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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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SHR owner Gene Haas says no driver has ‘intrigued us’ enough to sign yet

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LAS VEGAS — Stewart-Haas Racing owner Gene Haas said Sunday that the team continues to search for a driver for the No. 41 car and that he does not view moving up SHR Xfinity driver Cole Custer as a viable option at this time.

Haas said the team is not ready to sign any driver.

“We haven’t seen anybody that’s intrigued us enough to say, ‘OK we’re willing to sign you at the moment,’ ” Haas said before Sunday’s race at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. “We’re kind of hoping there is an undertow … where a driver or a sponsor, maybe that combination that didn’t exist a few weeks ago, maybe they come together and it’s something we can look at. But at the moment we don’t really have anything.

“As far as we know, Kurt Busch has signed up with Chip Ganassi. That’s the rumors we hear. But he hasn’t announced it yet, either. I think the only thing I’ve heard from him is he hasn’t signed anything.

“I think he’s out looking around and see what kind of a deal he can put together. I assume it’s over at Chip Ganassi Racing.”

It was Haas who expanded the organization to create room for Busch for the 2014 season. Busch has won six races for the team since joining it but has never finished better than seventh in the playoffs.

Still, could Busch find a way back to the No. 41 team?

“If he gets on a tear and wins five races and goes on to win the championship, we definitely would talk to him,” Haas quipped.

“That’s why we signed him to win a championship. As time went on, it became less probable that that would happen. That’s why we’re at where we’re at now. I think he’s kind of stated, too, that next year is going to be his last year.”

Haas said that Monster Energy, which is tied to Busch, “significantly cut down their sponsorship last year, and now they’re about the same money next year.”

As for other drivers, Haas said his team has had talks with Daniel Suarez’s camp.

“We’ve talked to him,” Haas said. “He brings a different group of sponsors. Like anything else, it comes down to the bottom line. How much sponsorship are we talking? How much money does SHR get? How much money does the driver get? Those are the kind of typical things that can take a while to iron out because everybody wants everything.”

Excluding a driver’s salary, Haas said it takes $20 million “to run a competitive Cup team.”

While some might view the 20-year-old Custer, who drives for SHR’s Xfinity team, as an option to move up to the team’s Cup ride, Haas is not convinced.

“We think Cole is a good talent,” Haas said. “I think he’s talented. He’s very marketable. I think a lot of things are positives, but he has to win in the Xfinity (Series) before he can really move up to Cup racing. If we were to push that, I think we might do more harm than good. He needs to prove that he can win consistently in Xfinity before I think we’ll consider him for a Cup ride.”

Custer has one win in 64 career Xfinity starts and finished third in Saturday’s Xfinity race at Las Vegas. He is winless this year. He is in the Xfinity playoffs for the second consecutive year. He finished fifth in the points last year.

Haas also said it is “not really an option” to downsize to three teams next year.

“We have Ford money per car, and the 41 car gets prize money, and prize money is based on previous years,” Haas said. “It wouldn’t be nearly as profitable not to run it as it would be to run it in some shape or form.”

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Silly Season: More rides changing for 2019

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Trevor Bayne is the latest to be looking for a ride for 2019 after car owner Jack Roush said Wednesday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that Bayne would not return to the team after this season.

Bayne, the 2011 Daytona 500 winner, had struggled this season before Roush Fenway Racing brought back Matt Kenseth to share the No. 6 ride with Bayne.

Since he began driving in Cup for Roush in 2015, Bayne has zero wins, four top fives and 11 top-10 finishes in 124 starts.

Here’s a look at where Silly Season stands at this point:

ANNOUNCED CUP RIDES FOR 2019

Bubba Wallace will remain with Richard Petty Motorsports through the 2020 season (announcement made July 28)

CUP RIDES NOT YET ANNOUNCED FOR 2019

No. 1: The Associated Press reported Sept. 10 that car owner Chip Ganassi had offered Jamie McMurray a contract to drive in the 2019 Daytona 500 only and then move into a management position. Ganassi was awaiting McMurray’s decision. The move means the No. 1 will be open for 2019.

