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Friday 5: Kyle Larson showing strength as Cup playoffs near

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While many of his competitors relax far away from a track, Kyle Larson is using the final off weekend of the season for Cup to go racing.

Why not keep going when things are good?

Larson enters this break having finished in the top 10 in each of the last four Cup races. While Joe Gibbs Racing drivers rank 1-2-3 in points scored during that stretch, Larson is the best of the rest. The Chip Ganassi Racing driver has scored 146 points to rank fourth among all drivers during the last month.

That run has helped Larson go from being in danger of falling out of a playoff spot to having a comfortable margin with two races left in the regular season. Larson will head to Darlington Raceway next weekend for the Southern 500 trailing Alex Bowman by 10 points for 10th in the standings.

The recent run of success comes as Larson and his team avoided problems.

“I feel like our race cars have gotten little bit better and any time that happens, it makes your job a little bit easier and you can be less aggressive and still get good finishes,” Larson told NBC Sports. “I would just point to our cars getting a little bit better.

“I’ve crashed enough stuff early in the year and really still recently, but I’m trying to race a little bit smarter and make moves a little bit smarter and not try to run fifth with a 10th-place car and take my 10th or even if I fall back to 11th or 12th. Just being a little  bit smarter about things.”

Larson might have had a streak of six consecutive top-10 finishes but he placed 33rd at New Hampshire in July. Larson was ninth on a restart about 80 laps from the finish when he went low to try to pass Bowman entering Turn 1. Larson was on the bottom in a three-wide situation and spun, sliding up the track and backing into the wall. His woes were compounded when he had a right rear tire go down about 40 laps later and he crashed.

Larson knows he needs to make better decisions in the car.

“I should have just stayed in line and not push the issue,” he said of that restart against Bowman. “I had a fast car.”

That’s not the only time he’s had an issue. He looks to the Pocono race in June. On the final restart, he made contact with Clint Bowyer’s car and that forced Larson’s car into the wall. Larson finished 26th after having won both stages.

“I tried to clear myself up in front of Clint and not be quite enough clear and put myself in the fence with a few laps to go,” Larson said. “I cost myself there (Pocono and New Hampshire) a combined at least 40 points. That could put us inside the top 10 in points. Those are just two deals. I’ve had other races that I’ve been overly aggressive because you have to be.”

Even so, he’ll be in a good place when the Cup series resumes at Darlington Raceway. Larson finished third in last year’s Southern 500, the second time in the last three years he’s placed third there.

“I just think our team and myself just have a good feel for worn out surfaces at intermediate tracks,” Larson said. “You look at Atlanta, we were really fast. Chicago, we were really, really fast. Homestead, we’re always good. Darlington, we’re always good. So I think we’ve got a good package for that. It just fits my driving style.”

2. Chasing the right away around Road America

While the focus this weekend at Road America (3 p.m. ET on NBCSN) will be on if Austin Cindric can win his third consecutive Xfinity Series road course event, Chase Briscoe will be looking to extend his streak of top-10 finishes at a track he’s never raced.

Briscoe has scored six top-10 finishes in a row, tying Tyler Reddick and Justin Allgaier for the longest active streak in the series. 

Unlike those two, Briscoe’s only experience at the track is on a simulator.

“Road America is going to be a challenge,” said Briscoe, who won last year’s inaugural race at the Charlotte Motor Speedway Roval. “I feel like Watkins Glen is one of the easier road courses just to go to the first time. It’s not really that technical, it’s pretty easy. Then Mid-Ohio … I ran an IMSA race there and an Xfinity race there. I felt like that was the one track I would have the opportunity to run good. But the Road America deal is going to be a struggle I feel like.”

Briscoe spent time on a simulator for the 14-turn, 4.048-mile track on Aug. 14. 

“I feel like at a track that big, it’s really hard to get into a rhythm,” he said. “At Watkins Glen, there are seven corners. You go through that same corner it seems like pretty quickly. At Road America, it’s going to be another two and a half minutes it seems like until you get back around there. It’s going to be a challenge. I feel like I kind of struggle on how to pass guys on the road course. It’s just a different style of passing and setting guys up.”

