Sprint Cup Series

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The 2016 Sprint Cup Series season in numbers

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The 2016 Sprint Cup Series season started with the closest finish in the history of the Daytona 500 and ended with Jimmie Johnson winning a historic seventh championship.

In-between the series saw two drivers, Chris Buescher and Kyle Larson, earn their first career wins. Chase Elliott inherited the No. 24 and earned Rookie of the Year honors for Hendrick Motorsports. Tony Stewart went from missing the first eight races of the season to winning at Sonoma Raceway and qualifying for the Chase in his final season.

From a statistical standpoint, here is what the season looked like:

0 – Laps led by Kasey Kahne and Jamie McMurray, both of whom finished in the top 20 in points

2 – Last lap passes (Denny Hamlin in the Daytona 500; Carl Edwards at Richmond)

3 – Weekend sweeps for Kyle Busch (Martinsville, Texas, Indianapolis)

5 – Wins by Jimmie Johnson, which led the series

6 – Poles by Carl Edwards, which led the series

8 – Races run by Jeff Gordon

9.3 – Average running position by Kyle Busch, which led the series

9.9 – Average finish for Kevin Harvick, a series best

16 – Wins by Toyota drivers

18 – Races missed by Dale Earnhardt Jr. after suffering a concussion

80 – Career wins reached for Jimmie Johnson

85 – Points earned by Denny Hamlin at road courses, a series best

92.92 – Percentage of laps run in the top 15 by Brad Keselowski, a series best

106.5 – Driver rating by Kevin Harvick, a series best

198 – Points earned by Kevin Harvick on short-tracks, a series best

815 – Points earned by Kevin Harvick on superspeedways, a series best

1,809 – Laps led by Martin Truex Jr., a series best

2,230 – Miles led by Martin Truex Jr., a series best

5,592 – Laps led by Toyota drivers

10,355 – Laps completed by Kasey Kahne, most in the series

NASCAR Chairman Brian France defends sport’s health

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HOMESTEAD, Fla. — A combative and dismissive Brian France defended NASCAR’s health, its sponsorship search and its embrace of minorities despite his public support of President-elect Donald Trump in a press conference Sunday morning at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

France, whose press conference was scheduled for 30 minutes, spoke for 17 minutes before the session ended.

The NASCAR Chairman spoke a day after Mexico’s Daniel Suarez became the first foreign-born driver to win one of NASCAR’s national championships after winning the Xfinity Series title.

France spoke in support of Trump in a Feb. 29 rally in Valdosta, Georgia, saying then: “I’ll tell you one thing, if you leave on one other thing, any of his children, you’d be proud to have as part of your family. That’s how I judge a winner, how somebody manages their family, raises their family.’’

Asked about NASCAR’s embrace of Suarez’s accomplishment and his public support of Trump, whose comments about minorities have raised concerns among many, France interrupted the question: “Stop you right there.

“First of all, nobody wants to hear about my political views. Not one person on this stage wants to hear from me politically. So, I won’t be talking about that.

“On diversity, nobody, nobody with this company has worked harder and done more and resourced it better than me. I founded the Diversity Council. I have fought for every single thing that makes sense because that’s my core belief about diversity. It is very, very important. I talk about it frequently. My efforts there should never be challenged, no matter what my political views might be. That’s a ridiculous thing to do.’’

France also faced questions about why NASCAR does not have a sponsor for its premier series 98 days before the 2017 Daytona 500. Sprint announced 23 months ago that it would not sponsor the series after this season.

France admitted that the agreement has “taken a little longer than I thought’’ but was confident of a deal being announced soon.

“We’re in a good spot with that I believe,’’ France said without offering details.

France stated during his press conference that he feels confident about the health of the sport.

“Would I obviously like to have, you know, everything perfect? Of course, I would, but that’s sports,’’ he said. “That’s a competitive business. The model is changing a little bit, too, maybe not even in a way that we wouldn’t like to see. We’re pleased with the health of the sport.’’

France was asked that in light of declines in ratings and few sellouts if the Chase format is resonating with fans.

“Yeah, you’re seeing TV ratings slide all over the place in sports, right?’’ he said. “You’re seeing all kinds of things happen in TV ratings. The big events, they go one way, the digital audience is consuming things different. We’re no different from that. It’s not a surprise on that.

“Attendance has been fine. We’ve come off weather issues like we did in Phoenix a year ago. We don’t have Jeff Gordon and Dale Earnhardt (Jr.). Needless to say, there’s going to be a little impact there.’’

