Daniel McFadin: I’ll take JGR, given their six wins there in the last eight races. Driver specific: Martin Truex Jr. He’s led in five of the last six visits to Richmond and each time he’s led at least 121 laps. Hard to believe his win in the spring was his first there.
Jerry Bonkowski: This could be one very difficult race for the field. Erik Jones has something to prove after the mechanical issues he suffered in Las Vegas, Kyle Busch has something to prove after his disappointing 19th-place finish, and Denny Hamlin has something to prove to show he truly is one of the best championship contenders. Meanwhile, Martin Truex Jr. can basically coast through having secured his spot in Round 2 of the playoffs with his Las Vegas win. Good luck to the field because they’re going to need it. Joe Gibbs Racing is going to dominate Richmond.
In 2007, Hendrick Motorsports won 18 of 36 Cup races. Joe Gibbs Racing has won 14 of 27 Cup races this season. Will JGR top what Hendrick did in 2007?
Nate Ryan: Yes, you could argue JGR already has topped it because of the balance among its four drivers. Jeff Gordon and Jimmie Johnson accounted for 16 of Hendrick’s 18 victories.
Dustin Long: JGR won’t tie or top Hendrick mark.
Daniel McFadin: I think there’s a good chance JGR will tie that number but not exceed it. The only tracks I would make them locks for wins are Richmond and Phoenix.
Jerry Bonkowski: I think JGR could potentially tie HMS’s record, but asking for five or more wins in the last nine playoff races is a bit of a stretch. You know that Stewart-Haas, Team Penske, Hendrick Motorsports, Chip Ganassi Racing and Roush Fenway Racing are going to do all they can to stop the JGR Express and continue to ratchet up the pressure and performance with each passing race. I can see JGR winning maybe three or even four more playoff races, but not more than that.
The Xfinity playoffs begin this weekend at Richmond. Who are you picking to win the championship?
Nate Ryan: Leaning toward Tyler Reddick back-to-back after his impressive fuel-mileage win at Las Vegas. He is learning to beat the field in many ways.
Daniel McFadin: I’m going to go with Tyler Reddick to repeat. He’s shown a knack for being able to find multiple ways to win when he doesn’t have the outright best car on a given race day. Also, it’s hard to bet against the guy who has 20 top fives through 26 races.
Jerry Bonkowski: As much as Tyler Reddick would make a great repeat champion, the title this year goes to Christopher Bell. But don’t be surprised if this deal isn’t finished until the final turn on the last lap. This has the potential to be the most exciting championship finish in Xfinity history.
Matt DiBenedetto, Paul Menard news lights up social media
Tuesday morning’s announcement that Paul Menard will retire after this season and Matt DiBenedetto will replace him next season in the No. 21 Wood Brothers Racing Ford certainly lit up the twitterverse.
Happy for @mattdracing that things worked out. He will be solid in the @woodbrothers21. More happy for my friend Paul Menard. 36 weeks is a grind, he’s got a great wife and 2 kiddos who are gonna love having him at home.
For all of you @mattdracingfans, if you remember, I told you to be patient. Talent always wins out. When Paul Menard chose to step away there was a good opportunity for Matt D. The really, really talented drivers always wind up in a good seat. https://t.co/MM3dhbWwao
Here is a look at the playoff field (in order of seeding):
Kyle Busch (2045 points) — Regular-season champion enters postseason with 45 playoff points. …This is his seventh consecutive year in the playoffs. … Has four wins this year. … Winless in his last 12 races, his longest winless streak since 2017. … Has reached the championship race each of the past four years, winning the 2015 title. … Won at Richmond and Phoenix in last year’s playoffs.
Denny Hamlin (2030) — Seeks first series title. … Sixth consecutive playoffs. … Enters playoffs with four wins this season and 35 in his career. … He’s won the Daytona 500 this year, along with races at Texas, Pocono and Bristol.
Martin Truex Jr. (2029) — Runner-up to the championship last year and 2017 series champ. … Has four wins this season (Richmond, Dover, Coca-Cola 600 and Sonoma). .. Has not finished better than 13th in the last three races.
Kevin Harvick (2028) — Making 10th consecutive playoff appearance. … Has won three of the last seven races after going winless the season’s first 19 races. … Scored victories at New Hampshire, Michigan and Indianapolis. … Won the 2014 title, the first year when the championship was determined by the playoff format that ended with the title race in Miami.