How so?

“Just seems like on the oval, you can catch a slower guy and it’s so easy to go to the other groove and pass them,” Briscoe said. “On these road courses, it’s typically one groove and you catch one slow guy and you might be stuck behind him for eight corners before you get to a passing zone to pass. I don’t know if Road America is going to be bad. For example, at Mid-Ohio, once you get to Turn 5, you can’t pass until really I think Turn 10 or 11, so you’re just kind of stuck. It’s hard to kind of have patience and ride behind people and know you can’t push it in those areas.”

3. Woe is the No. 3

This was not the season Richard Childress Racing imagined for its 50th anniversary.

Heading into next weekend’s Southern 500, Austin Dillon is 23rd in points, two spots ahead of rookie teammate Daniel Hemric.

Dillon’s 34th-place finish last weekend at Bristol marked his fifth finish of 30th or worse in the last seven races.

“We’ve got to do a better job in our group of controlling our entire weekend from the time we unload off the trailer, it’s been a little bit inconsistent,” Dillon said before last weekend’s Bristol race. “But in that sense, motors are good, feel like our bodies are good. The core stuff is there, but we’re beating ourselves. That’s what’s frustrating about this year. I feel like we’ve had more speed than we had in the past but haven’t been able to execute.”

Dillon won stage 2 at Daytona in July before he and Clint Bowyer triggered an 18-car crash battling for the lead. Dillon finished 33rd. A transmission and alternator issue led to a 35th-place finish for Dillon at Kentucky. He was 32nd at New Hampshire after a right front tire went down and he hit the wall. Dillon placed 31st at Watkins Glen after struggling most of the weekend on the road course. Dillon’s Bristol finish was hampered by a tire that went down and sent him into the wall and Jimmie Johnson into the back of Dillon’s car.

Dillon admits this has been his most frustrating year in the series.

“It’s been really trying mentally,” he said. “Just beats you down because every week you have to come back to it, what’s next? What’s going to happen next?”

Most weeks, at least recently, the answer to that question has not been good for Dillon and his team.

“I just want to do so much for RCR in their 50th year, for the No. 3 and for myself,” he said. “I hate running bad. It sucks. You want to get those finishes and you see bad finishes piling up and it gets you down.”

4. Feeling comfortable

As William Byron nears his first playoff appearance, the Hendrick Motorsports driver says he feels more comfortable in his role with the team in his second season in Cup.

“This is the first time I can walk into the shop and I don’t feel like I’m on pins and needles with the guys, in terms of them just trusting me and me feeling comfortable with them to tell them what is exactly on my mind,” Byron said. “It’s the first time I can walk into the shop and feel like I can say what’s on my mind; if I’m not content or I’m not happy with something or even when things go great.”

Byron is growing into his role with guidance from crew chief Chad Knaus, who joined the team after last season. Knaus has Byron 12th in the standings with races left at Darlington and Indianapolis before the Cup playoffs begin.

“I would say Chad and I are both kind of, the two pillars of the team,” Byron said. “Chad’s job is to encourage those guys, give them the resources they need, make sure they’re staying on task and make sure they’re focused. My job is to kind of I guess cheerlead a little bit in terms of motivation but also to be honest with them and say, hey this was good, this wasn’t good, this worked well, this didn’t.”

5. Back again

While the Gander Outdoors Truck Series makes its annual visit to Canadian Tire Motorsports Park for Sunday’s playoff race, it won’t be the first time this year for ThorSport’s drivers.

Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes, Matt Crafton and Johnny Sauter competed in the IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at the road course, driving Ford Mustang GT4s. Rhodes and Enfinger shared driving duties and finished 13th. Crafton and Sauter shared driver duties and placed 14th.

With Sunday’s race the second in the three-race opening round, Enfinger, Crafton and Sauter will be looking to win to advance. Reigning series champ Brett Moffitt won last week’s race at Bristol to move on to the second round.