Asked further about the issue, France said: “We are still very pleased with our position in sports.  The audience isn’t going away at all. It’s sliding to different places, consuming in different ways.

“I would tell you some other leagues that have 30 percent drop‑offs, they didn’t lose 30 percent of their audience from one moment to the next, that audience is just sliding and consuming in some different ways. Our digital consumption is off the charts.

“So things are happening and sliding and moving around. It will all work out. Sports, in the end, us included, will always have a huge, big audience. So whether ratings are sliding over here, spiking at times over here, that will all work out.

France also was asked about if the series would consider reducing the number of charters as consolidations are expected to be announced in the coming days.

“You got teams that compete at a high level and do well,’’ he said. “You have some teams that for whatever the reasons can’t compete at such a high level, and they have some problems. That’s throughout our history. Not abnormal at all.’’

France was asked about if there have been any more discussion about bringing in additional manufacturers. He said: “Yes, yes, but we’re not in a position to make that announcement.’’

Five drivers to watch in Miami

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Here are five drivers to keep an eye in Sunday’s Sprint Cup season finale on NBC at Homestead-Miami Speedway.

Jimmie Johnson

Should Johnson make history by capturing a record-tying seventh Sprint Cup title, it’ll be one of those “Where were you when …” moments for every NASCAR fan. But we shouldn’t forget that this is the first time he’s faced Miami in a one-race, winner-take-all situation. Johnson has won twice on 1.5-milers this season, but has never won at Miami and has never led more than 28 laps in a single Cup start there.

 Joey Logano

The Miami tire combination has been used three times earlier this season, at both Texas races and the Chase opener at Chicagoland. With that in mind, Logano may have an edge over his Championship rivals on Sunday. He finished third, second, and second in those previous three races with the Miami tires. Furthermore, he led 178 laps at Texas two weeks ago with an average running position of 1.8. To see how the other three Championship drivers have done with the Miami tires, check out Dustin Long’s article from Tuesday.

 Carl Edwards

Title heartbreak in 2011 aside, Miami has been a solid track for Edwards. He’s the only one of the Championship 4 with multiple wins there (2008, 2010) and he has the best average finish there (9.2) among the group. He also may have another thing going for him: He’s the only Championship 4 driver who took part in the October test session at Miami. How much will that help Edwards, and perhaps to a point, his Joe Gibbs Racing teammate Kyle Busch? We’ll have to see.

KYLE BUSCH

In 2015, Kyle Busch’s last win entering the Chase came at Indianapolis – and during the Chase, he didn’t win until the Championship race at Miami. Guess where his last pre-Chase win was this year? You guessed it: Indy. And Busch has gone winless in this year’s Chase as well. The difference is that this year, he’s had better performance in the playoffs. He’s figured out how to work the Chase and he knows how to perform with everything on the line. Expect a strong effort from him and the 18 team on Sunday.

 Martin Truex Jr.

In 2015, Truex was racing for a championship at Miami but handling woes kept him from being a real factor. This year, he can just go for a win, and he stands a good chance of doing it. Let’s go back to the Miami tire combination and the previous three races where it was used: Truex finished sixth and third at Texas, and between those races, he won the Chase opener at Chicagoland. If that form holds on Sunday, Truex may have the race he was hoping to have a year ago.

Upon Further Review: Listening to good advice

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AVONDALE, Ariz. — Enough of the lessons, Joey Logano says, he’s ready to win a championship.

Two years ago, he was told to treat the title race at Homestead-Miami Speedway like any other race.

“I said, yeah, OK,’’ Logano said in a disbelieving manner.

Instead of following the advice, he hyperfocused on the task, constantly seeking to game plan with crew Todd Gordon.

“You’re looking at every little detail, as you should, but you’ve also got to be able to turn it off, and that’s where I didn’t do that before,’’ Logano said after his win Sunday at Phoenix International Raceway put him in the title race for the second time in three years.

He’s learned that the words given to him two years ago are what he should be following.

“We race to win every week; why should we race differently for a championship, right?’’ said Logano, who seeks his first series title. “We’re racing to win that race, and that’s ultimately going to have a championship attached to that. 

“We’ve just got to do the same thing we did this weekend. We’ve got momentum. We’ve won multiple races. We’ve got on rolls before where you’ve got that momentum and that confidence and it just keeps stacking up like it did last year, and we’re in good position to do that again.’’