Joey Logano (2028) — Reigning series champion won earlier this season at Las Vegas, site of the opening playoff race this coming weekend. His two victories this season were at Las Vegas and Michigan. … Finished second to Kevin Harvick at Indianapolis.
Brad Keselowski (2024) — Making sixth consecutive playoff appearance. … Has three wins this season but last victory was at Kansas in May. … Has gone 14 races without a win. … Last made the championship race in 2017, finishing fourth. … Finished second to Team Penske teammate Joey Logano at Las Veags, site of this week’s playoff opener.
Chase Elliott (2018) — Making fourth consecutive playoff appearance. … Won at Watkins Glen for the second year in a row. … Enters playoffs with four top-10 finishes in the last five races.
Kurt Busch (2011) — Making sixth consecutive playoff appearance. … Earned spot with win at Kentucky. … Finished fifth at Las Vegas earlier this season.
Alex Bowman (2005) — Making second playoff appearance. … Earned spot with win at Chicagoland Speedway. … Has not finished better than 10th in the last nine races.
Erik Jones (2005) — Making second playoff appearance. … Won Southern 500 at Darlington Raceway. … Joe Gibbs Racing announced this week it has signed Jones to a one-year contract extension to remain in the No. 20 car through next season. … Finished 15th in the points last year, eliminated in the first round.
Kyle Larson (2005) — Making fourth consecutive playoff appearance. … Saw his streak of five consecutive top-10 finishes end with a wreck while running toward the front Sunday at Indianapolis. … Best finish in the playoffs is eighth in 2017.
Ryan Blaney (2004) — Won the inaugural Charlotte Roval race in last year’s playoffs. … Making third consecutive playoff appearance. … Has led 365 laps this season, most by a driver without a win this year.
William Byron (2001) — Making his first playoff appearance. Still seeks his first career Cup win. … Best career finish is second at Daytona in July.
Aric Almirola (2001) — Making second consecutive playoff appearance. … Finished a career-best fifth in last year’s playoffs.
Clint Bowyer (2000) — Making second consecutive playoff appearance. … Finished 12th in last year’s playoffs for his best finish in the points since he was seventh in 2013 for Michael Waltrip Racing. … Finished the regular season by placing seventh of better in each of the last three races.
Ryan Newman (2000) — Making second playoff appearance in the past four years. … Secured the final playoff spot with eighth-place finish Sunday at Indianapolis. … Finished career-best second in points in 2014 in the first year of the playoff format.
Friday 5: Can Jimmie Johnson repeat Tiger Woods’ Masters magic at Indy?
A generation of drivers grew up watching Jimmie Johnson win races and championships year after year.
It was nearly all they knew from 2006-10 when Johnson won the Cup championship five consecutive seasons and visited victory lane in nearly 20% of the races run during that time.
Now, they see the seven-time champion winless in his last 84 races and fighting to make the playoffs. Critics question Johnson and expect his 15-year streak of postseason appearances to end when the checkered flag waves in Sunday’s regular-season finale at Indianapolis Motor Speedway (2 p.m. ET on NBC).
Those drivers who watched Johnson dominate when they were teens are not among the doubters.
“I would like to see him just win to shut everyone up,” said Kyle Larson, who was 14 when Johnson won his first Cup title. “When you are watching somebody like that dominate, you never expect to see them in this position, being winless for as long as he’s been, at risk of not making the playoffs and having a chance to win the championship.
“I think it just shows how tough our sport gets, how tough our drivers are, how close our equipment is, and how good of a combination him and Chad (Knaus) really were. Hopefully they can figure something out and finish upfront where he belongs.”
Xfinity title contender Christopher Bell also is rooting for Johnson this weekend.
“I love to see the greats win,” said Bell, who was a month shy of turning 12 when Johnson celebrated his first Cup crown. “For example, seeing Tony Stewart win at Sonoma (Raceway in 2016) was unbelievable. That was one of the coolest things ever. Sammy Swindell, Steve Kinser, the dirt drivers, seeing those guys still compete and win – Steve’s done now, but Sammy still runs – that’s the coolest thing ever to me.