No. 6: Car owner Jack Roush said Sept. 12 on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio that Trevor Bayne would not be back with Roush Fenway Racing after this season. Bayne, who has shared the No. 6 ride this season with Matt Kenseth, has driven in Cup for Roush since 2015.

No. 23: Front Row Motorsports purchased the BK Racing team in bankruptcy court. Front Row needs the team to run the rest of the season to maintain the charter. After this season, Front Row could run a third car, lease this charter or sell this charter.

No. 31: Ryan Newman announced Sept. 15 that he would not return to the No. 31 after this season. Car owner Richard Childress told NBC Sports: “We’ll announce who our driver is in the near future.”

No. 32: Go Fas Racing is looking for a driver after Matt DiBenedetto’s announcement Sept. 7 that he won’t return to the team after this season.

No. 41: Kurt Busch signed a one-year deal last December to remain at Stewart-Haas Racing. He said Aug. 31 at Darlington that he has two contract offers for 2019 but did not reveal what teams they were from. Busch said Sept. 7 he had no updates on his status.

No. 95: Kasey Kahne announced Aug. 16 that he would not return for another full-time season. Also, this team has told Richard Childress Racing it won’t be a part of its technical alliance next year. Car owner Bob Leavine said Aug. 5 that “in our talking to the manufacturers this year, Toyota has been head-and-shoulders above the rest so far.”

DRIVERS WITHOUT ANNOUNCED PLANS FOR 2019

Trevor Bayne: 2011 Daytona 500 winner is looking for a ride after the Sept. 12 announcement he won’t return to Roush Fenway Racing in 2019. He told NBC Sports on Sept. 14 that he has been calling car owners looking for a ride and would look at any of NASCAR’s top three national series. 

Kurt Busch: 2004 champion’s contract expires after this season with Stewart-Haas Racing.

Matt DiBenedettoSaid he was betting on himself by leaving Go Fas Racing and looking to race elsewhere. While he would like a full-time ride, he would entertain a part-time ride in the Xfinity Series with a winning team, following what Ryan Preece has done.

Daniel Hemric: The Xfinity driver for Richard Childress Racing was asked Aug. 17 at Bristol about his future and he described it as: “Cloudy, very cloudy.” He said then he has not signed anything for the 2019 season, adding: “I’m trying to do everything I can on the race track to prove to somebody that would be willing to put me in a car and give me a shot.”

Jamie McMurray: Although he has not revealed his plans, car owner Chip Ganassi told the AP that he had offered McMurray a contract for only the 2019 Daytona 500 before McMurray would move into a management role.

Ryan Newman: He announced during the weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway that he won’t be returning to Richard Childress Racing. He intends to remain in Cup for 2019 but has yet to reveal his destination.

Ryan Preece: Modified ace who has run a limited schedule in the Xfinity Series with Joe Gibbs Racing and had great success has not announced his 2019 plans.

Daniel SuarezWith reports stating that Martin Truex Jr. will go to Joe Gibbs Racing and drive the No. 19, Suarez would be looking for a ride. He said Sept. 9 at Indianapolis that “I’m not really allowed” to talk about his situation and then added: “Everything happens for a reason. I think we are going to be in good shape.”

Martin Truex Jr.Reigning series champion has not announced a ride for 2019 with the Sept. 4 news that Furniture Row Racing is shutting down after this season.

XFINITY SERIES

OPEN RIDES FOR 2019

1: Elliott Sadler announced Aug. 15 that he will not run full-time in NASCAR after this season, creating an opening at JR Motorsports for 2019.

16 drivers, 16 questions: Analyzing the Cup playoff competitors

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No matter what has come before, the playoffs represent hope. For those who have been strong all season, there is a hope that such performances will continue. For those who have struggled, there is hope that things will change.

Reality will intercede when cars get on track this weekend at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Until then, there is hope.

Here is a key question for each playoff driver:

Kyle Busch (2050 points)

Is this his title to lose?

Yes. Two of his six wins this year were at tracks that will host playoff races (Texas and Richmond), and he finished second at three other tracks this year that will host playoff races (Las Vegas, Phoenix and Martinsville).

(Photo: Getty Images)

A key for him could be the second round, which features Dover (35th in the spring, mechanical issue), Talladega (13th in the spring) and Kansas (10th in the spring). He failed to lead a lap in all three races, making that the only time he’s failed to lead a lap in three consecutive races this season.

The 50 playoff points he has should provide a cushion for him but he knows all too well how cruel the playoffs can be. He was second in the points entering the second round cutoff race at Talladega in 2014. While riding toward the back, he was involved in a crash and eliminated from title contention.

He should go further in the playoffs. Much further.

 

Kevin Harvick (2050)

Is this his title to lose?

Yes. Four of his seven wins this year have come on tracks the series will go to in the playoffs (Las Vegas, Phoenix, Dover and Kansas).

He has not finished worse than fifth this year at a track that will host a playoff race and has an average finish of 2.5 at those tracks.

How is anyone going to beat that?

If he’s not racing for the title in Miami, it will be shocking.

 

Martin Truex Jr. (2035)

Is there too much for Martin Truex Jr. to overcome to win another championship?

This team will no longer exist in 10 weeks and enters the playoffs with some uneven performances. It’s either setting up to be a disappointing finish for Truex or a feel-good story that could match last year’s championship run.

The performances lately, though, leave some questions.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

The team failed inspection three times at Indy and had to start at the rear. Truex said during the pace laps that his brakes didn’t feel right. A brake failure ended his day after 41 laps, leaving him with a season-worst 40th-place finish.

At Darlington, Truex was fast and ran in the top three in the first half of the race before a penalty for an uncontrolled tire caused him to fall off the lead lap. It took most almost the rest of the race to get back on the lead lap because there were so few cautions. He recovered to finish 11th but the mistake cost him.

He started 17th at Bristol — the only time in the last seven races before Indianapolis that he started so far back. He was collected in an early accident, overcame that and was running near the front when contact from Kyle Busch sent him into the wall.

At Michigan, Truex spun, his team struggled on pit road and he ran out of fuel, ruining what could have been a much better finish than 14th.

“Being fast and doing all the little things right is important,” Truex told NBC Sports. “I feel like the guys that are on top of their game and … can bring speed to the race track are going to be hard to beat.”

Maybe these recent races mean nothing. Maybe they are a sign that this team isn’t as solid as it was last year. We’ll soon find out.

 

Brad Keselowski (2019)

He’s won the past two races by his team executing well instead of having the fastest car. Can that be the pathway to a title or will the lack of speed hurt this team?

So often the fastest car doesn’t win the race. Over time, though, a fast car is more likely to succeed. At some point in the playoffs, Keselowski will need to win.

At Darlington, his pit crew helped him take the lead off the final pit stop. At Indianapolis, pit strategy and a timely caution put him in position to win. He wasn’t the fastest in either race but won.

(Photo by Matt Sullivan/Getty Images)

“We want more speed,” crew chief Paul Wolfe said after the Indy win. “We know we’re off a little bit there. But I believe we can get through the first round for sure by just executing and not making mistakes. 

“As I look at the second and third round, there’s some great opportunity races there. We know we can go to Talladega and win, and we know we can go to Martinsville and win. We have a little bit of work to do on the intermediate tracks to find a little more speed, but winning the last two weeks definitely is a little booster for everyone at Team Penske.”

 

Clint Bowyer (2015)

Can he be consistent enough to contend for a spot in Miami?

His longest streak of top-10 finishes is four in a row this season. Worse is that he has failed to finish in the top 10 in seven of the last nine races.