Two years ago, Kevin Harvick won the championship and Logano was consoled by those who told him his time would come.

“After the race, everyone told me, you’ve got to lose one to win one, and I thought that was the biggest crock of crap I’ve ever heard in my life,” he said. “But you know what, it’s not the fact that you have to lose one to win one, it’s the fact that maybe it really helped me to just live through it once, and since then, we’ve been in those situations.

“We raced (Sunday) for a championship. We raced in Talladega for a championship. We’ve done this before.

“Homestead (in 2014) was the first time we ever had to do that.  You think about the way that Chase went, you know, we’ve won races in each round, where we never really had our back against the wall or anything. These last few years we’ve been in the position that we’ve had our back up against the wall and had to win, and we’ve been able to do that this year a couple times.’’

NOT A HAIL MARY

While it is easy to label the decision not to pit Denny Hamlin late in Sunday’s race a tremendous gamble, that’s not how crew chief Mike Wheeler saw it. Instead, he viewed it as a move they had to make.

Hamlin was running sixth when the caution flag waved for Martin Truex Jr.’s accident on Lap 257. Hamlin trailed Matt Kenseth, Joey Logano and Kyle Busch — drivers he was racing for a spot in the title race.

Wheeler decided to keep Hamlin on track, while the rest of the field pitted. Hamlin restarted in the lead with Kenseth second, Logano sixth and Busch seventh.

Hamlin fell to second off the restart and stayed there until a debris caution on Lap 267. After that restart, Hamlin fell back, while Kenseth moved into the lead and Logano took second. Hamlin later pitted during overtime because he was close on fuel. He finished seventh, failing to make it to the championship round.

Wheeler explained the decision not to pit on Lap 257:

“At the end of the day we were behind the guys,’’ Wheeler said of those they were racing to make it to the championship round, “so we had to do something different to get ahead of them. We were too equal to beat them straight up without some kind of off-sequence deal.

“We talked about it beforehand. We knew that this was one of those places that tires didn’t matter that much. I think if we don’t get multiple cautions, we actually make it. We ran second that stint. We don’t get any more cautions, we finish second or third and we probably make it in. I don’t say it’s a Hail Mary but it’s definitely an aggressive move to gain track position.’’

THREE LONG YEARS

Phoenix marked the three-year anniversary since Richard Childress Racing last won a Sprint Cup race. The organization is winless in its last 108 Cup races.

RCR’s last win came with Kevin Harvick on Nov. 10, 2013. Austin Dillon has yet to win a Cup race for the organization, Ryan Newman also has not won with the organization, and Paul Menard’s lone victory came in the 2011 Brickyard 400 for the team.

Menard was the team’s top driver Sunday, placing 10th. RCR has placed one driver in the top 10 in six of the nine Chase races.

Car owner Richard Childress acknowledges that work remains for his company.

“We have been disappointed with some of our finishes but the things we have worked on the last several months, I have seen a real good gain in the speed in our cars,’’ he said. “We have been in the right position several times for a win but just couldn’t pull it off.

“I think the people that Eric Warren (director of competition) and Mike Dillon (vice president of competition) have gone out and found and been able to bring in is going to make a huge difference in our competition.

“I think we will be in really good shape next year and we have added Matt Borland (to be Menard’s crew chief in 2017), and we have added two or three new engineers. We also have stepped it up in our engine program in Cup.”

MAKING PROGRESS

Kyle Larson’s third-place finish Sunday marked his best run in the Chase and his second top-10 result in the last five races.

Although eliminated from title contention after the first round, Larson has made progress this season.

His average finish was 22.6 in the season’s first 11 races. Twice he failed to finish races.

In the 11 races since his victory at Michigan, his average finish is 11.9.

“We were so bad to start the year that I felt like our gains were extremely noticeable throughout the first third of the year,’’ Larson said. “Then up until I won at Michigan and a little bit after, I feel like we haven’t gained as much each week as we did earlier in the year.

“We’ve made gains but they haven’t been as big of gains because we’re closer to where we need to be. We haven’t had a whole lot of luck in the last eight races that we’ve run, but we’ve continued to stay positive, work hard and try to make our stuff faster to build the notebook for the offseason and start of next season.”

PIT STOPS

Erik Jones seeks to become the first driver to win a Camping World Truck Series and Xfinity Series title in back-to-back years this weekend in Miami.

Michael McDowell’s incident after a blown tire set up the overtime finish Sunday at Phoenix. It marked the second time in this Chase he has had an incident that sent a race into overtime. It also happened at Chicagoland Speedway in the Chase opener. In both cases, the driver leading when McDowell had his incident did not win the race in overtime.