Havoline returns as NASCAR sponsor in three-race deal with Ben Rhodes

ThorSport Racing
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Havoline, the oil brand famous for sponsoring drivers like Davey Allison, Ernie Irvan, Dale Jarrett, Ricky Rudd and Juan Pablo Montoya, is back in NASCAR this weekend as a team sponsor after an 11-year absence.

It will be a sponsor on Ben Rhodes‘ No. 99 ThorSport Racing Ford for the next three Gander Outdoors Truck Series races, at Pocono Raceway, Eldora Speedway and Michigan International Speedway.

Havoline is subsidiary of the Chevron Corporation, an integrated energy and technology company. Other subsidiaries include the Texaco and Caltex brands.

Havoline has not been a primary sponsor for a team since 2008, when it sponsored Montoya at Chip Ganassi Racing in the Cup and Xfinity Series.

It first was a major team sponsor in 1987 on the No. 28 car owned by Harry Ranier and driven by Allison. It then moved with Allison to Robert Yates Racing in 1989, where it remained until 2002.

Chase Briscoe to defend Eldora Truck win with ThorSport Racing

Photo by Brian Lawdermilk/Getty Images
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SPARTA, Ky. – Chase Briscoe will defend his NASCAR Gander Outdoors Truck Series victory at Eldora Speedway with ThorSport Racing, running that race again for the team this year.

The Truck Series races on Eldora’s dirt track Aug. 1.

Briscoe will drive the same truck he used to win last year’s race. DIAEDGE will be the sponsor.

“Just super exciting for me to go back to Eldora to try to win two in a row,” Briscoe said Thursday at Kentucky Speedway. There have been no repeat winners in the Eldora Truck race in the six times it has been held.

Briscoe started third and finished first in last year’s Eldora race. Briscoe finished third there in 2017 while driving for Brad Keselowski Racing.

“Eldora to dirt racing is like what Daytona is to pavement racing,” Briscoe said. “It means a lot to go back and race this race.”

Bump & Run: Who is having a better season? Martin Truex Jr. or Kyle Busch?

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With four wins apiece, which Joe Gibbs Racing driver is having the better season, Kyle Busch or Martin Truex Jr.?

Nate Ryan: The points, playoff points and top 10 tallies point to Busch, but Truex gets this nod because he is improving as the season unfolds while making a largely seamless transition to Joe Gibbs Racing. Busch’s No. 18 Toyota has been more consistently excellent, but Truex’s No. 19 team seems slightly more playoff ready.

Dustin Long: It’s easy to get the sense that Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn are figuring things out, but I’ll take Kyle Busch for having the better season at this point. Busch has led more laps, had more top-three finishes, more top-five finishes and more top-10 finishes than Truex.

Daniel McFadin: Truex has won four of the last eight races, but he struggles in the races following his wins. Meanwhile Kyle Busch has been incredibly consistent through 16 races, failing to finish outside the top 10 just once at Kansas. We’re still waiting to see Busch find his kryptonite.

Jerry Bonkowski: Busch is having a statistically better season than Truex and has been at or near the top of the points for much of the season, but they’re equal where it counts the most. What’s more, they play off each other so well, you’d never know they’re first-year teammates.

 

Do stages need to be re-evaluated for road-course races, particularly Sonoma?

Nate Ryan: Yes. There has been only one “natural” caution over the past 246 miles of Cup racing at Sonoma Raceway. It seems as if having two scheduled yellows in a race that emphasizes strategy might be adversely disrupting the driver behavior and rhythm of an event in which action can be dependent on the randomness of cautions (and this could apply to any race that features green-flag pit stops without losing a lap). While the Sophie’s Choice of going for the win vs. amassing points adds an interesting wrinkle, it also seems too preordained and rote, eliminating some of the tactical genius and unexpected twists that make road-course racing fun.

Dustin Long: I’m not convinced this needs to be done. I do like seeing which teams will toss aside potential stage points for the chance to go for the win and pit shortly before a stage break. If nothing else, stage breaks do provide two restarts and restarts are often some of the most exciting moments in a race. You really want to eliminate two restarts a race?

