape or form. Manipulating can go … I mean what do we do at Martinsville on restarts? That’s full manipulation. So that’s a big wide, broad term that this could definitely fall in, but definitely on the smaller side.”

Q: Is there any way to police it?

Hamlin: “There’s just no way. Short of just saying NASCAR says we agree No. 1 is the best pit stall and whoever gets the pole has to keep it. Short of that, the 4 car gave us the No. 1 stall at Richmond because it wasn’t the best stall. We qualified second, he chose not to take No. 1. The problem is if it moves away from this track, you could argue which stall is the best, but I think here everyone would agree No. 1 is the best.”

Q: How much of an indicator is this that the race is only important to the four championship contenders?

Hamlin: “Probably. In the grand scheme of things. Even if you come out here and win the race, and I’ve won the race here a few times, and it’s played no role in winning a championship, you’re celebrating in victory lane, and nobody really cares. It’s just about those guys, but they earned that right to be on the stage this weekend. We didn’t.”

Q: Has perspective evolved on how to race the contenders for the 35 guys who won’t race for the title, especially since Kyle Larson said he laid back last year in third instead of challenging the top two championship contenders?

Hamlin: “I think some people do things differently than others. I think Kyle Larson is the kind of guy who would pull the move he did last year to be like I could maybe go up, and I don’t think it was a foregone conclusion he was going to pass those guys. He kind of stalled out when he got there. He’s the guy that you’ve got to respect the people who are up there.

“I think that if it is not one of my teammates that are in that same position in the top two, and I’m third running them down, I’m going to try to pass them both. No matter if it’s a Toyota teammate, I have to think about it. Can I pass them in time? It’s the thing about this sport, you’re playing for the championship, but yet everyone is playing, too. It’s the same thing that sucks about it last week and the week before. We all have to play on the same field. And we’re all out there trying to achieve our own goals, and sometimes that crosses the path.”

Round of 8 outlook for each Cup playoff driver

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The Cup Series begins its Round of 8 Sunday at Martinsville Speedway (2:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

The round consists of Martinsville, Texas Motor Speedway and ISM Raceway in Phoenix.

Here’s a breakdown of the eight drivers who will contend for slots in the championship round in Miami.

 

Kyle Busch

Points: 4,055

Wins: Seven (Texas I, Bristol I, Richmond I, Coke 600, Chicago, Pocono II, Richmond II)

Career Playoff wins: Six

Best Round of 8 track: Martinsville. He’s won two of the last six races there and not finished outside the top five in that stretch.

Worst Round of 8 track: Phoenix. He has one win there (in his second start) and a low of eight top fives. But he hasn’t finished worse than seventh in the last six races.

Playoff high: Only Big 3 member to win so far in the playoffs.

Playoff low: DNF in Charlotte Roval race for crash.

 

Kevin Harvick

Points: 4,054

Wins: Seven (Atlanta, Las Vegas I, Phoenix I, Dover I, Kansas I, New Hampshire, Michigan II)

Carer Playoff wins: 12

Best Round of 8 track: Phoenix. Harvick is the all-time leader in wins at the track with nine. Hasn’t finished lower than sixth in the last 10 starts.

Worst Round of 8 track: Martinsville. One win in 29 starts. Hasn’t finished higher than fifth since the fall 2011 race.

Playoff high: Finished second at Richmond. Only top three since Michigan win.

Playoff low: Leading 452 laps through six races (including 286 at Dover) without a win.

 

Martin Truex Jr.

Points: 4,038

Wins: Four (Auto Club Speedway, Pocono I, Sonoma, Kentucky)

Career Playoff wins: Six

Best Round of 8 track: Texas. No wins, but has just one finish outside top 10 in last seven starts (crash in April)

Worst Round of 8 track: Martinsville. Four top fives – including in the last two starts – but an average finish of 19th in 25 starts.

Playoff high: Led 259 laps in first two races and finished third.

Playoff low: Led going into final two turns at the Charlotte Roval before being turned by Jimmie Johnson. He finished 14th.

