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Long: Managing mistakes defined Cup playoff opener

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Mistakes and how they were handled during Sunday’s Southern 500 could reverberate throughout the Cup playoffs.

Ryan Blaney, Martin Truex Jr. and Chase Elliott could feel the impact of what happened for the next few weeks. Austin Dillon, Brad Keselowski and Denny Hamlin could benefit in how they recovered.

Drivers talked last week about the need to be mistake-free in the playoffs. Some teams didn’t make it to the pre-race ceremonies without blunders.

NASCAR penalized Blaney 10 points, his starting spot and suspended crew chief Todd Gordon for the race before Blaney was on the grid.

A five-pound bag of lead used at the shop to simulate fluid weights before the engine is installed was accidentally left in Blaney’s car, the team stated. Gordon said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “The Morning Drive” that the issue “was missed by several people.”

NASCAR saw it. The 10-point penalty could be devastating to Blaney.

Darlington and Richmond, the first two tracks in the opening round of the playoffs, are among Blaney’s worst. He’s not scored a top 10 at either in Cup.

Blaney’s Southern 500 issues were compounded when a left rear tire went down and he had to pit as the field took the green flag to begin the second stage. That cost him a lap. Blaney finished 24th. He’s last in the playoff standings and now heads to Richmond, a place he’s never finished in the top 15 in a Cup race.

Blaney’s team wasn’t the only one to have problems before the command to fire engines. Somehow, Dillon’s team switched the left front and right front tires on the No. 3 car.

“Somebody just didn’t see the L and didn’t see the R,” Dillon said of the markings that note left side and right side tires. “They’re Sharpied on there. That was how they found it.”

Dillon said crew chief Justin Alexander saw the issue shortly before the race. Had the error not been found, Dillon said “I would have probably knocked the fence down.” Dillon had to start at the rear for changing the tires since it came after pre-race inspection.

Dillon relied on FIDO — Forget It and Drive On — to get him through that challenge.

It’s an approach Dillon picked up from former Marine Lt. Clebe McClary, a motivational speaker and veterans advocate, who lost his left arm and left eye in combat in Vietnam. Clebe spoke at Richard Childress Racing before the season.

“It was probably one of the best luncheons we’ve had as a group, just an unbelievable speaker,” Dillon said. “I think it really hit home for me because I’m a fiery guy and I can dwell on things too long instead of moving on. That acronym is just an easy reminder, like hey, man, it’s over. There’s no need to play it back or wonder why we’re in the situation we’re in. It’s just get the most out of everything that I can.”

Dillon moved on and prepared to race from the back of the lineup. Challenges persisted. He had to pit under green during the first stage because a right rear tire was going flat. He overcame that obstacle and went on to finish second to winner Kevin Harvick.

Brad Keselowski’s team had their own challenges. Keselowski — whose playoff motto is “Why not us?” — hit the wall and had a flat right front tire on Lap 81 of the 367-lap race. Instead of making partial repairs and sending Keselowski back on track to stay on the lead lap, crew chief Jeremy Bullins calmly told his team they’d lose a lap while making the necessary repairs.

Keselowski eventually got back on the lead lap and went on to finish 11th. It wasn’t a memorable result, but it was better than 31st, his position after the incident.

Hamlin also was steady during a key point in the race. He was in a pack of cars and tried to get to the lower lane so he could pit under green. Hamlin was blocked by a car on the inside on the backstretch. He finally got to the bottom lane in Turn 3.

Hamlin recognized he was going too fast to pit and didn’t compound matters with a daring move that could have damaged his car. He lost positions by going back around the track before pitting, but he didn’t panic. A debris caution about 10 laps late stuck Hamlin outside the top 10 and he wasn’t able to recover. Still, his 13th-place finish was better than it might have been.

It was a better finish than Truex (22nd) and Elliott (20th). As they raced for the lead late, Truex got a run off Turn 4 and made a move under Elliott entering Turn 1 with 14 laps to go. Truex hadn’t cleared Elliott when he moved up but later said: “I thought I had enough momentum and distance on (Elliott) that he was going to let me in there. I didn’t expect him to be on my right rear and I was committed.”

They made contact and both hit the wall. Their chances to win were over.