Daniel McFadin: I think so. With NASCAR keeping in place that caution laps during stage breaks count towards the lap count, Stage 2 at Sonoma had only 15 competitive laps under green compared to the first stage’s 20. I’d add five laps to the second stage there and have the final stage be 45 laps. It’s still significantly longer than the first two stages. 

Jerry Bonkowski: Yes. Personally, I feel stages don’t work well in road course races, especially at a place like Sonoma, which saw a half-mile larger track this year for the first time in more than 20 years (due to adding the Carousel). Road course races should be a constant, moving episode and not interrupted by stages. And if it proves fans like the racing more without stages, it may be something to look at when the major changes come around in 2021. 

 

With the first Cup race of the year on a road course behind us, what’s one road course you’d like added to the Cup schedule?

Nate Ryan: Road America already has proved worthy of the Xfinity Series and also provides a NASCAR-IndyCar doubleheader opportunity. If the category were expanded to street races, Toronto already hosts stock cars with NASCAR’s Canadian series.

Dustin Long: Road America. 

Daniel McFadin: Laguna Seca, baby! It was my favorite road course as a kid and I’d love to see a Cup car navigating its variety of turns, especially the Corkscrew. Would three California Cup races, with two on road courses be healthy for the sport? Probably not. But I still want to see it.

Jerry Bonkowski: Road America in Elkhart Lake, Wisconsin, or Circuit of the Americas in Austin, Texas. I’d be happy with either — actually I’d be the happiest if both were on the schedule.

 

What has been the best story in NASCAR this season?

Nate Ryan: Ross Chastain, and if there’s justice in the near future, his story should continue to unfold on a bigger stage than a third-tier series.

Dustin Long: The development and domination of the Big 3 in the Xfinity Series — Christopher Bell, Tyler Reddick and Cole Custer — and the questions of where they’ll race next season.

Daniel McFadin: Without a doubt Ross Chastain and Niece Motorsports. With its Gateway win, the small team will more than likely compete in the Truck Series playoffs. They could deliver a second consecutive Truck Series title from an underfunded team as the giants of the series – Kyle Busch Motorsports, GMS Racing and ThorSport Racing – struggle to find victory lane with their full-time drivers. If you’re a fan of old school motorsports stories, there’s one playing out with this team.

Jerry Bonkowski: It’s a close call, but I am going to go with Tyler Reddick having a slight edge over Kyle Busch in best overall story of 2019.

Friday 5: What Cup teams with new drivers are better off?

Photo by Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images
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Some moves were made by teams. Others were made by drivers looking for better opportunities. Whatever the reason, there were a number of driver changes after last year.

Four races into this season, one can get a glimpse of how those changes are working out. In some cases, the comparisons may look unkindly on who was in the car last year — think about Chevrolet teams and the struggles many had early with the Camaro last year or how a team has switched manufacturers since last year — but here is a look at how some of the moves have gone.

Five of the eight full-time teams that had driver changes for this season are showing an uptick in performance in the first four races of this season compared to the same time last year.

No surprise that former champion Martin Truex Jr. and crew chief Cole Pearn have raised the level of the No. 19 team at Joe Gibbs Racing. Truex has two runner-up finishes this season and has scored 140 points — 73 points more than Daniel Suarez had with that ride in the first four races last year.

(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)

The No. 1 team at Chip Ganassi Racing also has seen a 73-point gain in the first four races this season with Kurt Busch compared to the same time with Jamie McMurray last year. Busch has three finishes of seventh or better in his Chevrolet Camaro to score 126 points.

Also making gains this year are the No. 6 team at Roush Fenway Racing with Ryan Newman. He has three finishes of 14th or better this season and has scored 25 more points than Trevor Bayne had in that car at this time last year.