The Stewart-Haas Racing cars are fast, but he’s not been faster than teammate Kevin Harvick and hasn’t matched the consistency of teammate Kurt Busch. With many expecting at least two of the Big 3 — Harvick, Kyle Busch and Martin Truex Jr. — to make it to the finals in Miami, that leaves little room for the rest of the field and inconsistent finishes won’t do it.

 

Joey Logano (2014)

He made the championship race in 2014 and 2016. Can he keep the even-year streak going?

In 2014 and 2016, Logano came into the playoffs on a hot streak. He had scored three consecutive top 10s before playing 13th at Indy on Monday.

The sting of his Indy performance left him viewing the playoffs more critically.

We just have to get going, that’s all,” Logano said. “The playoffs are about to start and hopefully we’ll do better than that.”

One thing that Logano fans can look forward to are the tracks in the playoffs. He scored six top-10 finishes in the eight races at playoff tracks earlier this year, including his win at Talladega.

 

Kurt Busch (2014)

Is consistency enough to get him far in the playoffs?

The Bristol winner enters the playoffs with eight consecutive top-10 finishes, which ties Stewart-Haas Racing teammate Kevin Harvick for the longest active top-10 streak. That also matches what Kyle Busch did earlier this season for the longest top-10 streak of the season.

(Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images)

Kurt Busch said the turnaround came at New Hampshire in July when he won the pole, led 94 laps and finished eighth. He’s encouraged that the team has been good on a variety of tracks even though none of the tracks in his current streak will be in the playoffs.

As for the playoffs, he has a simple philosophy.

“There is no reason to change anything going into the playoffs,” Kurt Busch told NBC Sports after finishing sixth at Indianapolis. “This is one of the best Brickyard cars that I’ve ever had, I just didn’t execute on restarts to the best of my ability.”

 

Chase Elliott (2008)

Can momentum carry this team forward?

Last year, Chase Elliott finished no better than eighth in the eight races leading into the playoffs. But that didn’t matter. He had three runner-up finishes in the first four playoff races and finished the year with four top 10s in the last five races.

This year, Elliott enters the playoffs having scored six top 10s in the last seven races, making him among the hottest drivers.

“I think our speed has been better,” Elliott said. “We’ve just got to keep improving.”

 

 

Ryan Blaney (2007)

Is he a contender or pretender?

The Team Penske driver is an interesting case study. Eight of his 12 top-10 finishes this season came in the first 15 races of the year.

But since his 40th-place finish at Daytona in July, he has not placed worse than 15th in a race. To be a true title contender, those finishes need to be better in the coming weeks.

Some of his best tracks — other than Bristol — are playoff tracks. He finished third at Martinsville in the spring and was fifth at Texas and fifth at Las Vegas earlier this year. So there’s a foundation for him to be a contender.

 

Erik Jones (2005)

Can he step it up in his first Cup playoffs?

He enters the playoffs after a runner-up finish at Indianapolis and nine top 10s in the last 11 races, but the playoffs are so much different from the regular season.

It’s a point Jones discovered in 2016 in the Xfinity Series.

(Photo by Jeff Zelevansky/Getty Images)

“I thought it was going to be a breeze to get to the final four because we were so fast and had won races all year, but really it wasn’t,” Jones told NBC Sports. “It was very challenging. We almost missed out in the final four.

“It’s going to be tough. Even the round of 16 (this year), as much as you want to think yea, it will be easy, just top 10 our way through it, it never seems to go like that.”

But if Jones can do what he’s done lately — he has averaged 34.3 points a race — that should get him through the opening round comfortably.

“We’ve done a good job the last month of really sticking with it, and when we’re not having a great day,  making it into one that is more than salvageable,” he said.

 

Austin Dillon (2005)

Can this team get beyond the first round?

This team has shown improvement in the second half of the season with an average finish of 16.3 in the last nine races.

That likely won’t be good enough in the playoffs. He failed to advance out of the first round last year with an average finish of 17.0. Teammate Ryan Newman had an average finish of 16.3 in the first round of last year’s playoffs and also failed to advance.

“We have had fast cars here lately and that is a good thing,” Dillon said. “So, we are capable of bringing some speed to the track, and Vegas has been a good track for us in the past. Hopefully, we can just take what we have been good with the last couple of weeks and run it there.”

 

Kyle Larson (2005)

Can he find a way to Miami and win the title at what is his best track?

Kyle Larson is encouraged by the speed he’s had in the car the past two weeks at Darlington and Indianapolis.

(Photo: Getty Images)

The key is to get to Miami. Even if the Big 3 all made it to the championship race, some observers would view Larson as the favorite there if he also qualified for that race because of how good he is there.

Getting there has been the challenge for Larson even when he’s been better.

Larson was vocal after Monday’s race at Indianapolis about what needs to be fixed if he is to make it to Miami.

“We’re still horrible on pit road,” he told NBC Sports. “That’s discouraging. We’ll clean it up. I made mistakes on pit road as well. So I wasn’t happy with myself and my performance on pit road, but our pit crew needs to be better if we want to win the championship.”

 

 

Denny Hamlin (2003)

Was Indianapolis a sign of things to come?

The bothersome issue with this team has been the speed it has had in qualifying — Hamlin had four front-row starts in the six races before Indy — yet he had not finished better than eighth in those races.

(Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)

With qualifying rained out at Indianapolis, Hamlin showed speed in the race. He led 37 laps, tying Clint Bowyer for most laps led, and was in position to win the race until a late caution. Brad Keselowski, whose car had fresher tires, took advantage of the last restart and beat Hamlin.

Indianapolis is a track that shows what teams have the best horsepower and aero package. That said, the question is would Hamlin have led as much had Kyle Busch and Kevin Harvick not had various issues on pit road? It’s doubtful.

But maybe it is the surge Hamlin and his team need entering the playoffs.

“Typically in history, we’ve performed better in the playoffs than we have in the regular season just about always,” Hamlin said. “We’ll have to take a bigger jump this year than what we’ve taken in years past. We’ve typically been pretty good and then we’ve been great in the playoffs. This year we’ve been mediocre, and I think that the big jump to great is a big one.”

 

Aric Almirola (2001)

What is a realistic expectation for this team?

For a team that hasn’t won — and is the only Stewart-Haas Racing team without a victory this season — getting past the second round could be considered a success.

He has not scored more than back-to-back top-10 finishes this year. This team will have to step it up to avoid being eliminated early.

I feel like we’ve got fast race cars and we’ve got a chance to go up there and compete to win races and go far into the playoffs,” Almirola said after finishing 23rd at Indianapolis, saddled by a flat tire while running in the top five. “Just thinking about today and another lost opportunity for us. We had a car capable of challenging to win and run up front and we just keep having things pop up.”

 

Jimmie Johnson (2000)

Will his worst season end in an early playoff exit?

It’s hard to discount a seven-time champion, but what has his team shown this year?

This team has not finished better than ninth in its last 12 races. His last top-five finish was a fifth at the Coca-Cola 600 in Charlotte on Memorial Day weekend. Johnson’s winless streak is a career-long 49 races.

“Honestly, we’re not in a position, I think, just to go out and drive our way in right now, sadly,” Johnson told NBC Sports. “It’s hard to admit that, it’s hard to say that, but it’s the truth. That’s not going to change our work effort, our determination, our mindset and we’ll keep swinging.”

 

Alex Bowman (2000)

Could he be the Cinderella story of the playoffs?

Alex Bowman drove underfunded cars earlier in his career, found out on social media he had lost a ride, decided his best opportunity was to join Hendrick Motorsports as the driver for its simulator program and filled in well enough when Dale Earnhardt Jr. was out in 2016 to take over the No. 88 this season.

(Photo by Sarah Crabill/Getty Images)

There’s already a lot there. Now add that Hendrick Motorsports has not been as competitive this season, Bowman’s career-best finish of third came a few weeks ago at Pocono, he had to battle through damage from a crash at Indianapolis to clinch the final playoff spot and he enters the postseason as the last seed.

“To come from where I was at in my career is so unobtainable,” Bowman said. “Just driving for Hendrick Motorsports seemed unobtainable, but to make the playoffs in my first year back is really cool. It’s a special thing to be a part of.”

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Ford looks to party in Indianapolis like it’s 1999

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Indianapolis Motor Speedway was once a happy place for Ford’s NASCAR efforts.

In the early years of the Brickyard 400, the blue oval was a regular presence in Victory Lane at 2.5-mile track, winning three of four races thanks to Dale Jarrett (1996, 1999) and Ricky Rudd (1997).

Then the turn of the century happened.

Ford has gone winless in one of NASCAR’s biggest races in the 18 years since Jarrett last kissed the bricks (a tradition Jarrett started in 1996).

Since then, the full-time Cup careers of Greg Biffle, Carl Edwards, Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Danica Patrick have come and gone and Tony Stewart won all 49 of his Cup races.

In that time, four other manufacturers have triumphed in Indy, with Chevrolet running away with 14 victories over Toyota (two) and the departed Dodge and Pontiac, who claimed one win each.

But entering the 25th annual Brickyard 400 this weekend (2 p.m. ET Sunday on NBCSN), Ford is in a fairly happy place.

The manufacturer is coming off a win in the Southern 500 with Brad Keselowski and Team Penske, the team’s first Darlington Raceway victory since 1975.

Ford now has 12 wins through the season’s first 25 races. At this point in 2017 it had eight of an eventual 10 wins. In 2016, it had six of eight victories. In 2015, they had four of seven wins.

Entering the regular-season finale, the first time Indianapolis has hosted it, Ford’s dominance has been centered on one team: Stewart-Haas Racing.

The four-car team has 10 of the 12 wins, with Penske claiming the other two through Keselowski and Joey Logano (Talladega). Kevin Harvick has a series-leading seven wins.

But every current Ford team is looking for their first Brickyard win for the manufacturer.

Though Penske is the king of Indy in open-wheel racing, it has proved to be one of its worst tracks in NASCAR.

In 51 combined starts, Penske has 10 top fives, its fourth fewest on Cup’s active tracks. Its 20 top 10s are its third fewest. Its 316 laps led are only ahead of its totals at Watkins Glen (230) and Sonoma (273).

But like Ford’s improved overall success in the last three seasons, Penske has gained ground at Indy.

Logano has three top fives in his last four starts at Indy. Keselowski earned his first in eight starts last year with a runner-up finish in a race marred by late wrecks.

Stewart-Haas Racing has an Indy win, but that came in 2013 with Ryan Newman driving a Chevrolet. The team transitioned to Ford in 2017.

In 27 combined starts, SHR has five top fives (second fewest), 11 top 10s (third fewest) and 144 laps led, ahead of only its Watkins Glen total (78 laps).

Since joining SHR the year after Newman’s Brickyard win, Kevin Harvick has been the team’s leader at the track. He has four top 10s and one top five in his four starts.

Ford’s other major team is Roush Fenway Racing.

In 93 combined starts, the team has earned 16 top fives (fourth fewest), 30 top 10s (fourth fewest) and led 173 laps, which is only better than its total at Kentucky (38 laps).

Roush hasn’t placed in the top five at Indy since 2012 with Greg Biffle (third).

Matt Kenseth, who is competing part-time this year for Roush, will make his 19th Brickyard 400 start.

He has three runner-up results at IMS (2003, 2006, 2016) and has placed seventh or better in his last five starts there. Those starts came with Joe Gibbs Racing.

“There’s no other track we go to that compares to Indy,” Kenseth said in a press release. “It’s two-and-a-half miles, but it’s one of the flattest tracks on the circuit, and it has such long straightaways that you’re carrying a lot of speed going into those flat turns. It’s also pretty narrow and you need to find ways to get track position, because there’s just not a lot of room to pass.”

Kenseth’s first Indy start came in 2000, the year after Jarrett delivered Ford its last Brickyard win.

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