The aggressive move is understandable. It’s 14 laps to go in the Southern 500. It’s a playoff race where a win moves the driver to the next round and scores five playoff points. Truex entered the playoffs with only 14 playoff points. But his hope that Elliott would let him up might have been overly optimistic. Could Truex have stayed on the low side and tried to pressure Elliott into a mistake over the remaining laps? Possibly. If he thought that was his one opportunity to take the lead, Truex had the take the chance. 

With risk comes reward, but there was no reward this time. Instead, Truex and Elliott each lost about 20 points and the potential for five playoff points because of the incident.

Will they need those points in the playoffs? Will those points be the difference in advancing to another round or the championship race? Or will it be only a footnote to what is to come in these playoffs?

With nine races remaining, there will be many challenges and mistakes made. How drivers and teams respond could  play a role in who races for a title.

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Chase Elliott likes NASCAR’s path in ‘simplifying things’

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Chase Elliott says he thinks the changes NASCAR has made this season have been good because the sport is “simplifying things.”

Elliott made his comments Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio’s “Tradin’ Paint” with hosts John Roberts and Chocolate Myers. Elliott discussed that and his season, among other topics on the show.

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NASCAR was the first major sport to return in May from a COVID-19 break and has made several changes. There will be no practice and qualifying before nearly all races. Crew rosters have been cut. Weeknight races have been held, along with weekend doubleheaders. The schedule has been altered.

Elliott was asked about the changes NASCAR has made this year.

“I think we’re on a path right now that is really what NASCAR needs,” he said. “I see a lot of it. To me, we’re simplifying things, which is something that I think needed to be done for a long time. I think as NASCAR grew, I think it kind of overgrew it’s shoe size a little bit over the years and we overcomplicated things.”

One of the changes Elliott said that has been good is the limited number of crew members at the track.

“Yes, that can be more work, but I think what it has done is allow more crew members and myself included, I think everybody has an extra job or two, and I think what that has done is brought us closer together and brought more of that short track mentality of a small group of people that are more diverse going to the racetrack each week,” he said. “It brings you closer together because you have to work closer together to make sure everything is done and done at the level you want it to be.

“I just don’t see the need of practicing three hours every weekend. I think that is just ridiculous and way too much. I mean, heck, I think a lot of guys, Chocolate you’ve probably seen this, you go back to where you started (with the setup in practice) half the time anyways, more than half the time.

“Show up, you’re giving your best stab at what you have the most confidence in when you get to the racetrack on a Friday for practice anyways, so why not go ahead and start the event and see what you have? There is no better practice than a race and you don’t get your report card until the race is over anyway. Let’s just give our best effort in what we believe is fast and if it’s not, we see it right then and there and we can go to work on trying to improve.

“I’ve only heard one person complain about less practice, but I have a pretty strong feeling if they had won a few races by now they wouldn’t be saying less practice either. I think for the most part, it’s been a big time solid.”

Elliott enters this weekend’s Cup doubleheader at Michigan International Speedway (4 p.m. ET Saturday and 4:30 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN), fifth in the points.

Chase Elliott after his victory in the NASCAR All-Star Race on July 15 at Bristol. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)

Things haven’t been smooth for Elliott in the last month even with his All-Star Race victory at Bristol. In the five points races since July, he’s finished between ninth and 23rd. Michigan could be a good place for a doubleheader weekend for Elliott. He’s been a runner-up there three times and has finished in the top 10 in seven of his eight Cup starts at the track.

“I definitely think there is room for improvement, for sure,” said Elliott, who placed ninth last weekend at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. “I think we fired off the year awesome, and I think the results showed that across the board. We were running better as a group and battling for a win like we expect and like we want to do as a company, as a manufacturer, as individual teams.

“As always, time goes on and people improve and if you get behind that curve just a little bit, it is hard to catch up. I think for us, we’ve just got to really put our focus on that areas that we talk about in our meeting and the things we struggle with the most and places like (New Hampshire) are one of them.

“It wasn’t one of those things that wasn’t a new thing for us (Sunday). We put a lot of emphasis in trying to do better and went with a handful of different mindsets (Sunday) setup wise and this and that. Unfortunately, just didn’t really seem to be any improvement. Sometimes you have to step back and look at things from a more general perspective and look at general big trends and what is off in certain areas. I think you can dive sometimes too deep into the fine details and get lost in that.

“I think fine details are great when the big stuff is right. I just think as a group we’re off a little bit and you’re not talking much. A tenth (of a second) or two would be the difference between running ninth or 10th and battling up in the top five. When you are working that small window it is hard to not focus on the fine details, but I’m a believer in a lot of times in looking back in the general trends can sometimes help you get in the right direction, too.”

18 questions entering final 18 Cup races of the season

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Tonight’s Cup race at Kansas Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN and the NBC Sports App) marks the beginning of the second half of the Cup season. So here are 18 questions for the final 18 Cup races of the season.

1. Will Jimmie Johnson win another race?

The Dover doubleheader is coming up on the schedule (Aug. 22 and 23) and that was the site of his last Cup win in 2017. Heading into tonight’s race at Kansas Speedway, Johnson’s winless streak is 112 races. His best finish this year is third at Bristol and the series will be back there in September in the playoffs.

2. Who will drive the No. 48 car in 2021?

There’s plenty of interest in this high-profile ride that has a full-season sponsor already in place. Will car owner Rick Hendrick go with an established star or pick a younger driver with plenty of potential? What Hendrick decides could greatly impact the upcoming Silly Season.

3. What will Silly Season be like?

Before the season, this was viewed as a year where Silly Season could overshadow most of what happens on the track. Ryan Blaney signed a contract extension with Team Penske in May. Alex Bowman signed a one-year extension with Hendrick Motorsports in May.

Among the drivers without announced rides for next season are Brad Keselowski, Erik Jones, Clint Bowyer, Matt DiBenedetto and Kyle Larson, who remains indefinitely suspended by NASCAR for uttering a racial slur during an online race in April.

Stewart-Haas is a wonderful organization,” Bowyer said this week. “I want to be there. I want to retire there, and I love the opportunity and the people behind it.”

Said Jones, who is battling for a playoff spott, this week: “I’ve had a really good relationship with (Joe Gibbs Racing) for quite a few years now. I put probably the most pressure on myself. I wouldn’t say JGR ever comes to me and asks questions or questions why you’re in this spot. They see the same things we do and the same things we struggle each weekend and why we’re in this spot. People aren’t blind to that.”

4. Will Ryan Blaney’s luck change?

He led 150 laps last weekend at Texas, won the first two stages but didn’t win the race when a caution came out at the wrong time. He finished seventh. He ranks third in laps led this season but has one Cup win. He could have a few more wins. Instead, those are playoff points lost. Will that hurt him later in the year?

5. Who is next to surprise?

Rookie Cole Custer scored a stunning win at Kentucky. Austin Dillon followed it up last weekend at Texas with the help of some decision-making at RCR’s command center. Both were outside a playoff spot before they won. Now they are in the playoffs. This marks the first time since 2017 that a driver outside a playoff spot won a race.

In 2014 and 2016, a record three drivers outside a playoff spot won a Cup race. Could there be a third such winner this year? Among those outside a playoff spot entering tonight’s race at Kansas Speedway are William Byron, Tyler Reddick, Erik Jones, Bubba Wallace and Chris Buescher.

6. Will Kyle Busch make it to the championship race a sixth year in a row?

One of the most intriguing elements this season has been Kyle Busch failing to win in the first half of the Cup season. He hasn’t even won a stage. He has no playoff points. He had the most playoffs points at the halfway mark of the season each of the past two years.

Busch has talked about the struggles at Joe Gibbs Racing this season and how the lack of practice has made it more difficult to fix the issues. With NASCAR announcing this week that it will go the rest of the season without practice and qualifying, Busch’s task has become more difficult.

7. What drivers in last year’s playoff could miss it this year?

Kyle Larson will since he’s not in the series. William Byron enters Kansas two points out of what would be the final playoff spot. Erik Jones enters Kansas outside a playoff spot. As does Ryan Newman, who missed three races because of his head injury suffered in a last-lap crash in the Daytona 500. He has a waiver and would make the playoffs should he win a race. Newman is too far back in points to make the playoffs that way.

8. Which will be more of a wildcard race: Daytona road course or Daytona oval?

Oh boy.

Drivers will have no practice before running the road course for the first time in Cup cars (same for Xfinity and Trucks). And the Daytona oval race is the final regular-season race, so desperation to make the playoffs will be high.

Both races in August could prove quite interesting.

9. Who will win rookie of the year?

Cole Custer has a win and is in the playoffs. Tyler Reddick has a rookie-high six top-10 finishes, including three in a row. Christopher Bell is showing signs of progress after a rotten start to the season. John Hunter Nemechek has had a few highlights this season.

This will be worth watching as the season progresses. Some are suggesting this could be among the best rookie crop in years.

10. How will NASCAR change the starting lineup draw?

With no qualifying, the random draw will remain. Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said this week on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that series officials were looking at changes to the draw once the playoffs begin. NASCAR has yet to announce its plans in this matter.

11. Martinsville moves to the final race before the championship. What type of chaos could be seen there?

Well, let’s see. Last year’s playoff race saw Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano scuffle after the race. In 2018, Martin Truex Jr. was upset with Logano for his bump-and-run to win. In 2017, Hamlin and Chase Elliott had a heated exchange after Hamlin’s contract wrecked Elliott late. In 2015, Matt Kenseth wrecked Logano in retaliation for an incident earlier in the playoffs at Kansas.

Now, Martinsville is the last race before the championship field is set? Safe to say plenty of tempers will be on display that day.

12. How big will the crowds be at upcoming races?

There will be no fans allowed tonight at Kansas. Next week’s race at New Hampshire can have up to 19,000. The following weekend features the Cup doubleheader at Michigan before no fans. The races at Daytona — both on the road course and oval — will have fans but no total has been announced. Nothing has been announced for the playoffs. Among the playoffs tracks is Bristol Motor Speedway, which hosted an estimated 20-25,000 for the All-Star Race earlier this month.

13. What happens if a playoff driver tests positive for COVID-19 in the playoffs?

NASCAR gave Jimmie Johnson a waiver when he missed Indianapolis for testing positive for COVID-19, but what happens if a playoff driver has to miss one or two races in a round? Will that driver be allowed to advance to the next round and just make one more driver advancing than scheduled?

14. How high a stack of pennies will Corey LaJoie have at the end of the season?

Corey LaJoie’s mantra is stacking pennies, meaning a little progress can grow into greater success over time.

He had seven top-20 finishes last year for Go Fas Racing. LaJoie already has six top-20 finishes this season. He’s stacked plenty of pennies so far.

15. Will Matt Kenseth be back after this season?

Kenseth was coy about that when asked about his future recently, saying he was focused on improved finishes. He has had four top-20 finishes in the last five races heading into Kansas. With the number of drivers available for next season, Chip Ganassi Racing could have many options.

16. Is this Kevin Harvick’s year to win a second Cup title?

He has had a fantastic season with four wins, a series-high 11 top-five finishes, including five in a row, and a series-best 15 top 10s. He’s finished in the top 10 in 83.3% of the races. Remarkable. So far so good.

17. Or is this Denny Hamlin’s year?

The Daytona 500 winner is tied with Harvick for most wins this year with four. Hamlin had a four-race streak of top-five finishes, including two wins, before struggles the past three weeks. Heading into Kansas, Hamlin has not finished better than 12th the past three races. Still, he has nine top-five finishes and 10 top 10s this year.

18. What about 2021?

NASCAR is working on a 2021 schedule. No date has been set on an announcement.

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Drivers lobby for practice on Daytona road course

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EDITOR’S NOTE: For a list of Cup drivers who have driven on the Daytona road course before, go to the end of this story.

Denny Hamlin and Clint Bowyer both want to practice before the Cup Series races next month on the Daytona road course for the first time, but NASCAR is not planning to do so.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, said Monday on “The Morning Drive” that “we have announced and committed to no practice and qualifying through Dover (Aug. 21-23). What’s beyond that is still a little bit up in the air.”

The Cup race at the Daytona road course is Aug. 16. That event replaces the Watkins Glen weekend because of COVID-19 travel restrictions in New York. The ARCA, Truck and Xfinity Series also will race on the Daytona road course in August.

NASCAR has yet to announce details on the race lengths and the course — there is consideration for a second chicane to slow the cars between Turn 3 on the oval track to the turn off into the infield course just past pit exit.

Hamlin and Bowyer both raise concerns about the type of race fans will see since most competitors have never driven on the track’s road course or last raced on it years ago.

I really, personally would have liked to have seen even 30 minutes (of practice) to get us acclimated to some braking points,” Hamlin said. “I definitely understand the owner’s side of it and NASCAR’s side of it where you don’t want to have to prepare backup cars just in case. Heck, maybe even – I’m just politicking through (the media) – why not have the implication of knowing that this 30-minute practice session, if you wreck, you finish last. Just like you would in the race. If someone is going to wreck in that 30-minute practice session, they were more than likely going to wreck in the race anyway.

