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Friday 5: No panic for Chase Elliott in battle for playoff spots

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SPARTA, Kentucky — Chase Elliott is quick to point out that he doesn’t feel helpless, but he knows that he and his Hendrick Motorsports teammates face challenges to secure playoff spots in the final eight regular-season races.

Hendrick drivers Jimmie Johnson, Elliott and Alex Bowman hold what would be the final three playoff positions, heading into Saturday night’s race at Kentucky Speedway (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN).

Johnson has a 54-point lead on Ricky Stenhouse Jr. — the first driver outside a playoff spot. Elliott leads Stenhouse by 37 points and Bowman leads Stenhouse by 19 points.

“I think that we certainly have room to improve, and I think we have improved from where we started the season,” Elliott said earlier this week after unveiling the tribute throwback scheme he’ll run in the Southern 500.

“There’s been some weeks where we end practice on Saturday and we’re not in the same league as some people. What you have to do is go make the most of what you got. At the end of the day that’s sometimes the best thing. It’s easy to overreach sometimes and get yourself in more trouble than what you could have done if you just had done what you had in front of you.”

That could be an easy trap to fall in.

Hendrick Motorsports, an organization that measures success by championships, has gone nearly a year since its last Cup victory.

Jimmie Johnson is on a career-long winless streak of 41 races and Elliott seeks his first career Cup win as he nears 100 career starts. Teammate Alex Bowman makes his 100th start this weekend and looks for his first Cup win, although many of his starts were with underfunded teams, and William Byron is in his rookie season.

Elliott had scored eight consecutive finishes of 12th or better before he placed 19th at Chicagoland Speedway two weeks ago and then finished 34th at Daytona after he was eliminated by an accident.

“You can’t wig out over it,” Elliott said. “It is what it is. I had no control over the crash on Saturday night. Chicago, yes I thought I could have done a better job at the end of that race to improve our finish, sure, but this past Saturday night I don’t know what I would have done to keep that from happening. That stuff happens. Once we fall out of a  race I can’t control anything beyond that.”

2. Class by themselves

Moments after exiting a boiling car at the completion of 400 miles at Chicagoland Speedway, Brad Keselowski sat on the pit wall and wiped sweat from his face with a towel as Kyle Busch celebrated another victory.

Busch’s win two weeks ago continued a trend that has seen Busch, Kevin Harvick and Martin Truex Jr. dominate. They have won 13 of the first 18 Cup races this season and the last 12 races on 1.5-mile speedways, dating back to last year.

“It’s like there’s an A, B, C, D group,” Keselowski said of ranking the teams. “We’re in the B group. We want to go from good to great.”

He noted then that they were behind Truex, Busch and the Stewart-Haas Racing cars.

“I think the difference, as you look at those cars, they have more speed and you don’t see their mistakes because they’ve got speed to recover from it,’’ Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, said after the Chicago race. “We’ve got to keep working on trying to find more speed in our cars.

Busch admitted his car was awful the first two stages at Chicagoland before hitting on the right changes and taking the lead on pit road.

Clint Bowyer showed how fast the Stewart-Haas cars are — Gordon said Bowyer’s car at Chicago was “stupid fast” — by finishing fifth after two speeding penalties and a third trip down pit road when he did not serve a stop-and-go penalty on his second speeding infraction.

That’s not a luxury most of the field has. They have to be perfect.

That’s the challenge Saturday night (7:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN) at Kentucky Speedway for many teams.

3. Ruh-roh

That seems to be the common theme about the road course at Charlotte Motor Speedway (or Roval as some call it) after some teams tested there Tuesday.

Tight turns, minimal run-off areas before hitting walls or tire barriers, and the race being the cutoff event in the first round of the playoffs, should make for a wild afternoon of racing.

What that race will do, though, is put more pressure on teams to do well in the first two races — Las Vegas and Richmond — in the opening round. Have poor finishes at either of those races and be toward the bottom of the playoff standings will only add pressure on drivers at Charlotte in the Sept. 30 event.

Another key factor will be how many playoff points drivers have. That could make the difference in advancing from the first round if the race is as chaotic as some forecast.

The rest of the Cup field is scheduled to test on the Charlotte road course Tuesday.

4. Gauntlet thrown

After Ben Rhodes’ Camping World Truck Series win Thursday night at his home track of Kentucky Speedway, ThorSport Racing General Manager David Pepper had a warning to competitors.

“With five races to go in the regular season, leading into the playoffs,” Pepper said, “the rest of these teams need to look out for ThorSport. We’re going to be a factor.”

Along with Rhodes giving the team its first win of the year Thursday, ThorSport’s Matt Crafton finished third and Grant Enfinger placed sixth. ThorSport’s Myatt Snider crashed in qualifying and never had a chance to do much in his backup.

GMS Racing’s Johnny Sauter has won a series-high four times and Hattori Racing Enterprises’ Brett Moffitt has three wins.

5. Drivers to get their first win while at Joe Gibbs Racing

Erik Jones is the fifth driver to score his first career Cup victory while at Joe Gibbs Racing. He joins Bobby Labonte, Tony Stewart, Denny Hamlin and Joey Logano.

Labonte’s first win came in the 1995 Coca-Cola 600. Stewart’s first win was in the September 1999 Richmond race. Hamlin’s first win was in the June 2011 Pocono race. Logano’s first victory came in June 2009 at New Hampshire.

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Scan All: “It’s crazy what you guys’ll do for a million bucks”

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“It’s crazy what you guys’ll do for a million bucks,” crew chief Todd Gordon told his driver after Joey Logano narrowly missed a multicar accident In the All-Star Race.

“You just wait. You’ll see a lot more of that,” Logano replied.

Here are some other highlights:

  • “Beside the 4, I think we’ve got the best car; it’s driving pretty good.” – Kyle Busch
  • “We’re tore up. Lost the hood.” – Brad Keselowski
  • “I just want to thank my teammate Clint Bowyer for putting us in that position.” – Kurt Busch
  • “He’s the last one to do that because he mirror drives everybody.” – Kyle Larson, after contact from Logano sent him spinning.
  • “That 22’s probably going to be our next caution. I think he’s gonna cut a tire, personally.” – Chase Elliott
  • “A million dollars baby. Hell yeah!” – Kevin Harvick

For more, watch the above video.

All-Star Race buzz still has many in NASCAR talking

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The rules package and racing in Saturday night’s Monster Energy All-Star Race and Monster Open has many in the sport debating what to do next.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR chief racing development officer, said Monday on “The Morning Drive” that series officials will meet Wednesday with industry officials to discuss the race and “see where we go from here.”

The Xfinity Series will run a similar package this season at Pocono (June 2), Michigan (June 9) and Indianapolis (Sept. 8) after running it only at Indy last year.

MORE: Transcript of NASCAR’s comments after the All-Star Race

While O’Donnell noted Saturday night that he would “never say never” to running what was used in the All-Star race again later this year in Cup, he said the focus was on 2019 for the package.

Marcus Smith, chief executive officer of Speedway Motorsports Inc., said he would be for running the package in Cup at Kentucky (July 14). Kentucky is the last 1.5-mile track on the schedule before the playoffs begin in September.

“Certainly that track has been a place where R&D for the rest of the sport has happened, and we’d be happy to have it again there,” Smith told NBC Sports about Kentucky. “Any mile-and-a-half track, whether it’s ours or not. My interest is in making the whole sport fantastic, and I think we’ve got great opportunities for that.’’

Car owner Joe Gibbs said after the All-Star Race that more evaluation is needed with the package.

“I think there’s a lot to talk about,” Gibbs told NBC Sports after the race. “I’m sure we’ll make a good decision. Everybody is going to work together. I think (the race) will be something that everybody evaluates and thinks about. I think there’s a lot to it that going forward in the future would be very different. Cars will have a chance to be in the wind tunnel and do all the things that we do with them.”

Todd Gordon, crew chief for Joey Logano, cautioned Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about a rush to use the package at other tracks immediately.

“You saw the race and as a team member you feel like, wow, there’s something there, but I think we’ve got to be smart about how we roll forward,” he said. “Sometimes that’s going to take more time than I think what our fan base is going to understand, but we’ve got to smart about how we look at this and what we can do with it. I think there’s potential there. If we just implement what we just did, I don’t know if we’re getting all the potential out of it.”

There also was quite a discussion on social media from several in the sport, from spotters and crew chiefs and more, about the racing and what to do next. Here’s what some were saying on Twitter.