“Like Tiger Woods winning the golf deal, right? How awesome was that when he won the Masters? I don’t think Jimmie is done by any means, but it’s going to be really, really cool whenever we see him win again just because he’s been doing it for so long and you have to respect how good he’s been for so long and we’re not sure if we’ll ever see that again, right?”
Alex Bowman was 13 when Johnson’s title reign began. Now he watches Johnson’s challenge up close as a teammate at Hendrick Motorsports.
“We are doing all we can to get Jimmie into the playoffs,” Bowman said. “But, at the end of the day, they’ve had a lot of bad luck and a tough year. He is still more motivated and fired up than ever, at least since I’ve been around. He’s a big part in the success that I’ve had, I feel like. He definitely still has it and he’s not given up.
“I think everyone has learned over the years that you can’t count the 48 out by any means.”
Johnson enters the weekend 18 points out of the final playoff spot. He’s among four drivers vying for the final two spots. Clint Bowyer has an eight-point lead on Daniel Suarez, who holds the last playoff spot. Suarez and Ryan Newman have the same number of points but Suarez is ahead based on the tiebreaker of best finish this year. Then comes Johnson.
For those that have counted out Johnson?
“I can’t wait to shut up the keyboard warriors that are out there,” he said. “The people that are close to me and the people on my race team know the truth. They know the story. They’ve been working hard on it and when you work hard, wins will come. So, that’s where I find my peace. I know all the effort I’ve put into this program and for what my guys have put into the program.”
2. Sticking to the plan
For all the focus on Jimmie Johnson seeking to make the playoffs a 16th consecutive year, new crew chief Cliff Daniels continues to preach the need to build the No. 48 team at a deliberate pace.
While making the playoffs gives Johnson a chance to win a record eighth title, realistically, his odds of accomplishing that feat this year would be slim based on how the team has performed.
It is Daniels’ job to manage building a team while pursuing the playoffs.
“Part of the reason for the methodical approach we took coming (to Darlington) and we’re going to take to Indy is to make sure we’re placing the building blocks correctly so that as we move forward we know why we have run good, why we’ve made the calls that we’ve made or made the decisions that we’ve made and all of that is in place,” Daniels said after last week’s Southern 500.
“Jimmie and I both know how important it is to meet our goals now but sometimes things just don’t work out. We’re still going to go to Indy with a really solid approach and things may work out and I certainly hope they do. But in the event that they don’t, we still have 10 races where this approach, this team, this energy, this vibe and just the whole process that we’ve built is really going to carry us. Now we get to go into the season one way or the other with a plan in place for how we’re going to meet our goals and take that into those final 10 races one way or the other and build on that for next year.”
A key is that Daniels is having more of an impact on the cars Johnson drives. Daniels was promoted from engineer to crew chief before last month’s race at Watkins Glen. With cars built or refined ahead of time, it wasn’t until last week’s Southern 500 where Daniels was able to do more with the car’s setup for Johnson. The result was that Johnson qualified sixth — his best starting spot since Chicagoland in June — scored points in both stage points for only the third time this season.
3. Don’t look back
History can’t beat someone but history can show the challenges ahead.
Take Ryan Newman and Roush Fenway Racing. Newman enters this weekend outside of the final playoff spot based on a tiebreaker with Daniel Suarez.
While Newman could finish deep in the field and still make the playoffs, that scenario isn’t as likely. Good chance he’ll need a strong finish, but history has not been kind to Roush Fenway Racing at Indy.
The organization’s last top 10 at Indy was in 2012 when Greg Biffle placed third.
Since, these are the organizations that have scored at least one top 10 at Indy:
Joe Gibbs Racing (16 top 10s since 2013)
Stewart-Haas Racing (10 top 10s)
Hendrick Motorsports (9 top 10s)
Team Penske (8 top 10s)
Chip Ganassi Racing (5 top 10s)
Richard Childress Racing (5 top 10s)
JTG Daugherty Racing (2 top 10s)
Furniture Row Racing (2 top 10s)
Wood Brothers Racing (1 top 10)
Go Fas Racing (1 top 10)
Michael Waltrip Racing (1 top 10)
If you wish to counter that, then look at what Newman did the past two seasons with Richard Childress Racing, finishing 10th at Indy last year and third the year before. And he won the 2013 race for Stewart-Haas Racing.