Corey LaJoie and Matt DiBenedetto also have helped their teams to more points than last year at this time. DiBenedetto took over Leavine Family Racing’s No. 95 — which also changed to Toyota and aligned with Joe Gibbs Racing after last year — and has scored five more points than Kasey Kahne had in the first four races last year when that team was with Chevrolet.

LaJoie replaced DiBenedetto in the No. 32 at Go Fas Racing and has a top finish of 18th. LaJoie has scored five more points than DiBenedetto had in the first four races last year with that team.

The teams that have not seen an increase of points so far compared to last year include two teams with rookies. Rookie Daniel Hemric replaced Newman at Richard Childress Racing and has scored 48 fewer points in the first four races than Newman did for that group last year. Rookie Ryan Preece has scored 12 fewer points in the No. 47 car for JTG Daugherty Racing than AJ Allmendinger had at this time last year.

The other driver move was Suarez taking over the No. 41 car for Stewart-Haas Racing and replacing Busch. Suarez has one top 10 so far but Busch had two top 10s at this time last year. Suarez has scored 40 fewer points than Busch did at this time last year.

2. Kyle Busch’s race to 200

A few numbers to digest in Kyle Busch’s quest for 200 NASCAR wins and more. He comes into this weekend with 199 and is entered in both the Xfinity and Cup races.

— Busch has 199 NASCAR wins in 996 starts (a 20 percent winning percentage)

— Busch has 494 top-five finishes in those 996 starts, scoring a top five in 49.6 percent of his starts.

— Busch’s 199 career NASCAR wins have come on 28 different tracks. Among the tracks he’s won at that are no longer on the NASCAR circuit are Lucas Oil Raceway (three wins), Nashville Superspeedway (three) and Mexico City (one).

— The most victories Busch has had in one season in Cup, Xfinity and Trucks was 24 in 2010.

— Busch has won a NASCAR race in 21 different states and Mexico. The most victories Busch has had in any one state is Tennessee. He’s won 24 races there.

3. So far so good on inspection

This year marks the first time in the past three seasons that a Cup car was not penalized for an inspection violation after the race.

NASCAR announced before the season that any car that failed inspection would be dropped to last in the order. Any winning car that fails inspection will have that victory taken away.

So far, no team has been given such a penalty in Cup, Xfinity or the Truck series.

That’s quite an accomplishment in Cup. Each of the past two years saw at least one team penalized for a violation discovered after the race in the first four events of the season.

In March 2018, NASCAR fined crew chief Rodney Childers $50,000, suspended car chief Robert Smith two Cup races, docked Kevin Harvick 20 points and the team 20 owner points for a violation with the rear window brace that was discovered after Harvick’s win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway. Harvick also lost all seven playoff points he earned — five for winning the race and two for each stage victory.

In March 2017, NASCAR suspended crew chief Paul Wolfe three races and fined him $65,000 when Brad Keselowski’s car failed inspection after the race at ISM Raceway. NASCAR also docked Keselowski 35 points and the team 35 owner points. NASCAR penalized the team for failing the rear wheel steer on the Laser Inspection Station.

NASCAR also penalized Harvick’s team after that same race for an unapproved track bar slider assembly. NASCAR suspended Childers one race and fined him $25,000. Harvick was docked 10 points and the team lost 10 owner points.

4. One or the other

Since NASCAR created the West Coast swing in 2016, Kevin Harvick or Martin Truex Jr. have managed to win at least once in those three races.

They’ll need to win this weekend at Auto Club Speedway to keep that streak going. Joey Logano won at Las Vegas to begin this year’s swing. Kyle Busch won last weekend at ISM Raceway near Phoenix.

5. Extra work

ThorSport Racing drivers Matt Crafton, Grant Enfinger, Ben Rhodes and Myatt Snider will be racing this weekend even though the Gander Outdoors Truck Series is off.

They’ll compete for Ford Performance and Multimatic Motorsports in Friday’s IMSA Michelin Pilot Challenge at Sebring International Raceway. Crafton and Enfinger will be paired on the No. 22 team, while Snider and Rhodes will drive the No. 15 entry. Their race lasts two hours.

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