“I think that we can take it easy, we can go slow and make sure we just get acclimated before we go green. You don’t want to put on a bad race that’s just filled with cautions. I worry that could be the case.

If there is practice and/or qualifying, then teams would need to have a backup car ready. That’s an extra cost that not all teams are wiling to have.

“I voted to practice at Daytona,” Bowyer said. “I guess I’m probably unique in at least I have some laps on the racetrack, it was a long time ago, I don’t even remember those laps but I ran the Rolex 24 (in 2013) and have some experience on that track. But that being said, not in our cars and anything else.

“I think it’s a tall order to show up there and run a track that we’ve never been on before with the tire combination with the package, with the aero, horsepower, we’ve never seen before, it’s going to be a crapshoot for everybody.

“I think there’s definitely drivers and teams that have experience running that Rolex that will be ahead of the pack, ahead of the curve for sure. These are challenging times. To ask the teams to come up with a unique car and again for a backup car and everything else. It’s saving them money (not to do so). I get it. Everything is tight right now. You’ve got to give and take in this scenario, and I think that’s definitely a give for the Daytona race.”

Here are current Cup drivers who have competed on the Daytona road course (overall finish)

Clint Bowyer — 2013 Rolex 24 (finished 16th)

Kurt Busch 2005 Rolex 24 (27th), 2008 Rolex 24 (3rd)

Kyle Busch2009 Brumos Porsche 250 (10th), 2020 Rolex 24 (26th),

Cole Custer2018 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge (3rd), 2019 IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge (9th)

Kevin Harvick 2002 Rolex 24 (69th)

Timmy Hill2012 Rolex 24 (51st)

Jimmie Johnson2004 Rolex 24 (28th), 2005 Rolex 24 (2nd), 2007 Rolex 24 (36th), 2008 Rolex 24  (2nd), 2009 Rolex 24 (7th), 2010 Rolex 24 (21st), 2011 Rolex 24 (15th)

Matt Kenseth2005 Rolex 24 (27th), 2006 IROC race (10th)

Michael McDowell2005 Rolex 24 (42nd), 2007 Rolex 24 (10th), 2008 Rolex 24 (15th), 2011 Rolex 24 (7th), 2012 Rolex 24 (3rd)

Ryan Newman 2006 IROC race (3rd)

Martin Truex Jr. 2006 IROC race (6th)

NASCAR may set starting lineup in different way in playoffs

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NASCAR is looking at determining the starting lineup in a different way for the playoffs.

Scott Miller, NASCAR senior vice president of competition, made the comment Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Since NASCAR returned in May, the starting lineup for each race — except the Coca-Cola 600, which had qualifying — has been determined by a random draw. In Cup, teams that are between first and 12th in owner points draw for starting spots 1-12. Teams between 13th and 24th in owner points draw for starting spots 13-24. Teams between 25th and 36th in owner points draw for starting spots 25th and 36th. There are similar type draws in the Xfinity and Gander RV & Outdoors Truck Series.

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Miller said the random draw is used since teams are not practicing and qualifying, in part, because of crew roster limits at the track due to safety protocols during the COVID-19 pandemic. NASCAR has released tentative weekend schedules into August and none of those races has practice or qualifying listed. The Cup playoffs are scheduled to begin Sept. 6 at Darlington Raceway.

Miller explained on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio the sanctioning body’s approach to practice and qualifying and how that impacts a decision to use a random draw to set starting lineups.

“We have announced and committed to no practice and qualifying through Dover (Aug. 21-23),” Miller said. “What’s beyond that is still a little bit up in the air. To have practice and qualifying, we have to have more people on the rosters. There’s a lot more things that need to go on in the garage area, very much more difficult to execute all of the safety protocols with the COVID-19.

“To get back to anything different than what we’re doing now is really going to take a significant change in sort of the landscape of COVID-19. I look at least through Dover it will be the draws as we know it.

“Kind of reviewing now what would be the right thing to do in the playoffs if we can’t have qualifying. Maybe still some kind of a draw, but obviously, probably something that encompasses the playoff cars in one lot and the rest of the field in another. Haven’t really gotten there yet, but we know that once the playoffs come we may have to adjust the way we draw if we aren’t practicing and qualifying.”