 

Chase Elliott

Points: 4,018

Wins: Three (Watkins Glen, Dover II and Kansas II)

Career Playoff wins: Two

Best Round of 8 track: Phoenix. One finish outside top 10 in five starts. Led 140 laps in the 2017 races.

Worst Round of 8 track: Chase Elliott and crew chief Alan Gustafson have noted Texas is one of their worst tracks since the repave before the 2017 season. In three starts since, Elliott has placed ninth, eighth and 11th.

Playoff high: Winning two of three races in Round of 12

Playoff low: DNF in playoff opener at Las Vegas (crash).

 

Clint Bowyer

Points: 4,015

Wins: Two (Martinsville I, Michigan I)

Career Playoff wins: Five

Best Round of 8 track: Martinsville. One win, six top five and a career-best 15 top 10s.

Worst Round of 8 track: Phoenix. Two top fives, seven top 10s in 26 starts.

Playoff high: Finishing second at Talladega

Playoff low: DNF for crash at Dover, where he led his only lap of the playoffs.

 

Joey Logano

Points: 4,015

Wins: One (Talladega)

Career Playoff wins: Seven

Best Round of 8 track: Texas. Six top 10s in last seven starts.

Worst Round of 8 track: Phoenix. Only one top 10 – a win – in last five starts.

Playoff high: Won pole, Stage 1 and led 100 laps at Kansas, finished eighth.

Playoff low: Finished 14th at Richmond, one lap down. Only finish off lead lap in playoffs.

 

Kurt Busch

Points: 4,015

Wins: One (Bristol II)

Career Playoff wins: Three

Best Round of 8 track: Phoenix. One win and an average finish of 13.6.

Worst Round of 8 track: Martinsville. His two wins are two of his three top fives in 36 starts.

Playoff high: Consecutive top fives on the Charlotte Roval and at Dover.

Playoff low: Led career-best 108 laps at Talladega before running out of gas on last lap. Finished 14th.

 

Aric Almirola

Points: 4,006

Wins: One (Talladega II)

Career Playoff wins: One

Best Round of 8 track: Phoenix. One win and an average finish of 13.6.

Worst Round of 8 track: Martinsville. His two wins are two of his three top fives in 36 starts.

Playoff high: Earned second career Cup win at Talladega.

Playoff low: Lost lead at Dover in pits with less than 10 laps to go and was involved in crash.

Round of 8 playoff drivers by the numbers at Martinsville and more

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Then there were eight.

That’s how many playoff drivers are left after Sunday’s Cup elimination race at Kansas Speedway.

Eights drivers – Chase Elliott, Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Joey Logano, Kurt Busch, Clint Bowyer, Aric Almirola and Martin Truex Jr. – will compete in the next three races for a spot among the championship four.

Here’s a look at some interesting numbers for the remaining playoff drivers ahead of this weekend’s race at Martinsville Speedway.

0 – Career wins on short tracks by Martin Truex Jr.

1 – The number of wins in the first six playoffs races by the “Big 3” of Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr. and Kevin Harvick.

2 – Wins by Chase Elliott through the first six playoff races. He’s the only driver with multiple wins in the playoffs this season.

3 – Top fives Kurt Busch has in 36 Martinsville starts, two are wins.

4 – How many Stewart-Haas Racing drivers remain in the playoff field: Harvick, Almirola, Busch and Bowyer.

5 – Martinsville races since Matt Kenseth intentionally wrecked Joey Logano in 2015.

8 – Different winners in last nine Martinsville races.

20 – Times in the last 22 playoff races the driver who led the most laps failed to win. Kyle Busch was the most recent driver to lead the most laps and win, doing it last year at Martinsville.

22 – Aric Almirola’s average finish at Martinsville in 19 starts.

190 – The race winless streak Clint Bowyer snapped in the spring at Martinsville Speedway.

Kansas Cup race could make elimination era history

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NASCAR is five years into the elimination era of the playoffs and a bit of history could be made with Sunday’s Hollywood Casino 400 at Kansas Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).

The Cup Series enters the second-round elimination race with five different winners in the first five races.

There has not been six different winners to begin the playoffs since the elimination era began in 2014.

The five winners so far have been Brad Keselowski (Las Vegas), Kyle Busch (Richmond), Ryan Blaney (Charlotte Roval), Chase Elliott (Dover) and Aric Almirola (Talladega).

The last three races have each seen a driver earn their second career Cup win.

This five-race stretch only saw one win by a member of the regular season’s “Big 3” with Busch’s victory.

Martin Truex Jr. has gone 12 races since he last won at Kentucky Speedway. Kevin Harvick is winless in the eight races since his Michigan victory.

But with the arrival of Kansas for the elimination race chances are good to the two drivers could make playoff history.

Harvick claimed the win in the May Kansas race, leading 79 laps from the pole. Three of his seven wins this year have come on 1.5-mile tracks.

If he wins Sunday, Harvick will also continue his six-year streak of winning in the playoffs, which is the longest active streak.

Truex will try to defend his win in this race last year, which completed a sweep of the Kansas races. He also finished second to Harvick in May’s race.

Of Truex’s four wins this season, he has only one on a 1.5-mile track. But of his 12 wins since 2017, eight have come at mile-and-a-half tracks.

“As far as why we’ve been good there (at Kansas) over the years, I’m not sure,” Truex said in a press release. “It’s a place where I really feel comfortable. Have had chances to win multiple races there over the years with different teams even. It was one of the places I was successful at before Furniture Row so for whatever reason it just points towards my driving style and my comfort level, what I like in my race car and it just seems to work out well there.”

MORE: Truex looks to rebound at reliable Kansas

Here are the winners of the first six races in the first four years of the elimination era.

2014

Chicagoland – Brad Keselowski

Loudon – Joey Logano

Dover – Jeff Gordon

Kansas – Joey Logano

Charlotte – Kevin Harvick

Talladega – Brad Keselowski

2015

Chicagoland – Denny Hamlin

New Hampshire – Matt Kenseth

Dover – Kevin Harvick

Charlotte – Joey Logano

Kansas – Joey Logano

Talladega – Joey Logano

2016

Chicagoland – Martin Truex Jr.

New Hampshire – Kevin Harvick

Dover – Martin Truex Jr.

Charlotte – Jimmie Johnson

Kansas – Kevin Harvick

Talladega – Joey Logano

2017

Chicagoland – Martin Truex Jr.

New Hampshire – Kyle Busch

Dover – Kyle Busch

Charlotte  -Martin Truex Jr.

Talladega – Brad Keselowski

Kansas – Martin Truex Jr.

12 questions to ponder for Round of 12

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1. Will the Big 3 dominate this round?

They will at Dover. Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex have combined to win four of the last six Dover races. Twice members of this group finished first and second at this track in that time. Truex has four consecutive top-five finishes there, including one win.

The question becomes Talladega, the middle race of the round. Team Penske’s Brad Keselowski and Joey Logano have combined to win five of the last seven races there.

The round ends at Kansas. The Big 3 have combined to win each of the last five races there.

So expect to see a lot of Harvick, Truex and Busch running toward the front, particularly at Dover and Kansas.

2. Are we seeing the emergence of Team Penske as a title threat?

Ryan Blaney’s surprise win at the Charlotte Roval gives Team Penske four victories in the last five races.

To put that into perspective: Team Penske had four wins in the 58 races before its recent streak.

That’s a nice run for Team Penske but let’s see what Brad Keselowski, Joey Logano and Blaney can do against the Big 3 this weekend at Dover and later in the round at Kansas Speedway. Those will be key tracks. If Team Penske can beat the Big 3 there, than it might be time to say this group could crash the Big 3’s get together in Miami.

3. What will happen next to Kyle Larson?

Larson looked to be one of the main title contenders last year until this round when a blown engine at Kansas prevented him from advancing. He wasn’t strong in this round last year, placing 10th on the Charlotte oval (he finished behind seven of the other 11 playoff drivers) and 13th at Talladega.

In a year where he’s winless but been the runner-up six times, he needed a wild set of circumstances — Jimmie Johnson spinning while battling for the lead on the last chicane and Jeffrey Earnhardt being spun and unable to continue less than 100 yards from the finish line — to advance to the second round.

Larson has lamented in the past how luck has not gone his way, particularly in the playoffs.

Will last week’s remarkable finish lead this team deeper into the playoffs, or will fate strike a cruel blow to the team’s playoff hopes in this round?

4. What type of warning sign would be apropos for this round?

Be careful in the final stage. In the opening round, six of the 13 cautions that took place in the final stage at Las Vegas, Richmond and the Charlotte Roval involved at least one playoff contender.

5. What’s something to keep an eye on for the rest of the playoffs?

Pit road. Penalties could play a key role in who advances.

Uncontrolled tire violations have been called seven times in the playoffs. Five of those infractions have been committed by playoff teams.

“I feel like if they stay in the box, what’s the big deal? I think our fans want to see hard racing,” said Martin Truex Jr., whose team was penalized for an uncontrolled tire at Richmond. “They want to see the guys that are up front battling, not going to the rear once every two or three weeks for a tire sitting there with a guy that’s a foot too far away from it. I don’t agree with it. I think we should look at it, but I don’t make the rules.”

6. Stewart-Haas Racing had all four of its drivers advance. How many can get to the next round?

Kevin Harvick is among the favorites to go all the way to Miami. Kurt Busch has been consistent. His 39 stage points in the playoffs rank second to Martin Truex Jr.’s 45 stage points.

Clint Bowyer was outside the cutline going into the race at the Charlotte Roval and advanced. Aric Almirola advanced via a tiebreaker. Almirola’s team has had speed at times but not been able to put together a whole race often. He enters this round seeded 11th of the 12 drivers.

Odds are against all four advancing. With the expectation that the Big 3 — Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — advance, that leaves a small margin for error for SHR to have all four teams move into the third round.

7. What about Hendrick Motorsports?

Jimmie Johnson is gone, but Chase Elliott and Alex Bowman remain in the playoffs.

Both Elliott (ninth) and Bowman (12th) start the round outside the cutoff to advance to the next round.

Elliott has eight top-10 finishes in the last eight races and is a good candidate to advance. Bowman has three top-10 finishes in the last 10 races. That won’t be good enough to keep going.

8. Who could be an X factor?

It’s remarkable how Jeffrey Earnhardt has played a key role lately.

In the regular-season finale, he was involved in a late-race incident with Landon Cassill that caused the final caution and allowed Brad Keselowski to pass Denny Hamlin for the win.

At Richmond, a caution for Earnhardt was the only yellow other than the two stage breaks. He spun after he was hit by Matt Kenseth. The caution came after Denny Hamlin, Kurt Busch and Ryan Blaney had pitted, putting them two laps down with less than 80 laps to go. None of those three drivers finished in the top 15.

At the Charlotte Roval, Earnhardt spun off the final turn of the final lap after contact from Daniel Hemric. Earnhardt was stalled less than 100 yards from the finish line but couldn’t get his car restarted. Kyle Larson, running well off the pace, blew a tire and hit the wall in Turn 4 of the oval and then hit the wall after exiting the final chicane before passing Earnhardt. That one position — and one point — was the difference in Larson advancing to this round.

9. An average of 15 cars was eliminated by accidents in the last three Talladega races. Do you take the over or under?

If it helps you decide, 24 cars were eliminated by accident in last year’s playoff race there. Take the over.

10. Will this round match the drama of the first round?

With Talladega coming up, it certainly could. No one expected Las Vegas to have such fireworks. Maybe that happens at Dover or Kansas in this round.

11. Who advances?

Kevin Harvick, Kyle Busch, Martin Truex Jr., Brad Keselowski, Kyle Larson, Kurt Busch, Chase Elliott and Ryan Blaney.

12. Who is eliminated?

Alex Bowman, Clint Bowyer, Joey Logano and Aric Almirola.