 

 

 

 

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NASCAR docks Kyle Larson 20 points for rear window infraction

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NASCAR docked Kyle Larson’s team 20 driver and owner points for a rear-window violation from Saturday night’s race at Kansas Speedway.

Larson dropped from 10th to 11th in the standings behind Aric Almirola. Larson also lost one playoff point from his second stage victory at Kansas.

Car chief David Bryant was suspended for two points races for the L1 violation. Crew chief, Chad Johnston was fined $50,000

MORE: NASCAR official says teams will get maximum penalties for future rear-window violations

The NASCAR penalty report cited Larson’s team for violating “Section 20.4.h Body and 20.4.8.1.b&c Rear Window Support and Structure; rear window support braces must keep the rear window glass rigid in all directions at all times.”

In a statement, Chip Ganassi Racing announced it wouldn’t challenge the penalty: “Although all parties agree that the infraction was unintentional and the result of contact, we will not appeal the penalty so that we can focus our energy on the All-Star Race and the Coca-Cola 600.”

After he finished fourth at Kansas, Larson blamed his sagging rear window on damage from contact with Ryan Blaney with 20 laps to go.

Steve O’Donnell, NASCAR’s executive vice president and chief racing development officer, said Monday on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio about Larson’s car: “We see claims of damage, but I think in talking to our folks, I’ve never seen damage cause that.”

It’s the fifth rear-window violation in the Cup Series this season and the third in two weeks.

After the May 6 race at Dover International Speedway, the teams of Clint Bowyer (second) and Daniel Suarez (third) received similar penalties to Larson’s.

Kevin Harvick also was penalized after his win at Las Vegas Motor Speedway in March, and Chase Elliott’s team was punished after the April 8 race at Texas Motor Speedway.

The only other penalty NASCAR announced Tuesday was a $10,000 fine to crew chief Todd Gordon for an unsecured lug nut on Joey Logano‘s car after the Kansas race.

NASCAR explains decision to open pit road quickly after end of Stage 1

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Because NASCAR has no rule stating when pit road opens after a stage ends, the sanctioning body changed its common procedure to prevent multiple cars from running out of fuel during Sunday’s Cup race at Dover, a series official told SiriusXM NASCAR Radio.

NASCAR opened pit road immediately after Stage 1 ended because many cars were close to running out of fuel.

“We don’t really have a firm policy,’’ said Scott Miller, senior vice president of competition, on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio on Monday morning. “Basically, the way we’ve been handling the end of the stages is to give our broadcast partners a little bit of time right there for a break and then come back for the pit stops and then have another break as we lead into the start of the next stage.

“The unique situation that we had (Sunday) was the time the caution came out early in the stage put everybody in kind of fuel conservation mode. We had a couple of cars running out of gas there at the end of the stage. The last thing that NASCAR wanted was to have to push 10 or 12 cars in that ran out of fuel while we were waiting to open pit road. So the decision was made kind of a little bit on the fly because we’re obviously in the entertainment business, and I don’t think any of the fans would have liked to have seen 10 of their favorite drivers end up five laps down because they were getting pushed back by the tow truck.

“We just tried to take advantage of the situation that we saw developing that we’ve run into before and it’s not a great situation. … It’s not a very good thing to have cars out on the race track running out of fuel when we can open pit road. We’ve kind of gotten into a procedure with the broadcast partners to doing it the way you’re used to seeing it, but there are no rules that dictate when pit road opens or anything like that during those stage breaks.’’

Todd Gordon, crew chief of Joey Logano, told “The Morning Drive” on SiriusXM NASCAR Radio he was happy NASCAR opened pit road quickly in that case.

“I know there was a lot of anxiety on the pit boxes on pit road, not only about whether we would make it to the end, but once we made it to the end how many laps would we go before we could get fuel back in the cars,’’ he said.

Asked if teams running out of fuel before the end of a stage should be more of an issue for teams willing to take that gamble than NASCAR adjusting its procedures to accommodate such tactics, Gordon said:

“If that were the case, the piece I would ask for at that point is a definition that pit road is going to open “X” number of laps after the stage break and we don’t have that as a sport. To me, how do I, from the information I have on a normal race weekend, I don’t have a defined, ‘we’re going to run four laps of caution or we’re going to run six laps of caution before pit road opens.’ If you had that defined, we could calculate our fuel mileage back and make the risk/reward call on that one.’’

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