Hendrick Motorsports has qualified three of its drivers (Alex Bowman, Chase Elliott and William Byron) with Jimmie Johnson trying to claim one of the final spots.
Stewart-Haas Racing could have all four of its drivers make the playoffs for a second year in a row if Clint Bowyer and Daniel Suarez both advance to join Kevin Harvick and Aric Almirola.
Roush Fenway Racing is trying to break into the playoff picture with Ryan Newman.
Unless there is a surprise winner Sunday at Indy, the Cup playoffs could feature drivers from just five organizations. Last year’s Cup playoffs featured drivers from seven organizations.
5. High standards
Tyler Reddick could clinch the Xfinity regular-season title in Saturday’s race at Indianapolis (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN).
He needs to leave Indy with a 61-point lead on second in the standings. Reddick holds a 51-point lead on second-place Christopher Bell.
Reddick, the reigning series champion, is on the cusp of the regular-season title because of a season that ranks among the best in series history.
His average finish of 4.9 ranks second all time among drivers to compete in all 24 races. His 21 top 10s are tied for second most through 24 races all time in the series. His 19 top-five finishes are third most through 24 races all time in the series.
Should a race winner do donuts? Should they do a reverse victory lap? Or a bow? Or climb a fence? Or the latest, offer a hug.
Just as there are different ways to enjoy a NASCAR win, drivers also have distinct opinions on how to celebrate those accomplishments.
“I don’t go too over the top, but we sure do like to hang around the track for a long time and we really don’t ever want to leave that Sunday night after the race,” Martin Truex Jr. told NBC Sports. “We just want to kind of hang out and maybe stay over in the motorhome or something and party in the campground. These races are tough and that’s kind of why you see guys enjoy it so much because you never know when you get another one.”
Brad Keselowski admits he’s a fan of sprint car drivers climbing on the wing of their car and celebrating after a win. Keselowski has created his unique victory celebration by having a pit crew member bring out an American flag to his car. It’s something he began doing in 2010.
“Honestly, in sprint cars, I only do donuts and stuff if it’s a really exciting finish,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I feel like when you win in NASCAR, like you’re obligated to do donuts just because that’s what they expect.”
Rookie Ryan Preece said that there is something better than donuts.
“The donuts are all well and cool, but I think they’re kind of overplayed,” he told NBC Sports. “I think the (reverse) victory lap is something that is pretty special. I would say the (reverse) victory lap is the coolest one of them all. I actually did it at Iowa (in 2017). It’s just not as rough on equipment and is pretty cool seeing all the fans.”
But Ryan Newman likes the donut celebration after a race for a particular reason.
“I still pattern my victory celebrations, which are rusty now at this point, after Alex Zanardi’s donuts,” Newman said. “I always admired him as a race car driver and his ability to celebrate and do it at different parts of the course, and I just thought that was spectacular.
“My dad has always told me if you can’t win, be spectacular. So, I guess if you win, you better be spectacular.”
For others, the celebration can be a moment of thanks. Xfinity driver Chase Briscoe kneels.
“I’m a pretty relaxed guy as it is,” Briscoe said. “I get excited but I don’t get too excited. I feel like my signature thing is just getting down on one knee and praying and just thanking God. I did that at the Roval (last year). I wasn’t in a dark place but really questioning myself and really thankful for the opportunity and just gave Him thanks and it was well received. I’m not going to hide my faith. I’m proud of it. I did it (at Iowa in July) as well.”
Austin Cindric bearhugged Rutledge Wood during his interview after Cindric scored his first career Xfinity win at Watkins Glen. Cindric then hugged Dillon Welch during his interview after winning at Mid-Ohio.
It’s that type of emotion Cindric said he likes seeing from others who win, citing Team Penske driver Will Power’s reaction after winning the 2018 Indianapolis 500.
“I think my favorite are the ones where you can see the emotion of the drivers and how much it means to them,” Cindric said. “I think of when Will Power won the Indy 500. He had been trying to win that race so long and to see him do it and be there in person and see how the emotion, there are so many pictures of him going crazy in victory lane, the crazy eyes and the smile, things that mean that much to drivers because there’s a lot of work that goes into it and there’s a lot of pressure you end up putting on yourself. I think that connects with race fans so well when you see ho much it means.