— Joey Logano’s victory Sunday was his third of the year. He is the eighth different driver this season to win at least three races. The last time that has happened was 1962.

— Joey Logano also recorded his seventh Chase win since 2014. That is more than any other driver in that period.

— Kevin Harvick’s fourth-place finish was his seventh consecutive top-five result at Phoenix.

Ryan Blaney’s eighth-place finish was his first top-10 result since the opening Chase race at Chicagoland Speedway.

— Average age for the four drivers competing championship round in the Sprint Cup Series is 33.8.

— Average age for the four drivers competing championship round in the Camping World Truck Series is 33.8.

  Average age for the four drivers competing championship round in the Xfinity Series is 28.8

NASCAR official defends penalties to Jimmie Johnson, Martin Truex Jr.

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A NASCAR executive was adamant that drivers were warned about passing the pace car as they entered pit road and that series officials penalized Martin Truex Jr. after a move that was “just blatant” Sunday at Phoenix and penalized Jimmie Johnson to be consistent.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR executive vice president and chief racing development officer, made the comments Monday on “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

Before Sunday’s race at Phoenix, NASCAR had penalized drivers for pulling up to pit in only one other race. NASCAR cited Kevin Harvick and Casey Mears for the violation at Dover in May.

Sunday, NASCAR penalized Martin Truex Jr. for the issue and Jimmie Johnson later in the race. Johnson was baffled by the call and planned to talk to NASCAR about the one-lap penalty.

“We’ve reminded the drivers quite often that it was getting very close that you can’t pass the pace car as you pull off on to pit road,’’ O’Donnell said. “We’ve had that in every drivers meeting. Not a surprise to anyone. Jimmie has been racing with us for a long time and is aware of that rule.

“Have there been some borderline situations in the past? Sure. We’re always going to try to err if we can on the competitor’s side. We’ve been very clear on that.

“We told the competitors it was something we continue to watch. Once the call (on Truex) was made, which in our mind was just blatant, very clear in terms of how far in front of the pace car (Truex was), we made a point over the radio again. We obviously penalized (Truex) and said again that is something we’re going to enforce. Right after that (Johnson) was ahead of the pace car as well, and again that was clear on video and so we made the call and wanted to be consistent in the race.’’

Johnson didn’t see it that way after the race.

“In 15 years that has never been a concern, and I was always told that the last thing NASCAR wanted to do would be to penalize the leader, and as you pull off onto the apron, you accelerate to the commitment line,’’ Johnson said.

“If you are held by the pace car, you’re at a disadvantage as the leader and it allows everybody to catch you and catch up, so even in drivers meetings they’ve said, we know you’re going to pass the pace car; it’s okay. The majority of the tracks we go to, you naturally just gradually pull ahead of the pace car coming to pit lane. I mean, this happens all the time.’’

In the video that is played during the drivers meeting each week, competitors are told “do not pull up to pit, hold your respective track position under the yellow flag.’’

On NASCAR’s pit road penalty handout that is given to each crew chief, it reads for pulling up to pit: “When following the caution vehicle during a caution period, drivers must maintain their position in relation to other vehicles in the field or as otherwise directed by NASCAR, and will not be permitted to pass other vehicles or the caution vehicle when preparing to enter pit road.’’

During the drivers meeting last month at Martinsville, series director Richard Buck told drivers: “Also a reminder, under caution, the leader may not pass the caution car when entering pit road.’’

Also, O’Donnell addressed the order for the final restart after Matt Kenseth’s crash. Adam Stevens, crew chief for Kyle Busch, said on the team’s radio repeatedly that Busch was ahead of Joey Logano when the caution lights illuminated and should have been the leader. Instead, NASCAR ruled that Logano was the leader.

O’Donnell explained why that was so.

“We have scoring loops in place that during a race if a caution comes out, the scoring loops are what scores the competitors and how we line them up,’’ O’Donnell said on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio. “We go back to the last scoring loop that was passed. In the event that a caution comes out and ends the race, then we use any available technology because the race is over and we’ve got some time to review all of the video feeds and can take our time doing that.

“In that caution, it was not the end of the race. It was scored as the last lap passed. Every competitor is scored there. If you’re involved in the caution, you are scored where you blend back in the line. (Alex Bowman) was scored where he blended back. (Busch) was scored at the last loop they passed.’’