“What drives me nuts, I’ll take your standard Formula One interview, the guy who just had the greatest race of his career and he’s like ‘This is a good weekend, such a great opportunity, thank you to the guys.’ Just the most bland interview. The biggest moment of your life just happened. Get excited about it. I think that’s what makes our sport fun.”
2. Memorable throwback schemes
With NASCAR heading into to Darlington Raceway for its fifth throwback weekend, here’s a look at my favorite throwback schemes.
A classic look.
STP and the Petty Blue. The two were synonymous in NASCAR for years and it only made sense that for the inaugural throwback weekend in 2015, these two would return to the track with the paint scheme from 1972.
Aric Almirola got into the spirit of the weekend by sporting a Fu Manchu to match what Richard Petty once showcased.
Almirola finished 11th in that race.
Perhaps no car has looked as sharp under Darlington Raceway’s lights since the sport went to a throwback weekend format than this car, driven by Kyle Larson in 2015.
What made this car even better was that it had the paint scheme and proper sponsor to go with it.
This mirrored the car Kyle Petty drove for SABCO Racing from 1991-94 (and also the car Tom Cruise’s character, Cole Trickle, drove in the 1990 film “Days of Thunder”).
Larson finished 10th in this car, placing a spot ahead of Aric Almirola in that No. 43 car.
This car ran in the Xfinity Series race in 2016, as more Xfinity teams began embracing the throwback idea at Darlington. This continues to grow as several Xfinity teams come to Darlington with throwback schemes each year.
Ryan Reed drove this car for Roush Fenway Racing. The paint scheme pays tribute to Bobby Allison and the car he drove in 1975. Allison won three races that season, including a victory at Darlington.
Reed finished 13th in the Xfinity race.
Richard Childress Racing had both its No. 3 and 31 cars with this look for the 2017 Southern 500, but the No. 3 car looked the best to me.
RCR went with this look to honor Dale Earnhardt’s 1987 Southern 500 victory with the Wrangler paint scheme.
While Earnhardt will be remembered for his black cars, I always liked this paint scheme.
Dillon finished fourth with this car.
It was good to see Jeff Gordon’s rainbow paint scheme eventually return for the Southern 500 at Darlington in 2018.
Dylon Lupton drove a rainbow paint scheme car in the 2017 Xfinity race.
While Lupton’s car looked sharp, the paint scheme was meant to be on a Cup car for throwback weekend. Hendrick Motorsports did the right thing in 2018 by putting it on William Byron’s ride.
Newman has an average finish of 12.1 at Darlington, his best of all the active tracks that he’s had more than one start. His 13 top 10s at Darlington also are the most there among active Cup drivers. Suarez has never finished better than 29th in two Cup starts at Darlington. Bowyer has an average finish of 22.8 at Darlington and his only top-10 finish there came in 2007. Johnson is a three-time winner at the track but has not finished better than 12th in the last four races at Darlington.
4. Familiar face
Joe Nemechek, who turns 56 on Sept. 26, will drive the No. 27 Cup car for Premium Motorsports this weekend at Darlington Raceway. This will be Nemechek’s 668th career Cup start but first since March 1, 2015 at Atlanta Motor Speedway. He’s continued to run in the Xfinity and Gander Outdoors Truck Series.
To put it into perspective, when Nemechek last raced in Cup:
# William Byron was in the K&N East Series (and would win the 2015 title)
# Erik Jones was in the Gander Outdoors Truck Series (and would become the youngest series champion that year)
# Daniel Suarez was in the Xfinity Series (and would become the rookie of the year)
# Kyle Busch was out after being injured in a crash during the February Xfinity race at Daytona (he would come back to win the Cup title that year).
Also, Nemechek is entered in both Xfinity and Cup races at Darlington this weekend. That will give him 1,174 career starts in NASCAR’s top series.
Richard Petty holds the record for most starts in NASCAR’s national series with 1,182 — all in the Cup Series.
Mark Martin is third on the all-time starts list with 1,143 across the three national series. Kevin Harvick is next with 1,139 career starts.
Since NBC Sports took over broadcasting the Cup series at Chicagoland Speedway, no driver has scored more points in that time than Denny Hamlin. The top four in points in that time are all from Joe Gibbs Racing.
Here are the drivers who have scored the most points since Chicagoland: